‘Some Toxins Can Be Deadly in Small Doses’

The Atlantic Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court gave a Texas death-row inmate a second chance to avoid the death penalty on Wednesday, ruling in a 6-2 decision that Duane Buck’s lawyer had unconstitutionally introduced testimony suggesting he was more likely to be commit future crimes because he is black.

“As an initial matter, this is a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle.”

A Texas jury found Buck guilty of capital murder for killing his ex-girlfriend and one of her friends in 1995. His case then moved to the sentencing phase to determine whether he would receive the death penalty. In most states with capital punishment, the phase largely consists of jurors weighing aggravating factors, such as previous convictions, against mitigating ones, like a troubled childhood.

Texas, however, includes an additional step before reaching that balancing act. State laws required the jury to decide whether Buck would pose a “continuing threat to society” if he lived. To assure the jury that Buck did not meet the “future dangerousness” threshold for execution, Buck’s lawyer, a public defender named Jerry Guerniot, called two psychologists to the stand.

Both of them testified that Buck was unlikely to commit further acts of violence. But one of them, Walter Quijano, used a seven-point statistical model to make his determination. The fourth factor was race, with black defendants rated as more likely to commit violent acts in the future.

Guerniot called Quijano to the stand and asked him to discuss his statistical factors. “It’s a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are over-represented in the criminal-justice system,” Quijano testified at one point. He did not revise his argument when cross-examined by the state.

“You have determined that the sex factor, that a male is more violent than a female because that’s just the way it is, and that the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons; is that correct?” the prosecutor asked. “Yes,” Quijano replied.

Presenting that testimony to a jury clearly amounted to inadequate assistance of legal counsel, the justices concluded. “No competent defense attorney would introduce such evidence about his own client,” Roberts wrote. Indeed, Guerniot, who no longer handles death-penalty cases, has received intense criticism for his track record when defending clients facing execution.

Race has long played a role in which defendants get the death penalty and which ones don’t, albeit in subtler ways. What made Buck’s case unusual is that the unconstitutional testimony came not from the prosecution, but from a witness called to testify in Buck’s defense. As my colleague Garrett Epps explained when the Court took up Buck’s case in September, this difference trapped the case in the byzantine morass of death-penalty appeals. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals first ruled against Buck on procedural grounds in 2006, then rejected his efforts again in 2015 after a Supreme Court ruling on Texas’s appeals system gave him a second bite of the apple.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, insisted that the Court should have upheld the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of federal appellate procedure. “Having settled on a desired outcome, the Court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it,” Thomas complained in his dissent. He also sided with the lower courts’ determination that Buck’s claimed violated of his Sixth Amendment rights had only a minimal affect of the outcome.

The majority of justices conceded those comments amounted to only a brief exchange during the broader sentencing phase. But they also concluded the statements had crossed a constitutional barrier by making Buck’s race an explicit part of the calculus for whether he would live or die. “Some toxins can be deadly in small doses,” Roberts wrote.

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The Atlantic  Politics & Policy Daily: Planets 7 From Outer Space

The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Planets 7 From Outer Space

The Atlantic Opinion

Today in 5 Lines

The Trump administration plans to revoke Obama-era guidance that required public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are scheduled to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and other officials in Mexico later today. Astronomers discovered a system of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a nearby star, according to new findings published in Nature magazine. The U.S. Supreme Court gave Duane Buck, a Texas death-row inmate, a second chance to avoid the death penalty, ruling that his lawyers had unconstitutionally introduced evidence that suggested he was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black. The 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off in Washington, D.C.


Today on The Atlantic

  • Mea Culpa: Following outrage over his past comments about pedophilia, Milo Yiannopoulos held a press conference in New York where he announced his resignation from Breitbart News and offered an unprecedented, albeit small, display of remorse. (Rosie Gray)

  • Hijacking the Movement: Many left-leaning Brits are re-directing their frustrations with the Brexit referendum by forming a U.K.-based anti-Trump coalition. But, Linda Kinstler writes: “By training their efforts on him, movements like the Stop Trump Coalition may have picked the wrong target.”

  • ‘The Economy Is Not Doomed’: Derek Thompson spoke with renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs about the future of prosperity in the United States and the end of us-versus-them politics.

Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.


Snapshot

An opponent of the Dakota Access oil pipeline watches a building burn after it was set on fire by protesters preparing to evacuate the main opposition camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Terray Sylvester / Reuters

What We’re Reading

‘Democracy in Action’: Frustrated constituents are filling up meeting rooms across the country to voice their concerns to Republican members of Congress. Here’s what’s happening at those town-hall meetings, from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fairview, Tennessee. (The New York Times)

#WeWillReplaceYou: A new campaign by Bernie Sanders’s supporters and former campaign staff presents Democratic lawmakers with an ultimatum: “oppose Donald Trump at every turn, or face a primary challenger who will.” But Sanders has declined to comment on the strategy. (Ruby Cramer, BuzzFeed)

A Contender for Cruz: Congressman Beto O’Rourke, “a Mexico-loving liberal,” might challenge Ted Cruz for his seat in the U.S. Senate. “Can a Democrat really win in this deeply red state—against Cruz, who will be running one of the best-financed campaigns in the country?” (Ben Terris, The Washington Post)

‘33 Questions About Trump and Russia’: Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias poses a series of questions about the Trump Organization, Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and the president’s relationship with Russia.

Shower With Affection: Former Trump campaign staffers shared their secret to reducing his inflammatory tweets during the race: “Ensure that his personal media consumption includes a steady stream of praise,” writes Tara Palmeri. “And when no such praise was to be found, staff would turn to friendly outlets to drum some up.” (Politico)


Visualized

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: View these graphics to learn how the Trump administration’s proposed visa restrictions could affect the country’s future innovation and economy. (Samuel Granados, The Washington Post)


Question of the Week

After a visit to the National Museum of African American History, President Trump pledged to “bring this country together.” What’s an effort you’ve seen in your community—or one you’ve participated in yourself—that you think could help heal a polarized nation?

Send your answers to hello@theatlantic.com, and our favorites will be featured in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.

-Written by Elaine Godfrey (@elainejgodfrey) and Candice Norwood (@cjnorwoodwrites)

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The Foreign-Policy Establishment Defends Itself From Trump

The Atlantic Opinion

Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.

Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).

“We have large problems of perception,” Kagan continued, in reference to the establishment. “Trump says this, but he’s not the only one: ‘The last 30 years have been a disaster in American foreign policy.’ And my answer to that is: Really? Compared to which 30 years? … Would you like the 30 years prior to World War I? Would you like the 30 years from World War I through World War II? Would you even like the 30 years following World War II, with the Cold War and [the wars in] Vietnam and Korea? Actually, the last 30 years have been pretty good in historical terms. And I think that what has been the American foreign-policy establishment’s bipartisan foreign policy since World War II has actually been one of the most successful foreign policies in history.”

“For all the flaws, for all the mistakes … if you compare the last 70 years to the 70 years before that, I think you could say: If this was the foreign-policy establishment’s foreign policy, they did pretty damn good,” Kagan argued. “So yeah, I would say: Let’s not get run out of town because people have decided that everything’s been a disaster when in fact it hasn’t been a disaster.” Trump has highlighted the failures of foreign-policy experts to discredit their expertise, but Kagan’s message is different: Don’t overlook our successes.

Faced with a U.S. president who is uncommonly critical of conventional expertise and many components of the U.S.-led international order, who communicates in tweets and consumes information via one-pagers and maps, Brookings has reacted in Blob-ian fashion: with a 63-page defense of traditional U.S. foreign policy that contains exactly 37 footnotes and exactly zero maps.

This week, Brookings is releasing a strategy document for the 45th president authored by former high-ranking officials in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—Eric Edelman, Stephen Hadley, and Kristen Silverberg on the Republican side, and Derek Chollet, Michèle Flournoy, and Jake Sullivan on the Democratic side—along with Kagan and fellow Brookings scholars Martin Indyk, Bruce Jones, and Thomas Wright. (Kagan and Wright told me that the document—which has been in the works since the summer of 2015, when a Trump presidency was considered a pipe dream—was modified in light of Trump’s election, but that they do not consider it a response to Trump in particular.)

“The question that confronts us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” the report’s authors write. “Should the United States adopt a new grand strategy that no longer prioritizes securing and sustaining a U.S.-led liberal international order and instead pursues a narrower, more nationalist approach to foreign policy?”

That Republican and Democratic experts have signed off on a single articulation of U.S. strategy is notable. But more remarkable is what that says about the plasticity of the political spectrum in Trump-era Washington. On foreign affairs, the ideological distance between Hadley, who served as Bush’s national-security adviser, and Sullivan, who would likely have served as Hillary Clinton’s national-security adviser, seems far narrower than the distance separating establishment internationalists from the iconoclastic nationalist currently occupying the White House. (Some members of Trump’s team appear more supportive of standard U.S. foreign policy than the president; the vice president, secretary of defense, and secretary of state have spent the past few weeks flying around the world to reassure jittery allies.)

In undertaking the exercise, Brookings returned to a subject that it first studied in the midst of the Second World War, when the former State Department official Arthur Millspaugh investigated various ways to apply U.S. power “for the purpose of maintaining world order.” The options did not include “absolute isolation,” Millspaugh emphasized. “[N]o one has ever proposed that the United States build a Chinese Wall around itself,” he wrote.

Many Americans are now attracted to isolationism, according to the new Brookings report. “When isolationist sentiment last appeared in the early-to-mid-1990s, it was because some people believed the world was safe and could take care of itself without much management,” the authors write. “Today, they worry that it is a dangerous place—not just with regard to … security but also economically—and they want to wall themselves off.” The popularity of Obama’s focus on “nation-building at home” and Trump’s pledge to put “America first,” they note, demonstrates that a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate does not believe the international order is benefitting them or U.S. interests, in some cases—as with manufacturing workers harmed by globalization—for good reason.

“Why should the U.S. government not define America’s interests like other nations do, in narrow terms—territorial defense, the security of our citizens, and a healthy national economy—instead of maintaining something that sounds abstract—international order—and promoting stability, prosperity, and human rights across the globe?” they ask, echoing Trump’s reasoning. After all, what the United States has been doing since World War II is rather exceptional:

No country in history has ever played the role that the United States has played over the past 70 years. There is no comparable analogy; even the British Empire, which is often mentioned as comparable, was an extractive and exploitative enterprise that sought to remain aloof from the balance of power in continental Europe, which is precisely the opposite of what the United States sought to accomplish after 1945. It is therefore impressive that there was overwhelming support for this most unusual of grand strategies for so long. It is perhaps best explained by the sense of “greatness” this higher purpose bestowed on Americans, that we were pursuing something more than our narrow interests that benefited a significant proportion of humankind.

Yet America and Americans do profit from the international order in fundamental but often underappreciated ways, the authors contend. As champions of the status quo tend to do, they argue that the consequences of breaking with longstanding practice would be dire, diminishing U.S. power, enfeebling the U.S. economy, and making it harder for the United States to collaborate with other countries on global issues that affect U.S. citizens such as terrorism, climate change, and the spread of nuclear weapons. “The last time an unraveling of an existing international order occurred was in the 1930s, and the result was depression and world war,” they observe.

Of course, there is no better way to win an argument than to suggest that losing it means the next Hitler or Great Depression. The world hasn’t exactly been serene under the current international order—recent years have brought not just the Iraq War, but the global financial crisis—and it might not devolve into chaos if that order changed or collapsed. But the authors ground their warnings in concrete successes of the international system, including:

the transformation of Germany and Japan into peaceful democracies and economic powerhouses; the containment of the Soviet Union and communism; treaties, institutions, and rules to tackle global threats and challenges; unprecedented levels of economic growth, both in the United States and globally; a system of alliances that helped to achieve a prolonged period of great power peace; and the legitimation of American global leadership across multiple regions and issue areas.

Yet despite the achievements the authors attribute to the American-led international system, it has not solved a problem Americans view with serious concern: terrorism, which has flourished alongside great-power peace. Here, the experts part ways with public opinion: Terrorism, while a direct, immediate threat to the United States that must be neutralized, is not the most significant challenge in international affairs at the moment. “The biggest new thing is an old thing: [the] return of nationalism in geopolitics,” Wright told me. Fierce competition between major powers—especially China, Russia, and the United States—has returned after a rare period in the 1990s and 2000s when the world’s leading powers largely cooperated.

China has benefitted from economic aspects of the international order, including free trade and globalization, the authors note. But Chinese leaders are unhappy with U.S. alliances in their neighborhood of East Asia and with certain international rules for how countries should conduct themselves. In the authors’ estimation, the Chinese government wants to increase China’s influence in the current order rather than overturn it or construct a parallel system.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, wants to undermine the U.S.-led system, according to the report. He “believes that the existing order is a façade,” one “shrouded in the language of universal values and global institutions” but “actually designed to promote American dominance,” the authors write. Putin seems to desire a world in which his country is preeminent in its region and has as much say on global issues as other world powers, just like Russia does as a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council.

The “emerging strategic competition between the United States, Russia, and China is over two competing visions: the American postwar international order and an authoritarian vision of a spheres of influence system” in which “China dominates much of East Asia, Russia dominates much of Eastern and Central Europe, and the United States is preeminent in its own hemisphere and possibly Western Europe,” the authors argue. The Brookings report comes just days after Russia’s foreign minister spoke of a “post-West world order” and China’s president called for his country to help guide a “new world order.”

A world organized around spheres of influence” is “inherently unstable,” the authors add, because the boundaries of those spheres tend to be hotly contested. “It is a configuration prone to great power conflict,” of the kind that raged before the U.S.-led order came into existence.

Isn’t Trump’s America-First nationalism a recognition of this moment of renewed geopolitical competition? I asked Kagan and Wright.

Kagan agreed, but he argued that Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy could turn the United States into a “rogue superpower.” Trump’s mentality is “if China’s screwing us, we screw China. If Russia’s screwing us, we screw Russia. If somebody hits us, we hit them back. Which is a different approach than [taking the position that] the way you deal with China [and Russia] is by having strong alliances in the region, by setting up a pro-democratic, pro-free market system, by having trade agreements, by having American forces in Japan and similarly in Europe [where] you have NATO, you have the EU. [That] has been the traditional way.”

The Brookings report gently suggests that European countries spend more on their own defense. It urges U.S. leaders to counter systemic threats to the international order (the use of force by a rival power, for instance) while being flexible about more benign challenges (as an example, the authors argue that the Obama administration shouldn’t have reflexively opposed China’s creation of a World Bank-like institution, since the organization won’t destabilize the system). “If other countries want to change the system by persuading other nations and people that it is not in their interests, then they are free to do so,” the authors write.

Beyond that, however, there are few concessions to those who want to substantially rethink America’s role in the world. The report’s recommendations aren’t especially novel or provocative, but then sober-minded proposals rarely are. Trump would likely be skeptical of some of the ideas, from unequivocally supporting NATO and the European Union to reestablishing checks on aggressive Russian behavior before seeking better relations with Moscow. But he might welcome others, including ending cuts to the U.S. military budget and using tough measures short of war to restrict China’s control of the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and Iran’s clout in the Middle East.

Asked about this uncompromising stance on the international order, Kagan responded, “There [is] not an unlimited number of options for how to uphold it. You have to have American forces in Asia, you have to have American forces in Europe, you have to support this alliance system, you have to support this global economy. You’re not going to have a massive deviation if you think the order that was created in a certain way needs to be sustained.”

But if that’s the case, will reports like this one help resolve the perception problem Kagan identified? In defending a set of policies they acknowledge are unpopular at the moment, the authors are suggesting that many Americans’ assumptions about U.S. foreign policy, while understandable, are ultimately misguided. Yet they don’t devote much space in the report to interrogating their own assumptions. If World War III has not erupted in the last seven decades, is that really because of the international order, as the authors argue? Or is it the result of other factors, like the chilling effect that nuclear weapons have had on great-power conflict? Is the endurance of NATO more a cause or a symptom of peace in Europe?

As for how he and his co-authors hope to influence the policies of the Trump administration, Kagan said, “You try to say the right thing and hope that eventually people will come around to seeing what you think is the right thing. It isn’t like you’re going to walk into [Trump Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon’s office and say, ‘I think you really should do this!’” Perhaps the president will eventually come around to their arguments. Or he won’t, and in four years we’ll have a better sense of who was right: Trump or the establishment.  

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Republican Voters Trust Trump More Than GOP Leaders in Congress

The Atlantic Opinion

Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House, the stage is set in Washington for the GOP to enact sweeping legislative change after eight years of President Obama. But for Republicans, that new-found power comes with a caveat: Republican voters tell pollsters they trust President Trump more than they trust GOP leaders in Congress. And if Republican lawmakers clash with Trump, either by opposing his agenda or pursuing one of their own that runs contrary to the president’s priorities, they may face backlash from voters whose support they will need to remain in office.

A Pew Research Center survey released on Wednesday found that if Trump and Republican leaders in Congress disagree, more than half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters—at 52 percent—are more likely to trust Trump. Only 34 percent of Republican voters, in contrast, responded that they would trust their elected leaders in Congress more than the president.

Republican voters also seem to like Trump more than they like GOP congressional leaders. A full 86 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters held a favorable view of  Trump compared to only 65 percent who held a favorable view of House Speaker Paul Ryan and 57 percent who felt favorably about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to the Pew poll conducted earlier this month.

Those numbers help explain why Congressional Republicans have not been very critical of Trump despite his unpopularity overall. If GOP leaders split with the president, they risk having their own base turn against them. That dynamic might make Republicans more beholden to Trump’s policy ambitions. It may also make it more difficult for GOP congressional leaders to push legislative items they have long championed, but which Trump has opposed, including cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare or policies that would bolster free trade. It might also make congressional Republicans less willing to take action that could provoke Trump, such as investigating the potential conflicts of interest that arise from his business empire.

Of course, the mere fact that Trump has voiced opposition in the past to various policies that GOP congressional leaders might want to pursue doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll actively dissent in the future. It remains to be seen whether and how much Republicans in Congress will push an agenda Trump disagrees with, and whether he will oppose them if they do.

So far, Republicans in Congress have been supportive of the president. Most Republicans in the Senate have consistently voted to confirm the various members of Trump’s cabinet, though there have been a few defections. There have also been several dissenting GOP voices in the early days of the Trump administration, most notably Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. For the most part, however, Republicans in Congress have adopted a deferential approach.

The polling results indicate that Republican voters may be happy to see that. Pew Research shows a sharp uptick in approval ratings for Republican congressional leaders overall among Republican and Republican-leaning voters over roughly the past year. In September 2015, only 26 percent of GOP voters approved of the work their Republican leaders were doing. That number has now shot up to 68 percent.

That rise in approval for congressional leaders, as well as the fact that the vast majority of Republican voters have a favorable view of Trump, underscores that even if Trump remains unpopular nationally his base still approves. While 86 percent of Republican voters have a favorable view of the president, the poll finds that 57 percent of voters overall, and 87 percent of Democratic voters, view him unfavorably.

The findings reinforce the idea that the electorate remains deeply divided. Trump’s popularity with his base, as well as the recent surge in approval for GOP leaders, could also blunt the ability of liberal protesters showing up at Republican town halls to convince GOP lawmakers they face any real electoral danger from voters unhappy with Trump and Congress. Instead, Republicans could rationally conclude that defying the president carries far greater political risks than supporting him.

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The Christian Retreat From Public Life

The Atlantic Opinion

Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.

And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.

“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”

The last few years have confirmed an extraordinary cultural shift against conservative Christian beliefs, he argues, particularly with the rise of gay rights and legalization of same-sex marriage. “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists,” he writes. Their future will become increasingly grim, he predicts, with lost jobs, bullying at school, and name-calling in the streets.

This, Dreher says, is the “inevitable” fate for which Christians must prepare.

There was a time when Christian thinkers like Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative, might have prepared to fight for cultural and political control. Dreher, however, sees this as futile. “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to … stop fighting the flood?” he asks. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” This strategic withdrawal from public life is what he calls the Benedict option.

Dreher’s proposal is as remarkable as his fear. It is a radical rejection of the ties between Christianity and typical forms of power, from Republican politics to market-driven wealth. Instead, Dreher says, Christians should embrace pluralism, choosing to fortify their own communities and faith as one sub-culture among many in the United States.

But it is a vision that will not be easily achieved. Conservative Christianity no longer sets the norms in American culture, and transitioning away from a position of dominance to a position of co-existence will require significant adjustment, especially for a people who believe so strongly in evangelism. Even if that happens, there are always challenges at the boundaries of sub-cultures. It’s not clear that Dreher has a clear vision of how Christians should engage with those they disagree with—especially the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture.

The Benedict option is not a new proposal. Dreher has been tossing around this idea for roughly a decade, drawing from Alasdair McIntyre’s argument that “continued full participation in mainstream society [is] not possible for those who [want] to live a life of traditional virtue.” It takes its name from St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century priest who created a network of contemplative monasteries in the Italian mountains and inspired generations of monks to seek lives of quiet reflection and prayer.

“Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort … That is the way of spiritual death.”

Dreher is not suggesting everyday Christians live in poverty and seclusion. “We’re not called to be monks. Monks are called to be monks,” he told me in an interview. “What we have to do is have a limited retreat from the world … into our own institutions and communities.” While some might see this as a means of running away from culture, Dreher argued that the Benedict option is not about bunkering down and waiting for the end times. It’s about “building ourselves up spiritually,” he said, “so we can go out in the world and be who Christ asked us to be.”

The first step, he says, is to recognize that “politics will not save us.” While many Christians have sought defenders and champions in the Republican Party, including Trump, Dreher is skeptical of this model. “Neither party’s program is fully consistent with Christian truth,” he argues.

Instead of looking to elected officials to create their communities, he says, Christians should do it themselves. This means getting involved: “Feast with your neighbors,” he writes, or “join the volunteer fire department.” It requires “[seceding] culturally from the mainstream,” including turning off smartphones and watching only movies and television that are consonant with Christian values. It even means deprioritizing work in favor of richer communal life. “Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom, and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold onto what we have,” he writes. “That is the way of spiritual death.”

This emphasis on localism extends to worship life. Prayer should guide the rhythms of the day and week, he says. Christians should view church as an opportunity to build communities and find fellowship, not just pray on their own. Even living in close proximity to church can help, he says. When the Orthodox Christian parish in Dreher’s small Louisiana town closed, his family moved to Baton Rouge. “We knew that there would be no way to practice our faith properly in community while living so far from the church,” he writes.

Above all, Dreher advocates institution building. He encourages his readers to pull their children out of public school and enroll them in “classical Christian schools,” a model developed by the North Carolina-based CiRCE Institute. This curriculum, which can be used by teachers or homeschooling parents, covers “the canonical Western texts” alongside the Bible, sometimes in direct cooperation with churches. Dreher envisions a more robust and sustainable Christian system of higher education, but for now, many students have created intentional communities on their campuses where they can live according to their shared interpretation of the Bible.

The Sexual Revolution has “[deposed] an enfeebled Christianity.”

As Dreher notes, a number of these practices are already embraced by other religious communities. “We Christians have a lot to learn from Modern Orthodox Jews,” he told me in an interview. Many of Dreher’s suggestions appear to echo Orthodox Jewish life, including daily prayers, restrictions on diet and work, and extensive educational networks. “They have had to live in a way that’s powerfully counter-cultural in American life and rooted in thick community and ancient traditions,” he said. “And yet, they manage to do it.”

This comparison is telling about how Dreher perceives the status of Christians in American society. Jews make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Modern Orthodox Jews are a tiny minority within that group—Pew estimates that they account for 3 percent of all American Jews, or roughly .06 percent of Americans. While it’s impossible to estimate the exact number of Americans who would identify with the ecumenical, theologically conservative Christianity Dreher describes, it is far bigger than the number of Modern Orthodox Jews.

It seems as though Dreher is saying that Christians need to be ready to live as religious minorities. But he fails to acknowledge an important distinction between the two groups, beyond mere size. Jews act like a counter-cultural, marginalized group because they’ve been that way for two millennia—powerless, small in number, at odds with the broader cultures of the places where they’ve lived. The American conservatives Dreher is addressing, on the other hand, are coming from a place of power. For many years, they dictated the legal and cultural terms of non-Christians’ lives. The Benedict option is relevant precisely because America is becoming more religiously fractured, and Christianity is no longer the cultural default.

Dreher is not embracing this fact, or even accepting it peaceably. His work is largely a project of lament. He speaks about Christianity in apocalyptic terms: the Sexual Revolution has “[deposed] an enfeebled Christianity as the Ostrogoths deposed the hapless last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century,” and the greatest danger to Christians in the West “comes from the liberal secular order itself.” He prophesies dire scenarios for Christians in America: “We are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age,” he says, warning that young Christians who dream of becoming doctors or lawyers may have to “abandon that hope.”

“As a Christian, I don’t see my sexuality as constitutive of who I am.”

Most importantly, he writes with resentment, largely directed at those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and their supporters—the people, he believes, who have pushed Christians out of the public sphere.

“We are on the far side of a Sexual Revolution that has been nothing short of catastrophic for Christianity,” he writes:

It struck near the core of biblical teaching on sex and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and the Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible.

This has had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of life. In the professional world, “sexual diversity dogma” is pervasive, he writes—an attempt by companies to “demonstrate progress to gay-rights campaigners.” In the future, “everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training,” he says, “and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.”

In politics and culture, “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it,” he writes. “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.”

And in the education world, “public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture,” he writes. “Under pressure from the federal government and LGBT activists, many school systems are now welcoming and normalizing transgenderism.” He cites scores of parents whose children come home professing bisexuality and offering “a lot of babble about gender being fluid and nonbinary,” as one of his readers put it. “Few parents have the presence of mind and strength of character to do what’s necessary to protect their children from the forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture,” he writes.

Nothing in this language suggests that Dreher is ready to live tolerantly alongside people with different views. If progressives wrote about the Bible as “a lot of babble about Jesus and God,” using language similar to that of the parent Dreher cites, he would be quick to cry foul against the ignorance and intolerance of the left; his language is dismissive and mocking, and he peppers in conspiratorial terms like the “LGBT agenda.” At times, it seems like the goal of the Benedict option is just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity. The book seems to suggest that mere proximity to people with alternative beliefs about sexuality, and specifically LGBT people, is a threat to Christian children and families.

These lives pose the question Dreher has not engaged: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them?

Of course, it will be impossible for conservative Christians to fully escape any aspect of mainstream culture, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans. In fact, many of those people grew up in Christian households much like Dreher’s, or may identify with the feelings of cultural homelessness he describes. Their lives implicitly pose the hard question Dreher has failed to engage: How should Christians be in fellowship with people unlike them—including those who feel aggrieved by the church and its teachings?

To his credit, Dreher nods to this, ever so briefly. “The angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity is rooted in part in the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church,” he writes. “Christians need to own up to our past in this regard and to repent of it.” He does little to specify these past errors, though, and he never tries to answer the broader question: how Christians can live as one people among many in America without learning how to respect and relate to those who challenge their beliefs.

It’s not hard to understand Dreher’s frustration and disorientation about America’s tectonic cultural shift. For many in the United States, “sexuality has become so entwined with identity,” he observed to me in conversation. This is what yields the comparisons to race: People who view sexuality as a fact of their identity may see Dreher’s beliefs as analogous to racism. But “as a Christian,” Dreher told me, “I don’t see my sexuality as constitutive of who I am.” He is working from a different frame of reference, one that is increasingly out of step with Americans’ ways of thinking about culture. The fear winding through his narrative is anxious anticipation of a future when fewer and fewer public spaces will be open to people like him.

And yet, Dreher begrudges a similar fear in people unlike him, including LGBT people who have long wanted to live freely in public—something that was largely impossible when conservative Christians dominated mainstream American life. From this vantage, his Benedict option seems less a proposal for pluralism than the angry backwards fire of a culture in retreat.

Dreher wrote The Benedict Option for people like him—those who share his faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. But even those who might wish to join Dreher’s radical critique of American culture, people who also feel pushed out and marginalized by shallowness of modern life, may feel unable to do so. Many people, including some Christians, feel that knowing, befriending, playing with, and learning alongside people who are different from them adds to their faith, not that it threatens it. For all their power and appeal, Dreher’s monastery walls may be too high, and his mountain pass too narrow.

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Arch-Troll Milo’s Mini Apology Tour

The Atlantic Opinion

NEW YORK — Milo Yiannopoulos has a new mode, and it’s contrition.

Yiannopoulos appeared before reporters on Tuesday in a rented Soho loft to announce his resignation from Breitbart News and apologize to abuse victims for over-a-year-old remarks on pedophilia that incited a political firestorm over the weekend. Wearing a conservative navy blue suit and sunglasses, which he switched to regular glasses shortly into the conference, Yiannopoulous read a prepared statement in which he said he had been the victim of sexual abuse between the ages of 13 and 16. Yiannopoulos said he was “partly to blame” for the remarks on the tape and that he was “certainly guilty of imprecise language.”

“I haven’t ever apologized before,” Yiannopoulos said. “I don’t anticipate ever doing it again. Name-calling doesn’t bother me, misreporting doesn’t bother me. But to be a victim of child abuse and for the media to call me an apologist for child abuse is absurd. I regret the things I said. I don’t think I’ve been as sorry about anything in my whole life.”

The mea culpa is an unprecedented climb-down for Yiannopoulos, a British-born media personality who has made a career of giving gleeful offense as Breitbart’s technology editor and has become notorious for the protests he attracts at the stops on his “Dangerous Faggot” campus tour.  He was suspended from Twitter last summer during the Republican National Convention for leading a racist harassment campaign against comedian Leslie Jones, and turned up at a “Gays for Trump” party in Cleveland that same night wearing a bulletproof vest.

This week was supposed to be a triumphant one for him. Yiannopoulos was invited to give a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the most important annual gathering on the right. Yiannopoulos’ ideology mostly amounts to trolling the left—and he had even been on Bill Maher’s HBO show this past weekend saying he doesn’t know if he is a conservative. But that didn’t seem to matter. The violent protests at the University of California, Berkeley that had shut down a recent tour date there had not only attracted support for Yiannopoulos from President Trump, but had cemented his status as a free-speech martyr on the right.

CPAC has always had a bent towards inviting outrageous speakers. It was at CPAC in 2007 that conservative pundit Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot.” But the Yiannopoulos invite was illustrative of the dilemma facing small-government conservatives right now as their movement struggles to stay relevant in the face of an ascendant nationalist right spearheaded by Trump. In CPAC’s invitation to Yiannopoulos,, conservative critics saw a desperate ploy for relevance in embracing the white nationalist “alt-right” movement that many associate with him. The episode was yet another skirmish in the ongoing civil war that has gripped the right in the age of Trump.

Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union which organizes CPAC, at first offered an unqualified defense to those criticisms. “We think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective,” Schlapp tweeted on Feb. 18 in announcing the speech. Responding to a critical tweet from National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, Schlapp tweeted on the 19th, “Jonah 1st amendment is dead on campus. Conservatives should fight back. As radioactive as milo is he is fighting back.”

The backlash to the invitation came quickly. On Feb. 19, a Twitter account called @ReaganBattalion tweeted a video of Yiannopoulos appearing to defend adults having sex with minors during an appearance on a radio show. The clip had been online for over a year but had not attracted widespread attention. On Sunday, Schlapp announced that Yiannopoulos’ invitation had been rescinded. On Monday, Simon and Schuster, where Yiannopoulos had recently signed a reported $250,000 book deal, canceled the book’s publication.

All eyes then turned to Breitbart, which had been silent on the scandal since it began. Some in the Breitbart rank-and-file, not all of whom are fans of Yiannopoulos, were unhappy; “people are struggling to know what to think,” one Breitbart reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity told me on Tuesday, before the resignation. “The company hasn’t been communicating with anyone over this.” Two top editors mused about Milo’s future while hosting Breitbart’s satellite radio show on Tuesday morning, with editor-in-chief Alex Marlow calling Yiannopoulos’ comments “indefensible.” By Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that Yiannopoulos’ position had become untenable.

Yiannopoulos declined to answer a direct question at his press conference on Tuesday about whether his resignation had been demanded, or if he had given it freely.

“Alex [Marlow] has been nothing but supportive,” Yiannopoulos said, and said he would keep the specifics of his resignation process “confidential.”

Yiannopoulos said that other publishers had expressed interest in his book,  that it would still come out this year, and that he intended to launch his own independently funded media venture. And he said he would add new dates to his college tour.

There were hints of a planned reinvention into something a bit less hard-edged; “my full focus is now going to be on entertaining and educating everyone, left, right and otherwise,” Yiannopoulos said.

It’s unclear how Yiannopoulos will fund his new venture, and on this topic he was vague, saying “We have some preliminary funding for that, I expect to be raising more.” Yiannopoulos had appeared to be moving away from a day-to-day role at Breitbart for some time; his Facebook page, for example, mostly includes links to his own website.

Yiannopoulos’ finances have mostly been opaque; last year he told Bloomberg that he had a staff of 30 costing $1 million a year, and that he was benefiting from political donors and family money. He told Bloomberg that his college tour would cost $1 million.

The timing of the tape that brought down Yiannopoulos reeked of a coordinated oppo dump, and the clip had been circulating in conservative circles for months. But it was sitting there on YouTube this whole time for anyone to find.

Yiannopoulos’ allies, like “new right” blogger and Twitter personality Mike Cernovich and Infowars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson, complained of a coordinated plot to bring him down. “It’s clear he never processed his molestation. Everyone is in attack mode,” said Cernovich. “Concern for victims has disappeared. Amazing how this game works. It’s a dirty game.” Yiannopoulos himself referred to a “highly coordinated and very well planned and well funded attack on me” during his press conference. Another alt-right Twitter personality, Jack Posobiec, claimed that $250,000 had been spent on the effort to take down Yiannopoulos and alleged that conservative anti-Trump presidential candidate Evan McMullin had been involved.

There’s no evidence of any of that. But who did order the code red on Milo? The incident raised questions about the Twitter feed responsible for injecting it into the Washington bloodstream this weekend, @ReaganBattalion. A person running the @ReaganBattalion feed told me in a Twitter direct message that it is a “handful of conservative-minded commentators who oppose the extreme crazies who try to hijack the movement.”

“We were pointed to it by one of our followers,” the account said. Asked if it had more coming on Yiannopoulos, it said, “we do.”

On Tuesday, the Reagan Battalion started referring my questions to a spokesman, a pro-Trump New York political operative named Yossi Gestetner, who said that the account was run by “a group of four conservatives” who don’t want to go public because they have received threats. Gestetner said he was being paid but that he didn’t know details about the group’s finances. The group’s “focus is conservatism,” he said. “When they see Trump doing Conservative things they praise; when he does not they speak out.”

After speaking and taking questions for a little under 30 minutes on Tuesday, Yiannopoulos was whisked out of the building. He later updated his Facebook page again. “They have not killed me,” he said. “They have only made me stronger.”

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Is the U.S. Becoming a Banana Republic?

The Atlantic Opinion

David Frum is worried it will under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FAtlanticLIVE%2Fvideos%2F715366195308856%2F&show_text=0&width=560&source=8

If you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s an audio version:

This reader really liked the piece:

I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.

This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.

Read On »

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American Jews Confront a Wave of Bomb Threats

The Atlantic Opinion

The Nashville Jewish Community Center has now gotten so many telephone bomb threats that the dates run together, said Leslie Sax, the executive director. The first call came on January 9, when Nashville was one of the first 15 JCCs to get threats. The next call was January 18, accompanying yet another national wave. The latest was just this weekend, on Presidents’ Day, when 11 JCCs around the country were threatened, according to a spokesperson for the national organization. The Nashville facility, more full than usual with people exercising on the holiday weekend, was evacuated before security gave the all-clear.

“Most people just feel sadness—they’re sad that this is happening,” Sax said. “Everyone keeps saying they’re disheartened and frustrated.” But even though people are upset, they don’t seem to be scared. “I haven’t heard fear,” she said.

Across the United States, Jewish communities are struggling to deal with this new wave of threats. While none of the bomb threats have led to violence, Monday’s calls came around the same time as another attack: Roughly 170 Jewish graves in a Missouri cemetery were desecrated over the weekend, according to The Washington Post. The calls may be a novel form of intimidation, but the context around them is not. American Jews are victims of more reported hate crimes than any other group in the United States, and have been subject to the majority of religiously motivated offenses every year since 1995, when the FBI first started reporting these statistics. The phone calls may not result in violence, but they contribute to an atmosphere of anti-Semitism already well-established in the United States.

In total, the national JCC has tallied calls to 54 JCCs in 27 states in the last two months. On Monday, the calls came in to a wide range of locations: Albuquerque, Birmingham, two locations in Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville, St. Paul, Tampa, and Tulsa, according to a list compiled by a national JCC spokesperson. “We are concerned about the anti-Semitism behind these threats, and the repetition of threats intended to interfere with day-to-day life,” said David Posner, the director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America, in an emailed statement.

The calls seem to be connected: They are coordinated in timing and message, and often contain generic promises of violence. In one recording, posted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the caller threatens, “In a short time, a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered. Their heads are going to … blown off from the shrapnel.” Sax would not share exact details about the calls Nashville has been receiving, but confirmed that theirs have been similar to those recorded elsewhere.

On Monday night, President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, condemned the attacks on Twitter.

It’s significant that she was the person who made a statement: Trump and her family are Jewish, so they arguably have a personal connection to the attacks. On Tuesday morning, the president condemned discrimination against Jews in a conversation with reporters: “Anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s going to stop. It has to stop,” he said. Previously, the president declined to explicitly condemn recent instances of anti-Semitic threats and violence, including the calls to JCCs. At a press conference on Thursday, an Orthodox Jewish reporter asked him about “an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.” Trump asked him to sit down, saying that it was “not a fair question”—“I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” Trump added.

“He was given a softball question and an opportunity to denounce anti-Semitism, and he failed,” said Dave Simon, the executive director of the JCC in Albuquerque, which received its second threatening call on Monday. “That’s deeply disturbing to me, because he’s president of all Americans, and he needs to stand up for our principles—the principles of America.”

The dominant feeling in the Albuquerque Jewish community right now is anger, Simon said. “They’re mostly pissed off at the morons who are doing this. Our JCC is known and loved in the community, and people are angry that it’s being targeted and being disrupted.” Sax said something similar about the frustrations in Nashville: “It keeps us from doing what we need to be doing every day. We’re already very busy,” she said. “It keeps us from doing the other work we had planned to do.”

Both centers have seen an outpouring of support. Nashville has gotten letters and postcards from Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington state, Sax said, and the neighboring Catholic parish and local Islamic center sent messages of support. The attacks have been widely denounced by Jewish organizations, and political leaders like Hillary Clinton took to Twitter over the weekend to condemn them as well.

In general, JCCs are equipped to handle these kinds of threats. Some, like Nashville, have full-time security staff, and members seem to understand the need for security, Simon and Sax said. People don’t seem to be staying home; they’re still showing up to community events, swimming classes, and pre-school, all of which are central parts of JCC life.

“This is the best time in history to be a Jew in the United States. Our country is so phenomenal, and Jews have come so far in this country, and we have so many blessings,” Simon said. “There’s no question—it’s the best time to be alive, and the best time to be Jewish.” At the same time, he is concerned about rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. and globally, including incidents of swastikas being painted in public spaces. “We can’t tolerate anti-Semitism or hate and discrimination against anybody,” he said.

I asked Simon whether he is scared by the threats. “Not at all,” he replied. “The cowards who phone in bomb threats don’t scare me … The people who want to do real harm don’t phone ahead.”

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