Relax Trump fans -- the 2020 election wasn't even close

In his cascade of lies about the 2020 election, Donald Trump preys on the desire of his snowflake supporters to believe that they're special. The thing is, they're not.

This article first appeared in Salon.

I live in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, a swing region in a swing state. Like the rest of the commonwealth, it backed Barack Obama twice before supporting Trump in 2016 — one of 206 counties out of America's 3,141 to make the Obama-Trump pivot — and then switched back to Joe Biden in 2020.

You might think that a county that supported Biden would never even consider electing someone who openly calls for overturning the will of its own voters. Talk to Trump supporters around here, however, and you'll hear a disturbingly blasé attitude toward that idea. Our Republican candidate for county executive, Steve Lynch, actually attended the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol assault. At one point Lynch can be seen on camera, around 1 p.m., crowing, "It's going down" as the attack began. When approached by Salon about his controversial campaign, Lynch insisted that the protest he attended had been peaceful, that Nancy Pelosi was (somehow) to blame for the violence and that antifa had caused or provoked the unrest. He complained about "the pathetic narrative put out there by this corrupt media," but offered no evidence to back up his assertions. I twice asked him a question he refused to answer:

American history is full of examples of political injustice, yet there was only one other presidential election before 2020 in which a large part of the country refused to accept the official outcome. How do people who claim this election was stolen justify the way Donald Trump and his movement have responded to their loss?

I think that oddly specific question — even if Trump supporters' claims about the 2020 election were true (which they're not), would they justify violence? — is important. Here's why: Whatever Trump fans may believe, the 2020 contest wasn't especially close or controversial in historical terms. Indeed, there have been many other elections when the loser had far more plausible grounds to claim fraud or contest the result.

We can start with Trump's supposed hero, Andrew Jackson, who won the popular vote by a substantial margin in the 1824 election but was not elected because no candidate had won enough electoral votes. Under the terms of the 12th Amendment, the election was decided in the House of Representatives, where Speaker Henry Clay threw his influence behind Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. As president, Adams in turn appointed Clay as his secretary of state, and Jackson, not without plausibility, accused the two of making a "corrupt bargain." This was never proved, and since Clay had followed the Constitution, Jackson had no legal claim that he'd been cheated. There's no doubt that the Adams-Clay deal was ethically questionable, and Jackson used his sense of outrage to help form a new political organization — the Democratic Party.

Jackson was an unappealing historical figure on many levels, but here's something he didn't do: He didn't incite an insurrection against the government over losing that heated election.

The same is true for almost every other controversial presidential election. Both Democrats and Republicans actively suppressed votes and tampered with results during the 1876 election. Arguably, Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republicans were just a little better at it than Samuel Tilden and the Democrats. A second civil war nearly broke out after that contest, averted because both parties agreed to a racist compromise that allowed Hayes to take the White House while Southern Democrats brought an end to Reconstruction and reduced Black people to second-class citizenship.

After Grover Cleveland lost the 1888 election — despite winning the popular vote, like Jackson and Tilden before him — many of his Democratic supporters accused Republicans of fraud, although Cleveland himself dismissed those claims as not legally supportable.

Much closer to our own time, Richard Nixon actually had a plausible case that John F. Kennedy and the Democrats rigged the 1960 election through chicanery in Illinois and Texas, but concluded he could not get the election overturned in court. He later wrote, presciently, that "the mark of the good loser is that he takes his anger out on himself and not on his victorious opponents or on his teammates."

After the 2000 election, Al Gore urged his supporters to peacefully accept the results even though he had won the popular vote and only lost in the Electoral College because he trailed George W. Bush by 537 votes in Florida — and only then because a recount was halted before that margin could disappear. Unlike Cleveland or Nixon, Gore took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, but after it ruled against him in an infamous and overtly partisan decision, Gore accepted the results and urged his supporters to do likewise.

Even the legendary election of 1800, which threatened to tear the young country apart and revealed the flaws in the Constitution's original method for electing a president, did not lead to violence at the time. It's fair to say, however that its loser Aaron Burr, has been depicted as a historical villain ever since.

The 1968 election was very close and highly divisive — and may have witnessed one of the sleaziest political dirty tricks in American history. According to reliable accounts, Nixon tried to undermine the ongoing negotiations to end the Vietnam War in order to torpedo the campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, his Democratic opponent. President Lyndon Johnson supposedly knew this was happening but did not go public with it. One of Nixon's advisers at the time was a young man named Roger Stone, more recently a confidant and consultant to Donald Trump. (Nixon was later forced to resign over the Watergate scandal, after trying to spy on Democratic campaign headquarters and then covering it up.)

Not surprisingly, Trump and the Republicans don't bring up 1968 or any of those other elections. For that matter, they also don't mention the one election that did result in violent public rejection — the 1860 election won by Abraham Lincoln. No one seriously suggested that Lincoln had stolen the election, but the leaders of Southern slave states found him unacceptable as president, and plunged the nation into four years of bloody carnage for what can reasonably be described as the worst possible reasons.

There are more reasons why Trumpist claims that the 2020 election was special don't hold up to historical scrutiny. For most of American history, Black people and women could not vote. The above-mentioned 1876 election, in fact, was resolved precisely by stripping away Black men's right to vote in most of the South. Throughout American history, people have been disenfranchised based on race, ethnicity, class, gender or simply the perception that they were likely to vote the "wrong" way. There have been elections decided through backroom deals, voter suppression, tampering with the results and other dubious or illegal tactics. Our democracy is almost always messy, and on many occasions deeply flawed.

If Trump were correct in his assertions about the 2020 election (which, once again, he absolutely is not), that would of course be an injustice. But it probably wouldn't make the list of the top 10 injustices in American political history. To state the obvious, Trump fans don't care about political injustice and absolutely don't care about history. Those are just excuses for a blatant attempt to overthrow democracy. If Trump's supporters want to believe they are special, in one sense they are. They remain loyal to the only president in American history to openly flout George Washington's most important precedent — the peaceful transfer of power.

The curious Provincetown COVID outbreak

A sobering study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reinforces the idea that vaccination against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is not always enough to stop transmission. Researchers arrived at this conclusion after analyzing the infected from a COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in which three-fourths of the infected were already fully vaccinated.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

"This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC's updated mask recommendation," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky explained in a statement. "The masking recommendation was updated to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones."

When she referenced an "updated mask recommendation," Walensky was describing the agency's recent policy urging people to wear masks when indoors in areas where the virus transmission is high or prolonged. Walensky also said that people who go to schools should be fully masked the entire time. Although the United States had made progress in reducing COVID-19 infection and spread several months ago, those achievements have been gradually reversed as unvaccinated Americans — many of them motivated by support for Donald Trump — continue to incubate and spread mutant strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The most dangerous of the bunch is the delta variant, which the CDC describes as being as infectious as chickenpox and capable of causing more severe illnesses than other types of COVID-19. On Friday, the CDC shared internal documents detailing how the new variant gives both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans similarly high viral loads. The CDC's experts estimate there are 35,000 symptomatic infections each week among the 162 million vaccinated Americans.

This is the strain that circulated among the unlucky people of Provincetown who celebrated July 4th. The Cape Cod community is famous for its parties, especially on Independence Day, and at the time of this writing almost 900 cases have been reported for the full outbreak. The CDC only studied a subset of 469 cases, finding that people within that group "reported attending densely packed indoor and outdoor events at venues that included bars, restaurants, guest houses, and rental homes." The study also found that among people with breakthrough cases (that is, cases in which fully vaccinated people get sick), no one died and only four (1.2 percent) were hospitalized, with the most common symptoms being "cough, headache, sore throat, myalgia, and fever."

The fact that fewer people have died or suffered severely, as might have otherwise been the case, underscores a very important point: while the COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective as we would like, one is undeniably better off being vaccinated than not. One's chances of dying or experiencing serious symptoms diminishes enormously after receiving one's shot (or shots).

A statistical misunderstanding of the CDC's Provincetown study, exemplified in several news headlines appearing in multiple outlets, conflates the idea of how susceptible the vaccinated are to the delta variant. The Washington Post's alarming headline read "CDC study shows three-fourths of people infected in Massachusetts COVID-19 outbreak were vaccinated," which implies that three-fourths of all vaccinated people would be inevitably infected. In fact, the three-fourths number was only among the subset of those infected.

That misinterpretation is stoking alarm among some watchdogs.

"Please don't do this," Matthew Gertz of Media Matters for America tweeted at The Washington Post for their headline. "Provincetown has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. As vaccination rates increase the percentage of cases that are in vaccinated people NECESSARILY increases." He pointed out that Reuters, The Boston Globe and CNBC had used similar headlines, noting that Trump supporters may use headlines like those from Reuters and The Boston Globe to argue that "they don't work, what else aren't they telling us."

Indeed, the CDC is not arguing that vaccines are ineffective, but rather than for the broader public health, we may need to consider a return to more stringent lockdown policies.

"Findings from this investigation suggest that even jurisdictions without substantial or high COVID-19 transmission might consider expanding prevention strategies," the CDC writes, suggesting that people wear masks in indoor public settings even if they are fully vaccinated.

The delta variant has a number of mutations that have made it more threatening than other strains. A mutation called D614G is believed to increase the density of the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The spike protein causes the spike-like objects which stick out of virus' internal sphere, allowing it to penetrate and infect the body's cells. Although vaccines are designed to protect cells against those spikes, this mutation may help the virus circumvent those defenses.

The delta variants also has a mutation called L452R that scientists think may help the virus fight antibodies, which the immune system creates to eliminate threats. In addition, it has a mutation known as P681R which increases the viral loads in patients so they shed 1,000 times more of the virus than from previous coronavirus strains when they sneeze, cough, spit or otherwise release potentially infected bodily fluids.

None of this was inevitable. As President Joe Biden said during a Thursday press conference, "the existing vaccines work to prevent death, serious illness, and hospitalization." If "every American is vaccinated, in fact, we would be out of the woods." Speaking to Salon in May, Dr. Bernard Lo — professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco — anticipated that the vaccines may not be as effective against mutant strains. Lo also warned that unvaccinated people could cause a resurgence in the pandemic, although he stressed that not everyone who remains unvaccinated is doing so for political reasons.

"It's a worldwide issue as well," Lo explained in regard to how many poorer countries do not have access to the same vaccines as their wealthier counterparts. "There are a lot of countries that really don't have access to vaccines, and variants could emerge there."

Fish fraud is rampant — and Subway's tuna scandal is just the tip of the iceberg

Subway's tuna sandwiches may not be their most famous product, but some (including this author) would argue they are one of their tastiest. Needless to say, it was alarming to read a report that a New York Times investigation into the sandwich's tuna found "no amplifiable tuna DNA," suggesting that the so-called tuna sandwich was not, in fact, tuna fish. Subway later questioned the reliability of the DNA tests, claiming in a statement that it "is simply not a reliable way to identify denatured proteins like Subway's tuna, which was cooked before it was tested."

The viral "fake tuna" debacle has undoubtedly hurt Subway's brand, and heightened a popular perception of corporations as shifty and untrustworthy. Yet regardless of the mystery meat's provenance, the saga highlights a larger industrial supply chain problem — namely, that fish fraud, as it is known, is prevalent. That means that if indeed some of Subway's tuna is "fake," it may not entirely be their fault.

"On Subway specifically, I would say that they are probably better than average, as far as companies of their size," John Hocevar, marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, told Salon. "There are so many problems with the tuna industry that it is very difficult for companies sourcing as much tuna as Subway to be confident that they know their fish wasn't caught with forced labor, or in ways that are very harmful to our oceans."

Tuna isn't the only fish that has fraud problems. Oceana, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit ocean conservation group, began to investigate seafood fraud in 2011 and has since uncovered troubling patterns. In 2016 the group released a report about the worldwide scope of seafood fraud that detailed a pervasive, stomach-churning cheat of unsuspecting consumers. On average, one out of five of the more than 25,000 samples of seafood that they tested from 55 countries were mislabeled, with the trend occurring at every stage of the supply chain.

In the United States, studies released since 2014 found the average fraud rate (weighted by sample size) to be 28 percent. Worldwide, Asian catfish, hake and escolar were the fish most commonly substituted; more than half of the replacement fish (58 percent) were from species that could get certain consumers sick. In Italy, 82 percent of the 200 swordfish, grouper and perch samples tested were revealed to have been mislabeled; nearly half of the substituted fish have been labeled "threatened with extinction" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"Overall, what we found is that seafood fraud can happen anywhere both geographically and in the supply chain," Oceana deputy vice president for US campaigns Beth Lowell told Salon by email. Lowell explained that the supply chains which move aquatic food from the ocean to your table are "often opaque," making it easy for incompetence or unscrupulousness to lead to a bait and switch at consumers' expense.

Lowell added, "Oceana found that nearly one out of every three fish tested in the United States — in grocery stores and restaurants alike — were mislabeled." Often the mislabeling meant customers were spending more money than the fish was worth, or potentially put consumers at risk from fish that could endanger them. In one instance, Oceana found that high-mercury fish, for which the FDA warns against consumption by young children and pregnant women, were mislabeled and sold as "safe" fish that are low in mercury.

So why is fish fraud prevalent? The answer boils down to lack of regulation, poor regulatory bodies, and the profit motive — in other words, capitalism behaving as usual.

"In addition to the fact that we import a lot of seafood that was caught illegally, once it gets to a supermarket or a restaurant, we can't be confident that the legal seafood that is being sold is actually what it's being labeled as, and there are several reasons for that," Hocever explained. Indeed, very few businesses seriously follow their responsibility to trace the origins of their fish, and they can get away with it because their business is difficult to observe.

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He added, "Another big challenge is something called trans-shipment at sea. Your average person would assume that a boat goes out, catches fish, and then comes back into port, sells those fish, and then goes back out, catches more fish. Instead, tuna vessels often handover their catch to another boat at sea and just keep fishing."

Hocevar advocates for a few specific solutions to the fake fish problem. We can ban or heavily regulate oceanic trans-shipment, increasing third party coverage of boats that exchange products, improve transparency over who owns fishing vessels and more effectively implement existing regulations.

"All seafood sold in the U.S. should be safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled," Lowell told Salon. "Until then, honest fishermen, seafood businesses, consumers and the oceans will pay the price. Consumers have a right to know more about the seafood they eat, including what species it is, where it is caught and how it was caught so they can make their own decisions whether that be for health, sustainability or other reasons." She argued that the United States to expand the number of seafood types covered by the Seafood Important Monitoring Program (SIMP) and make sure that all seafood is traceable from the fishing boat to when it is consumed.

The Subway tuna sandwich scandal is not the first one to draw attention to the problem of fish fraud. The New York attorney general issued a report in 2018 revealing that a significant percentage of the fish purchased in New York City was mislabeled. Among other things, Letitia James found that farmed salmon samples were sold as "wild" 27 percent of the time, 87 percent of lemon sole was mislabeled, and 67 percent of red snapper fillets were mislabeled.

"I'm very happy to see law enforcement getting involved," Larry Olmsted, author of "Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do about It," told Salon at the time. "Mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry, and if you can't reliably get the fish you want in a port city like New York, just imagine what levels of fraud are like further inland. This business has had a fraud problem for years and years and the only people tracking it have been public interests groups."

Without regulation, we consumers may spend our lives worrying that the purveyors of succulent fish steaks, flavorful sushi rolls and moist crab cakes may be lying to us. That leaves us with a choice: take an informed risk, or avoid seafood altogether — even if that means, in my case, giving up on delicious Subway tuna hoagies.

Obama and Trump: Who laughed last?

As legendary quarterback Tom Brady celebrated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2021 Super Bowl victory with President Joe Biden, Brady cracked some jokes at the expense of a guy widely perceived his friend — at least until now. Along with ridiculing one of Donald Trump's disparaging nicknames for Biden, Brady also mocked Trump's claims that he didn't really lose the 2020 election by quipping, "Not a lot of people think that we could have won. In fact, I think about 40% of the people still don't think we won."

This article first appeared on Salon.

It's not likely that Trump enjoyed being mocked as a sore loser by one of America's most famous sports winners. Brady, who had not visited the White House to celebrate a Super Bowl victory since 2005, may have very well put the final nail in his controversial relationship with Trump. He also reminded us of one of the most underrated speeches in American political history — the one delivered 10 years ago by Barack Obama at Trump's expense.

There were many moments in Obama's historic presidency that could be described as his "finest hour," but my personal favorite has always been Obama's roasting of Trump during the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner. Not just because Obama was funny (although he was), but because he wound up foreshadowing Trump's ensuing presidency with uncanny accuracy. The history surrounding that speech also imbues it with deeper meaning. And since Obama got in his digs at Trump while retaining his dignity and basic courtesy, his words come across not so much as insults but wry meditations about the sensibilities that could catapult the unlikeliest of all presidents into the White House.

Before Obama's speech, Trump had been working the media to promote the debunked conspiracy theory that America's first black president had not actually been born in the United States. Then a mere reality TV star, Trump was testing the waters for a 2012 presidential campaign and thought "birtherism" might be a winning issue. Not only did it none-too-subtly play on racist fears of a nonwhite president, it also sent the message that Obama was somehow disloyal to American interests.

This was the backdrop to April 30, 2011, when Obama and Trump wound up in the same room for a night of unflinching comedy. The other was that as Obama skewered Trump in front of the world, he was also secretly working on the raid that would achieve what Republicans President George W. Bush had not — killing al-Qaida leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Obama couldn't say that to the audience, of course, but he did throw his American bona fides in Trump's face. He opened the evening by displaying a copy of his birth certificate against a montage of hyper-America iconography, all as the Hulk Hogan theme song "Real American" played in the background. After that, he showed the opening scene from "The Lion King" while joking that it was his own birth video. (The most prominent conspiracy theory held that Obama had been born in Kenya, as his father unquestionably had been.) All of this took on the birther issue directly, deflating what Trump hoped might be his signature talking point for the 2012 election cycle.

But Obama didn't stop there. He moved on to ribbing other public figures at the event, but eventually returned to Trump with an even sharper wit. Pivoting with a joke about how Trump could work to discredit Mitt Romney, then the future 2012 Republican presidential nominee (and later, coincidentally, Trump's most high profile Republican critic), Obama landed a devastating blow by mocking the six-times-bankrupt businessman for embracing ludicrous conspiracy theories:

Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?

This section of the speech is the most prescient because it anticipated Trump's greatest shortcoming as president. Despite his numerous scandals and policy failures, Trump was reasonably well positioned to be re-elected in 2020 because he had inherited Obama's booming economy. His downfall, from a strategic standpoint, was in failing to listen to scientists about the COVID-19 pandemic and embracing pseudoscience instead. If he had heeded early warnings and embraced bold policies to help Americans get through this traumatic period, he could have saved many thousands of lives, done less damage to the economy intact and quite likely cruised to a second term. Instead he played down the pandemic, ignored basic science and even got sick himself. Americans suffered far more than they had to, turning his policy failure into an inevitable political one. And all that could have been avoided had he not been exactly the type of person Obama described in 2011 — a fool.

Obama's lampooning of Trump continued:

But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" — at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn't blame Lil' Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.

There's a lot to unpack in those sentences. It is easy enough to see that in Obama's sarcastic praise for Trump's "credentials and breadth of experience," he was referring to the fact that Trump had no political or military experience. (He became the only president elected without at least one of the two.) Historical context, however, reminds us that Obama was himself accused of being too inexperienced to serve as president when he ran in 2008, even though he had served as an Illinois state senator and then a U.S. senator for nearly a dozen years. It seems almost certain that this double standard — which would become only more conspicuous after Trump was elected in 2016 — wasn't on Obama's mind.

Then there is Obama's quip about Trump's main job at the time, hosting the reality show "The Celebrity Apprentice." Once again, there was obvious commentary on Trump being held to a different standard than Obama, who was dismissively compared to a celebrity throughout his political career even though Trump literally was a celebrity, with no visible professional or political qualifications. There is also deeper meaning in the way Obama singled out Trump's fetish for firing people. The man had built his brand around the TV catch phrase, "You're fired!" As president, Trump got in trouble for the circumstances around his firing of FBI Director James Comey and his willingness to turn on or terminate even the most loyal aides if they wouldn't break the law for him (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr come to mind).

After his fear of losing to Joe Biden turned to reality, Trump became the first president to lose an election and refuse to accept the result, assaulting George Washington's legacy in the process. Indeed, he had telegraphed his willingness to be a historic sore loser before that election, making clear that he would never accept being fired by the American people. No other president has reacted as badly to electoral disappointment, with the possible exception of James Buchanan, who allowed the Civil War to break out after the 1860 election didn't go his way — but he wasn't even on the ballot that year.

Obama wrapped up that section of his speech with the one lame joke in his repertoire against Trump (a visual gag about Trump's tacky architectural aesthetic that simply didn't land). He moved on, but the world of comedy fondly remembers his performance.

"Every time a politician cracks a few easy jokes they didn't even write, headline writers will rush to call them a 'comedian' which diminishes what we do," comedian Steve Hofstetter told Salon via Twitter. "That's like calling someone the president because they voted once. But Obama had something I've never seen from another president: He had timing. When most politicians deliver a joke, they seem surprised when it gets a laugh. But Obama was familiar with the material and he knew how to deliver it. While I'm sure he had writers, he executed as if he'd written the jokes himself."

It was a speech reporters would later claim left Trump fuming — but that seems to be a legend invented after the fact. If you watch the actual video of the event, you see that Trump went along with Obama's jokes cheerfully enough, even waving at the crowd. Whether or not he was just putting on a polite show, he didn't act like a man whose ego had been severely stung. His reactions are, dare I say, even a little humanizing: He appears for all the world like he's having a good time, smiling and enjoying himself like he did during a Comedy Central roast a few weeks earlier. Indeed, he later directed his anger not at Obama but at comedian Seth Meyers (whose barbs were much more pointed). Trump said he'd had a "great time" listening to Obama, was "honored" to be singled out by him and thought he had delivered his jokes well. Meyers, by contrast, he described as "too nasty, out of order."

This matters because it showed that if Obama drew blood, the target didn't realize he had been pricked. Obama had deftly struck a balance, drawing attention to the ways Trump is ridiculous while also remaining respectful. It wasn't until after the dust had settled that Trump began to feel aggrieved, eventually refusing as president to attend the annual correspondents' dinners.

Obama certainly made other negative remarks concerning Trump, but his 2011 monologue stands out because it feels like a prologue to the history we've been living since 2016. In that sense, it can be placed next to the "Economic Bill of Rights" section of Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address or Jimmy Carter's 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" address as a prophetic work of oratory. It's also the only historically significant presidential speech that was primarily meant to be funny (and largely was).

Arguably, that's the one sense in which it was misguided. Ten years ago it was easy to laugh at Donald Trump. Now that his Big Lie about the 2020 election is fueling a fascist insurgency, it is a lot harder to find him funny.

An Oregon wildfire is so intense it is literally creating its own weather system

Southern Oregon is currently being consumed by a conflagration known as the Bootleg Fire. It has already devoured more than 606 square miles at the time of this writing (an area larger than the city of Los Angeles) and has only been 30 percent contained. The behemoth blaze is accelerating its growth, and has been growing by 80 square miles per day or more.

It is also doing something that makes it much more difficult to manage: creating its own weather.

"The fire is so large and generating so much energy and extreme heat that it's changing the weather," Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the state forestry department, told The New York Times. "Normally the weather predicts what the fire will do. In this case, the fire is predicting what the weather will do."

What exactly is the Bootleg Fire doing?

For one thing, the wildfire is creating pyrocumulus clouds. These are dense clouds that form in a cumuliform manner (meaning they develop vertically) and are associated with volcanic eruptions or fires. When the extreme heat from a wildfire's flames cause the air to rise rapidly, the moisture on smoke particles produced by the fire condense and cool. This process ultimately causes the clouds to produce high winds and even lightning, in a sense becoming their own thunderstorms. USA Today described the tops of the clouds as looking like anvils. This is not only because of their shape but their color: they tend to be dark and gray because of the ash and other fire-related particles contained within them.

There is a feedback loop that can come into play here, as these tall clouds generated by the fire can then stoke the fire more, as history attests. The Tennant Fire in California, which began this month and is now fully contained, produced fire clouds so massive (also known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds) that strong winds caused them to rotate, producing a tornado (or fire whirl). Such clouds are also capable of shooting matter from the wildfire as high up as 10 miles above the Earth's surface. NASA refers to these as the "fire-breathing dragon of clouds" because of their dangerous and literally fiery properties.

If this wildfire seems scary, expect more similar ones in the future. Experts agree that extreme wildfires are going to become more common as climate change worsens. As the Earth's temperature warms, forests face an increased fire threat from what are known as fine fuels — meaning dead tree matter and other organic detritus that has a high surface-area-to-volume ratio and dries quickly. When these fine fuels are left in unusually parched and hot conditions, they are more susceptible than usual to combusting. As Professor Francis E. Putz, a botanist at the University of Florida, told Salon previously, approaches to this problem that do not address climate change (including former president Donald Trump's infamous suggestion that we rake the forests) will not be effective.

"If we do not address the climate change issue, no amount of forest management is going to avoid this sort of situation in the future — and note that the rate of change has increased, not decreased or stabilized," Putz explained.

This is not the only future extreme weather event that can be linked to climate change. Large areas of the planet are expected to become too hot and/or too dry to live in; there will be more thunderstorms, hurricanes, and droughts; and sea levels will rise, displacing millions of people who live along coasts.

Climate change and the Moon are teaming up to create record floods on Earth

At the time of this writing, at least 120 people have been confirmed dead because of severe flooding in Western Europe. It is tragically likely that, when this story is over, the number will be significantly higher. A German weather service (DWD) spokesman told CNN that in some areas there has not been this much rainfall in 100 years.

This article first appeared in Salon.

These extreme weather events are inextricably linked to climate change, politicians and experts have noted. But there is another culprit, one above, that is also affecting the weather: a "wobble" in the orbit of the Moon.

Indeed, only days before the flooding, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change by scientists from NASA and the University of Hawaii warned that the Earth may experience record flooding in the mid-2030s because of changes in the Moon's orbit.

"Climate change causes a rise in sea levels which in turn increases the rate of high-tide floods," Harvard professor and astronomer Avi Loeb told Salon by email. "The gravitational force of the Moon pulls water in the oceans in its direction. The strength of the Moon's pull changes from year to year, as the moon 'wobbles' in its orbit, slightly altering its position relative to Earth on a rhythmic 18.6-year cycle." In one half of the cycle, Loeb explained, the moon's force on the Earth causes low tides to grow and high tides to shrink; during the other half, high tides get bigger and low tides get lower.

"We are currently witnessing the tide-amplifying part of the cycle and the next tide-amplifying cycle begins in the mid-2030s," Loeb pointed out. "By then, global sea levels will have risen enough to make those higher-than-normal high tides particularly troublesome."

But while the Moon's orbit is not something that humans can readily control, man-made climate change is the other half of the equation.

"Only if we take up the fight against climate change decisively, we will be able to prevent extreme weather conditions such as those we are experiencing," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier proclaimed. Environment Minister Svenja Schulze publicly stated that "Climate Change has arrived in Germany."

"We will be faced with such events over and over," Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and a candidate to replace Merkel as German Chancellor, declared in a statement. "And that means we need to speed up climate protection measures, on European, federal and global levels, because climate change isn't confined to one state."

While the extent to which climate change contributed to the historic flooding remains unclear, Laschet's warning in particular is indisputable.

Indeed, climate scientists say perfect storm of variables is falling into place to imperil coastal cities.

"Climate change increases sea level relentlessly and that is what increases nuisance flooding as well as all storm surges and coastal erosion," Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, wrote to Salon. "But the biggest effects are when things are aligned: high tide, a major storm with storm onshore wind component that piles up water along the coast and then adds big waves on top. The process is highly nonlinear, and the biggest effects are with big waves on a very high tide."

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Department of Global Ecology told Salon by email that the planet has natural variability when it comes to hot or cold spells, wet or dry periods. "It is the extremes that get us, not the change in average conditions. Coral bleachings happen when an ocean heat wave is exacerbated by global warming — turning an event that corals were adapted to into one that they are not prepared to confront," said Caldeira.

What the new study reminds us, he added, is the presence of a 18.6 year lunar cycle of waxing and waning tidal amplitudes. "This 18.6 year cycle, mapped on top of the daily monthly and other cycles, allow us to predict when the sea level rise caused by melting glaciers and thermally expanding seas will be most likely to impact human and natural systems," he noted.

Caldeira expressed hope that our knowledge about the impending coastal city disaster will compel policymakers to take the necessary steps to offset climate change. Unfortunately, he noted, "seas go up and down with the natural cycles, but human interference in the climate system causes the seas to move in one direction only — and that direction is up."

He added, "It is likely to be tens of thousands of years, at least, before nature can fully reverse human influence on sea level."

Trump's followers are trying to turn Ashli Babbitt into their movement's martyr

Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old QAnon supporter and Trump superfan who was killed in the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, is already far more famous in death than she ever was in life. Her fate reminded me of a famous 1963 episode of "The Twilight Zone," "He's Alive," in which Adolf Hitler's ghost (Curt Conway) returns from the grave to teach a young neo-Nazi named Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper) how to manipulate a crowd. Hitler explains that exploiting the death of an obscure follower transforms that individual into a heroic martyr. "This is an act of friendship," says the spectral Führer. "We are allowing him to serve the cause."

This article first appeared in Salon.

Whether or not Donald Trump and his movement think they are doing Babbitt a favor by lionizing after her death, she has clearly become a sacrifice to the ex-president's ego and glory. Trump's supporters are eager to uncover the name of the police officer who shot Babbitt, but much less eager to remember that she died after Trump urged an angry right-wing mob to storm the Capitol. The video of her shooting, which makes clear that Babbitt and other members of the mob were literally trying to break into the House chamber and attack members of Congress, is likewise swept under the rug. That's without even mentioning the obvious fact that Babbitt died in service of the bogus cause of Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has sided with Vladimir Putin in questioning Babbitt's shooting. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, the leading insurrectionist in Congress, has staged a spectacular performance of outrage over her death. Her name has repeatedly been a trending topic on Twitter. Even those outside the Trump cult have been bowed: CNN, a frequent target of Republican abuse and outrage, published a piece about Babbitt last month that omitted many damaging facts and seemed infected with terminal both-sides-ism.

Trump recently told a crowd of his supporters in Florida that he wanted to know the identity of the police officer who had shot Babbitt, suggesting there was something sinister at work. "We all saw the hand, we saw the gun," Trump said. "You know, if that were on the other side, the person that did the shooting would be strung up and hung. OK? Now they don't want to give the name. ... It's a terrible thing, right? Shot. Boom. And it's a terrible thing."

There's a disturbing historical echo behind Trump and his supporters' effort to manipulate Babbitt's death this way, an echo also clearly referenced in Rod Serling's script for the "Twilight Zone" episode. That would be the case of Horst Wessel, who became for Hitler and the Nazi Party what Babbitt may now be for the Trump.

Born in the German city of Bielefeld in 1907, Wessel was a law school dropout who joined the SA or "brownshirts," the Nazi Party's paramilitary organization, during the waning days of the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s. He was perhaps more like a member of the contemporary Proud Boys or Oath Keepers; we still don't know how deeply Ashli Babbitt was involved with right-wing extremism. At any rate, Wessel impressed future Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, helped organize the Nazi youth movement in Vienna and staged or led numerous violent street clashes in Berlin with Communists — the antifa of their day, more or less. Wessel fancied himself as a tough guy and sought out situations where he could act out his macho impulses. Given that, his death almost had elements of farce. After a dispute with his Communist landlady — which was likely over unpaid rent, not politics — Wessel was shot on the street by two other Communists on Jan. 14, 1930. He died in a hospital a few weeks later, three years before the Nazis took power in Germany.

Wessel looks like a distinctly mediocre individual in the historical rear-view mirror, but the Nazis transformed his life and death into legend. In a campaign approved by Hitler and led by Goebbels, Nazi propaganda outlets depicted him as a hero. His funeral procession was viewed by 30,000 people who lined the streets of Berlin. He become the subject of a major motion picture and was honored by numerous monuments and books. A song Wessel had written for the SA the year before he died, later universally known as the "Horst Wessel Song," became an unofficial anthem of the Third Reich: According to a 1934 law, every German citizen had to give the "Hitler greeting" upon hearing it.

As far as we know, Ashli Babbitt didn't write a song and had no previous history of right-wing violence. But like Wessel, she cannot be described as a peaceful protester or even an overzealous advocate for a dubious cause. She died in a violent attack against democracy, as part of the first serious effort in American history to overturn an election by force. She died based on the lies of a would-be authoritarian dictator, the first American president to resist leaving office after losing an election. Her death was a personal tragedy, no doubt. But now the cynical movement that sent her to die in the Capitol wants to exploit that tragedy by turning her into a martyr for fascism. We've seen that before, and we've seen where that can lead — to a place even darker than the Twilight Zone.

'An act of war': How does the insurrection fit into the larger history of violence in Congress?

Asked to reflect on the events of Jan. 6 — not in his official capacity as a member of Congress but as a witness to history — Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., called out several of his Republican colleagues by name.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"I look at [Alabama Rep. Mo] Brooks and [Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor] Greene and [Colorado Rep. Lauren] Boebert and think that if they weren't inside the chamber that day as members of Congress, they would have been outside the chamber that day as part of the mob," Swalwell told Salon.

The California Democrat is suing Brooks over a speech the Alabama Republican delivered at a "Save America Rally" before would-be insurrectionists stormed the Capitol to overturn former Vice President Joe Biden's victory over then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Brooks urged "American patriots" to "start taking down names and kicking ass." He now features this line in advertisements for his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Though Swalwell did not discuss the lawsuit with Salon, he made it clear that his disgust with Jan. 6 does not stem solely from the fact that Congress was prevented from overseeing the peaceful transfer of power, which was initiated by President George Washington himself.

Some of his fellow legislators actively egged on Americans who were disgruntled with the outcome of the election. Greene and Boebert, for example, linked the day to the idea of a revolution when they urged Trump sympathizers to view the Jan. 6 rally as a "1776 moment."

Thus Swalwell did not only witness what he now refers to as "the day democracy almost died." According to his account, he was also betrayed by his very own colleagues. Members of Congress, it seems, can also be lousy co-workers.

Perhaps the only day in American congressional history that comes remotely close to mirroring the insurrection is May 22, 1856. No one tried to overturn an election — the Capitol was actually quiet that day — but seemingly out of nowhere a 36-year-old man beat an unarmed middle-aged humanist nearly to death with a thick, gold-headed gutta-percha cane.

The assailant was Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was angered by the criticisms lobbed by his victim, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Under normal circumstances, such a brutal assault on a victim who could not defend himself would have been universally condemned.

Brooks, however, was pro-slavery and had attacked Sumner in part because he opposed the "peculiar institution" and its supporters. As such, Brooks was regarded as something of a hero across much of the South for avenging the region's honor. After learning that he had broken his cane while forcefully striking Sumner as he helplessly huddled under his desk (which was attached to the floor), sympathizers sent hundreds of replacement canes to Brooks as gifts. Some included inscriptions urging him to once again assault Sumner, who was forced to take a long absence from Congress while his health recovered.

The Civil War broke out less than five years later. More than a few historians have argued that the aforementioned acceptance of bloodshed on the floor of Congress in 1856 helped lay the foundation for pro-slavery states to reject the results of the 1860 presidential election. Until 2020 that was the only national election in which the losing side flat-out refused to accept the result; it ended in the Civil War.

To be clear, the situation is not a precise analogy to Jan. 6. There was no Big Lie about a legitimate election being stolen or a fascist demagogue who had spent years conditioning his supporters to believe that he could only lose an election through theft. However, it made the concept of accepting violence in America's halls of power more acceptable to the public.

A line was crossed, with the gifted canes crassly symbolizing the right-wing's decision in that era to no longer accept the other side's political legitimacy. The right-wing extremists and enablers who whitewash Jan. 6 or validate Trump's false claims that he won the 2020 election are performing the modern-day equivalent of what those pro-slavery forces did when they sent canes to Brooks in 1856.

That said, the similarities between the two incidents do indeed end there.

"The violent arrack on the Capitol that took place on Jan. 6 has no parallel in American history," Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told Salon by email.

After noting the Sumner attack, as well as other assaults and some duels that occurred in congressional history, Tribe described Jan. 6 as "an essentially cannibalistic and fratricidal act of sabotage." Because the insurrection attempt was directly inspired and fomented by an incumbent president who broke Washington's longstanding precedent by resisting the legal transfer of power, it amounted to a "violent and indeed literally deadly act of naked aggression by the executive branch against the legislative branch."

This casts the actions of the legislators who supported the Jan. 6 insurrectionists in any way in a very different light.

"The insurrection of Jan. 6 represented nothing less than an act of war against the United States of America and its Constitution by an organized mob, many of whose members and leaders were sworn to uphold and defend that Constitution but turned on it instead," Tribe added. "That was nothing less than treason, no less serious than the treason committed by the Confederacy. But not even the rebels who tried to destroy the Union succeeded in the symbolically unique act of marching the Confederate Flag through the Capitol. And not even the British sacking of the Capitol in 1812 represented an act of patricide by Americans against their own countrymen."

That said, some of the other stories of congressional violence are quite colorful. Legislators, like human beings everywhere, are prone to unflattering outbursts that go beyond the bounds of bombastic braying. However, on these occasions, the near-universal reaction was disapproval (albeit sometimes mixed with amusement). Aside from the hyper partisans that one finds in every political era, the legislators who engaged in violence in the past were usually perceived as having made embarrassing spectacles of themselves — or worse.

A handful of tales fairly represent the whole. Most are cartoonish moments, where contemporary accounts reveal a few bad apples turning the rest red from blushing. These were the petty duels like those between House members Jonathan Cilley of Maine and William Graves of Kentucky in 1838 or (almost) between Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania and Lawrence Branch of North Carolina in 1859. (That latter was broken up by sensible parties at the last second.)

We can also look back at Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a former Dixiecrat candidate for president and arch-segregationist who was notoriously belligerent in his rhetoric and personal style. Thurmond mortified his colleagues, including many who shared his racist views, when he tried to physically wrestle with Sen. Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas, to stop a vote on a civil rights bill in 1964. (That same year, Thurmond switched from being a Democrat to a Republican because of his opposition to civil rights.)

Perhaps the most iconic story of congressional violence is that of the Griswold-Lyon brawl. On one side, you had Roger Griswold, a Federalist congressman from Connecticut, who in 1798 caned one of his colleagues (apparently caning is a big thing in Congress) after the two exchanged words (and, in his victim's case, expectorant) during a heated argument days earlier.

Though the victim defended himself with a pair of fire tongs, Griswold was the aggressor. His victim, Matthew Lyon, was a Democratic-Republican representative from Vermont who had incurred Griswold's wrath by speaking ill of the policies and character of President John Adams and his supporters.

At the time, Adams was imprisoning those who criticized him under new laws called the Alien and Sedition Acts, which smacked of Trumpism in their anti-free speech ideology. Indeed, Adams would send Lyons himself to the clink for writing anti-Adams editorials later that year. (He subsequently became the first and thus far only congressman elected from prison.)

Importantly, Griswold's attack on Lyon and Jan. 6 were fundamentally different because one was a violent attack by an individual while the other was a violent assault on democracy itself.

"I was on the floor and there are not many windows or vantage points outside the chamber," Swalwell recalled of that day. "I'll never forget the uncertainty and terror of knowing there was a violent mob seeking to stop us from doing what we were doing, who were chanting that they wanted to kill members of Congress and that they were armed in a variety of different ways."

When he heard that pipe bombs had been discovered, Swalwell texted his wife and told her to kiss their young children.

"It was traumatizing," Swalwell told Salon. "There was the duality of not just being a witness but of having a job to do and just being so angry that we had to leave."

Swalwell said he agreed with the thesis of this author's column from last week. Washington warned Americans in his Farewell Address (then a written statement later published for the public) that democracy could be destroyed by a demagogue manipulating partisanship. Now Congress faced the ultimate test when it came to opposing an anti-Washington. Swalwell remains haunted by the memory of fearing Congress might fail to do this — one of its most important jobs — in a moment of truth.

"I really hated leaving the floor," Swalwell said. "I didn't like being in retreat because it felt like we were surrendering. It took weeks before the guilt of leaving subsided."

And yet Congress did its job — at least those members who did not bolster the Trump movement's baseless claims of election fraud — and Swalwell still goes to work at the U.S. Capitol today.

George Washington predicted Donald Trump: Why doesn't everyone know this?

As my colleague Amanda Marcotte frequently points out, conservative ideology these days seems to boil down to little more than "owning the libs." If you manage to achieve "triggering a lib," maybe you get imaginary bonus points — perhaps the Star Theme from Super Mario Bros. plays in your head.

Well, I think it's time for liberals to return the favor. We should repeatedly bring up the fact that America's most important founding father, George Washington, warned us about the rise of Donald Trump.

No, he didn't know the man's name, of course — he wasn't a time traveler or a clairvoyant — but he described Trump's personality and actions in detail. Washington was president as the United States prepared to hold its first contested presidential election — he was elected twice without opposition — and wanted to make sure it would run smoothly. More than that, he wanted to make sure all future elections ran smoothly. So in his famous Farewell Address, he outlined what an enemy of this democratic process might look like. The speech was published during the 1796 election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the two great rivals of early American politics

The most relevant section of the document (most of which reads as fairly antiquated today) is pretty much a giant spoiler alert for everything Trump did to undermine the results of the 2020 election, an effort that began long before a single ballot had been cast. When you get right down to it, one of the likeliest ways for American democracy to reach its breaking point would be if a presidential candidate refused to accept the will of the people. More than two centuries before that happened, Washington foresaw exactly how it would go down.

Although the ideas were entirely Washington's the address was largely written by Alexander Hamilton. At one point, the man on the one dollar bill warns that partisanship could lead to the rise of a dictator. Decrying the "baneful effects of the spirit of party generally," he argued that if partisanship reaches a fever pitch, it could "gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual."

Washington also warned that hyper-partisanship "opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions." He was worried that these factors could facilitate the rise of "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men" who would manipulate partisan anger to "subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

Does any of that sound familiar? Trump has close and somewhat mysterious ties to Vladimir Putin's government, and former special counsel Robert Mueller's report demonstrated that his campaign worked with individuals connected to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. When Trump abused his power in an effort to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation into Joe Biden, Senate Republicans — intimidated by a voter base that, intoxicated by "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," had come to value defeating Democrats over everything else — rigged his impeachment trial so that partisanship would prevail over justice.

Then Republicans did it again when, after years of conditioning his supporters to believe that any election he loses has been stolen, he became the first defeated president to refuse to accept his loss — and led an insurrection attempt as a result. (After John Tyler, who sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, Trump became the second president to indisputably betray the Constitution.) Now Republicans have allowed Trump to transform the party in his image, not caring that he put many of their own lives in danger. They are using a Big Lie to erode democracy.

And what did Washington think the climax of all of this hyper-partisanship — as manifested in the above "hypothetical" examples — would be?

The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Trump is, to a T, what the Father of His Country predicted. Opponents of Trump, Trumpers and Trumpism need to bring this up waaaaaaay more often.

For what it's worth, I was tempted to bring up two other relevant sections of Washington's Farewell Address. One, which pertains to foreign policy, prophesied the rise of American imperialism and is interesting for that reason, but isn't directly relevant here. The other, which denounces "all obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities," I simply don't support. True, that suggests Washington would clearly have disapproved of the Jan. 6 rioters and their defenders, but not necessarily for the right reason. The problem with the Capitol attack, at its core, is that it was a battle for a baseless and unjust cause. If the rioters had been fighting for human rights rather than fascism — like the civil rights protests of the 1960s, or at least a cause better than shared omnipotence with a malignant narcissist — their actions might have been theoretically defensible.

In any case, those who fight for democracy today should embrace Washington's Farewell Address. We don't need to pretend that Washington was an impeccable and virtuous hero, or look past his numerous flaws. But he wasn't wrong about democracy. His greatest achievement was not defeating the British in the Revolutionary War. It was leaving office in 1797 and handing the reins to Adams, his elected successor — establishing a precedent that Adams knew he had to follow four years later, when he lost his rematch with Jefferson in the bitterly contested election of 1800. It was the precedent that every president followed until Trump lost to Biden in 2020. Washington showed that democratic government could function, for the first time in modern history, because the nation's leaders would respect the will of the people.

I once attended a reenactment of Adams' inauguration as part of my journey covering Barack Obama's second inauguration for Mic (then PolicyMic) in 2013. When the tour guide read from a contemporary account describing the tension in the room as people wondered whether Washington's troops would arrest Adams so the first president could stay in power, it felt like a bizarre account from ancient history. Only eight years later, the very people who would claim to venerate Washington's footsteps have made that 1797 report seem like this week's headlines.

Washington stepping down from power was the first thing that made America great. If Republicans really want to Make America Great Again, they need to heed Washington's message — and dump the "cunning, ambitious and unprincipled man" on whose behalf they seem willing to destroy democracy.

Millions of Americans view being anti-vaccination as a part of their social identity

In a new paper published for the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, researchers found that 22 percent of Americans actively identify themselves as anti-vaccination, with 14 percent saying they are "sometimes" part of the movement and 8 percent saying this is "always" the case.

These self-described anti-vaxxers "embrace" the label of anti-vaxxer "as a form of social identity," the authors write.

"We also find that people who score highly on our [anti-vaxx social identification] measure tend to be less trusting of scientific experts and more individualistic," they noted.

The study is a stark reminder that vaccine-hostile attitudes are not a fringe view, but are possessed by a substantial portion of the US population, many of whom have come to consider the label a formative part of their identity. As daily COVID-19 vaccination rates have begun to decline, the cohort of self-identified anti-vaccination Americans are contributing to the delayed march towards herd immunity in the United States.

Indeed, widespread refusal to get vaccinated is a major reason why experts doubt the number of Americans who vaccinate themselves from the deadly disease will reach 70 percent, the rough number needed to reach herd immunity. Currently, slightly more than 47 percent of Americans are vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.

Texas A&M University School of Public Health assistant professor Timothy Callaghan said in a university press release that "the fact that 22 percent of Americans at least sometimes identify as anti-vaxxers was much higher than expected and demonstrates the scope of the challenge in vaccinating the population against COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases."

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Callaghan's concern reflects a growing challenge for public health experts, who have now to contend with the myriad ways in which basic public health advice has become politicized. Indeed, a March 2021 study, which revealed the extent to which partisan politics have influenced attitudes towards vaccination, found that Republican men were the most likely to be COVID-19 anti-vaxxers (49 percent) — followed by Republican-identifying women (34 percent), Democratic women (14 percent) and Democratic men (6 percent). The same study revealed that 40 percent of white non-college educated men and 38 percent of white evangelicals — groups that both lean conservative — said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine if it was offered to them.

Another recent study also found that anti-vaccine ideas are most popular among Republicans. Despite the prevalence of anti-vaxxer views, researchers at the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that up to 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on major social media platforms are being spread by one of a mere dozen individuals and organizations, meaning that misinformation is concentrated in its dissemination.

Pre-pandemic, the modern incarnation of the general anti-vaccination movement was spurred by a 1998 paper from the medical journal The Lancet which linked autism to the measles vaccine. That paper was later thoroughly discredited by scientists, denounced by The Lancet and retracted by 10 of its 12 co-authors. Its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license in the United Kingdom for ethical violations. Despite this, many parents would read pseudoscientific literature inspired by Wakefield's paper and conclude that it was dangerous to vaccinate their children.

In April, Dr. Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke with Salon's Nicole Karlis about the complex nature of the anti-vaccine movement. Viswanath pointed out that there are many reasons why someone might distrust vaccines, not all of which are linked to partisan politics. Patients from underprivileged backgrounds, for instance, might have previously experienced racism in our health care system and feel an understandable wariness.

"That's very different from a group of people who are outright refusers who say, 'No, this is my freedom,'" Viswanath said. "Personal liberty is one of the biggest drivers."

James Patterson says pushing a narrative of stolen election results is 'the game that Trump plays'

Best-selling novelist James Patterson is not an expert on presidents, but he has unique insights into them. Not only has he written books featuring presidents as the main characters, but he's also co-authored two books with our 42nd president, Bill Clinton.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Their latest collaboration is "The President's Daughter" (Little, Brown and Company, June 7). A brisk and engaging read despite being longer than 600 pages, it tells the story of a former president whose daughter is kidnapped, forcing him to navigate a delicate political environment while using skills from his own military past. This is the kind of story that one could easily have imagined being a movie blockbuster back when Clinton was president, although Patterson has astutely pointed out that its premise may be less preposterous than many events in the Trump era.

Of our erstwhile 45th president, Patterson had quite a few things to say. While the hero of "The President's Daughter" was a one-term president who — like every defeated president before Trump and the 2020 election — accepted the will of the people, Trump has not, to which Patterson observed, "The thing of it is, that's the game. That's what makes it even more tragic. It's the game that President Trump plays. He puts out something that is outrageous, and a certain number of people are going to go along with it."

Patterson also pointed to an earlier interaction, long before the 2016 election, that indicates Trump himself was also surprised that anyone would deem him presdential material.

"They had done polls, and he was at the top of the poll in terms of who people would like to see as a Republican candidate," Patterson recalled. "Nobody knew anything about what he believed in what he stood for, et cetera, et cetera. And he came up to me and he said, 'Did you see the polls?' And I said, 'Yeah, I did actually.' He said, 'What do you think?' And I said something polite. And he looked at me, he said, 'Crazy world, huh?' So he knew how nuts that was, that people were interested in him being the president, even though they had no idea where he stood on any of the issues."

Patterson is not someone normally associated with politics. His most famous books, which have sold more than 300 million copies, include crime and mystery thrillers like the "Alex Cross" series and the "Women's Murder Club" series, as well as his many standalone books that span multiple genres. Yet as someone who interviewed one of Bill Clinton's advisers about how the 42nd president responded to a situation similar to one in this novel, I could not help but be intrigued by "The President's Daughter." It is a political thriller in the truest sense of that term, as written by two authors uniquely qualified to tell this kind of story.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how two of the most popular action movies released during Bill Clinton's presidency had the president himself as an action hero, "Independence Day" and "Air Force One." Did you ever think, as you were writing this, that it's wish fulfillment for former presidents?

[Laughing] I don't know. You'll have to talk to the president about that one. He is a big reader. He reads everything. He does read a lot of mysteries and likes them. I think that's part of it.

I think the difference between what we try to do — and to some extent succeed, some extent not — is try to make the president a flesh and blood human. A lot of times in TV shows and movies, "Independence Day" being one of them, the president doesn't feel like a human being, doesn't feel very real. And they are, obviously. I know President Clinton very well now, and I know President [George W.] Bush a bit, and I even know President [Donald] Trump a little bit. Two of the three are quite human. I won't say which two they are.

I can figure it out.

No, not necessarily. You never know. I'm not saying that. At any rate, so that's a piece of it, to have the humanity. And the other thing about it is, versus somebody trying to do "Independence Day" or "Air Force One" if this happened — even though it is a little far fetched, a lot of it is far-fetched — but if it happened, this is how it would happen.

I will say I noticed earlier when you were listing low quality action stories with the president as a protagonist, you didn't mention "Air Force One," you only mentioned "Independence Day." Was that on purpose?

I thought "Air Force One" was better done. I though it was a pretty decent movie.

I do have more questions about Bill Clinton, but before we get into that, I want to talk about James Patterson for a bit, because you are extremely prolific. I have seen your novels everywhere.

Of course, of course.

No, I'm kidding. I am. Prolific is always, yeah. Yes I am. Yes, yes I am.

When people think of James Patterson, they think of a brand, a type of story that they want to be told.

When you say "people," who are you talking about? Like people who read my books or your friends? I don't think most people think of me as a brand, but you know, maybe your friends do, but most people don't.

Fair enough. I suppose I was presumptively tapping into the zeitgeist.

Are you sure you can do that?

Either way, I was not trying to insult you.

No, it's good. I'm not insulted, I'm used to it.And I'm good too.

Well, my full question was, who is James Patterson the man?

I actually just finished my autobiography, which is just stories. We've had about a dozen people read it, including the president and Hillary, and people — and I think this is even true of MasterClass, I just did an interview with The New Yorker about MasterClass and I actually did the first one — and I think people who spend time with me, their response is, "This guy's extremely down to earth, not impressed with himself." Not just like, "It's okay, I write books." We have a son, and he's 23. I think we always brought him up to be like, "Don't be ashamed of it. It's fine, but it's no big deal."

I feel very lucky. When I published the first book, I was turned down by 31 publishers, then won an Edgar for Best First Mystery of the year. I don't know what that means, except that one of the things that means is that I was very lucky that the 32nd publisher decided to publish it. And I'm not insulted by the prolific thing. It's all fine and good.

Good. It was sincerely not intended as an insult.

It's okay. Almost everybody who interviews me, that's the first word that comes out of their mouth, or "brand" or whatever. I certainly don't think of myself as a brand.

It's inspiring. Hundreds of millions of people have read your words. Things that you have put to paper have directly impacted hundreds of millions of lives. That is something that the vast majority of people cannot say. I sincerely respect and admire that.

Yeah. Well, I'm not all that respectful of myself and whatever, but at any rate, I do a lot of stuff and it's kind of all over the lot. I like new challenges. I've just done a couple of podcasts with Audible. The thing is that, what I want to do — and then when I say this in Hollywood, they kind of laugh at me — when the project is done. I want to say that I'm really happy that I did the project. It's not about money. That's what drives me. So whether it's a podcast — and we have one that is coming out in September — that I think is really, really, really good. Dwayne, a friend of mine, we did it together.

You said that you want to be able to work on projects that you find fulfilling, that you enjoy. What is it that you find fulfilling specifically about working with Bill Clinton?

I think there are a lot of things. One, he's very bright. I think that what separates "The President's Daughter" and "The President Is Missing" from a lot of thriller fiction is something I mentioned before: he brings authenticity to whatever the scene is. If that particular thing happened, here's what the Secret Service would do. If a president was out of office, here's where he could reach out for help, whether the help would happen or not.

And we're friends at this point. We send birthday presents, presents for Christmas. He gave me Monopoly for Socialists for Christmas. Last year for my birthday he gave me a humidor. He knows I don't smoke. So I called them up and said, "Well, you're the expert in cigars, should I put bubble gum or chocolate cigars in here?" And he said, "Oh, definitely bubble gum. Because at our age, we've got to exercise our gums."

I grew up in New Britain, New York, small town, blah, blah, blah. I still look at the world through the lens of this guy from Newburgh and, wow, I'm doing a book with Bill Clinton! I have another celebrity, which in a lot of ways is bigger than Clinton. I cannot reveal at this time, but it's a cool one. I've worked with the Einstein Foundation, worked with Muhammad Ali's foundation, and it's cool stuff. It's like, wow. When I tell this kind of thing, I'm not like bragging. It's just like, I'm kinda like that.

You mention Clinton brings authenticity to this as a president. What did he bring to this as a writer?

He's a good writer and he does a fair amount of it. I love it when certain people . . . We know exactly what Patterson and what Clinton wrote, and this is one of the English papers, and they were wrong on all accounts about who did what. He really does know a lot. It's interesting. I had dinner with Brian Mulroney who would have been the, uh . . .

The Canadian Prime Minister.

Yeah, for 12 years. And he said Clinton is the most impressive world leader he ever met. And he used the one example that when [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin first got into office, they wanted to meet, but Clinton said, "I can't come to Russia." And Yeltsin said, "I can't come to the United States." And so Clinton contacted Mulroney and he said, "Would you host this up in Canada?" And he said, "Absolutely." And he said that they let him sit in on the first part of the session, and that listening to Clinton was like listening to a professor of history at Harvard. He said he knew so much about Russia and it blew Yeltsin's mind too. He's a very, very bright guy and very interesting. We've become pretty good friends. I mean, we talk at least once a week.

This brings me back to James Patterson, the man. Obviously James Patterson the man, is very good friends with Bill Clinton, the man. But what are James Patterson the man's thoughts on Bill Clinton, the president from 1993 to 2001?

I think he was very good president. One of the things, when he left office, he had a 65% approval rating, and people kind of forget that now. That's kind of a big deal. That meant that, even given the Monica Lewinsky situation, 65% of the people said that he was a good president. Like anybody, he's not perfect and he'll admit that. And then after that, he and Bush did a really nice job in Africa in terms of helping with the AIDS epidemic there. I think he's done nice things for education with his foundation. I think he tries to do the right thing. I think Hillary does too.

Do people make mistakes? Sure, absolutely. I make them, you make them, you know, whatever. People don't seem to be very tolerant of other people's mistakes. And unfortunately the culture now is, "My view of the world is right, and your view is stupid." I think Bill and I both look at the world as a little more grey. It's not black and white like that.

That's interesting. The other person — the Clinton that hasn't been mentioned, but I'm really curious for her thoughts — is Chelsea, because obviously the title of the book is "The President's Daughter" and Bill Clinton is one of the authors. Did you discuss this with her at all?

I have not discussed it with her other than at one point. Her husband said, 'You guys got to write another book," and then I left it up to the president to in terms of whether there were any issues there, and I don't believe there are any, but that's something for Bill to talk about.

Now it is possible that I missed something, but I have to bring this up because like Clinton, I am a history buff. On pages 58 and 63, you write that the protagonist, Keating, was the first president to be defeated by his own vice president. Unless I missed something or misconstrued that, this would be incorrect, because Thomas Jefferson was John Adams' vice president when he defeated him in the 1800 election.

Okay. Well, we'll have to try to fix that quickly. I don't think we can, actually. You've got us. We'll do it in the paperback.

I'm not trying to pull a gotcha.

It happens. Hopefully those things get picked up by a copy editor, but it didn't this time.

The fact that Bill Clinton is so knowledgeable about history, I kept thinking, "I couldn't be wrong about this, but it's Bill Clinton. He must know what he's talking about." So if I am wrong, please let me know.

No. He missed it. He missed it, and you got it.

I guess my next question involves your activism in encouraging children's literacy. It's intriguing to me because, while this is not a children's book, it is the type of book that I would have devoured when I was a young adult. I was obsessed with politics. I loved political thrillers. There is no way that a book written by a former president and James Patterson would not have been written read by my 13-year-old counterpart. Did you have that in mind when you were writing this? And if so, how did it affect the way you constructed the story?

Not for kids. I write a lot of kids' books.

I know that. That's why I asked.

It started actually when our son — he's now 23, but when he was younger and he's a bright kid — but he wasn't a big reader. I just thought that I could write stories that kids would gobble up and there'd be something for them to chew. One of my favorites is a book called "Pottymouth and Stoopid," and it's about word bullying, which to me is more destructive in this age than physical bullying. And it's two kids who get those nicknames when they're like three and four years old, and when they're 12 they still have those nicknames, and that's how cruel word bullying is. It's a pretty funny book.

I do Ali Cross, who is Alex's son, so I've done two books for kids with Ali Cross. The Einstein estate came to me at one point. They said, "We'd like kids around the world to be aware of Albert Einstein and his science," and I said that's a tough task. And he said, but of course, you have to make it entertaining. And I'm like, oh, okay, well, I just have to make Einstein's science entertaining for kids.

But you're saying this one is not meant for children, even young adults. Like the example I started with me being 13.

Yeah, you never know. Listen, I can remember — and I couldn't believe this — it stuck out. A woman brought her young daughter up, like 10 or 11 years old, and she she'd read all the Alex Cross books. I'm like, I don't know that I'd be encouraging my 10-year-old to be reading the Alex Cross books, but you know, people do it. I think I tended at 12 or 13 too . . . and I wasn't a big reader at that point, but I would read adult books rather than the books for kids. The kids' books didn't do much for me.

A few years ago, you told CBS that you worked out of a home office in Palm Beach, Florida, and showed that you were working on dozens of projects that were in various stages at that time. Has the pandemic changed any of your work routines?

No. The only thing is I did sit down and write the autobiography. I was stuck here and, I don't know, for whatever reason once I got into it, I was enjoying it, to sort of tell stories about who I am and how I got there and whatever. I think they're all pretty cool stories. I think actually being stuck in the house, especially for three or four months there, it refocused me on the writing. I got a little sharper if I might have gotten a little sloppy.

I also agreed to do the podcasts, which are a different and new challenge. I like challenges. I mean, it was a challenge to try to write kids books. I did one with Kwame Alexander on Cassius Clay when he was a kid in Louisville. It goes back and forth between poetry and prose. And so that was kind of an interesting challenge and I liked the podcasts because they are challenging too, because they're like the old-time radio dramas, only they're like five hours long. So that was kind of cool.

My closing question then: In a recent interview you mentioned the January 6th insurrection attempt and cited it as an example of how reality can be stranger than fiction. Obviously this book was written well before that happened, but Trump for years had been saying that if he wasn't reelected, the only possible explanation would be that the election had been rigged.

In your book, the protagonist — who is an archetypal American war hero — graciously accepts his defeat. I was wondering as I read this characterization of patriotism and masculinity being manifested in accepting loss with dignity if this was, on some level, a commentary on what even at that time was being discussed.

I don't think it's a comment on Trump as much, and we try to stay away from that honestly, Bill and I both. But we both think that it's useful, and it would be useful, to have a president where people in general are going, "Okay, we believe in this person up to a point," and we hope that somebody like that will surface. I will say with Joe Biden, where the left and the right up to a point . . . It's not going to happen in Congress, but it can happen if people put pressure and they go like, "No, we like with this man or woman is doing, and it's the right direction for us." And so, you know, we're hopeful about that.

One of the things that made President Clinton successful is he knows how to compromise. In our lives, we all understand the importance of compromise. We compromise with our spouses, we compromise with our kids, we compromise with whatever. Life is about that. Then all of a sudden we have a government where people don't want to compromise. And I think for Clinton always it was like, "Look, I understand where you're coming from. Here's where I'm coming from. Okay. How do we move this forward?" And he would do that as a president. Like with Bosnia, he just approached the Republicans and said, "Look, we have to do something. We must do something." And he told me, he said, he thought that that [former President Barack] Obama and [former House Speaker John] Boehner would have worked out some stuff together. He said they're both reasonable enough, but he said the parties wouldn't let them.

What could be more uncompromising than refusing to accept that you've lost an election?

The thing of it is, that's a game. That's what makes it even more tragic.

How is it a game?

It's the game that President Trump plays. He puts out something that is outrageous, and a certain number of people are gonna go along with it. I mean, look, every presidential election there's been some fraud. Probably one of the worst was at the [John F.] Kennedy election in terms of what happened in Illinois, and I love Kennedy, but you know. I think that Trump knows that, but that bonds him to these people. What I don't understand is those people, they're going to vote for him or they're going to vote for Republicans, I don't know why he feels it's so important to curry favor with that group. I don't understand that part.

I can give you an example of Trump [that] I think says a lot about where he comes from. So this is years ago. I know him a bit, and I ran into him and this was — I don't remember exactly what the timeframe was — but it was before he was elected, or even before that election, I think it was a previous election, and they had done polls, and he was at the top of the poll in terms of who people would like to see as a Republican candidate. Nobody knew anything about what he believed in what he stood for, et cetera, et cetera. And he came up to me and he said, "Did you see the polls?" And I said, "Yeah, I did actually." He said, 'What do you think?' And I said something polite. And he looked at me, he said, "Crazy world, huh?" So he knew how nuts that was, that people were interested in him being the president, even though they had no idea where he stood on any of the issues.

As the pandemic slowly abates, humanity will have to reckon with historical trauma

Last year in May, only a couple months after America entered a state of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself in an interview with Dr. David Reiss. I was wondering even at that time how people would react to the fear of getting sick or dying, to the frustration of not being able to resume their normal lives and to the unhealthiness of so sharply curtailing their social interactions.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"When things are very uncontrolled and uncertain, people who are vulnerable can really fall into an existential type depression," Reiss told me. "And then that kicks off in both serious depression for others who aren't as vulnerable. It just could create a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anger and reactivity."

As vaccines slowly but surely begin to roll back the tide of the pandemic, we are entering a phase in which people undergoing this deeply traumatic experience will now have to rejoin society despite their suffering. While usually trauma victims' experiences are individual, however, here they are far from alone: Just as we need to figure out how to rejoin society, society needs to figure out how to recover from the collective trauma it has endured.

A glance at history offers a number of prospects, some more promising than others. It all boils down to how we recover from this historical trauma, a term defined by scholars in 2011 as meaning the "cumulative psychological and emotional wounding across generations... [emanating] from massive group trauma."

We can start with perhaps the most famous epidemic of all time, the Black Death. Striking Europe in the mid-14th century, the Black Death took anywhere from 75 million to 200 million lives through a feverish disease that made your armpits and groin swell with pus and your skin break out in bloody rashes. The bad news was that it wiped out anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of Europe's population. Yet the Black Death arguably led to some positive political and social outcomes in the long-run: The Renaissance, the Reformation, updated knowledge of medicine and an end to feudalism can all be traced in one way or another to the direct ramifications of the plague.

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic also left a generation of Americans traumatized. Killing at least 50 million people worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the United States, it arrived during and after World War I and is often lumped in with the larger trauma of the planet's first truly global conflict. Americans responded to the end of those two horror shows by craving a return to "normalcy," as 1920's successful presidential candidate Warren Harding famously put it. (He was elected by the largest popular landslide in history up to that point.) As soon as they could, Americans ditched the hardships of war and quarantining in order to dive head first into the Roaring 1920s.

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Pandemics are not the only historical events that can lead to generational trauma. One study found that children who lived during the Great Depression were more likely to exhibit social anxiety status and worry about their peers' opinions of them. The generations which endured World War II grappled with various forms of collective trauma, particularly the millions of Americans who fought in the military conflict. When they came home, they were more determined than ever to build a better world for their children than the one in which they had been raised. This led to the Baby Boom shortly thereafter.

There are other instances of historical trauma that do not impact the entire country, but still a very large portion of it. A 2004 study found symptoms of severe trauma from Lakota elders who were humiliated and displaced from their land. A 2006 study found historical trauma among Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, and an unsurprising 2008 study found historical trauma among Holocaust survivors.

The question for the COVID-19 era is, what can we expect from the future based on the trauma we have endured since 2020?

One likely change is that it could spawn more hypochondriacs, or at least germophobes. Indeed, the pandemic seems to have more of us worried about our health.

"The pandemic has made everybody concerned about their health. And I think that once the pandemic passes, that concern will continue, which is a good thing rather than a bad thing," Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, told Salon by email earlier this year.

But as Reiss told Salon previously, the pandemic's legacy will depend on how the multiple generations whose lives were disrupted at the same moment by this wind up reacting.

"This will take generations to get past," Reiss said. "And that's because at every stage of development, things have been disrupted — whether you're talking about like my two-year-old grandchild who somehow has to understand seeing family members in masks, to four and five-year-old kids who are just starting to socialize, to adolescents who can't socialize and all through different stages of life."

A virologist unpacks the lab leak hypothesis

Politics, prejudice, conspiracies and media bias have impoverished our ability to intelligently dissect the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, anti-Asian prejudice has been inflamed during this moment in history by people like our former president, Donald Trump — who, along with his right-wing acolytes, previously claimed without evidence that the virus emerged from a Chinese laboratory (such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is in the same area where the outbreak began) to validate their worldview. Meanwhile, intelligent people of good will have been grateful for the work of Chinese scientists in fighting this disease.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Still, other scientists of good will are starting to wonder if there may be some merit to what has become known as the "lab leak" hypothesis. Notably, this theory does not necessarily imply that the novel coronavirus was created in a lab. Nor does the lab leak hypothesis postulate that the novel coronavirus was intentionally leaked; that, too, is a nonsensical premise for which there is no evidence.

Rather, the lab leak hypothesis' adherents, which includes a number of scientists, say that the virus was likely discovered in the wild, residing in animals (likely bats); taken to a lab for study; then unintentionally made its way to the human population, likely when a scientist was infected.

A March article in MIT Technology Review and a May piece in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists both offered compelling arguments that, at the very least, we should seriously examine the possibility that the virus escaped from a laboratory. President Joe Biden recently announced an intensified 90-day review into the pandemic's origins in part because the Chinese government has stonewalled the World Health Organization's investigation into the matter. The issue of determining the pandemic's origins has increasingly been decoupled from Trump's political brand.

To better understand this issue, Salon spoke with Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology, as well as of pediatrics, at the University of Iowa. He has studied coronaviruses for 39 years. As usual, the following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

What did you think of the lab leak hypothesis as laid out in the Bulletin article?

The lab leak hypothesis has changed over the course of this pandemic. Originally, it started as "the virus was engineered," or was obtained from whatever source, and then was manipulated. Now it's changing to raising the possibility that the virus was actually present in the laboratory and leaked.

There are several parts to that idea. One is that it was a naturally obtained virus that was in the laboratory. Whether anything was done in the laboratory is not discussed. I still don't think anything could have been manipulated in the laboratory to make it more virulent because they wouldn't know how to do that. To my mind, the idea that it's a lab accident as opposed to a zoonotic source [meaning originating in an animal before crossing over to humans] — the two ideas are becoming closer and closer.

Why do you feel the lab accident idea has gained more credibility?

Partly because we've had a lot of trouble finding these intermediate animals [harboring coronaviruses]. We know that people found them: a [similar] virus was found in a cave, and some of the people infected with it became ill. We know that that virus is similar to SARS-CoV-2 — it's 96% similar — but viruses mutate at a certain rate per year and this virus was a thousand nucleotides different from the SARS-CoV-2. So it is not the direct precursor by any means to SARS-CoV-2. If it was taken into a lab and somehow made into a clone and then manipulated, you still wouldn't end up with SARS-CoV-2. It's not possible to do that.

So that's why I think the thinking has changed — because it's been very, very difficult to find these intermediate animals or that virus that is close to SARS-CoV-2

The Bulletin article made the same point. It said, "both the SARS1 and MERS viruses had left copious traces in the environment. The intermediary host species of SARS1 was identified within four months of the epidemic's outbreak, and the host of MERS within nine months. Yet some 15 months after the SARS2 pandemic began, and after a presumably intensive search, Chinese researchers had failed to find either the original bat population, or the intermediate species to which SARS2 might have jumped, or any serological evidence that any Chinese population, including that of Wuhan, had ever been exposed to the virus prior to December 2019." Is that what you're referring to?

I think that's accurate. So with SARS, we still don't really have the original virus. We know the intermediate animals. We know it's a bad virus. We have never found the exact precursor, but we're pretty close. MERS was really different because MERS is a camel virus. So, it didn't take very much detection work to see that people were around camels all the time and the camels had the virus, so people got infected from the camels.

There is a section from the article that I really want your thoughts on. I'm going to read it to you in its entirety because the author points to this as perhaps the most significant sign of potential laboratory manipulation.

He writes of the spike protein on the exterior of the virus, and basically explains how there are these two sub-units on the virus, called S1 and S2. The virus has to have this furin "cleavage" site — furin being a protein that humans have — in order for the S1 and S2 sub-units to be cut apart, which then lets the virus take over and generate new viruses.

As he writes:

"The spike protein has two sub-units with different roles. The first, called S1, recognizes the virus's target, a protein called angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (or ACE2) which studs the surface of cells lining the human airways. The second, S2, helps the virus, once anchored to the cell, to fuse with the cell's membrane. After the virus's outer membrane has coalesced with that of the stricken cell, the viral genome is injected into the cell, hijacks its protein-making machinery and forces it to generate new viruses. But this invasion cannot begin until the S1 and S2 subunits have been cut apart. And there, right at the S1/S2 junction, is the furin cleavage site that ensures the spike protein will be cleaved in exactly the right place."

The author goes on to say that "of all known SARS related beta coronaviruses, only SARS2 possesses a furin cleavage site."

Do you agree with that analysis? If so, do you view it as indicating a possible lab origin?

A couple of points about it. So first of all, I've worked for years with coronavirus in mice, with viruses called mouse hepatitis virus; some of these strains have furin cleavage sites, others don't. So viruses do just fine without furin cleavage sites. Second, the article points out that most of these SARS-like CoV viruses don't have furin cleavage sites, and they grow just fine. The second point is that if one takes a virus that has a furin cleavage site and removes it, the virus is often attenuated — it doesn't grow as well in people, it doesn't cause as much disease and doesn't transmit well. However, if one takes a furin cleavage site and introduces it into a virus that never had one, it doesn't help necessarily. It's really mixed outcomes often. It sometimes just does nothing, because a furin cleavage site is not an isolated site; it interacts with other parts of the S protein.

So even if one puts it into the surface glycoprotein, it won't necessarily improve how the virus enters cells. So, that's a second point about that argument. The third point is that it seems so random whether these viruses have furin cleavage sites. I don't know why the SARS-CoV-2 is the only one thus far that seems to have it. It wouldn't surprise me though if we found others. As I said, even if this were the only one, it wouldn't surprise me. Why some viruses have them, why some don't, it's really a research question, but I don't know the answer to it. Certainly the ones that have it are not more virulent than the ones that don't.

To make sure I understand you correctly. You're saying that while it is indeed unusual for coronaviruses to have that cleavage, that does not in of itself prove that it came from a lab.

That's right. That's a good way to put it rather than all the words that I used.

I'd like to bring up a related question. If this did leak from a laboratory, the chances are it would have originated there because it was being used in gain of function research, in which a virus is repeatedly transmitted (usually between animals) in order to breed them to be more virulent. Do you think gain of function research is safe? Do you think it's effective?

I don't agree with the first part of your sentence. If it originated a lab, it could be one of those bad viruses that was being studied and just happened to be one that can directly infect people. No gain of function, no manipulation, nothing else, just there. Whether that could have directly infected a human efficiently, I would have said not.

Now there's these stories in Malaysia about a canine coronavirus, a dog coronavirus, jumping directly from animal to people and causing pneumonia in children. Maybe these viruses can cross without any further adaptation directly. What I would have said before this is that the virus just doesn't infect people very well. The MERS virus is a great example. That virus causes diseases. It's a bad disease, but it doesn't spread from person to person. Except if you're in the hospital, it really does not spread. You don't need gain of function here to do any of what we're talking about.

My next question pertains to your colleagues, to other people who are public health experts, virologists, epidemiologists. Based on your anecdotal observations, what do you sense they're saying about the lab leak hypothesis versus the natural explanation hypothesis?

I think what people are saying is that first of all, the two sets of ideas are converging because almost everyone believes it's a natural virus and that it ended up in Wuhan. I think we all agree on that, but whether it was a lab leak or occurred there by the natural route is certainly unknown. I think it's going to be difficult to determine, unless we obtain more information from the Chinese/China labs or other sources. It's possible the virus arose in Southeast Asia. I'd like to see more information from there as well. So I would say that for most people, both possibilities are on the table and where people differ is whether they think it's a 90% chance of one and 10% of the other, or 10% of one and 90% of the other.

What happens if an ex-president goes to jail? It wouldn't be pretty

The United States has never had a president go to prison. Neither a sitting president, nor a former one. Arguably there are a few who should have — although that's another matter.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Donald Trump could change that. Perhaps that's not surprising: Trump will already be remembered by history as the first president to be impeached twice, the first president to refuse to accept losing an election, the first president to lack any prior political or military experience and one of five presidents to be elected without winning the popular vote. He has racked up questionable distinctions like Tom Brady wins Super Bowl rings.

Now Trump may face jail time for alleged financial crimes in New York — or his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, or his speech to the Jan. 6 rioters. Given his pattern of ethically iffy business dealings and ripping off the taxpayers, as well as his shady actions in Russia and Ukraine, something completely unforeseen could also arise during current investigations that lands him in jail.

At any rate, if Trump goes to prison, it will be a first in the history of this country. What, if anything, does that say about the state of our democracy?

We can start by looking at the closest equivalents to Trump's situation, which occurred shortly after the Civil War. Without question the most volatile such case was the potential trial of Jefferson Davis, who had been president of the Confederacy and intended to argue that he did nothing illegal by siding with Mississippi once it seceded. (Whether the Confederate States of America counts as a real nation, and Davis as a real president, is a contested question.) Given that the Civil War had ended only a few years earlier, it is entirely conceivable that Davis' trial would have sparked violence whether he was convicted or not. Fortunately for him, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Davis and other former leading Confederates for the crime of treason, so we don't know how such a trial would have played out.

A lesser known case — involving an authentic, no-doubt president — is that of John Tyler, who was president from 1841 to 1845, following the death of William Henry Harrison. No one ever accused Tyler of dishonesty, but he sided with his home state of Virginia when it seceded from the Union, in 1861, serving in various Confederate legislative bodies. Tyler died of a stroke early in 1862, three years before the Civil War ended, so he was never held legally accountable for his actions and there's no way to know how events would have played out. Tyler offers, however, the only clear example of a former U.S. president committing treason. (Until now, some would say.)

Around the same time that Jefferson Davis faced an uncertain legal fate, the president who pardoned him, Andrew Johnson, became the first president to be impeached, in his case by a Republican-controlled Congress that opposed his lenient policies toward the conquered South. But Johnson was charged with no crime after leaving office, whereas Richard Nixon — who resigned before he could be impeached — probably would have been had Gerald Ford not pardoned him. Bill Clinton, the second president to be impeached, was accused by his enemies of all kinds of imaginary crimes, but never faced any serious threat of criminal prosecution for any aspect of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

So American history provides no clear or useful parallels, and we have to cast the net more widely — still without finding any obvious similar instances. One thing we can say is that a criminal conviction wouldn't necessarily end Trump's political career, and another is that the chances of an actual head of state literally winding up behind bars appear very low. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 — also one of Trump's more plausible crimes — and served his "prison sentence" by doing unpaid community work because of his age. Despite his conviction, Berlusconi remains a powerful figure on the Italian right and eventually returned to politics, winning election to the European Parliament in 2019.

One case very much in the news is Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held power for the last 12 years (after also serving as prime minister in the late '90s). He was indicted in 2019 for accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust but has refused to leave office, clinging to power through several indecisive elections thanks to the loyalty of the Israeli right. With a new coalition government reportedly emerging this week that could end Netanyahu's tenure, the danger of conviction and prison time is now real.

Former French prime minister François Fillon could well be heading to prison — but even in France, this isn't a huge story. (In the French political system, the president holds executive power and the prime minister is perhaps closer to the House speaker in the U.S.) An old-school center-right conservative, Fillon was allied with former President Nicolas Sarkozy and was briefly seen as the frontrunner in the 2017 presidential election (eventually won by Emmanuel Macron). After Fillon was charged with embezzlement, his political fortunes collapsed, and last year he was finally convicted of fraud and misusing funds. He was sentenced to five years in prison, with three of them suspended, and is currently appealing his sentence.

What lessons have we learned about the prospect of Donald Trump ending up in a prison jumpsuit? Pretty much none. Trump is perhaps vaguely similar to the examples of Berlusconi, Netanyahu and Davis in that he has a passionate following, and leads a movement that is unwaveringly devoted to him as an individual. As with Berlusconi and Netanyahu, his supporters are unlikely to abandon him even if he is indicted or convicted. If anything, a criminal trial might turn him into a martyr, and increase his followers' sense of persecution, emboldening them to do who knows what.

John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton never commanded that kind of slavish devotion. Nothing even close.

Consider also that there's no legal or constitutional impediment to an eligible citizen running for president while incarcerated. Trump could orchestrate a political resurrection from a prison cell, being "restored" to what his followers deem his rightful place either by legitimately being elected or (far more likely) because the recent wave of voter suppression laws enacted by Republicans create a situation where he can't lose. Much as Hitler proclaimed his ascension to power as a vindication of the nine months he served in prison after the Beer Hall Putsch, Trump's miraculous election-from-prison would be embraced by his followers as proof that it was all worth it. Most of them would shy away from the Hitler parallels, of course — but some, if QAnon rhetoric is to be believed, may not.

If Trump is actually put on trial, it will become a spectacle unlike any other in American history. Any possible verdict — acquittal, conviction or mistrial — will be received by his supporters as a great victory. No matter what happens, such a trial would serve as a flashpoint for a far-right, anti-democratic movement the likes of which has never before existed in this country. On balance, that sounds really bad.

Watching far-right TV is single largest predictor of falling for QAnon conspiracy theory: report

People who believe in QAnon often self-describe as independent thinkers, not beholden to any media, corporate, or government propaganda. Yet a new study finds that the easiest way to predict whether someone will support the conspiratorial far right movement is if they consume the same far right media sources.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

A new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that nearly half of Americans who believe far-right news outlets like Newsmax and OANN, as well as one-third who trust Fox News, subscribe to the QAnon belief that a "storm" will sweep politicians they dislike out of power and install beloved far right figures like Trump.

Religion, too, is a major factor in predicting whether someone is a QAnon adherent; specifically, white evangelical Protestants, Hispanic Protestants and Mormons are most likely to believe in QAnon. Americans without college degrees are three times more likely than those with them to believe in QAnon.

Overall, nearly one out of seven Americans, as well as fully one out of four Republicans, is a QAnon believer.

Perhaps most notable among the polling statistics, however, is the revelation that media news consumption is "by far the strongest independent predictor of QAnon beliefs."

Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., the CEO and founder of PRRI, told Salon in an email that "as the country is becoming less white and Christian," Americans who are attracted to the politics of grievance subscribe to a mutually reinforcing right-wing ecosystem of ideas. Republican partisanship and right-wing media outlets all play a role in this, and they in turn fuel the conspiracy theory movement known as QAnon.

Salon inquired whether QAnon adherents and people who subscribe to Donald Trump's 2020 election Big Lie seem to be motivated by white supremacist or Christian supremacist ideals.

"We unfortunately don't have variables in this dataset to demonstrate that directly, but the demographic characteristics of those who are most likely to believe in QAnon are consistent with those attracted to the politics of grievance and displacement that was key to Trump's 'Make American Great Again' messaging, something I noted in my book 'The End of White Christian America,'" Jones wrote to Salon. "Believing that the country is becoming unrecognizable because of demographic change or that non-European immigrants are replacing white Anglo-Saxon Protestants also runs high among these demographic groups."

This raises a chicken-and-egg question: Are these people being figuratively brainwashed by propaganda, or are those media companies simply giving their customers what they want?

"It is likely that the connection is a two-way street: people who hold QAnon beliefs have migrated to these far right media outlets and those who watch these outlets have become more susceptible to believing these conspiracy theories as they are exposed to them on these outlets," Jones told Salon. He observed that conspiracy theories have throughout history seemed most attractive to people who feel threatened when a perceived social order is being disrupted.

"As the country is changing, these are also people who are generally less trusting of institutions and society, who feel threatened by these cultural and economic changes, and who are attracted to theories that promise that the familiar order of the world will soon be set right," Jones pointed out.

In addition to their support for Trump, QAnon adherents believe that they are privy to an underground truth that the mainstream media refuses to cover. They argue that a secret cabal of elite, Satanic pedophiles secretly runs the world, and that far right-wingers like Trump are engaged in a titanic struggle against them. There is also considerable overlap between QAnon adherence and susceptibility to Trump's pre-election propaganda that if he lost the election was stolen. This ultimately culminated in an unsuccessful insurrection attempt after Trump became the first president to lose an election and refuse to accept the result.

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