Imagine a Fourth of July 2021 celebration at the White House. America has reached its vaccination goals. A jubilant President Joe Biden rips off his mask, douses it in lighter fluid, and tosses it on a charcoal grill, where it burns for the news cameras. Late afternoon turns to early evening, with the promise of fireworks ahead, but before then, Anthony Fauci, outfitted in goggles and a vintage one-piece, red-white-and-blue-striped bathing suit, climbs into a dunk tank filled with Bud Light. He’s making good on a promise to get dunked on Independence Day if, and only if, 75 percent of Americans have received at least one COVID-19 shot. Joe Rogan strides out, a big bucket of baseballs in hand.
Meanwhile, in all 50 states, free Fourth of July concerts featuring the biggest acts in the nation are playing in front of 100 percent–vaccinated crowds; many got jabs just so they could attend. Beyoncé slays in Atlanta. Luke Combs rocks Nashville. Bad Bunny plays San Juan.
Roughly 43 percent of American adults have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but demand for shots is already falling, with some states cutting back on the number of doses that they are requesting for their residents.*
Most of the official responses to this problem have been tepid. “Clergy can play a great role as well as your own family doc,” Fauci told an interviewer this week, “because most people really trust a doctor that’s been taking care of their family for a long time.” California is running public-service announcements.
Don’t blame the public-health officials. They are who they are. But with every passing day, their instincts will yield diminishing returns: The Americans they are best suited to reach have already been vaccinated. Cold, hard cash would sway some of the rest. In a UCLA survey, a third of unvaccinated Americans said they would be more likely to get a shot for $100. That’s a bargain.
And in my estimation, a cash-for-shots program would be powerfully complemented by a three-legged stool of free beer, free bacon, and free lottery tickets in exchange for getting two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson one-shot. Don’t woo Americans with mere common sense or cash, but with spectacle.
This approach will horrify many a county-health official. I beg them to wring their hands. My targets will revel in whatever irks these bureaucrats, because they view them as smarmy scolds. “Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance,” Tom Scocca wrote in a 2013 Gawker essay. “Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.” America needs to reach the subset of its residents who’ve found pandemic messaging to be off-puttingly smarmy.
A small experiment in free beer is already showing promise. In Buffalo, New York, a local brewery offered a pint to anyone who came in for a first shot and ultimately distributed vaccines to more people in a single day than all of the Erie County clinics had, combined, the prior week. If I have any criticism of the effort, it’s the open enthusiasm of the public-health officials. Grudging acquiescence might be more effective.
The typical American has a sense that public-health types want them to eat less salty, fatty processed meat. How powerful, then, if the message from the most dour public-health bureaucrat in each city was “I’m loath to think of you eating a Baconator at Wendy’s, but getting a COVID-19 vaccine is so important that we’ll give you a coupon for a free one if you get your jab before July 4.”
At the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, customers weighing more than 350 pounds eat free and menu items include the Octuple Bypass Burger, which has almost 20,000 calories.** If I were the face of public health in Clark County, I’d be on the local evening news with a representative of the Heart Attack Grill telling him that his establishment embodies everything I find repellent … but that if Vegas gets to 85 percent vaccinated, I’ll order and eat the Octuple Bypass.
Free lottery tickets may hold the most promise of all. Vaccine hesitancy and lottery enthusiasm are two sides of the same disregard for statistics. How better to reach people unswayed by expert advice on what is statistically likely to serve their interests than to offer a minuscule chance at $100 million? Forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, already run lotteries. Printing more tickets is basically free. And unlike every other state-lottery initiative, giving free tickets for getting vaccinated would actually leave most participants better off.
In fact, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is putting this idea into practice: This week he announced a spate of million-dollar lottery drawings for anyone in the state who has received at least one vaccine dose. Winners should be feted to spark interest in another round.
The pandemic has been a dismal slog. For many, a more appealing message than “Get the vaccine to protect your neighbors” is “We’re almost there—get this vaccine and you can have the biggest party in a generation.” And no one throwing a party entrusts planning to public-health officials. Populist politicians need to step up.
Cash. Beer. Bacon. Lottery tickets. And the promise of Fauci in the dunk tank. That’s all it would take. I can see it so clearly. Pandemic Victory Day would be both a celebration and a spur to additional shots, harnessing vulgar populism to help America surprise the world with its 90-plus percent vaccination rate, even as it exports greater numbers of doses daily to poorer countries in need of help.
By embracing that which they find distasteful, elites can prove that they aren’t just virtue signaling. This really matters.
*This article previously misstated that 43 percent of all Americans have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, 43 percent of American adults have yet to receive a shot.
**This article mistakenly referred to the Octuple Bypass Burger as the Quintuple Bypass Burger.
This article was published online on May 14, 2021.
Lump in my pocket; buzz against my thigh; beloved, clunky Kyocera flip phone, let me salute you.
I can’t remember how long we’ve been together. Seven years? More? Even back then, you were retro. The salesman in the phone store spoke warmly of your indestructibility, as if that were your prime virtue: He said I could throw you against a wall if I wanted, and you’d just bounce off. But I would never do that.
Why can’t I quit you? First, the obvious thing: You are not connected to the internet. So for me, you are a little ebony brick of privacy. And by privacy I don’t mean cookies or my Social Security number or whatever—I mean the fragile sphere of imagination in which I exist when I’m not diddling about online. I mean what’s left of my nondigital self. When I clack your two halves shut, you glorious techno-mollusk, that’s it. Sauron cannot see me.
Second, you’ve become rather talismanic, socially. You stand for something. Perversity? Willed obsolescence? Sure, why not. It’s like hanging around with a maladaptive friend: I enjoy watching people react to you. When I brandish you, flourish you, wield you in the world, I get exclamations of pity and confusion. Especially from the young. “Look at you, man,” somebody said to me the other day when I took you out to exchange numbers. “Look at you.”
We’re out of the dream, you and me, out of the great swoon. When I have two spare minutes, I don’t pull you out and stare at you, enchanted, moving my fingertips in tiny, silky swirls across your surface. I stand around like a spare part, hands in my pockets. I feel the stinky breeze on my face. I hear the caged hum of the city, the caged hum of my brain. I am present, however unsatisfactorily. Do I have the energy to send a text? I frown when I text. Sometimes I sweat. I smash your noisy little buttons; it sounds like I’m operating a telegraph. Three clicks to get to a C—tack-tack-tack—two more for an E. A decent sentence can take me 10 minutes. Anybody who gets a text from me knows I mean it.
What will I do when you go? Your name is Kyocera, king of kings. You are a black obelisk in the desert of Time.
The recall election coming later this year for California Governor Gavin Newsom doesn’t appear likely to end with his removal from office. Although Newsom’s opponents have gathered enough signatures to require a vote—and conditions in the state could still change—polls show that public support for the effort is far below what Newsom’s critics will need to force his removal.
Nevertheless, the drive may trigger another form of recall: It may finally prompt California to examine whether the 110-year-old state law that governs recalls still makes sense in our modern era of unrelenting partisan conflict.
The law was instituted during the Progressive era as a tool to tame special interests, but the effort against Newsom suggests that it’s become a weapon of harassment and manipulation by Republicans. The GOP constitutes a minority in the state, where Democrats hold all major statewide offices and supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and where Joe Biden buried Donald Trump by more than 5 million votes last year. Once California’s secretary of state gives final certification to the collected signatures, Newsom will become the second of the state’s past three Democratic governors to face a recall that reached the ballot: Governor Gray Davis was ousted in a 2003 recall election and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. How unusual is that confluence? Across all the states, recalls against only three other governors in American history have qualified for the ballot.
This pattern has some California Democrats now talking openly about making fundamental changes to the recall law—an idea rarely discussed since Governor Hiram Johnson, a Progressive icon, pushed it through the legislature in 1911. “This thing is going to be defeated by Newsom pretty handily,” says the Democratic strategist Garry South, who was the chief adviser to Davis in his two gubernatorial races, in 1998 and 2002. “And when this is all over, the legislature has to take a serious look at revamping the processes and procedures for qualifying a recall against the governor of California.”
California’s law establishes a two-step process for removing and replacing an executive-branch official. Once proponents collect enough signatures, the state schedules an election that asks voters two questions. First, they are asked to vote up or down on whether to recall the targeted official, in this case Newsom. Then, on the same ballot, they are asked to choose from a list of candidates who have filed to replace the official. (The incumbent’s name can’t be listed as an option.) If a majority votes no on the recall, that’s the end of it; the incumbent remains in office. But if a majority supports the recall, the incumbent is replaced by the alternative candidate who receives the highest vote total, even if that’s less than a majority (which is possible, given how large the candidate field often is).
Those rules create one of the first glaring anomalies in the California system: An incumbent could be removed and replaced even though a higher share of Californians vote to keep him in office than vote to support any single alternative. (For example, an incumbent could receive support from 49.9 percent of voters, but be ousted and replaced by someone who received a much smaller share of the vote.)
An even bigger anomaly is the threshold a recall effort needs to meet in order to qualify for the ballot. Nineteen states permit voters to recall a governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among those states, California requires “the lowest [signature] total to recall any state governor in the country,” says Joshua Spivak, an expert on the recall process and a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, in New York. A recall can qualify for the ballot in California by collecting signatures equivalent to 12 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. Most states set a significantly higher bar, typically 25 percent.
In 2018, just under 12.5 million Californians voted in the gubernatorial election, in which Newsom swamped Republican John Cox by almost exactly 3 million votes. That meant recall proponents had to collect slightly fewer than 1.5 million signatures. In absolute terms, that’s a lot of signatures to obtain. Newsom critics launched four recall attempts before this, and all failed to meet that requirement. Even the current recall, launched by conservatives infuriated by Newsom’s COVID-19 shutdowns last spring, appeared to hit a wall in the fall. Then two important things happened on November 6: First, James Arguelles, a state superior-court judge appointed by Schwarzenegger, gave the proponents an unprecedented four-month extension to gather signatures, citing the difficulties created by the coronavirus. And on the same day, Newsom chose to attend a now-infamous birthday party for a lobbyist at a swanky restaurant in Napa Valley—a choice that became a flash point for voter frustration. Newsom’s attendance while much of California remained shut down “became a pop-culture caricature of what everyone hates about politicians,” says the Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who served as Schwarzenegger’s communications director during the Davis recall and when Schwarzenegger was governor. “It had everything: It had elitism, it had hypocrisy, it had a whiff of pay-to-play.”
With the extra time and the spark Newsom lit with his restaurant blunder, money poured in from Republican donors, and the signature drive was revived. Funds were now available to hire professional canvassers and send direct mail to voters to collect signatures. The 1.5 million signatures required represents a small fraction of the reliable GOP vote in the nation’s largest state. Cox won just 38 percent of the total vote in his 2018 bid against Newsom, but that amounted to more than 4.7 million votes. Trump, while winning just 34 percent of California’s total vote last year, attracted more than 6 million.
All evidence suggests that those same Republican voters are primarily powering the recall effort now. A recent Los Angeles Times analysis found the greatest support for the effort in the state’s residual red regions: the rural northeastern and Central Valley counties “with low coronavirus case counts and where voters heavily favored former President Trump.”
Another revealing measure of support for the effort is how many recall signatures each county produced per vote cast in the 2020 presidential election: The 19 counties that ranked highest on that measure all voted for Trump last year. Meanwhile, most of the state’s major urban and suburban population centers—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Alameda Counties—ranked at the very bottom of that list (with the signatures gathered there equaling 6 percent or less of their total 2020 turnout). In a statewide poll released this week by UC Berkeley and the L.A. Times, 85 percent of Republicans said they support recalling Newsom, compared with 33 percent of independents and only 8 percent of Democrats. That puts overall support for Newsom’s removal at 36 percent—midway between the meager GOP votes for Cox in 2018 and Trump in 2020.
All of this raises a key question: whether the recall is measuring a genuine eruption of grassroots discontent against Newsom or merely recording the fact that many of the Republican voters who never wanted him to be governor still don’t. At times last year, the former explanation seemed somewhat plausible, with the virus imposing terrible economic and health losses on the state. But the latter looks much more convincing now, as the state’s infection and hospitalization rates have plummeted, the economy is reopening, vaccination totals are rising, and the state’s budget is recovering. Dan Schnur, a former Republican operative who now teaches at UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, agrees that the recall effort at this point is mostly measuring conservative alienation in a state that has shifted emphatically toward Democrats since the 1990s. “There are a lot of voters who are unhappy with the way Newsom has handled the pandemic, but not nearly enough to remove him from office,” Schnur told me. Indeed, in the new UC Berkeley/L.A. Times poll, only 35 percent of voters gave Newsom poor marks for his handling of the pandemic—roughly the same minority that backs the recall.
It’s useful to compare Newsom’s circumstances with that of another Democrat, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In a state that is much more closely divided between the parties, Whitmer faced an even more ferocious right-wing backlash against her COVID-19 restrictions last year. (That backlash included a protest by armed activists who descended on the state capitol and a plot to kidnap and possibly murder her.) Critics have filed nine separate petitions to recall her from office. But because Michigan requires twice as many signatures as California for a recall to reach the ballot—25 percent versus 12 percent—none of those efforts is likely to qualify.
In one sense, this contrast might not have troubled the Progressive-era leaders who created the recall law in California. “They didn’t want it to be hard to use,” Glen Gendzel, the chair of San Jose State University’s history department, who has studied that era in the state, told me. The recall was part of an extraordinary package of 22 state constitutional amendments—including the initiative and referendum processes—that Hiram Johnson persuaded voters to approve in a single election in October 1911. The unifying thread among those measures was Johnson’s determination to create safeguards against the corrupting power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant economic and political force in the state at the time. Progressives thought “they only had one chance to enact laws in a great big hurry that would ensure the capability to resist further corruption of California government once the Progressives were out of power,” Gendzel said. “What are you going to do if corrupt politicians return to power and serve the main special interest in the state again, namely the railroad? Well, make it possible for the people to recall them, to pull them out, if they prove unfaithful to the people’s wishes.”
Johnson and his allies tended to see politics in terms of interests, not parties; they sought to unite both Democratic and Republican Progressives against Southern Pacific’s concentrated economic power. Although elected as a Republican, Johnson bolted from the party to run as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president in his unsuccessful third-party Progressive presidential bid in 1912, and when he returned to California, Johnson passed legislation to transform state elections into nonpartisan contests, Gendzel noted. (Ironically, a referendum sponsored by Republican and Democratic party bosses, using the Progressives’ own direct-democracy tools, overturned that law.) The recall as a deliberately partisan weapon probably would have stunned Johnson.
Like many other features of America’s electoral system, including the Electoral College, the California recall is buckling under the pressure of today’s hyper-partisanship. Johnson envisioned the recall as a tool for a majority of “the people” to protect themselves against a minority of “the interests.” But today it’s a minority of disaffected Republicans who are trying to overturn the majority’s vote. No Republican has won any major statewide office in California since 2006. A recall gives them better odds than a conventional election, partly because of the unusual up-down vote on the incumbent, and partly because turnout for special elections is so unpredictable.
“I don’t think the Progressives could have anticipated a situation like this,” Gendzel said, “where one party is repeatedly repudiated at the polls … and they simply use their financial advantages to force a redo … in which they hope to prevail because the conditions are different.”
Critics of the current law are beginning to discuss several options for changing California’s recall process. Among them are requiring proponents to prove some standard of malfeasance before placing a recall on the ballot (as seven of the 19 states with recall laws now require); allowing the incumbent to run on the replacement ballot; or simply raising the threshold of signatures required to qualify. The conventional wisdom in the state is that persuading voters to surrender any of the authority they currently have under the recall law will be extremely difficult, especially because any major changes would require a constitutional amendment. “I don’t think Newsom should be removed from office, but boy would I not want to run the campaign to make a recall harder to achieve,” Schnur said.
Yet other political observers believe that a failed recall against Newsom could trigger a reconsideration of the law. Political experts in both parties caution that the drive against Newsom could become a much closer call if conditions turn against him before the vote—if there’s a resurgence of the virus, extensive problems with the power grid or wildfires, or a wide-scale disruption to the reopening of schools in the fall, to name some examples. But if conditions remain steady or improve and the recall is resoundingly rejected, it may be possible to persuade both Democratic legislators and voters to back changes. “You have to tighten up these procedures and processes to make sure this is not some frivolous alternative that Republicans are using to gain power in California because they can’t win fair and square at the ballot box,” South told me.
Stutzman says that, after the Newsom experience, even Republicans should support retrenching the recall law. The threat the law poses to incumbents “would manifest itself even more acutely” if and when Republicans next elect a governor in the blue stronghold. “All of a sudden, a nurses’ union or teachers’ union could go out and do this to them,” he said. “Republicans should be in support of reform, because it would ultimately offer them more protection if they ever retake the office.”
California Republicans seem unlikely to heed that counsel. California Democrats, meanwhile, face a dynamic similar to the one confronting the national party in the raging battle over ballot access. Facing clear evidence that GOP governors and legislatures are rewriting voting laws in red states to hurt Democratic prospects, congressional Democrats still haven’t used their power to preempt that offensive with federal voting-rights legislation. California Democrats might be equally guilty of political malpractice if they don’t try to change the recall law while they have the power to do so, with clear indication from the GOP that Republicans will wield it as a weapon every chance they get.
Reopenings in Europe, coping with COVID-19 in India, kayak racing in Italy, artistic swimming in Budapest, an elephant-seal pup in California, a candlelight commemoration in Prague, a skateboard park in Texas, a Victory Day parade in Russia, protests in Colombia, and much more
Early in the action thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead, Angelina Jolie’s character, Hannah, straps on a parachute and hops onto the back of a pickup truck. As the vehicle snakes through the Montana wilderness, she deploys her gear and lifts off, laughing as she glides back down. Hannah’s a smoke jumper—a trained firefighter who drops into wildfires from above—and she’s clearly tough as hell.
Yet that’s about as much excitement as she gets in the film, which debuted yesterday on HBO Max and in theaters. Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the 2014 Michael Koryta novel and directed by Taylor Sheridan, marks Jolie’s return to the action genre after more than a decade away. At first glance, the film seems fit for the actor’s reentry. The story follows Connor (played by Finn Little), a boy on the run from assassins, who encounters Hannah after he witnesses his father’s murder. Hannah, still traumatized from her failure to stop a blaze that killed a group of hikers, vows to get him to safety before a forest fire wipes out the area. From the posters and trailers, Jolie appears to be the star, with Hannah serving as the emotional center of the ludicrous but propulsive story.
Instead, Jolie’s more of an ensemble player; for an action star, she sees little action. While other characters fight and show off their survival skills, Jolie spends most of her screen time hiking or crouching in the shadows with her pint-size companion. It’s a letdown to see Jolie limited by the thin role, and to see the film continue a Hollywood trend of diminishing her, and other older female action performers’, potential in the genre.
Jolie has said that she resumed taking onscreen jobs—she will also play anotherworldly superhero in the upcoming Eternals—partly because of “a change in my family situation,” referring to her ongoing divorce proceedings from Brad Pitt. For the past decade, the 45-year-old Jolie has mostly been behind the camera, directing dramas and documentaries while occasionally doing voice-over work (the Kung Fu Panda sequels, The One and Only Ivan). Her most visible acting role has been playing the Disney villain Maleficent; otherwise, she’s been pursuing humanitarian work or staying home. So it’s easy to see why Jolie chose Those Who Wish Me Dead: Hannah’s role doesn’t involve much martial-arts training, the movie is 100 minutes long, and the set pieces occur within a radius of only a few miles. Given Jolie’s long hiatus from action films, Those Who Wish Me Dead offers reliably low-stakes work.
Still, to see Jolie return to the genre at this stage in her career is unusual. Such movies used to dominate her filmography, but many of them restricted her performance while capitalizing on her stardom to sell tickets. Wanted,from 2008,featured Jolie prominently in marketing materials, but she was third-billed in the cast. Meanwhile, Salt, a 2010 spy caper led by Jolie, ended on a cliff-hanger but failed to yield sequels, despite the film raking in healthy box-office returns. And Jolie has been replaced by Alicia Vikander as the tomb raider Lara Croft, in Jolie’s most well-known action franchise.
Besides, 40-something actresses rarely lead action films—even though Jolie is 13 years younger than Tom Cruise, and 23 years younger than Liam Neeson. She is also the same age as Charlize Theron, one of the few female A-listers who’s managed to maintain a steady presence in the genre, yet who still got replaced in her career-defining role as Furiosa in the upcoming Mad Max prequel. (De-aging technology, it seems, is available only for the likes of Will Smith.)
A movie star of Jolie’s caliber could choose any project she wants, and as someone who’s confessed to having grown uncomfortable with acting, Jolie chooses carefully. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, she has said she saw a challenge in playing against her maternal instincts. In a scene where Connor finally reveals why he’s being hunted, Jolie’s face doesn’t soften around the boy; it hardens. Even as the script apparently forgets to explore Hannah’s personal trauma, Jolie maintains the emotional through line, capturing a fragile toughness to the character—her instincts are not to embrace Connor, but to avoid feeling anything that might shatter her. Her lines are brusque but lively, leaning into the film’s inherent ridiculousness and contributing a playfulness that the overly serious tone lacks.
Those Who Wish Me Dead could have risen to meet Jolie’s ability. But the film reflects the industry’s lack of imagination for an older female action star. Hannah’s arc is tired: a woman realizing the strength of her maternal instincts, the same arc given to a surfeit of other actors recentlypursuing actionafter acertain age. She gets beaten up relentlessly by the elements and her enemies, to the point of being tortured by one of the assassins, as if the writers believed viewers needed additional proof of Hannah’s toughness. (She does get to swing a pickax, but that’s not even the film’s money shot; that honor belongs to a scene led by Medina Senghore, who plays the pregnant wife of the deputy sheriff and wields a shotgun while on horseback.) And of course, while Hannah is cleaning her wounds, there’s an extraneous shot of her undressing. Though Sheridan has a track record of creating nuanced neo-Western thrillers such as Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River, he has indulged the action genre’s worst impulses here—gratuitous violence, black-and-white characterization. He leaves Jolie to do the heavy lifting in a film that, without her, would be destined for TNT.
As refreshing as it is to see Jolie return to the action genre, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a muted welcome back. The film stifles Jolie’s potential, leans into the skepticism that has dogged her throughout her career, and mishandles her star power. “There have been times in my life where I have felt—and maybe I’ve hidden them well from the public—where I have not felt free, I have not felt safe,” she said in 2019 of her celebrity. “I have felt small. I have felt cornered.” Playing a smoke jumper could have freed her—or at the very least, actually let her fight a fire. But once again, Jolie gets to be larger-than-life only on the billboards.