The sanctuary buzzed as Mike Pence climbed into the elevated pulpit, standing 15 feet above the pews, a Celtic cross over his left shoulder. The former vice president had spoken here, at Hillsdale College, the private Christian school tucked into the knolls of southern Michigan, on several previous occasions. But this was his first time inside Christ Chapel, the magnificent, recently erected campus cathedral inspired by the St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish of England. The space offers a spiritual refuge for young people trying to find their way in the world. On this day in early March, however, it was a political proving ground, a place of testing for an older man who knows what he believes but, like the students, is unsure of exactly where he’s headed.
“I came today to Christ Chapel simply to tell all of you that, even when it doesn’t look like it, be confident that God is still working,” Pence told the Hillsdale audience. “In your life, and in mine, and in the life of this nation.”
It only stands to reason that a man who felt God’s hand on his selection to serve alongside Donald Trump—the Lord working in mysterious ways and all—now feels called to help America heal from Trump’s presidency. It’s why Pence titled his memoir, which describes his split with Trump over the January 6 insurrection, So Help Me God. It’s why, as he travels the country preparing a presidential bid, he speaks to themes of redemption and reconciliation. It’s why he has spent the early days of the invisible primary courting evangelical Christian activists. And it’s why, for one of the first major speeches of his unofficial 2024 campaign, he came to Hillsdale, offering repeated references to scripture while speaking about the role of religion in public life.
Piety aside, raw political calculation was at work. Trump’s relationship with the evangelical movement—once seemingly shatterproof, then shaky after his violent departure from the White House—is now in pieces, thanks to his social-media tirade last fall blaming pro-lifers for the Republicans’ lackluster midterm performance. Because of his intimate, longtime ties to the religious right, Pence understands the extent of the damage. He is close personal friends with the organizational leaders who have fumed about it; he knows that the former president has refused to make any sort of peace offering to the anti-abortion community and is now effectively estranged from its most influential leaders.
According to people who have spoken with Pence, he believes that this erosion of support among evangelicals represents Trump’s greatest vulnerability in the upcoming primary—and his own greatest opportunity to make a play for the GOP nomination.
But he isn’t the only one.
Although Pence possesses singular insights into the insular world of social-conservative politics, numerous other Republicans are aware of Trump’s emerging weakness and are preparing to make a play for conservative Christian voters. Some of these efforts will be more sincere—more rooted in a shared belief system—than others. What unites them is a common recognition that, for the first time since he secured the GOP nomination in 2016, Trump has a serious problem with a crucial bloc of his coalition.
The scale of his trouble is difficult to overstate. In my recent conversations with some two dozen evangelical leaders—many of whom asked not to be named, all of whom backed Trump in 2016, throughout his presidency, and again in 2020—not a single one would commit to supporting him in the 2024 Republican primary. And this was all before the speculation of his potential arrest on charges related to paying hush-money to his porn-star paramour back in 2016.
“I think people want to move on. They want to look to the future; they want someone to cast a vision,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who spoke at Trump’s nominating convention in 2016 and offered counsel throughout his presidency.
At this time eight years ago, Perkins was heading up a secretive operation that sought to rally evangelical support around a single candidate. One by one, all the GOP presidential aspirants met privately with Perkins and his group of Christian influencers for an audition, a process by which Trump made initial contact with some prominent leaders of the religious right. Perkins probably won’t lead a similar effort this time around—“It was a lot of work,” he told me—but he and his allies have begun meeting with Republican contenders to gauge the direction of their campaigns. His message has been simple: Some of Trump’s most reliable supporters are now up for grabs, but they won’t be won over with the half measures of the pre-Trump era.
“Oddly enough, it was Donald Trump of all people who raised the expectations of evangelical voters. They know they can win now,” Perkins said. “They want that same level of fight.”
It’s one of thedefining political statistics of the current political era: Trump carried 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016, according to exit polling, and performed similarly in 2020. But the real measure of his grip on this demographic was seen during his four years in office: Even amid dramatic dips in his popularity and approval rating, white evangelicals were consistently Trump’s most loyal supporters, sticking by him at rates that far exceeded those of other parts of his political coalition. Because Trump secured signature victories for conservative Christians—most notably, appointing the three Supreme Court justices who, last year, helped overturn Roe v. Wade—there was reason to expect that loyalty to carry over into his run for the presidency in 2024.
And then Trump sabotaged himself. Desperate to dodge culpability for the Republican Party’s poor performance in the November midterm elections, Trump blamed the “abortion issue.” He suggested that moderate voters had been spooked by some of the party’s restrictive proposals, while pro-lifers, after half a century of intense political engagement, had grown complacent following the Dobbs ruling. This scapegoating didn’t go over well with social-conservative leaders. For many of them, the transaction they had entered into with Trump in 2016—their support in exchange for his policies—was validated by the fall of Roe. Yet now the former president was distancing himself from the anti-abortion movement while refusing to accept responsibility for promoting bad candidates who lost winnable races. (Trump’s campaign declined to comment for this story.)
It felt like betrayal. Trump’s evangelical allies had stood dutifully behind him for four years, excusing all manner of transgressions and refusing countless opportunities to cast him off. Some had even convinced themselves that he had become a believer—if not an actual believer in Christ, despite those prayer-circle photo ops in the Oval Office, then a believer in the anti-abortion cause after previously having described himself as “very pro-choice.” Now the illusion was gone. In text messages, emails, and conference calls, some of the country’s most active social conservatives began expressing a willingness to support an alternative to Trump in 2024.
“A lot of people were very put off by those comments … It made people wonder if in some way he’d gone back to some of the sentiments he had long before becoming a Republican candidate,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, who runs the Young America’s Foundation and sits on the board of an anti-abortion group. Walker, himself an evangelical and the son of a pastor, added, “I think it opened the door for a lot of them to consider other candidates.”
The most offensive part of Trump’s commentary was his ignorance of the new, post-Roe reality of Republican politics. Publicly and privately, he spoke of abortion like an item struck from his to-do list, believing the issue was effectively resolved by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, conservatives were preparing for a new and complicated phase of the fight, and Trump was nowhere to be found. He didn’t even bother with damage control following his November outburst, anti-abortion leaders said, because he didn’t understand how fundamentally out of step he was with his erstwhile allies.
“He thinks it will go away, but it won’t,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, told me. “That’s not me lacking in gratitude for how we got here, because I know how we got here. But that part is done. Thank you. Now what?”
Before long, evangelical leaders were publicly airing their long-held private complaints about Trump. Mike Evans, an original member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, told The Washington Post that Trump “used us to win the White House” and then turned Christians into cult members “glorifying Donald Trump like he was an idol.” David Lane, a veteran evangelical organizer whose email blasts reach many thousands of pastors and church leaders, wrote that Trump’s “vision of making America as a nation great again has been put on the sidelines, while the mission and the message are now subordinate to personal grievances and self-importance.” Addressing a group of Christian lawmakers after the election, James Robison, a well-known televangelist who also advised Trump, compared him to a “little elementary schoolchild.” Everett Piper, the former president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, reacted to the midterms by writing in The Washington Times, “The take-home of this past week is simple: Donald Trump has to go. If he’s our nominee in 2024, we will get destroyed.”
Perkins said that he’s still in touch with Trump and wouldn’t rule out backing his primary campaign in 2024. (Like everyone else I spoke with, Perkins said he won’t hesitate to support Trump if he wins the nomination.) He’s also a longtime friend to Pence, and told me he has been in recent communication with the former vice president. In speaking of the two men, Perkins described the same dilemma I heard from other social-conservative leaders.
“Donald Trump came onto the playground, found the bully that had been pushing evangelicals around, and he punched them. That’s what endeared us to him,” Perkins explained. “But the challenge is, he went a little too far. He had too much of an edge … What we’re looking for, quite frankly, is a cross between Mike Pence and Donald Trump.”
Who fits that description? Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been blasting out scripture-laden fundraising emails while aggressively courting evangelical leaders, making the case that his competence—and proud, publicly declared Christian beliefs—would make him the ultimate advocate for the religious right. Tim Scott, who has daydreamed about quitting the U.S. Senate to attend seminary, built the soft launch of his campaign around a “Faith in America” tour and is speaking to hundreds of pastors this week on a private “National Faith Briefing” call. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is known less for her devoutness than her opportunism, invited the televangelist John Hagee to deliver the invocation at her campaign announcement last month.
Trump’s campaign is banking on these candidates, plus Pence, fragmenting the hard-core evangelical vote in the Iowa caucuses, while he cleans up with the rest of the conservative base.
There is another Republican who could crash that scenario. And yet, that candidate—the one who might best embody the mix that Perkins spoke of—is the one making the least effort to court evangelicals.
In January, at the National Pro-Life Summit in Washington, D.C., Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won a 2024 presidential straw poll in dominant fashion: 54 percent to Trump’s 19 percent, with every other Republican stuck in single digits. This seemed to portend a new day in the conservative movement: Having had several months to process the midterm results, the thousands of activists who came to D.C. for the annual March for Life were clearly signaling not just their desire to move on from Trump, but also their preference for the young governor who had just won reelection by 1.5 million votes in the country’s biggest battleground state.
There was some surprise in early March when the group Students for Life of America—which had organized the D.C. conference in January—met in Naples, Florida, for its Post-Roe Generation Gala. The event drew activists from around the country. Pence, a longtime friend of the group, had secured the keynote speaking slot. But DeSantis was nowhere to be found. Some attendees wondered why there was no video sent by his staff, no footprint from his political operation, not even a tweet from the governor acknowledging the event in his own backyard.
Kristan Hawkins, the Students for Life president, cautioned against reading anything into this, explaining that her group had not formally invited DeSantis, instead reserving the spotlight for Pence. At the same time, she complained that DeSantis has had zero engagement with her or her organization, “not even a back-channel relationship.” For all of DeSantis’s culture warring with the left—over education and wokeism and drag shows—Hawkins argued that he has largely ignored the abortion issue.
“So many people are astounded when I tell them that Florida has one of the highest abortion rates in the country. It’s the only Republican-controlled state in the top 10,” Hawkins told me. “Folks on social media are like, ‘You’re wrong! Florida has DeSantis!’”
She sighed. “Checking the box, yes. When asked, he’ll affirm ‘pro-life.’ But leading the charge in Tallahassee? We haven’t seen it.”
This squared with what I’ve heard from many other evangelical leaders—in terms of both the policy approach and the personal dealings. “He doesn’t have any relationships with me or the people in my world,” Perkins told me. “I’ve been cheering for him … but he hasn’t made any real outreach to us. That’s a weakness. I guess he sort of keeps his own counsel.” Dannenfelser was the lone organizational head who told me she’d gotten some recent face time with DeSantis, while noting that she, not the governor or his team, had requested the meeting.
DeSantis has been made aware of these complaints, according to people who have spoken with the governor. (His political team declined to comment for this story.) John Stemberger, the president of Florida Family Policy Council, told me that DeSantis had recently attended a prayer breakfast held by the state’s leading anti-abortion activists, and that his team has “slowly but methodically” begun its outreach to leaders in early-nominating states. However sluggish his efforts to date, DeSantis now stands to benefit from the good fortune of great timing: Having signed a 15-week abortion ban into law just last year, he is now supporting a so-called heartbeat bill that Republicans are advancing through the state legislature. The timing of Florida’s implementation of this new law, which would ban abortions after six weeks, will roughly coincide with the governor’s expected presidential launch later this spring.
“He’s got a robust agenda, and he’ll be doing robust outreach soon enough,” Stemberger said.
Even without the outreach, DeSantis is well positioned to capture a significant share of the Christian conservative vote. Among pastors and congregants I’ve met around the country, his name-identification has soared over the past year and a half, the result of high-profile policy fights and his landslide reelection win. Last month, a Monmouth University national survey of Republican voters found DeSantis beating Trump, 51 percent to 44 percent, among self-identified evangelical voters. (Trump reclaimed the lead in a new poll released this week.) This, perhaps more than any other factor, explains the intense interest in the Florida governor among conservative leaders: Unlike Pence, Haley, Pompeo, and others, DeSantis has an obvious path to defeating Trump in the GOP primary.
Stemberger, an outspoken Trump critic during the 2016 primary who then became an apologist during his presidency—telling fellow Christians that Trump had accomplished “unprecedentedly good things” in office—would not yet publicly commit to backing DeSantis. But he suggested that the abortion issue crystallizes an essential difference between the two men: Whereas Trump “self-destructs” by “shooting from the hip all the time,” DeSantis is disciplined, deliberate, and “highly strategic.” Part of that strategy is a speech DeSantis is scheduled to deliver next month at Liberty University.
Tellingly, Stemberger didn’t note any difference in the personal beliefs of the two Republican front-runners. I asked him: Does faith inform DeSantis’s politics?
“It’s interesting. I know he’s Catholic, but I’m not even sure he attends Mass regularly,” Stemberger told me. He mentioned praying over DeSantis with a group of pastors before the governor’s inauguration. “But his core is really the Constitution—the Federalist Papers, the Founding Fathers. That’s how he processes everything. He’s never going to be painted as a fundamentalist Christian … He does make references to spiritual warfare, but that’s an analogy for what he’s trying to do politically.”
Indeed, over the past year, while traveling the country to raise money and rally the conservative base, the governor frequently invoked the Book of Ephesians. “Put on the full armor of God,” DeSantis would say, “and take a stand against the left’s schemes.”
In bowdlerizing the words of the apostle Paul—substituting the left for the devil—DeSantis wasn’t merely counting on the biblical illiteracy of his listeners. He was playing to a partisan fervor that renders scriptural restraint irrelevant. Eventually, he did away with any nuance. Last fall, DeSantis released a now-famous advertisement, cinematic frames shot in black and white, that borrowed from the radio host Paul Harvey’s famous speech, “So God Made a Farmer.” Once again, an important change was made. “On the eighth day,” rumbled a deep voice, with DeSantis pictured standing tall before an American flag, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.”
The video, which ran nearly two minutes, was so comically overdone—widely panned for its rampant self-glorification—that its appeal went unappreciated. Trump proved that for millions of white evangelicals who fear the loss of power, influence, and status in a rapidly secularizing nation, nothing sells like garish displays of God-ordained machismo. The humble, country-preacher appeal of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has lost its political allure. Hence the irony: DeSantis might have done the least to cultivate relationships in the evangelical movement, and the most to project himself as its next champion.
Speaking to the students at Hillsdale, Pence took a decidedly different approach to quoting the apostle Paul.
Having spoken broadly of the need for all Americans to return to treating one another with “civility and respect,” the former vice president made a specific appeal to his fellow Christians. No matter how pitched the battles over politics and policy, he said, followers of Jesus had a responsibility to attract outsiders with their conduct and their language. “Let your conversation be seasoned with salt,” Pence said, borrowing from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
If he does run for president, this will be what Pence is selling to evangelicals: humility instead of hubris, decency instead of denigration. The former vice president pledged to defend traditional Judeo-Christian values—even suggesting that he would re-litigate the fight over same-sex marriage, a matter settled by courts of law and public opinion. But, Pence said, unlike certain other Republicans, he would do so with a graciousness that kept the country intact. This, he reminded the audience, had always been his calling card. As far back as his days in conservative talk radio, Pence said, he was known as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
That line got some laughs. But it also underscored his limitation as a prospective candidate. After the event, while speaking with numerous guests, I heard the same thing over and over: Pence was not tough enough. They all admired him. They all thought he was an honorable man and a model Christian. But a Sunday School teacher couldn’t lead them into the battles over gender identity, school curriculum, abortion, and the like. They needed a warrior.
“The Bushes were nice. Mitt Romney was nice. Where did that get us?” said Jerry Byrd, a churchgoing attorney who’d driven from the Detroit suburbs to hear Pence speak. “Trump is the only one who stood up for us. The Democrats are ruining this country, and being a good Christian isn’t going to stop them. Honestly, I don’t want someone ‘on decaf.’ We need the real thing.”
After Pence sacrificed so much of himself to stand loyally behind Trump, this is how the former president has repaid him—by conditioning Christians to expect an expression of their faith so pugilistic that Pence could not hope to pass muster.
Byrd told me he was “done with Trump” after the ex-president’s sore-loser antics and is actively shopping for another Republican to support in 2024. He likes the former vice president. He respects the principled stand he took on January 6. But Byrd said he couldn’t imagine voting for him for president. Pence was just another one of those “nice guys” whom the Democrats would walk all over.
Unprompted, Byrd told me that DeSantis was his top choice. I asked him why.
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Last week, I saw a new paper in the journal Nature Human Behavior called “Negativity Drives Online News Consumption.” That seems bad, I thought. Naturally, I clicked.
In a randomized study of 105,000 headlines and 370 million impressions from a data set of articles published by the online news dispensary Upworthy, researchers concluded that each negative word increased the click-through rate by more than 2 percent. “The presence of positive words in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of a headline being clicked on,” they said.
Are you even remotely surprised by any of this? Probably not. Neither was New York University’s Claire E. Robertson, a co-author of the paper. “People have been saying ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ for decades,” she told me. But what does that actually mean? Maybe substantively bad news naturally gets more attention, as it probably should. Or, maybe, even humdrum and unimportant stories can be juiced to attract eyes and ears if editors inject their headlines with a dose of sadness and catastrophe.
Upworthy might seem like an unusual choice for studying the properties of hard news, given that the site is typically associated with frivolous curiosity-gap bait: “This Baby Panda Learned to Breakdance—What Happened Next Will ASTONISH You,” and so on. But its database offers an unusually perfect opportunity to test the effect of headlines on audience behavior, because the site has made public the headline tests it ran for many news stories. This way, Robertson and her co-authors could control for the substance of each article, because some stories (a Harry Styles breakup, for example) will always get more clicks than others (a new law for Vermont pension accounting, say). “Even controlling for the same news story, framing more negatively increases engagement,” Robertson said.
Although blaming journalists and editors for this bias is easy, it’s also too simple. After all, it’s audiences who are reading—and watching, clicking, and subscribing to—all this stuff. (An alternate media maxim might be “If it bleeds, she reads.”) Even public-service-minded editors and journalists may feel they need to shape their coverage to match the decisions and emotional dispositions of their consumers. Negativity is not, strictly speaking, a news-maker problem; it’s a human problem—or, more to the point, a collective-action problem, in a dual-sided marketplace.
The internet is not best understood as a big room full of people screaming at one another about breaking news and policy debates. In fact, the room for political yelling is one of the smaller antechambers of the house of online content. One study of internet users in Poland found that news accounts for barely 3 percent of people’s digital-information diet. Much of the rest of the online world is populated by joyful gossip and animals doing stuff. In fact, a 2021 analysis of 126,301 Twitter posts found that rumors with positive emotions were much more likely to go viral, overall.
But although news makes up a small fraction of online content, this is where negativity seems to have the biggest lift for traffic. Robertson said her research validated several other studies showing that people are “especially likely” to consume political and economic news “when it is negative.” Surprisingly, to both me and the researchers, the study did not find that anger increased clicks; instead, sadness seemed to drive traffic in the Upworthy data set. But otherresearch has found that high-arousal emotions, such as outrage, are most likely to be shared by users.
“There’s evidence that the people who post and retweet are both in the minority of online users and tend to be more extreme than the average user,” Robertson said. “When taking this into account, it’s logical that high-arousal content is most often shared or posted, even when it’s not what people are most interested in.”
When you put it all together, the big picture looks like this: Online news is a weird and small subset of the internet, which is driven by an even weirder and smaller set of writers and posters, who have contributed to an ecosystem in which emotionality drives sharing and negativity drives clicks.
Okay, so what? Bad news isn’t some myth conjured into existence by traffic-chasing headline writers. Many events and trends are actually bad, and any honest news organization needs a muscle for identifying them. Scrutinizing power, corruption, and oppression on behalf of the public requires a critical lens, and suggesting that the world would be better if journalists “just cheered up” is absurd.
Still, a negativity bias in news is worth keeping in mind, for at least three reasons.
1. Any systemic bias in news reporting is bad.
Lying to protect a political party, or throttling accurate reporting because it is ideologically or personally inconvenient, is broadly and rightly considered unethical. Although a bad-news bias might not initially seem as icky as an ideological bias, its dangers are manifold.
This bias, when it shows up as a tendency to sensationalize negative news while ignoring positive stories, can gradually desensitize audiences to truly grave issues, overwhelm people with a sense of global doom, misinform audiences about opportunities to make the world better, reduce their agency to fix solvable problems, erode trust in the general enterprise of honest news gathering, and exacerbate political and social polarization by locking audiences into a relationship with news coverage that highlights conflict.
Negativity bias in news is rarely as lurid as, say, the most propagandist Fox News coverage. Its costs are subtler. For example, if you publish a long essay about climate change’s very real dangers of ocean acidification and droughts, nobody is going to accuse you of lying. But publishing a relentless drumbeat of stories about how humanity is doomed because of climate change is dishonest if you never mention that the range of possible outcomes for planetary warming has improved in the past decade, thanks in part to rapid advancements in clean-energy technology. Over time, this bias might contribute to a world with widespread despair, flailing protest movements that have little to do with decarbonization, and more couples deciding not to have children, because their favorite news outlet assured them that all offspring will prematurely perish on a death planet.
Social-media platforms spread anger and doom to increase engagement, manipulating our attention to danger. They are fertile grounds for conspiracy theories, and the media have duly paid attention to this phenomenon. But news organizations should interrogate whether they, too, are sometimes helping confirm their audiences’ unjustified fears.
The solution to negative bias is not pie-eyed techno-optimistic boosterism. Toxic positivity is no cure for toxic negativity; it’s just the mirror image of the same disease. But if journalists want to build media institutions that people can trust, especially on subjects of great uncertainty, they have to recognize that crying wolf every day accomplishes little beyond leaving audiences in a state of despairing paralysis and obfuscating the exceptional danger of actual wolves.
2. Marketplaces of superabundance might have hidden costs.
I’ve written several times about the benefits of abundance in the material world, in housing, energy, infrastructure, and medicine. But lately, I’ve been thinking about when abundance isn’t naturally wonderful.
In the early 20th century, car companies used assembly-line manufacturing to speed up the production of automobiles. To keep up with supply, auto executives needed new ideas to boost consumer demand. Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors, reportedly came up with the idea of releasing annual vehicle models, with new colors and specs. Over time, advertisers called this concept “planned obsolescence”—putting arbitrary expiration dates on products to get people to buy more of them. Abundance birthed advertising.
What does this have to do with news headlines? Well, the communication revolution in tech has expanded the marketplace for content, creating a crowded news environment where headline writers compete viciously for attention. In a marketplace of news abundance, the oversupply of content encourages posters to adopt the psychology of an advertiser: “How do I juice demand for my thing?” Just as a surfeit of auto production created the conditions for planned obsolescence, a bounty of content has given millions of people an advanced degree in the fluid dynamics of attention, and many of them seem to have arrived at the same conclusion: Five-alarm fires move traffic. Once again, abundance has birthed advertising.
3. Optimization always has a dark side.
Last year, I wrote about what I called “the dark side of Moneyball.” By optimizing for certain metrics, baseball had gotten overlong and boring. By optimizing for familiarity and reboots, blockbuster films had gotten predictable. I concluded that a lot of problems in the world are downstream of systems that have gotten “too good” at optimizing.
The news industry has better data than ever about what articles and posts people click on, how long they read, and how much they share. We can A/B-test headlines to squeeze a few thousand more clicks out of our audience by identifying the perfect curiosity gap. But perhaps the quantitative revolution in media is exacerbating the bad-news bias of news organizations. Audiences, who are clearly more interested in clicking on sad news and sharing bad news, are co-pilots–—or at least carefully watched inputs—of the news industry’s bad-news bias.
We don’t know for certain how increased exposure to doomer news increases audience anxiety. But we do know that an increase in online news with a demonstrated negativity bias happens to have intersected with a growing teen-anxiety crisis. “It’s hard to tell media companies, ‘Hey, negativity will increase your readership, but cut it out; it’s bad for our brains,’” Robertson said.I think she’s right; news organizations clinging to thin, or negative, profit margins can’t easily afford to ignore audiences demanding a diet of sadness and badness.But whether audiences want the news to bleed is no longer the interesting question. The interesting question is: Now that we understand one another, what do we all do about this?
Marriage is work: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that saying. In my personal life, I heard it from youth pastors at Bible camp, from well-meaning aunts at bridal showers, even from the woman who threaded my eyebrows the week before my wedding. In popular culture, I’ve seen the adage espoused on Martha Stewart’s website and by Ben Affleck on the Oscars stage. The idea has the sheen of a proverb, timeless and true.
So after my wedding a few years ago, I attempted to be the best marriage worker I could be. I scheduled biweekly budget meetings and preached the benefits of the “I” statement in an argument. I analyzed my husband’s working style to optimize how we could divide unloading the dishwasher and vacuuming the kitchen. At its best, this attitude gave our marriage the clean hum of a caffeinated, productive morning at the office—every task checked off, every email replied to. At its worst, I felt resentful, exhausted, and miserly with my affection, like I could dole it out only after one of us had completed a job. Viewing marriage as labor never made me feel more connected to the man I had chosen to partner with.
What do we mean when we say that marriage is work? To me, it’s the idea that entering a long-term union requires essentially becoming an office manager. Partners manage communication, both emotional and logistical. They carve out time from busy social schedules to plan events, such as date nights and sex. They must learn the careful, tricky language of conflict resolution. Perhaps this conceit stems from a desire to make marriages happily long-lasting, and an uncertainty about how to do it. Conceptualizing marriage as work allows us to make happiness legible: Anyone can have a happy relationship, provided they are willing to do the necessary toil. There’s a kind of American bootstrap optimism in this. But thinking of our relationships as labor changes them, too. What if there were a way to think of marriage—the everyday action of it—as something less like work and more like play?
In her book Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States, the historian Kristin Celello writes that the concept of marriage as work was not inevitable. In the 1800s, marriage in the U.S. was driven more by familial duty than by individual choice. But marriage soon became more motivated by love, which meant divorce became more feasible from the lack of it. The result—combined with expanded women’s rights, a changing legal landscape, and other factors—was a rise in divorce.
To address growing societal concerns about this rise and the suddenly fragile-seeming family, experts in the 1920s linked marriage and work to each other, according to Celello. Take Ernest Rutherford Groves, a sociologist who designed marriage-preparation courses for both men and women, first at Boston University in 1922 and then at the University of North Carolina in 1927. They included writing lists of traits for ideal partners, taking personality assessments, and learning how to balance household finances. The courses conceptualized marriage as a job to prepare for, an occupation in which success could be achieved through the perfection of various skills. By 1937, nearly 30 percent of colleges and universities in the United States offered marriage courses similar to Groves’s. The implicit message seemed to be that whereas courtship might be fun and playful, life after the wedding day required labor, not levity.
At times, the connection between work and marriage was made incredibly literal. Consider the Brides’ School, a program put together in 1939 by Good Housekeeping magazine, where Eleanor Roosevelt once addressed a crowd of young women by warning them that newlyweds “should understand that they are undertaking a full-time job which is going to be part of their everyday existence from the time the marriage ceremony is read until ‘death do them part,’ a job which they cannot neglect for a day without being confronted with failure.” In the ’50s, this sentiment was strengthened by a booming marriage-advice industrial complex, replete with expert counselors and books. The implied audience for this advice had long been white and middle class. Still, by the time the final decades of the century rolled around, marriage as work had wormed its way into the American lexicon.
Marriage work isn’t equal, though. The part frequently not said aloud is that marriage is often work for women. In her history of the concept, Celello points out that in the U.S. in the early 20th century, “experts assumed that women needed marriage more than men, for both financial and emotional reasons.” So it was up to women to work for their happy marriage. Even as women joined the workforce in larger numbers and were guaranteed access to bank accounts and credit cards, they still did more domestic labor than their male partner when they got home.
The trope of marriage work persists on bookshelves today. Yet a marriage can go through so many struggles that hard work alone cannot fix, such as family poverty and the United States’ historically racist reluctance to support parents. When I spoke with Celello, we talked about how the idea of marriage as work had barely changed since she published her history of the concept more than 10 years ago. Eventually, I asked her the question I most wanted her to answer: In her opinion, inflected by history and research, is marriage work? She laughed a little. “I think it’s something a lot of people believe and is very much the case, but it doesn’t always have to be,” she said. “It’s something people use as shorthand when they’re unhappy. And that makes me sad.”
Hearing that, I was reminded again how “marriage is work” was conjured in part to dissuade people from seeking a divorce. For some couples, perhaps repeating the adage is just a way to accept the everyday tasks that inevitably accompany a life partnership. But in other relationships, I wonder if the saying reflects how tasks have become a fundamental way that partners relate to each other. A relationship can feel like it entails an eternal to-do list, yet crossing off every item doesn’t guarantee a loving marriage.
As for me, I’ve abandoned the idea of work in marriage. Instead, I’ve begun thinking of the primary action of me and my husband’s marriage as serious play. I know that might sound frivolous, facile, or even frisky. But I mean play in the way that children interact in a sandbox. Together, they’ve set out to build something—a castle, a moat—yet creativity is prioritized over productivity. They learn about communication and collaboration from experimenting, not from textbooks and teachers. Their construction can fall apart, but the failure provides space to start anew. Ultimately, their commitment to the endeavor is serious, but the way they collaborate is playful. That’s what I want to emulate in building my relationship.
I feel most married when my husband and I take meandering walks squeezed between chores, see a bendy tree that looks like a portal, and wonder aloud where it might lead. I feel most married when we intentionally abandon ingrained norms about which partner owns which tasks so that he can be exacting with the vacuum cleaner and I can plan our finances. And I feel most married when our meticulous planning falls apart but we realize we’re flexible and resilient enough to start again—because our relationship is founded on more than the careful dance of logistics. My husband and I of course have the regular drudgery of dishes, taxes, and the like. We still have to take deep breaths and problem solve when figuring out which family to spend the holiday season with. But I now see these as the tasks of our life together, not the essence of our togetherness.
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Last December, during a Christmas Eve celebration with my in-laws in California, I observed what I now realize was the future of COVID for older people. As everyone crowded around the bagna cauda, a hot dipping sauce shared like fondue, it was clear that we, as a family, had implicitly agreed that the pandemic was over. Our nonagenarian relatives were not taking any precautions, nor was anyone else taking precautions to protect them. Endive spear in hand, I squeezed myself in between my 94-year-old grandfather-in-law and his spry 99-year-old sister and dug into the dip.
We all knew that older people bore the brunt of COVID, but the concerns seemed like a relic from earlier in the pandemic. The brutal biology of this disease meant that they disproportionately have fallen sick, been hospitalized, and died. Americans over 65 make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but they have accounted for three-quarters of all COVID deaths. As the death count among older people began to rise in 2020, “a lot of my patients were really concerned that they were being exposed without anyone really caring about them,” Sharon Brangman, a geriatrician at SUNY Upstate University Hospital, told me.
But even now, three years into the pandemic, older people are still in a precarious position. While many Americans can tune out COVID and easily fend off an infection when it strikes, older adults continue to face real threats from the illness in the minutiae of their daily life: grocery trips, family gatherings, birthday parties, coffee dates. That is true even with the protective power of several shots and the broader retreat of the virus. “There is substantial risk, even if you’ve gotten all the vaccines,” Bernard Black, a law professor at Northwestern University who studies health policy, told me. More than 300 people still die from COVID each day, and the overwhelming majority of them are older. People ages 65 and up are currently hospitalized at nearly 11 times the rate of adults under 50.
Compounding this sickness are all the ways that, COVID aside, this pandemic has changed life for older adults. Enduring severe isolation and ongoing caregiver shortages, they have been disproportionately harmed by the past few years. Not all of them have experienced the pandemic in the same way. Americans of retirement age, 65 and older, are a huge population encompassing a range of incomes, health statuses, living situations, and racial backgrounds. Nevertheless, by virtue of their age alone, they live with a new reality: one in which life has become more dangerous—and in many ways worse—than it was before COVID.
The pandemic was destined to come after older Americans. Their immune systems tend to be weaker, making it harder for them to fight off an infection, and they are more likely to have comorbidities, which further increases their risk of severe illness. The precarity that many of them already faced going into 2020—poverty, social isolation and loneliness, inadequate personal care—left them poorly equipped for the arrival of the novel coronavirus. More than 1 million people lived in nursing homes, many of which were densely packed and short on staff when COVID tore through them.
A major reason older people are still at risk is that vaccines can’t entirely compensate for their immune systems. A study recently published in the journal Vaccines showed that for vaccinated adults ages 60 and over, the risk of dying from COVID versus other natural causes jumped from 11 percent to 34 percent within a year of completing their primary shot series. A booster dose brings the risk back down, but other research shows that it wears off too. A booster is a basic precaution, but “not one that everyone is taking,” Black, a co-author of the study, told me. Booster uptake among older Americans for the reengineered “bivalent” shots is the highest of all age groups, but still, nearly 60 percent have not gotten one.
For every COVID death, many more older people develop serious illness. Risk increases with age, and people older than 70 “have a substantially higher rate of hospitalizations” than those ages 60 to 69, Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Unlike younger people, most of whom fully recover from a bout with COVID, a return to baseline health is less guaranteed for older adults. In one study, 32 percent of adults over 65 were diagnosed with symptoms that lasted well beyond their COVID infection. Persistent coughs, aches, and joint pain can linger long after serious illness, together with indirect impacts such as loss of muscle strength and flexibility, which can affect older people’s ability to be independent, Rivers said. Older COVID survivors may also have a higher risk of cognitive decline. In some cases, these ailments could be part of long COVID, which maybe more prevalent in older people.
Certainly, some older adults are able to make a full recovery. Brangman said she has “old and frail” geriatric patients who bounced back after flu-like symptoms, and younger ones who still experience weakness and fatigue. Still, these are not promising odds. The antiviral Paxlovid was supposed to help blunt the wave of old people falling sick and ending up in the hospital—and it can reduce severe disease by 50 to 90 percent. But unfortunately, it is not widely used; as of July, just a third of Americans 80 or older took Paxlovid.
The reality is that as long as the virus continues to be prevalent, older Americans will face these potential outcomes every time they leave their home. That doesn’t mean they will barricade themselves indoors, or that they even should. Still, “every decision that we make now is weighing that balance between risk and socialization,” Brangman said.
Long before the pandemic, the threat of illness was already very real for older people. Where America has landed is hardly a new way of life but rather one that is simply more onerous. “One way to think about it is that this is a new risk that’s out there” alongside other natural causes of death, such as diabetes and heart failure, Black said. But it’s a risk older Americans can’t ignore, especially as the country has dropped all COVID precautions. Since Christmas Eve, I have felt uneasy about how readily I normalized putting so little effort into protecting my nonagenarian loved ones, despite knowing what might happen if they got sick. For older people, who must contend with the peril of attending similar gatherings, “there’s sort of no good choice,” Black said. “The world has changed.”
But this new post-pandemic reality also includes insidious effects on older people that aren’t directly related to COVID itself. Those who put off nonemergency visits to the doctor earlier in the pandemic, for example, risked worsening their existing health conditions. The first year of the pandemic plunged nearly everyone into isolation, but being alone created problems for older adults that still persist. Before the pandemic, the association between loneliness and higher mortality rates, increased cardiovascular risks, and dementia among older adults was already well established. Increased isolation during COVID amplifiedthisassociation.
The consequences of isolation were especially profound for older adults with physical limitations, Naoko Muramatsu, a community-health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me. When caregivers or family members were unable to visit, people who required assistance for even the smallest tasks, such as fetching the mail and getting dressed, had no options. “If you don’t walk around and if you don’t do anything, we can expect that cognitive function will decline,” Muramatsu said; she has observed this firsthand in her research. One Chinese American woman, interviewed in a survey of older adults living alone with cognitive impairment during the pandemic, described the debilitating effect of sitting at home all day.“I am so useless now,” she told the interviewer. “I am confused so often. I forget things.”
Even older adults who have weathered the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic still face other challenges that COVID has exacerbated. Many have long relied on personal caregivers or the staff at nursing facilities. These workers, already scarce before the pandemic, are even more so now because many quit or were affected by COVID themselves. “Long-term care has been in a crisis situation for a long time, but it’s even worse now,” Muramatsu said, noting that many home care workers are older adults themselves. Nursing homes nationwide now have nearly 200,000 fewer employees compared with March 2020, which is especially concerning as the proportion of Americans over age 65 explodes.
Older people won’t have one single approach to contending with this sad reality. “Everybody is trying to figure out what is the best way to function, to try to have some level of everyday life and activity, but also keep your risk of getting sick as low as possible,” Brangman said. Some of her patients are still opting to be cautious, while others consider this moment their “only chance to see grandchildren or concerts or go to family gatherings.” Either way, older Americans will have to wrestle with these decisions without so many of their peers who have died from COVID.
Again, many of these people did not have it great before the pandemic, even if the rest of the country wasn’t paying attention. “We often don’t provide the basic social support that older people need,” Kenneth Covinsky, a clinician-researcher at the UCSF Division of Geriatrics, said. Rather, ageism, the willful ignorance or indifference to the needs of older people, is baked into American life. It is perhaps the main reason older adults were so badly affected by the pandemic in the first place, as illustrated by the delayed introduction of safety precautions in nursing homes and the blithe acceptance of COVID deaths among older adults. If Americans couldn’t bring themselves to care at any point over the past three years, will they ever?
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My colleague Alan Taylor has published thousands of photo essays in his time at The Atlantic. I spoke with him about the art of telling a visual story and which photos have stuck with him over the years.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Since joining The Atlantic in 2011, my colleague Alan Taylor has published more than 2,700 photo articles. Multiply that by an average of 24 images per story, and you’ll get closer to approximating the amount of photos he’s looked at in his time here.
When he was working as a web developer in the ’90s, Alan first became fascinated by the images he saw on news agencies’ wires. At The Atlantic, he pores over those resources to publish photo essays about what’s going on in the world. But he also follows his curiosity wherever it takes him, curating collections of wacky, fun, and beautiful things worth seeing: the geometric carvings of salt mines, the world’s tallest statues, life viewed under a microscope. I talked with Alan about what he’s learned from more than a decade of creating photo essays.
Isabel Fattal: Looking back on the tens of thousands of images you’ve worked with, can you think of a few that stand out?
Alan Taylor: I was looking through some of my archives, and it’s often the ones with a really personal touch, something very human. For example, this famous image of Barack Obama.
You don’t really need a caption for that. Being a human and seeing that image in front of you, you know what’s happening. And as soon as you move beyond the recognition of the feeling, you think about what this says in American history and society. You’ve got this little boy reaching up and touching the hair. His hair is just like mine. He’s just like me. I could be this. And I’ve just said far more than needs to be said about it. It’s just there.
There’s another one, from when the pandemic was near its height. This is a doctor in full protective gear, embracing a patient. At that stage of the crisis, people were moving out of a state of panic and trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and toward the sense that, Oh, wow, we should have some compassion for the caregivers too. This is deeply troubling and serious.
Isabel: Are there kinds of news events where you find images to be the most effective way to tell the story?
Alan: Typically broad-scale disasters, such as hurricanes and floods and fires. When they first hit, you can do a whole lot more with a handful of photographs than you can with a few paragraphs. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, and Donald Trump flew there to survey the damage, I really wanted to emphasize, This is what Puerto Rico looked like when Trump went to visit. So I put together a story. If you can sense there’s a question out there that you have that other people probably have, you can put it out there.
And then there are the stories that are about the images themselves. In 2013, North Korea issued photographs of a military drill they were doing, and it had some hovercrafts coming in to land on a beach. And I just saw it as I was going through the news feed, as I always do. And I noticed, Oh, wow, this looks weird. Wait a minute. This is Photoshop. This image has four or five hovercraft, but really, there’s probably only two there and one or more is cloned a couple different times. So I did this little exposé on it.I’m sitting up here in my home office in the attic in the suburbs and going, Oh my God, I’ve seen something that nobody else in the world has noticed here.
Isabel: The power of looking closely.
So where do you get your ideas for some of your more random and fun photo essays, such as salt mines or the pope versus the wind?
Alan: You’re missing probably the silliest one I’ve ever done, which is just cows. It’s pictures of cows, and it’s titled “Cows.” I love that. I put out a tweet promoting it, and the first response was, Is everybody okay over there?
“Pope vs. the Wind” was fun because I thought, I see these pictures all the time. Photographers are assigned to travel with the pope and go to these different places, and there’s only so many different photographs you can get of a scene. And when he’s wearing the skullcap (zucchetto) and a small cape, the wind is having a great time with those. I realized, Wait, there’s a body of images out there of this phenomenon. I can do something fun with this.
The main reason that I spend all day, every day, looking at all these photographs is that they can accidentally clump together and help me come up with story ideas. It’s always fun when you can find some sort of an underlying theme over years and years.
U.S. military officials said that a U.S. base in northeast Syria was targeted by a missile strike, just one day after a suspected Iranian drone struck a coalition base in the same region and killed an American worker, according to the Pentagon.
President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a deal between the U.S. and Canada that would allow both countries to turn away migrants at unofficial border crossings, effective tomorrow.
A federal judge reportedly ordered several former aides of Donald Trump to testify before a grand jury in the criminal inquiry of efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The Trump AI Deepfakes Had an Unintended Side Effect
By Megan Garber
The former president is fighting with the police. He’s yelling. He’s running. He’s resisting. Finally, he falls, that familiar sweep of hair the only thing rigid against the swirl of bodies that surround him.
When I first saw the images, I did a double take: The event they seem to depict—the arrest of Donald Trump—has been a matter of feverish anticipation this week, as a grand jury decides whether to indict the former president for hush-money payments allegedly made on his behalf to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels. (Trump, that canny calibrator of public expectation, himself contributed to the fever.) Had the indictment finally come down, I wondered, and had the arrest ensued? Had Trump’s Teflon coating—so many alleged misdeeds, so few consequences—finally worn away?Pics or it didn’t happen, people say, and, well, here were the pics.
Drought conditions in Spain, heavy snow in California, the Fallas Festival in Spain, a spring-equinox welcome at Stonehenge, war-damaged buildings in Ukraine, the start of Ramadan in Indonesia, cherry blossoms in Japan, a sandstorm in Inner Mongolia, protests against pension reform in France, and much more
The concern, as Edward Teller saw it, was quite literally the end of the world. He had run the calculations, and there was a real possibility, he told his Manhattan Project colleagues in 1942, that when they detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb, the blast would set off a chain reaction. The atmosphere would ignite. All life on Earth would be incinerated. Some of Teller’s colleagues dismissed the idea, but others didn’t. If there were even a slight possibility of atmospheric ignition, said Arthur Compton, the director of a Manhattan Project lab in Chicago, all work on the bomb should halt. “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazi,” he later wrote, “than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind.”
In the face of such excitement and uncertainty and fear, the best one can do is try to find a good analogy—some way to make this unfamiliar new technology a little more familiar. AI is fire. AI is steroids. AI is an alien toddler. (When I asked for an analogy of its own, GPT-4 suggested Pandora’s box—not terribly reassuring.) Some of these analogies are, to put it mildly, better than others. A few of them are even useful.
Given the past three years, it’s no wonder that pandemic-related analogies abound. AI development has beencompared to gain-of-function research, for example. Proponents of the latter work, in which potentially deadly viruses are enhanced in a controlled laboratory setting, say it’s essential to stopping the next pandemic. Opponents say it’s less likely to prevent a catastrophe than to cause one—whether via an accidental leak or an act of bioterrorism.
At a literal level, this analogy works pretty well. AI development really is a kind of gain-of-function research—except algorithms, not viruses, are the things gaining the functions. Also, both hold out the promise of near-term benefits: This experiment could help to prevent the next pandemic; this AI could help to cure your cancer. And both come with potential, world-upending risks: This experiment could help to cause a pandemic many times deadlier than the one we just endured; this AI could wipe out humanity entirely. Putting a number to the probabilities for any of these outcomes, whether good or bad, is no simple thing. Serious people disagree vehemently about their likelihood.
What the gain-of-function analogy fails to capture are the motivations and incentives driving AI development. Experimental virology is an academic undertaking, mostly carried out at university laboratories by university professors, with the goal at least of protecting people. It is not a lucrative enterprise. Neither the scientists nor the institutions they represent are in it to get rich. The same cannot be said when it comes to AI. Two private companies with billion-dollar profits, Microsoft (partnered with OpenAI) and Google (partnered with Anthropic), are locked in a battle for AI supremacy. Even the smaller players in the industry are flooded with cash. Earlier this year, four top AI researchers at Google quit to start their own company, though they weren’t exactly sure what it would do; about a week later, it had a $100 million valuation. In this respect, the better analogy is …
Social media. Two decades ago, there was fresh money—lots of it—to be made in tech, and the way to make it was not by slowing down or waiting around or dithering about such trifles as the fate of democracy. Private companies moved fast at the risk of breaking human civilization, to hell with the haters. Regulations did not keep pace. All of the same could be said about today’s AI.
The trouble with the social-media comparison is that it undersells the sheer destructive potential of AI. As damaging as social media has been, it does not present an existential threat. Nor does it appear to have conferred, on any country, very meaningful strategic advantage over foreign adversaries, worries about TikTok notwithstanding. The same cannot be said of AI. In that respect, the better analogy is …
Nuclear weapons. This comparison captures both the gravity of the threat and where that threat is likely to originate. Few individuals could muster the colossal resources and technical expertise needed to construct and deploy a nuclear bomb. Thankfully, nukes are the domain of nation-states. AI research has similarly high barriers to entry and similar global geopolitical dynamics. The AI arms race between the U.S. and China is under way, and tech executives are already invoking it as a justification for moving as quickly as possible. As was the case for nuclear-weapons research, citing international competition has been a way of dismissing pleas to pump the brakes.
But nuclear-weapons technology is much narrower in scope than AI. The utility of nukes is purely military; and governments, not companies or individuals, build and wield them. That makes their dangers less diffuse than those that come from AI research. In that respect, the better analogy is …
Electricity. A saw is for cutting, a pen for writing, a hammer for pounding nails. These things are tools; each has a specific function. Electricity does not. It’s less a tool than a force, more a coefficient than a constant, pervading virtually all aspects of life. AI is like this too—or it could be.
Except that electricity never (really) threatened to kill us all. AI may be diffuse, but it’s also menacing. Not even the nuclear analogy quite captures the nature of the threat. Forget the Cold War–era fears of American and Soviet leaders with their fingers hovering above little red buttons. The biggest threat of superintelligent AI is not that our adversaries will use it against us. It’s the superintelligent AI itself. In that respect, the better analogy is …
Teller’s fear of atmospheric ignition. Once you detonate the bomb—once you build the superintelligent AI—there is no going back. Either the atmosphere ignites or it doesn’t. No do-overs. In the end, Teller’s worry turned out to be unfounded. Further calculations demonstrated that the atmosphere would not ignite—though two Japanese cities eventually did—and the Manhattan Project moved forward.
No further calculations will rule out the possibility of AI apocalypse. The Teller analogy, like all the others, only goes so far. To some extent, this is just the nature of analogies: They are illuminating but incomplete. But it also speaks to the sweeping nature of AI. It encompasses elements of gain-of-function research, social media, and nuclear weapons. It is like all of them—and, in that way, like none of them.
Me? Once way far in time in a village coiled from stone
I met an elder in a teahouse. He proposed, and I said yes
I’ll join you, and we walked together to the vendor of new hearts.
I bought one, an olive, a fat one, did as I was told,
set it on my soft chest near where my birthmark is
and when I flew home and kissed my children
one sniffed up “dandelion” and the other hmmmmed “wild grass.”
A friend said since that trip I give my time more easy,
that my my bads and sorrys have a ghee-ish butter feel.
Look, you’re the friend who said I share time freer, so you
know the olive worked; so my dear one, as I sit here
at your bedside consoling while you sweat out in your
nightgown-jellied grief, let me choose. For you?
A sweet-tart pomegranate, prongonat, combo lung and heart.
Efficient pumper for the hiccup sobs to come.
It’s even lovelier when broken—and whole? Thug-tough.
Unlike Evie’s Red Delicious, when slit does not air-brown.
Friend, why wouldn’t you want to have in you
self-parable, hive of glammy seed coats just embedded
not stuck? I should tell you as you brow-twitch in this dim room’s
lily smell, babes, when a new hub starts its sink-in, fuck, it burns,
and coughing up the old one with its huck pneumonics isn’t nice,
but the godheart can’t live through abscission. How it goes, I’ve heard,
you’re out part-fine then brown anthurium leaf drops on your shoe.
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.
Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.
Today’s special guest isAmy Weiss-Meyer, an Atlantic senior editor and frequent contributor. Most recently, Amy profiled the legendary children’s author Judy Blume for the April issue of the magazine and, in November, co-authored an article on the teenage Holocaust victim Marion Ehrlich, whose name is depicted in a plaque on the cover of the December 2022 issue. She is looking forward to watching Season 4 of Succession, enjoyed two recent museum exhibitions of artists named Alex, and was taken aback by last year’s stunning memoir by the writer Hua Hsu.
First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: I didn’t love Season 3 of Successionas much as I loved 1 and 2, but I will absolutely be watching the premiere of the fourth and final season today. After that crazy Season 3 finale, I’d be lying if I said I’m not excited to see what happens! Plus, it’s been long enough since last winter that I’m once again ready for a weekly dose of Roy family drama. [Related: A perfect—and cyclical—Succession finale]
An author I will read anything by: Lauren Groff is the only author who could get me to read a book about medieval nuns; her writing is so beautiful, so human, so surprising and moving no matter the subject. She can also be wickedly funny. Her Atlantic essay from last year skewering luxury beach resorts—complete with a loving roast of her in-laws’ vacationing style—is simply delicious. [Related: Beware the luxury beach resort.]
The last thing that made me cry: Hua Hsu’s memoir, Stay True, was such a poignant portrayal of college friendship and loss. I knew exactly what was going to happen (it’s written on the book jacket) and still felt totally unprepared for the emotional force of it. [Related: Six memoirs that go beyond memories]
The last museum or gallery show that I loved: It’s hard to pick just one! I loved the Alex Katz exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum when I saw it last fall. The scale of the individual paintings—many of them portraits—and of the show itself (which spans an eight-decade career) was breathtaking but somehow not overwhelming. I left feeling much better acquainted with an artist whose work I only vaguely knew before.
Another incredibly immersive solo show that I loved last year, by an artist also named Alex, was an Alex Da Corte exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, outside Copenhagen. All the rooms were completely transformed into a kind of neon-lit fantasyland that served as the backdrop for his playful yet serious work. The museum’s promo materials described the vibe as “like stepping into a parallel reality” and “pop-art on acid.” I’m still not convinced that Da Corte’s video of himself dressed up as Mister Rogers wasn’t a dream.
Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: When I interviewed Judy Blume in Key West late last year, we discussed our mutual love for Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. They first came out in the ’40s and ’50s, when Blume was young, and were reissued again in 2000, when I was in grade school. In the airport on the way home, I downloaded the third book in the series, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, on my iPad (I chose that one in part because Blume had written an introduction to the newer edition). It was so charming and fun and honest about the experience of being a kid (one of the major plot points is Betsy’s ambivalence about turning 10), and featured a secondary story line I had completely forgotten, about the perils of xenophobia and the importance of showing kindness to immigrants—even (or especially) if you don’t understand their language or customs. [Related: Judy Blume goes all the way.]
A piece of journalism that recently changed my perspective on a topic: Elizabeth Weil’s recent profile of the computational linguist Emily M. Bender, in New York magazine, helped me understand the possibilities and pitfalls of artificial intelligence (specifically large language models) in a way that no other piece of journalism has. If you, like me, are kind of avoiding the whole AI thing, if you know this is something you should care about but aren’t quite sure where to start, I can’t recommend this article enough.
My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: I spend far too much time on Instagram, sometimes to keep up with friends and family and restaurants I like, and sometimes (more shamefully) going down extremely weird algorithm-generated rabbit holes or following links from freakishly well-targeted ads. I’m not especially crafty, but lately, for whatever reason, the algorithm has been serving me very crafty content—how to mend a hole in a garment in a cute way that looks like a ladybug, or pretty ceramics, or stop-motion wool animations, which are quite soothing to watch. [Related: The strange brands in your Instagram feed (from 2018)]
I’m also in two active word-game group chats with extended family members: one for Spelling Bee and one for Wordle. I don’t play either consistently at this point, but I like getting pings on my phone from people I wouldn’t otherwise be in touch with on a daily basis, and seeing how others are scoring. My mom and my uncle have become real Spelling Bee snobs—they both get to Queen Bee almost every day now, which is annoying. [Related: I figured out Wordle’s secret.]
Succession, the aforementioned HBO drama about the diabolical Roy clan, launches its fourth and final season (premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on HBO)
Above Ground,the second poetry collection, and third book, by the author and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith (on sale Tuesday)
Rye Lane, the buzzy British rom-com that charmed audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (begins streaming in the U.S. on Friday on Hulu)
By Lawrence Weschler
Fifteen years ago, a distinguished academic publisher brought out a densely argued, lavishly illustrated, wildly erudite monograph that seemed to completely reconceive the study of Johannes Vermeer. The author, an art historian named Benjamin Binstock, said that he had discerned the existence of an entirely new artist—Vermeer’s daughter Maria, the young woman Binstock had also identified as the likely model for Girl With a Pearl Earring—to whom he attributed seven of the 35 or so paintings then conventionally ascribed to Vermeer. To hear Binstock tell it, Maria’s paintings include one of the most popular: Girl With a Red Hat, at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. He believes that painting and another at the National Gallery are self-portraits by Maria, and that she is also the artist behind two out of the three Vermeers at the Frick, in New York; two out of the five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York; and one in the private Leiden Collection.
I happened upon Binstock’s book, Vermeer’s Family Secrets, not long after it was published, in 2008; at the time, I was picking up pretty much anything about Vermeer (and writing about Vermeer myself). I found the author’s argument by turns absorbing, perplexing, and confounding, but also curiously plausible and certainly worth entertaining. I was struck by how Binstock’s account helped explain the smattering of “misfit paintings”—those strangely uncharacteristic efforts, especially toward the end of Vermeer’s career, whose attributions were regularly being contested (or defended) by experts. So I was eager to see how the wider community of scholars and curators was going to respond.
The establishment did not respond at all. There was not a single academic review—not then and not ever.
After Donald Trump sabotaged the 2022 midterm elections for Republicans by endorsing unelectable extremists, a comforting narrative took root among GOP elites. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would offer a return to “normal” politics, continuing Trump’s aggressive, unapologetic defense of traditional American culture and values but without all that pesky authoritarianism. He would continue to wrap himself in an American flag, but he wouldn’t invite people to dinner who preferred wearing the Nazi one.
Many on the political left drew the opposite conclusion. DeSantis was the real threat, a smarter, more disciplined version of Trump. Whereas Trump believed in anyone or anything that believed in him, DeSantis was a dangerous ideologue. Trump would tweet like an autocrat; DeSantis would act like one.
Is DeSantis an authoritarian? The governor is the political equivalent of an overly greased weather vane, twisting to follow the winds within his party. In the post-Trump GOP, those winds are blowing in an authoritarian direction. Whether he’s an authoritarian at heart or just a cynical opportunist, what matters is how DeSantis behaves. And as governor, he has repeatedly used the powers of his office in authoritarian ways.
Several political words have taken on an expansive meaning in recent years, drifting from their intended use to serve as a linguistic cudgel against any opponent. On the right, many people have misused the word woke as a lazy shorthand to mean anything they classify as “bad cultural change.” A smaller group on the left has misused authoritarian to describe right-wing policies that are perhaps objectionable but nonetheless compatible with democracy.
Authoritarian, in the political-science sense of the word, usually refers to two broad kinds of political action within democracies such as the United States. The first is antidemocratic politics, where a politician attacks the institutions, principles, or rules of democracy. The second is personalized rule, in which the leader uses their power to target specific groups or individuals, persecuting their enemies while protecting their allies.
Wooden rather than magnetic, DeSantis doesn’t engage in the impulsive, stage-based showman authoritarianism of Donald Trump. His antidemocracy politics are calculated and disciplined. In Florida, he has engaged in legislative authoritarianism, replacing rule of law with rule by law. His playbook is now familiar to Floridians: He uses attention-grabbing stunts or changes formal policies to target individuals, groups, or companies he doesn’t like. Then he holds a press conference to tout his ability to take on all the people the Republican base loves to hate.
In functioning democracies, the law is a great equalizer—political allies and adversaries are treated the same. But in “the free state of Florida,” that’s not true. After DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill, Disney denounced it. That’s part of democratic politics; citizens and companies are free to speak out against legislation without fear of retribution. But DeSantis retaliated forcefully, using his formal political power to punish a perceived political enemy. He signed a law revoking Disney’s control over a special district in the state.
DeSantis made clear that the legislation specifically targeted Disney because of its political speech. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California,” DeSantis said before signing the bill. “And you’re going to marshal your economic power to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation, and we’re gonna fight back against that.” Lest anyone misread his intent, he also assured his supporters: “We have everything thought out … Don’t let anyone tell you that somehow Disney’s going to get a tax cut out of this. They’re going to pay more taxes as a result of it.” This was legislative authoritarianism in action.
Last summer, DeSantis developed a flimsy pretext to remove a Democratic prosecutor, Andrew H. Warren. In a subsequent lawsuit, a judge reviewed an extensive array of evidence and concluded that DeSantis’s goal had been “to amass information that could help bring down Mr. Warren, not to find out how Mr. Warren actually runs the office.” The judge suggested that this was a political move. Decide whom to fire first; figure out how to justify it later.
More broadly, DeSantis has repeatedly used the law for purely political ends. In one instance, DeSantis used state funds to fly a group of bewildered migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt. He wasn’t advancing a broad-based policy change. He was targeting a specific group of vulnerable people to score headlines that would benefit him personally, which isn’t how legal authority is supposed to operate in a democracy.
Of course not everything DeSantis does merits the authoritarian label. He has proposed that hospitals be required to collect data on patients’ immigration status. This, as critics argue, is likely to worsen public-health outcomes and put an undue burden on doctors and nurses to become Florida’s frontline immigration police. But it’s not authoritarian. It’s just a run-of-the-mill bad policy idea.
Sometimes, context determines whether a political action is authoritarian. Cracking down on voter fraud is certainly not authoritarian; it’s just enforcing the law. However, if the crackdown is supposed to undermine public confidence in democracy while targeting a specific group of people who are unpopular in your own party, then it may deserve the label.
What should we make of DeSantis’s high-profile task force to tackle voter fraud in Florida? Twenty-six cases of voter fraud have been verified in the state since 2016. In that time frame, voters have cast roughly 36 million ballots in general federal elections. That’s a nonexistent problem, but the Republican base, thanks to Trump’s lies about fraud, believes it’s widespread. DeSantis was likely trying to score political points while diminishing faith in the democratic process. Last summer, this stunt culminated in a Black man being arrested at gunpoint for illegal voting. (He had cast a ballot because he mistakenly believed that Florida’s restoration of felon voting rights applied to him. Similar cases have been dismissed when they reach the courts.)
In Florida’s public schools, DeSantis has sought to make book-banning easier. Again, governors have the legal right to sway educational policy, and doing so is not authoritarian. What’s worrying about DeSantis’s role in education is that he’s trying to muzzle classroom speech that differs from his worldview. House Bill 7, sometimes referred to as the Stop WOKE Act, prohibits educators from teaching students about systemic racism. This has had the predictable effect of eroding freedom of expression in the classroom. One publisher even removed references to race in a textbook entry about Rosa Parks. Parks’s story became about stubbornness, not racism. “One day, she rode the bus,” the post–H.B. 7 text reads. “She was told to move to a different seat. She did not.” Why was she asked to move? For Florida’s students, that will remain a mystery.
In higher education, similarly, DeSantis has tried to make it easier to fire professors who teach material that a conservative like him might find objectionable. Palm Beach Atlantic University has already fired a professor who taught about racism, after a parent complained.
Those who argue that DeSantis is not an authoritarian have pointed to his evasive refusal to echo Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But before the 2022 midterm elections, DeSantis actively campaigned for some of the GOP’s most prominent election deniers, such as Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, even though Mastriano had prayed that Trump would “seize the power” on January 6 and was at the Capitol rally before the attack began.
But would President DeSantis be worse for American democracy than President Trump: The Sequel? To answer that question, you have to understand why DeSantis is behaving like an authoritarian.
DeSantis started his career when the Republican Party was dominated by George W. Bush and John McCain. He was first elected to Congress in 2012, when Mitt Romney defined the GOP. DeSantis, unlike Republicans such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, wasn’t drawn to politics by Trumpism; he was comfortable making the case for Romney Republicans.
That party is now dead, its former darlings turned into pariahs. Like so many Republicans, DeSantis recognized the death of the old party in 2016. He enthusiastically rebranded himself, going so far as to make his toddler “Build the Wall” with toy bricks in a cringeworthy 2018 campaign ad.
DeSantis understands that after years of Trump dominating the party, its base has changed. Core Republican voters now crave an authoritarian bully, a culture warrior who will pick fights. DeSantis may not have always been an authoritarian political figure, but he has made clear that he will behave like one to pursue power.
This makes DeSantis dangerous for American democracy. On the political left, opinion is divided as to whether DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump. My take is that DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump was when he became president in 2017, but less dangerous than Trump would be if he took office in 2025.
That’s because Trump changed the Republican Party, winnowing out any remaining principled prodemocracy conservatives, either through primaries or resignations. Many of those who stayed underwent the “Elise Stefanik conversion,” morphing from Paul Ryan supporters into Trump disciples, willing to torch America’s democratic institutions if it aligned with their self-interest. As evidenced by the so-called sedition caucus, many elected Republicans will use their power to undermine democracy.
By contrast, Trump faced some pushback in 2017, when his legislative agenda, including his health-care plan, stalled in a Republican-dominated Congress. DeSantis, a more methodical politician, would face fewer constraints. He could undercut American democracy with a legislative scalpel, all with his party’s fervent support in Congress.
But Trump in a second term, with the Trumpified Republican caucus in Congress, would take a wrecking ball to our institutions. Since leaving office, he’s become even more erratic and unhinged. His current social-media posts make his 2017 tweets appear statesmanlike by comparison.
If you put a gun to my head and forced me to vote for one of these two authoritarians, I’d vote for DeSantis. But his track record in Florida should make us wary. He may not be Trump, but he’s a danger to American democracy nonetheless.