My mother situated me on her hip, took a deep breath, and stepped off our porch into the icy floodwaters. I was 2 years old.
It was March 1974, and the rain had been pummeling Lily, Kentucky, for two weeks. The ground had become so saturated that the flash flood came all at once. By the time my mother had navigated us through the waist-high mix of overflowing creek water, sewage, and debris to higher ground, my father had made it home from work, where he found water reaching the windows of our trailer. Family members came to help and frantically piled some of our belongings into a metal rowboat. When the flood receded, my parents salvaged what they could, but after days of shoveling mud, they found that the floors, furnace, and appliances had been destroyed. My mother says this was the first time she ever saw my father, a Vietnam veteran and auto mechanic, cry.
Central Appalachia has experienced catastrophic flooding once again. In the first two weeks of February, more than eight inches of water fell, causing the Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers to reach their highest levels in 40 years. More than 200 homes have been damaged, and nearly 100 more have been devastated. There have been more than 100 high-water rescues. In Whitley County, where I’m from, a 74-year-old man drowned in his car after he tried to drive through high water to get to his job as a security guard at a coal mine.
I bet most Americans have no idea this natural disaster has been happening. When trouble comes to rural people—whether they’re in Kentucky, California, Montana, or Michigan—the media mostly shrug. The public as a whole is no better, as people seem to have little sympathy for these rural areas. I’ve been asked “Why do people live there, anyway?” These sentiments aren’t directed only at Appalachia. In 2017 President Donald Trump told unemployed people in rural New York that their best solution would be to move to a city. He gave them his condescending blessing, saying, “I’m going to explain: You can leave.”
But people in rural areas value their communities just as much as anyone else. Even after my parents lost nearly everything, they stayed to raise their family in Lily. My parents, and many other people where I am from, say they need night skies undimmed by city lights. They cannot breathe properly in places that lack hills and pastures. Their native topography is in their blood and bones.
Residents of rural areas aren’t the only ones who appreciate the environment, of course, but an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can take hold when people lose their connection to nature. If coal mining isn’t devouring the mountain in front of your house, then it’s easy to leave all the lights on. If your home isn’t being carried away by floodwaters, it’s hard to feel the consequences of climate change. Folks in rural places aren’t immune to this disconnect. They say they care about the land, yet they often elect politicians who value profit over the environment. Rural voters’ support of Trump is widespread, even though he has been designated by several environmental groups as the “worst president in history.”
This story of our lost connection to nature and the way it affects rural people is not a new one. From the moment Europeans arrived in America, they tried to tame the natural world. Once deposits of natural resources were discovered, perpetuating the idea of wild places and the people who lived there as “other” behooved big industry. Media only exacerbated the portrayal of rural people as stupid, lazy, filthy, and worthless. Throwaway people living in a throwaway place. Americans claim to love the natural world, but we often negate the people who live closest to it. Insulting phrases like the middle of nowhere and flyover country are common parlance in everyday conversations and newscasts.
Besides being irritating, the stereotype of rural people as inferior and separate has also allowed Americans to take the effects of climate change in this area less seriously, to let the devastation slip by unnoticed. By turning a blind eye to rural people, we are turning a blind eye to climate change.
A study released in late 2018 by the American Meteorological Society showed that record wet and dry spells are occurring around the world, and that the events are connected to climate change. The study predicted that the extreme weather would only increase in the future, which means that flooding like the kind that recently hit Appalachia will continue.
In Harlan County, residents of a trailer park had to escape floodwaters with only the clothes on their backs and their babies on their hips. Not far away, in Pineville, concrete-and-metal floodgates that had been installed about 30 years ago were closed for the first time, sealing off the town from danger but leaving the surrounding countryside to drown.
Throughout the region, the heavy rainfall has caused sinkholes and rock slides, which have damaged homes, blocked roads, and derailed a train. Two engines and several cars loaded with ethanol plunged into the Big Sandy River. Residents there tell me that the spilled fuel caused the mountain and the river to burn for two days. Imagine if the San Francisco Bay or the Hudson River burned for two days; images of the blaze would bombard us on 24-hour news channels, activists would march, and good people around the world would raise money to help those affected.
About $1 billion poured in after a fire destroyed part of Notre Dame last spring. Rightly so, as the church is a sacred and storied space. But the 25 million acres of Australia that recently burned are no less holy. The estimated 1 billion animals and at least 30 rural people who perished in the Australian fires should not be considered less precious than the spires of a cathedral, surely. Yet Australian authorities report about $500 million in donations. In Kentucky, the local newspaper reported that Whitley County sustained more than $1 million in damage from the flooding. People are receiving help from the Red Cross, and plenty of locals are showing up ready to shovel out mud or serve food, but there is no national effort to help, because the nation doesn’t notice.
Wrapping our minds around environmental disasters can be difficult; some find it easier to simply look away. For example, when the Trump administration recently rolled back clean-water protections, environmentalists denounced the decision, while farmers and mining companies welcomed it. Most people seemed to note it and then move on. After all, so few of us have a real relationship with a living body of water. As a child, I had a healthy respect for our river’s quiet banks, where I played, and its green water, where we fished and skipped rocks. But I also understood the water’s ability to rise up against us.
Meteorologists are predicting more rain for central Appalachia, and now it’s moving into Alabama and Mississippi. Country people know they will be forgotten; they almost always are. But we can’t ignore the natural world any longer. Our voices and our votes can make a real difference. We have to be like my mother all those years ago, facing the icy floodwaters: We must take a deep breath, then take the first step.
Just over three years ago, on February 19, 2017, Susan Fowler published a blog post. “I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like,” she began. “It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.”
Slightly horrifying, it would turn out, was an understatement. The post documented a pattern of discrimination and harassment at the company that had made it its public mission to change the way people move through the world. On her first day as a site-reliability engineer, Fowler wrote, her manager propositioned her for sex via Uber’s internal chat system. Later, another manager gave Fowler a glowing performance review; he amended it after the fact, she wrote, in order to limit her freedom to move to another team within Uber—and additionally, she speculated, to take credit for keeping a woman as a direct report when relatively few women worked at the company. At another point, after Uber had decided to buy its engineers branded leather jackets, Fowler and her female colleagues were informed that they’d need to forgo the perk: The company was getting a discount on the bulk order for the men’s sizes, an email explained, but “there were not enough women in the organization” to get the same discount for their jackets. The company’s handling of the whole thing was an absurdity that, in the context of the rest of Fowler’s blog post, also read as evidence of something more sinister.
Fowler’s post instantly went viral. It led to an investigation into Uber’s culture that was co-conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. It led to the resignation of Uber’s co-founder and onetime CEO, Travis Kalanick. It led to demonstrable, quantifiable change. But it led to a more nebulous kind of transformation as well. Several months before journalists’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein would expand the #MeToo movement, Fowler’s post—and the outrage it inspired among both tech workers and the many people whose lives have been shaped by their labors—suggested a shift. A worker could blow the whistle without an intermediary. She could tell her story in her own words, on her own terms. And she would, at least in this instance, be heard.
This week, Fowler published a book, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber. In one way, the memoir is an expansion of the 2017 blog post: It documents, in detail that is deeper and more gut-wrenching than a 2,900-word entry could allow, Fowler’s experiences at Uber. It recounts casual sexism and casual racism and, as Maureen Dowd put it in an article about Fowler’s original post, “the self-indulgent, adolescent Pleasure Island mentality of Silicon Valley.” But Whistleblower, despite its subtitle’s reference to Uber, is also a memoir in the classic sense. It is the story of how Fowler’s life was shaped by her time at Uber—but a story, too, of her fight for a life that would not succumb to the company’s influence.
Throughout, Fowler wrestles with the tension between the two modes: Fowler as a person famous for one thing, versus Fowler as a person, full stop. The book succeeds precisely in its acknowledgment that the two figures cannot be meaningfully disentangled from each other. Fowler’s story—her full story—is the indictment. That is what gives Whistleblower its power.
Fowler begins at the beginning. She writes of her childhood in rural Arizona, where she was raised in a family of evangelical Christians, one of seven children. The Fowlers were loving and joyful and artistic; they were also extremely poor. Her mother homeschooled her. Both parents—her father was a preacher—instilled in her not only a determined self-sufficiency, but also a deep curiosity about the big questions: What it means to be a good person. What justice, within life’s tumults, might really look like. “You should be in the world, but not of the world,” her father used to counsel her; it’s advice that courses through Fowler’s book. The titular fact of Fowler’s memoir—a 25-year-old member of Uber’s rank and file, forcing the company to change—may be remarkable. Reading Whistleblower, though, the outcome begins to feel inevitable.
The 2017 blog post was not the first time Fowler spoke up in that way. While she was studying physics at the University of Pennsylvania, she writes, she tangled with professors and administrators: A fellow student had been navigating a mental-health crisis, and school officials, she writes, seemed to expect her to take responsibility for his struggles. (“This is your job now,” she recounts a professor informing her.) She protested—to that professor, to others, to a dean. She was not equipped, she pointed out, to give her fellow student the help he needed. And, as concerned as she was for him, it was not her job to take time from her own studies to make sure he received that assistance. Soon her fellow students and professors, she writes, were branding her as difficult. “Now I was nothing more than a liability,” she writes.
Speaking up—and not being heard—became a pattern. Fowler, giving up the dream of getting a doctorate in physics, came to Silicon Valley, where she worked as a coder at the start-ups Plaid and PubNub. At Plaid, she learned that she was working many more hours than her (male) fellow engineers—14-hour weekdays, often, and weekends—yet making $50,000 less than them. She asked for a raise; she was denied on the grounds that she needed to “prove my dedication to the company.” She left. At PubNub, her direct manager made repeated comments about the company’s founders being “stingy” and “Jewish,” and about women caring more about nurturing children than nurturing careers. “In order to report his behavior,” she writes, “I tried to find a human resources representative at the company.” The company didn’t have one.
Uber did have such a representative. But when Fowler’s manager, on her first day, propositioned her, and when she immediately alerted HR about his behavior, her report was dismissed. (The manager was a “high performer,” the explanation went, and it was his “first offense”—a claim that Fowler, once she began talking with other women engineers at the company, discovered to be a standard, and false, answer.) But Fowler kept insistently documenting the insults and abuses, the sexism and the racism and the bullying. She dutifully forwarded chat logs and emails to Uber’s HR department. She not only kept the receipts; she actively shared them with the people who were in a position to do something about them. At one point, marveling at how possible it is to be noisy and unheard at the same time, she found herself wondering whether there was a way to report HR to HR.
Her experience was singular. In another way, though, it was not. In its rhythms, Fowler’s account calls to mind, for one thing, the most pivotal scene in The Assistant, Kitty Green’s recent, remarkable film that considers the tangle of complicity and complacency that the powerful sometimes weaponize in order to keep their power. In it, Jane (played by Julia Garner), the assistant to a Harvey Weinstein–esque film producer, tries in her own way to blow the whistle, alerting an HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen) to the behavior she has been observing in the producer’s office. The representative offers her a convincing facsimile of concern before informing her that nothing will be done about the producer’s behavior—and that she should consider her career ambitions before making another such charge. That response has been a theme in recent works of meta-reporting as well, among them Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said and Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: When even the HR executives are stakeholders in a corrupt system, often the only way to change the system is to take one’s case to the public outside that system.
The whistleblower, in American mythology, is often a lonely figure. Mark Felt met Bob Woodward in a dimly lit parking garage—his motives a mystery, largely, even to the reporter who interacted with him. Chelsea Manning acted alone, and bears the consequences that way, too. So, for the most part, did Edward Snowden. So did Daniel Ellsberg. So did Sherron Watkins. So did Mona Hanna-Attisha. So did so many others: insiders who summoned the courage to share what they knew with the outside world. Whistleblower, though, is one of several newly published memoirs—all of them written by women—that complicate that mythology and engage in more diffusive acts of revelation. These works are not exposing discrete instances of corruption or corporate malfeasance. Instead, they are exposing corrupt cultures—systems about which, like the traditional whistleblower, they have firsthand knowledge. They are bringing their authors’ lives to bear on the information they are sharing with the world. The writing of the memoir itself becomes integral to the act of whistleblowing.
Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s sociology-inflected recounting of her life in San Francisco’s misty dystopia, blurs the line between personal history and exposé. (“The city,” Wiener writes at one point, “trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity.”) In the Land of Men, Adrienne Miller’s memoir, documents, from a personal perspective, the soft misogynies of the American publishing industry. Know My Name, Chanel Miller’s account of how she reclaimed her life after she was raped on Stanford’s campus, doubles as an indictment of a justice system that failed to provide justice. What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal is E. Jean Carroll’s book about an extended road trip. It also reads, however, as documentary evidence—as a lifelong accumulation of insults, abuses, and assaults.
These books acknowledge that sometimes, the most outrageous truths are the ones that double as lived experience. Near the end of Whistleblower, Susan Fowler describes how hesitant she was to speak up. She knew what can happen to whistleblowers. She also knew, however, what can happen because of them. “I … felt very strongly,” she writes, “that the world was no longer someone else’s problem anymore but that it was mine.”
Whistleblower, as it happens, is debuting as the 20th anniversary of Erin Brockovich approaches. That film—another story of whistleblowing told, indirectly, from the perspective of a woman—ends on a distinctly cheery note. A corrupt corporation is punished. Its victims, via cash settlements from the company, get a small measure of justice. Brockovich herself—in her work, in her determination—is justified. Sheryl Crow’s empowerment anthem “Everyday Is a Winding Road” plays as the film’s credits roll, and the chipper lyrics—I get a little bit closer to feeling fine—insist that the ending being presented is a happy one. Whistleblower and its fellow memoirs, however, are not so tidy. They may have clear villains, and they may share a general goal, as Fowler sums it up, of “making myself the hero in my own story”; their intimacy, however, complicates them. Their intimacy acknowledges how difficult it is, when you’re talking about systems, to separate the act of whistleblowing from the more basic act of storytelling. Where does the one end and the other begin?
Dog catchers in Cairo, luge championships in Russia, flooding in parts of England, a crash at the Daytona 500, London Fashion Week, heavy rains in Australia, continued fighting in Syria, demining in Colombia, Carnival in Venice, and much more
For sheer political spectacle, encounters between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are hard to top. Last fall in Houston, both leaders put on a show for a raucous crowd of 50,000. They clasped hands before the multitude, and lavished praise on each other. Their encore performance in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, India, later this month will be worth the price of admission, with crowds as outsize as the ambitions of the two headliners.
President Trump’s inaugural visit to India comes after two decades of effort by administrations of both major political parties in both countries to shape a partnership between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. The relationship was born of a shared sense of values, a shared economic stake in India’s modernization, a shared (if usually unspoken) concern about China’s rise, and a shared realization that Americans and Indians need to work together to tackle big, overarching challenges like climate change and transnational terrorism.
Yet beneath the public displays of affection and tangible signs of progress lie a pair of crucial questions: Will the strategic bet that America and India have made on each other deliver on its full potential? Or will the turn to narrow, transactional diplomacy and the corrosion of democratic ideals in both societies reduce the return on investment? The answers will have enormous consequences for both countries, the future of the Indo-Pacific, and the geopolitics of the century unfolding before us.
For decades, India’s nuclear program, which stood outside the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and beyond the reach of international safeguards, proved an immovable practical and symbolic roadblock to closer relations with the United States.
President George W. Bush made a historic decision in his second term to cut through this most difficult knot in our relationship. Recognizing India’s enormous potential as a long-term partner in a region that was destined to become the global center of gravity in the 21st century, Bush believed that bringing India in from the nuclear cold would be a net plus for American strategy. If New Delhi agreed to abide by key nuclear safeguards and commitments, the United States would lean on the international community to bend nonproliferation rules and accept India’s nuclear program.
I was the diplomat charged with completing the U.S.-India civil-nuclear deal in the summer and fall of 2008. Selling the agreement in international forums was mostly an exercise in blunt-force diplomacy, with little of the practiced finesse that so often consumes the profession. I have sheepish memories of waking senior European officials in the middle of the night to obtain an exception for India from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. I didn’t belabor the technical arguments, nor did I really try to do much convincing. This was about power, and we were exercising it—hardly endearing ourselves to groggy partners, but impressing our Indian counterparts with the strength of America’s commitment to get this done.
The whole initiative was not an easy call—not for foreign capitals and not for the U.S. Congress. Questions remained about just how aligned India would be with us, how significant the costs of the India exception would be to nuclear diplomacy and the broader nuclear-nonproliferation regime, and whether the economic benefits for the American nuclear industry would ever live up to the hype. Proponents of the civil-nuclear deal tended to overstate the promise and understate the risk. Critics did the opposite, and were then lambasted by Indian officials as “nuclear ayatollahs” whose nonproliferation zeal blinded them to wider possibilities. Bush’s decision, nevertheless, was bold and smart.
Barack Obama agreed and was equally invested in what he called “a defining partnership for the 21st century.” And while it proved impossible to replicate the dramatic breakthrough of the nuclear deal, and while rhetoric on both sides often outstripped delivery, we made steady progress, especially in military cooperation, riding the momentum of ever-more convergent interests and values.
That momentum accelerated when Modi was first elected prime minister, in the spring of 2014. He embraced a more confident role for India on the world stage and the revitalization of its domestic modernization—convinced that a deepening partnership with the United States would serve those twin goals.
I was the first senior American official to visit Modi in New Delhi, shortly after his inauguration. Modi acknowledged his complicated history with the U.S. (he was denied a visa for a decade over concerns about his involvement in anti-Muslim violence when he was chief minister in Gujarat), but he was looking forward, self-assured about his leadership of India and the possibilities of U.S-India relations. He and Obama developed a cordial rapport. Security cooperation grew impressively; trade and investment, not so much. A rising China underscored the quiet logic of partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
Although “quiet logic” is not his forte on any issue, President Trump has continued the American investment in relations with India, significantly broadened defense partnership, and even rebranded the Obama-era rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region with a new “Indo-Pacific” strategy. His pugnacious approach to trade and immigration issues irritates Indians, but has not interrupted the broadly positive arc of the relationship.
Trump and Modi have gradually developed their own rapport, superficially similar in their grasp of political branding and strongman habits. Both are skilled in the business of political showmanship, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities of established elites, and for the dark art of stoking nativist fires.
Beneath those surface similarities, however, they are very different people, leading two very different societies. Modi grew up in modest economic circumstances, helping his father sell tea on a railway platform in Gujarat. Trump was a child of economic privilege, his early business career propelled by his father’s wealth and connections. Modi rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the wellspring of India’s Hindu majoritarian ethos, and later its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), developing an insider’s ideological convictions. Trump stormed the Republican Party from the outside, less attached to political principle or ideology than to the rawer politics of grievance and resentment.
In their impact on their own societies, and on the future direction of U.S.-Indian partnership, Trump and Modi are raising some disquieting questions. After a resounding reelection last spring, Modi has struggled with India’s most severe economic slowdown in three decades. Lacking a compelling strategy for the economy, he has doubled down on the one set of issues for which the BJP has a very clear and unified vision: Hindu majoritarianism. With coercive force and scant regard for constitutional limits, Modi’s government has put its Hindu chauvinism on full display.
Soon after his reelection, Modi revoked the constitutionally protected autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and its top political leadership remains under house arrest more than six months later. His government has pushed a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims seeking refuge in India, and has fed tensions over disputed religious sites. Pressures against critical journalists and academics have increased. The BJP has run into political difficulties in state and local elections, but its national opposition, the Congress Party, is a shell of its former self, and the courts and civil society are on the defensive. The political turmoil has only added to India’s economic difficulties—and put a strain on the country’s relationship with the U.S.
A battle for the idea of India is under way, between the tolerant constitutional convictions of its founders and the harsher Hindu majoritarianism that has lurked beneath the surface. This tension predates Modi and will outlive his leadership, testing India’s democratic guardrails in much the same way that the Trump era is testing America’s. Neither struggle will be settled by outsiders—but both will shape the nature of Indian-American partnership in the years ahead.
Both leaders will no doubt accentuate the positives during Trump’s visit. Increasing defense and intelligence cooperation is an asset for both countries. Some nominal progress on persistent problems in trade and market access is likely, but without the structural transformations that neither side has the will or attention span to accomplish right now. Both Trump and Modi will laud each other’s leadership, and the health of the partnership under their watch.
The deeper issue, however, is what kind of relationship we are building.
As intolerance and division in both societies erode their democracies, I fear that the leaders may reinforce each other’s worst instincts. Trump’s fixation on the capillaries of trade balances may only enable Modi to avoid arterial reforms, and the president’s erratic unilateralism will only feed Indian wariness about his judgment on the most consequential regional dilemmas, such as Afghanistan and China’s growing assertiveness.
I continue to believe strongly in the wisdom of the strategic investment that America and India have made in each other’s success over the past two decades. However, amid the spectacle of the visit, it’s important to remind ourselves that the relationship is bigger than these two leaders. For India and the U.S. to maximize the return on their investments, we must take a long view, keeping in mind why this strategic bet was made in the first place: our common democratic values, a long-term vision of economic openness, and a growing confidence in each other’s reliability.
Right now, both Washington and New Delhi, in their own ways, are part of the problem in a world where democracies are busy undoing themselves, economic nationalism is unbridled, and geopolitical competition is unbounded by rules or predictability. The sooner both countries recommit themselves, and their partnership, to being part of the solution, the better.
It’s 2020, and America is embroiled in not one but two catastrophic wars: one with Iran that has sucked in the entire Middle East, and another halfway across the world in North Korea sparked by Kim Jong Un test-firing nuclear-capable missiles that could hit the United States. It’s all the worse since the U.S. is waging both wars without allies, all of which have abandoned Donald Trump because of his incessant bullying.
Fortunately, this isn’t where we find ourselves today, but it’s what the president’s critics have been warning could occur if he carries on with policies that have shattered decades of conventional U.S. policy making. It’s not as if their concerns have no factual basis. The Trump administration really did come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea. In neither case are the underlying tensions that got them there anywhere near resolved. America’s alliances are indeed in flux. But the fact that this is not our reality in 2020 is just as instructive as the fact that it could have been.
This pattern has recurred on several occasions during the Trump era: The president’s detractors foretell doom caused by one of his decisions, only to be proved wrong, and then nobody acknowledges that they got it wrong or admits that Trump’s policies have had some advantages.
Of course, just because some of these doomsday scenarios haven’t yet materialized doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually. A number of Trump’s actions have already inflicted serious damage and could have corrosive consequences that will only become evident over time. In some cases, Trump seems to have simply been lucky. A number of warnings, moreover, have proved right.
Nevertheless, as American foreign policy comes under greater scrutiny as part of this year’s presidential campaign, the Democratic candidates risk losing credibility with voters and undermining their policy prescriptions if they don’t reckon with the moments when they said the sky was falling and it wasn’t. Why should a voter be convinced that returning to aspects of the pre-Trump status quo is necessarily a good thing when the people advocating for that inaccurately diagnosed the results of Trump’s defiance of convention? The episodes in which critics’ predictions weren’t borne out offer valuable lessons for Trump’s challengers, even if they still vigorously disagree with the moves the president has made.
As Charles Dunlap Jr., the head of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security, wrote for Just Security early in the Trump administration, Americans “need balance in our national security and foreign policy discussions before we don sackcloth and ashes and hoist our ‘The End is Near’ signs. True, we are in an era of change, which is what happens in democracies when a candidate runs on a platform of change and wins, and change can be disquieting to those who prefer the status quo. But how good was the status quo?”
Consider three emblematic episodes:
The War With Iran That Wasn’t
In the wee hours of January 2, shortly after news broke that Trump had killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike, Twitter pulsed with anxiety about #WWIII.
Enter the Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders warned that Trump had just placed the United States “on the path to another” endless war, one that could again “cost countless lives and trillions more dollars.” Joe Biden declared that Trump had “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” potentially bringing America to “the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.” The U.S. was perched precariously on that brink, Elizabeth Warren argued, “because a reckless president, his allies, and his administration have spent years pushing us here.”
The calamitous war they envisioned, however, has not come to pass. They were right, though, that there would be devastating consequences. Iran retaliated by firing missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq, leaving at least 109 American troops with traumatic brain injuries. The Iranians mistakenly downed a civilian airliner, killing its 176 passengers, and hostilities between Iran and the U.S. remain dangerously high. Tehran has cast off restrictions under the 2015 deal brokered by the Obama administration to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, though it hasn’t yet raced to build a bomb, as many of Trump’s critics predicted would happen when the president withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Had Trump stuck with the accord in the first place, Iran and the U.S. might never have found themselves on the precipice of war over Soleimani’s demise.
Nevertheless, Iran’s missile barrage was a relatively restrained response when measured against the blow of losing its most powerful military leader and the predictions made by Sanders, Biden, and Warren. Iranian officials thought “that after a series of escalatory [Iranian] military operations—the tanker attacks, the shooting down of an American drone, the Saudi oil strikes, rocket attacks on bases in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias—Mr. Trump would refrain from responding consequentially,” only to be shocked by Trump taking out Soleimani, The New York Times reported last week in a postmortem of the crisis. Trump’s decision, the paper noted, “might ultimately deter future Iranian aggression.” A former British diplomat similarly told my London colleague Tom McTague that the Soleimani strike opened up “the space for de-escalation” by scrambling the Iranian government’s “understanding of how the Americans might react in [the] future.”
Setting aside the vital question of whether Trump’s killing of Soleimani was legally justified or strategically wise (for candidates such as Sanders and Warren, the answer is unequivocally no), it’s worthwhile to investigate why Iran didn’t react the way so many assumed it would and what insights that yields for how the United States deals with adversaries. Trump, “accidentally or otherwise, has identified real problems, including Iran’s ability to act with relative impunity,” McTague concluded. The Soleimani incident also suggests that viewing every U.S. military action in the Middle East through the trauma of the Iraq War can distort our understanding of those events.
The War With North Korea That Wasn’t
Trump’s critics argued that war would break out as a result of the president’s assortedthreats (unleashing “fire and fury,” totally destroying “Rocket Man”) to attack North Korea during his first year in office. After Trump engaged in a nuclear-button measuring contest with North Korea’s leader on Twitter, Biden argued that the United States was closer to a nuclear war with North Korea than it had ever been. Sanders and Warren helped introduce legislation to restrain Trump from going to war with North Korea. These critiques weren’t confined to the left. Republican Senator Bob Corker cautioned that Trump doesn’t realize that “we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making.”
North Korean officials probably didn’t interpret Trump’s remarks as a signal that war was imminent. But the bellicosity of the president and his advisers put the U.S. military on high alert, alarmed America’s ally South Korea, and increased the risk that the parties could stumble into conflict, just as the president’s critics had warned.
That bellicosity, though, was also productive in ways that Trump’s detractors rarely acknowledge. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, told me that she leveraged her boss’s rhetoric and volatility to persuade China and Russia to support UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which helped pressure Kim into (thus far mostly fruitless) nuclear negotiations with the United States. Vincent Brooks, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 2016 to 2018, told me that the president’s unpredictability, paired with new military maneuvers on the Korean peninsula, helped Brooks reestablish deterrence against North Korean provocations and create space for diplomacy. “Trying to bait a dictator who has nuclear weapons is not a way to advance diplomacy,” Warren argued in 2017. According to two former Trump administration officials who were at the forefront of its North Korea policy during this period, however, it was one way to do so.
The lesson here isn’t exactly that future American presidents should bait nuclear-armed dictators, but rather that, in certain situations, unconventional behavior can unlock opportunities to achieve breakthroughs with enemies. Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to defect from North Korea, told me that he thought Trump’s sharp break with the “very gentle” posture of past American presidents helped dissuade North Korea from escalating the nuclear crisis with the United States in late 2017.
The Very Anxious Allies That Remain Allies
Trump’s critics have likewise divined doom each time the president has raised questions about his commitment to defending U.S. allies and demanded huge hikes in their financial contributions to collective security. Biden, for example, has warned that if Trump is reelected, “NATO will fall apart.” Similar predictions have been made as Trump pushes for new arrangements in which Japan and South Korea would cover most of the costs of stationing U.S. troops in each country.
These alliances are indeed being tested more than they have been in decades, and all these partners are now engaged in more contingency planning for a world in which they can no longer depend on U.S. protection. But the fact that the alliances haven’t yet shattered—and bysomemeasures, certain alliances have actually grown stronger during the Trump era—reveals two realities of America’s network of alliances that the next commander in chief will confront.
First, Trump’s tenure has underscored that the United States never really figured out its role in the world and national-security interests once the Cold War ended and its clout began to decline relative to that of rising powers. That debate is now under way in earnest, and U.S. allies are gradually grasping this and processing what it means for them.
Second, for all the upheaval of the Trump years, these partners have come to recognize that they ultimately don’t have attractive alternatives—teaming up with authoritarian powers such as China and Russia? Staking their security on a weak European Union?—to their alliance with the United States. Some allied leaders may not be especially enthused about collaborating with the U.S. these days, and their publics may be with them, but their national interests still dictate that they do. That means there’s more room to tackle sensitive issues such as burden-sharing and more resilience in the relationships than previous American presidents suspected. Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia, a NATO member bordering Russia and thus on the front line of fears about America’s wavering fidelity to the bloc, told me and my colleague Yara Bayoumy that it took Trump’s crass transactionalism (rather than Barack Obama and his predecessors asking “nicely”) to impress upon NATO members that they had to get serious about ramping up their own defense spending.
As Robert Blackwill of the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2019 assessment of Trump’s foreign policy—in which he memorably likened the president’s policies to “a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese dumped and spread on a white canvas”—many criticisms of the president’s conduct in the world are related to the manner in which he makes, announces, and explains decisions and to the policy incoherence within his administration. Rarely, however, is it acknowledged that “the president has disrupted a whole series of conventions in the international system, some of them undoubtedly needed.”
“Not a single U.S. politician,” Blackwill observed, “has a coherent and convincing set of policies to cope with this eroding world order, but Trump receives nearly all the slings and arrows.”
China is in the grip of a momentous crisis. The novel coronavirus that emerged late last year has already claimed three times more lives than the SARS outbreak in 2003, and it is still spreading. More than 50 million people (more than the combined metro populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) remain under historically unprecedented lockdown, unable to leave their city—and in many cases, even their apartment. Many countries no longer accept visiting Chinese nationals, or if they do, quarantine them for weeks. Big companies are pulling out of trade shows. Production is suffering. Profound economic consequences are bound to ensue, not just in China but around the world.
How did Xi Jinping—the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who has been consolidating his power since taking over the post in 2012—let things get to this point?
It might be that he didn’t fully know what was happening in his own country until it was too late.
Xi would be far from the first authoritarian to have been blindsided. Ironically, for all the talk of the technological side of Chinese authoritarianism, China’s use of technology to ratchet up surveillance and censorship may have made things worse, by making it less likely that Xi would even know what was going on in his own country.
Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.
Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.
Smart rulers have tried to create workarounds to avoid this authoritarian dilemma. Dynastic China, for example, had institutionalized mechanisms to petition the emperor: a right that was theoretically granted to everyone, including the lowest farmers and the poorest city dwellers. This system was intended to check corruption in provinces and uncover problems, but in practice, it was limited in many ways, filtered through courtiers to a single emperor, who could listen to only so many in a day. Many rulers also cultivated their own independent sources of information in far-flung provinces.
Thanks to technology, there is a much more robust option for authoritarians in the 21st century: big-data analytics in a digital public sphere. For a few years, it appeared that China had found a way to be responsive to its citizens without giving them political power. Researchers have shown, for example, that posts on Weibo (China’s Twitter) complaining about problems in governance or corruption weren’t all censored. Many were allowed to stay up, allowing crucial information to trickle up to authorities. For example, viral posts about forced demolitions (a common occurrence in China) or medical mistreatment led to authorities sacking the officials involved, or to victim compensation that would otherwise not have occurred. A corrupt official was even removed from office after outraged netizens on social media pointed out the expensive watches he wore, which were impossible to buy on his government salary.
The public sphere in China during those years wasn’t a free-for-all, to be sure. One couldn’t call for collective action or for deposing the central government. But social media gave citizens a voice and a way to make an impact, and it served as an early-warning system for party leaders. (The only other topic that seemed to be off-limits was the censors themselves—researchers found that they eagerly zapped complaints directed at them.)
This responsive form of authoritarianism didn’t happen just on social media. Beginning in the early 2000s, China held “deliberative polls” in which citizens debated local budgets, important issues, and even reforms that would give them the right to information on government actions. In Zeguo township in Wenling, a municipality of more than 1 million residents, authorities created deliberative bodies wherein they engaged citizens (usually a few hundred, with randomness ensuring they were representative of the population) over a few days by providing information (including detailed accounts of the city’s budget) and hosting discussions to decide on issues of public significance. Authorities sometimes went as far as to pledge, in advance, to abide by the decisions of these bodies. For many years, such experiments flourished all over China and, combined with the digital public sphere, led scholars to wonder whether the “deliberative turn” in the country’s otherwise authoritarian state was not a means of weakening authoritarianism, but of making it more sustainable.
Yet, this deliberative turn was soon reversed.
Since taking power in 2012, Xi has shifted back to traditional one-man rule, concentrating more and more power into his hands. He has deployed an ever-more suffocating system of surveillance, propaganda, and repression, while attempting to create a cult of personality reminiscent of the Mao era, except with apps instead of little red books.
One hundred million or so people in China have been, ahem, persuaded to download a party-propaganda app named “Study Xi, Strong Nation,” which makes users watch inculcation videos and take quizzes in a gamified, points-based system. It also allegedly gives the government access to the complete contents of users’ phones. It almost doesn’t matter whether the app contains such backdoor access or not: Reasonable people will act as if it does and be wary in all of their communications. Xi has also expanded China’s system of cameras linked to facial-recognition databases, which may someday be able to identify people everywhere they go. Again, the actual workings of the system are secondary to their chilling effects: For ordinary people, the safe assumption is that if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the authorities will know.
An earlier hint that Xi’s China was falling into authoritarian blindness came during the ongoing Hong Kong protests. The demonstrations had started over a minor demand—the withdrawal of an extradition bill of little strategic importance to Beijing. Protest is the traditional way that Hong Kongers, who do not have full voting rights, express discontent. But this time the Beijing insiders miscalculated. They genuinely believed that the real cause for the Hong Kong unrest was the high rents on the densely populated island, and also thought that the people did not support the protesters. Authoritarian blindness had turned an easily solvable problem into a bigger, durable crisis that exacted a much heavier political toll, a pattern that would repeat itself after a mysterious strain of pneumonia emerged in a Wuhan seafood market.
In early December, a strange cluster of patients from a local seafood market, which also sold wildlife for consumption, started showing up in Wuhan hospitals. These initial patients developed a fever and pneumonia that did not seem to be caused by any known viruses. Given the SARS experience of 2003, local doctors were quickly alarmed. With any such novel virus, medical providers are keen to know how it spreads: If the virus is unable to spread from human to human, it’s a tragedy, but a local one, and for only a few people. If it can sustainably spread from human to human, as was the case with SARS, it could turn into a global pandemic, with potentially massive numbers of victims.
Given exponential growth dynamics of infectious diseases, containing an epidemic is straightforward early on, but nearly impossible once a disease spreads among a population. So it’s maximally important to identify and quarantine candidate cases as early as possible, and that means leadership must have access to accurate information.
While the unsuspecting population of Wuhan, a city of 11 million, went about its business, the local government did not update the number of infected people from January 5 to January 10. But the signs of sustained human-to-human transmission grew. Emergency wards were filling up, not just with people who had been to the seafood market, but with their family members as well. On January 6, Li noticed an infection in the scan of a fellow doctor, but officials at the hospital “ordered him not to disclose any information to the public or the media.” On January 7, another infected person was operated on, spreading the disease to 14 more medical workers.
Things went on in this suspended state for another 10 days, while the virus kept spreading. Incredibly, on January 19, just one day after the death of yet another doctor who had become infected, officials from across the populous Hubei province held a 40,000-family outdoor banquet in Wuhan, its capital, as part of the official celebrations for China’s Lunar New Year.
The dam broke on January 20—just three days before Wuhan would initiate a draconian lockdown that blocked millions of people from leaving. On that day, the respected SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan went on national television, confirming the new virus and human-to-human transmission. That same day, Xi Jinping gave his first public speech about the coronavirus, after he returned from an overseas trip to Myanmar.
Things have dramatically escalated since then. Just one month later, by some estimates, more than 700 million people in China are living under some form of restrictions to their movements, in addition to the severe lockdown in the Hubei province. Domestic social media has eruptedinanger at both China’s central leadership and local officials in Hubei province, where the disease began. There are calls for free speech, fury over the death of one of the early medical whistleblowers from the virus, and frustrations with the quarantine.
It’s not clear why Xi let things spin so far out of control. It might be that he brushed aside concerns from his aides until it was too late, but a stronger possibility is that he did not know the crucial details. Hubei authorities may have lied, not just to the public but also upward—to the central government. Just as Mao didn’t know about the massive crop failures, Xi may not have known that a novel coronavirus with sustained human-to-human transmission was brewing into a global pandemic until too late.
It’s nearly impossible to gather direct evidence from such a secretive state, but consider the strong, divergent actions before and after January 20—within one day, Hubei officials went from almost complete cover-up and business as usual to shutting down a whole city.
Another reason to think Xi did not know is that he would have every incentive to act quickly given China’s experience with SARS, during which he was already a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Both SARS and the Wuhan virus (which causes the disease now dubbed COVID-19) are zoonotic coronaviruses, with similar origins and pandemic potential. SARS was contained, though barely, and not before significant economic costs following a failed cover-up. Such an experience should have made it clear that cover-ups are futile when it comes to pandemics, because viruses don’t respect borders. (The Soviet Union learned that radiation doesn’t either, when Sweden alerted the world to the Chernobyl accident.)
It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.
In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts.
If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for “rumors” becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis. Later, under criticism, Xi would say he gave instructions for fighting the virus as early as January 7, implying that he knew about it all along. But how could he admit the alternative? This is his system.
Contrary to common belief, the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening inon people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints. An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.
During the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di found out that some petitions to the emperor had not made it to him, because officials were blocking them. He was alarmed and ordered such blocks removed. “Stability depends on superior and inferior communicating; there is none when they do not. From ancient times, many a state has fallen because a ruler did not know the affairs of the people,” he said. Xi would have done well to take note.
If Donald Trump is defeated in November 2020, his presidency will end on January 20, 2021. If he is reelected, then, barring other circumstances such as removal from office, his administration will terminate on the same day in 2025. In either of these scenarios, Trump would cease to be president immediately upon the expiration of his term. But what if he won’t leave the White House?
The American Constitution spells out how the transfer of power is supposed to work. Article II provides that the president “shall hold his office for the term of four years.” The 20th Amendment says that the president’s and vice president’s terms “shall end at noon on the 20th day of January … and the terms of their successors shall then begin.” Of course, a president may be reelected to a second four-year term, but under the 22nd Amendment, “no person shall be elected to the office of president more than twice.”
For nearly 250 years, presidents have respected the law. Even when electoral defeat has been unexpected and ignominious, presidents have passed the baton without acrimony. In a sense, perhaps this is the central achievement of the American system: to have transferred power peacefully from one leader to the next, without heredity to guide the way.
That a president would defy the results of an election has long been unthinkable; it is now, if not an actual possibility, at the very least something Trump’s supporters joke about. As the former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted, President Trump “will be eligible for a 3rd term due to the illegal attempts by Comey, Dems, and media , et al attempting to oust him as @POTUS so that’s why I was named to head up the 2024 re-election.” A good troll though it may have been, Huckabee is not the first person to suggest that Trump might not leave when his presidency ends.
In May, the faith leader Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted an apparent reference to the completed investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election interference. “I now support reparations,” he wrote. “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.” Trump retweeted Falwell’s post.
One of Trump’s former confidants, Michael Cohen, has suggested that Trump won’t leave. In his congressional testimony before heading to prison, Trump’s former attorney said, “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Trump himself has joked about staying in office beyond his term, and even for life. In December, Trump told a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally that he will leave office in “five years, nine years, 13 years, 17 years, 21 years, 25 years, 29 years …” He added that he was joking to drive the media “totally crazy.” Just a few days earlier, Trump had alluded to his critics in a speech, “A lot of them say, ‘You know he’s not leaving’ … So now we have to start thinking about that because it’s not a bad idea.” This is how propaganda works. Say something outrageous often enough and soon it no longer sounds shocking.
Refusal to leave office is rare, but not unheard of. In the past decade, presidents in democracies such as Moldova, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gambia have refused to leave office, sometimes leading to bloodshed. In 2016, Joseph Kabila decided not to step down after three five-year terms as the president of Congo, announcing that he would delay the election for two years so that a census could be conducted. His decision was met with mass protests in which 50 people were killed by government security forces. Still, he followed through and an election took place in 2018. He left office thereafter.
Elected officials in the U.S. have also refused to step down, albeit from lower offices than the presidency. In 1874, a Texas governor locked himself in the basement of the state capitol building after losing his reelection bid. The saga began when Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis lost the 1873 election by a resounding 2-to-1 ratio to his Democratic challenger, Richard Coke, and claimed that the election had been tainted with fraud and intimidation. A court case made its way to the state’s supreme court. All three justices, each of whom had been appointed by the incumbent Davis, ruled that the election was unconstitutional and invalid. Democrats called upon the public to disregard the court’s decision, and proceeded with plans for Coke’s inauguration. On January 15, 1874, Coke arrived at the state capitol with a sheriff’s posse, and was sworn in to office while Davis barricaded himself downstairs with state troopers. The next day, Davis requested federal troops from President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant refused, and Davis finally stepped down three days later.
In 1946, Georgia endured the “Three Governors Crisis,” when the governor-elect died before taking office. Three men—the outgoing governor, the son of the governor-elect and the lieutenant governor-elect—each claimed a right to the office. The state assembly voted for the governor-elect’s son to take charge, but the outgoing governor refused to leave, so both men physically occupied the governor’s office. The outgoing governor yielded when the governor-elect’s son had the locks changed. The state supreme court finally decided in favor of the lieutenant governor-elect three months later.
The closest thing to a refusal to leave office that the U.S. presidency has experienced was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s break with tradition by seeking a third term. Roosevelt rejected the norm set by George Washington, and followed by successive presidents, to step down after two terms. FDR was elected to a third and even a fourth term, but concern about a permanent executive led to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, limiting presidents to two terms.
If Trump were inclined to overstay his term, the levers of power work in favor of removal. Because the president immediately and automatically loses his constitutional authority upon expiration of his term or after removal through impeachment, he would lack the power to direct the U.S. Secret Service or other federal agents to protect him. He would likewise lose his power, as the commander in chief of the armed forces, to order a military response to defend him. In fact, the newly minted president would possess those presidential powers. If necessary, the successor could direct federal agents to forcibly remove Trump from the White House. Now a private citizen, Trump would no longer be immune from criminal prosecution, and could be arrested and charged with trespassing in the White House. While even former presidents enjoy Secret Service protection, agents presumably would not follow an illegal order to protect one from removal from office.
Although Trump’s remaining in office seems unlikely, a more frightening—and plausible—scenario would be if his defeat inspired extremist supporters to engage in violence. One could imagine a world in which Trump is defeated in the 2020 election, and he immediately begins tweeting that the election was rigged. Or consider the possibility, albeit remote, that a second-term Trump is removed from office through impeachment, and rails about his ouster as a coup. His message would be amplified by right-wing media. If his grievances hit home with even a few people inclined toward violence, deadly acts of violence, or even terrorist attacks against the new administration, could result.
Ultimately, the key to the peaceful transfer of power is the conduct of the outgoing leader himself. America has thus far been lucky in that regard. After voluntarily relinquishing the presidency after his second term, Washington took measures to demonstrate the peaceful transfer of power. He attended the inauguration of his successor, John Adams, and insisted on walking behind Adams after the ceremony to display his subservience to the new president. Through this example, the citizenry was able to accept that the power of the presidency now resided in its new occupant.
More recently, upon leaving office after a heated campaign, George H. W. Bush left behind a letter to welcome Bill Clinton into the White House on January 20, 1993. It concluded, “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck.” Imagining such a gracious note from the current occupant of the White House to his successor is difficult.
But if Trump should fail in his final duty as president to transfer power peacefully, the nation’s laws, norms, and institutions will be responsible for carrying out the will of the electorate. Should those fail too, then the American experiment’s greatest achievement will come to a grinding halt, and with it the hope that a republic can ever be kept.
News anchor Katy Tur—and everyone else covering politics—has had to constantly switch gears between two stories: a crowded primary of challengers working to overtake one another, and a post-impeachment White House emboldened to break yet more democratic norms. But when the general election arrives, and the two stories merge, will the fourth estate be up to the task?
“I don’t think we in the news media have figured out how to cover Donald Trump,” Tur told Isaac Dovere on the latest episode of The Ticket: Politics From The Atlantic. Listen to the full episode here:
Until this month, Benjamin Griveaux was a rather lackluster candidate for mayor of Paris, treading water in third place. He’d been the French government spokesman under President Emmanuel Macron and his weak mayoral run seemed faintly emblematic of Macron’s dimming political fortunes. And then, suddenly, came the leaked texts and videos, in which Griveaux tells—and shows!—a woman who’s not his wife just how excited he is to see her.
The repercussions were swift. Griveaux, ashen-faced, withdrew from the race. Jaws dropped across France. Not from the shock that he had apparently cheated on his wife, with whom he has three young children. Or even from the surprise that Griveaux, who is 42, took the risk of filming himself masturbating. But rather because the exchange had been leaked, and had led to something that never happens in France: a politician stepping down because of something in his private life.
It seems weirdly fitting that the story begins with the Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who leaked Griveaux’s messages on a self-made website called pornopolique.com. Pavlensky, 35, is best known for nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square, a 2013 action he said should be seen as “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society.” In posting the messages, the artist, who has political-refugee status in France, decried the “hypocrisy” of Griveaux, who had depicted himself as a family man during his campaign. French media have identified the woman with whom Griveaux exchanged the messages in 2018 as Alexandra De Taddeo, a 29-year-old student who subsequently became involved with Pavlensky. (She has confirmed that she was the recipient of the messages, but denies active involvement in publishing them, according to Le Monde. Pavlensky has said that he stole the material from her computer.)
Far more than a titillating local curiosity, or even just France’s version of the Anthony Weiner scandal, #GriveauxGate has brought together not only sex, politics, and morality in the #MeToo era, but also digital surveillance, possible Russia connections, conspiracy theories, a whiff of kompromat, and a cast of characters that’s Quai d’Orsay meets Call My Agent meets Black Mirror. With each passing day, it becomes less clear whether #GriveauxGate reflects the influence of America on French political life, or whether something more sinister is afoot, at a time when privacy is eroding everywhere.
Griveaux is widely seen as a victim of a nasty sting, even by people who condemn his behavior. Politicians and citizens across the political spectrum have denounced what they see as the Americanization of French political life—an apparent intrusion of an irritating puritan morality. How dare this happen here, where private life is sacred! Except this time around, the outrage is combined with the cold shower brought about by the era of social media and Big Data surveillance, in which politicians have discovered that they’re as vulnerable as anyone else to online leaks.
In the weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly and a Socialist, warned: “Let’s not confuse transparency and voyeurism, the prelude to a kind of inquisition. At this rate, who will take the risk of public life if it could become the ante-chamber of a permanent lynching?” The columnist Philippe Val declared that “the opacity of private life is the foundation, the primordial motivation of all democratic construction. Without it, liberty is an empty word.” The only two politicians who probably didn’t “have coitus,” Val continued, were Robespierre, “who started the Terror and sent his friends and almost all the intellectuals of his era to the guillotine; and Hitler.” (Yes, believe it or not, this has been the tenor of the debate.)
Other commentators think Griveaux could have been more careful. Anne Roumanoff, also in LeJournal du Dimanche, offered a list of suggestions: “1. You have the right to have extramarital relations. This is France, everyone understands that sometimes you need to reduce the pressure a bit. You don’t have to be irreproachable, but you should be discreet. 2. Avoid showcasing your marriage on the covers of magazines and talking about your family with a loving voice if you’re not irreproachable.”
She advised Griveaux to use a dedicated cellphone that doesn’t display his name. Then: “4. Don’t send sexts, you’re not a teenager.” Rather than writing, “Can’t wait to see you and your magnificent breasts again this evening. Look what a state you’ve got me in this morning”—which is what the leaked texts read—she suggested something like, “See you at 7 p.m. to review the documents. We need to dig deep, the problem is getting harder.”
Griveaux hasn’t verified that it’s him in the video on Pavlensky’s site, which the French government has shut down. But his lawyer, Richard Malka, is suing for illegally publishing private material. (This scandal has expanded my French vocabulary considerably, but the French term for revenge porn turns out to be … revenge porn.)
In the United States, a politician’s private life is generally seen as fair game for public scrutiny. But America has several times elected leaders whose personal lives are not, shall we say, beyond reproach. And France has also previously violated the private lives of its public figures, not least in 2014, when a tabloid published images of then-President François Hollande showing up on a moped to deliver croissants to Julie Gayet, the actress with whom he was having an affair.
Publishing the photos marked a big change. President François Mitterrand famously kept a second family out of the public eye. (In 2016, Anne Pingeot, the president’s former lover with whom he had a daughter, published a collection of 1,200 of their love letters, some of which are truly beautiful.) It was an open secret in France that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, had a penchant for swingers’ clubs. In 2012, he was arrested on charges of assaulting a hotel maid in New York, charges that were subsequently dropped. In 2015, he was acquitted on charges of soliciting prostitution. (As a young Socialist, Griveaux in fact worked with Strauss-Kahn.)
If #GriveauxGate marks a watershed moment in France, it’s not entirely because of the Americanization of French morals. But I doubt that Griveaux would have stepped down before the #MeToo era. Today, things men got away with in the past no longer fly, even in France. A prime example (and far more egregious than the Griveaux case) is Gabriel Matzneff, a French writer of middling reputation who bragged and wrote about engaging in pedophilia and was protected for decades by friends in the French establishment. After a woman published a stunning memoir last month, Consent, about a relationship she had with Matzneff when she was a teenager, French police opened a rape investigation, and invited other potential victims to come forward—also a turning point in France.
But beyond the broader context in which #GriveauxGate has erupted are the facts of the case. Griveaux’s lawyer has said that he doesn’t think Pavlensky acted alone. Without naming names, the French government spokeswoman echoed the suspicion, saying Pavlensky “surely did not act alone.” Did he publish the messages at someone’s behest? The French media are thrumming with speculation. The lack of clarity has fomented an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainties, in which conspiracy theories thrive.
French police detained Pavlensky and charged him with illegally publishing the messages. Cornered by television reporters as he left a courthouse last week, he said that he stood by his actions. Whether he’ll keep his political-refugee status in France is unclear. Police detained and questioned De Taddeo, too, over the leaked exchange. She made the cover of this week’s Paris Match, France’s preeminent weekly tabloid, with the headline “The Trap.”
Pavlensky and De Taddeo were apparently introduced by Juan Branco, a French lawyer who was part of Julian Assange’s defense team and who has been a vocal supporter of the anti-Macron “yellow vest” movement. The story gets weirder. The leaked exchange on an obscure website drew attention when it was tweeted, including by Joachim Son-Forget, a French lawmaker who quit Macron’s party. (Son-Forget’s tweets were subsequently taken down.)
I wonder what Pavlensky’s aim is here, besides anarchic provocation. His performances usually involve self-mutilation—sewing his lips shut, cutting off part of his ear—to make a political point. In 2015, he set fire to the door of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison. In Paris in 2017, after receiving refugee status, he set fire to a branch of the Bank of France to protest the power of finance, and wound up spending nearly a year in jail.
Is the leaked Griveaux exchange off-brand for Pavlensky, or a new direction for his art? In both Russia and France, Pavlensky has incorporated his police interrogations into his work. “What I’m doing is turning the tables, drawing the government into the process of making art,” he told The New York Times Magazine in an illuminating profile last year. “The power relations shift, the state enters into the work of art and becomes an object, an actor.” Making Griveaux’s private life public may be Pavlensky’s most daring performance yet. It certainly has found the largest audience. And quite possibly has ended an era in which French public figures were able to keep their private life private.
Onward, Pixar’s newest movie and its first original animated feature since 2017’s Coco, has the narrative structure of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That means it contains all the elements of a classic hero’s journey: a quest for a charmed object, an expedition through dangerous territory, and encounters with brutish enemies and crafty allies. But the most crucial aspect of the role-playing game is community—the fact that it’s played with friends and relies on teamwork. The writer-director Dan Scanlon’s clear grasp of that makes for a warm, gentle film that doesn’t try to merely dazzle the audience with wild fantasy visuals.
Scanlon’s first project with Pixar was the more workmanlike Monsters University (2013), a prequel to an earlier hit. Too often of late, the 3D-animation giant has favored those easy follow-ups to its established brands, producing only four original works (compared with seven sequels or prequels) in the past decade. Onward is the kind of movie the studio should be focusing on: an inventive, sweet, and small-scale story that still shows off the usual Pixar hallmarks. There’s some nifty world-building, unabashed sentimentality, and a keen understanding of tone, with an ending alchemically designed to provoke tears from parents and kids alike.
That formula can get exhausting at times—the Pixar brand often seems a little too perfectly calibrated to push older viewers’ nostalgia buttons—but there’s no denying its effectiveness. Onward is informed by the ’80s aesthetic of tabletop games, minivans airbrushed with heavy-metal album-cover art, and cookie-cutter suburban life, along the lines of recent throwback hits such as Stranger Things. But while it’s grounded in a plot straight out of Amblin-era Spielberg, Onward wisely leans more on humor than drama to get its message across.
The script (by Scanlon, Jason Headley, and Keith Bunin) is set in a world that was once governed by magic and overrun with supernatural beasts. Though it’s still populated by elves, centaurs, flying pixies, and the like, it’s also now filled with modern conveniences, because the sorcery of old has been replaced by prosaic enchantments such as microwaves and internal combustion engines. Nestled in this middle-class Tolkienverse is Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), a gawky elvish high schooler with a confidence problem. Despite his blue skin and pointy ears, he’s a relatively stock awkward-teen character, unable to even work up the courage to invite his classmates over after school.
Far more winning is Barley (Chris Pratt), Ian’s screwup older brother who spends his days tooling around town in a minivan and participating in wizard-y role-playing games. His knowledge of the arcane comes in handy when the brothers try to resurrect their deceased father and end up accomplishing only half the spell, summoning a disembodied pair of legs. Their efforts to complete their task lead them on an adventure that would fit perfectly into any D&D volume, even though their trek includes updated twists, such as a search for gasoline and the transmogrification of a Cheeto into a lifeboat.
There’s power in the notion of a fantasy universe that has lost its edge, and Onward’s best jokes poke at that incongruity. In one sequence, the brothers travel to a dangerous tavern run by a monstrous manticore (Octavia Spencer), only to find that it’s been turned into a TGI Friday’s–esque establishment, where the owner (known as Corey) is most concerned with maintaining her karaoke machine. Given that Onward itself is a family-friendly project, the film thrives on these self-aware digs at Disneyfication; any good D&D mission should have a sense of real danger, so it’s worth pointing out how that’s missing from so much mainstream entertainment.
After a few side-quests, Onward settles on charting the development of its mismatched siblings. Both brothers are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult while wandering around with a father who has literally lost his head, and the climax revolves around the bond they’ve built in their shared adventure. Scanlon apparently anchored the story in his own life—he lost his father at a young age and played a lot of D&D—and that emotional investment pays off beautifully. I hope Onward is a huge success at the box office, but more than that, I hope Pixar turns away from sequel projects and creates more original works like this one.