interesting times

Andrew Sullivan: Hope Arrives in Virginia

They have the momentum. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

I was wrong! Thank God Almighty, I was wrong!

You probably felt the same thing I did last Tuesday night: a euphoric whiplash as deepening dread turned suddenly into a wave of intense relief in the off-year results from Virginia. I’m still riding it. I hope you are too. Almost every surprise since last November has been a soul-crushing one. I feared yet another one. But Tuesday night’s string of decisive victories by Democrats dispelled the gloom and was the first time since Trump’s election that hope appeared a little more realistic than despair. So let’s take a moment to soak it in.

But I do owe you an account of why and how I misjudged this one, and failed to see the glimmer of dawn on the horizon. I didn’t predict anything. But I feared Northam might fall short — and what that would portend. I’ll stick by much of my analysis. I don’t think anyone suddenly believes that Ralph Northam, now governor-elect of Virginia, ran a great campaign. He didn’t. Nor is anyone reevaluating him as a charismatic, inspirational figure. He is who he is — a regular, normal candidate, with a mushy message. The good news is that he won convincingly anyway.

How? My fear was that his positions on the cultural issues could hobble him, and further polarize the electorate. I was right but also wrong. The exit polls do indeed show an even deeper tribalism than 2016. Rural Republican districts became more solidly Republican, and Democratic urban and suburban districts more reliably Democratic. The margins of victory increased in both Republican and Democratic regions. The cultural issues absolutely had an impact — by polarizing the state still further. Where I was wrong was on turnout. The extraordinary Republican vote in rural areas in 2016 just couldn’t replicate itself a year later, while the Democratic base was on fire. Trump woke up the GOP base in 2016; but he has roused the Democratic base just as powerfully in 2017. We’re seeing the usual backlash against an incumbent president, but with special intensity.

Demographically, the only real shift outside of turnout was in white votes. Clinton won blacks and Hispanics by 88 and 65 percent, respectively. Northam’s compatible numbers were 87 and 67 — barely distinguishable. But Clinton won only 35 percent of the white vote, while Northam won 42 percent. Part of this was the evaporation of third-party votes — curse you, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein! But a big part was turnout. There was a huge Democratic surge, particularly in North Virginia, where the voter margins for the Democrats soared over 2013.

Another huge factor: a big jump in the youth vote. The under-30s turnout in the Virginia governor’s race in 2009 was 17 percent; in 2013, it was 24 percent; this week it was 34 percent. And as young turnout surged, it became progressively more Democratic. In 2013, the under-30s split 45–40 percent for the Democrats; in 2016, in the presidential race, it was 54–36; last week it was 69–30. The third-party vote among the young also collapsed: from 15 percent in 2013 to one percent last Tuesday. I draw a couple of inferences from this: Trump’s extraordinary success among older voters in 2016 has produced a backlash among younger voters in 2017, who are far less complacent than they were last year and ever-more repulsed by Trump’s racist reactionism. And the younger generation has learned one thing from 2016: Voting for your ideal candidate is less important than voting for the candidate that can effectively halt the advance of the far right. Better late than never, I suppose — and Charlottesville may have helped concentrate their minds.

I’m less forgiving of myself on a more basic question. Partly because I was being dragged left and right, up and down, by Trump’s daily offensiveness, and because I was spooked by the reactionary wave across the West, I lost sight of something pretty basic and unique to the U.S. Trump and the GOP are now deeply identified with throwing millions of people off health insurance; this issue was the main one in the Congress this past year; and this direct threat to the welfare of millions was easily the most important issue in the eyes of Virginia voters. Obamacare, in other words, is now a real asset for the Dems, and an anchor sinking the GOP. The record surge in new enrollments and the vote for Medicaid expansion in Maine confirm the popularity of the law and its central place in voters’ minds.

More to the point, if the Democrats focus on health care next year, and make it the center of their campaign, they can appeal to both moderates and lefties at once, without opening up Democratic divides on race, gender, and culture more generally. If the GOP passes a massive and deeply unpopular tax cut for the super-rich, this advantage will intensify. The basics still apply: Trump is historically unpopular (by miles); and the GOP’s policies on health and taxation are widely despised. That should be enough to win at least one half of the Congress next year, especially with an improved ground game.

In other words, we remain in a deeply tribal polity, and it’s getting worse — but one tribe has now replaced the other in demographic momentum, enthusiasm, and policy edge. Immigration still matters — and the Dems better find a plausible answer to the “sanctuary city” question before too long. But the idea that 2016 was, in fact, one last death rattle of the older America, emboldened by a uniquely charismatic and populist figure, and opposed by a historically dreadful candidate, gains some traction. Both energy and time are on the Democrats’ side, as long as the cultural issues dividing the country do not overwhelm core concerns such as health care and economics. And as long as, in 2020, they can find a decent candidate.

Just one big caveat: We still have an emergency in the White House. We have a deranged president, with no understanding of the Constitution, prepared to do anything to save himself. The more he feels cornered, the more intense will be his venting and acting out. He’s currently fomenting a new war in the Middle East, at the behest of the Israelis and the Saudis. He can play the race card ever more dangerously every day. He can still provoke a constitutional crisis — and almost certainly will, when Mueller finally reports. The danger at the top remains, in other words, and may even get worse. More to the point, his support within his tribe is not collapsing; it’s intensifying. For every piece of good news, there’s still plenty of evidence that his own core supporters remain passionately behind him. The power of the red minority does not look as if it’s waning; it’s just being more successfully countered. It’s still dangerous and potent, just currently on its heels.

In other words, relief is fully justified. Complacency isn’t.

The iPhone and the Soul

Another reason to love Pope Francis:

During a general audience at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on Wednesday morning, Francis chastised Catholics who use their phones during Mass. “At some point, the priest during the Mass says, ‘Lift up your hearts,’” the Pontiff said. “He does not say, ‘Lift up your cell phones to take pictures.’” … “Please,” he said, “the Mass is not a show. It’s a meeting with the passion and the resurrection of our Lord.”

Yes! What the smartphone has done in a staggeringly short amount of time is not just destroy those moments of emptiness, silence, or boredom that nourish our souls and minds, it has also reduced everything to a “show.” For an entire generation, the whole idea of a moment that is valuable precisely because it is not shared or public has begun to disappear. It has become near impossible, for example, to observe nature these days, without recording it. All summer I watched beautiful sunsets on Cape Cod; and I saw countless people responding not by simple observation but by holding up their phones. Their response to beauty was immediately to place a barrier in front of it. It is as if we can fully experience nothing anymore, if we do not use it for dissemination. The idea of something worthy in and of itself is under threat. And so more of our lives becomes instrumentalized for others rather than experienced for ourselves, uniquely, in this moment, or shared exclusively with those physically around us at the time.

We are turning our lives into media, constantly recording for the imminent future rather than living in the present. There are even times — think of Facebook — when friendship itself becomes measured by the public number of your friends, rather than the quality of the actual friendships you have. Better to have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, and be on your phone for hours on end, than nourish an actual friendship in person in the hours you used to have for living your actual life.

It’s hard to express how contrary to spiritual life this truly is. Everything becomes usable. Nothing is sacred. We have all the burdens of loneliness; and none of the consolations of solitude. We live life constantly at one remove; because it appears safer there, because it can appease our pride and vanity, and because life itself is hard and risky. But it is in those risks every day, in those interactions that no wider audience sees and the thoughts that no internet hears, that we construct meaning in our life. Jesus was very clear about this: Those who appear in public to be holy often aren’t. And it is what we do when no one sees us that matters to God. An act of charity is drained of its value when others know of it. Remove all private moments, where we encounter God or nature or other people for their own sake, crowd them out with mediated and constant public performance, and you attenuate the very idea of integrity and the very possibility of faith.

The inventors of this technology knew this all along. Sean Parker blurted out the truth this past week:

The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? … And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. … The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.

These men are billionaires because they have tapped into the inexhaustible capacity for humans to be distracted from what truly matters. The tech money men are robbing countless lives of meaning for the sake of money. Each day they devise new ways to entrap us. In the end, you begin to appreciate why this whole new dimension of human experience is called the web. They are the spiders; we are the flies.

The Disappearing Professor

Regular readers know I’ve resisted the temptation to see the Mueller investigation as a deus ex machina that will somehow rid us of Trump. But I may again have been too pessimistic. The revelations we keep getting in the press and from the Mueller indictments all point to a web of lies designed surely to conceal something. George Papadopoulos’s original lies are now joined by more and more proof of Carter Page’s deceptions and Jeff Sessions’s convenient memory lapses. More striking to me was this week’s news about a key figure in the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Professor Joseph Mifsud, the Kremlin-affiliated academic who met with Papadopoulos in London, cannot now be found:

Last Thursday he disappeared from the private university in Rome where he teaches. Repeated attempts to reach him since have been unsuccessful, though he appears to have read some messages from CNN.

Hmm. Publicly, Mifsud has denied any knowledge of Clinton email “dirt,” and claimed he was merely a professor with lots of international contacts. He had contacts in Moscow, he has admitted, but has a “clear conscience,” he told the British press. And yet the Papadopoulos indictment indicates something else:

Mifsud took an interest in Papadopoulos after the latter joined the Trump campaign. Mifsud promised him “dirt” on Hillary Clinton compiled by the Russians, including thousands of emails. He also offered to serve as a ­go-between in Papadopoulos’s efforts to connect the Trump campaign with the Kremlin, even going so far as introducing Papad­opoulos to a woman he identified as Putin’s niece.

The closer you look, in other words, the more likely it appears he was a Russian agent. John Schindler, a former NSA specialist in Russian espionage, wrote last week:

His past is shadowy, though it’s clear he’s made many trips to Russia, leading some in London to ask who Mifsud is really working for, since his official biography makes little sense. Then we have the fact, revealed by the Washington Examiner, that Mifsud traveled to the United States in 2014, where he extolled his London Academy for Diplomacy, which has since closed and appears to have been a front for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service [SVR] that existed mostly on paper … To anyone versed in Russian spies and their ways, Mifsud was in America looking for potential SVR agents; this is called “spotting and assessing” in the espionage trade … Given his key role in the Papadopoulos case and the Trump campaign’s outreach to Moscow, Joseph Mifsud is someone that the FBI and Team Mueller need to talk to. Let’s hope they can track him down before the Russians do.

And now he’s disappeared. He’s also from Malta, a key place where Russian money is laundered, and where a journalist looking into these financial shenanigans was just murdered by a car bomb. The Kremlin is also pumping out propaganda that Mifsud means nothing to them:

For the most popular talk-show on Russian television, Mifsud’s activities are now the object of ridicule. On Sunday, the show’s host, Dmitry Kiselev, said that Papadopoulos was introduced to the fictional Putin niece by “a fly-by Maltese professor called Joseph Mifsud, a retired bottom-feeder diplomat.”

Maybe he was being played by Moscow; or maybe he was Moscow’s agent. I suspect the latter. But all we know for sure is that he cannot now be found.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Hope Arrives in Virginia