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Keep Our Priorities Straight And the Lights On

Regulations and markets are made for man, not man for regulations and markets.

By now temperatures have risen and the immediate crisis in Texas has passed. Five members of the state’s Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) are resigning; they do not even live in Texas. Ted Cruz is out a vacation, an optics lesson learned at least, maybe. But until the cascade of incidents and decisions that left millions of Texans abandoned to the cold without power and water is studied and learned from, the real crisis remains. Despite ERCOT’s name, or that of boards like it across the country, our infrastructure is not reliable. Not built for resilience, the postwar American grid was misbegotten in an ongoing tryst between efficiency and regulation for its own sake.

The two had a nice Valentine’s Day. ERCOT sent the Biden Department of Energy a letter on Feb. 14 requesting permission to set aside certain environmental permit limits on power generating facilities, in anticipation of the increased need for electricity and decreased output efficiency the winter weather event would cause. “This request is narrowly tailored to allow only the exceedances that are necessary to ensure reliability over the next few days,” it assures the DOE, and goes on to detail the ways any excesses of emissions standards would be monitored and reported.

The DOE granted the allowance, but its letter too highlights the tension between reliability, regulations, and market forces. The DOE ordered that when sufficient emergency conditions were reached as assessed by ERCOT, then certain generators could operate above regulated capacity: “This incremental amount of restricted capacity would be offered at a price no lower than $1,500/MWh.” Moreover:

All entities must comply with environmental requirements to the maximum extent necessary to operate consistent with the emergency conditions. This Order does not provide relief from an entity’s obligations to purchase allowances for emissions that occur during the emergency condition or to use other geographic or temporal flexibilities available to generators.

The narrowly tailored request for an ease of permit restrictions was granted as one of last resort. In a way I’m sure it worked, and some degree of excess emissions were minimized considering the situation, with plenty of offsets and even power bought from out of state. But it’s hard to imagine that the way things went down felt like much of a success from the perspective of residents of Houston or Austin, with sustained power outages and the possibility of enormous electricity bills. That five members of the ERCOT board are resigning doesn’t seem like an endorsement of how things went down either. 

“And he said unto them, ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’” We should want our energy grids to be reliable, environments to be protected, and markets to be efficient, because of human beings. Indeed, reliability is a way of describing the limiting factor on those second two ends: We prevent emissions up to the point that regulation stops people from heating their home in subfreezing weather; we let market forces shape electricity supply up to the same point. Of course, in this case, it looks like enormous price increases in response to demand were tied more to exceedance of green standards, written into the order, than to actually limited supply. That’s putting the permit system before the citizens on whose behalf the emissions are regulated. Will five days of some power plant running at 100 percent capacity emit more pollutants than thousands of unused fireplaces and basement generators suddenly being lit? I don’t know. But I do know air quality in America has never been better in living memory, and I wonder what the point is of having cleaned up the air if you can’t fudge it for a few days—so people can keep the lights on!—without making it too complicated? 

Part of the problem is that a place like the DOE or EPA necessarily has to pretend at a certain point, for the sake of its own existence as a national regulator setting national standards, that every place is pretty much the same. It’s the American environment, American air, American energy. But reliability is found in a system’s resilience; the bigger the system you’re looking at or working with, the more tenuous the threads tying it all together, the more complex the interplay, and the less predictable the ripple effects. There’s a fragility to big machines of many moving parts. Remember early COVID supply chain disruptions? Remember fuel shortages at the whims of OPEC? The local, on the other hand, can be comprehended and directed, can respond quickly with fewer conflicting interests and a clearer hierarchy of priorities. This is a tension at the heart of American energy and environmental policy: the local vs. the national, the dependable vs. the clean.

When we desire to preserve the environment, and thus to regulate human behaviors to that end, we desire to prevent a change for the worse, or to enable change for the better. Thus, we are guided by some idea of better and worse, and thus of a good to which we aim. Politics is the conflict over this good, the setting of opinions about it in contest with each other. It is a prudential matter, limited and contextual. But human beings have generally agreed that it is aimed at something we might call human flourishing. The great danger of the debate over environmental and energy policy today is that we forget, as Protagoras said, that “man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” The weather is cold because we are cold. The lights are off because we cannot see them. 

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Dollar Stores and Reinvention of Rural Retail

Dollar General Store, main street, on 3rd March 2020 in Selma, Alabama. (Photo by Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

While doing research for an early TAC essay about abandoned buildings, I did a lot of Google Maps satellite viewing. One rural town in central New Jersey, not far from where I grew up, provided some fascinating aerial views. A tad south of the town of Washington, one can make out what appears to be an aborted attempt to build expensive New York and Philadelphia exurbs. The image shows an almost entirely vacant mid-90s strip plaza surrounded by fields dotted sparsely with McMansions. I find this remarkable because it clearly shows the land frozen in a transitional state. (Absent the 2008 financial crisis, which dealt a still-reverberating blow to the exurbs, the fields might well be gone today, and the plaza, which once sported a large, higher-end A&P supermarket, might be thriving.)

Empty A&P plaza in middle, by McDonalds. Outside Washington, NJ. Copyright 2021 Google Maps.

Only a few miles away from that plaza, I found another interesting transition in retail and lifestyle. A shuttered and long-vacant Ames—a slightly downmarket discount department store similar to K-Mart—was converted a few years ago into a Tractor Supply Co. Another old Ames location 30 minutes away, in another largely-vacant plaza, also became a Tractor Supply Co.

At first I took this as anecdotal evidence that lightly developed exurban areas were shrinking, and that rural land uses and lifestyles were actually growing at those edges. The swapping of Ames for Tractor Supply seemed to suggest that. That was the story I planned to write in 2017, but it isn’t quite correct, and the Tractor Supply angle turned out to be a dead end.

While there is some evidence that the exurbs are shrinking or declining—many of the most expensive and distant D.C.-area exurban homes, for example, stagnated for a long period after the 2008 recession—it isn’t that simple. Ames was in fact well-known for having locations in rural areas and long-established smaller towns; it was especially widespread in New England and the Northeast. I recall shopping at Ames when my family vacationed in lightly developed Vermont in the late 1990s. The retail blog Labelscar writes: “Ames was ubiquitous. Every decent-sized town in New England had an Ames.”

The story of Ames, which collapsed under debt and competitive pressure from Walmart in 2002, actually suggests the withdrawal of decent corporate retail and access to goods from rural areas—retail that was there long before the trappings of McMansion suburbia cropped up. Anyone who lived near an Ames, and not that near to much else, had access to a full-line discount department store, if not an especially glamorous one.

And for a long time following a raft of early-aughts retail mergers, bankruptcies, and sector concentrations, much of rural America lost this kind of brick-and-mortar variety and convenience.

The narrative around rural and small-town retail tends to focus on 50-mile round trips to distant Walmarts, empty shells of stores that sucked the life out of the local retail ecosystem and then packed up, and junky, exploitative dollar stores.

There’s any number of articles criticizing dollar stores, either for what they’re alleged to represent—the hollowing out of local vitality—or for specific, and in some cases quite serious, instances of corporate malfeasance. They impoverish communities by outcompeting higher-quality alternatives, particularly in heavily black communities. They attract crime, in part because they intentionally go cheap on store security, camera quality, and things like wide aisles and uncluttered windows. They sell more food than Whole Foods, but offer mostly junk. They’re not a neat response to poverty or decline, but exist in a reinforcing feedback loop with it.

♦♦♦

All of this may have been true at some point, and much of it remains true. But I had something of an epiphany when I took a long road trip down U.S. Route 11 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Just south of the small town of Buchanan, I was idling in a strip mall parking lot waiting for some Chinese take-out. I wandered into the dollar store anchoring the little plaza, which had a name I hadn’t quite seen before: Dollar General Market. This was a regular Dollar General with a miniaturized supermarket attached. Fresh meat, veggies, and a much fuller line of canned and frozen goods than the perfunctory shelves and freezer in an ordinary location.

It turns out the Market concept was launched all the way back in 2003, but from 2007 to 2010 it did not add any new locations. There’s not much information about it, and Dollar General does not list a number of locations. Clearly, however, they haven’t given up on the concept, despite it being unfamiliar territory for the chain.

Interior of Dollar General Market, Troutville, VA. Addison Del Mastro.

If you’re not finding this fascinating, I’ll spell it out: The Dollar General Market is a tiny version of the “supercenter.” The combination of discount retail with grocery has its origins in the 1950s and ’60s, when a number of now-defunct retailers experimented with it. (Chains like Korvette’s, Two Guys, and Great Eastern Mills included supermarkets in at least some locations; some of these embryonic supercenters were nearly 200,000 square feet). However, it turned out that grocery and discount retail were very different industries, and it was not until the 1980s that Walmart cracked the code, and the supercenter went mainstream.

But even the ordinary dollar store is not exactly a “dollar store” anymore. As junky as their food may be, they do sell food. Many stock at least some brand-name merchandise. And in most of them, very little of the stuff is literally $1. 

The evolution of the dollar store—from selling generic general merchandise for a dollar, to selling somewhat more expensive and higher-quality general merchandise, to morphing into miniaturized full-line stores, and finally to dabbling in fresh grocery—almost perfectly recapitulates the midcentury evolution of the discount department store category. Walmart, K-Mart, and Woolworth’s, for example, all began as small variety stores in the first half of the 20th century. The dollar store concept is undergoing a sort of convergent evolution, paralleling the last century’s development of a slightly different retail concept.

In other words, it is almost as if a large chunk of the country has backslidden into the turn of the last century and is experiencing the retail evolutions of the 1900s all over again. Dollar stores might not turn out to be a phenomenon of post-industrial decline and rural despair, but rather a reincarnation of the first dime stores and variety stores, out of which the discount department store and supercenter eventually evolved.

All of this is to say that over the last 20 years, dollar stores may have been finding their way, and that in some ways the withdrawal of rural retail may have been a transitional state. Today’s dollar store isn’t quite Ames, let alone the Sears of old, which extended a middle-class lifestyle to the remotest parts of the country. But it isn’t yesterday’s dollar store either. That isn’t often recognized, and it’s a good start.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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Ahistorical Fictions | The American Conservative

When we make the past woke we cut ourselves off from history and silence voices that cannot speak for themselves. 

“The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened,” wrote sociologist Peter L. Berger. Though certainly true, it’s also often not so much our recollection of the past as it is what we would prefer to believe about it, regardless of the veracity of such memories, whether they be ours or others’. And there may be no place that this is more true now than in contemporary historical fiction. 

The blatant disregard for any veracity in historical fiction, and the media’s fawning celebration and normalization of woke “alt-history,” becomes more absurd by the day. One might object that to complain about the facts of historical fiction is inappropriate and unfair—it is fiction after all. But the descriptor prior to the word “fiction” suggests authors aim for their imagined tales to have some basis in the historical record. Readers, in turn, expect the characters in such books to manifest qualities and inhabit roles that are appropriate to their historical age, and for that age to be described in ways that more-or-less correspond to how things actually were.

Vox reporter Anna North’s new novel Outlawed—glowingly praised in a January Washington Post review and an instant New York Times bestseller—is a reimagined Wild West defined by “feminist consciousness,” cross-dressing religious rites, and a messianic hero who “rejects male and female pronouns.” It features a feminist commune of “brave” people who live nonconformist, queer, and gender-fluid lives. That doesn’t sound anything like the actual 19th-century American West…but it sure does sound a lot like the woke world progressivists hope to fashion in 2021.

Or consider The Prophets, the debut novel of Robert Jones, Jr., also lately lauded by WaPo. This one “reimagines a past in the antebellum American South and pre-colonial Africa in which Black queer lives are foregrounded.” The Prophets is both a love story between two enslaved men and a presentation of a “queered vision of Black history,” that includes a “mythical African kingdom ruled by a female king where same-sex desire is honored.” I think “female kings” are typically called “queens,” but maybe such titles are too beholden to cisgender norms. Either way, we are once again far beyond the bounds of anything remotely resembling the real antebellum South. But the intersectionality of this story is just too delicious not to imagine!

Outlawed and The Prophets are not outliers. In 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates—who demonstrated his own historical amnesia in naming his son after a powerful West African chieftain who enslaved thousands of Africans—published his debut novel The Water Dancer, which stars a slave in antebellum Virginia with the power of “conduction.” This is a magical ability to transport oneself and others from one place to another—pretty helpful when you’re working on the Underground Railroad! One might also note the insanely popular Thomas Cromwell trilogy of Hilary Mantel, beginning with Wolf Hall, which are more fictionalized history than historical fiction. Mantel, among other things, seeks to discredit the legacy of Thomas More by portraying him as a sex-obsessed religious fanatic. Yet, as Cambridge historian Richard Rex has noted, “there is more talk of sex in the Wolf Hall trilogy than in More’s complete works.”

These stories seem to write themselves. Step one: decide on an age in human history defined by patriarchal, cisgender, racist norms and power structures (this is not hard, as basically all historical periods fit this description). Step two: craft a heroic character who bucks all the aforementioned oppressive hierarchies via his, her, or zir’s intersectional personality. Step three: write your story of self-actualization and realization, and eagerly await the accolades.

The mythic reimagining of our history is entirely unnecessary, and I write as a former high-school history teacher. The actual history of the American West, the antebellum South, Reformation England, and any other historical period are wonderfully and ceaselessly interesting. Moreover, as great fiction writers like Patrick O’Brian, Sigrid Undset, and C.J. Sansom have proven, the closer one actually adheres to the complexities and curiosities of the past, the more enthralling the story becomes. An intelligent, well-researched historical novel can bring an earlier epoch alive like almost nothing else (and certainly more than my old AP European History lesson plans).

Would that the problem of treating the past like ideological Play-Doh were limited only to historical fiction. The person of Christopher Columbus is now so reviled by the left that one doubts whether the federal holiday in his honor will survive this presidential administration. The Genoan explorer, as scholar Robert Royal notes in his recent book Columbus and the Crisis of the West, has become whatever bogeyman serves the purposes of our outrage culture. There is Columbus the white supremacist, Columbus the misogynistic oppressor, Columbus the imperialist, Columbus the exploitative capitalist, and even Columbus the ecoterrorist. These are gross oversimplifications, if not anachronistic canards, but they do present a useful weapon for enterprising activists selling a victim narrative. “Christopher Columbus and those like him were no different than Hitler,” asserted an undergraduate Nikole Hannah-Jones, who would go on to found the NYT’s 1619 Project.

It’s not just that reinterpreting the past to suit our pet ideological fetishes results in an erroneous understanding of human history. In its cynicism and chronological snobbery, it also evinces its own unique form of oppression and subjugation, enacted upon our ancestors, whom we effectively silence and coerce to articulate our own words. What they actually believed—say, about family, power, race, gender, or sex—is subordinated to whatever we reimagine them saying, either as forerunners of our woke world (e.g. Samori Touré) or villains worthy of censure and cancellation (e.g. Columbus). As much as book publishers and media outlets celebrate such silliness, perhaps obliged to pay what Kyle Smith at New Criterion calls the “woke tax,” the quality of both our nonfiction and fiction, reduced to so much self-worship, can only decline.

History serves many important functions. One of them is to serve as a mirror, helping us see ourselves as we are and can be: supremely flawed, but capable of heroic virtue and remarkable accomplishments whose legacy may far outlast our few years on earth. The closer we peer into that mirror, and appreciate the profound complexities of every human person, the more we develop both empathy and much-needed perspective. Unfortunately, in both our fiction and non-fiction, many writers and historians choose instead to violently paint over the glass in ways that validate their own vanities and prejudices. “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there,” declared philosopher George Santayana. I never much liked that quote, but given our blinkered view of the past, I can see his point.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Big Woke Woods

Late last year, PBS aired Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page, a new documentary in the American Masters series. Plugged as the real story of the author’s life and a critical look at Wilder’s work, it is visually attractive, and occasionally interesting for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Ingalls-Wilder backstory. But there is an unfortunate series of woke progressive talking points awkwardly shoe-horned in, largely due to the American Library Association’s 2018 decision to drop her name from its children’s literature award (of which she was the first recipient in 1954) due to her alleged racism against Native Americans. In this uniquely stupid time, everything must be political.

From Prairie to Page begins with Wilder’s reflection on the extraordinary eras her life had overlapped: first, the frontiersmen; then the pioneers, the farmers, and the towns. “Then I understood that in my own life, I represented a whole period of American history,” she told an audience in Detroit. Wilder was born in 1867 and died in 1957: from the covered wagon to the atom bomb; from settlers to superpower. It all seems very long ago, but in fact, one can still reach out and almost touch it. There are a handful of people left living who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder, although all with lifespans approaching a century. I tracked several of them down last year.

William Turner, the former chairman of the Great Southern Bank in Mansfield, Missouri, told me Wilder was a “prim lady, very proper” who’d once given him a hand-written poem for a pie supper fundraiser. Retired newspaperman Dale Freeman, who frequently saw her at church, recalled that she was a “quite religious Methodist” and a great cook. He remembers his father playing billiards with Almanzo Wilder. Roscoe Jones, who lived next door to Rocky Ridge Farm, ran errands for her as a boy, and she’d invite him in to sit by the stove and tell him stories of the old days. “She would say: Now, this is the way it actually happened,” he told me. Speaking with them, I felt as if I was brushing the edge of history.

It is a history well-known to millions, and so I won’t belabor the details here. However, the documentary does fill in a few interesting bits. The events in Little House on the Prairie, for example, actually take place prior to Wilder’s memories of Pepin, Wisconsin, recorded in Little House in the Big Woods. Readers will be familiar with the Ingalls girls Mary (born in 1865), Laura (1867), Carrie (1870), and Grace (1877). Less known is Charles Frederic Ingalls—Wilder called him Freddy—who was born in Walnut Grove on November 1, 1875. The following year, Freddy got sick, and a doctor was called. “But little brother got worse instead of better,” Wilder wrote, “and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead.” Freddy died on August 27, 1876. Wilder left him out of the books.

Despite the hardships Wilder detailed in the Little House books, the reality was often worse. Wilder lived in 15 different homes by the time she was 14 and worked to support the family from the age of nine onwards. Charles Ingalls was a wonderful father, loving husband, and a dedicated family man—From Prairie to Page makes clear that Wilder’s books are, in many ways, an homage to him. But he also lurched from one financial failure to the next, often borne out of his profoundly incompatible desires for both a profitable farm and his longing to live in the unsullied wilderness. Even Wilder herself may not have realized how dire their financial situation was at times.

One example of this is the Ingalls family’s situation after the devastation of the Rocky Mountain locust plague in 1875, which Caroline Fraser describes in chilling detail in her magnificent Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and which Wilder details in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The locust swarm, Fraser writes, was “110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to half a mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles…the cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.” It was the largest in recorded human history. Charles Ingalls, as Wilder’s readers will know, desperately fought—and failed—to save his crops. In their wake, the locusts left the fields and creeks filled with eggs, ensuring the farm would be a failure. Charles walked 200 miles east for work, and on November 30, was forced to sign a statement in the presence of county officials that he was “wholy [sic] without means” in order to get two half-barrels of flour for his family. Fraser, who features prominently in From Prairie to Page, suspects that he never told them how he acquired the supplies.

One very much gets the sense that the documentarians—as well as nearly everyone they selected to opine on Wilder’s life and legacy—are deeply suspicious of Wilder’s conservatism and her daughter Rose’s well-known libertarianism. Both mother and daughter despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Wilder felt that the New Deal was too much government overreach, and that people needed to work more and whine less. Some have interpreted this as callousness or obliviousness to the way government tipped the scales for her own family (the Homestead Act being an obvious example), but Wilder’s life of poverty and backbreaking labor certainly granted her an informed perspective on the matter. Wilder found the “Communists in Washington…exasperating.” 

From Prairie to Page does put to rest the persistent theory—a hobbyhorse of some fans of Rose Wilder Lane—that mother and daughter were co-authors rather than collaborators. Even their collaboration was a well-kept secret. Lane, who coached her mother, gave her writing tips, did extensive edits, and worked with her on the narrative structures of her books, had no desire to be associated with children’s books. Some, however, have claimed that her contributions amounted to co-authorship, which Caroline Fraser thoroughly debunks in both Prairie Fires and From Prairie to Page. Lane, in fact, used many stories from her mother’s childhood for her own books, written for adults. (Her best-known book today is the libertarian manifesto The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority.)

Of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder can no longer be mentioned without a long, boring, and unconvincing screed on her alleged racism towards Native Americans, which is now taken as fact by the sorts of folks who get asked to appear in documentaries. I always thought the books were positive towards Native Americans, aside from Caroline Ingalls’ fears—well-founded considering the brutal Indian wars that were then underway, and the fact that any woman had reason to fear men who walked into her cabin unwelcomed. From Prairie to Page, however, notes concerns that Wilder’s books are “deeply dehumanizing to children of color,” with awful messages for white children to boot.

Linda Sue Park, a Korean-American author, even claimed to be “deeply hurt by those books” and said that they “took me 50 years to reconcile.” To which one is tempted to say: Grow up. Perhaps Park was culturally appropriating the experience of Native Americans, got carried away, and was thus traumatized—or perhaps she merely missed the stories of resilience, compassion, and familial love throughout the series. But the idea that it took her a half-century to get over the wartime fears of folks on the frontier well over a century ago is, to put it bluntly, pretty pathetic.

It is a shame that these sorts of allegations must now feature prominently in biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She deserves better. But because we insist on projecting the political sensibilities of the current moment on people who were in many cases far more hard-working, patriotic, moral, and family-minded than we are, Wilder’s life story must always be accompanied by several representatives of the woke community, who solemnly remind us that they are better than she was and that her work is, unfortunately, tainted by its times. It is cheering to remember that children reading these books recognize Laura and her family for what they were—and her stories often trigger in them a nostalgia for the sort of life too many of them have been denied in these, our more enlightened times. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are not a cautionary tale. They are stories of the deep family connections that made America what she was—and can be again.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.

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Our Man in Winston-Salem | The American Conservative

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 03: Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaks during a hearing on the nomination of Miguel A. Cardona, of Connecticut, to be Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill on February 3, 2021 in Washington, DC. Previously Cardona served as Connecticut’s Education Secretary. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker – Pool/Getty Images)

“You watch, he’s going to win.” That was U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, election eve 2016. As he sat in his house on Pine Valley Road in Winston-Salem, Burr was bullish on Donald J. Trump’s chances of capturing the White House. Longtime aides and family members rolled their eyes. OK, whatever you say.

Burr had good reason to believe. The 60-year-old former appliance salesman was on the same ticket with Trump, running for his third term as a Republican from the Tar Heel State. For more than a year, Burr watched voters turn out with building intensity. In tiny places down east such as Rose Hill, Trump rallies would be scheduled for 12,000 supporters; 25,000 would show up. And the first 5,000 of them waited in line for two hours.

The crowds listened as Trump gave away the game, one Burr had spent a career playing. The Manhattan real estate developer ridiculed George W. Bush’s presidency, railed against bipartisan trade deals that closed thousands of American factories, attacked policies that favored illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens, and picked apart spymasters and their benefactors for shoddy track records and pushing a fraudulent war in Iraq.

Burr could admit some of these inconvenient facts (in 2004 he said that NAFTA was “a net loss for North Carolina”) but he resented Trump’s lambasting of the Bush family and GOP orthodoxy. He realized, though, that it was in his best interest not to make waves and to focus on winning his own race. The evidence at GOP headquarters in Forsyth County was clear: Everyone who came in asked for a Donald Trump yard sign. Every other person asked for a Donald Trump and a Richard Burr yard sign.

Burr’s campaign style harkened back to his days in sales. He would slide into his Acura and drive from place to place, spend half the day walking up and down Main Street in little towns across the state. Talk to voters, shake hands. When they asked why he wasn’t in one of the big cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro, Burr would answer, “That’s not where my people are.”

If Burr grew tired, he checked into a Comfort Inn. “Can I get access to the conference room?” he would ask the front desk clerk. Sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, the senator would get up out of bed and go print something he needed for the next day’s campaign schedule.

Now, in the most unpredictable campaign in modern American history, Burr seemed to be coasting to victory against a liberal state rep from Raleigh, Deborah K. Ross. As the days to the election dwindled, the man at the top of the ticket was catching tailwinds, too. Hillary Clinton’s line that Trump was a sinister, shadowy figure tied to Russian president Vladimir Putin wasn’t getting traction with voters.

On election night, Burr made his way to nearby Forsyth Country Club where his supporters gathered. Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” played over the sound system: “Hold on to me as we go/As we roll down this unfamiliar road/And although this wave is stringing us along/Just know you are not alone/’Cause I’m going to make this place your home…

At 10:32, Burr bounded up on the podium in the dining room to celebrate victory. His supporters cheered. “Wow!” he said. “This one is better than all the rest… This is a victory for all those who have believed in me, and those who have continued to have confidence in the fact that my values match your values.”

Burr thanked his family, and quoted from a sermon delivered by his father, the late Rev. David Burr, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem from 1962 to 1986. “He said there’s always work to be done by the living and it’s our responsibility to get in on the action. He taught me to do my part. I intend to carry out my duties through this next Senate term, as I’ve tried to do to the best of my ability for the past 22 years.”

The usual GOP tropes followed. “We will not retreat in the cause of freedom”; “we have freedom coursing through our veins”; “we live in the greatest land known to mankind.” It should have been a freewheeling, relaxed night for a man who announced months earlier that this would be his final race, but Burr read from a script. He seemed uneasy.

Just as Burr said, “We don’t know what we might face in the nation ahead,” Trump was coasting to critical victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“Life is and always will be a circle,” Burr continued. “People are born, they live their lives, hopefully making a difference, and then their lives come to an end and they’re replaced by a new generation.”

At 2:30 a.m., the networks declared the winner of the presidency. Chyrons spread across every channel: DONALD TRUMP ELECTED PRESIDENT. With that news, Richard Burr was forced into a decision, one that would define his character and chart a divided course for the nation.

* * *

Until 2017, when Burr became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I hadn’t given a serious thought to his career since he got elected to the U.S. House in 1994. Why should I? For most of a decade, Burr was a standard-issue, post–Cold War GOP congressman. Ran for and won a Senate seat in 2004, focused on constituent services, reelected twice.

The idea of Burr overseeing all of the spy agencies called to mind Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene’s darkly comic 1958 novel that parodies espionage bureaucracies. Greene writes about a vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, who gets approached by a British intel officer. “We must have our man in Havana, you know,” the officer says. London is setting up the Caribbean network and wants Wormold to spy for them. The salesman accepts the offer because he needs additional income to support his extravagant teenage daughter. He makes up information about Russian threats, draws diagrams of vacuum cleaners that he says are missiles, creates fake agents from names in the phone book, and then packages the reports to his spymasters. London is impressed.

If you ask former aides to name Burr’s chief accomplishment, they don’t mention his work with spy agencies. Instead, they cite things such as his maneuvering of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to benefit North Carolina. “Richard came up with the idea that if you’re going to drill off the coast, we want royalties and we want them coming in to help beach nourishment, the intercoastal waterway, and dredging,” a longtime aide says. “This made the environmentalists say, ‘Wait, we’re going to get a pile of money for this?’”

As much as I love my home state and still follow politics there, I had never heard that Richard Burr got this money coming in, or that it mattered. The media always gets things backwards or misses the real story. Other than Burr being a fellow Demon Deacon, to me he was just another D.C. Republican who sang from the same songbook that got him elected to Congress.

When Burr arrived in Washington in 1995, another Wake Forest alumnus and I met him in the bar at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Richard ordered a beer. “Bring it in the bottle,” he told the waitress, “makes me think I’m back home.” He struck me as the personification of Tom Wolfe’s good old boy. It never occurred to me that one day Richard would become so skilled at playing the game.

He wasn’t destined for the game, the United States Senate, or the chairmanship of a committee that oversees all of America’s spies. His father was a prominent preacher and president of the Rotary Club. Burr’s most overt connection to politics was ancestral—he’s a distant relative of Aaron Burr, who for many Americans has gained notoriety as the character in Hamilton who kills Lin-Manuel Miranda in a duel. Before that, Aaron Burr was vice president under Thomas Jefferson, a fate that would cause him to become one of the most reviled figures in American history.

Richard’s dad was devoted to debunking the attacks against Aaron Burr, his ninth-generation cousin. Most of them stemmed from Jefferson’s determination to crush him because he was threatened by Burr’s appeal. Jefferson accused Burr of treason, without evidence (as we now say). Burr, he asserted, was guilty of “stoking a rebellion, deceiving and seducing honest and well-meaning citizens, under various pretenses, to engage in their various criminal enterprises.” In 1807, Jefferson had Aaron Burr arrested for “suspicious activities.” Of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson declared, “there can be no doubt.” Burr was put on trial. And acquitted twice.

“Aaron Burr has been given a bad deal,” Rev. Burr said to the Associated Press in 1987. At the time, he was president of the Aaron Burr Association. On the matter of the duel, Rev. Burr said, “Hamilton is the one who challenged Burr and Hamilton lost, obviously.” About whether Burr was a traitor, Rev. Burr said, “It’s taken some time for the real facts to surface… he was completely exonerated.”

With no proclivity for politics, Richard turned to athletics. At the R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, he played football. Burr became a star linebacker and helped take the team to a district championship where he was selected Forsyth County’s offensive player of the year in 1973. His performances caught the attention of Chuck Mills, head coach of the football team at Wake Forest University, the “Demon Deacons.” Mills signed Richard to a football grant-in-aid to play in 1974.

Going into that season, Mills told the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, “We honestly feel we are on the precipice of a solid and respected football program.” To anybody who followed sports on Tobacco Road back then, there seemed to be a specter hanging over Wake Forest. In an unguarded moment on local radio discussing the upcoming football schedule, Mills alluded to it. “Saturday, September 28, will be the best Saturday of the season,” he said, “because on the 28th, we don’t have to play anybody.”

Demon Deacons are accustomed to losing in athletics. In fact, in the 71 years before Richard joined the football team, Wake had only 25 winning seasons. In Richard’s freshman year, they lost game after game. By mid-season, the Deacs were listed on the Los Angeles Times “Bottom 10” rankings.

But Richard still looked promising. At 6’2’’ and 195 pounds, he was a solid player, big and fast, who stayed banged up. (My parents were friends with another player, Solomon Everett, and we attended many games.) Richard kept moving and sustained so many injuries and scars that teammates nicknamed him “Zipper.”

* * *

There was a time when the giants of North Carolina politics, in both parties, were outraged over abuses from the national security state. Long before Sen. Sam Ervin became a folk hero for presiding over the Watergate hearings, the Democrat from Morganton led a crusade against Army spying on civilians. He was celebrated by Robert Sherrill, Washington correspondent of The Nation, for being “the closest thing we have to a Federal Ombudsman in the crusade against Big Brother.”

Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch anticommunist, condemned FBI wiretapping and bugging as “the whole smelly mess of American politics.” In 1974, Helms said, “Bobby Kennedy tapped telephones of everybody in sight, including 38 Senators… let’s see who else has been doing it.”

In 1975, the Senate voted 82-4 to establish the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Agencies, to launch a massive investigation into allegations of wrongdoing. Members included Sen. Robert Morgan of North Carolina, a graduate of Wake Forest University Law School, who took a special interest in the probe.

Morgan said he was drawn to the inquiry when he heard how I.R.S. agents had “engaged in a lot of illegal activities” to entrap taxpayers. “I remember a case of a banker from the Bahamas being in this country and they investigated,” Morgan said. “The I.R.S. wanted some papers in his briefcase so they literally set him up with a woman in Florida, in Miami, and then got him about half drunk, and while he was drunk with the woman, they robbed his briefcase, photographed the records, and put them back.”

The committee exposed espionage on U.S. citizens, such as opening mail, listening in on phone calls, and bugging bedrooms; interference in domestic politics; harassment and character assassination of civil rights leaders, Vietnam War protesters, and radicals; and subversion of foreign governments.

In August 1975, Committee chairman Sen. Frank Church of Idaho appeared on Meet the Press to explain why the committee was vital. “In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air,” Church said. “These messages are between ships at sea, they can be between military units in the field—we have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves… no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability, to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”

“If a dictator ever took charge in this country,” Church said, “the technological capacity that the intel community has given government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”

Committee members were hopeful that what they launched in 1975 would be permanent. They wanted to inspire an enduring mission of “seeing to it that all government agencies… operate within the law and under proper supervision.”

* * *

In 1978, Richard graduated with a communication degree from Wake. He emerged into a state that was the headquarters of industry—tobacco, textiles, and furniture. Cannon Mills in Kannapolis produced half of the nation’s towels and a fifth of its bed sheets. Almost 35 percent of North Carolinians worked in manufacturing, more than any other state. Rev. Burr helped Richard get a full-time position with Carswell Distributing Co., which sold appliances in the Winston-Salem area. One of his first jobs was demonstrating kerosene heaters to potential customers.

Richard purchased a house on Polo Road, near the Wake Forest campus. The place needed a lot of work, and Richard had just the man for it, an undergraduate named Tom Fetzer. They met when both were students who landed jobs at The Hub Ltd., a men’s clothing store at Hanes Mall. Soon, Fetzer learned a key fact about his friend: “Richard Burr is the tightest man you have ever met.” Richard showed Fetzer his new house and said, “If you help me fix this place up, I’ll let you live here for free.” Fetzer agreed and moved in. “I went in as his indentured servant.”

The house needed a lot of work. “There was scraping paint, painting, all kinds of stuff,” Fetzer says. “One day Richard asked me to mow the backyard. I said, ‘Alright.’ So I’m out there mowing the backyard and, all of a sudden, my legs just catch on fire. I had hit a ground wasp’s nest that he knew was there—he just didn’t know where it was. Richard stood on the screened porch and watched me to find out where it was.”

Oil prices were high during the winter of 1979 and Richard’s house had an oil furnace in it. “But he never burned a drop the whole time we lived there,” Fetzer recalls. Instead, Richard purchased a wood-burning stove from his employer, put it in the basement, and it theoretically heated the whole house. “Well, I lived in the bottom floor bedroom and I would go to bed with a sweatshirt, a stocking cap, and ski gloves. You could see your breath in my room,” Fetzer says.

During the time they lived together, Fetzer, not Burr, was the one interested in politics. That summer, a prominent Republican lawyer, Fred Hutchins, hosted a fundraiser at his residence for John P. East, a political science professor from East Carolina University. He was running to defeat Sen. Morgan in the 1980 election, the same senator who exposed the spy agencies’ wrongdoings. Fetzer was friends with Hutchins’s daughter and Hutchins asked him to bartend for the event. It was there that Fetzer met Thomas F. Ellis, the top strategist for East and Helms, who had also helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary victory in North Carolina. “Come see us when you finish school,” Ellis told Fetzer. When classes were completed that fall, Fetzer went to Raleigh to meet Ellis and was hired for $850 a month to work in East’s campaign. In November 1980, East defeated Morgan by a little more than 10,000 votes.

For the next decade, Burr continued to work for Carswell as a salesman. He married a girl from nearby Salem College, Brooke Fauth, and they had two boys (Fetzer is godfather to their oldest son). Fetzer kept active in politics and in 1988, he challenged incumbent congressman David Price, a Democrat from the Triangle. “Even though George Bush won the presidential election I got soundly trashed,” Fetzer says.

During a Christmas visit to the Burrs following that defeat, Burr informed Fetzer he might run for Congress. “We were in his kitchen and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, the boys are getting to be of age and I’m really worried about where this country is headed, what kind of future they’re going to have. It’s something I want to do.’ I never saw it coming,” Fetzer says. “But Richard turned out to be a natural politician.”

* * *

Between 1969 and 1975, North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District was represented by a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. After Watergate he was defeated by a 40-year-old mortgage banker and newspaper publisher, Stephen L. Neal, a Winston-Salem native.

I remember Neal as a centrist Democrat who was able to hold on through the Reagan and Bush landslides of the ’80s. In 1992, Burr declared against him. “We will run a campaign based on a theme of ‘It’s time to make Washington work again.’” (Has it ever?) He came to the Wake Forest campus, where I was a student, looking for support that fall. His pitch was that he was prompted to run by “lack of representation” from Neal. After a year in which the insurgent candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan and Ross Perot revealed voter outrage toward the establishment, Burr’s anodyne message was ill-suited for the political climate.

When he spoke to a small meeting in the Benson Center that I attended, he said, “I truly believe we’re at a crossroads in America this year. America must choose between decay and prosperity. As long as our policy is anti-business… anti-growth, we are not going to change.” In addition to generic platitudes, Burr also expressed support for the line-item veto, something even Reagan couldn’t get passed despite pushing for it during his two terms.

Nobody on the national GOP level thought Burr stood a chance at winning, for good reason. Bill Clinton was running for president at the top of the Democratic ticket and Neal dismissed Burr as a “Japanese-appliance salesman.” (As a top North Carolina Democrat puts it, “At that time, Japanese products were not real welcome here in North Carolina.”) Sure enough, Burr went down to defeat.

“We thought we had a shot,” Chuck Greene says. He was just out of Wake Forest and worked as Burr’s western field director. “Actually, we didn’t do too bad. If you look at the final outcome, and it being a big Democratic year with Bill Clinton’s victory, and Steve Neal outraising us, to get to 47 percent, where we ended—we thought that was pretty good.”

For Republicans in Washington, the race put Burr on the map. As for Neal, he decided to get out while he was still ahead.

* * *

In 1994, North Carolina had a “blue moon election,” as it’s known in the state, a rarity where contests for the Senate or governor aren’t on the ballot. President Bill Clinton had grown unpopular in North Carolina and Hillary’s plan to overhaul health care had hit roadblocks. Sensing an opportunity to chalk up a win, then-House minority whip Newt Gingrich put the big GOP money behind him. Burr raised more than $600,000. For the first time since 1972, the Fifth District seemed winnable for Republicans. Neal announced his retirement and Democrats drafted state senator Alexander “Sandy” Sands as their successor to Neal.

While the GOP pushed Gingrich’s Contract with America as its nationwide theme, the biggest local issue was NAFTA. Burr declared his support for the free trade agreement and followed the party line that NAFTA would be a winner for the district. He also attacked Sands for raising his own salary while in the General Assembly. “That was technically not correct,” Sands recalls. “We voted as a legislature to adopt the budget which gives every state employee a certain percentage raise. It applies to everybody, and never went into effect until you got reelected.”

That November, Burr won with 57 percent. SALESMAN BURR HEADS TO WASHINGTON was the headline in the Charlotte Observer. There was a pullout quotation from Burr’s wife, Brooke: “He was always a leader. He was on the football team. He was in a fraternity. He never missed a Sunday at church.”

Before Burr was sworn into office, he met with his campaign strategist Paul Shumaker. “You have ten years to find a landing place for me statewide,” he said. His message to Shumaker was, I believe in term limits, and five terms is the most I am going to serve in the House. For the next few years, “We went through a process of preparing him to run statewide and building relationships,” says Shumaker.

It didn’t take Burr long to master the way people in Washington speak without saying anything. Appearing with a group of House Republicans in 1995 to announce the formation of a group called the Mainstream Conservative Alliance, Burr said the mission was “fiscal sanity.” He declared, “Solutions are bipartisan. We’ve got a long way to go in this institution, but this is the first step of one that I think will be many in the foreseeable future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Later that fall, Burr appeared at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, the Washington Issues Seminar, moderated by Rep. Bill Hefner, an old-line Democrat and former gospel singer in the Harvesters Quartet, who represented the Eighth District. In the morning session, Hefner urged everyone to get their coffee and danish and settle in as he introduced the new congressman. “Richard’s a very articulate young man from Winston-Salem, and in just the short while that he’s been here, I’ve learned to have a great amount of respect for him.”

Burr strode to the front wearing his horizontal striped tie and congressional pin, shaking a few hands as he moved along. He joked about trying to work his way through Gingrich’s reading list. Referring to the 53 Republicans who got elected nationwide with him, Burr said, “This is not a partisan class,” even though what had happened was considered a political revolution and the first time the GOP would have control of Capitol Hill since 1952.

Before signing off, Burr acknowledged another participant in that morning’s affair, Albert R. Hunt, Jr., then the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and also a graduate of Wake Forest, class of 1965. Hunt was one of the most prominent mediocrities in all of Washington journalism, always a reliable source of useless conventional wisdom and left-wing takes. Outside the Beltway, reporters marveled at how Hunt kept his job. But Burr took a different approach. “I don’t think there’s an individual who has a better grasp of what’s happening in the city,” he said. When I heard that line, I knew Richard was well on his way to punching all the right tickets for success in D.C.

* * *

“Are you familiar with Wilkes County?” Neal Cashion, the former mayor of North Wilkesboro, asks me. He’s describing the long odds he faced in 1996 when he tried to unseat Richard Burr. “I’ve lived here all my life. Hell, when you live here and you’re a Democrat, you have to fight the weather, the devil, and the Republican Party—and just about in that damn fashion, to tell you the truth about it.” I checked, and the last Democrat to carry Wilkes County for president was Andrew Jackson, in 1832. Cashion says Governor Jim Hunt asked him to run to fill the Democratic ticket. “They needed a full slate that year,” he says.

He recalls putting some $100,000 of his own money into the race, and getting a little help from the Democratic Party, but it was impossible to persuade big business to give him a listen. Cashion called the Miller High Life plant in Rockingham County to ask if he could tour and meet the workers, and executives said, no, we’re for Richard Burr, we can’t let you in here.

“The Clinton-Gore bunch came out against tobacco so, you know, it was kind of like standing on the corner raising money,” Cashion recalls, “wishing in one hand and taking shit in the other and seeing which fills up first.”

Burr and Cashion did meet for one debate, in Winston-Salem. “I probably did a pretty good job,” Cashion says. “That was my first ever debate as any kind of a candidate. In a small-town race you don’t have that type of thing. That’s where Burr kept bragging about being a Presbyterian minister’s son. They made a video of it.”

How did you size up Richard Burr? I asked. “He was very polished, very familiar with the issues, he was in Newt Gingrich’s pocket.”

Cashion says, “I’m not a Richard Burr fan. I always thought his daddy was a nice fella. He used to come up here and preach in our church some. His son didn’t like staying a Presbyterian for one reason or another.” The Burrs now attend Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, known more for the social climbing of its members than the teachings of its reverend.

“I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a big Presbyterian,” Cashion says. “And you always hear about, ‘Well, we got to do this for the preacher, we’ve got to help the preacher’s son do this, we’ve got to help the preacher’s wife do that, we’ve got to help the preacher’s daughter’—always wanting to do something for the preacher’s young’uns, all the time having to take up a collection. And it made me think, Burr bragged about being a Presbyterian minister’s son and the first time he gets a chance he changes his religious affiliation to something else. I thought, damn, what a traitor. It’s the damn truth. He sucked on the Presbyterian teat for years, and then spit it out for some reason.”

With the district leaning more Republican, Burr carried 62 percent of the vote and secured his place in Washington. Neil Cashion says he’s happy these days just watching the Golf Channel.

* * *

In February 1999, a small group of businessmen who supported Burr asked him to run for governor. Shumaker talked Burr out of it by saying they were looking to protect their own business interests. “My job is to protect your interest,” Shumaker told him. “You’re not ready for this, nor is this your issue set.”

Burr stayed in Congress and, after 9/11, grew to believe that spies were the first line of defense against the jihadists. He took a spot on the House Committee on Intelligence, where he sat next to Nancy Pelosi and questioned top intelligence officials. In October 2002, he voted in favor of the war in Iraq and became a strong supporter of President George W. Bush. He began to view the FISA court and the Patriot Act as tools spies could use to beat back the terrorist threat.

When top political aides in the Bush White House went looking for potential U.S. Senate candidates to run for 2004, Burr impressed them as being someone they could rely on. (“Their main criteria were people who would do what they wanted,” says longtime North Carolina political strategist Carter Wrenn, who worked for Helms and East.) Karl Rove says he talked to the Burrs—“he does not make a political decision without his wife, Brooke, she’s very smart”—and told them that if Richard decided to run, “we’re in, money, marbles, and chalk.”

Burr never had to worry about an election again. His commitment to deal-making was viewed in the Senate as serious-mindedness and earned him plaudits from Teddy Kennedy and Harry Reid. Among GOP Senate leadership, Burr was the workhorse guy. There’s no drama with him, he’ll put his head down. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Burr turned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the spy agencies for guidance on next steps. McConnell groomed Burr to take the place of the retiring vice chairman on the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (one of Burr’s close friends).

While the tobacco, textiles, and furniture industries that once filled little cities all across North Carolina closed, Burr grew to love the briefings and the collegiality with the spymasters. He even refused to condemn waterboarding. In 2013, during an interminable hearing with CIA director John Brennan, Burr joked, “I’m going to try to be brief because I notice you’re on your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.” He said he considered any effort to hold hearings on CIA torture as an attempt to smear the Bush administration. When a staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein discovered that the CIA was spying on committee computers, Burr didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Living in the world of espionage—“It’s what he gets up and breathes for,” says one former aide.

* * *

If Donald Trump’s trip down the escalator in 2015 revealed anything, it was that he did not belong to The Club. As Gore Vidal describes in his 1967 novel Washington, D.C., “No one was ever quite sure who belonged to The Club since members denied its existence, but everyone knew who did not belong.” Burr knew right off that Trump was not a member, nor would he ever be. This was reinforced when Trump said the espionage business was a waste of money and incompetent, insofar as they missed the end of the Cold War, 9/11, WMD, and the rise of China.

I spent a year conducting the Playboy Interview with former NSA and CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden when Trump was running for president. The last spymaster to sit for a Playboy Interview was William Colby in 1978. Colby’s more than 10,000-word interview maintained the tradition of publicly staying out of domestic politics. Hayden’s did not.

In August 2016, Hayden and other former national security officials, from the Nixon to the Bush administrations, signed an “open letter” that was publicized through every media outlet in the world. “Trump has dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” they wrote. “We are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. None of us will vote for Donald Trump.” Trump responded by saying that people such as Hayden were the same ones who brought us the war in Iraq and allowed Americans to die in Benghazi.

Days after Trump was elected, President Obama ordered our 17 intelligence agencies to conduct an investigation and write a report about alleged Russian interference in the election. The report was released to the public on January 6, 2017. It said that all of the spy agencies were in agreement that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. Presidential election.” The document was a tool meant to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election.

With six years remaining in his political career, Burr was in the position to correct the narrative that the election was stolen by Putin for Trump, as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. He refused to push back and decided that he was going to undertake the same investigation that Obama had ordered, except this time run it through the Senate committee.

A few days later, BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele Dossier,” written by a British spy, Christopher Steele, who hated Trump and was paid by Hillary’s campaign. The document portrayed Trump as a Russian stooge cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow. Despite its lack of evidence, it circulated among top U.S. spies, who seemed to relish reading and disseminating it. Over Twitter and in person, President Trump attacked the dossier and the espionage apparatus that generated it.

This “antagonism, this taunting to the intelligence community,” as Rachel Maddow described Trump’s response, caused Hayden, Brennan, NSA director James Clapper, CIA deputy director Michael Morrell, and FBI director James Comey to double down against the president. They broadcast their antipathy for him through a myriad of channels, continued spying on Trump and his advisors, and sought to neutralize him through leaks. Their anger was telegraphed in the interview Sen. Chuck Schumer gave Rachel Maddow shortly after Trump was sworn in. “Let me tell you,” he said, “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you… From what I am told, they are very upset with how he has treated them and talked about them.”

On March 29, 2017, I watched as Burr appeared on the podium in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery studio. He was sweating as he announced his probe. “Our mission is to earn the trust and respect of the intelligence community so they feel open and good about sharing information with us because that enables us to do our oversight job that much better,” he said.

For the next three years, Burr said he was overseeing “one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.” He didn’t really “oversee” it. He put a longtime aide, Chris Joyner, who had also worked as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, in charge and ceded considerable authority to the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat, of Virginia. In public, Burr bragged about the extraordinary number of witnesses he and the committee questioned. In reality, some vital witnesses never even laid eyes on Burr.

Tom (I shall disguise his real identity) got subpoenaed by Burr and Warner for “documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Tom was ordered to appear in person at the committee or go to jail. Tom hired a lawyer, complied with Burr’s request, and appeared on Capitol Hill for what he thought was going to be an interview with Chairman Burr. “Not only did I not see Burr, but the staff played a game with me where they pretend, ‘Oh we’re so bipartisan, you won’t even be able to guess who works for whom.’ You’ve got all these people in the room with various agendas and in between questions they run outside and leak to the press. A bunch of really shitty, untalented people. In the intelligence community, they’re looked down on as losers and wannabes, people who couldn’t get into the agencies.” In the end, Tom spent close to $250,000 on lawyers and his life was ruined.

Burr and Warner released five volumes of a study that concluded that Russia did what they had been doing since the Bolshevik Revolution—though in 2016 they were so stupid they spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, some of which appeared after the election. Out of some 200 witnesses, none could swear to having any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, conspired, or coordinated with any member of the Russian government.

While committee staff members were investigating Trump and Russia, FBI agents caught the committee’s director of security, James A. Wolfe, leaking classified and disparaging information about Trump and others close to the president to reporters, including one with whom he was having sex. (“I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” Wolfe texted the reporter in 2017. “I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story like nobody else was doing in my hallway.”) After Wolfe pled guilty to lying to the FBI and was set to be sentenced to prison, Burr, Warner, and Feinstein wrote to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and beseeched her to give Wolfe leniency. In December 2018 she sentenced Wolfe to two months in prison and fined him $7,500.

At the end of Our Man in Havana, Wormold confesses. His “intelligence” has been a scam. There is no threat. The spymasters in London need to keep this quiet. Determined to avoid embarrassment, they give Wormold an award, the Order of the British Empire, and a prestigious teaching post at headquarters.

Soon after President Trump left office in January, officials at the Department of Justice contacted Burr. For almost a year, they’d investigated him because following a private briefing from intel agencies in early 2020 regarding the coming pandemic, he liquidated his stocks. The Burrs were spared some $250,000 in losses. We won’t be charging you with any crimes, Justice officials at long last informed him.

“The case is now closed,” Burr announced in a statement. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”

John Meroney is contributing editor of Garden & Gun and consulting producer of the upcoming CNN Originals documentary series, The Woman Who Took Down the KKK.

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Cuomo’s Other Negligence Crisis | The American Conservative

Mike Carey is not surprised that Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed to protect vulnerable New Yorkers in nursing homes during COVID. In fact, as shown in emails he shared, he and others warned Gov. Cuomo’s office in March 2020 that a crisis was forming.

“If you, the governor and all other top NYS mental health officials continue to ignore our whistleblower complaints,” Carey stated in an email to an official in the State of New York Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, on March 23, 2020, “regarding the coronavirus pandemic your negligence could lead to the catastrophic loss of lives of people with disabilities, as well as state and private caregivers.”

Carey knows first-hand how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deals with New York State’s most vulnerable. Fourteen years ago, his son Jonathan died at a group home after an employee abused him. Jonathan Michael Carey “was developmentally disabled, he had autism and he was non-verbal and only 13 years old when he was killed. Almost all of dozens of safety and abuse prevention bills along with the critical 911 Civil Rights Bill have been blocked from becoming law by the Cuomo administration who runs the mental health care system,” Carey recently stated in a press release on the anniversary of his son’s death on February 15.

Carey’s story was featured in a series of articles in the New York Times in 2011; the publicity led Gov. Cuomo to proclaim he would act to clean up abuses in about one thousand group homes for the mentally challenged throughout New York State. Cuomo created the Justice Center, which was supposed to take over all investigations into abuses at these homes.

Rather than solving the problem, according to Carey, Cuomo’s solution only exacerbated it. He claims the Justice Center has buried most complaints, while accused group home employees have been shuffled from one home to another. He has watched as Cuomo’s administration has acted with impunity, often ruling through executive order and refusing to provide data on complaints of abuse at group homes.

Carey was one of several New York whistleblowers featured in a 2018 documentary entitled Whistleblowers. “It’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” he said in the documentary.  “This agency is a complete fraud,” Carey continued, referring to the Justice Center, “Corrupt to the core and literally burying thousands of cases every single month. Criminal cases.”

He then explained the process by which the state buried these cases. “What the state is doing is circumventing, bypassing the 911 call systems. So, if you’re a victim of a sex crime, basically the call goes from the mandated reporter into a state abuse hotline, which is all internal. They funnel the complaint right back to the facility where the state crime occurred.” He said, “Then, basically, they give the facility all the time and the ability to move and destroy the evidence.”

In 2018, Cuomo fired Jay Kiyonaga after he engaged in “improper and sexually inappropriate acts” directed at female subordinates, according to a 2018 New York Post article. He was then administrator of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs. 

Carey said in the documentary he believes one third of the residents of these group homes continue to be sexually abused in them. The state paid $3 million to the family of a boy abused in one of these homes in 2018; according to a press release from Carey, the abuser called the home“a predator’s dream.” “The lack of supervision there made it easy to do what I did,” he said of the group home system under Cuomo. “I could have stayed in that house for years and abused him every day without anybody even noticing at all.” 

Now, as Cuomo’s controversial decisions regarding his state’s elderly and disabled citizens during the coronavirus crisis come under scrutiny, whistleblowers like Carey recognize the same patterns they have been concerned about for years. In fact, they warned Cuomo’s administration early and repeatedly that New York state’s most vulnerable were not being protected from COVID. 

“Dear Commissioner Kastner: Why is OPWDD sending vulnerable medically frail individuals from OPWDD group homes and non-for-profit agencies to day programs during the COVID-19 outbreak?” one whistleblower asked via email on March 11, 2020. “OPWDD has trained me to take proactive approaches to situations that could jeopardize our individual’s health and well-being.”

“Dear Commissioner Kastner & all others in positions of responsibility. People with disabilities MUST be minimally protected as anyone else,” Carey stated in another email from March 11, 2020. “Neglecting them in this Coronavirus CRISIS would be considered ‘gross & deliberate indifference’ and felony criminal according to NYS penal law 260.25. EMERGENCY ACTION MUST BE TAKEN NOW TO PREVENT DEATHS.”

As in the widely reported nursing home COVID deaths, the extent of the abuse in homes for the disabled was initially obscured, with relevant data hidden. Carey said he only discovered how far the group home crisis went after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and piecing together the data himself. Much like with COVID, the Cuomo administration took significant steps to control the flow of information, denying repeated FOIA requests as Carey continued to ask for data for Justice Center abuse numbers. 

“Dear Records Officer Delia,” Carey says in an email on July 20, 2020, “As you are fully aware, your response is in direct violation of NYS FOIL law. The PUBLIC information I requested is a click of a button away.”

Carey was able to get enough data early on to show that abuse continued to be a huge problem in group homes. In a FOIA request from 2016, Carey asked how many reports the hotline, which was created to handle complaints, received since its inception on June 30, 2013. The response stated the hotline had received 18,145 substantiated complaints and another 37,474 unsubstantiated complaints.”

Carey said in his analysis of current data he’s been able to gather, he estimates this hotline continues to receive approximately 8,000 complaints monthly.

  Damning Justice Center Foil (1) by mikekvolpe on Scribd

An email to Governor Cuomo’s press office was left unreturned.

Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.

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Our Envy Machine | The American Conservative

We the People are spiritually sick. The discovery of evidence needs no diligent search. Discussion—if that’s the word I want—surrounding any trending news story offers conclusive proof. Take, for example, the death of Rush Limbaugh last week. 

If you happened to be unfortunate enough to peek at social media in the aftermath, you would have found the disgusting spectacle of gleeful grave-dancing even before the corpse was cold. If you are a member of the punditocracy, or a person who reads the New York Times or watches CNN on purpose and not for the laughs, or if you live in Yorba Linda, please allow me to say very clearly and very slowly that my point has nothing to do with Rush’s politics. One’s reaction to the death of a human being ought not to be determined by whether that person was on your team. Imagine we are talking about someone you like, and adjust accordingly. It could be Antonin Scalia. It could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Why this happy spite? What is wrong with us?

We cannot, I think, say “politics.” Our politics is a febrile attempt to fill a spiritual and existential void; our despairing and diseased political gamesmanship is therefore a symptom of that void rather than its cause. Calling our problem “politics” is similar to treating a brain injury with a nose job, and leaving it at that. And, anyway, it is merely one symptom. To put the diagnosis more generally, we like bad news, particularly when it has to do with someone else. The Psalmist says that the righteous man “is not afraid of bad news.” Well, neither are we, the unrighteous. We relish it.

The phenomenon puzzled Walker Percy, who found himself wondering about the following in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book:

THE ENVIOUS SELF (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self—though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill—in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

But the problem is not an instance of American exceptionalism. We can find it already in one of the earliest Greek dramas we have, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Upon his arrival at home after a decade-long absence, the title character, commander of kings at Troy, says to his wife Clytemnestra:

In few men is it part of nature to respect 

a friend’s prosperity without begrudging him,

as envy’s wicked poison settling to the heart

piles up the pain in one sick with unhappiness,

who, staggered under sufferings that are all his own, 

winces again to the vision of a neighbor’s bliss. (Trans. Richmond Lattimore)

Though Agamemnon is not, it is true, a neutral (ahem) observer, he is only expanding on a point that has just been made by the Chorus. We are ready to grieve with those who grieve, but we do not really share their grief. In the same way, we do not share their joy when they are happy.

If one is distressed, all others are ready

to grieve with him: yet the teeth of sorrow

come nowhere near to their heart’s edge.

And in joy likewise they show joy’s semblance, 

and torture the face to the false smile.

The Chorus means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to enter into another’s experience, because “you” must always also mean “not-I.” Agamemnon extends this observation in an understandably cynical direction: we would not wish truly to enter that experience even if we could, because the success of others is a distress to us; another’s good fortune makes our misery more acute. Envy is soul-sickness, caused by one’s own unhappiness and the desire for everyone else to be as miserable he is. 

The ancient Stoics, too, were preoccupied with the perils of envy. Thus Epictetus, in his Enchiridion, cautions that worldly success is only apparently, rather than actually, good: 

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. 

His warning is in reality a mechanism of self-defense to prevent the root of envy from taking hold in the first place. Envy is so common, in fact, that Marcus Aurelius begins the second book of the Meditationsby advising his reader that he should begin every day with the recognition that he will encounter the envious. Seneca the Younger lists it as one of the things that “goad man into destroying man.”

Let us stipulate, then, that the contagion is ubiquitous. There is nothing peculiarly “modern” or “late capitalist” in feeling bad about good news, or good about bad news. And yet it stands to reason that not all of envy’s causes are the same everywhere. Doubtless one might think some of them are, at least if one believes in a universal human nature. But there is still ample room for a concomitant variableness—both nature and nurture, as it were. A nail can blow a tire anywhere, but it takes a special set of circumstances to get a flat from an armadillo.

So perhaps some of the reasons for our widespread spite are unique. What is different about the “nurture” in our case, as opposed to that of, say, the ancient Greeks or Romans? What is our cultural armadillo? 

Let us return to Percy for a moment. Percy notes that man’s discovery of self-consciousness introduced a duality into his existence that makes him fundamentally different from other types of (biologically) living things. We are not only organisms in an environment; we are also selves in a world that we build up and maintain through the use of signs. That is, these signs—and language preeminently—allow us to create our human world that is superimposed on our natural environment, as well as to communicate it to and share it with others. Consider: chlorophyll absorbs the morning sunlight in plants and allows photosynthesis to occur, which makes plants green. But only a human being tells another human being, “Your love is like the morning sun,” or claims that his love “is like a red, red rose.”  Self-consciousness—the recognition that “I” am different from the material environment, that, while I have a material dimension, I am also, and more fundamentally, a knowing spirit—is correlated in turn to our sense of transcendence, our recognition, even if cloudy, of the things of the spirit and of eternity beyond our material and temporal environment, while our physical, fleshly aspect is correlated to our sense of immanence in that same environment. Language is the vehicle of the spirit and helps us to grapple with the problem of transcendence. We deal with the problem of immanence by feeding, fighting, or fleeing.

The “transcendent self,” then, is constitutive of what it means, in the deepest sense, to be human. Without it, there might be a species called homo sapiens, but there would be no human person. 

But now we encounter a difficulty. Human beings have traditionally coped with transcendence via myth and religion. But according to Percy, we now live in a post-religious age. (It seems to me that this descriptor needs to be drastically nuanced and restated, but this is not the place for that. I shall stipulate that it is more difficult in the industrialized and secularized West for religion to do its public work with unanxious vitality than it has been in other times and places, and I shall leave it at that. That claim is (a) true, and (b) gets me far enough for what I want to say.) Yet the transcendent side of our existence has not actually been eliminated; it has just been displaced to other domains, particularly science and art. 

Science and art, however, are poor substitutes for scratching our eternal itch. They are not open to everyone in the way that religion and myth are, and their psychospiritual effect is brief. I once heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed in the Tonhalle in Zürich. It was glorious. Its effect had mostly faded by the second sausage and beer I had afterwards. 

Percy puts it like this—it is a long quote, but worthy of your attention:

The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to “them,” the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services. Failing this and having some inkling of its plight, it sees no way out because it has come to see itself as an organism in an environment and so can’t understand why it feels so bad in the best of all possible environments–say, a good family and a good home in a good neighborhood in East Orange on a fine Wednesday afternoon—and so finds itself secretly relishing bad news, assassinations, plane crashes, and the misfortunes of neighbors, and even comes secretly to hope for catastrophe, earthquake, hurricane, wars, apocalypse—anything to break out of the iron grip of immanence.

This is why we love bad news. It provides a temporary transcendence of the nullity we fear to be at the non-existent center of our existence.

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer observed that the bored and resentful will look for something—for anything—to fill the void at the nil-point of lives that seem empty and meaningless. Politics will do. This accounts quite well for the error, the fundamental misguidedness, both of the riots this past summer and of those staged more recently at the Capitol. It is the root of our radicalism, whose name we dare not speak. And it is probably the root of the perverse spectacle of gloating over the death of one’s political bogeymen. As Hoffer remarks,

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed….When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom. 

But note what this means: The issue is not the issue, whatever just-so stories we want to tell ourselves about it. Spiritual sickness cannot have a political cure. We cannot do an end-run around the problem of lost transcendence by an intensification of our immanent urges. By making the attempt, we accomplish nothing more than turning society into “a wilderness of tigers,” as Titus calls Rome in Titus Andronicus.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I trust that readers will recall that play’s denouement. Politics as substitute-transcendence is a dead-end, literally and figuratively. It promises euphoria, and even delivers it, like a shot of grain alcohol. But it doesn’t last, and the hangover is severe. Promising salvation and escape, it only enmeshes us more inextricably in the machine of mass-produced and commodified resentment. In the end, we devour one another—and are just as depressed as we were before.

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

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Don’t Boycott the 2022 Olympics Because They’re in China

This picture taken on February 3, 2021, shows people visiting Beijing Olympic tower in Beijing on February 3, 2021, a year before the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4, 2022. (Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s human rights violations are both widespread and well-documented. Yet so far Western criticism has had little impact on Beijing’s behavior, whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or elsewhere on the mainland.

Some of China critics advocate boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics, set to take place in the PRC. The 2008 summer games gave Beijing a major propaganda boost; the Xi regime no doubt plans to turn next year’s competition into another self-love fest. A boycott would tarnish the competition and embarrass the hosts.

So far the Biden administration has said nothing publicly, though it reportedly has begun talking with allies about the games in light of the Trump administration’s determination that Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs is legal genocide, a conclusion endorsed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Congressman Tom Malinowski argued: “If you’re going to accuse a government of genocide, you can’t then have an Olympics in that country as if it’s a normal place.”

The boycott idea is worthy, but good intentions are not enough. Such a stand would not improve human rights in China.

Twice assigning the world’s premier sporting event to one of the world’s most repressive nations in little more than a decade demonstrates the need to rethink eligibility rules. Not that there is any easy answer.

Excluding undemocratic states would mean ruling out many potential hosts and might cause an exodus from the Olympics, perhaps even triggering the establishment of a competing contest. Moreover, how authoritarian would be too authoritarian? Setting a standard requires more than claiming to know it when one sees it. Anyway, Olympics games are already assigned through 2028, with France, Italy, and the U.S. next up. Focusing on 2030 won’t do anything to aid oppressed Chinese.

Republican legislators have introduced a resolution urging the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of the upcoming contest. But the IOC is unlikely to reverse itself, especially so late, after a host country has invested so much. In October, Hunter College’s Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, met with the Committee for the same purpose. He complained, “We were given the same response Olympic officials once gave to justify the Nazi Games—that politics and sport should be kept apart.”

Moreover, the competition is set to begin less than a year from now, leaving little time to prepare a new venue. Perhaps the games could be delayed or returned to a past host with facilities in good working order. But the 2014 host was Russia, which presumably would be ineligible under a human rights standard. Four years later, South Korea held the winter games, but, having suffered commercial retaliation from Beijing for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, the republic would be reluctant to risk further Chinese displeasure. Other potential candidates might be equally reluctant to court retaliation from Beijing.

With the games almost certain to go forward in China, British MPs are pushing for a boycott. Olympics controversies are not uncommon. Spain and the Soviet Union stayed home in 1936 when the games were held in Nazi Germany. In 1956, four countries abstained to protest the short-lived invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel; three stayed home because the Soviet Union was allowed to participate (despite its invasion of Hungary); and the PRC boycotted because Taiwan was invited.

Eight years later China, Indonesia, and North Korea refused to participate as part of a dispute over an alternative sports contest. In 1976, 29 mostly African nations boycotted after the Olympic Committee refused to ostracize New Zealand, whose All Blacks rugby team had toured Apartheid-era South Africa. Twelve years later, Cuba and North Korea refused to attend because Pyongyang was not made a cohost alongside South Korea. In none of these cases did anyone much miss the absent athletes or nations.

The most important boycott occurred in 1980, when the U.S.S.R. was hosting the summer games. Led by Washington, 66 countries stayed away to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, Moscow returned the favor, though less effectively, when it boycotted the contest in the U.S., along with 17 of its allies and friends.

The most important impact of the latter two episodes probably was to increase general distaste for mixing politics and sports, which would incline the U.S. Olympic Committee against a redux in 2022. Any serious boycott proposal would have to answer several questions.

First, would anyone else back the U.S.? The militarily threatening but economically isolated Soviet Union was a much easier target than the PRC. Beijing announced that it would retaliate against any nation that spurned the games, a promise it almost certainly would keep. For instance, China targeted Norway, which hosts the Nobel committee, after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize; six years passed before the two governments finally repaired relations, after Oslo issued an excruciatingly obsequious statement dictated by the PRC.

Today, even American allies exhibit profound reluctance to confront Beijing over political and trade issues. Most Asian and European states have significant economic ties with China; the investment accord inked by Europe and the PRC late last year offers Beijing even more leverage. Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told the Washington Post: “I’ve spoken with European ambassadors and friends here, and the appetite to take on China with a boycott is zero.”

A solitary, or almost solitary, holdout by the U.S. might make some people feel righteous, but it would likely be counterproductive. It would look like a politically motivated bout of moral vanity at the expense of athletes who would lose the opportunity to compete. (It is easy to argue on behalf of a supposedly noble cause if someone else is paying the price.) Worse, a unitary action would highlight America’s isolation, even impotence, making any future effort at coalition building more difficult. Finally, Beijing would feel emboldened, more convinced that no one was prepared to confront even its worst behavior.

Second, would anyone else be willing to take the lead in promoting a boycott? No one wants to be caught between the U.S. and China, especially since any campaign pushed by Washington would be seen as part of a new cold war. Mike Pompeo’s ostentatious efforts to conscript Asian and European nations for America’s attacks on the PRC failed badly. Add to that Washington’s infamous inconsistency on human rights: attacking adversaries for violations while ignoring even worse crimes by friends. Many nations would automatically dismiss a U.S. effort, even if led by the Biden administration. A boycott campaign would have greater credibility if organized by someone else.

Third, would walking away from the 2022 contest diminish opportunities to highlight Beijing’s violations of human rights? The Olympics brings enormous numbers of foreigners and substantial amounts of media coverage. Could governments and athletes use the competition to highlight Chinese misbehavior? Would a boycott focus coverage on the U.S.-China dispute rather than on China’s mistreatment of its people? Would an America-only refusal to attend galvanize foreign opinion against the U.S. or Beijing?

Fourth, would such action help the oppressed? Embarrassing the Chinese leadership might feel good, but would that lead to an improvement in the treatment of Uyghurs or others? Or would the Xi government respond with even tougher controls over its own population? Beijing already spends more on internal security, meaning holding its own people in bondage, than on its military. A high-profile attack from America or others likely would send the regime into a defensive crouch. Would a boycott cause other governments to treat the PRC in ways that would benefit China’s people?

Fifth, would a boycott be seen by China’s population, and especially the young, as an attack on the nation rather than on the regime and its policy of repression? The PRC’s future will be determined by its own people, not foreigners. The best hope for positive reform is an internal demand for change. Younger Chinese don’t like government restrictions on their lives but even more dislike attacks on their country. A boycott, especially one led by the U.S. tarnishing China’s reputation, would risk driving people to support the Beijing regime. That would strengthen the position of Xi and other hardliners and make political reform more distant.

Finally, are there alternative measures to take to highlight Chinese human rights abuses? There could be, for instance, a diplomatic boycott, in which top government officials and celebrities around the world avoided the games. Or a high-profile campaign might urge sponsors to withdraw their backing. Or a boycott of game advertisers could be organized. All of these could display public displeasure and encourage discussion without punishing athletes.

The claim that the Olympics should be politics-free deserves debate, which next year’s contest makes more urgent. However, the best time to disqualify states from hosting the Olympics is before the games are awarded. A change of venue or mass boycott of next year’s competition is about as likely as Xi Jinping becoming a born-again democrat.

It would be better for Western athletes, activists, and governments to set more modest objectives and find other ways to publicize Beijing’s crimes and aid Beijing’s victims. This approach would better give substance to the Olympic Charter’s commitment to the “preservation of human dignity” and “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

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Papal Visit to Iraq: Comfort or Compromise?

When Pope Francis steps off the plane in Baghdad on March 5, he will become the first pope in history to visit that overwhelmingly Muslim country. But Iraq has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Ancient tradition claims the foundations of the Christian church in what was then Mesopotamia were laid down by the apostle Thomas and his disciples Aggai and Mari. At least two bishops from the region were present at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to promulgate the Nicene creed, still recited every Sunday by most orthodox Christians.

But the Christian community in Iraq that will greet the pope is, according to many inside the country, in danger of extinction. Before the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is estimated that there were more than 1.3 million Iraqi Christians, mainly Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Now, although figures differ, it is likely that there are less than 200,000 Christians, of all denominations, left in the country.

There is no doubt that the visit is long awaited and the cause of much hope for such a beleaguered community. Iraqi Christians, along with many other persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in Syria, have long felt that the Western church has paid scant attention to the near total destruction of the church in the lands where Christianity began. I have heard many times, on my visits to Iraq and in Syria, including from senior ecclesial figures that, deep down, they feel abandoned, certainly by the media, but also, more disturbingly, by Christian leaders in the West. Iraqi Christians look forward to welcoming the Bishop of Rome, but some fear that even this visit will fail to make their suffering known. 

The emergence of the Islamic State, and their conquest of many of the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain in July and August of 2014 was not the cause of the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq. That was only the latest and most deadly persecution, after years of murder, kidnapping, and ethnic cleansing. The city of Mosul was already almost uninhabitable for Christians by the time ISIS took control. Mosul, which Pope Francis will visit for a short time, is the biblical city of Nineveh preached to by the prophet Jonah. Its Chaldean Catholic Bishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered in 2008. A year earlier, one of his  priests, Ragheed Ganni, and three deacons were shot dead by Islamists outside their Church. Many in Iraq were hoping that Pope Francis would beatify them during his visit next month, but that seems unlikely.

From the Caliphate’s rise in 2014 to its defeat in 2017, more than 120,000 Christians were driven from their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain, along with many thousands of Yazidis and other religious minorities. Many of them finding shelter with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. I vividly remember, on the first of my many visits to the region, in early 2015, seeing the Christians and Yazidis living in abandoned buildings, in shipping containers, and in prefabricated huts, with nearly all the food and shelter being provided by Catholic Church organizations and Christian NGOs.

Iraqi Christians I have spoken to, and whom I have gotten to know well over multiple visits in the last six years, have told me they pray Pope Francis will do three things on his historic visit. More than anything else, they want him to highlight what happened to them, not only the severe persecution under ISIS, but the long history of persecution they have endured for centuries. Critically, they hope the visit will draw the world’s attention to the ongoing persecution of Christians, not just in Iraq and the Middle East, but across the world. Making that his central focus, and the media coverage it will gain, will go some way to redressing the inattention this persecution has received. They need the successor of St. Peter to comfort them, and to strengthen them, not just by words, but by challenging authorities, speaking truth to power, to give Christians and other minorities equal status as citizens—something they are denied under the Iraqi Constitution. Lastly, for the visit to be seen as a success by those who really matter, the Pope needs to listen to those who will speak with transparency and honesty, not always a feature of those in power, both in civil society and the church.

However, according to sources I have spoken to, there are growing concerns about the feasibility of the visit and its central focus.

Concerns center on the narrative emerging from the Vatican and, it must be said, from the Pope himself, about religious dialogue and the “Document of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Pope Francis will pay a courtesy visit to the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf on the second full day of his visit. The Vatican had hoped the Ayatollah, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite community, would also sign the Abu Dhabi “Human Fraternity” project document, which sounds like something produced by a U.N. commission. However, it now seems the Ayatollah will not sign any such thing. 

The speech the pope will make at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, on the same day as the visit with the Ayatollah is a most appropriate occasion to speak about the need for the three Abrahamic religions to live in peace, but even the title and logo of the Pope’s visit, “You Are All Brothers,” leads many Iraqi Christians to worry that those who suffered so much from Islamic extremism will be lectured about living in peace with their neighbors. As one Iraqi priest said to me, “My home was stolen by neighbors and my Church became an ISIS torture center. I don’t need to be told to live in peace. We were living peacefully.” Iraqi Christians responded with great pain when, in May 2016, on his visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos, the Pope brought back to Rome three Muslim refugee families, and not one Christian family. Similarly his comments after the murder of the 85-year-old French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel by Islamists in Normandy, France, in July 2016, in which he said that if “I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Christian violence,” caused much confusion and anguish for people who had been driven from their homes, had their women kidnapped and raped, and who had refrained from responding with violence.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Younan said in recent days that he would have preferred the visit be “postponed,” because Iraq has been severely hit by COVID-19, with cases rising in the last few weeks. He also expressed a concern I have heard from others on the ground: The Shia militias under Iranian direction, which are the real powerbroker on the Nineveh Plain despite it being nominally under the control of the Iraqi army, will use this visit for their own purposes. Among other things, the militias will claim that they are providing security and protection for the Christians who have returned to Nineveh, when in fact they are engaged in a policy of demographic and economic ethnic cleansing, changing formerly Christian towns into majority-Shiite strongholds.

The security situation has deteriorated in recent weeks, with at least fourteen rockets landing on February 15 around Erbil International Airport, where the pope will arrive on March 7. The attack killed one contractor, and injured several others, with rockets landing in other residential areas. It is widely believed this attack was directed by Iran to test the new Biden administration.

Pope Francis has the opportunity, and the tremendous good wishes of all the Iraqi Christians, to make this visit a turning point for Christians across the Middle East, by acknowledging their persecution and giving them a sign of hope for their future. But that could be lost in a trip with a U.N.-style focus, complete with well-meaning phrases about dialogue and brotherhood, but with little reference to the experience on the ground.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.

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Liz Cheney Lays Down Her Marker

Spared defenestration from House leadership, the anti-Trump neoconservative has made clear she wants a Republican Party civil war.

“These ideas are just as dangerous today as they were in 1940,” Rep. Liz Cheney told the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute this week, “when isolationists launched the America First movement to appease Hitler.”

It wasn’t subtle.

The most famous Republican in the country to vote to impeach Donald Trump last month all but explicitly linked “America First,” the foreign policy program favored by the former president (and until recently, Cheney’s own party), with the ancestor by the same name. That is, the now-controversial but once reasonably popular “America First” movement that questioned U.S. entry into World War II before the Pearl Harbor attacks. Conventionally hawkish Republicans have been lampooned by critics for incessantly seeing fresh “Munich moments” behind every corner. On that score, Cheney did not disappoint.

She played the hits.

“Weakness is provocative,” Cheney told the forum’s chair, Roger Zakheim. America must be clear-eyed in accepting its exceptionalism, she argued, and implicitly siding with Democratic characterizations of the Trump years, Cheney stuck the knife in further, saying the GOP must not “become the party of white supremacy.”

Cheney is a top member of House Republican leadership, having retained her post following censure by her hometown Republican Party and a failed backbench effort to remove her in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters emphatically, “yes,” it is appropriate for Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) this weekend in Orlando. Cheney, alongside McCarthy, said equally as emphatically: “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.” Channeling the anxiety in the high command over the party’s potentially riven future, McCarthy said: “On that high note, thank you very much.”

Cheney’s continued public fusillades against both Trump and Trumpism are a problem for a party licking its chops to get back into power as quickly as possible. Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the party’s main Senate campaign arm, authored a memorandum this week addressed to “Republican voters, activists, leaders and donors” saying in the language of the moment,”the Republican civil war has been canceled.”

Scott, who harbors 2024 presidential ambitions, wrote: “This is real life folks. If they can cancel the President of the United States, they will have no problem cancelling you and me….Today, we must show our Democrat adversaries that, as Mark Twain would say, reports of the death of the Republican coalition and the American Dream are wildly exaggerated. The truth is the exact opposite. The table is set for us.” But it remains to be seen how sharp the knives are on that table.

The divide in the Republican Party is perhaps best understood as four-part.

First, there are those loyal (enough) to the former president who emphasize a more classically Reaganite legacy—low taxes and the like. This includes former White House officials such as Larry Kudlow, who has returned to television on Fox News, and Brooke Rollins, a veteran of the Koch network who has founded a new think tank. Rollins is mulling a future political run in Texas.

Second, there are those loyal to the president who proclaim a thirst for the comeback—that is, that Trump should run in 2024 and seek a rematch with Biden, or whichever successor. Figures who have favored this course in recent weeks include Trump-favorite Rep. Matt Gaetz and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Third, there are those (officially, at least) unashamed of the Trump years, but who would also potentially favor a “Trumpism without Trump.” This faction is underrepresented in frontline politics, and perhaps over-represented in intellectual circles.

Former Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought has started a new policy shop in recent days seeking to preserve the policy gains, as he sees them, of the Trump years. Other groups have signed onto pro-antitrust and anti-Big Tech statements, in a swipe at the party’s more market-deferent old guard.

Figures such as Tucker Carlson of Fox and potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance have charted perhaps more independent courses, but are at times seemingly borne back ceaselessly to Trump the man. Take Vance’s recent lamentation of the former president’s deplatforming. Add to that the cold reality that suspicions around voter fraud are now plainly in the party’s mainstream. Trump’s address this weekend in Florida for CPAC, potentially officially declaring a political future, is seen by this group as of preeminent importance.

But fourth and finally, there are those who would like to ignore Trump’s plans—their own plans, plainly, are expungement and restoration. Both Cheney and the Reagan Institute’s Zakheim are progeny of an ousted party elite. Cheney is the daughter, of course, of the former vice president. And Zakheim is the son of the former Pentagon comptroller, Dov Zakheim, who urged a tactical vote for Joe Biden last year.

Introducing her, the younger Zakheim openly flattered the Wyoming representative, comparing her to Margaret Thatcher. “If these past few months have proven anything,” Zakheim said. “It’s that Congresswoman Cheney certainly has the resolve, fortitude and conviction of 21st-century Iron Lady.”

Cheney was once spoken about as future Speaker, but mounting such a bid is now unimaginable, in the current landscape of the House. Only time will tell if political liability will simply make her aim higher—that is, if Cheney is imbued with the ambition to seek the presidency that eluded her father.