The Real Reason Trump Loves Putin

For nearly the entirety of the past decade, a question has stalked, and sometimes consumed, American politics: Why do Donald Trump and his acolytes heap such reverent praise on Vladimir Putin? The question is born of disbelief. Adoration of the Russian leader, who murders his domestic opponents, kidnaps thousands of Ukrainian children, and interferes in American presidential elections, is so hard to comprehend that it seems only plausibly explained by venal motives—thus the search to find the supposed kompromat the Kremlin lords over Trump or compromising business deals that Trump has pursued in Moscow.  

But there’s a deeper, more nefarious truth about people on the right’s baffling unwillingness to criticize the Kremlin: They actually share its worldview. Putin worship isn’t even an aberration in the history of conservatism, merely the latest instance of a long tradition of admiring foreign dictators. Over the past century, without ever really blushing, the American right has similarly celebrated the likes of Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco, and just about every Latin American military junta that called itself anti-communist.

The right hails these dictators as ideological comrades in the war to preserve traditional society, the values of order and patriarchy, against the assault of the decadent left. Unlike conservative politicians in the United States, these foreign leaders don’t even need to bother with mouthing encomiums to concepts like tolerance, freedom, and democracy. They can deliver reactionary politics in the unvarnished form that some hard-liners on the American right have always hoped would take root in their own country. As the journalist Jacob Heilbrunn argues in America Last, his history of conservatives’ romance with dictators, “Conservatives have searched for a paradise abroad that can serve as a model at home.”

Heilbrunn makes the interesting decision to begin his history on the eve of World War I. A primary villain in these chapters is the newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken, perhaps the most celebrated curmudgeon in the history of American letters. Walter Lippmann called him “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people.” A conservative movement as such did not exist in the earliest decades of the 20th century, just a constellation of reactionary intellectuals and their wealthy patrons who nodded in agreement, nostalgic for the antebellum South and a world before mass suffrage. Mencken, the most eloquent of the reactionaries, put their cantankerous thoughts into ornate, often quite funny prose.

Mencken believed fervently in the superiority of German civilization—and in the leadership of its racist, war-mongering monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm. This reverence stemmed from ancestral pride; Mencken’s paternal grandfather came from Saxony. But his affection for Germany also grew from his disdain of American democracy, which he believed ceded control of society to mediocre politicians. By contrast, he liked that Germany was “governed by an oligarchy of its best men.” Just before America officially entered World War I, he submitted an article to The Atlantic in which he imagined that Germany might one day conquer the United States and create a new utopia on its shores. Ellery Sedgwick, then the editor of this magazine, had the good sense to reject it. “I have no desire to foment treason,” Sedgwick wrote him.

[Jacob Heilbrunn]: Behind the American right’s fascination with Viktor Orbán

At the height of the war, Mencken worried that he might be persecuted for propagandizing for an enemy regime, so much so that he buried the German keepsakes he collected and a diary from his wartime visit to the country in his Baltimore backyard. But in the years that followed the conflict, he returned to extolling the virtues of Wilhelmine autocracy.  His publication, The American Mercury—perhaps the greatest literary journal of the age and also home to retrograde political opinions—ran revisionist accounts of the war, which shifted blame away from Germany.

Looking back on World War I, there were compelling conservative reasons for considering intervention a catastrophe. Financing the war required the imposition of a federal income tax, which never went away in peacetime. And no matter one’s political stripe, the war’s staggering body count was hard to justify. But what emerged on the right in the aftermath of the fighting wasn’t a form of pacifism—rather, it was a set of conspiratorial arguments that became a dishonorable tradition of isolationism. This pattern would repeat itself at the onset of every war: The isolationists would point an accusatory finger at bankers, whom they accused of being eager to profit off bloodshed. They would describe the authoritarian enemies of the United States as helpless victims, peaceful governments minding their own business. In the course of casting the dictators as the injured party, conservatives airbrushed their records of militarism and racism. Minimizing these sins wasn’t just a matter of rhetorical convenience; it was an act of sympathy. In the case of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, a significant segment of the intellectual American right shared their racialist views about the superiority of Nordic peoples.  

Heilbrunn isn’t the first to tell the story of the right’s barely submerged affinity for Hitler. Philip Roth’s great counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America, takes this affinity as its premise—and as does Rachel Maddow’s recently published history, Prequel. But it’s always bracing to be reminded of how former President Herbert Hoover made excuses for Hitler before the war and how the press baron William Randolph Hearst commissioned stories by him.

The biggest fans of fascist autocracy weren’t yokels shaking their pitchforks, but cultivated patricians from the oldest New England families. Benito Mussolini’s American fan section consisted of the eminent literary critic Irving Babbitt, a legendary Harvard professor, and the modernist poet Ezra Pound. Not just Hearst but also Henry Ford and others among the nation’s richest men were some of the chief apologists for Nazi Germany. Their attraction—sometimes subconscious, but quite often stated flatly—was born of fear that America was slipping away from them, as immigrants poured into the country and mass democracy took hold. Fascism represented a hopeful example of a revanchist elite reversing the tide.

Hitler’s defeat, and the full knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust, did little to spur the right to rethink its admiration of authoritarianism. In fact, the historian Fred Siegel once described the late 1940s and early ’50s as the moment when the isolationists attempted to exact revenge. Senator Joe McCarthy and his allies tried to tear down the reputations of the internationalist proponents of the New Deal who most fervently advocated for the war, by smearing them as Communists. But McCarthy was also waging a retrospective argument about World War II: that the Americans had no claim to superiority over the Germans. When he burst onto the scene, in 1949, McCarthy held hearings into what he described as the mistreatment of a Nazi Panzer division, on trial for murdering dozens of American prisoners of war. McCarthy speciously argued that the Germans were being tried on trumped-up evidence. Such accusations about America’s supposed abusive treatment of Nazis became a right-wing trope. Henry Regnery’s publishing house provided an outlet for criticism of the Nuremberg trials, before it went on to print books by William F. Buckley, James Burnham, and Whitaker Chambers that launched the modern conservative movement.

[Adam Serwer]: Conservatives are defending a sanitized version of ‘the Great Replacement’

In its Cold War guise, the revived right made the celebration of autocrats abroad a foundation of its foreign policy. Buckley’s magazine, National Review, the flagship of the movement, published regular panegyrics to anti-communist generalissimos, heaping adoration on the likes of the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Portugal’s Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, and Spain’s Francisco Franco. Regardless of how many opponents they murdered or how many dissidents wasted away in their jails, they were described as the true defenders of Christendom against the heathen mob. The implication was that these dictators weren’t just on the right side of the Cold War; they possessed spine and ideological fervor that American leaders lacked.

Because the American right was so quick to extol foreign dictators in hyperbolic terms, its members were frequently treated like suckers by those regimes. During the Reagan era, the lobbyist Paul Manafort—who would go on to be Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman—made a fantastically lucrative living by trying to bolster the image of  autocrats as latter-day incarnations of Thomas Jefferson. In the late ’80s, Manafort took the Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi, a former Maoist, and whisked him around Washington think tanks, touting him as a “freedom fighter.” That label required overlooking, among other inconvenient facts, how Savimbi’s army conscripted women into sexual slavery.

The Cold War, at least, provided a plausible geostrategic case for supporting these goons—and many of the socialist movements they battled were unsavory in their own ways. In fact, one school of foreign-policy thought, embodied in the realism of Henry Kissinger, a name that goes strangely unmentioned in Heilbrunn’s book, argued that alliances with dictators made sense on purely utilitarian grounds. Aligning with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and the apartheid government in South Africa was a matter of national interest, nothing more, nothing less. The moral calculus of realism was repugnant in its own way, because it turned a blind eye to human suffering caused by dictatorships. But it was very different from the right-wing celebration of autocracy, which was a matter of shared values. That reactionary faction of the right continued to espouse affection for dictatorship even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was no longer an overriding foreign-policy justification for championing such regimes. Those affections persisted, because the impulse to find an alternative to America’s democracy persisted.

Heilbrunn’s book opens with verve, then becomes a touch slapdash as the narrative drives toward the present. Even though Trumpism is his hook, Heilbrunn spends exceedingly few pages on the subject. But the present moment should be the shocking culmination of his narrative: Foreign dictators are now thoroughly attuned to the tendency that America Last describes. How else to explain why Putin grants exclusive interviews to Tucker Carlson, or why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hosted a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee? These autocrats understand that the American right’s tendency to treat its favored leaders, domestic and foreign, with servile devotion makes it a supremely useful ally. If Trump returns to power, Putin can count on him to turn a blind eye to his military adventures, and Orbán can count on him to refrain from criticism of his power grabs.

But what makes Heilbrunn’s history, ultimately, so poignant is that the American right no longer needs to project its displaced desires onto leaders in other countries. It doesn’t have to shop abroad for a tribune who channels the movement’s deepest, most subversive desires. Trump is the foreign dictator that they craved all along.

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Why the Best Singers Can’t Always Sing Their Own Songs

Almost one-third of the way through Usher’s performance at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, Alicia Keys appeared, attached to a billowing red cape and seated at a matching piano. As the Grammys-festooned pop and R&B singer-songwriter gently played the opening arpeggios of one of her biggest hits, 2004’s “If I Ain’t Got You,” something small but unexpected happened. Instead of easing into the song with the first verse, Keys skipped straight to the chorus—and right on the dramatic opening note, her famously velvety-smooth singing voice noticeably cracked.

In the immediate aftermath, viewers were strikingly quick to pounce on Keys—in the press as well as on social media—for her perceived vocal transgression. Adding to the furor, the sound of Keys’s voice cracking was edited out in the official video uploaded by the NFL. An otherwise-fleeting memory had seemingly fallen prey to pop music’s version of the Mandela effect (a phenomenon where people collectively misremember events). And, as a result, Keys’s performance became a lightning rod for casual music critics and prophets of technological dystopia alike.

Talk to professional singers or voice teachers, though, and any glitches or postproduction fixes are less remarkable than the fact that, unlike so many Super Bowl halftime performers, Keys dared to do it live in the first place (rather than simply lip-synch). The human voice was the only instrument on the stage that could not be replaced with backup equipment in case of failure, and it’s susceptible to dry desert air, smoke machines, and other environmental hazards of performing a pop concert at a Las Vegas football stadium. There’s also the general unpredictability of putting enormous muscle pressure on the vocal cords, which are just thumbnail-size folds of tissue inside the larynx. If a live performer reliable enough to be the singing, piano-playing host of two consecutive Grammys ceremonies could falter on the world’s biggest stage, it’s worth contemplating why so many lesser mortals attempt to raise their voices in song at all—and the thrilling rewards that come with turning in a flawless performance.

The style of singing that has been prevalent in pop music ever since rock and roll—the booming, belting, and, yes, often yelling that succeeded the dulcet tones of traditional confections such as “(How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window?”—is almost inevitably unkind to vocal cords. Just ask Miley Cyrus, who has been admirably open about how decades of touring damaged her voice, or Jon Bon Jovi, who at 61 is recovering from a career-threatening throat ailment. Singers including Adele and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan have undergone vocal-cord surgery; Celine Dion famously didn’t speak when she was on tour. Keys herself canceled shows in 2008, near the peak of her popularity on the charts, because of swollen vocal cords.

Michael Dean, a voice-performance professor at UCLA who has seen Keys perform “many times,” draws a parallel to ballet, an art form that by its very nature destroys dancers’ feet. “Opera singers and jazz singers, to a certain extent, use breath pressure to make their sounds, which is just fine for the voice,” Dean says, referring to the sort of airflow techniques that allow, say, a prima donna to be heard without amplification over an orchestra. Pop, R&B, and rock singers, he says, use “muscle pressure” to push louder and higher: “It is inherently injurious to the voice to do that.” Vocal cords can generate nearly limitless varieties of sounds, but they can take only so much strain. (Steroid shots are one option for reducing inflammation, although they are best used in moderation due to long-term side effects.)

[Read: Everyone can sing]

Pop vocals, then, routinely run up against the physical limits of the human body. Yet what makes a song difficult to sing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having to hit a particularly tricky note. “It’s not the song range,” Anne Peckham, the chair of the voice department at Berklee College of Music, told me. “It’s the power and volume that is used to make an emotional impact. When you’re singing with that kind of power, sometimes the voice just says, I’m not quite ready for that.” Geoff Rickly of the post-hardcore band Thursday told me he feels Keys’s pain, having experienced vocal issues before a performance, more than 20 years ago, on Late Night With Conan O’Brien—a huge opportunity that didn’t go as well as he’d hoped for. Right now his voice is worn-out just in time for a succession of financially unskippable tour dates. “It’s usually the note you use the most that goes out first,” Rickly explained. “A good singer like [Keys] doesn’t miss the note. She goes for the note, and her voice just won’t. Your vocal cords paralyze for a second.”

That said, some songs are still more difficult than others, and “If I Ain’t Got You” isn’t easy. Inès Nassara, a singer-songwriter and an actor based in Brooklyn, told me that there are some tunes where she can coast, but for Keys’s song, “I just have to think about my training more.” Psychology matters too: Nassara remembers one time when she had to sing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” for an audition but was sick that day. “Singing is so mental that because of that one day that I didn’t really nail it, it’s been hard for me to sing it ever since,” she said. Other numbers that have challenged her over the course of three-hour gigs as a wedding singer include Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”—“It just gets really high even for a femme voice”—and various hits by lofty-voiced male singers such as Stevie Wonder, Bruno Mars, and Justin Timberlake. “If you don’t pace yourself, the night can get really long.”

Of course, it’s not only trained singers who take on songs that might give our larynges a fright. Sara Sherr, a former music critic and a Philadelphia karaoke DJ since 2006, says Jennifer Hudson’s version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” are the songs she has most often heard trip up singers. But for her, the potential for imperfection is part of the point. Karaoke performances are always addressed to a theoretical someone, even if they take place in front of a big crowd—they express feelings that can’t be stated through words alone. “It’s almost more effective if you’re missing half the notes,” Sherr told me. “That’s vulnerability.” When a professional slips up, it’s surprising; when amateurs do, it can be a way of conveying how much they mean what they’re singing.

Singers may choose to make songs easier for themselves, either by changing the notes or by shifting into a lighter register known as a “head voice.” But when you’re telling a story through music, the tightrope drama may be essential to the plot. Viewers might be comfortable opining on vocal performances like an armchair Simon Cowell, but even the biggest breakout stars of TV singing contests, such as Susan Boyle, have their voices crack sometimes. Marlain Angelides, the singer for the “All Girls All Zeppelin” cover band Lez Zeppelin, has been told by a speech therapist that she’s running a marathon with each of her two-hour concerts. But the grit and mess of a singer such as Robert Plant is a reminder of how the human body can sound when unaided by omnipresent digital technology such as Auto-Tune. “When we cry, our voice cracks,” Angelides told me. “When you sing, it’s a heightened version of how we feel. Why not have a crack?” No, Keys’s momentary lapse in Vegas certainly wouldn’t have been ideal from a critic’s standpoint—but it is an ideal example of the vertiginous risk that is at the heart of live pop music.

The singer-songwriter Madi Diaz has misgivings about her own televised performance, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, on the Friday before the Super Bowl. “Oh God, it wasn’t my strongest,” Diaz told me. As for Keys, Diaz reflected: “Olympians trip, dude. It just happens.” What’s different in 2024, perhaps, is the capacity for a televised gig to instantaneously ricochet across the globe and become a meme. Such a combination of fallibility and hyper-exposure seems like all the more reason to celebrate the enduring and deeply human bravery of live performance. As the late David Berman of the indie-rock band Silver Jews once sang, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.”

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The Man Who Now Controls the U.S. Border

In early January, I drove along the Pan-American Highway in the scenic Mexican state of Oaxaca. On the opposite side of the road, the Mexican National Guard had erected a temporary roadblock. A line of cars heading north had halted. Uniformed officers walked down the line, questioning drivers. They were searching for migrants bound for the United States.

A few hours later, I returned by the same route. I braced myself for the obstruction and delay. There was none. The roadblock had vanished.

In the effort to contain unauthorized migration to the U.S., Mexico is an on-again, off-again partner. Sometimes it helps more; sometimes less.

In 2022, Mexico detained almost 320,000 migrants and expelled 106,000, according to a condemnatory report by Amnesty International. Detainees were held under conditions much harsher than would be allowed in the U.S. A migrant from El Salvador described the facility where he was held in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border town adjoining El Paso, Texas. As NPR reported in 2023:

There was no water and scant food. There was no toilet paper and no running water in the two open-air toilets. Sewage spilled onto the floor. The migrants were getting desperate, clamoring for help and pleading to not be deported home, but guards from Mexico’s immigration agency were increasingly dismissive. “I asked for water and a guard responded, ‘You want it, give me 500 pesos,’” the migrant from El Salvador recalls. That’s about $30. To migrants’ demands for water, another guard said, “Go back to your own country and complain there.”

To protest the conditions, some migrants from Venezuela set fire to a foam sleeping mat. The guards, subcontracted civilians, feared a mass breakout. They refused to open the doors. The fire spread. Of the 67 men and 15 women crammed into two cells, 40 perished—some immediately, others after days of suffering. Another 27 survived despite severe burns and other injuries. The migrant who spoke with NPR was one of those few survivors.

In 2019, the Trump administration imposed a “Remain in Mexico” policy on asylum-seeking migrants. After much political and legal back-and-forth in the United States, Mexico definitively withdrew from the “Remain in Mexico” program in February 2023. But the mass death at the Ciudad Juárez detention facility the following month is a reminder of Mexico’s continuing role in U.S. border enforcement and the grim human consequences of delegating the job to Mexico. If America’s inconsistent and unpredictable asylum policy were less enticing, fewer people would be tempted to invest the money and incur the hazards of crossing Mexico to reach the United States. The United States flashes the message “You can probably stay if you get here” and then quietly looks to its southern neighbor to magnify the dangers of that tempting if.

[Reihan Salam: An unexpected solution to the migrant crisis]

Delegating the job of border enforcement to Mexico also creates opportunities for Mexican leaders to influence U.S. politics. At a press conference in December, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shared a slide showing the month-by-month tally of unauthorized crossings into the U.S. After a lull in the summer of 2023, entries spiked in the second half of the year, exceeding 250,000 that month. An American president up for reelection might look at that slideshow from his Mexican counterpart and see not merely an analysis but a threat about the trouble that the counterpart could stir or soothe.

The migrant traffic has slowed in the first weeks of 2024. The border deal that failed to pass the U.S. Senate earlier this month was intended to reassert American control over entry into the U.S. Rejection of the deal shifts power over the border, back into López Obrador’s eager hands.

Mexico faces an election of its own in June. López Obrador’s name will not appear on the ballot. Since the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution a century ago, the taboo against presidents’ reelection has hardened to near absolute. López Obrador has broken many rules over his six-year presidency, but the no-reelection rule is too sacred even for him to discard. Instead, he has selected a desired successor, and he is ruthlessly manipulating the Mexican electoral system to ensure her victory.

[David Frum: Mexico is incubating an autocrat next door]

Until the mid-1990s, Mexico was ruled by a single party. Opposition parties were tolerated, so long as they accepted that they would never be allowed to gain or exercise power. Opposition politicians who pushed the limits of the one-party system would be harassed, intimidated, or (as a last resort) assassinated. Elections were held at regular intervals, but they were shamelessly manipulated by the state apparatus in the ruling party’s favor.

As Mexico democratized after 1994, laws were adopted to prohibit the bad practices bequeathed by 75 years of authoritarian rule. If Mexico’s election protocols seem strangely strict by American or European standards, each detail responds to a previous history of abuse. So if a governing party violates Mexico’s typically stringent rules, that’s an action more ominous than mere cheating. It implies a determination to restore the bad old days when the government decided the elections, rather than the elections deciding the government.

In ways large and small, the López Obrador administration is twisting election rules for partisan advantage. In an essay last year, I described López Obrador’s damage to Mexico’s independent electoral commission. Since then, the president has turned against the Mexican Supreme Court too. He has proposed that judges be elected in partisan contests, ones that he expects his party to control and win. Failing that, he is using loopholes in Mexican law to bypass the constitution’s advise-and-consent measures in order to install loyalists on the 11-member high court.

The United States might at another time have raised objections to López Obrador’s attacks on Mexican democratic institutions. But the Biden administration has kept quiet. López Obrador has proclaimed again and again his preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. The Mexican president lavished Trump with praise and deferred to Trump’s denial of the 2020 presidential-election outcome. López Obrador knows that Trump will say and do nothing to uphold Mexican democracy, whereas he fears that a reelected Biden might. López Obrador’s leading rival for the presidency, Xóchitl Gálvez, told me in Washington, D.C., last week, “President López Obrador blackmails America with the issue of immigrants.”

Gálvez is an up-from-poverty member of the Mexican Senate. She started her career in the National Action Party (PAN), a business-oriented, socially conservative party based in the north of the country. But she has also been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and abortion rights, stances that have helped win her support from the traditional party of the left, the Party of Revolutionary Democracy (PRD). By building a broad ideological coalition, she has united most of Mexico’s normally fractious opposition parties behind her campaign for president.

A third candidate, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, is offering his own even more idiosyncratic fusion of left-of-center economics—Álvarez Máynez’s father was a founder of the Mexican Communist Party—with liberal values on abortion and gay rights, praise for the anti-crime crackdown in El Salvador, and support for Ukraine against López Obrador’s visible partiality for Russia. So far, Álvarez Máynez trails a distant third in the polls.

I attended a Gálvez rally in Oaxaca City in early January. Among the crowd, people wearing the yellow shirts of the PRD outnumbered supporters in the blue-and-white colors of the PAN by a margin of at least three to one.

To run against López Obrador takes real physical courage. Mexico suffers acutely from criminal violence, and has a homicide rate almost triple that of the United States. The bloodshed stains politics, too. Ninety-seven candidates in the 2021 municipal, state, and congressional elections were murdered, according to a Mexican security consultancy.

Much of this violence originates in local criminal disputes, but there’s no mistaking the ensuing pattern: Opposition candidates are at much greater risk than pro-government ones. In 2021, the opposition coalition recruited a former Olympic athlete, Zudikey Rodríguez, as its candidate for mayor of a popular resort town in Mexico State. Rodríguez was kidnapped by gangsters who reportedly said they were ordered to murder her but mercifully spared her life. Although Rodríguez was eventually released and, despite the threat, resumed campaigning shortly before polling day, López Obrador’s Morena party held the mayor’s seat.  

Last month, ProPublica published an investigation based on U.S. intelligence assessments that criminal cartels had contributed millions of dollars to support López Obrador’s unsuccessful 2006 bid for the presidency. López Obrador has angrily denied these allegations.

At other times, López Obrador has seemingly gone out of his way to show deference to crime figures—most notoriously in a video clip from 2020 that showed him walking down a dirt road toward a car in which sat the mother of the crime lord known as El Chapo. She reached out of the car window to shake the president’s hand. When the video became public, López Obrador praised El Chapo’s mother as a “respectable old lady” and demanded to know whether he was supposed to have ignored her offered hand. Not he but his critics, he said in that same press conference, were the ones who truly threatened legality in Mexico.

[Anne Applebaum: How do you stop lawmakers from destroying the law?]

Gálvez alleged that criminal funding of the Morena party continues today. In our interview, she cited reports that large sums of money derived from gasoline smuggling have entered politics, and that most of that money has gone to pro-government parties.

Against the challenge from Gálvez, López Obrador has cast his support behind a party ally named Claudia Sheinbaum, a former mayor of Mexico City. This has set up a historic first for Mexico: a two-woman contest for the presidency. Another novelty is that Sheinbaum has Jewish family on both her mother’s and father’s sides, although she herself makes little of her ancestry. She started her political career on the doctrinaire-socialist left and has never been involved in any form of Jewish communal life. She has been seen on the campaign trail wearing a crucifix necklace. In February, she presented a silver rose blessed by Pope Francis to the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important Catholic pilgrimage site. Although Morena is often described as a left-wing party, its appeal is also strongly religious and culturally conservative. Morena is an acronym for Movement of National Renewal, but the word is also an affectionate nickname for the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, “the brown one.”

López Obrador is genuinely popular in Mexico. During his tenure, Mexico overtook China as the top trading partner of the United States, and the peso has strengthened against the dollar. López Obrador has redirected state expenditure from social-insurance programs that favored Mexicans in the tax-paying formal economy to more universal cash grants that assist all Mexicans, whether they work on or off the books. López Obrador’s political persona speaks to what you might call “Middle Mexico.” He’s hostile to the white-skinned business elite in their fancy towers in Mexico City, but he’s no socialist; he is noisily anti-American but accepts the benefits of trade with the U.S.; he uses the language of the ideological left while relying on folk medicine and religious talismans to protect himself from COVID-19.

How that popularity might be transferred to his preferred successor is not straightforward. A highly credentialed energy engineer, Sheinbaum is not a master of the common touch. That’s why López Obrador is working so hard to curtail democratic choice for her benefit. Under the pressure of electioneering, López Obrador’s authoritarian tendencies are growing worse. After The New York Times recently reported on a critical investigation of him, he retaliated by reading aloud the cellphone number of the paper’s Mexico bureau chief—an invasion of privacy that is not only illegal under Mexican law but also could endanger the reporter (Mexico being one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists).

In past election cycles, a president’s authority would fade as soon as a successor was nominated. Not this time. López Obrador remains very much the man in charge. “I have two adversaries,” Gálvez said in our interview, “López Obrador and Sheinbaum.” Of those two, she implied, the former represents the biggest challenge.

Sheinbaum may be the immediate beneficiary of López Obrador’s plans for a state-rigged Mexican election. But López Obrador is the architect of those plans—and their outcome will shape the future not only of Mexico but also of the United States.  

If immigration proves to be one of Biden’s greatest weaknesses in 2024—and a top issue for the Republicans—then the Democratic incumbent, too, will face two adversaries: both Trump and his ally López Obrador. Trump’s interference defeated the Senate deal that would have helped Biden close the door to unauthorized migrants. Instead, López Obrador will now get to decide how many migrants are allowed to go through.

[Read: Who’s afraid of Mexican populism?]

The Mexican president will remain in office until his elected successor is inaugurated on the first of October, little more than a month before the U.S. election. He can, if he so chooses, intensify or calm the crisis at the border. In so doing, he will be able to shape to his will the mood over a central issue in the U.S. presidential election. By rejecting the Senate border deal at Trump’s command, congressional Republicans have maximized López Obrador’s sway over U.S. politics.

A year ago, I called López Obrador the “autocrat next door.” Now the autocrat next door may help decide whether the United States will be doomed to a return of the autocrat at home.

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AI Is Taking Water From the Desert

One scorching day this past September, I made the dangerous decision to try to circumnavigate some data centers. The ones I chose sit between a regional airport and some farm fields in Goodyear, Arizona, half an hour’s drive west of downtown Phoenix. When my Uber pulled up beside the unmarked buildings, the temperature was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. The air crackled with a latent energy, and some kind of pulsating sound was emanating from the electric wires above my head, or maybe from the buildings themselves. With no shelter from the blinding sunlight, I began to lose my sense of what was real.

Microsoft announced its plans for this location, and two others not so far away, back in 2019—a week after the company revealed its initial $1 billion investment in OpenAI, the buzzy start-up that would later release ChatGPT. From that time on, OpenAI began to train its models exclusively on Microsoft’s servers; any query for an OpenAI product would flow through Microsoft’s cloud-computing network, Azure. In part to meet that demand, Microsoft has been adding data centers at a stupendous rate, spending more than $10 billion on cloud-computing capacity in every quarter of late. One semiconductor analyst called this “the largest infrastructure buildout that humanity has ever seen.”

I’d traveled out to Arizona to see it for myself. The Goodyear site stretched along the road farther than my eyes could see. A black fence and tufts of desert plants lined its perimeter. I began to walk its length, clutching my phone and two bottles of water. According to city documents, Microsoft bought 279 acres for this location. For now, the plot holds two finished buildings, thick and squat, with vents and pipes visible along their sides. A third building is under construction, and seven more are on the way. Each will be decked out with rows of servers and computers that must be kept below a certain temperature. The complex has been designated partly for OpenAI’s use, according to a person familiar with the plan. (Both Microsoft and OpenAI declined to comment on this assertion.) And Microsoft plans to absorb its excess heat with a steady flow of air and, as needed, evaporated drinking water. Use of the latter is projected to reach more than 50 million gallons every year.

That might be a burden in the best of times. As of 2023, it seemed absurd. Phoenix had just endured its hottest summer ever, with 55 days of temperatures above 110 degrees. The weather strained electrical grids and compounded the effects of the worst drought the region has faced in more than a millennium. The Colorado River, which provides drinking water and hydropower throughout the region, has been dwindling. Farmers have already had to fallow fields, and a community on the eastern outskirts of Phoenix went without tap water for most of the year.

After I’d walked for 20 minutes in the sun, my own water supply was nearly out. I’d managed to traverse only two sides of the data center, but it was time to call it quits. My face and neck were red, and my eyes had sprouted flecks of pink. If I wanted to continue my tour the next day, there were dozens of other facilities I could visit in the area, including those run by Apple, Amazon, Meta, and, soon, Google. Not too far from California, and with plenty of cheap land, Greater Phoenix is among the fastest-growing hubs in the U.S. for data centers.

The American Southwest has become the site of a collision between two civilization-defining trends. In this desert heat, the explosive growth of generative AI is pitched against a changing climate’s treacherous extremes. The situation is already bad enough to worry residents in Goodyear, as several told me on my visit. And it’s only going to get worse.

Microsoft, the biggest tech firm on the planet, has made ambitious plans to tackle climate change. In 2020, it pledged to be carbon-negative (removing more carbon than it emits each year) and water-positive (replenishing more clean water than it consumes) by the end of the decade. But the company also made an all-encompassing commitment to OpenAI, the most important maker of large-scale AI models. In so doing, it helped kick off a global race to build and deploy one of the world’s most resource-intensive digital technologies.

Microsoft operates more than 300 data centers around the world, and in 2021 declared itself “on pace to build between 50 and 100 new datacenters each year for the foreseeable future.” The dual task of laying down those new facilities and making them sustainable has fallen to Noelle Walsh, the head of Microsoft’s data-center division. Walsh told me the company is moving aggressively to reach its end-of-the-decade environmental benchmarks. It’s partnering with power providers to bring more solar and wind energy online. It’s investing in fusion companies and researching new battery designs. It’s working across water-stressed regions, including Arizona, to put water back into local lakes and rivers. “Even with our surge in demand and surge in AI,” she said, “our 2025 goals have stayed the same, and so have our 2030 goals.”

But all of this work takes time—including years of consultation with local authorities, power providers, and communities, as well as risky, long-term bets on basic research. In comparison, the AI explosion happened overnight. On an earnings call last summer, Microsoft told investors that the Azure OpenAI Service was bringing in new customers at a rate of nearly 100 a day. Executives have gushed about the AI boom and suggested that the technology might even help save the climate. Internally, they’re boasting about the wonders it has done for Microsoft’s business. “Every now and then it’s great to take a step back and marvel at just how far we’ve come in just one year,” Eric Boyd, the corporate vice president of the AI platform, wrote in an August 2023 email to his division. In another, from last April, he wrote that the company would be “infusing AI” into all of its cloud solutions. Coca-Cola, Office Depot, Shell, and the Department of Defense were already among the customers with access to Azure’s OpenAI features, including ChatGPT and GPT-4, he said across several emails last year.

[Read: The internet’s next great power suck]

Public data hint at the potential toll of this approach. Researchers at UC Riverside estimated last year, for example, that global AI demand could cause data centers to suck up 1.1 trillion to 1.7 trillion gallons of freshwater by 2027. A separate study from a university in the Netherlands, this one peer-reviewed, found that AI servers’ electricity demand could grow, over the same period, to be on the order of 100 terawatt hours per year, about as much as the entire annual consumption of Argentina or Sweden. Microsoft’s own environmental reports show that, during the initial uptick in the AI platform’s growth, the company’s resource consumption was accelerating. In fiscal year 2022, the most recent year for which Microsoft has released data, the tech giant’s use of water and electricity grew by about a third; in absolute terms, it was the company’s largest-ever reported increase, year to year.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company will continue to invest in ways to mitigate the climate crisis, including those based on AI. He also noted that even as the use of data centers had exploded in recent years, their electricity consumption has grown far more slowly because of innovations in efficiency.

Microsoft has sought to “be a good neighbor,” Walsh said. In Arizona, the company is funding projects for conserving and restoring water. But it acknowledged that most of these upstream efforts support Goodyear residents only indirectly. Many of the company’s other efforts to address its environmental impacts also suffer from limitations: Carbon offsets and clean-energy power-purchase agreements may help Microsoft achieve carbon-negative and water-positive operations on paper, but they don’t necessarily net out the effects on local communities, or anyone else for that matter. The power-purchase agreements, for example, give utility providers money up front to build more renewable-energy or carbon-free-energy capacity, but not necessarily on the grids that Microsoft uses. That means the company’s data centers may still be running on fossil fuels and generating emissions, while clean energy is being underutilized somewhere else. “Purchasing clean energy is not the same as physically consuming clean energy,” Microsoft wrote in its own 2023 white paper about decarbonizing the cloud. The Microsoft spokesperson said that the company’s data centers hook into “large, interconnected electricity grids” that draw from thousands of power plants, including renewable ones supported by Microsoft’s purchase agreements, but that it isn’t possible to specify the exact source of the electricity consumed.

[Read: Why Amazon’s data centers are hidden in spy country]

Walsh said her team seeks to go above and beyond what global sustainability standards require. She wants to make sure that, by the end of the decade, any renewable or carbon-free energy that Microsoft purchases is connected directly to the power grids that it runs on. The company is transitioning some data centers, including those in Arizona, to designs that use less or no water, cooling themselves instead with giant fans. Her team is also working with steel and concrete suppliers to make the building materials for each data center more sustainable, and she’d like to see server components recycled whenever possible.

In the meantime, though, Microsoft has been reluctant to provide customers with specific details on the environmental impacts of their cloud-service needs. A series of internal memos, written from 2020 to 2022 by a group of employees from across the company, proposed giving Azure customers new tools to measure the carbon footprint of their cloud use, for AI and otherwise, according to four former employees who saw these documents, and who requested anonymity to safeguard their future job prospects. But these ideas were sidelined, they said. The group proposed, for example, to publish the energy and water efficiency of every Microsoft data center, so customers could make more informed choices about which ones to use, per two of the former employees who were there when some of the memos were presented to leadership. Microsoft executives expressed concern, they said, that some of the company’s data centers would end up showing worse performance than Google’s. (Google has been posting facility-specific energy-efficiency numbers for years.)

The Microsoft spokesperson said the company is constantly improving the sustainability of its data centers and committed to providing transparency to its customers. Indeed, Microsoft has released some tools to help customers estimate their carbon emissions based on regional averages. In late 2022, Walsh and her team put out average water- and energy-efficiency numbers for data centers in 28 regions across the globe, but not for specific facilities. (The Microsoft spokesperson said the information is provided at a regional and not facility level because customers can choose only among different regions.) A former employee told me that there was much more the company could do. “Microsoft is being lazy,” he said.

On the fast track to dehydration, I called another Uber to bring me from the data center back to my hotel. Even that simple act, it occurred to me, required a data center not unlike the ones right next to me. A facility like this would have to connect the ping from my cellphone to Uber’s driver network in order to find me a ride home.

Exactly how much power does this Goodyear data center use, and how much of it is renewable? Neither Microsoft nor the local utility company would say. As for water use, a records request to the city returned documents with all of the numbers redacted; a representative for the city said the numbers were “considered proprietary by Microsoft.” But a report that Microsoft filed with the city council provides at least an estimate. An analysis commissioned by the company anticipates that when construction for the third building is complete, the complex will use about 56 million gallons of drinking water each year, equivalent to the amount used by 670 Goodyear families.

In other words, a campus of servers pumping out ChatGPT replies from the Arizona desert is not about to make anyone go thirsty. Barbara Chappell, Goodyear’s water-services director, told me the city’s relationship with Microsoft on the whole hasn’t given her cause for concern. But the supply of water in the region is quite limited, and the more that’s taken up by data centers, the less there is for, say, supplying tap water to new housing. “We’re going to have to make tough choices in the near future to make sure our state is protected for future generations,” Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes told me. “Allowing one more data center to come to our state is an easy but stupid decision in a lot of cases. It’s like the cotton candy of economic development.”

For Chandler, a city some 40 miles away from Goodyear, in the wealthier East Valley area of Greater Phoenix, the benefits of more data-center investments weren’t worth the water and energy costs, Micah Miranda, the city’s economic-development director, told me. Chandler already hosts seven data-center complexes, the city said; in 2015 and 2022, the city passed two ordinances that effectively limited how many more could come in.

[Read: The tech industry is producing a rising din]

Goodyear sits in the less economically developed West Valley, and had more incentive to cut a deal. At a reveal event in 2019, Brian Janous, then Microsoft’s general manager of energy and renewables, described the project as win-win. As of 2021, the company had provided more than $1 million for advancing STEM education, training workers, and revitalizing the environment, such as planting trees and cleaning up rivers, according to a press release. Microsoft was also well aware of Phoenix’s environmental concerns, Janous said at the event, and fully intended for its facilities in Goodyear and just next door in El Mirage to be “among the most sustainably designed data centers in the world.” Whenever the temperature outside was below 85 degrees, they would be cooled without water, he promised.

But temperatures in Goodyear clear 85 degrees on most days of the year. Furthermore, at the time the deal was struck, Microsoft had yet to face the unprecedented AI surge. City documents have since logged four amendments to Microsoft’s data-center construction. “It’s always changed. It’s changed numerous times,” Chappell said, later adding, “We can’t keep up.”

AI didn’t create these problems, but it’s certainly making them worse. According to Walsh, AI applications are among the most computationally intensive that Azure supports, which creates a need for more data centers overall while also upping the energy and cooling demands at each one. On top of that, generative-AI applications in particular can be orders of magnitude more energy-intensive than the predictive-AI applications that came before. “We still don’t appreciate the energy needs of this technology,” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said in January at Davos. “There’s no way to get there without a breakthrough.” In the meantime, tensions over data centers’ water use are cropping up not just in Arizona but also in Oregon, Uruguay, and England, among other places in the world.

As I wrapped up my trip to Arizona, preparations at Microsoft were in full swing to promote its own, very different narrative at the world’s most important climate event of the year. In the run up to the United Nations’ Conference of Parties, held this past fall in Dubai, Big Tech firms were proudly claiming that AI is not so much a source of new emissions as it is a way to lower them, by making batteries and buildings more efficient, for example, and reducing food waste. (This is mainly true of predictive-AI models, Sasha Luccioni, a researcher and climate lead at the AI firm Hugging Face, told me. The generative ones have yet to demonstrate significant environmental benefits that would justify their mounting footprint.) At the same time, Microsoft announced a new partnership with the UN that would use AI to help track global carbon emissions. “Simply put, you can’t fix what you can’t measure,” the company’s president, Brad Smith, said in a statement released by the company at the time.

In the background, though, Microsoft was withholding important measures and projections. Before the climate conference, the company sent around publicity materials for internal review. Some employees responded that they were concerned, according to screenshots of internal messages. The documents minimized the mounting energy costs of AI, they told the company’s leaders; perhaps Microsoft should instead disclose internal estimates of how those costs might rise in years to come.

Walsh confirmed to me that her team did indeed keep those internal estimates—one for commercial-cloud growth, and one for AI. I asked her what they said. “I can’t tell you that,” she replied. By corporate standards, it was an ordinary response. Yet the circumstances have never been more extraordinary. When I asked the company how an accelerating use of natural resources might affect Microsoft’s plan to erase its carbon footprint altogether by the end of the decade, the spokesman answered in broad terms: “We remain optimistic regarding our collective ability to decarbonize the global economy while continuing to grow and prosper as a global community.” With more than 8,000 data centers whirring all around the world and venting heat, and many more on their way, that optimism may come off as nothing more than faith: Technology has gotten us into this predicament; perhaps technology will get us out of it.

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With Trump’s SCOTUS Appeal, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

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Sometimes the law mandates delay and no one can do anything about it. But there is nothing mandatory at all about what the Supreme Court has done with Donald Trump’s appeal. On the contrary, the decision to hear his petition for presidential immunity and delay his criminal trial for the January 6 insurrection is an affirmative choice.

When Richard Nixon’s appeal of the order to turn over his presidential tapes was pending, the Supreme Court had a choice—and it chose to act quickly. The district-court decision requiring Nixon to produce the tapes was issued on May 31, 1974. The Supreme Court agreed with a motion to skip the appeals court altogether, taking the case directly from the district court, and heard the argument 39 days later, on July 8. Just three weeks later, on July 24, it issued its opinion. Total time from the district-court decision to the final decision of the Supreme Court: 54 days.

The district court’s decision denying Trump immunity was issued on December 1, 2023. Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the Supreme Court to follow the Nixon precedent and take the case directly. The Court chose not to. The appeals court issued its decision on February 6—already 66 days later. Immediately following, Smith asked the Supreme Court to avoid further delay and let the appellate decision stand. The Court waited 22 more days, until February 28, before choosing to take the case.

And then, perhaps most remarkable of all, the Court chose to set the oral argument for April 22—54 days from its decision to take the case. The same Court that took 54 days to hear and decide Nixon’s case from soup to nuts has just scheduled 54 days of mere waiting around for briefing before oral argument—briefing in a case that has been fully briefed twice before and in which appeal arguments could be filed within a week at most. Total time from district-court decision to argument in front of the Supreme Court: 152 days.

And then, of course, the Court will choose how long it waits before issuing its decision. If the Court waits until the end of its term, usually around the end of June, that will make for a grand total of more than 200 days of process, more than half a year, and roughly four times as long as the entire Nixon appellate process.

None of this is accidental. None of this is required by law. If the Court were of the view that it needed to weigh in but wanted to avoid delay, it could have, and should have, chosen to skip the appeals stage. If it was of the view that a unanimous, well-written, narrow appellate opinion would suffice, it could have denied the petition for a hearing after the District of Columbia circuit court had issued its determination.

[Quinta Jurecic: The Supreme Court is eager to rid itself of this difficult Trump question]

But it did not. The Court took all of the steps possible to slow the processing of the appeal down as much as the law permits. The only inference one can take from this is that a majority of the Court is making a concerted effort to delay the case.

And delay breeds more delay. When the district-court proceedings were paused, just over three months remained before the March 4 trial date. Assuming that Judge Tanya Chutkan holds to a similar timeline, a Supreme Court decision on, say, June 30 would mean a trial that starts at the end of September.

Judge Chutkan has proved to be a brave and resolute jurist so far, but it would nevertheless be an impressively bold move to start a six-week trial (that’s what is predicted) just five weeks before the election. Can you imagine the reaction if Trump were forced to spend the last five weeks in a D.C. courthouse instead of on the campaign trail? The tumult? The violence? The sheer craziness of the moment? No matter how resolute she may be, Judge Chutkan seems likely to delay the trial until after the election—and that means that if Trump wins the election, the trial will never happen. (As an aside, imagine the even crazier scenario where Trump wins the election and the trial goes forward in mid-November, with a conviction coming before the electoral votes are counted. The country does not need that sort of excitement.)

The costs of the Court’s delay are thus clear—the delay in justice makes it possible that Trump will never face federal criminal charges for his role in inciting the January 6 insurrection. The Supreme Court will have been complicit in affording him the delay he so desperately desires.  

It is hard to think of a positive reason for doing so. One might offer the rosy spin that the justices have concluded that taking their time will improve their decision making. But this Court has not demonstrated that sort of concern before—on the contrary, the well-documented increase in the use of a shadow docket reveals a willingness to make consequential, divisive decisions (about immigration, COVID vaccines, gun rights, and abortion) without the benefit of lengthy consideration and comprehensive briefing.

What could possibly be different here—especially when it seems almost self-evident that the Trump criminal matter calls out, as no other case can, for prompt resolution? The Court must understand that its delay means the trial will likely not occur before the election, and the only reasonable conclusion is that a majority of the Court wants it that way.

And that, in the end, is the most terribly depressing part of this episode. Those who have seen the courts as the final guardrail against Trumpist authoritarianism now must face the prospect that they are not. Adjudication of law is becoming a Kabuki theater of politics masquerading as reason. The courts are no surcease. The only answer, if one exists, is at the ballot box. Perhaps even that will not suffice—after all, Trump has already been defeated once, and that brought no justice. But the alternative—that justice is to be permanently denied—is too grim a circumstance to contemplate.

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