By now, the pandemic has disrupted Americans’ daily lives for nearly as long as a baby typically spends in the womb. This means that many children conceived in mid-March are weeks away from joining us in this disorienting new world, but just as notable are the children who won’t be joining us—the babies who would have been born were it not for the ongoing economic and public-health crises. These missing births, which could end up numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S., will make up what’s been called the “COVIDbabybust.”
One would think that a baby bust would take at least nine months to reveal itself, but traces of one seem to have already appeared. As Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has noted, births started to decline in California and Florida during the summer. That’d be too soon, though, to reflect a drop in conceptions during the pandemic, or a rise in abortions or miscarriages (which tend to happenearlier on in pregnancy). Three possible explanations, Cohen told me, are errors or lags in states’ data on births, large numbers of pregnant people moving during the pandemic and giving birth in another state, or a large, unexpected drop-off in births that was already going to happen regardless of the pandemic.
The first is probably incorrect—California’s public-health department told me that it wasn’t aware of any delays in reporting data (and Florida’s didn’t respond). The second is possible, but a little hard to believe. Cohen thinks the third is likeliest. “It might actually be that we were already heading for a record drop in births this year,” he said. “If that’s the case, then birth rates in 2021 are probably going to be even more shockingly low.”
The baby bust isn’t expected to begin in earnest until December. And it could take a bit longer than that, Sarah Hayford, a sociologist at Ohio State University, told me, if parents-to-be didn’t adjust their plans in response to the pandemic immediately back in March, when its duration wasn’t widely apparent.
The resulting decline in births, whenever it kicks in, could be quite large. In June, the economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine projected that 300,000 to 500,000 fewer babies might be born in 2021 than there would have been otherwise. “We see no reason to think that our estimate was too large at this point,” Kearney told me five months after the analysis was published. “In fact, given the ongoing stress for current parents associated with school closures, the effect might even be larger than what we predicted.”
Kearney and Levine’s estimate is based in part on the declines in birth rates that occurred as a result of past crises, such as the 1918–19 influenza pandemic and, more recently, the Great Recession. But as the two economists note, the coronavirus pandemic is a departure from historical precedents. The influenza pandemic wasn’t an economic crisis and the Great Recession wasn’t a public-health crisis, so it might be difficult to accurately predict the effects of a disaster that mixes elements of both.
Researchers have also tried other forecasting methods that don’t rely on what happened after previous catastrophes. One analysis is based on the volume of Google searches for pregnancy- and unemployment-related terms from earlier this year. It projects a roughly 15 percent drop-off from this month until February, while Kearney and Levine’s prediction is a decline of about 10 to 13 percent over the course of 2021.
The accuracy of guesses like these should start to become clear next year; while national data for late 2020 won’t be available until mid-2021, some state-level analyses might arrive before then. But regardless of the baby bust’s exact size, it would be surprising if a significant one doesn’t come to pass. The phrase baby bust might imply that the nation is in danger of declaring newborn bankruptcy, but even if 500,000 fewer babies arrive next year than last, more than 3 million will still be born in 2021. Even a large decline in births shouldn’t have a significant long-term effect on America’s overall population size, given that tens of millions of babies are expected to be born this decade. (Meanwhile, in some countries, the pandemic might produce a spike in births, because of reduced access to contraception.)
It’s not just that fewer babies will be born—it’s also that different babies will likely be born, to different parents. As I wrote in July, white parents and parents with more resources might be better able to go through with their pre-pandemic childbirth plans than parents of color and parents with fewer resources, such as those who have lost earnings or jobs during the pandemic. In addition, the proportion of births that are “unintended” (whether planned for later or not wanted at all) may rise.
The children of the baby bust may even have some small advantages, by virtue of having a reduced pool of peers nationwide. They could have slightly smaller class sizes growing up, as well as a slightly easier time getting into college or landing a good job.
It doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that kids born in 2022 and beyond will have overcrowded classrooms and unusually stiff labor-market competition; the experts I consulted did not expect every missed birth next year to be made up down the line. “Some women will age out of fertility, but even for those who don’t, many couples are likely to experience persistent earnings and income loss on account of this economic crisis,” Kearney explained. “That will mean fewer babies born ever, not just this year.”
Researchers, however, are not expecting a post-pandemic baby boom to follow this bust.
There is a precedent, after some events with high or highly publicized death tolls, for birth rates to eventually rise above a previous baseline. For instance, researchers have documented localized increases in births for five years after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia (which killed around 200,000 people in the country) and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (which killed 168 people). And, famously, baby booms have often followed wars.
These patterns arose for different reasons. In Indonesia, many children and women of childbearing age died, and the rise in fertility “reflected the formation of new unions and the rebuilding of families in the disaster’s aftermath,” says Jenna Nobles, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the tsunami’s effects. In Oklahoma, the explanation was not as straightforward; Joe Rodgers, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University who researched the effects of the bombing, theorizes that the extra births could have been the result of a combination of increased community solidarity, a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life, and a sharper focus on the meaningfulness of family. And after a war, explains the UCLA sociologist Patrick Heuveline, a spike in births can result simply from soldiers coming home and reuniting with their partners en masse.
Though COVID-19’s death toll in the U.S. is huge—some 250,000 and counting—the pandemic’s multifaceted nature and distribution of deaths (which have been concentrated among older Americans) distinguish it from those events. “This crisis is not just sending ripples of loss across American families. It’s also an economic crisis, a child-care crisis for parents, an upending of our social institutions and way of life, and of course an ongoing public-health threat,” Emily Smith-Greenaway, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, told me. “I increasingly doubt that this crisis is being experienced principally as a mortality shock.”
Birth rates should, however, rebound to roughly pre-pandemic levels sometime after the threat of COVID-19 subsides—that’s what happened not too long after other disasters, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. At the same time, identifying a full return to “normal” birth rates could be tricky because, as Hayford noted, “Even before the pandemic, it was kind of not clear what trajectory we were on.”
Any rebound will probably unfold incrementally, as different sectors of society recover. “Even for women or couples who will eventually make up for their lost conceptions, the catch-up will not happen all at once, because the resolution of the crisis will be gradual,” says Tom Vogl, a development economist at UC San Diego. Like the pandemic itself, the upcoming baby bust likely won’t end at a distinct moment in time, but rather little by little.
Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.
That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.
Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.
One major problem is that stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions. Three cognitive biases make it hard for us to avoid actions that put us in great collective danger.
1. Misleading Feedback
Most people are capable of learning difficult skills like swimming, riding a bike, or cooking a decent meal because these activities provide a lot of instant feedback on what you’re doing right, or wrong. If you put far too much salt in the sauce, your pasta will taste memorably bad. The next time, you’ll know what mistakes to avoid.
But some activities, including dangerous ones, provide negative feedback only rarely. When I am in a rush, I often cross the street at a red light. I understand intellectually that this is stupid, but I’ve never once seen evidence of my stupidity. In fact, every time I cross on red, the world sends me a signal that it’s safe: After all, I’ve never (yet) been hit by a car! So I keep crossing on red.
Exposure to COVID-19 works the same way. Every time you engage in a risky activity—like meeting up with your friends indoors—the world is likely to send you a signal that you made the right choice. I saw my pal and didn’t get sick. Clearly, I shouldn’t have worried so much about socializing! But that is just as wrong as thinking that jaywalking is safe because you haven’t yet been hit by a car.
Let’s assume, for example, that going to a large indoor gathering gives you a one in 20 chance of contracting COVID-19—a significant risk. Most likely, you’ll get away with it the first time. You’ll then infer that taking part in such gatherings is pretty safe, and will do so again. Eventually, you are highly likely to fall sick.
2. Individually Rational, Collectively Disastrous
We tend to think behavior that is justifiable on the individual level is also justifiable on the collective level, and vice versa. If eating the occasional sugary treat is fine for me it’s fine for all of us. And if smoking indoors is bad for me, it’s bad for all of us.
The dynamics of contagion in a pandemic do not work like that. If the case numbers in your part of the country are still relatively low—spoiler alert: They’re not—inviting five of your friends over for an indoor dinner party might not pose an unacceptably high risk for any one of you. As long as everyone is relatively young and nobody has serious preexisting conditions, the direct risk to your health is quite small.
But if everyone who isn’t at especially high risk held similar dinner parties, some percentage of these events would lead to additional infections. And because each newly infected person might spread the virus to others, everyone’s decision to hold a one-off dinner party would quickly lead to a significant spike in transmissions.
The dynamic here is reminiscent of classic collective-action problems. If you go to one dinner, you’ll likely be fine. But if everyone goes to one dinner, the virus will spread with such speed that your own chances of contracting COVID-19 will also rise precipitously.
In a pandemic, what is individually rational can be collectively disastrous.
3. Dangers Are Hard to Recognize and Avoid
Many of the dangers we face in life are easy to spot—and we have, over many millennia, developed biological instincts and social conventions to avoid them. Take the case of fire. Most hot objects are easily identified. Your body tells you to stay away from them. Our societal norms discourage people from playing with fire. Everything conspires to keep us safe.
When we deal with an unaccustomed danger, such as a new airborne virus, we can’t rely on any of these protective mechanisms.
The virus is invisible. This makes it hard to spot or anticipate. We don’t see little viral particles floating through the air while we are chatting with a friend who’s infected. Nor can we anticipate the dry cough of someone passing us on the street. Avoiding a fire is easy; avoiding a virus is hard.
To make things worse, neither our biological instincts nor our social conventions push us away from this danger. A few months ago, for example, I agreed to a business meeting at an outdoor restaurant. When I arrived and my acquaintance stuck out his hand, I knew that I should not take it. But in the split second I had to make my decision, I couldn’t think of the right words or the right movement to stay safe. Almost automatically, I shook his hand, having succumbed to a social instinct honed over the many years of my life during which pandemics were the preserve of history books and sci-fi movies.
In time, we can overcome these biases (at least to some extent).
We can spread the message about the dangers of indoor socializing in order to counteract the misleading feedback you’re likely to receive if you have friends over for dinner.
Social disapprobation can help too. Most people don’t litter, because they fear the judgment of their neighbors. Eventually, inviting someone to dinner in the midst of a pandemic surge may elicit similar disgust.
Social conventions change. Young people are much more likely than their elders to sneeze into their elbows. Eventually, they may also be more adept at graciously refusing to shake an outstretched hand.
But while these adaptations are slow and imperfect, the logic of contagion and exponential growth is rapid and ruthless. So those of us who want to minimize the number of our compatriots who will die before deliverance arrives in the form of a vaccine need to take responsibility for our own actions. We all should do what we can to identify the biases from which we suffer—and try to stop them from influencing our behavior.
At the dawn of the 1960s, a couple of New York admen named Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass created the Christmas special. Before that, the networks hadn’t been sure exactly how they should entertain children during the holiday season. They had largely come down on the side of edification, as seen in NBC’s 1951 commission of a children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, broadcast live on Christmas Eve, after which the show lived on in reruns, and—also on NBC—Babes in Toyland, a turn-of-the-last-century operetta based on the Mother Goose tales.
But American children of the 1960s weren’t going to put up with operas and nursery rhymes. We had grown strong on orange juice, casseroles, and chewable vitamins. We weren’t afraid of polio or tuberculosis—we had the Salk vaccine and the tine test. We had had one small step for mankind, 31 flavors, and 101 dalmatians. The previous decade had already established the whims of children as a legitimate market force; in two years, Wham-O had made $45 million on the Hula-Hoop. Rich guys in office buildings were taking us seriously. What did we want next?
Apparently what we wanted next was 55 minutes of Christmas-crushing despair: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For more than half a century, generations of children have taken the show, which debuted in 1964, into their hearts, and for just about as long, I’ve been trying to avoid it. From my earliest days, the special produced in me only a fretful anxiety, leading to an eventual refusal to watch it. I couldn’t really explain the problem. I knew only that the show didn’t make me feel very Christmassy.
There’s a lot in Rudolph that people don’t seem to remember. At one point, the Abominable Snowmonster tries to murder Rudolph in front of his parents by smashing a giant stalactite on his head. As our gentle hero lies facedown, concussed and unresponsive, his own girlfriend—the beautiful, long-lashed Clarice—wonders aloud why the snowman won’t put the little reindeer out of his misery: “Why doesn’t he get it over with?” This was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, not The Third Man. Meanwhile, back at Santa’s workshop—a phrase that should connote only the jolliest of associations—a dark tale is unfolding. Santa, it turns out, presides over a nonunion shop where underproducing elves are deprived of breaks and humiliated; they dream not of Christmas, but of escape. Poorly constructed toys are thrown onto a bare and frozen island, where they cry and wander. How long have they been there? A year? A thousand years? One of the toys, A Dolly for Sue, looks perfectly fine—why has she been stuck with the misfits? Rankin finally admitted the nature of Dolly’s flaw in 2005, when he revealed that she suffered from “psychiatric problems.” The Island of Misfit Toys, it turns out, is but another atoll in the gulag archipelago.
The source material for the show was the work of a grieving man: Robert May, a copywriter at Montgomery Ward in Chicago who, in 1939, had been asked to write a Christmas story that the department store could give away during the holiday season. While he was working on it, his young wife died of cancer. The story he wrote—its relationship to The Night Before Christmas (properly called A Visit From St. Nicholas) falling somewhere between homage and armed robbery, but who could blame him, under such circumstances?—contains a powerful evocation of loneliness. Rejected by the other reindeer, Rudolph weeps, creating a growing puddle of tears; one of the pages of the storybook is stained with his teardrops. And yet the book was a hit. May remarried and suggested to his brother-in-law, a Brill Building songwriter named Johnny Marks, that he turn it into a song, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. Marks lived next door to Rankin, who optioned the song, and—with money from General Electric, which had commissioned him to make a one-hour holiday special for its GE Fantasy Hour on NBC—the work reached its ultimate realization.
Rudolph is a beautiful show, a bright box full of toys that have come to life. The puppets were created in the Japanese animation studio of Tadahito Mochinaga, who traveled to a deer sanctuary in Nara to study and sketch a herd of deer before Ichiro Komuro, an artist in the studio, began to work. The reindeer puppets had long legs, felt hides, and huge, anime eyes. Snow is piled in drifts, the sky is a piercing blue, and everything has a solid, touchable quality. Just as important are the voices that the Canadian actor Billie Mae Richards created for Rudolph. There was a voice for his infancy, his boyhood, and his adolescence, all of them unguarded and gentle—a sweet vulnerability that slayed me. (It also slayed Richards: After she realized why Rankin and Bass had gone with a Canadian—to avoid paying residuals on a work that would become a monster hit—she became so angry that she rarely gave press interviews about the special.) I couldn’t stand for anything bad to happen to Rudolph, but very soon it does.
Of all the disturbing things in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, nothing competes with Donner’s rejection of his son. Donner is horrified by the nose, in a “no son of mine” kind of way. One of the numerous readings of the show is that it is a parable about the hardship faced by gay kids in mid-century America, many of whom were rejected by their fathers, their peers, and their teachers.
This theory is reified back at Santa’s little forced-labor camp. We are supposed to understand that blond, dreamy-eyed Hermey wants to be a dentist, not a toy maker. (What he really wants to do, in my opinion, is join the drama club, but that might have been too much for NBC.) Foreman Elf—who, come the revolution, will not be dealt with kindly—humiliates him repeatedly. When Hermey tells him, tentatively, that he doesn’t want to make toys, Foreman Elf repeats the phrase in the “sissy” voice that has haunted gay boys down through the ages. “Shame on you!” cry the other elves, further demoralizing Hermey. Rudolph thinks it teaches children to be themselves, and maybe it does. But it also teaches them how to taunt a boy who seems different. In the time-honored tradition of kids in his situation, Hermey runs away.
Elves in Santa’s workshop are not supposed to be shamed, gay-bashed, and forced to run away! What kind of bullshit was this? And how could the Kool-Aid drinkers look at their Christmas toys in the same way, knowing that they might be covered in the tears of an exploited and brokenhearted elf?
But back to Donner, the one who makes the show unbearable. We meet Rudolph a few minutes after his birth; he and his mother lie resting on a bed of clean hay. Rudolph looks up, and—in the tiniest, sweetest baby voice, exactly the voice that a newborn fawn would have—says, “Pa-pa?” “Ma-ma?” Just then the red nose blinks on and off, and Santa arrives. “Aren’t you the sturdy little fellow!” Santa says. (“San-ta?”) He has come not to congratulate the new parents but to size up their fawn for potential usefulness. The nose flashes. “I’m sure it’ll stop as soon as he grows up,” Donner says urgently. “Well let’s hope so if he wants to make the sleigh team someday,” Santa responds. When Rudolph, now a bit older, doesn’t want to wear the black rubber nose that Donner makes for him (“I don’t wanna. Daddy, I don’t like it. It’s not very comfortable”), Donner replies, sharply, that he’ll wear it and like it: “There are more important things than comfort! Self-respect!” Rudolph’s father doesn’t love him! He doesn’t even … want him.
Rudolph, too, runs away from home, ultimately finding companionship in Hermey and a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, but he realizes that he is a danger to them because he draws the attention of the Abominable Snowmonster. One night, while the other two sleep, he slips away. In the moonlight, he steps onto an ice floe and sails away from us on the dark blue water, unloved, unwanted, and alone.
Rankin and Bass went on to make many Christmas specials, not all of them hits. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey was no Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And even I must admit a debt to Rudolph, because that show paved the way for some of the greatest holiday specials of the ’60s: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and (a lesser planet) Frosty the Snowman. I loved those shows and looked forward to them all fall. No one I knew shared my strong feelings about Rudolph, but that was okay; I was used to being the odd kid out. And, for once in my life, I knew I wasn’t the one with the problem.
This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Existential Despair of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
If life were fair, Benjamin and his sister, Olivia, would be spending this sunny July day fishing with their father and riding bikes around the small town in northern Ontario that they consider home. Instead, they are trapped in a townhouse in an ersatz Alpine village with a therapist and the mother they loathe, along with her partner and his two sons.
The day begins at 9 a.m., when a blond, middle-aged woman greets them by the unlit fireplace in the living room. She’s the therapist, and she tells the kids that while they’re here at the Family Bridges program, in a resort community two hours north of Toronto, they’ll watch some videos; learn to discuss problems as a family; and, of course, play a little miniature golf, shop in the village. Benjamin, a gangly 15-year-old, gazes out the sliding-glass doors, watching enviously as hikers ascend the gently sloping Blue Mountain. This isn’t a vacation, he thinks. This is an internment camp for brainwashing.
The kids are sitting in a semicircle in front of a large television screen with the therapist and Randy Rand, the founder of Family Bridges. Their mom, Meredith, and her partner, Eli, have positioned dining-room chairs on the edge of the group, watching for any signs of softening in the children’s flinty anger. (All of the children’s and parents’ names in this article have been changed.) The therapist cues up a well-known optical illusion, the drawing that morphs between the profile of a young lady and an old woman. Things can look like one thing and be another, she suggests in her gentle voice. Shut up! thinks Olivia, who at 13 is as self-possessed as her brother is awkward. We’re not buying a word of this.
Benjamin and Olivia know what they know. Since their parents divorced in 2008, their mom has dragged their dad, Scott, to court and drained his bank account—he’s told them all about it. They’ve heard from him, too, that their mother suffers from depression, that she was once addicted to prescription drugs, that she cares less about them than she does about the students at the school where she teaches. All they want is to live with him full-time, but she won’t let them.
Later, the therapist asks Benjamin and Olivia to watch a video of some basketball players passing a ball back and forth. Count the passes, she instructs. The big reveal: The two siblings missed the person in a gorilla suit walking through the crowd. When you focus on one narrative, the therapist says, you miss important information. As the four-day program unfolds, she becomes more direct, urging the pair to rethink their assumptions. Perhaps their father is deliberately turning them against their mother, she says, introducing an idea called “parental alienation.” While their dad is painting their mother as narcissistic and selfish, maybe those traits actually belong to him?
Through it all, the children remain impassive, serving up correct but shallow answers to any question they’re asked—“false compliance,” the therapist would call it if she were lecturing her colleagues. Olivia and Benjamin are supposed to be within sight of an adult at all times, but in a rare moment alone, they manage to commiserate. “Dad’s still our favorite, right?” Olivia whispers. “We’re not letting them crack us.”
Benjamin shakes his head. “We’re not falling for it.”
But then on the third day, when the therapist asks Benjamin to describe his relationship with his dad, he walks out to the patio, plunks down in a chair, and puts his head in his hands. Olivia follows, holding his hand as he cries. A breakthrough, the therapist assumes, a partial unraveling of the psychological ropes that bind them to their father.
Or not. “I miss Dad so much,” Benjamin says to himself. “When is this going to end?”
Benjamin and Olivia found themselves at the Blue Mountain Resort because two weeks earlier, on June 20, 2014, an Ontario family-court judge had concluded that their father was waging an “all-out campaign to … alienate them from their mother,” a campaign so unrelenting that it qualified as psychological abuse. “This is one of the most egregious examples I have come across in my 23 years as a judge,” she observed, before issuing a dramatic ruling. She gave temporary sole custody of the children to Meredith, barred Scott from contacting them, and allowed Meredith to enroll them in treatment of her choosing. Meredith opted for the four days at Blue Mountain on the recommendation of the therapist running the intervention, who’d seen Meredith for several years in her individual practice.
Parental alienation is the term of art for an extreme form of common behavior among divorced or divorcing couples. Even the most well-intentioned parents can occasionally find themselves denigrating their ex in front of the kids, or playing on their children’s affections to punish a former spouse. While most manage to check the temptation to use the children to lash out at an ex, a subset doesn’t. These people can’t or won’t stop trying to prejudice their children against their former partner.
Underlying this simple description of a recognizable phenomenon is a series of complicated questions that family courts struggle to settle. How much ugly invective, interference, and trash-talking counts as too much? How can you know for sure that children who are condemning a parent are distorting the truth? What if their mother or father actually is neglecting or abusing them? If a court manages to determine that a child has been wrongly turned against a parent, can anything be done to reverse the situation without causing additional damage? Olivia and Benjamin went more or less willingly to the Family Bridges weekend with their mother, but I watched a harrowing video of an adolescent boy being taken to a similar program. “Stop! Don’t touch me!” the child shrieks as two burly guys carry him out of the courthouse toward a waiting car. “Help me!” he yells, before the car door is slammed shut, muffling his screams.
More than 200 people filled the chilly ballroom of a DoubleTree hotel in Philadelphia in fall 2019, some typing furiously on their laptops, some hugging and whispering to one another, a few crying quietly as they listened to presentations at the Third International Conference of the Parental Alienation Study Group. In the past four decades, the diagnosis and treatment of parental alienation has grown into a small industry with a corps of therapists, academics, and attorneys. In one session after another, attendees heard about the tactics of alienators, such as forcing them to choose between Mom and Dad and so-called gatekeeping, or preventing children from seeing the other parent. Researchers described the signs of alienation, including a child waging “a campaign of denigration” against a parent, or spurning that parent for “absurd or frivolous reasons”—a rejection that eventually may extend to friends and relatives, even the family dog. Therapists laid out the psychological harm done to children in these situations (depression, trouble with later intimate relationships) while lawyers mapped out legal strategies to combat the problem, including the nuclear option: winning a change of custody and requiring the child to attend a reunification program with the disliked parent.
No one knows how common severe alienation is. The Vanderbilt University professor emeritus William Bernet, a psychiatrist who serves as an expert witness on behalf of people arguing that they’ve been victims of the phenomenon, estimates that there are 370,000 alienated children in the United States. But his figure is a rough extrapolation based on another rough figure, the annual number of high-conflict divorces. On Facebook, several parental-alienation groups have membership in the thousands. One night I joined a monthly conference call featuring alienation experts organized by a North Carolina grandmother; more than 1,000 people dialed in from around the world.
I interviewed nearly 50 people who maintain that their children have been poisoned against them, eventually focusing on a dozen families in which a judge had switched custody to the “targeted” parent. The parents I spoke with asked to remain anonymous, for fear that the former spouse would retaliate, or that the publicity would snap the fragile bond they had restored with their child.
One girl, Kate, told me that after her dad moved out, her mother put a box of needles in the back seat of the car and warned that her father, a surgeon, planned to inject both of them with drugs. Kate was 7 years old. She loved her dad, but why would her mom lie to her? Eventually, she dreaded sleeping at her father’s house. “I would have terrible nightmares of my dad with drugs, trying to kill me,” she said. “I would practice holding my breath under the covers, in case I ever had to pretend to be dead.” As Kate entered her teens, she came to believe it was her mother, not her father, who presented the danger, and now, on court order, she lives with her dad.
After the parents of Rebecca separated when she was 12, her mother would beg her and her two younger siblings to refuse to visit their dad. “She’d say, ‘I don’t know what to do with myself when you guys are gone. I just sit in bed the whole time.’ ” When Rebecca complied, “my mom would be like, ‘I’m so proud of you. Let’s go shopping.’ ” Her mother, and her mother’s extended family, convinced the girl that her dad didn’t care about her, because he rarely took her to swim practice, helped her with homework, or gave her gifts. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, yeah, he is such an asshole,’ ” she told me. On those rare occasions when Rebecca did visit her father, her mother directed her to take pictures of emails and legal documents, or read through his text messages. Within the space of a few months, she had turned against her father and was firmly on her mother’s side. After Rebecca’s parents spent upwards of $1 million on therapy and legal fees, a judge granted full custody to her dad, and Rebecca has reconciled with him.
A handful of studies have tried to delineate the psychological profiles of alienating parents, and suggested that they’re more narcissistic than average and prone to “primitive defenses.” One woman deemed an alienating parent by a judge agreed to talk with me, somewhat to my surprise. I met Linda on a cold day last fall at a public library overlooking Lake Michigan. An animated, striking woman, she wore a black running outfit, her white-blond hair pulled into a ponytail. According to the judge, this mother of two had discouraged her son from spending time with his father and refused to go to court-mandated therapy herself. She told her adolescent children that she had cheated on their father because she was “looking for love” from a “strong man.” Her son grew belligerent with his dad, calling him “an atrocious father” and worrying that he would leave the kids “penniless” because he had remarried. (The father was paying some $12,000 a month in child and spousal support, and had agreed to cover future college expenses.)
Linda didn’t dispute these details. She told me that she had been driven to such lengths after her ex started privileging his new wife’s children over his own. “I am a female bear protecting two cubs, okay?” she said. “Let’s not mess with the den.” She didn’t encourage her children to have a warm relationship with their dad, she admitted, but she never intended to sever them from him. “I was fighting to wake him up. In my bull-in-the-china-shop way, I wanted to fix him as a parent. I can’t say I regret who I was.” After we finished the interview, Linda seemed giddy, as if she had successfully made her case.
The judge, of course, rejected Linda’s version of events. “Whether out of anxiety, jealousy, greed, [or] outright hostility,” he ruled, “she engaged in despicable and unjustified behavior, harming the children in the process.” He fined her $350 and ruled that she must pay her ex-husband’s attorney’s fees, but he opined that a civil-contempt sanction “is a little like convicting Al Capone of tax evasion.” The only reason he wasn’t putting Linda in jail, he wrote, was because her ex-husband had asked him not to.
It’s unclear why Scott, who’d been a stay-at-home dad before he and Meredith divorced, fought so hard to turn Olivia and Benjamin against their mother. No psychological records were introduced in court to illuminate his thinking. I agreed not to interview him because Meredith and her children feared that if I talked to him, he might follow through on threats he’d made to harm his ex-wife. In an affidavit filed with the family court, however, Scott maintained that “a vast majority of [Meredith’s] concerns are simply misstatements of events or exaggerations.”
About 12 years ago, with the divorce pending, Scott moved from the Toronto suburbs to his hometown a few hundred miles away. His children, then 7 and 9, joined him after school let out, where they say they spent the days playing outside and the evenings listening to their dad catalog their mom’s faults. His soliloquies ranged from the banal to the baroque. Their mom was a terrible cook—look how much weight they were losing! In college, she had befriended a man who murdered a young woman—Meredith was complicit and knew where the body was buried.
Close to midnight, Scott liked to show Benjamin and Olivia informational videos about mental disorders such as depression and narcissism. One of his go-tos was Welcome Back, Pluto, which illustrates how one parent can undermine the other. Every few minutes he would pause the video and say, “See! This is what your mother does!” Twelve years later, Olivia still distinctly remembers sitting on the couch, watching the yellow numbers on the digital clock click over to 1 a.m., 2 a.m.—one time, 3:32 a.m. “I’m 7. I just want to go to bed.” With their father the only source of information, how were the children to distinguish fact from slander? “We’re two kids in this little town,” Benjamin tells me. “You couldn’t escape.”
On the children’s first night back in Toronto after two months with their father, Meredith was rubbing Olivia’s back and telling her a bedtime story. Her daughter turned and looked up at her. “You’re not my real mother,” she said quietly. “This isn’t my real home. We want to go live with Dad.”
Meredith went numb, but assured herself that Scott’s hold on the children would attenuate once the children started school; after all, they stayed with him only during breaks. But she had not counted on the telephone. Every night at 6 o’clock sharp, he called. The kids would drop everything—dinner, playing with friends, homework, even their own birthday parties—to talk with their father for as long as two hours. “Part of it was him indoctrinating us,” Benjamin says. “Another part was him taking time out of Mom’s day, because she was only home in the evenings.”
In those calls, Scott continued to accuse their mother of every sort of negligence. She was endangering them by letting them bike to a nearby shopping plaza, or mistreating them by allowing them to eat lunch at school rather than fixing them a hot meal at home. Whenever Olivia or Benjamin praised Meredith or contradicted him, Scott grew sullen and threatened to hang up. Their father’s voice drowned out all others. “He was always talking in the back of your head, whispering, whispering,” Olivia tells me. “What would Dad say in this instance? It just became so instinctive.”
Some of it might have been laughable to Meredith had the impact not been so painful. Scott coached the children to respond to every question with a mention of him. What do you want for breakfast? We want breakfast at Dad’s. What do you want for Christmas? We want to go to Dad’s. Why did Olivia hate Toronto so much? her mother asked once. “The traffic, the busy lifestyle!” the 8-year-old blurted.
Meredith tells me that she hid her miserable family life. She was ashamed, she says. What kind of parent has no relationship with her children? Often at lunch, her colleagues would describe their family vacations, and all the funny little things their kids said. Meredith would smile vaguely. I love my kids so much, she’d think. How is it that they despise me?
No one in the child-welfare world doubts that one parent can torpedo the other’s relationship with a son or daughter. But there is a huge debate over whether parental alienation is a diagnosable disorder like anxiety or depression, and if so, what kinds of interventions are appropriate. Part of the controversy springs from the concept’s tainted origins. In the 1980s, the child psychiatrist Richard Gardner defined the characteristics of what he called “parental-alienation syndrome,” and then traveled the country testifying in custody cases—almost always on behalf of men, many accused of sexual abuse. He argued that the men were innocent victims of “vengeful former wives” and “hysterical mothers.” A therapist must have a “thick skin and be able to tolerate the shrieks and claims” of abuse, Gardner went on. “It is therapeutic to say, ‘That didn’t happen! So let’s go and talk about real things, like your next visit with your father.’ ” Anyway, he claimed, “there is a bit of pedophilia in every one of us,” declaring that children are naturally sexual and may sometimes “seduce” an adult. His advocacy on behalf of men brought solace to fathers’-rights groups and sparked fury among feminists.
Gardner committed suicide in 2003. But his ideas live on, and those who believe in them say that while the messenger may have been seriously flawed, the condition he identified is real. As proof, they point to a growing body of research that defines parental alienation’s indicators and treatment. The problem, says the University of Toronto social-work professor Michael Saini, is that almost all of the studies—he analyzed five dozen of the best in 2016—are really just “clinical opinions or personal impressions.” The samples are small and nonrandom; participants are often recruited through internet postings or word of mouth. Saini is convinced that children are sometimes alienated from parents but concluded that until researchers can better answer the question Why is the child rejecting the parent?, “we could be doing more harm than good.”
That question is central, and it’s shadowed by the fear that parents, most often men, could be using parental alienation to hide physical or sexual abuse. While alienation believers maintain that they’ve developed criteria to distinguish alienation from legitimate estrangement, the concepts aren’t precise or objective, says Joan Meier, a clinical-law professor and the director of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School. “These are things that Gardner invented out of his head.” For instance, Meier told me, when a child insists that she’s telling the truth about her neglectful mother, that’s often taken as a sign that she’s lying—she doth protest too much. And alienation believers seem to discount the possibility that seemingly insignificant reasons for denouncing a parent might mask a darker issue, according to Meier. It’s easy for a boy to say he’s mad at his father for not letting him play in the softball game last weekend, Meier said. “It’s harder to talk about the time he made you take off your clothes and did weird things with you.”
In one recently published analysis of 27 “turned around” custody disputes—in which a court initially rejected allegations of child physical or sexual abuse that were later found to be valid—more than a third of the mothers were alleged to have induced “Parental Alienation Disorder” in their kids. PAD is essentially another name for Gardner’s parental-alienation syndrome, and it continues to be referenced in legal proceedings. In fact, there is some evidence that courts have been turning to the concept more frequently in recent years. This is happening despite the fact that efforts to have it included in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, released in 2013, were rebuffed because, as a letter of protest from 56 prominent therapists and doctors asserted at the time, the theory behind it is “flawed … simplistic and misleading.” The bottom line is that Meier and company think most people who charge alienation are using it as a cover for abuse. When that isn’t true, they say, both parents usually are contributing to the harmful dynamic, and the solution has to be some form of individual or family therapy for everyone involved.
That may be so in run-of-the-mill divorces, but therapy actually cements the hostility in alienation cases, argues Ashish Joshi, an attorney who represents unfavored parents. Joshi says he has witnessed variations of this scenario repeatedly: After months or years of manipulation, a boy truly believes that his father is evil, and he says during family therapy that he doesn’t want to visit his dad, because he’s mean and angry all the time. “What are you talking about?” the father responds. “I’m not mean.” At which point, the therapist intervenes and tells the father to stop protesting, to validate his child’s feelings. “And there never comes a time when the child says, ‘Okay. I’ve had my say. Thank you for listening. We can start afresh,’ ” Joshi contends. “The complaints never end.” And now a professional has reified them.
“Unfavored” parents usually fare no better in family court, says the attorney and psychologist Demosthenes Lorandos, a co-editor of Parental Alienation: Science and Law. Judges don’t know how to evaluate this sort of case, he says, and they rely on their usual “tool set”: mediation, negotiation, deciding who gets the house or the silverware or the mileage points. “They’re horse-trading and trying to get people to work things out, and that does not work on this problem.”
Ginger Gentile, a filmmaker who made a documentary called Erasing Family about young adults reuniting with a once-estranged parent, says the plodding nature of legal proceedings works in alienators’ favor. Even when the court ends up ruling that a child has been coerced into shunning one parent, if the kid still doesn’t want to have contact with that parent, “the judge is like: ‘What am I going to do? Put a 16-year-old in handcuffs?’ ” The custody battle ends only when the child ages out of the system at age 18, Gentile says, or the family experiences a dramatic crisis.
Such a crisis befell Meredith and her children in the spring of 2013. She discovered that Scott had arranged for his son, who was just finishing eighth grade, to go to a legal-aid office and change his residency from Toronto to his father’s town. (Scott claimed that it was the boy’s idea to hire a lawyer and leave Toronto.) When Meredith confronted Benjamin, he became unglued. “You fucking bitch!” Meredith recalls her son yelling. “You spoiled everything.” Around this time, Benjamin also wrote a short story, titled “Death’s Joy,” in which he described stabbing to death his mother and Eli, carving ruined on his own chest, and then drowning himself in Lake Ontario. Meredith sought an emergency court order to stop the children from visiting their father that summer, for fear she’d never get them back. The judge denied it, allowing the children to visit their dad in August, stating that “withholding them from dad’s life may be doing more harm than good in the long run.” He also said that the daily phone calls with Scott could continue.
Another year would pass as Benjamin became depressed. Meredith tried to get him into therapy, but Scott foiled her efforts. Finally, in 2014 she persuaded a judge to block contact with her ex for 90 days to allow her and the children to attend a reunification program. Scott warned that “their resentment toward [their mother] will heighten and the damage to their relationship with her will be irreparable.” Meredith was willing to take that gamble.
Family Bridges is the largest program of its kind in North America, but it operates outside the mainstream of psychological treatment. Until recently, it had no website; its four-day workshops take place in hotels and resorts, and they’re not cheap. The minimum fee is $20,000, but add to that room, board, transportation for family members—and, sometimes, the cost of hiring security personnel to escort resistant children—and the tab can run upwards of $30,000.
During their time at Blue Mountain, Benjamin and Olivia didn’t let on that they were having doubts about their dad. Olivia was stopped short by a movie called The Wave, about a schoolteacher who coaxes his students to join a fictional youth movement as an experiment to demonstrate how easy it is to fall under the thrall of cult leaders and dictators like Hitler. “Never in my life had I questioned what he said,” she tells me of her father. “It was terrifying, because if it’s all wrong, your life is flipped upside down.” For Benjamin, the dissonance began with the very video that Scott had shown them to try to discredit their mother: Welcome Back, Pluto. Watching it in the condo, Benjamin thought, Wait, that’s what Dad does with us. “It just slowly unraveled from there,” he says.
Driving home with her children sitting mutely in the back seat, Meredith worried that the workshop had failed, expensively. To cover the legal fees, assorted therapists, and Family Bridges, she and Eli nearly maxed out a $150,000 line of credit. But while Benjamin and Olivia remained testy and distant at first, Meredith realized that they had stopped echoing their father’s demands and complaints. Without the nightly calls from Scott, his voice faded. “I could just kind of sit at home and play video games like a 15-year-old kid,” Benjamin says. “I thought, I can just chill without [Dad] breathing down my neck every five seconds.” In late summer, Meredith noticed tiny displays of affection—a hug, a thank-you, a pleasant conversation over dinner. In October, for the first time in six years, Benjamin said, “I love you, Mom.” Olivia followed a couple of weeks later. “I cried and cried,” Meredith tells me, her voice breaking. “I just remember thinking, They’re here again! These are the kids I knew.”
Family Bridges connected me with seven other families who, like Meredith and her kids, swore that nothing—no amount of love, reasoning, or punishment—came close to repairing the rupture until they attended the workshops. One dad compared it to treating cancer. “You know that chemotherapy is going to make their hair fall out. You know that they’re going to throw up violently,” he told me. “But you still do it, because you love your baby.” He’d reconciled with his daughter, who is in college and flourishing.
In a recent survey of 83 severely alienated children who attended a Family Bridges workshop, Richard Warshak, a clinical psychologist, reported that three-quarters rated their relationship with their unfavored parent “somewhat” or “much” better at the end. “I think a good part of the success is that the children really don’t fully hate the parent they’re claiming to hate,” says Warshak, who wrote Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family From Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing. “Their love has gone underground, and they just need a place where they can reconnect with their love for a parent, and where it can become normalized.”
Although his study was peer-reviewed, it has the same kinds of limits as much of the alienation research. Warshak is not a neutral observer, having once participated in Family Bridges workshops as a psychologist. And there was no follow-up to see if the reconciliation endured beyond the hotel parking lot, nor any effort to tease out whether the kids could have been lying. “Are we really to believe that spending four days in a camp is going to dramatically change one’s cognitions, one’s idea of relationships?” asks the University of Toronto’s Saini.
Many of the “success” stories cited by reunification proponents contain a certain irony. When the programs seem to work, as often as not the children switch allegiances, cutting off the formerly favored parent and embracing the unfavored one. It’s all or nothing. Even the language the reunified children use—“abuse,” “poisoning”—slides off one parent and onto the other. Perhaps these children eventually settle into a loving relationship with both Mom and Dad, but as yet there are no studies suggesting as much.
Robert Geffner, the founder of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, says reunification programs contravene settled science on childhood emotional trauma. Is suddenly snatching a kid from his or her most secure attachment really the best treatment plan? he asks. “We’re going to drill into them the error of their ways and confront them until they submit. So we’re now taking that trauma and kicking it up to a whole new dimension.”
Critics like Geffner also point out that Randy Rand, Family Bridges’ founder, is not a practicing psychologist. His license is inactive, a result of disciplinary action taken against him by the California Board of Psychology in 2009 based on two complaints. In one, the board concluded that Rand had had a contentious and unprofessional relationship with the mother in a high-conflict divorce, although he was supposed to be serving as an impartial adjudicator. In the second case, the board found that he’d given an expert opinion to a judge about a child he’d never personally evaluated.
Rand still participates in interventions, however, because he promotes Family Bridges as an “educational” rather than a “therapeutic” program. (He declined to comment for this article.) Geffner, not surprisingly, scoffs at this distinction—and calls reunification programs like Family Bridges “torture camp for kids.”
Gabriel and Mia would no doubt agree. In 2007, when they were 10 and 9, respectively, their parents’ marriage began to deteriorate, and the two gravitated toward their father. He was more laid-back, gentler, easier to live with, they thought, and not only did he never denigrate their mom, he always insisted they stay with her during her parenting times, no matter how the siblings protested.
But in December 2011, a family-court judge in New Jersey called them into his chambers. He had witnessed every twist in the bitter custody case and said he found the proof of alienation overwhelming: The children had accused their mom of trying to strangle Mia, without evidence. (Gabriel later suggested to me that they’d been exaggerating.) They parroted their father, throwing around references to things like their “constitutional rights,” and during a therapy session, they’d launched a “barrage of insults” at their mother, fist-bumping after each one. The judge told the children that they would be leaving—immediately, from the courthouse—to attend a Family Bridges workshop in California.
When they arrived at the hotel outside San Francisco, Gabriel and his sister felt like “cornered animals,” he recalls. “You just tore us away from our home, to do this program that you claim is going to fix our relationship with our mom, at the same time as stripping us away from Dad for three months. You can imagine how receptive we were to that idea.” The psychologists tried to steer them to the conclusion that they’d been brainwashed, Gabriel tells me, and he and his sister “literally laughed in their faces.” When defiance failed, Mia suggested they change tack, suspecting that the best way to get back home would be to tell the Family Bridges people what they wanted to hear. “I told Gabriel: ‘Just fake it ’til you make it,’ ” Mia says. “The minute we left, we were like, ‘Mother, don’t speak to us.’ My God, I hated her so much.”
The judge ordered the father not to have contact with his children for 90 days, and then extended the ban after the three of them found ways to communicate. Eventually, he ended up being barred from seeing his kids for three years. Then, in 2014, New Jersey’s appellate court vacated the trial judge’s order, noting that “parental-alienation syndrome” is still an unproven and controversial theory. A few months later, when Gabriel turned 18, he moved in with his father. Mia soon followed, even though she was still a minor. Now at law school, Mia has spoken to her mother once in four years. Gabriel, however, moved back to his mother’s home after college while he studied for the MCATs. He says he realized that she was doing the best she could in a stressful time. Nonetheless, he believes that Family Bridges only fueled his and his sister’s antipathy toward their mother. “If they hadn’t been involved, I think I would have gotten to a better place with my mom a lot sooner, and my sister would still be talking to her.”
His mother, a physician, sees it differently. Were it not for Family Bridges, she says, she would not have the “robust bond” she has with her son. As for Mia? “Like everything in medicine, the treatment doesn’t work in 100 percent of cases.”
In addition to interviewing Mia and Gabriel, I read a first-person account by a girl who said she’d grown suicidal and cut herself when she was taken to a Family Bridges workshop at age 15; she claimed that the psychologists had threatened to ship her off to a psychiatric hospital. A young woman told me that her little sister had suffered panic attacks during the workshop; when the older girl challenged the Family Bridges therapists, they kept saying the girls would need “extra help,” which she understood to mean being sent to a wilderness camp for juvenile offenders. A teenage boy wrote that he is “still emotionally damaged from the program,” and that he “has difficulty connecting to others because I feel I can’t trust anyone.” None of these children has a relationship with the parent who brought them to the program.
Olivia and Benjamin have not seen or spoken with their father in more than six years. Olivia, now in her second year of college double-majoring in gender studies and sociology, says she doesn’t miss him: “He was abusive. He was poisoning us. Why would I want to talk to him?” We are sitting on Meredith’s porch on a clear summer day, a light breeze stirring the trees. Olivia, who has long, dark hair and a raucous laugh, tells me that she struggles with anxiety and at times feels ill-equipped for adult life. Her dad’s omnipresence stole the mundane moments that define childhood, she says: painting her nails or going shopping with her mom, laughing all night at slumber parties. She dared not invest deeply in friendships, in school, in her Toronto family. “How can you, when you have this whisper in your ear all the time telling you it’s all meaningless, that nothing here matters?”
In a different way, Benjamin, too, lost himself. At 21, he’s in his third year of college, studying psychology. His eyes are cautious and he’s still very lean, swimming in his maroon T-shirt and blue jeans. His memories of his eighth- and ninth-grade years have for the most part disappeared, he says: He’s forgotten the attempt to move to northern Ontario, writing the story about suicide, and the fits of rage that Meredith says ended with her son curled in a fetal position on the floor. When he reviewed the court documents and his diaries before our interview, he says, “it was almost like reading a case study on a different person.”
He says he does not miss his father. He remains angry that Scott distorted his vision of his mother and grandparents, of parenting and friendship, of his own worth—“absolutely everything.” “I’m still incredibly anxious about a lot of different things,” he says. He pauses for several seconds, so long that I notice the sound of wind chimes on the porch. He is staring at the floor by his feet, as he has the entire conversation. “Even now,” he says softly, “you’ll notice I don’t make eye contact with you.”
For his part, Scott could have had a relationship with his children, if he would have engaged in counseling. Instead, he walked away. Now each member of the family has a restraining order against him. Meredith worries for her safety, recalling that he told his kids he would “hunt to the ends of the Earth” anyone who took his children away, to “make them pay.” Olivia and Benjamin just don’t want to deal with the emotional turmoil that ensues when he’s around. Therapists and lawyers say it’s common for alienating parents to disappear after losing custody fights: The children were only weapons aimed at the former spouse. The children were never the point.
This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “When a Child Is a Weapon.” It was published online on November 24, 2020.
The beheading of the middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by a young man enraged by Paty’s showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to vow that France will never flinch in its defense of freedom of expression. In the name of upholding the core values of the French Republic, however, Macron’s government and members of his party have introduced new legislation that effectively restricts them. Unless the proposed laws are modified or scrapped, France will soon be a far less free country than it is now.
Three new pieces of legislation aim to make the French more secure by restricting democratic rights. A bill that sets the research budget for French universities for the next decade, adopted by France’s Senate on November 20, targets student protests and took a stab at academic freedom. The bill includes a provision criminalizing on-campus gatherings that “trouble the tranquility and good order of the establishment” with a fine of up to 45,000 euros and a prison term of up to three years. An amendment requiring that academic research hew to the “values of the Republic” was scrapped only at the last minute, after strong pushback by scholars who feared that its intent was to restrict freedom of inquiry.
Although that last-minute change is good news for academic freedom, the state is paying a dangerous amount of attention to the ideological bent of research undertaken in France. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has bemoaned the influence of American critical race theory on the French social sciences, blaming them for undermining France’s race- and ethnicity-blind universalism, and for giving comfort to “islamo-gauchisme,” or “Islamo-leftism.” That term, coined by the French far right, blames progressive intellectuals for nourishing radical political Islam through their work on structural racism and Islamophobia. “The fish rots from the head,” Blanquer quipped.
Last Wednesday, after two journalists covering a protest against the bill were detained by police, Darmanin advised journalists who wanted to avoid that fate to present themselves to the local prefecture before heading off to a demonstration. The idea of journalists essentially preclearing their reporting with government officials produced such outrage that Darmanin promptly offered a minor revision. But in an editorial on Friday, Jérôme Fenoglio, the editorial director of the newspaper Le Monde, wrote that there was no remedy but to scrap the provision entirely. Fenoglio cited growing attacks on the press by Macron and his government, including blaming reporting by English-language news outlets, including The New York Times and TheWashington Post, for “legitimizing this violence,” and he listed some of the more sensational police abuses exposed by ordinary citizens. To no avail: Discussion of the bill ended late Friday and it now moves to a vote by the National Assembly. So much for the liberté part of France’s national motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; the bill risks turning France into a surveillance state, in direct violation of citizens’ right to privacy, and one in which the police are immune to accountability by citizens or the press.
If all that weren’t bad enough, a third bill, designed to fulfill Macron’s vision for tackling Islamist radicalism outlined in an October 2 speech on “separatism,” is scheduled for consideration by his cabinet on December 9. Dubbed the “Confirming Republican Principles” bill, it would assign all French children a tracking number to enforce compulsory attendance in public or government-recognized schools, putting an end to homeschooling and unaccredited religious schools, and ensuring that all children are educated in the values of the French Republic. The bill also criminalizes sharing identifying information about a public servant that could be used to inflict harm—a response to the fact that private information about Paty was shared on social media, allowing his assassin to track him down. The new offense will be punishable by up to three years in prison and a 45,000-euro fine. Another provision would criminalize, and punish by up to five years in prison, “threats, violence or intimidation of a public official … for motives drawn from convictions or beliefs.” Some jurists fear the wording is so vague that it could be used to convict people for what amounts to justified criticism of a public official.
France is embattled and bruised. Mass unemployment, frustration with COVID-19 shutdowns, and fear caused by renewed terrorist attacks can only exacerbate unrest and division. All of which is a boon, of course, to the country’s populist far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, Macron’s likeliest challenger in the 2022 presidential elections. Macron’s strategy appears to be three-pronged: Impose harsh order, readying mechanisms to put down mass protests; tame critical reporting in the press; and co-opt some of the language and policies of the far right to steal enough voters to vanquish it. In the process, the liberty that Macron so vigorously defends, and for which France has sacrificed so much, is being legislated away, bequeathing to a future, more authoritarian leader a powerful set of antidemocratic tools.
In the coming months, after years of ground-laying, controversy, and anticipation, the United States will finally complete an imperfect civic process that, though heavily compromised by geography, logistics, and partisanship, will affect the life of every single American for years to come. Also, the country will inaugurate a new president.
The 2020 census, which ended its data-collecting operations last month, seems destined to become one of the most telling artifacts of this very strange year. As a census taker, I got a front-porch view of what happens when a 230-year-old national rite runs headlong into a country all but at war with itself and its institutions. Throughout six weeks of door-knocking in dense New York neighborhoods and Georgia backwoods, I got a good look at 2020 America—not only its demography, but also its deep mistrust of government and diminishing faith in the common good.
It’s true that each decennial count encounters its own set of challenges. In a letter to fellow Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, President George Washington sighed that he believed the first census, conducted by U.S. Marshals on horseback in 1790, had produced a major undercount that posed a potential threat to national security. Data from the 1880 census took nearly eight years to compile. Congress threw out the results of the 1920 census entirely.
But the obstacles facing the 2020 census were historic. Even before the counting started, the Trump administration demanded that the census include a citizenship question, a controversial move that set off a yearlong legal battle in which even the Census Bureau warned that response rates would likely decline. And although the Supreme Court stymied the White House’s efforts to add the citizenship question, other barriers—including unprecedented politicization, massive natural disasters, widespread civil unrest, funding shortfalls, high employee turnover, ever-shifting deadlines, and nearly ceaseless litigation—undermined the entire census project. A pandemic hit too. But even a messy census reveals a lot about America in ways that reach far beyond the data.
In February, weeks before COVID-19 and social-distancing mandates interrupted life as we know it, I applied to become a census taker. Every writer jokes that they’ll do basically anything to get out of having to write, but I’d moved to Yonkers, New York, a few months earlier, and also thought the work would be a good way to get to know my mysterious new hometown.
In an ideal census count, all households would submit their own information, which is by far the most accurate way to account for a community’s true demographic makeup. Failing that, the work falls to a less reliable combination of federal administrative data, calculated guesses, and Nonresponse Followup operations, the door-knocking census takers best known to some Americans by an unfortunate reference in The Silence of the Lambs.
My interviewer explained that census training and orientation, and the work itself, were meant to begin in May, after the Census Bureau’s push to get direct responses from households wrapped up at the end of April. We all know what happened next. Following months of pandemic-related delays, not until early August did a census administrator swear me in as a Commerce Department employee in a room of the Yonkers Public Library’s main branch that, in better times, would have doubled as a Zumba studio.
That lag between early May, when door-knocking was supposed to start, and August, when it did, will matter. April 1 is not just Census Day in the way that April 12 is National Grilled Cheese Day. Accurately completing a census case means knowing who lived at an address on April 1, 2020, whether that information is taken from a resident or, oftentimes, a neighbor. The further you stray from the reference day, the less accurate the data become, particularly in a time of heavier population displacement.
As my fellow enumerators and I descended upon our communities in late summer, we were presented with the challenge of sorting out the composition of neighborhoods that had rapidly changed over the course of more than a few tumultuous months. We would also be serving as representatives of a government that had done little to stoke goodwill or faith in the census process.
One tragedy of the 2020 census is that it was supposed to be better. What was meant to separate this decade’s grand enumeration from others was the fury with which community leaders (Cardi B included) and outreach groups intended to push and organize for an accurate tally, especially in hard-to-count areas. The Census Bureau’s own data show it has often failed to fully count communities of color, non–English speakers, lower-income families, immigrants—some of the same demographic groups that have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic.
“The COVID crisis really became its worst at the exact moment when all of those efforts were ready to go,” Steven Romalewski, a researcher at the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center who closely tracks census response rates, told me. “All of these groups were, in mid-March, ready to hit the streets and go out to all these big, large, in-person gatherings, and the Census Bureau was planning a massive public-relations and advertising campaign. Then, all of a sudden, none of that could be implemented. It was completely upended. And so we’ll never know if those efforts would have dramatically boosted participation in the census.”
The true stakes of a census count, which include congressional representation and more than $1 trillion of annually allocated taxpayer money, are nearly impossible to grasp. According to a report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, each person not counted by the 2010 census cost the state they were living in $1,091 in 2015, on average. (For a household of five, that adds up to $54,550 over a decade.) In an interview during this year’s count, a state-census-office manager likened one nonresponse to “walking past a $5 bill every day for a decade.”
During the intensive training process for enumerators, instructors trained us to highlight the financial benefits of census participation. Generally, it was easier to put them in terms like federal money for local roads and school lunches, job-training programs and Medicaid. But getting that message across isn’t easy, especially when political tensions are running high, the government is unpopular across the spectrum, and the census has a partisan sheen.
Resistance to census participation transcends age, race, geography, and party affiliation. Census self-response rates have declined since the 1970 and 1980 censuses (78 and 75 percent, respectively), ranging at or just below 67 percent since the 1990 survey.
In 2018, nearly a third of potential respondents said they were, at best, “somewhat likely” to fill out the census, according to a comprehensive study the Census Bureau completed that year. But that document couldn’t have anticipated that 2020 door-knocking operations would take place in the midst of a pandemic, an extended period of civil unrest and protest, and the closing weeks of a brutal election season.
These obstacles felt especially acute in Yonkers, an immediate neighbor to the Bronx that is one of the most economically and ethnically diverse midsize cities in the country. Prior to the launch of door-to-door visits nationwide in August, the city’s census response rate sat at 55 percent, well below the national average.
For the first few weeks of my assignment, I knocked on doors within a few square miles of my apartment in northwest Yonkers. This section of the city is an expanse of winding, suburban-looking streets, full of Cape Cod houses and multi-family homes, vinyl siding and above ground pools, and well-kept front yards with Virgin Mary figurines. Among its jumble of constituencies, it boasted a surprising number of cars with bumper stickers that offered simultaneous approval for the Grateful Dead and Donald Trump.
In those first few hundred cases, I aspired to crack the census code. I found that responses tended to be better when the weather was good or on weekend afternoons. In the days following a much-delayed pandemic haircut, my close rate jumped significantly. And, despite being a lifelong Astros fan, I bought a Yankees face mask in the hopes that it might boost my trustworthiness among residents. Nevertheless, appearing on a stray doorstep, masked and sweaty in khaki shorts and New Balance sneakers, with a clipboard, a lanyard, a badge, and a list of probing questions, made me feel like the kind of clumsy suburban-dad narc that I myself would probably choose to ignore if given the chance.
What’s funniest about trying and failing to persuade someone to give you 10 minutes of their time for the census is that an enumerator has to document the reason given for a refusal. One rationale is that it gives the next person who attempts to bug a stubborn case a sense of what might be coming. In our data-capture app, many of the prefilled explanations we must enter for why we failed to gather data are unusually blunt: The respondent “does not want to be bothered”; thinks the “survey is a waste of taxpayer money”; has “privacy,” “COVID,” or “anti-government” concerns; or is simply “too busy.”
Attempt enough door knocks and you’ll inevitably run into each of these responses, plus a few others of varying tenor. One guy asked me to come back tomorrow every single time I saw him. A woman standing on a “Live, Laugh, Love” doormat told me to “grow up and get a real job.” One Sunday-morning interview was cut short when the interviewee’s ex-partner appeared early for a custody exchange, which set off an argument. As census efforts intensified in Yonkers, more residences would be marked as a “dangerous address” after a hostile exchange or an unsafe encounter, appearing on the digital map as an ominous red triangle. Over the weeks, the map of many neighborhoods would go from a chance blemish to full-blown acne.
But even if you manage to get someone to answer the census’s questions and assure them of the confidentiality of their answers, you’re still asking for information that seems strange for the government to want to know. You have to ask each person for their phone number; every household member’s date of birth; whether they identify as male or female; whether their children are biological or adopted; whether they rent their home or own it, either with a mortgage or outright. Enumerators are exhaustively trained to expect resistance and quickly display understanding toward any misapprehensions. In census-training parlance, this is known as the “A+ Model,” in which we acknowledge their concerns, answer those concerns by explaining why the information benefits the community, and ask them for their help in completing the census. The A+ Model remains an ambitious formula, especially when most situations better qualify as a simple pass-fail.
Despite our time-tested arsenal of persuasion tactics, even if residents were clearly home, they often didn’t come to the door. I’d be willing to bet my entire census pay that at least half of the 59 percent of census nonresponders who told the Pew Research Center in July that they would be at least “somewhat willing” to open the door to a census worker were either just being nice or outright lying. If there was one boon to the 2020 census process, it was the pandemic-fueled boom in e-commerce sales, which meant that more residents appeared expecting to sign for a package, only to find an artificially cheery enumerator on their landing instead.
On weekly conference calls, my fellow enumerators would air their frustrations about the people visible through front windows who simply wouldn’t come to the door, about being sent repeatedly to addresses that didn’t exist, about the people who were tired of census takers coming to their door. And, above all, about the proxies.
After a certain number of attempts on a case, enumerators are instructed to find a proxy—a neighbor, a mail carrier, a building manager, anyone vaguely credible—to speak on the composition of the residence in question. And in many cases, with enough luck, patience, or cajoling, somebody helps fill in the most basic blank of the census: how many people live at an address. It’s fair to say that this arrangement isn’t the sturdiest blueprint for democratic representation.
According to Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House census oversight subcommittee, 22 percent of cases completed by census takers in 2010 were done so using data taken from proxies. And of those cases, roughly a quarter were deemed useless by the Census Bureau. As a result, millions of people get missed while others get counted twice. These inaccuracies tend to be more frequent in urban centers and tribal areas, but also, as I eventually learned, in rural sections of the country.
Throughout the door-knocking operation, the 500,000 or so enumerators would receive various official updates on our census-branded iPhone 8s, informing us of overtime-pay availability, reinforcing protocols about masks and political neutrality, and letting us know how the ongoing legal action about the census time frame would affect our goals. Over Labor Day weekend, I received a text from our regional office asking for volunteers to travel to southern states, where response rates had been extremely low, especially in rural areas. To take on the assignment, an enumerator would need to commit to following a 13-page document of protocols and have a credit or debit card with enough leeway to hold charges for a rental car, gas, and hotel incidentals until reimbursement.
As many census processes go, my journey to southern Georgia was a bit haphazard. On Labor Day, I received a call from a census director checking to make sure that I qualified for travel. Two days later, without any warning, I received my assignment in the form of hotel and flight confirmations. Thirty-six hours later, on the morning of September 11, I flew out of LaGuardia to Atlanta to join the more than 2,000 other out-of-state enumerators spread out across Georgia.
As it turns out, the mass mobilization of out-of-state enumerators is not just uncommon, but generally seen as a violation of the spirit of the census. “One of the foundational concepts of a successful door-knocking operation is that census takers will be knowledgeable about the community in which they’re working,” Lowenthal explained. “This is both so they can do a good job, because they’ll have to understand local culture and hopefully the language, but also so that the people who have to open their doors and talk to them have some confidence in them.”
Upon arrival, I learned that I had been assigned to the “Save Macon Operation,” which centered around the various farmlands, exurbs, trailer parks, small towns, and off-grid residences to the west of Macon and south of Atlanta. We were led by a kind-but-overwhelmed field manager who had suddenly inherited a squad of 900 foreign enumerators after the local leadership around him had been fired for poor performance. Markus, we’ll call him, often spelled out his name using the NATO phonetic alphabet.
During an introductory conference call, as we went through a litany of payroll and logistical guidances, one visiting census taker interrupted with a question that launched a hundred silences: “What do census takers from the cities need to know about working in rural areas?” A lot.
Dogs and a lack of leash laws would complicate our journey. The GPS would fail often in this part of the state, and the roads themselves would be hard to drive. “You’re gonna take dirt roads to dirt roads to another dirt road,” Markus warned, “and then you’re gonna find half a mile or so of washed-out driveway to get to the house, and there’s probably not gonna be nobody there.”
Bathroom availability, especially with the pandemic, would be limited. We were to expect that proxies would be impossible to find. “These people live way out in the country,” Markus explained. “They want to be left alone.” Then, there were the snakes, fire ants, and chiggers, a revelation that caused one member of the Connecticut delegation to shout, “What in the heck is a chigger?” As Markus sagely explained, “If you get bit by one, you’ll know.”
In a debrief call later in the week, a census taker on loan from Florida brought up an issue he had with a local case where he had arrived at a house to find a sign on the door explaining that because gun ammunition is expensive, the homeowner doesn’t fire warning shots. The enumerator had opted not to knock. “You’re gonna see a lot of that,” Markus said. “These backwoods people, they love their guns. I love my gun. If you feel uncomfortable doing the case, don’t do the case.”
At least three of my fellow enumerators reported having guns pulled on them while entering a property to conduct an interview, one field supervisor told me on condition of anonymity. That two of them successfully managed to complete the cases in question speaks to another crucial feature of the census: In spite of the countless challenges, complications, administrative inefficiencies, federal self-sabotage, and bureaucratic nightmares, the process also involves workers on the ground who are deeply committed to the mission.
As the days went on, the success stories rolled in. One part of our census area went from a 16 percent completion rate to 66 percent in two weeks. The Macon area, which had the second- or third-worst response rates out of 248 census areas across the country, started getting national recognition in leadership calls. Other team members would be dispatched to Alabama and Louisiana, while travel assignments also came up in Illinois and the tribal areas of Arizona. Back in Yonkers, my home district was training enumerators to visit homeless shelters and food banks.
But for all these small wins, the census was no match for 2020. During shifts in Georgia, it hadn’t been unusual to receive dirty looks or stray comments about wearing a mask, even as some residents warned us that people on their block had COVID-19. More devastating yet, enumerators in Rochester, New York, were being sent out into the field in pairs after heated protests broke out following reports that Daniel Prude, a mentally distressed Black man, had died of suffocation while being taken into police custody, a development that added the city to the ranks of the many to experience unrest over issues of racial injustice this year.
The months-long delay of the counting period also placed the work in the middle of natural-disaster season. While wildfires were blazing in the West, threatening basic life in California, Oregon, and Washington, much of my team sat idle for a day as Hurricane Sally dumped heavy rain on Georgia.
These sorts of delays also mean that the final census results will now be assembled in a heavily compressed time frame. The Trump administration originally asked Congress to give the Census Bureau until the end of April 2021 to process and check this decade’s data. But this August, administration officials changed their mind, and said they could get the work done by December 31, 2020. As a result, census administrators are now trying and (apparently failing) to complete their high-stakes work at twice the normal speed—a fittingly messy end to a particularly chaotic count.
Thinking back, though, the most striking moments of the months I spent working as a census taker were the ones when Americans’ responses to my questions brought out the deep imperfections of the process, and the enduring divisions of the nation. Sometimes, when an American told me they were Hispanic, they’d rush to adamantly assure me that they were a legal U.S. citizen too. Those moments reminded me that, for 20 years, the census counted all East Asian people as “Chinese”; that many censuses counted enslaved Americans as three-fifths of a person; that the census once asked whether a household contained anyone who was “insane” or “idiotic”; that the Roosevelt administration used census data to target Japanese Americans for internment. How we plan, conduct, and use the census reveals the character of the country in a way that numbers alone cannot.
Later this month, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments about whether President Trump may omit undocumented immigrants from census rolls when apportioning seats in Congress. Many census advocates argue that this would be a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which directs “counting the whole number of persons in each State.” But that’s the whole fight: Who counts as a person, anyway?
The name “Sleepy Joe” was meant to be pejorative rather than prophetic. But today President-elect Joe Biden’s team leaked the names of three likely appointees, and they are the equivalent of a warm cup of Ovaltine with a melatonin chaser. According to reports, Antony Blinken, Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, will be nominated for secretary of state. Michèle Flournoy, an under secretary of defense under Obama, is widely expected to be nominated for secretary of defense. And Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, will be appointed national security adviser. They will barely need to order new business cards: A felt-tip marker to take out a word or two will suffice. If you wonder how these people will govern, just close your eyes and imagine yourself back to 2016, before you developed that nervous tic that causes you to rip out your hair by its roots whenever your phone buzzes with a news alert.
Do you remember that time? First the good news: Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan are not widely remembered by ordinary, non-Beltway people, because they were hypercompetent public servants who tended not to make hilarious, unforced errors. They did not, like the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, joke about canceling the result of a U.S. election, or swear at a journalist while quizzing her about world geography. They knew their job and took it seriously—unlike, say, Rick Perry, who discovered only after his nomination as secretary of energy that his main task was to oversee a nuclear arsenal capable of rendering the planet uninhabitable. At any point in the past eight years or so, you could have shaken Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan awake in the middle of the night and appointed them to these positions, and they would have been at their desk and ready to do their job by sunrise.
Biden had alternatives and could have packed his Cabinet with appointees not known primarily for their bureaucratic skill: Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Senator Mitt Romney at State, say, or Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois at Defense. Buttigieg or Duckworth would reassure Democrats that new voices can still rise in the establishment. A Romney nomination would reassure Republicans that Biden does not intend to hunt them to extinction for the sin of enabling Donald Trump. Instead, Biden chose three Democratic policy virtuosos, the exact people you would choose if you wanted to reassure everyone, at the risk of boring them, that the incoming administration will resemble the one that left in 2017, with a modest generational upgrade.
Sullivan articulated the goals of this familiar team in The Atlantic last year. His manifesto’s bland decency is characteristic of our shared home state of Minnesota. “Despite its flaws,” Sullivan argued, “America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest.” Forget Ovaltine—too spicy! This is a tall glass of warm milk. America shouldn’t be conceited. We should admit error and do better next time. Our purpose is to “protect and defend the American way of life,” not just for us, but for other countries whose blessings have not placed them in a position to lead the world against “aggression, authoritarianism, and malignant corruption.” Pompeo famously said he would bring “swagger” to the State Department. Sullivan’s essay heralds the cancellation of that particular initiative, which sounded doomed anyway, since nothing is less swaggery than announcing one’s intention to swagger.
So hypercompetence is coming back. The bad news is that 2016, the last full year in which this hypercompetent team was in power, was a bit of a nightmare, particularly in the Middle East. The Obama administration had learned the lesson of Iraq, where regime change and nation building had failed. Instead it tried supporting Libyan rebels with weapons but not nation building, and supporting Syrian rebels with neither weapons nor nation building. Both countries devolved into apocalyptic messes. I seem to remember a group called ISIS that would slaughter dozens of innocent civilians at a time, not only in Iraq and Syria but also in places such as Paris and Orlando. Central Europe had to digest a massive refugee flow from Syria and Afghanistan, and the resulting borborygmus upended European politics and enabled a populist wave that has yet to crest.
Blinken and Sullivan negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran deal. In theory, the Iran deal froze the Iranian nuclear program, in exchange for sanctions relief, cash, and other goodies for Tehran. Stopping Iranian nuclear development is a proper goal, but even the deal’s defenders acknowledged that it guaranteed the survival of an odious regime and did little to constrain its nonnuclear misbehavior across the region. Maybe the deal was worth cutting; nuclear nonproliferation is worth a concession or two. Even if it was, it should have made you wince, and prepare for a tumultuous future of proxy wars. None of the hard-won negotiations with Iran yielded a result as concrete as the diplomatic normalization between Israel and three Arab states, a Trump achievement that Obama wouldn’t have managed in a third term, or possibly even a fourth.
Four years of Trump were four years of constant stimulation, pleasurable for the MAGA set, painful for others. Personally I feel like the victim of a sadistic dentist who has finally drilled out every tooth and vivisected the last live nerve within. Now my mouth is packed with gauze, and the numbness is a deliverance: What a luxury to see the Cabinet gradually populated with low-key operators who do not view manic stimulation of the electorate as a sign of a job well done. The real sign of a job well done would be actual restoration of the wholesome vision of American-led idealism that Sullivan has promised, and that his team never quite delivered the last time it was in power.
The names Blinken, Flournoy, and Sullivan make me rest a lot easier than their analogues Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn did four years ago. (Still less comforting is the veritable Insane Clown Posse of unhinged acting officials currently running sectors of the government, now that Trump has ceased bothering to appoint permanent officers.) I’ll enjoy that rest while it lasts—but melatonin wears off eventually, and the problems of the world will still be there when it does.
I don’t know for certain that Emily Murphy gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says to herself, “You are a good person.” But I am willing to bet that she does. Most people in her position—most people who are undermining the rules of their group, destroying their institution, harming their society—are doing so because they have become convinced that they are good people, virtuous people, brave people, dedicated people. Nothing suggests that Murphy is an exception.
Murphy is the head of the General Services Administration, the unglamorous bit of the federal government that actually runs the federal government. Part of her job—a part that no one has ever before considered controversial or even noteworthy—is to “ascertain” who has won the U.S. presidential election, and then to release the congressionally mandated funds that allow the winner to begin his transition. Usually, that process also unlocks cooperation between incoming and outgoing officials. Before leaving office in 2017, aides to Barack Obama had prepared elaborate explanations of the state of the world, including a 69-page playbook for how to manage a pandemic. They handed the documents over to Donald Trump’s transition team, which ignored them.
But the decision to bungle his own transition was Trump’s. The Obama team did not hinder him in any way, and the GSA certainly did not. Of course, many people were upset about Trump’s election at the time, and many suspected Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Those suspicions were more than justified: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would eventually show how Russian-controlled social-media accounts, coupled with the Russian security-service hack of the Democratic National Committee, sought to affect voters’ perceptions of Hillary Clinton. But they did not render the voting fake or the voting machines dysfunctional, and nobody in any senior post ever claimed that they had. Nobody—no civil servant, no political appointee, no politician—tried to stop the transition either. The rules were the rules.
But now it is 2020. For four years, the White House has been occupied by a team of people who do not care about the rules. The president and his family have disregarded rules about security clearances, rules about the use of private email for public purposes, rules about the intersection of political and government business. They have profited financially from the presidency while still in the White House. They have sought to use American foreign-policy tools for personal and political gain. While they did so, they accustomed everyone around them to accept new standards. Slowly, members of the Trump administration got used to tolerating blatant, bold-faced lies. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of lies—important lies, stupid lies, insignificant lies, lies about attendance at the inauguration, lies about economic growth, lies about a hurricane forecast in Alabama.
Over time, everyone who worked for Trump learned to tolerate his lying. Some concluded that they had to lie too in order to keep their jobs. Some began to believe the lies, because that made things easier. Some began to think defending the president’s lies was patriotic, because he was the president. Some became excited by the lies, because they broke so many taboos. That feeling of radicalism kept them going, gave them strength. When the president began to lie about the election result, they were ready to defend him.
Not everybody has succumbed to this ideology. Just last week, Chris Krebs, the head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was fired for refusing to lie. He would not support the president’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, and so he was told to leave his job.
But not everybody is Chris Krebs. Clearly, Emily Murphy is not Chris Krebs. Confronted with the reality of Joe Biden’s victory, and with the predictably mendacious reaction of the president, Murphy, along with an astonishing number of elected and appointed Republican officials, has chosen to stand by him too. “Friends” are now speaking to the national media on her behalf. One of these “friends” told CNN that Murphy is distressed: “She’s doing what she believes is her honest duty as someone who has sworn true allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and the laws that govern her position.”
Well, no. She is not doing her honest duty. She is behaving badly, dishonestly, unfairly. She is violating the Constitution of the United States of America by refusing to recognize that the election is over, that Trump’s lawsuits and legal games are frivolous, and that the transition has begun. But she, like so many others in the White House, seems to believe the exact opposite: that it is part of her job to support radical, norm-breaking, democracy-destroying lies. Like so many others in the Republican Party, she appears to think that election results do not need to be accepted; that legal votes can be challenged; that courts and political pressure can be used to change the result.
In the grand historical scheme of things, this particular form of delusion is not uncommon. A lot of historical and political-science work has been devoted in recent years to bureaucrats who become ideologues—though I cringe to mention it, because most of it applies to people in much more severe and dramatic situations. In the years since Hannah Arendt coined the expression banality of evil, a number of historians have begun to argue, for example, that most of the Nazi bureaucrats who later described themselves as “just following orders” were doing no such thing: They were active and enthusiastic partisans, imagining themselves to be brave members of the Nazi avant-garde. They thought they were good people.
A similar argument has been made retrospectively about the participants in the infamous “shock experiments” carried out by the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. Most of those who agreed to deliver a series of what they thought were painful electric shocks to a person in the next room were doing so not out of an ingrained instinct for obedience, as Milgram claimed at the time, but because Milgram had truly convinced them of the significance of their task. They didn’t see themselves as delivering pain, but rather being part of a cutting-edge scientific project.They thought they were good people too.
Murphy is being asked neither to participate in Nazi crimes nor to administer electric shocks. To do her job correctly, all she has to do is follow the law, let the transition begin, and allow the next president of the United States to prepare for the economic and public-health disaster that has been left to him by the current occupant of the White House. She will not be jailed or imprisoned if she starts the transition; and because Joe Biden will be president, she is going to lose her job anyway.
The only explanation for her behavior is the most obvious one: She has bought the ideology; she has become a true believer; she has accepted the lies. If so, she can look in the mirror and see someone virtuous, brave, and dedicated—a good person, just like President Trump.
Inside the headquarters of the Department of Commerce in downtown Washington, D.C., just around the corner from the White House, sits an expansive suite of offices reserved for the American government-in-waiting. The space, managed by the General Services Administration, can accommodate more than 500 people, and in the weeks before a new president is inaugurated, it would ordinarily be a whirl of activity—hosting dozens of daily policy briefings, outreach meetings, and job interviews for the 4,000 positions that come open in the federal government every four or eight years.
Today, however, that transition office sits nearly empty; just a handful of people from the incoming Biden administration have even stepped inside.
That the offices have gone unused is not, as one might assume, a consequence of President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his election defeat to President-elect Joe Biden, or of his directive that his administration not cooperate with Biden’s transition team. The Biden campaign, under federal law, has had access to the transition space since September. But the former vice president has chosen not to use it—a decision made in deference to the coronavirus pandemic and his commitment to prioritizing the safety of his staff during a public-health crisis.
Biden won the presidency with a largely virtual campaign, forgoing most in-person canvassing and traditional rallies. But building a new administration in the span of 11 weeks is a far taller order. Imagine a start-up company that must hire 4,000 people, including 1,200 who must be shepherded through the gantlet of Senate confirmation. It’s a project that, even in normal times, no modern presidential transition team has come close to finishing by Inauguration Day. By former President Barack Obama’s 200th day in office in 2009, he had filled just over one-quarter of those positions—and his transition to the White House is widely considered to be the smoothest transfer of power from one administration to the next in decades.
Four years ago, Obama symbolically launched his own transition out of office by welcoming Trump to the White House days after the Republican’s surprising election win. The two men spoke for an hour and a half—much longer than planned—before sitting awkwardly for a photo op with reporters. The outgoing president pledged his full cooperation with Trump’s team, but his assistance did not prevent a much bumpier beginning for the new president, who had thrown out the carefully written plans his own transition team had prepared before the election.
No such meeting has taken place between Trump and Biden this year, and one isn’t likely anytime soon. Biden’s team will have to contend with not only an uncooperative outgoing administration but an ongoing economic and public-health crisis that is complicating an already Herculean challenge.
The thought that the Biden team will be tackling the bulk of that endeavor on Zoom is unthinkable to Obama-administration veterans such as Patrick Gaspard, who helped lead that transition’s hiring efforts before joining the White House staff. A dozen years ago, Gaspard arrived in Washington the day after Obama’s election victory to begin staffing his government at the Commerce Department’s headquarters. “There were constant streams of people coming in, both for interviews but also for briefings, for prep sessions, to give advice and counsel,” recalled Gaspard, who would go on to lead Obama’s Office of Political Affairs before serving as the ambassador to South Africa. “It was a constant hive of incessant activity.”
When I asked him to contemplate managing a presidential transition during a pandemic, he just laughed. “There are extraordinarily brilliant folks who are leading all of this, but man, I can’t imagine it,” Gaspard told me. “I just can’t.”
The Biden team does have certain advantages that the Obama transition lacked. In 2008, Democrats had been out of power for eight years, and the president-elect had served in Washington for less than four. Biden, by contrast, has been out of office for just four years and brings nearly half a century in government experience to the White House. The man he’s chosen to lead the transition, former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, is a co-author of the federal law governing the modern transition process.
“This is a team that is filled with people who understand government, who have been there before,” said Max Stier, the CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, who has advised transition teams of both parties over the years, including Biden’s. Led by Kaufman, the Biden transition began working behind the scenes months before the election. “It’s a very challenging thing to do this right, but they’ve started better than anybody so far,” Stier told me.
The pandemic, of course, isn’t new by now, and the Biden campaign, like businesses across the country, is used to interviewing job applicants remotely. Many of the people who will likely form the White House staff, for example, have already been working together remotely for months. (The transition team uses Google software for video meetings, rather than Zoom.) And in some cases, incoming members of the Biden administration might be able to start their jobs virtually too. The increase in telework throughout the government this year meant that many new employees took their oaths and completed their onboarding paperwork remotely.
But many jobs are too important to fill without an in-person meeting. “I would want to sit across the room from the president-elect before I’m going to take a job in his Cabinet,” a person close to the transition told me on the condition of anonymity because Biden’s team is under strict orders not to speak with the media. “So a lot could be done on Zoom, but some can’t.” (The former vice president reportedly conducted his search for a vice-presidential running mate this summer through a mix of in-person and virtual interviews.)
Nor can many other aspects of the transition proceed entirely remotely. Transition teams will need to physically enter government buildings to review classified documents at the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies. Biden officials have set up strict COVID-19 protocols—and says it reviews those requirements every two weeks—for when those teams begin meeting in person with their counterparts in the Trump administration. And the president-elect’s staff has named larger agency review teams than usual to account for the possibility that members could become infected or need to quarantine during the transition.
“Like many organizations around the country, the Biden transition team will continue to do our work remotely,” the team said in a statement. “While we have access to GSA space, the number of staff needed inside the office will be limited.”
Conducting so much sensitive planning remotely could also raise cybersecurity concerns, especially because the Biden team is not yet using government networks, and commercial platforms such as Zoom were plagued by security issues over the summer. The Biden transition team said it has “invested in best-in-class IT systems and processes,” including briefing staff members on using security keys and other best practices.
Beyond the pandemic, the bigger threat to a successful transition, according to the people I interviewed, is the Trump administration’s continued refusal to cooperate with the incoming Biden team. Federal agencies are waiting for the General Services Administration to formally “ascertain” that Biden has won the election, a move that will release millions in federal funds and allow transition landing teams to meet with outgoing Trump administration officials. Biden advisers have warned that the delay could prove deadly during the pandemic, since it will hamper the new administration’s ability to swiftly distribute vaccines that appear poised for federal approval. “As knowledgeable as they are, they’re still on the outside,” Stier said. “It’s a real limitation.”
The delay has other national-security implications: The FBI cannot begin processing permanent security clearances for incoming Biden officials, which could result in crucial agencies being understaffed in the event of a terrorist attack. It was the 9/11 attacks during the eighth month of President George W. Bush’s first term that helped prompt an overhaul of the presidential-transition process so that new administrations would be better prepared in the future.
The combined effects of the delayed transition and the pandemic could be less obvious but felt more widely throughout the new administration. One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of a presidential transition, Stier told me, is the integration of a new administration’s many political appointees into a career federal workforce that must carry out its policies. “They are the engine room of the government. They are ultimately the ones that know the most and get the stuff done,” he said. “There’s been a lot of turmoil, and turmoil is not good for organizational performance.”
The fact that many federal employees won’t get to meet their new overseers in person only adds to the challenge. “It’s much easier to maintain existing relationships than to create new ones, especially relationships of trust,” Stier said.
The Biden team might find some advantages to a pandemic transition. It likely won’t have to devote as much time or money to planning an enormous presidential inauguration, as that will almost certainly be much smaller in scope than usual. And it could choose to preserve or even expand teleworking across the federal government, which has led, in some cases, to higher productivity as employees forgo long commutes to and from work. One former Obama-administration official who no longer lives in the Washington area told me they are eager to see whether they can rejoin the government from afar.
Gaspard told me he wasn’t worried about the long-term effects of a remote transition on the workings of government in the Biden administration. But he said a certain “dynamism” would be lost. It’s a missing ingredient undoubtedly familiar to millions of people who haven’t seen their office in months, but one whose absence is only magnified when the task at hand is building a new presidential administration. “There’s an ad-hocracy in a transition,” Gaspard said, chuckling at coining a new word, “that’s not possible in the virtual world.”
I came out to my mom when I was 23, thinking she would embrace me with open arms. It was a night I’ll never forget. My dad was on the road for work and my younger sister was at a friend’s house. After crying for what felt like an eternity, my mom told me that I was just inexperienced with girls and that she would pay a prostitute to turn me into a real man. She made me get on my knees and promise that I wouldn’t tell my dad, ever. She was holding my six-month-old brother in her arms throughout the whole ordeal, and at one point asked God for guidance to properly raise him so he wouldn’t turn out like me.
She kicked me out of the house the next morning. I told my dad why a year later. He wasn’t happy that I was gay, but he didn’t reject me like she had. He hugged me and told me, “You’re my son. That’s all that matters.” I thought his acceptance, though reluctant, would usher in an opportunity for reconciliation with my mom, but that didn’t come to pass.
I tried my best to remain a part of the family, but doing so wasn’t easy. I was never allowed to take my little brother to the park or grab a slice of pizza with him. My sister said that our parents probably thought that my homosexuality would “rub off” on him. I showed up to his birthday parties and school plays, but that was all my parents would allow.
Thirteen years later, after two stays at a rehabilitation clinic for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, I have forgiven my parents. But I’ve never had an opportunity to build a relationship with my little brother. Mom and Dad never wanted him to know that I’m gay, but he’s 14 now, and I have his personal email address.
I have no interest in revealing to him the details of my ordeal with our parents, but I desperately want to be genuine and authentic with him. I want him to know who I am without any secrets or lies. I’m an adult, and I feel I have the right to make such a revelation, with or without my parents’ consent. I’ve respected their wish to remain silent for far too long and have begged them to tell him, but they keep making excuses as to why that isn’t prudent. My patience has run dry, but I still hesitate to do this behind their back.
Should I tell my little brother that I’m gay despite our parents’ disapproval?
Anonymous Los Angeles
I first want to say I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve been through. When you told your mother that you’re gay, she asked you to do one of the hardest things anyone can be asked to do: pretend to be someone you’re not. Humans have an innate need to connect with others, and when we aren’t truly known—or when we are rejected for who we really are—we are left feeling utterly alone.
The damage to your family goes beyond your own private pain. It sounds as though your mother, father, and sister all know now that you’re gay, but that information is a family secret from which your brother is supposedly shielded. The thing about family secrets is that they’re rarely truly secrets. Many people who grow up in homes with family secrets say that they always had a sense that something was not as it seemed, and that this resulted in chronic unease. What your parents don’t realize is that in trying to protect your brother from whatever danger they believe the truth would pose to him, they’re likely making him feel less safe.
Living authentically—in both the telling and receiving of truth—is essential to emotional well-being, so when this secret is finally out, both you and your brother will ultimately benefit. The issue right now is that your brother is living in a household with parents whose beliefs are misinformed and misguided, which complicates how you might tell him the truth and how he will receive it. For instance, a 14-year-old boy who gets a coming-out email from his much older brother with whom he barely has a relationship might not know what to do with that information. I’m guessing that some of what he’s learned about being gay has come from your parents and their community, so your email could make him uncomfortable, afraid, or confused. He might go straight to your parents with questions: My brother just emailed me and said he’s gay. Is this true? Is it contagious? Will he go to hell? If he does, your parents might reinforce their misguided beliefs and even forbid him from having any contact with you, which could make establishing a relationship with him when he’s older even harder.
The point is that you won’t have much opportunity to process the truth with him if your parents haven’t evolved in their thinking, so that’s where you might want to start—by educating your parents, even if they aren’t initially receptive. That you have to do this at all is unfair and a burden, but without this work, your parents will continue to put you in this untenable situation. Instead of emailing your brother first, email your parents and let them know that you can no longer tolerate living a lie and that you’d like to share with them why being open about who you are would benefit the entire family.
Then send them articles such as this one that explain that same-sex attraction is not contagious, and more important, this blog post by a mother named Linda Robertson who used to feel the way your parents do until she realized, tragically, the harm she had caused her gay son, Ryan, who died from a drug overdose. Let them know that their continuing demands to hide who you are from your own sibling and prevent you from creating a relationship with him are doing great harm. If your sister is more accepting than your parents are, you might be able to enlist her as an ally in this process. The more you can educate your parents about the consequences of their actions—not just on you, but on the family as a whole (including the possibility that your little brother might feel angry and betrayed by your parents as an adult when he learns that he’s been lied to all of these years)—the more movement they might make toward seeing some benefit in letting go of the secrecy, even if they don’t change their beliefs about being gay.
Sometimes one parent is more open than another, and based on your dad’s reaction to learning that you’re gay, he might faciliate some movement here as well. If as a result of this email one or both parents are willing to engage in dialogue with you and then work together to find a way to tell your brother—who will tell him, how his questions will be answered, etc.—that will hopefully open the door for many more honest and productive conversations over the years. And if your parents remain intransigent, you can certainly email your brother and include the same links you sent your parents, knowing that they might block you from further contact with him; or you can choose to wait a few more years, until he’s out of the house and has more exposure to gay people and different values about sexual orientation.
Whatever happens with your parents and however you decide to approach your brother, the clarity you have now about the toll of secrecy and the importance of embracing and sharing who you are will serve you well in the most important relationship of all—the one you have with yourself. It will help you choose to surround yourself with people—a community of close friends, a loving and supportive romantic partner—who embrace you not just in ways that are convenient for them, but in your exquisite entirety.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.