The first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden deteriorated into bitter taunts and near chaos on Sept. 29 night as Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent with angry, and personal, jabs that sometimes overshadowed the sharply different visions each man has for a nation facing historic crises.
Former FBI Director James Comey defended his leadership of the bureau amid persistent criticism from Republican senators who attacked the bureau's Russia investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump.
The question Chris Wallace posed to President Donald Trump was direct.
“Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say they need to stand down?”
The president shrugged his left shoulder. “Sure, I’m willing to do that. But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.” Trump continued to say words, and to say nothing. “I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
Wallace pressed the question. “Well, then, do it, sir.” Former Vice President Joe Biden jumped in. “Say it. Do it. Say it.”
For what seemed like the first time during last night’s debate, Trump paused.
“What do you want to call them?” Trump gestured at Wallace. “Give me a name, give me a name.” White supremacists, Wallace answered. “The Proud Boys,” Biden added, referring to the far-right group of self-described “Western chauvinists” who often engage in armed violence at protests.
“Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by,” Trump said.
America has seen this before. It happened when Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. It happened when he pretended not to know who David Duke is, and that the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard had endorsed his presidential bid. In moments of direct confrontation, Trump refuses to state clearly that he condemns white supremacy. White nationalists notice, and remember.
Last month, Kellyanne Conway, who recently left her senior position at the White House, told Fox & Friends that Trump benefits when America is turbulent. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” she said. While Trump, Conway, and the rest of Trumpworld blame left-wing activists for the recent unrest, they seem to relish images of a violent America.
The Republican National Committee gave prime-time convention slots to Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who have each been charged with a felony for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched past their house. Trump defended Kyle Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide for allegedly shooting and killing two people during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, saying the 17-year-old may have acted in self-defense. One particularly vivid Trump campaign ad shows hooded protesters carrying Black Lives Matter signs before cutting to Biden kneeling with Black parishioners of an African Methodist Episcopal church in Delaware. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Vice President Mike Pence warns in a voice-over.
If Trump wants chaos, he may be in luck. On the social-media platform Telegram last night, the Proud Boys posted a Photoshopped version of their logo surrounded by the words stand back and stand by. The group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, denied that the group supports white supremacy in a post on another platform, called Parler, but said he was “extremely PROUD of my Presidents performance tonight.”
After the debate, the Trump campaign’s Twitter account posted a thread pointing out that Trump said “Sure” when asked whether he would condemn white supremacy. And at several points during his presidency, Trump has explicitly condemned racism. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated,” Trump said in a speech at the White House after the deadly 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Trump’s most vocal supporters, including a number of his evangelical advisers, claim that the media have pushed a false narrative that the president is racist.
And yet more often, in unscripted moments, Trump equivocates. Perhaps the question comes down to loyalty. Wallace “was asking the president to do something he knows the president doesn’t like to do,” former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said on CNN last night, “which is [to] say something bad about people who support him.”
President Donald Trump’s grand plan to demolish Joe Biden at tonight’s first presidential debate was shockingly simple: He merely wouldn’t let the former vice president complete a sentence.
Trump talked over his Democratic challenger—and the frustrated moderator, Chris Wallace—from the opening moments of the debate, bullying Biden with a barrage of personal attacks (“There’s nothing smart about you, Joe”) and outright lies. The night quickly devolved into a cacophony of crosstalk, a barely watchable sniping match between two old men. “Gentlemen, you realize you’re both speaking at the same time,” Wallace pleaded at one point, to little effect.
But if Trump’s strategy—such at it was—seemed familiar, that’s because it was the same one he deployed against Hillary Clinton four years ago, and utilizes in his near-daily sparring with reporters as president. His default mode is to bully, and he famously hates to share the spotlight—even when the format of a one-on-one debate demands that he does. Arguably, it’s been effective enough so far. Though Clinton was judged the winner of the 2016 debates, and rose in the polls afterward, Trump won the election. His bulldoze-the-establishment style clearly had some appeal to some voters.
The question is whether the president’s act wears as well now that he’s the incumbent, and at a moment when a deadly virus has ravaged the country and tanked the economy. The polls suggest it does not; Biden is leading Trump nationally and in the decisive battleground states, and there are fewer undecided voters now than at this time four years ago. The former vice president has bet his entire campaign that the nation is tired of Trump’s shtick. Bowing to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden has forgone traditional campaign rallies and door-to-door canvassing. He’s been content to let Trump hang himself, to keep the focus on an unpopular incumbent and his failures in office.
That task was trickier tonight. Biden at first seemed shaky in parrying Trump’s attempt at dominance, unsure of how to handle him. He soon decided to respond to Trump’s unrelenting attacks and interruptions with a simple smile and a laugh—a reaction that implied a shared bond with viewers at home. “I’m not here to call out his lies. Everybody knows he’s a liar,” Biden said at one point.
Still, Trump talked—and talked, and talked, and talked. He wore down Biden and Wallace, and he might have even worn down the voters. When the debate had exhausted its scheduled 90 minutes, Wallace struggled to cut Trump off just so he could end it. Perhaps that was the point of the president’s barrage, to tear down the already-rickety tradition of the presidential debates just as he’s trying to sow doubt in the integrity of the election itself. Trump’s refusal to play by the debate rules created something of a fog, preventing a coherent back-and-forth that might allow people to decide which man has the better vision for the country. And if voters tune out, Trump reasons, maybe they won’t turn out.
Yet Trump has spent months now telling anyone who will listen that the election is rigged, that mail ballots are a recipe for fraud. For now, many Americans appear to be ignoring him. More than 1 million have already cast their ballot, and voters have flooded state election offices with requests for ballots at an unprecedented clip.
About 20 minutes into tonight’s debate, Biden finally got in a clear, uninterrupted rejoinder to the filibustering president. “Will you shut up, man?” In an evening devoid of much substance to that point, it was the line of the night—the exasperated plea of a man tired of being yelled at and, Biden hopes, the sentiment of a nation that’s ready to move on.
There’s a reason Donald Trump has never produced a health-care plan that protects consumers with preexisting medical conditions: Ending protections for the sick is the central mechanism that all GOP health-care proposals use to try to lower costs for the healthy.
Every alternative to the Affordable Care Act that Republicans have offered relies on the same strategy—retrenching the many ACA provisions that require greater risk- and cost-sharing between healthy and sick Americans—to lower the cost of insurance for healthier consumers. Put another way: Reducing protections for patients with greater health needs isn’t a bug in the GOP plans; it’s a key feature.
“Lowering premiums was a big theme of the Republican effort to repeal and replace the ACA, and central to their idea of lowering premiums was rolling back protections for people with preexisting conditions,” says Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The contrast between the parties over health care is certain to come into sharper relief in the weeks leading up to Election Day, starting with tonight’s first presidential debate between Trump and Joe Biden. Trump’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Amy Coney Barrett, who has openly questioned the ACA’s legality and could provide a decisive vote on the Court against it, ensures that the Senate debate over her confirmation will focus intently on a Trump-backed lawsuit from Republican state attorneys general to strike down the law. With oral arguments for that case beginning before the Court shortly after the election, Biden and other Democrats have stressed Barrett’s potential threat to the ACA, and warned that if the Court overturns the law’s protections for preexisting conditions, insurers would likely treat long-term complications from the coronavirus as a reason to deny coverage.
Trump, along with House and Senate Republicans, has insisted that the GOP intends to protect patients with preexisting conditions even if the Court strikes down the ACA; the president signed an executive order last week that, without offering any specifics, affirmed his commitment to that goal. Almost all the Senate Republicans facing voters this fall are running ads touting their commitment to ensuring coverage for Americans with preexisting health problems, and many of them have co-sponsored legislation that they say will do just that.
But an array of experts I spoke with agree that none of these initiatives will protect patients with preexisting health needs nearly as effectively as the ACA does, because the GOP plans still allow insurers to treat them differently from healthy patients, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly. “When you look at all of the components of reform that the Republicans, including Trump, have advocated for years and years now, every single one of them would … separate the health-care costs of the healthy from the sick to a greater extent than we have under current law,” said Linda Blumberg, a fellow at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. More than 40 percent of U.S. households are estimated to have someone with a preexisting condition.
Before Barack Obama signed the ACA into law in 2010, people who were older or had greater health needs often found it impossible or unaffordable to buy coverage in the individual insurance market. Insurers would charge older consumers much more than younger consumers and women much more than men (because of the possibility that they would become pregnant). Insurers often excluded coverage altogether for people who had serious health conditions such as cancer or diabetes.
The ACA virtually ended all of that. It required insurers to offer coverage to people with preexisting conditions at affordable rates; blocked them from charging consumers more based on their health status (with an exception only for smokers); ended gender disparities in insurance pricing; limited how much more insurers could charge older people; barred annual and lifetime limits on costs (which previously had the effect of cutting off those with the greatest health needs); and required all plans to offer a broad package of essential benefits to every consumer (preventing insurers from charging extra for services needed mostly by people with serious medical problems).
Levitt told me that these provisions have proved extremely effective: “The ACA has far exceeded expectations in protecting people with preexisting conditions.” That success, though, has come at a cost. Healthy Americans are paying higher premiums than the law’s architects anticipated—or at least hoped for. “Democrats certainly don’t like to talk about the trade-offs that were involved in the ACA,” Levitt said. “But covering people with preexisting conditions isn’t free. It had to come from somewhere, and it came from higher premiums from people who are younger and healthier.”
The ACA’s approach to health care follows the Democrats’ philosophical guideposts. It involves a heavy role for government in regulating private-insurance companies, and it encourages—even demands—a high level of social solidarity. It asks younger and healthier adults to pay more, not only so that older and sicker Americans can have access now, but so that today’s young people can themselves have access later in life. (The single-payer proposals popular among many liberals, but not embraced by Biden, extend risk-sharing to its conceptual limit by placing all Americans in a single, government-run system and funding it with tax dollars rather than premiums.) The Democratic approach “is redistributive,” Blumberg said. “There is no way around it. When you force people to pool health-care costs, you are going to increase the costs for people when they would otherwise be perfectly healthy.”
The GOP health-care plans start from the opposite philosophical pole, stressing individual autonomy over solidarity and free-market competition over government regulation. While Trump hasn’t issued his own specific plan, he has offered a clear picture of his approach by endorsing both the ACA-replacement bill that House Republicans passed in 2017 and a contemporaneous proposal from GOP Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Trump endorsed the Graham-Cassidy approach again in the budget he released in 2019. “The president’s vision of health-care reform has been quite clear even if he hasn’t put out a detailed plan,” Levitt said.
Each of those plans was centered on the same core belief that the ACA went too far in requiring the sharing of cost and risk between the healthy and the sick. “Essentially, the [Republican] view is, your premiums should reflect the risk you pose to the insurer, and insurers should be able to assess that risk and then set a rate accordingly,” says Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University. “I think the problem with that is, ultimately, it means older, sicker folks, women of childbearing age, will pay more under that system.”
The House GOP and Graham-Cassidy plans unraveled most of the ACA’s risk-sharing requirements, including by allowing insurers to impose greater surcharges on older consumers. The House plan also expanded tax-free health savings accounts that encourage healthier people to ditch comprehensive coverage and buy bare-bones insurance plans. Most important, both GOP plans empowered states to free insurers from the ACA’s requirements to cover preexisting conditions and offer a robust package of benefits.
Each of those provisions would have advanced the GOP’s goal of reducing premiums for the healthy, but at the price of making coverage more expensive or unavailable for Americans with greater health needs.
While the House and Senate plans did include funds for states to create “high-risk pools,” which would subsidize coverage for those requiring more medical care, such pools have been tried in about 30 states and have uniformly failed. States found that they could not allocate anywhere near the amount of money necessary to make coverage affordable for patients with preexisting conditions, and experts say the plans’ funding was equally inadequate. “The cost would have to be tremendous, and that is precisely because of the skewed distribution of health-care spending,” Blumberg said. “In order to make that coverage affordable for the people who need it, you would have to throw huge amounts of money at those pools.”
More recently, many Senate Republicans have rallied behind 2019 legislation from Senator Thom Tillis, who is facing a tough reelection fight in North Carolina. His bill declares that insurers must continue selling coverage to patients with preexisting conditions at comparable prices to what they charge other consumers. But the bill contains huge loopholes that undermine that promise. It allows insurers to limit the benefits provided in such coverage, which could exclude the treatments a patient needs. It also doesn’t maintain the ACA’s limits on out-of-pocket costs, or its ban on annual and lifetime benefits caps, which means those with substantial health problems could easily generate bills that exceed their coverage. All of those provisions provide insurers “another way of excluding coverage of preexisting conditions,” Sarah Lueck, a senior policy analyst for health care at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me.
Meanwhile, with repeal of the ACA again wending its way through the courts, Trump has tried to advance the GOP goal of unraveling risk-sharing through regulatory action. His administration has authorized insurance companies to sell more short-term plans that are exempt from the ACA’s requirements to cover patients with preexisting conditions and offer comprehensive benefits. Those plans provide an escape route for healthier consumers to buy cheaper coverage, which could tilt the general individual market more toward the sick, raising their premiums.
The paradox in the contrasting GOP and Democratic approaches, as I’ve written, is that the Democratic plans ask more of the young—who mostly vote for Democrats—while the Republican plans impose greater costs on older Americans, most of whom are white and have leaned toward the GOP for the past few decades.
Biden’s proposals to significantly increase federal subsidies for consumers purchasing insurance in the ACA marketplaces represent a tacit admission that the law’s original design may have asked healthier consumers to shoulder too much of the cost of ensuring coverage for those who are older and sicker. Expanding subsidies could also entice more younger and healthier people into the insurance market, which would help restrain costs. By contrast, Trump and other Republicans are still resolutely denying the inescapable reality that their proposals will increase costs and reduce access for the sick, not as an unintended consequence, but as the central lever to lower premiums for the healthy.
Those Republican denials haven’t convinced most voters. In the 2018 election, exit polls found that a solid 57 percent of voters said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to protect patients with preexisting conditions, and they overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates, fueling the party’s midterm gains. Similarly, polling released last week by the nonpartisan Commonwealth Fund found that voters in all 10 major swing states strongly preferred Biden over Trump on protecting such patients.
The contrasts between Trump and Biden on the issue are sure to surface at tonight’s debate. And by fast-tracking the confirmation process for Amy Coney Barrett, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has triggered another dynamic. He’s guaranteed that every vulnerable Republican senator will now spend weeks debating how to replace the protections for patients with preexisting conditions that would be lost if an expanded conservative Supreme Court majority invalidates the ACA.
One day in 2015, Donald Trump beckoned Michael Cohen, his longtime confidant and personal attorney, into his office. Trump was brandishing a printout of an article about an Atlanta-based megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million from his flock to buy a private jet. Trump knew the preacher personally—Creflo Dollar had been among a group of evangelical figures who visited him in 2011 while he was first exploring a presidential bid. During the meeting, Trump had reverently bowed his head in prayer while the pastors laid hands on him. Now he was gleefully reciting the impious details of Dollar’s quest for a Gulfstream G650.
Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”
“They’re all hustlers,” Trump said.
The president’s alliance with religious conservatives has long been premised on the contention that he takes them seriously, while Democrats hold them in disdain. In speeches and interviews, Trump routinely lavishes praise on conservative Christians, casting himself as their champion. “My administration will never stop fighting for Americans of faith,” he declared at a rally for evangelicals earlier this year. It’s a message his campaign will seek to amplify in the coming weeks as Republicans work to confirm Amy Coney Barrett—a devout, conservative Catholic—to the Supreme Court.
But in private, many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.
Reached for comment, a White House spokesman said that “people of faith know that President Trump is a champion for religious liberty and the sanctity of life, and he has taken strong actions to support them and protect their freedom to worship. The president is also well known for joking and his terrific sense of humor, which he shares with people of all faiths.”
From the outset of his brief political career, Trump has viewed right-wing evangelical leaders as a kind of special-interest group to be schmoozed, conned, or bought off, former aides told me. Though he faced Republican primary opponents in 2016 with deeper religious roots—Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee—Trump was confident that his wealth and celebrity would attract high-profile Christian surrogates to vouch for him.
“His view was ‘I’ve been talking to these people for years; I’ve let them stay at my hotels—they’re gonna endorse me. I played the game,’” said a former campaign adviser to Trump, who, like others quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
It helped that Trump seemed to feel a kinship with prosperity preachers—often evincing a game-recognizes-game appreciation for their hustle. The former campaign adviser recalled showing his boss a YouTube video of the Israeli televangelist Benny Hinn performing “faith healings,” while Trump laughed at the spectacle and muttered, “Man, that’s some racket.” On another occasion, the adviser told me, Trump expressed awe at Joel Osteen’s media empire—particularly the viewership of his televised sermons.
In Cohen’s recent memoir, Disloyal, he recounts Trump returning from his 2011 meeting with the pastors who laid hands on him and sneering, “Can you believe that bullshit?” But if Trump found their rituals ridiculous, he followed their moneymaking ventures closely. “He was completely familiar with the business dealings of the leadership in many prosperity-gospel churches,” the adviser told me.
The conservative Christian elites Trump surrounds himself with have always been more clear-eyed about his lack of religiosity than they’ve publicly let on. In a September 2016 meeting with about a dozen influential figures on the religious right—including the talk-radio host Eric Metaxas, the Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, and the theologian Wayne Grudem—the then-candidate was blunt about his relationship to Christianity. In a recording of the meeting obtained by The Atlantic, the candidate can be heard shrugging off his scriptural ignorance (“I don’t know the Bible as well as some of the other people”) and joking about his inexperience with prayer (“The first time I met [Mike Pence], he said, ‘Will you bow your head and pray?’ and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I’m not used to it.”) At one point in the meeting, Trump interrupted a discussion about religious freedom to complain about Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and brag about the taunting nickname he’d devised for him. “I call him Little Ben Sasse,” Trump said. “I have to do it, I’m sorry. That’s when my religion always deserts me.”
And yet, by the end of the meeting—much of which was spent discussing the urgency of preventing trans women from using women’s restrooms—the candidate had the group eating out of his hand. “I’m not voting for Trump to be the teacher of my third grader’s Sunday-school class. That’s not what he’s running for,” Jeffress said in the meeting, adding, “I believe it is imperative … that we do everything we can to turn people out.”
The Faustian nature of the religious right’s bargain with Trump has not always been quite so apparent to rank-and-file believers. According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the average American to say that the president is a religious man. Some conservative pastors have described him as a “baby Christian,” and insist that he’s accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
To those who have known and worked with Trump closely, the notion that he might have a secret spiritual side is laughable. “I always assumed he was an atheist,” Barbara Res, a former executive at the Trump Organization, told me. “He’s not a religious guy,” A. J. Delgado, who worked on his 2016 campaign, told me. “Whenever I see a picture of him standing in a group of pastors, all of their hands on him, I see a thought bubble [with] the words ‘What suckers,’” Mary Trump, the president’s niece, told me.
Greg Thornbury, a former president of the evangelical King’s College, who was courted by the campaign in 2016, told me that even those who acknowledge Trump’s lack of personal piety are convinced that he holds their faith in high esteem. “I don’t think for a moment that they would believe he’s cynical about them,” Thornbury said.
Trump’s public appeals to Jewish voters have been similarly discordant with his private comments. Last week, The Washington Postreported that after calls with Jewish lawmakers, the president has said that Jews “are only in it for themselves.” And while he is quick to tout his daughter Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism when he’s speaking to Jewish audiences, he is sometimes less effusive in private. Cohen told me that once, years ago, he was with Trump when his wife, Melania, informed him that their son was at a playdate with a Jewish girl from his school. “Great,” Trump said to Cohen, who is Jewish. “I’m going to lose another one of my kids to your people.”
One religious group that the Trump campaign is keenly fixated on this year is Mormons. In 2016, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejected the Republican ticket in unprecedented numbers. To win them over in 2020, the campaign has made Donald Trump Jr. its envoy, sending him to campaign in Utah and other Mormon-heavy states. The president’s son has cultivated relationships with high-profile conservatives in the faith. Earlier this year, he invoked Mormon pioneers in a call with reporters to describe his father’s “innovative spirit.”
In fact, according to two senior Utah Republicans with knowledge of the situation, Don Jr. has been so savvy in courting Latter-day Saints—expressing interest in the Church’s history, reading from the Book of Mormon—that he’s left some influential Republicans in the state with the impression that he may want to convert. (A spokesman for Don Jr. did not respond to a request for comment.)
I’ve been curious about the president’s opinion of Mormonism ever since I interviewed him in 2014 at Mar-a-Lago. During our conversation, Trump began to strenuously argue that Mitt Romney’s exotic faith had cost him the 2012 election. When I interrupted to inform him that I’m also a Mormon, he quickly changed tack—extolling my Church’s many virtues, and then switching subjects. (He remained committed to his theory about 2012: During his September 2016 meeting with evangelical leaders, Trump repeatedly asserted that “Christians” didn’t turn out for Romney “because of the Mormon thing.”) I’ve always wondered what Trump might have said if I hadn’t cut him off.
When I shared this story with Cohen, he laughed. Trump, he said, frequently made fun of Romney’s faith in private—and was especially vicious when he learned about the religious undergarments worn by many Latter-day Saints. “Oh my god,” Cohen said. “How many times did he bring up Mitt Romney and the undergarments …”
Was it really happening? Even Fox News couldn’t decide. Just after 8:30 p.m. on November 8, 2016, Fox’s Chris Wallace tried to articulate what the world was seeing. “We’re all … at least, I’m coming to the conclusion tonight—conclusion’s the wrong word—open to the possibility …” Wallace began: “Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.” Megyn Kelly erupted in laughter beside him. It was an alien sentence, a string of words that didn’t belong together. Wallace laughed too. “I said it’s just a possibility!”
Most people use the word chaos to describe the night of Trump’s election. But every major network—including Fox News—was extremely cautious before declaring him the winner. It wasn’t until 2:40 a.m. Wednesday morning when Fox anchor Bret Baier squared to the camera for his sweep-of-history monologue. Pennsylvania, a blue state in every presidential contest since 1992, had flipped red. Fox cut to a sea of bobbing MAGA hats inside the Midtown Manhattan Hilton, just up the street from the studio. Shock snuck through Baier’s delivery: “What started off as unlikely, impossible, is now … reality.”
This year, with an expected surge of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, we may not know anything definitive for days. As my colleague Barton Gellman wrote, there is a blueprint for Trump to never concede should any shred of doubt remain about the outcome. Television executives have no “gentleman’s agreement” about how to handle this scenario. And at no network is the absence of a playbook more consequential than at Fox News. It doesn’t matter how CNN and MSNBC play this election: Fox will control the narrative.
Fox News’s influence over American politics remains unmatched. (People don’t write best-selling books about the inner workings of PBS.) Its nightly audience is one and a half times that of MSNBC and nearly twice that of CNN. After four years of “fake news” slurs by the president and others, Fox enjoys a unique space: In the eyes of millions of Americans, and particularly Trump voters, if you see it on Fox News, it has to be true. On November 3, the network’s framing of the story may help alleviate nationwide chaos—or sow it.
In lieu of its usual prime-time block of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, Fox turns to its nonpartisan anchors on election nights to project objectivity. Baier and Wallace will be back behind the desk this year, and Martha MacCallum will be in Kelly’s seat. There is no reason to believe that one of these hosts will go rogue and preemptively yell “TRUMP WINS!” at 9 o’clock. But it is crucial that they level with their audience about what is really happening with the numbers. Wallace has challenged Trump at various stages of his presidency, and will be the one to watch, tonally, as state projections trickle in. In July, Wallace asked the president whether he would accept the results of the election. “Look, you—I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no,” Trump replied. Speaking with reporters at the White House Wednesday night, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and other swing states could be too close to call before midnight. Pennsylvania’s results may not be available for days. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that mail-in votes will be accepted through 5 p.m. on November 6, three days after polls close. Mail-in voting appears to be the biggest variable this year, and when the Fox anchors periodically pass the mic to conservative commentators, viewers are likely to be pummeled with anti-vote-by-mail propaganda.
On Thursday, Carlson seized the alleged voter-fraud narrative. “If all the votes are counted in one night, no one will have time to issue rulings that throw out ballots they don’t like. That’s why judges in Pennsylvania and Michigan want poll workers to count votes for WEEKS after election day,” Carlson said on his show. “It’ll be a disaster, we know that for certain.” Later that night, Trump tweeted, “Democrats are Rigging our 2020 election!” alongside a clip from Carlson’s broadcast.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 61 percent of Republicans who only consume talk radio and/or Fox News say mail-in-ballot fraud “is a major problem.” (Trump voted by mail last month.) Baier, Wallace, and MacCallum might play it straight, but other voices on Fox are not held to the same standards. As the hours tick by, Fox guests will be free to interpret whatever election data happen to be available, then frame the information as favorable to Trump. Millions of Americans will hear these arguments, as will the president. The Trump campaign may also influence talking points that make it directly to air. This has happened before, on Election Night, on Fox News.
On November 6, 2012, the Fox contributor Karl Rove, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, refused to believe that Barack Obama had actually won Ohio. Around 11:40 p.m., nothing could change Rove’s mind. At one point, Megyn Kelly theatrically left the set and walked with a cameraperson backstage to the network’s “decision desk” to show Rove—and the audience—how the sausage is made: a roomful of guys in rumpled suits crunching numbers on desktop computers. Rove wasn’t sold. He spoke of the votes yet to come in from Hamilton County, Delaware County, and other corners of Ohio. Just before midnight, the Fox chyron below Rove read: Barack Obama re-elected president. Rove still wasn’t convinced.
“I’m just raising the question of our responsibility to call these things when it appears to ordinary Americans that we are not leading the pack for the sake of leading the pack,” Rove said.
Eight years later, the demand at the core of Rove’s “meltdown”—patience—suddenly feels prescient. I called Rove last week and asked him about that night: What did it feel like to have everyone laughing him off?
“That’s not what they were saying off camera,” Rove told me, snickering. “People were saying, ‘You’re right.’” He grew heated as we talked. “With all due respect to Megyn Kelly, she had no idea whether to call Ohio or not. If you showed her the voting patterns for Lucas County, she’d say, ‘What are those?’” (Fox News declined to make its talent available for this story. Kelly, who is no longer with the network, also declined to speak.)
Obama won Ohio by more than 100,000 votes, and Rove’s on-air arguments were never vindicated. Rove told me that the Fox decision desk “had more information” than he did that night. His intel was inherently biased, coming directly from sources within the Romney campaign. What will Rove’s 2020 equivalent say on behalf of the Trump campaign? And what if this person simply refuses to back down?
“Networks run hot and cold,” Rove said. “I was on the opposite side of this in 2004. We were up by, I think it was 114,000 votes in Ohio. No network would call Ohio until, like, 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I found it excruciating, but on the other hand, it was responsible.”
I’ve spent the past week rewatching old Fox News election broadcasts. Rove’s 2012 tirade made for compelling TV, but embedded within his argument was a reasonable point: “All I’m saying is we have one instance where something was prematurely called.”
In 1998, Fox chairman Roger Ailes hired George W. Bush’s cousin, John Prescott Ellis, to lead the Fox News decision desk.* The network famously called the 2000 race for Bush just after 2 a.m. with incomplete data. Other networks soon followed suit. Vice President Al Gore conceded, then recanted his concession, leading to a weeks-long fight that ended with a Supreme Court ruling in Bush’s favor. Should a similar chain of events occur this year, they will almost certainly benefit the president.
Trump knows this. Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Trump said: “I think this will end up in the Supreme Court, and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices, and I think the system’s going to go very quickly.” GOP senators have already taken to saying they will accept the result determined “by the courts.”
I asked the Biden campaign how it plans to respond if various networks are out of sync in calling the race in November. “We expect all news organizations who make determinations about election results to act responsibly based on data and their duty to tell the American people the truth, as they all have during past presidential elections,” T.J. Ducklo, Joe Biden’s national press secretary, said. I posed the same question to the Trump campaign, which offered no response.
In a statement, Fox News said: “The integrity of our Decision Desk is rock solid. We have full confidence in each of the consummate professionals who run it and who are in charge of our Voter Analysis System, which made its stellar debut in the 2018 mid-term elections. We will call this presidential election carefully and accurately, relying on data and numbers.”
What, I asked Rove, is the responsibility of a channel such as Fox News on an election night?
“Not to make a premature call,” he said flatly.
* This story has been updated to reflect that George W. Bush's cousin, John Prescott Ellis, began working for the Fox News decision desk in 1998, not 2000.
When President Donald Trump announced today that Amy Coney Barrett is his nominee for the Supreme Court, he was effectively declaring victory. In 2016, Trump offered a horse trade to American conservatives: In exchange for their votes, he promised to appoint judges who would champion their interests. This nomination is yet another chance for Trump to remind his supporters that their bet paid off, conveniently timed just a few weeks before Election Day.
While Trump may see this nomination as a boon to his reelection campaign, the true victors are the leaders of the conservative legal movement, who built the sophisticated machine in Washington that made this moment possible. With most of America’s institutions, from Congress to the executive branch, locked into a state of dysfunction and partisan bitterness, the Court has become the ultimate venue for the parties to fight out controversies and entrench their power. Barrett’s nomination is the culmination of a decades-long strategy to advance judges steeped in a conservative judicial philosophy that tends to favor limited government regulation of businesses, produce skepticism of abortion rights, and promote an expansive view of religious liberty. If Barrett is confirmed, a new 6-to-3 conservative supermajority will be poised to determine Americans’ rights for a generation.
The strategy of the conservative legal movement is basically a long game of cultivating personnel. “You know the saying that Hillary Clinton had in her book, ‘It takes a village to [raise a child]’? The Republican version of that is ‘It takes 30 years to grow a Supreme Court justice,’” Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, told me. Starting in the 1980s, a group of conservative intellectuals, including the future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, began developing networks to train and connect young law students inclined toward a conservative judicial philosophy. This elite class of lawyers then fanned out across firms, think tanks, academia, and government, creating a “conveyor belt of bright, qualified, conservative judges,” Balkin said.
Amy Coney Barrett is a luminary of this movement. Unlike the other justices currently on the Supreme Court, she never attended an Ivy League school, but she scored two of the top clerkships available to promising young conservatives, working for Judge Laurence H. Silberman on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and Scalia on the Supreme Court, where she was one of the justice’s favorite clerks. Scalia’s methods of judicial interpretation were a huge intellectual influence on Barrett. “She’s committed to tethering herself to the text, history, and tradition of the Constitution and [trying] to discern its original understanding,” O. Carter Snead, a professor of law and political science at Notre Dame and Barrett’s former colleague, told me.
One of the watchwords of the conservative legal movement is judicial restraint—an allergy to what adherents describe as judicial activism that leads judges beyond the text of a statute or the Constitution to a preferred policy outcome. “Judges are not supposed to be politicians” or impose “their preferred ideology or their preferred religious preferences,” Snead said. Barrett appears to share this view. “The public should be absolutely concerned about whether a nominee for judicial office will be willing and able to set aside personal preferences,” she said during an interview with a former student of hers at Hillsdale College last year. “That’s not a challenge just for religious people. That’s a challenge for everyone.”
Barrett’s ability to set aside her religious views as a Catholic has been a matter of intense debate since she was nominated to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said during Barrett’s confirmation hearing, questioning whether she would uphold the precedent of abortion rights set in Roe v. Wade. An ugly war has already begun over Barrett’s participation in a charismatic community in South Bend, Indiana, and whether that should be a factor in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
The irony of this debate is that it obscures the philosophical commitments that explicitly shape who Barrett would be as a justice. Article VI of the Constitution prohibits any religious test from being imposed on candidates for office. We cannot know how Barrett’s Catholicism shapes her views, and moreover, it is likely unconstitutional for senators to consider that in evaluating her fitness for the job. But it is clear that her involvement in the conservative legal movement has definitively shaped her approach to the law.
Abortion would be by far the most controversial issue up for consideration by a Supreme Court with a conservative supermajority. A number of cases already in the pipeline to the high court could lead to significant restrictions on abortion rights around the country. But conservatives also see opportunities in other areas of the law: expanding the boundaries of religious freedom, for example, as well as scaling back bureaucrats’ ability to determine government policies. Specific laws, most notably the Affordable Care Act, are at direct risk of being struck down; a challenge to the health-care law is scheduled for oral arguments just a few days after the election.
In recent years, conservative justices have joined the liberal wing of the Court for decisions on highly contested issues, from legalizing same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges to protecting the status of young undocumented immigrants in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. The biggest advantage of having six Republican-appointed justices on the Court is that conservatives can “seek review in the Supreme Court, and not have to worry about 5–4 decisions,” C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to George H. W. Bush, told me. The new conservative supermajority “promises a revolution in doctrine,” Balkin said. “But that’s too strong a word, because, in fact, doctrine has been changing markedly over the course of the last 30 years.”
For all their claims of neutrality, Supreme Court justices are political creatures who tend to follow their ideological leanings when big decisions are at stake. Over time, the Court has gradually become more favorable to conservative judicial philosophies. Even Justice Elena Kagan, who was appointed by Barack Obama, has said so: “We’re all textualists now,” she declared. Barrett’s nomination, then, is not the beginning of a new era on the Supreme Court. It is the ratification of a long-standing trend.
Thirty years ago, the movement could not claim this kind of dominance. Democrats tanked Robert Bork, one of the early advisers to Yale’s chapter of the Federalist Society, at his 1987 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. David Souter, who joined the Court in 1990, was later reviled by conservatives for steadily becoming more liberal over his tenure. Now every conservative who makes it to the federal bench is a known entity. “For all the candidates since then, they’ve all had records where you can get a pretty good picture of how they would deal with tough, national issues,” Gray, who worked on Souter’s appointment, told me.
By the time Trump ran for president in 2016, the conservative legal movement was firmly established in Washington. Trump presented an opportunity. In exchange for leaders in the movement doing the hard work of compiling and vetting potential judicial nominees, the president would hold open the door for a parade of judges committed to conservative judicial philosophy. Many voters believed this deal made Trump worthy of their support: In exit polls, a quarter of those who backed Trump said the Supreme Court was their chief motivation. Trump has secured more than 200 appointments to federal courts and circuit courts of appeal, along with two Supreme Court justices so far. He kept his end of the bargain.
Trump is clearly hoping another Supreme Court seat will give him a much-needed popularity boost as he continues to lag behind Joe Biden in polls. (He has also said he expects that the Court will determine the outcome of November’s election.) It’s not clear that the coming confirmation battle will ultimately push Trump over the edge with voters, however. Democrats, who can do little to block Barrett, are issuing dire warnings about the future of the ACA in swing states, where they believe they have the advantage. The top leaders of the conservative legal movement are all in to help the president get reelected. But they may have already gotten what they wanted out of Trump. Four more years of this president would seem short compared with the lifetime appointment of 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett. No matter what happens in November, the conservative legal movement won.
In her 2019 memoir, What Do We Need Men For?, E. Jean Carroll accused Donald Trump of rape, in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in the mid-1990s. After the president denied ever meeting her and dismissed her story as a Democratic plot, she sued him for defamation. Carroll was not, of course, the first woman to say that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted her, but unlike so many other powerful men, the president has remained unscathed by the #MeToo reckoning. So in the run-up to the November 3 election, Carroll is interviewing other women who alleged that Trump suddenly and without consent “moved on” them, to cite his locution in the Access Hollywood tape. “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet ... And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”
Carroll’s lawsuit took a dramatic turn two weeks ago, when the Justice Department intervened in an attempt to take over the president’s defense, asserting that Trump was acting in his official capacity when he claimed not to know Carroll. Meanwhile, a White House spokesperson denied all of the women’s allegations, calling them “false statements” that had been “thoroughly litigated and rejected by the American people.” Read Parts 1, 2, and 3 here.
You are looking at slightly out-of-focus 2016 images taken from a 15-second video of the then–Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and a campaign staffer, Alva Johnson. Before people see the tape, Trump attorneys say that their client does not kiss Alva. After the tape is released, the lawyers say that what Trump is doing to Alva is an “interaction,” a word they will employ in pleadings before the judge presiding over the federal suit in which Alva claims that Trump “kisses her without her consent.”
Reader, we will now leave the video so we can learn who kisses whom, who sues whom, and why this kind of fight with a man is not new for Alva.
“What does Trump smell like?”
“I don’t know.”
“When he comes in at you.”
“Stop and think.”
Alva lowers her eyes and tries to smell Trump in her mind’s nostril. “Sweat—maybe?” Alva’s nose ring quivers like a damselfly. “Makeup? Cosmetics? It’s a cramped RV and it’s raining, and people are wet, and there are a bunch of guys who’ve been there since 6 o’clock in the morning setting up chairs and tables and so I—really—just—freeze.”
Alva looks like a choir girl but laughs with the sound of a marching band.“Huuh-eh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh!”
I’ve been told by some readers of Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series that they are surprised that we Trump accusers talk to each other like this. I think it is not how Trump accusers talk; I think it is how women talk. Which is to say that I offer Alva various animals and vegetables that Trump might smell like.
“No, no, no,” Alva replies. “I was holding my breath.”
“Are you the only Black woman Trump’s ever kissed?”
Alva Johnson, the former director of administrative operations for the Florida Trump campaign, regards me slyly through Zoom. She is a marvel, a Black woman from Alabama, a demure nonconformist, a former big-time college athlete, listed as 6 feet tall in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s sports pages (“I’m really 5 foot 9, but of course, as a hitter in volleyball, they fudge our heights for intimidation”), slim as a lettuce leaf, with a laugh amounting to genius.
“No, I’m not,” Alva says. “Trump dated a Black woman.”
“You don’t know that?”
This summer, before I talk to Alva, I visit Jill Harth, the makeup artist. We are in Jill’s boudoir, and the two of us are going through her giant basket of Trump photos. While Jill is flinging out all over the bed smiling photos of our current president, the man she sued in 1997 for “groping her intimate private parts” (she later withdrew the suit), she tells me a strange story about her American Dream Calendar Girls, a witty beauty pageant she created in the mid-’90s. I am examining a photo of Trump with his arms around a group of Jill’s Calendar Girls, each one whiter than a boiled egg, when Jill mentions something about Trump constantly wanting to “help pick the girls.”
“He did not even want to look at photos of women of color,” she says.
I am not certain I heard her correctly. “What did Trump say exactly,Jill?”
“He said, ‘No! No! No! I don’t want to see any Black girls!’” (Trump has denied that he ever excluded Black women from such events.)
So, reader, when Alva Johnson says that Trump was head over heels for a Black woman, I need to prevent myself from sagging to my knees in astonishment. Yes, Alva assures me, “He dated a Black woman. Long term.For a couple of years.”
“No!” I cry.
“Listen, E. Jean,” Alva says, taking in breath, “if you really want to loosen up the racists from Trump’s base”—a tuba aria of chuckles—“if you want the white supremacists to understand that he is not their friend, I mean, he dog-whistles, but … hedated a Black woman.”
Even I, a chick so white that I look like I’ve been hit with a banana-cream pie, manage to “loosen up” the supremacists when a photo of Trump and me in the company of our ex-spouses shoots around the globe. My ex-husband is Black. The supremacists write emails to enlighten me as to the character of their godlike leader, who “would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man.” You understand, reader, that when the supremacists say Trump would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man, the supremacists do not say “touch,” nor “woman,” nor “been with,” nor “Black man.” I cannot give you the precise language—because their emails are not fit for human eyes—but I can tell you that they write such fascinating descriptions of my vagina that you might think you’re reading about a dead carp that has been left out in the sun and gone bad.
Actually, Alva tells me, Prince has a song about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman. “Yeah, it’s called ‘Trump,’ or ‘Trump’s Girlfriend,’ or something.”
The song is a hilarious tip of Prince’s hat to Trump titled “Donald Trump (Black Version),” though it’s not actually about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman, but a guy named Morris’s. Kara Young, the daughter of a Black mother and a white father, begins dating Trump around 1997, seven years after Prince writes the song; and thus it is that Alva, believing that “Trump can’t be racist,” what with the “hundred rap songs about him” and because, “well, he dated a Black woman,” and assuming that “Trump is never going to win”—thus it is, reader, that Ms. Alva Mahaffey, born into a large Birmingham family of Black professionals (her mother, Ammie Savage, is a teacher of French, Spanish, and English; her stepdad, Jacob Savage, is a microbiologist); thus it is that little Alva, who grows up listening to her grandmother and aunts talking about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed the four little girls, about the police siccing dogs on the protesters in Kelly Ingram Park, and about how they themselves brought food to Dr. King in the Birmingham jail; thus it is that Alva, a cheerleader, a member of the church choir, Alva, who eventually becomes a human-resources professional and founds her own event-planning company, Alva, who always votes Democrat, Alva, who hosts trainings for Obama-campaign volunteers in her home in 2008, Alva, who carries Hillary Clinton’s book Living History around with her; thus it is that Alva decides to join the campaign staff of Donald Trump.
Naturally, Trump looking her up and down like an Airedale eyeing a rump roast as she walks toward him at a 2015 campaign rally in Birmingham, and then exclaiming, “Oh! Beautiful! Beautiful! Fantastic!” nearly deters the ever-professional Alva from joining his campaign.
“But when I start working for him,” Alva says, “there are 17 other candidates in the race! There’s no way—no one expects Trump to become the Republican nominee. I mean, you have Ted Cruz. You have Marco Rubio. You have—”
“Jeb Bush,” I say, raising my head from my desk, where I have been rolling it back and forth in amazement at Alva’s awful miscalculation. Of course, she wasn’t the only one.
“I do it to get work experience on a political campaign. I do it to network. And I know I can throw a rally.”
Boy, does Alva know how to throw a rally! Two days before Super Tuesday, 32,000 people show up at her event in Madison, Alabama. Jeff Sessions becomes the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Trump, bestowing a blessing of legitimacy upon the popinjay from New York.
Alva, who thinks she is just going to grow her event-planning business in Alabama, receives a phone call after the rally. “They ask me if I can pack my bags and go to Missouri,” says Alva, who has the title of director of outreach and coalitions. “It sounds like a good opportunity. There are still a lot of candidates in the race, and so I talk with my family, make sure my four kids are taken care of, and I go to Missouri. Then it’s just kind of traveling from state to state to state. I’m in a bubble. I’m out with the voters and supporters, or with people who are on the fence, or coming up with concepts, or rounding up people to go knock on doors. It’s a bunch of lonely people out in this world, okay? It’s a bunch of lonely people who want to feel heard, and they are vulnerable. Not the white supremacists. Not those people, but the vulnerable people who are put in that echo chamber, where bad information about Trump is ‘fake news’ and ‘can’t be true.’”
Alva is eventually promoted to director of operations for Florida, and runs the state’s three “mobile offices.” Showing the extraordinary stamina that seems to be required of campaign women, especially Black women—in this case, Alva doesn’t encounter a single other Black woman on the road trying to elect Trump—Alva commits herself to taking the three RVs to every county in Florida, which is how she arrives in Tampa with the Donald’s mug decorating her vehicle and his pudgy self heading toward her.
“What are you wearing, Alva?” I ask.
“A white T-shirt. With the word Trump in red and the blue logo: Make America Great Again. And I’ve got a pair of cute jeans, and heels. I always wear heels. Everyone always laughs, because I wear heels everywhere. So I am wearing burgundy-colored Nine West closed-toe pumps—I love those pumps—and my jeans are kind of tapered, but they, you know, are not tight or anything—”
Alva interrupts herself, and looks into the Zoom screen, arching her eyebrows in the manner of every woman in the world.
“It’s funny I have to say that. Because as women, we’re kind of conditioned to say, ‘I’m not showing this, I wasn’t showing that.’ So I am just wearing some blue jeans, my T-shirt, heels, and, as it is raining, a baseball cap.”
Prince has another song.
U don’t have 2 be rich
2 be my girl
U don’t have 2 be cool
2 rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your
“Trump walks into the RV,” Alva says. It is August 24, 2016. “And he’s like, ‘Wow! This is great!’ I’ve made sure we have volunteers and supporters there making him feel welcome, and I’m in the back making certain that people get to meet him—‘Okay, did you get his autograph? Good! Come around this way!’ So I’m directing traffic, and I can see him looking at me. I’m at work. I am in front of people I manage and who have to listen to what I tell them to do. They must take me seriously as a woman. And it’s even more complicated because I’m a Black woman. I don’t want any blurred lines. I don’t want any questions about my professionalism.”
Trump is about to exit when he pauses in front of Alva.
“He grabs me and holds my arms at my sides. People don’t seem to register that this is what is happening to me. I’m as stiff as a board. And he kisses me. He tries to kiss me on the lips, but I turn my head.
“I’m at work! He’s my boss! There are other women there. He doesn’t do this to anyone but me. I don’t show emotion. I just, you know, I just keep trekking through. The story ‘Alva got a kiss from the boss’ travels so fast, it beats me to Sarasota. And I remember when I call my parents that night and tell them what happens, I start crying. I remember pulling over in a Trader Joe’s parking lot and crying. They say, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I laugh and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying.’ Then I feel stupid for crying. But it is something that triggers me when I’m telling the story. And it is something I feel even to this day: I know that what happened is not right. It’s without my permission.”
Alva cries on the phone because long ago, when she was in fourth grade, after her little sister, Aundria Mahaffey, died of leukemia, Alva’s mother—who is divorced from Alva’s dad, grieving her child, and trying to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary—turns to a teenage friend of the family to babysit Alva. Alva’s mom is always careful. She believes she is putting her daughter in the safest and most nurturing place. “I am 9 years old,” Alva says, “and the guy is a jock who chases me around for hours while I hide, cry, and try to fight him off when he finds me. I squeeze under the bed, and he pulls me out by my legs. Even when he goes away to college, he’ll pick me up as a ‘big brother’ and will literally park his car and rape me as I try to fight him off. I am 11 when he goes off to school. This continues until I am 13, and he is a junior in college and finally has a steady girlfriend.” (He denies Alva’s allegations.)
“When we are both adults, he sends me a friend request on Facebook. But I am grown up now. I’m a woman and I’m no longer hiding. I sent him a private message on Facebook about what he did to me. You know what he replies? He replies with a sad-face emoji.”
“Take the weekend off! Rejuvenate! Get rested! And Monday, we’re all going to come back, and it’s going to be a brand-new day!”
The Florida campaign director is delivering this pep talk to the state’s Trump-for-president staff during a dinner meeting at a seafood restaurant in Sarasota. Alva is thinking, We’re four weeks away from the election, and you want us to rest? She elbows the guy next to her—what’s going on?
And he is like, You know, the thing today.
And Alva is like, What thing today?
And he says, Well, there’s, you know, the video.
And Alva is like, What video?
So she Googles it, and it’s this Access Hollywood tape, and she can’t hear it, but she is looking at the words running underneath, “I just start kissing them … I don’t even wait . . . When you’re a star, they let you do it,” and Alva pushes back her chair, stands up, drops her napkin on the table, and tells her partner, who is visiting from Alabama (and who is not a fan of Trump’s), that they are leaving. “Good, I’m ready to leave anyway,” he replies, and the two of them walk out, get in their rental car, and close the door. At which point Alva restarts the video and starts to scream: “That’s what Trump did to me! I knew it! I knew it! I knew I wasn’t overreacting!”
She never goes back. She consults with a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Adam Horowitz, quits the campaign on his advice; and, figuring why throw the baby out with the bathwater, later submits applications for several positions with the new administration. “I earned this opportunity through my hard work on the campaign,” Alva says. “Why should I be punished for his actions?” In 2017 she hires Hassan Zavareei, a respected Washington, D.C., litigator; and, viewing the case as a former HR professional who would “persuade any company she worked for to get rid of a man like Trump because of his pattern of allegations,” sues Trump in February 2019 for kissing her without her consent and for paying her less than her white male counterparts.
In June 2019, William F. Jung, a Trump-appointed federal judge, dismisses the case, on the grounds that it was improperly framed as a political statement, though he says Alva can refile in a streamlined suit alleging “simple battery” for the kiss and wage discrimination. About a month later, Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder submits the video of the “interaction.” Alva remembers turning her head to avoid Trump’s lips, and Trump holding her more forcibly than the video shows; Zavareei submits to the court an independent forensic report concluding that the video might have been doctored, and asks to reopen discovery to obtain the original. The judge denies the motion, and Alva drops the suit in September 2019.
Alva’s rakish earrings swing back and forth.
“Well?” I say, sucking on the end of my Sharpie.
“Well,” Alva says, with her sideways smile. “It’s embarrassing being a Black woman who worked for Trump, I can tell you that much!
“That’s the big one for me,” she says. “I disappointed a lot of people. Not just Black people, but Black and white. But specifically Black people. I expected people to give me the Heisman arm.” She laughs and throws out her arm. “It’s like that stiff-arm from the Heisman Trophy.”
The Trump campaign is suing Alva for violating the nondisclosure agreement that she signed as a condition for working for Donald J. Trump for President Inc. For good measure, the campaign’s lawyers are also asking that Alva pay its legal fees (yet to be determined). Which is rich, considering that on the deadline for Trump to appeal the state court’s ruling requiring him to participate in discovery in my own lawsuit, the White House arranges for Attorney General Bill Barr and the 113,000-member Department of Justice to defend him, thereby making Alva pay for his defense in my suit with her tax dollars (and yours too, reader).
But Trump can’t do much to Alva. She doesn’t have any money, she tells me. She is busy writing, networking, and waiting for the end of “the nightmare that is this presidency,” but alas, there’s nothing for old Trump to sue for, beg for, or con her out of.
“So, Alva,” I say, after we both pour ourselves a cocktail. “If you could go back in time, what do you wish had happened when Trump came waddling up to you in that RV?”
“My instinct?” Alva says, sipping her dry rosé on ice. “I’d like to punch him. I mean, I’m pretty strong. He’s 6 foot 3 or something, but I probably would be more aggressive. I would probably push him off me. I would put my finger in his face and tell him, ‘Don’t you ever put your hands on me.’ I probably would tell him that he’s a future eunuch if he makes one more move.”
“You’re Division I, woman!” I cry, growing more buoyant by the second.
“As a kid I had to fight a dude off of me, so I always know it’s easier for me to get on top than to be pinned down.”
“And what if Trump comes at you again?”
“I would probably knee him,” Alva says.
Behind her on the pale butter-yellow wall is a deer’s head with a 14-point rack of antlers, a buck, mounted above the fireplace.
“And what would Trump do next?” I ask.
Alva rocks back, closes her eyes, and out comes the whole brass section of laughter.
President Donald Trump demands loyalty, but isn’t so quick to return it. Republican members of Congress have passed his bills, rationalized his behavior, kept him in power. Now, with a new Supreme Court vacancy, some of the GOP senators who risked the most in tethering themselves to Trump sorely need his help keeping them in power. He isn't guaranteed to deliver.
Trump tweeted today that he’ll announce his nominee at the White House on Saturday, and he’s said that he wants a vote to take place before the November 3 election. That could spell trouble for swing-state Republican senators in tough reelection fights, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado. They have one obvious lifeline: Voters could split their tickets, backing Joe Biden for president and supporting Republicans down-ballot. But Trump is making that prospect a lot less likely. A fierce confirmation fight over the conservative replacement for Ruth Bader Ginsburg may only reinforce purely partisan voting patterns.
Trump gives senators little space to carve out the sort of independent identity that might make ticket-splitting more realistic. As I’ve written before, his intolerance for apostates has been a pattern throughout his presidency; he won’t brook criticism from inside the party or out, even as handling of the pandemic and civil unrest has made his administration’s performance tougher to defend. Pushing a nominee through before Election Day poses perhaps the starkest test yet of Trump’s insistence on fidelity. He’s asking that senators cast one of the most polarizing votes imaginable, amid one of the most fraught races in modern history, on a timeline driven by a political clock.
A preferable scenario for embattled swing-state senators would be for Trump to put off a confirmation vote and let the election winner pick the nominee. Or, alternatively, he could wait until the election passes and announce a nominee during the lame-duck period, sparing senators the need to vote before November 3.
Either approach could placate moderates and independents recoiling at the rush to fill the vacancy, as well as suburban-women voters stricken by Ginsburg’s death. “I need suburban women to be ticket splitters, and I can’t lose them as ticket splitters,” Sarah Chamberlain, the CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate-Republican advocacy group, told me. “If we don’t handle this correctly as a party, we’re going to have a problem.”
Collins was trailing her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, by five points in a poll released this week. Gardner has the misfortune of running in a state dominated by independent voters who largely favor his Democratic rival, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Making things worse for the senators, Trump is struggling in both states, meaning his vaunted base likely isn’t enough to grind out victory for other GOP candidates. He’s trailing Biden by nearly seven points in Colorado and 14 in Maine.
A vote on a Supreme Court nominee “makes it that much harder for Collins and Gardner, because [they were] trying to run independently of Trump as much as they could,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate-and-governors editor at “The Cook Political Report,” told me.
Gardner aired a 30-second TV spot in the spring that made no mention of the president. Collins has long struck an awkward balance in which she sounds disapproving of Trump, but doesn’t actually throw up obstacles to what he’s trying to achieve. Like Gardner, Collins voted to acquit the president during his impeachment trial earlier this year, even as she complained about his behavior; she memorably said that she believed Trump had absorbed “a pretty big lesson” from the ordeal.
When it comes to both senators’ reelections, the Supreme Court vote “brings it all back to Trump,” Taylor said.
Collins and Gardner have staked out different positions when it comes to picking Ginsburg’s successor. Gardner put out a statement yesterday indicating that he’d vote to confirm a Trump nominee who meets certain standards. Collins, though, took issue with the president, saying that the candidate who wins the presidential election should be the one to choose.
Trump’s focus isn’t on the Senate’s fate so much as his own. A quick Court appointment works to his advantage, diverting attention from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and potentially giving his core supporters extra incentive to vote. Evangelical voters in particular are “now going to turn out, because they know what’s at stake,” Bryan Lanza, a former Trump-campaign adviser, told me, referring to immigration, taxes, and the environment, among other issues. “This is their one window. They’re not going to let it go by.”
A speedy confirmation would also bulk up the Court’s conservative majority ahead of what could be a slew of litigation arising from the election. Disputes over recounts and mail-in ballots may well wind up before the Court. In the 2000 presidential race, the Supreme Court voted 5–4 to stop a recount in Florida and thereby handed George W. Bush the presidency. Should Trump confirm another justice by November 3, he’d enter the murky postelection period in a formidable position: Six of the nine justices will have been appointed either by him or other Republican presidents. “An ideological shift on the Court could have a pretty profound impact on the outcome,” Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor, told me.
Whatever happens to Collins and Gardner, their fates illustrate the unenviable position Republican lawmakers are in. Both supported the president in crucial moments, including past Supreme Court nomination fights and, most recently, the Senate’s impeachment vote. Two weeks after the trial, Trump flew to Colorado for a rally, stood with Gardner, and called for his reelection. The senator, Trump said, “has been with us 100 percent.”
The gratitude isn’t forever. The last vote cast is not the one that matters; it’s the next vote that risks Trump’s wrath. After Collins called on the election winner to choose the nominee, Trump appeared on Fox News and delivered a rebuke. “People are not going to take it,” he said.
Last weekend, Philippe Reines walked over to Ron Klain’s house in Washington, D.C., to hand off his Donald Trump outfit: the suit, the shoes with the lifts, the shirt, the long red tie, the cufflinks. Just in case. When the former Hillary Clinton aide stored the outfit in a bag after playing Trump in debate prep four years ago, a part of him thought it might one day be in her presidential library.
Klain ran Clinton’s debate prep, and he’s doing it again this year for Joe Biden. Klain has a rule against discussing the process, but he did tell me that no one is going to be putting on the outfit this year. The former vice president doesn’t like mock debates—he prefers to read research briefings and have a collection of aides fire questions at him.
Trump says he isn’t preparing at all ahead of the first debate, which is set for September 29.And many Americans aren’t particularly interested: In a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 44 percent said the events are “not at all important” for deciding their vote; 18 percent said they were “extremely important,” and 11 percent said “quite important.” Almost every Democratic operative I’ve spoken with in the past few weeks remains petrified that Biden is going to bungle the debates in a way that costs him the election—perhaps by looking old or confused, confirming the worst paranoia and conspiracy theories about him being unfit for the job. They see the debates as Biden’s best chance to blow an election that, based on the current polls, seems like his to lose.
Conventional wisdom has set in that the opening minutes of the first debate will be the most important. But many Democrats will be holding their breath all the way through the final seconds of the third debate, on October 22. Biden’s stumbles tend to come after he’s been under pressure for long stretches, such as in last September’s primary debate, when he said late in the evening that children should improve their vocabulary by sitting with a record player, or when he snapped at the end of a radio interview in May that “you ain’t Black” if you don’t support him.
Biden’s closest aides aren’t particularly nervous. They viewed the primary debates as necessary to attend but essentially irrelevant to the race, and they feel the same way now. If elections were won by following debate-club rules, Clinton would be the president and Elizabeth Warren would be the 2020 Democratic nominee. And since Biden wrapped up the nomination, as they have pointed out repeatedly, this has been a remarkably stable race. The team still thinks that the best way to beat Trump is to let him defeat himself with his own comments and pandemic mismanagement.
“The notion that some exciting debate moment—by either candidate—is going to make people forget Donald Trump is responsible for thousands of dead Americans and fundamentally shift this race is ludicrous. There’s also no evidence in recent history [that] debates can ever have that kind of impact,” a person who's spoken with Biden’s debate advisers, but who requested anonymity to discuss the private preparations, told me.
The biggest X factor, as always with debates, is the media coverage, which will shape people’s perceptions of the contest. Thousands of Americans are dying each week during the pandemic, millions are out of work or are about to be, cataclysmic fires and storms are hammering the country, and violent clashes have broken out in some places. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the Supreme Court’s future is now uncertain. And Biden and Trump don’t know each other at all. They met only once, at Trump’s inauguration, and haven’t spoken other than a brief performance-art phone call in the spring, when they were supposedly trying to work together to fight the pandemic. Going at each other face-to-face shakes up the dynamics for any candidate. Even socially distant, this could lead to surprises. Will political journalism’s glee for marquee events and Twitter giggles inflate the true significance of some onstage flicker? Will the pursuit of non-bias create an equivalency between the number and nature of Biden’s and Trump’s fumbles and falsehoods?
“He could have cared less about answering the questions or even giving accurate information. He came prepared to insult, to bully, to loom over with his presence,” Hillary Clinton said at a recent fundraiser for Biden, reflecting on her own experience with Trump. But by looming over her and implying that he was being tough, Trump managed to wring some upsides out of three debates, which Clinton won by any technical measure.
Reines cautioned against seeing 2016 as too much of a model, though. “He’s in a very different situation. His bag of tricks are the same, but they’re not working—certainly not working as well,” he told me.
I asked Reines, with all the time he’s spent studying Trump, what he would do if Klain asked him to suit up again for prep. He told me he would go at Biden by saying early on that “everyone can see Biden is losing the debate,” and then push the idea that Biden wasn’t physically or mentally well. Reines said he’d include lots of swings at Biden’s son Hunter, whose business dealings in Ukraine prompted the phone call that led to Trump’s impeachment.
“It is possible to be a terrible debater and be very hard to debate at the same time,” Reines added later. “And Donald Trump has gotten harder to debate—it is harder to understand him, it is harder to follow him, because it’s just one big non-sequitur; he’s telling so many lies, it’s impossible to think that you alone are going to fact-check him.”
But the way Biden behaved in the primary debates isn’t necessarily a great guide to how he will show up against Trump—a fact that the president and his aides seem to be preparing for as they build an ouroboros of contradictory expectations, including that Biden is effectively brain-dead, on performance-enhancing drugs, a stumbling idiot who can’t get his words out, and a debater with skills on par with Cicero’s.
The key difference that Biden’s aides are counting on: He doesn’t like taking shots at his fellow Democrats, but he enjoys whaling on Republicans. He’s good at it—or at least he was the last time he had the chance, in the 2012 vice-presidential debate against Paul Ryan. Biden hates being pulled to the liberal edge of the party, like he was in the primaries, but loves to portray himself as the middle-of-the-road guy standing up for common sense.
“Whether it’s in a debate or on the campaign trail or even just in meetings, he is one of these old-school Democrats who doesn’t like to challenge or criticize people in his own party,” says David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager. Going up against a Republican, and one who clearly offends him so viscerally, Biden “will feel no hesitancy to let loose,” Plouffe predicts.
There are voters ready to bolt from Trump who wonder about Biden’s basic competency. There are core Democrats nursing desperate Mortal Kombat fantasies about the showdown with Trump. Plouffe thinks Biden will reach both groups by going hard. “He’s not going to lose anything by being aggressive and tough and really going after Trump with fury,” Plouffe told me.
At 90 minutes each, these debates are shorter than the two-hour Democratic-primary duels, which will probably help both candidates. Trump and Biden are in their mid-70s, and neither has done well with longer formats. Biden always prefers giving lengthy answers, and he’ll be able to do that, rather than trying to wade through a 10-way free-for-all.
In the run-up to the first primary debate, I wrote about how rusty Biden would likely be, given that he’d debated once in the previous 11 years, unlike his opponents, who’d each been running campaigns and debating constantly. And he was rusty, apparently unused to being challenged to his face.
Trump is good at projecting a gruff strength and at weaponizing his grievances with the media. But now it’s the president who hasn’t debated for years, and who—outside of press conferences, and a decimating interview with Axios in August—has faced questions only from within the Fox News fishbowl. Perhaps more importantly, Trump seems to have been staring into that fishbowl. Speaking at the White House recently, Trump described one night’s worth of his own TV time: “I watched Liz MacDonald [on Fox Business]; she’s fantastic. I watched Fox Business. I watched Lou Dobbs last night, Sean Hannity last night, Tucker [Carlson] last night, Laura [Ingraham]. I watched Fox & Friends in the morning. You watch these shows; you don’t have to go too far into the details.”
The result isn’t just a skewed sense of reality, but an almost Comic-Con-level of reliance on inside jokes and obscure references that make sense only to superfans who know the lingo. If Trump starts going on about “the lover of Peter Strzok” or campaign donations to Andrew McCabe’s wife, as he regularly does, will anyone but FBI-conspiracy buffs know what he’s talking about?
Even if voters do know, will anyone be won over? Or will it look like a concentrated form of the town hall Trump did on ABC this past week, in which he seemed unable to process a Black man confronting him to ask when in history America had been great for Black Americans, and unaware that most Americans don’t own “$10,000 worth of stock in IBM or whatever company it may be.”
Biden has been living in a different kind of bubble. Until recently, he was holding press conferences only once a month. And—with the exception of an interview last week with CNN’s Jake Tapper—Biden has been sticking with short, remote interviews with local television stations rather than high-stakes national appearances. But onstage Thursday night for his own town hall, on CNN, his preparation was evident. Biden shifted smoothly between laughing at Trump and condemning him. He had lines meant to undermine Trump (“If the president had even remote confidence he was likely to win the election, he wouldn’t be doing this,” he said about Trump’s claims of election fraud), lines meant to condemn the choices he’s making leading the country (“What are we talking about here?”), digs (“He may be really losing it”), and attacks on topics as varied as vaccines and farm policy.
Trump stayed seated for his entire town hall, while Biden stood for all of his. Trump spent the week attacking Biden for reading off a teleprompter—while using one himself. Bill O’Reilly, the disgraced former Fox News host, was left rationalizing Trump’s performance by arguing that Biden must have gotten the topics in advance.
Maybe America’s obsession with presidential debates is pointless. For all those endless hours of the 10 primary debates, nothing happened onstage that affected the actual dynamics of the race for more than a few minutes. There is only one memorable moment: when Kamala Harris garroted Biden over busing, and seemed on the verge of destroying his campaign. But even that didn’t change the result; that’s his name on the campaign logo, and hers underneath.
There’s a story that Donald Trump tells, in The Art of the Deal, about playing with his brother Robert when they were kids. Each boy had his own set of blocks. Then Donald decided—in a whim that he suggests portended his future career—to turn the toys into a real-estate property. “I ended up using all of my blocks, and then all of his, and when I was done, I’d created a beautiful building,” Trump writes. “I liked it so much that I glued the whole thing together. And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.”
I thought of that story last night, as President Trump, having long since graduated to other forms of perfidy, met former Vice President Joe Biden in an event that was sold as a “debate” but was in practice one more parable about Trump’s great appetite for destruction. Over the course of the event, the president refused, once again, to condemn white supremacists. He told a far-right group known to engage in armed violence at protests to “stand back, and stand by.” He insulted Hunter Biden, before a national audience, to the father of Hunter Biden. As usual, Trump weaponized his words. But he also wreaked havoc through the words that were not said: Trump interrupted both Joe Biden and the event’s moderator, Chris Wallace, at nearly every turn. He used this rare moment of mass attention not to communicate with a weary public, but instead to sow empty chaos. He filibustered his own debate. The whole thing was a “shitshow,” CNN’s Dana Bash said, correctly. It was an insult to the memory of the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19. It was an insult to the Americans who took time out of their hectic lives to listen to the men who seek to lead them. It was Donald Trump, taking the building blocks of a democracy and making them unusable for anyone else.
Interruption is such a familiar form of disrespect. To be interrupted—in a meeting, in a casual conversation, on a presidential-debate stage—is to be told, with blunt efficiency, that your voice is not as important as the voice of the person who is talking over you. It is to be informed, through the prevention of the words you are trying to utter, that you matter just a little bit less. Welcome to the club, Joe and Chris. The water’s warm, and deeply condescending. Many women, last night, remarked on the ugly intimacy of it all. (Hillary Clinton—who was interrupted by Trump 51 times during a single presidential debate in 2016—was one of them.) But Trump, while he was interrupting Biden and Wallace, was also interrupting the notion of debate itself. He was rejecting the rules he had agreed to. This was one of Donald Trump’s defining traits—his conviction that the rules, whether they relate to taxes or debate questions or human decency, do not apply to him—playing out in real time. “President Trump acted as the abuser tonight,” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace (no relation) said, “and Chris Wallace was among the abused.”
In that sense, the interruptions worked as their own empty messages. Much of Trump’s speech doubles as promises made to the people inclined to admire him: You, too, could be rich, or pretend to be. You, too, can insult other people and dismiss their indignation as political correctness. You, too, can do what you want, when you want, because you have defined political freedom as social impunity. So Trump’s bulldozing and steamrolling had a certain inverse eloquence. The interruptions broke the rules of the debate, and delighted in the breaking. They gratified Trump’s delusions of dominance. They spoke to Americans who share Trump’s conviction that destruction is a means to power.
And through the interruptions, the president attempted to change the terms of the debate itself, from the words that were spoken to the words that were not. Shortly after the event concluded, the Trump campaign–led Twitter account @TrumpWarRoom tweeted,
Chris Wallace only interrupted Joe Biden 15 times.
The account did not mention that Trump was the evening’s interrupter in chief. What it did do, though, was suggest that interruption itself was the appropriate metric for assessing the debate’s outcome. It tried to turn the event into another allegory of media bias—in this case, a Fox News anchor’s favoring the Democratic candidate. This was another way of breaking the rules.
I could feel Wallace’s helplessness, in the face of all this, pulsing through the TV screen. And I could feel the familiar frustration of not being heard—of realizing that the conversation you think you’re a part of is not a conversation at all, but a monologue that has been aimed at your general direction. “You’re going to have—gentlemen!” Wallace said at one point, driven to self-interruption as crosstalk overtook the debate. (He added: “I hate to raise my voice!”) At another point: “The country would be better served if we allow both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you to do that.” At another: “Mr. President. Your campaign agreed that both sides would get two-minute answers, uninterrupted … Why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule?”
But Wallace knew why. Many of those watching knew why. If you have no words to offer, absent words become a strategy. If you have nothing to add to the conversation, you might try to exit the conversation. A democracy is, at its core, a discussion; the person leading this one is failing even at the level of dialogue itself. At the end of the evening, the pollster Frank Luntz convened a focus group of independent voters from swing states. He asked them to sum up the performances of each candidate using only one word or phrase. Among the assessments the voters offered of Biden were “better than expected,” “definitely more professional than Trump,” “competent,” “coherent,” “leader,” “attentive and rehearsed,” “showed restraint and compassion,” “humanity and integrity,” “predictable,” “presidential.” Among the reactions they offered for Trump: “horrid,” “chaotic,” “unpolished,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “arrogant,” and “un-American.”
Two years ago, most Americans knew nothing about QAnon, the ever-growing, diffuse, and violent movement devoted to a loosely connected set of conspiracy theories, most of which tie back to the idea that Donald Trump is leading a holy war against a high-powered cabal of child traffickers, some of whom drink blood. But at the time, it was a massive problem on Reddit, where conspiracy-minded members of the Trump-themed subreddit r/The_Donald had long stoked theories such as Pizzagate, and where a QAnon subreddit called r/TheGreatAwakening had racked up 70,000 subscribers, some of whom posted hundreds of times.
Last week, new polling showed that nearly half of Americans have now heard of QAnon. But on Reddit, the movement no longer has any meaningful presence.
Reddit is where QAnon first went to attract a mass audience when it left the dark, unnavigable threads of 4chan, and Reddit is where it found a new group of people who were willing to spend hours a day doing “research” and analyzing “clues.” QAnon’s presence on Reddit ballooned throughout 2018. By August of that year, the 70,000 members of r/TheGreatAwakening had misidentified a mass shooter and doxed an innocent person. They also started posting threats to murder Hillary Clinton, inspired, they said, by their rage over her superhuman ability to make military planes fall out of the sky.
Today, the QAnon problem is everywhere. The New York Times speculated last week about whether Facebook “will be locked in an endless fight with QAnon,” as the platform’s latest and most dramatic efforts to slow the movement’s spread through groups with millions of members seem to be failing. Twitter is similarly struggling, despite a significant overhaul to its “coordinated harmful activity” policy that gives the company more latitude to slash-and-burn clusters of QAnon-related accounts. On Instagram, QAnon theories have been so thoroughly laundered and mainstreamed by wellness and lifestyle influencers, they’re almost impossible to separate from aestheticized “sponcon.” But on Reddit, new discussion threads don’t take off, and the major subreddits are gone.
In 2018, Reddit and Facebook both had QAnon-related groups with numbers in the tens of thousands. Yesterday morning, the most popular post about QAnon on my Reddit homepage was from r/conspiracy—a large and sometimes dicey community where truly anything goes, the wilder the theory the better. It read, “Q-ANON … i want to believe, but let’s be honest, it’s bullshit.” Reddit has plenty of problems, but QAnon isn’t one of them. Understanding why could be a valuable first step in dealing with the broader problem, one of the biggest and strangest that social-media companies have yet to face.
Unfortunately, Reddit is not particularly good at explaining how it accomplished such a remarkable feat. Chris Slowe, Reddit’s chief technology officer and one of its earliest employees, told me, point-blank: “I don’t think we’ve had any focused effort to keep QAnon off the platform.”
He suggested that Reddit users are more skeptical and discerning than other people online, making it difficult for conspiracy theories to gain traction on the platform. When I reminded him that the Pizzagate subreddit grew to 20,000 subscribers in its first 15 days, he conceded that November 2016 was a “dramatic period in history,” during which a number of communities took off with surprising speed. Reddit banned r/Pizzagate “pretty rapidly,” he added. This is true: r/Pizzagate was created in early November 2016 and was banned by Reddit the day before Thanksgiving. But to see that as a success story, you do sort of need to excise the chapter in which a man deluded by the online conspiracy community stormed into a pizza restaurant with an assault rifle 11 days later.
So here are the basic facts of what Reddit did to quell QAnon, whether it meant to or not: In March 2018, the site shut down the original QAnon subreddit, r/CBTS_stream, which had about 20,000 subscribers. It was banned for inciting violence and for sharing people’s personal information without their consent, a harassment tactic known as doxing. In September 2018, r/TheGreatAwakening was banned as well, along with the 17 other major QAnon subreddits, for similar reasons. Only a handful of small and largely inactive communities were left behind, as was one oddly dedicated poster. The last remaining somewhat-Q-related and somewhat-significant subreddit, r/Pedogate, was banned last week.
The most obvious—and least replicable—factor in Reddit’s success is its timing. Reddit’s QAnon problem started several years ago, before QAnon became as much a part of offline culture as it was a part of online culture. Reddit was able to isolate QAnon’s influence on its platform before the community grew too large to control. Now Facebook has to deal with QAnon as a full-fledged social movement. It reemerges on the site, over and over, because it has such life off the site, James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell Law School, told me. “It’s a problem on Facebook because it’s a problem in society,” he said. The mostly boring, basic facts of Reddit’s infrastructure play a role too, says Robyn Caplan, a platform-governance researcher and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. Though conversations on Reddit are open to all users, they are somewhat siloed in that they have to occur in a specific subreddit. There are no viral retweets and no trending hashtags. “The subreddit structure,” Caplan told me, gives Reddit an advantage because “at least things are discrete and you can restrict and ban.” Twitter, which has to track and ban QAnon adherents one by one, on a decentralized platform where anyone can easily see anything that’s been publicly posted, has a much taller order.
Though Reddit is sometimes criticized for its short list of rules, the company has in some respects given itself more enforcement latitude than the other big platforms. The most significant rule is a policy on ban evasion. Reddit prohibits not just individual users from trying to create new accounts and get back on the site after they’ve been kicked off, but also entire communities. If a subreddit is shut down, the same people can’t create a new subreddit discussing the same topic. So in effect, even though Reddit has never come out and said, “QAnon is against the rules,” once the major QAnon communities broke the rules, re-creating them became against policy. That’s not something Facebook has ever attempted, or that Twitter realistically could.
“When we ban a community, the first thing that happens is a bunch of copycats appear,” Slowe said. “It’s probably five minutes between us banning [The Great Awakening] and The Great Awakening 2 getting created.” Reddit quickly takes down such copycat groups, but more importantly, for several weeks after any major punitive action, Slowe’s team will monitor the site for more subtle attempts to regenerate toxic spaces, paying attention to who is creating new communities and who joins them. (Reddit has about 430 million active users, so some of this is automated. The company declined to provide more details about the monitoring process, citing security concerns.) When someone does start a suspiciously similar page, Reddit doesn’t have to wait for them to defy any policies against violence or doxing or harassment. The new subreddit just gets removed for ban evasion on the spot.
Reddit also has a powerful sitewide norm—what Slowe referred to as a “hard line”—against doxing, a fundamental QAnon tenet. Because the site was founded as a place for pseudonymous and anonymous discussion, this is one of its core values. “The kinds of behaviors QAnon promotes are kinds of behavior that Reddit polices pretty closely,” Grimmelmann said. “Doxing in particular is something that is a huge no for Reddit and is not as high up on the priority list for other platforms.”
The tale of how Reddit squashed QAnon seems like it must hold a tangible lesson for the rest of the social web, but the internet is messier than that. The particularities of Reddit, its culture, and the timing of its QAnon purge cannot be replicated by other companies. QAnon has found fertile ground on even more mainstream sites than Reddit. It simply doesn’t need the platform anymore.
Slowe summed up Reddit’s stance on QAnon as follows: “They can believe whatever crazy shit they want. But they started harassing users and doxing them, so that’s something we banned.” Today, the concept of QAnon as a coherent and sanctionable group is almost quaint. QAnon is dangerous precisely because it isn’t hanging out in isolated subreddits, full of people who are committing obviously bannable offenses. Its hashtags are floating around otherwise-normal-looking Instagram posts. Its general philosophies—about the media covering up innumerable evils, the Democrats conspiring to harm children, a global cabal that wants you to suffer—are lacing your mom’s friend’s Facebook updates. Its supporters are retweeted by the president.
Reddit’s approach may have kept QAnon out of one corner of the internet, but QAnon still spread into the real world. Now that it’s become irreversibly baked into American culture, that style of banning simply won’t do much good. It’s not too late to do something, but it’s too late to do something as simple as this.
The painting style of Jackson Pollock is called “gestural abstraction,” but before last night’s debate, I never knew that it was also a governing philosophy. The debate featured many decisions from President Donald Trump that were puzzling, to put it mildly. The president constantly interrupted the moderator, Chris Wallace, and he all but jeered his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, even as Biden discussed the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic. It was a loud, shabby, obnoxious evening—one of the few civic rituals I can remember that, the morning after, seems to have left viewers with a televisual hangover.
Yet a few of the president’s strangest political decisions came in the debate’s quietest moments: the part devoted to climate change. It was one of the few instances of the debate where Trump did not constantly interrupt Biden, even occasionally allowing the former vice president to finish his paragraphs. That there even was a climate-change section was notable: A moderator had not asked a question about climate change in a general-election debate in 12 years. Even during the 2016 campaign, when Trump was threatening to revoke many environmental policies and withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, the only climate-change question was asked by an undecided voter, Ken Bone. The climate discussion, a historical novelty, somehow became the most historically normal part of last night’s debate.
That the climate section was so comparatively tranquil also made it among the most revealing. For years, Democrats and some centrists have argued that Trump is so in thrall to falsehood that he is incapable of governing effectively. The argument was convincing, but there was periodically room for doubt: Did Trump actually believe the mistruths about climate change—or health care, or hurricane forecasting—that he mouthed? Or was he more savvy than he let on, and simply an effective messenger for partisan distortions? His administration’s ruinous response to Hurricane Maria spoke to his incompetence. Its muscular initial response to the coronavirus recession (if not to the virus itself) suggested his capability.
But in this moment the truth managed to show through: The president is so tangled in falsehood that he struggles to even campaign effectively. Most politicians lie only when it helps them politically, but Trump lied, remarkably, to his own disadvantage. He defended unpopular rollbacks using arguments that his own administration has discredited. He falsely overstated Biden’s climate policies, allowing Biden to appear moderate by comparison. And he barely managed to explain his administration’s climate policy, even though polls show that environmental policy is among his most unpopular issues.
The first lapse came early in the climate section, when Wallace asked him to explain his deregulatory spree, specifically his decision to freeze the fuel-economy standards, which govern the gas mileage of all new cars and trucks sold in the United States. “If you believe in the science of climate change …” Wallace asked, “why have you relaxed fuel-economy standards that are gonna create more pollution from cars and trucks?”
“Well, not really,” Trump replied. “Because what’s happening is that the car is much less expensive, and it’s a much safer car, and you’re talking about a tiny difference.” In other words, Trump did not rebut that the rollback will increase pollution, but claimed that his policy will make up for that pollution by reducing the cost of new cars to consumers: You might hate the dirtier air, but you’ll love your new car. He went on to claim that his rollback would “at least double or triple the number of cars purchased.”
But this argument—Trump’s argument—is completely untrue, according to his own administration. It was based, as I wrote earlier this year, on massively flawed math, including a broken computer program that mixed up supply and demand. When that math was fixed, the White House admitted that the gas-mileage rollback will eliminate as many as 13,500 jobs and deal as much as $22 billion in damage to the American economy. It will make consumers pay more for gas. For this reason, among others, several automakers—such as Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen—chose to strike a separate deal with California and ignore the rollback entirely.
The rules that Trump gutted have also saved Americans nearly $500 billion at the pump, according to the nonpartisan Consumer Federation of America. His administration no longer argues that the rollback will save much money for anyone but oil companies and some carmakers. But Trump’s relationship with the truth is so casual that he defended the policy to the public anyway, citing arguments that were discredited by experts who at least nominally serve under him.
His other lapse happened a few minutes later. As Biden explained his own approach to climate policy, Trump cut in, accusing Biden of supporting the Green New Deal. Such a policy, Trump alleged, would cost $100 trillion.
It was a ham-handed attack. Biden does not support the Green New Deal, though he has praised it in limited terms since the primary, saying that he admires its link between the climate and the economy. But the truth is that no Democrat has ever supported a $100 trillion Green New Deal: Even Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who popularized the idea, has only ever sought a $10 trillion package. The sole person who has ever claimed that a Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion is Brian Riedl, a Republican and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
Biden slightly muffled his reply, saying that the Green New Deal would not cost $100 trillion before clarifying that the Green New Deal was “not my plan.” But Trump ignored the opening, announcing to the room that Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal had just lost him the left. The president reiterated the point on Twitter earlier today.
To actual leftists, Biden’s rejection of the Green New Deal is no surprise: The Democratic Party just had a whole primary about it, and the more moderate candidate won. It’s been clear for months that Biden has been desperate to distance himself from any policy such as the Green New Deal that could be construed as anti-fracking, considering the large fracking industry in Pennslyvania, a key swing state. But Trump seemed so captured by a falsehood regularly repeated in the conservative media—that Biden has been commandeered by his party’s left wing—that he seemed to have forgotten about Biden’s actual positions.
But Trump got Biden to reject such a policy, publicly, on prime-time television, then celebrated it as some kind of coalition-dividing masterstroke. Meanwhile, Biden’s actual climate policy—a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure and investment package, which would be by far the most ambitious and expensive climate bill ever passed in the United States—looked like the picture of moderation.
As a topic, climate change encapsulates Trump’s failures. He struggles to understand that facts exist independent of whether they help or hurt him politically. Asked whether he “believes” human pollution contributes to climate change, Trump replied: “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes—I think to an extent, yes, but I also think we have to do better management of our forest.” He could not address the deeper question—do humans cause climate change?—without immediately bickering about the cause of the California wildfires. In the meantime, he showed that he does not understand climate science. Virtually all scientists say that human activity, such as greenhouse-gas pollution, causes the modern warming that we’ve observed.
The president made other mistakes last night, and they will likely loom larger in the historical record than anything he said about the climate. There were many other abnormal moments: As my colleagues have written, he refused to condemn white supremacists, and he undermined trust in the election results. But if Trump loses in November, it will not be solely because of his failure to understand and evoke America’s civic patriotism. It will be his normal failures as a leader, as an administrator, and as a rhetorician that count. They were on gleaming display last night.
Organisation founded ahead of 2016 US election is classified by the FBI as an ‘extremist group’
Freshly brought to the world’s attention by Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn their associations with white supremacist ideology during Tuesday night’s US presidential debate, the US neo-fascist group the Proud Boys was created by the Canadian-British far-rightactivist and Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016 in the lead-up to Trump’s election as president.
People of Praise, a tiny charismatic Catholic organization, admits removing mentions and photos of Trump’s supreme court pick
A tiny religious organization tied to Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s supreme court nominee, sought to erase all mentions and photos of her from its website before she meets with lawmakers and faces questions at her Senate confirmation hearings.
Barrett, a federal appeals judge, has declined to publicly discuss her decades-long affiliation with People of Praise, a Christian group that opposes abortion and holds that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and faith.
Donald Trump set the tone for a brawl that offered a bleak picture of American democracy
As this annus horribilis grinds toward its close, the first (and final?) presidential debate provided further evidence that 2020 is a bad scriptwriter. What might possibly have been an interesting and even educational exchange turned out to be a distressing and largely unwatchable pissing contest.
Donald Trump spent the evening whining in a circus of vanity, lies and hostility
With more than 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19, the economy in tatters, the west on fire, schools shuttered, police brutality against Black people still rampant, and millions of Americans grieving, scared and unable to recognize their lives, the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday night came at a time of pain, desperation, and anxiety for the American people. The debate itself reflected absolutely none of this anxiety. It was a display of vulgarity and egotism that insulted the Americans it was purportedly meant to persuade.
It was a slap in the face to the Americans whose lives will be shaped by the actions of the next president
Ramming a nominee through like this is inexcusable – and it will cement rightwing control of the courts for decades
On Saturday, Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to become an associate justice of the supreme court, to fill the seat vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In one stroke he violated long-held precedents regarding filling supreme court vacancies, undermined the confidence of the American people in the legitimacy of the court, and ensured that the court will turn back decades of progress in civil rights.
It’s a myth that Republicans handle the economy better – US recessions almost always occur under the GOP
Joe Biden has consistently held a wide polling lead over US President Donald Trump ahead of November’s election. But, despite Trump’s botched response to the Covid-19 pandemic – a failure that has left the economy far weaker than it otherwise would have been – he has maintained a marginal edge on the question of which candidate would be better for the US economy. Thanks to Trump, a country with just 4% of the world’s population now accounts for more than 20% of total Covid-19 deaths – an utterly shameful outcome, given America’s advanced (albeit expensive) healthcare system.
The presumption that Republicans are better than Democrats at economic stewardship is a longstanding myth that must be debunked. In our 1997 book, Political Cycles and the Macroeconomy, the late (and great) Alberto Alesina and I showed that Democratic administrations tend to preside over faster growth, lower unemployment and stronger stock markets than Republican presidents do.
The US president was asked by moderator Chris Wallace if he condemned white supremacists and violence they have caused during recent protests across America. In reply, Trump pointedly did not criticise white supremacists, instead putting the blame for most of the trouble on left wing groups.
Donald Trump refuses to denounce white supremacist violence as candidates throw insults and tempers flare
The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden deteriorated into an ugly display of contempt on Tuesday night, as the president relentlessly interrupted and attacked his Democratic rival during clashes over the coronavirus pandemic, race, the economy and the future of the supreme court.
Over the course of an extraordinarily combative and chaotic 90-minute performance, a fitting coda to what has been one of the nastiest presidential campaigns in recent memory, Trump interjected so frequently that Biden at one point lost his patience and snapped: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”
Cry, the beloved country. Donald Trump ensured Tuesday’s first US presidential debate was the worst in American history, a national humiliation. The rest of the world – and future historians – will presumably look at it and weep.
More likely than not, according to opinion polls, his opponent Joe Biden will win the November election and bring the republic back from the brink. If Trump is re-elected, however, this dark, horrifying, unwatchable fever dream will surely be the first line of America’s obituary.
Donald Trump’s presidency has changed American society. With six weeks until the most important election in a generation, Oliver Laughland and Tom Silverstone are crossing the US to uncover the fault lines that underpin American politics. In the vital swing state of Florida, where disinformation on Covid-19 has spread unchecked, the race for the White House is tightening by the day
Donald Trump declined to condemn white supremacists and violent rightwing groups during a contentious first 2020 presidential debate in which the issue of anti-racism protests and civic unrest was one of the topics of discussion. Asked repeatedly by the moderator, Chris Wallace, to condemn the actions of white supremacists and other groups, such as militias or far-right organisations, Trump ignored the question and sought instead to criticise the actions of leftwing groups and activists
Fox News host Chris Wallace, the moderator for the first 2020 US presidential debate, has faced criticism for struggling to rein in interruptions and outbursts from Donald Trump. Throughout the 90-minute broadcast on Tuesday night, the president continually broke the agreed rules of the debate, refused to stick to his own speaking time and steamrolled over both Wallace and Biden
Donald Trump has referred to QAnon followers as 'people who love our country' - while to the FBI considers them a potential domestic terror threat. The Guardian US technology reporter Julia Carrie Wong explains the roots - and rise - of QAnon, the unfounded conspiracy theory that emerged in the US in 2017, and is now spreading across the world
A New York Times report into Donald Trump's tax records has revealed he paid just $750 in federal income tax in his first year as president. Trump, who in 2016 suggested reports of tax avoidance showed he was 'smart', denounced the findings as 'completely fake news'. The New York Times said that of the 18 years its reporters examined, Trump had paid no income tax at all in 11 of them.
After the New York Times' revelations about his tax returns, Donald Trump hit back with a series of baseless allegations, including that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, had used 'performance-enhancing drugs' during appearances. In an unfocused White House briefing, the US president also accused Biden's son, Hunter, of corruption and speculated about non-existent Democrat policies of unattended open borders
US president Donald Trump paid very little in income taxes in recent years as heavy losses from his business enterprises offset hundreds of millions of dollars in income, the New York Times reported on Sunday citing tax-return data. Trump denied the report, calling it 'total fake news' at a White House news conference
Donald Trump has nominated appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to take the place of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US supreme court, saying he expected the appointment to be confirmed before the 3 November presidential election. Barrett is a devout pro-life Catholic and would tip the supreme court 6-3 in favour of conservatives.
Trump’s gymnastic finances were problems of his own making and the headache of his staff, workers and bankers
On Sunday night, the New York Times reported that for most of the last 20 years, Donald Trump paid little in the way of income tax. In 2016, he paid only $750. In 2017, he paid the same. Many years, as the review of his taxes show, Trump’s losses far outweighed his income.