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Trump and the right share a Darwinist 'herd mentality' — and preference for sacrificing the weak to capitalism

Donald Trump's promise in an ABC News town hall last month that the United States would soon achieve herd immunity for the coronavirus, and conflating that with herd mentality, may be explained because Trump is counting on the latter to rescue his second term. It's otherwise impossible to imagine a campaign whose endgame is to recover the lost loyalty of voters over 65 selecting as its closing argument, "Not enough of you have died yet."

It's a safe bet that none of his 2016 Republican primary challengers would have embraced the idea that the solution to the pandemic was more American casualties than the Civil War and World War II combined. But many of Trump's Republican comrades-in-arms have embraced, often eagerly, a default preference for herd immunity — harkening back to the harsh social Darwinism that underlies much of modern conservatism. Early on in the pandemic there were Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana and radio host Glenn Beck, all of whom argued that the loss of more American lives was preferable to scaling back the economy. Then, when the issue became wearing masks, some opponents argued "if I'm going to get COVID and die from it, so be it …" Of course they really meant, "If you are going to get COVID ..." Wearing masks was a deprivation of freedom — although this argument seems never to have been extended by Republicans to the prohibition on public nudity.

As the pandemic surged again, by October Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was referring to "unjustified hysteria" about covid, and asked, after he became infected, ""Why do we think we actually can stop the progression of a contagious disease?" (The obvious answer is that we have been doing so, with increasing success, since the 1854 cholera pump moment. That is rejected by many on the right, because stopping a pandemic may require the government to prevent citizens from endangering others.)

Herd immunity can sometimes reduce mortality from a disease, but over the centuries has failed to end the curse of influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, rabies or dengue fever. It fits neatly, however, into a social Darwinist framework. Those who die are the "weak" — the poorest, the youngest and the oldest young — or can at any rate be classified as weak and deserving to die, because they died. Survival of the fittest requires discarding the weak. Remember the "let them die" hecklers who populated some of the 2011 Republican debates on health care.

This underlying value distortion — my personal freedom extends to my right to endanger you — spreads out across a range of other issues. Today's Republican reluctance to curb pollution even when it is demonstrably is killing a power plant's neighbors, to keep pesticides that kill farm workers out of the fields or to do anything at all about the climate crisis, which conservatives have privately conceded for years was real and caused by carbon pollution, are all illustrations of how the toxin of social Darwinism still contaminates much of the right's thinking about freedom.

So Trump's response to the COVID crisis — and the willingness of the Republican congressional establishment to enable it — illustrates a deep-rooted flaw in the American right. In a world in which we are, like it or not, all bound together, a tolerable conservatism is one that is willing to protect me from irresponsible neighbors, whether those are COVID-risking teenagers, irresponsible gun owners or multinational chemical companies.

Nixon's authoritarianism led us to Trump — and we must finally address the root of the problem

After Richard Nixon resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the Congress set out to create numerous reforms designed to rein in future presidents. After all, Nixon had set forth a view of the presidency that was downright un-American: "If the president does it it's not illegal," essentially saying that no law can apply to the executive branch.

The legal system had worked, up to a point. Twenty-two members of the Nixon administration were convicted of crimes pertaining to Watergate. Most of them did time in prison, including the White House chief of staff and the attorney general. Nixon himself was guilty of numerous crimes but was never tried for any of them because he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. But much of what Nixon did wasn't illegal. It was unethical, immoral and totally disrespectful of any and all norms of decent leadership. It turns out that those kinds of transgressions are even harder to check than rank criminality.

There were committee investigations, such as the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House which delved deeply into the intelligence community's abuses, resulting in the permanent select committees on intelligence in each chamber. Later reforms required the president to inform congressional leaders of both parties prior to major covert actions, and for leaders of the CIA to regularly brief the committees.

Unfortunately, those reforms were of limited utility. The Iran-Contra scandal and the pardons that followed mocked the idea of intelligence oversight. The CIA black sites and torture program program during the George W. Bush administration pretty much destroyed the illusion that Congress had any control over the intelligence services. Throughout this period, the War Powers Act, which was enacted over Nixon's veto in the first place, has been a joke. As for campaign finance and ethics reforms, well, those were nice ideas. The Supreme Court took care of the first with the Citizens United ruling, and the second turns out to be almost entirely dependent on a sense of shame — a thing that turns out to be easily discarded.

And yet, for all of that, no one has come close to abusing the power of the presidency as Donald Trump has done. He didn't do it on his own. Yes, his personal inclination has been to treat the government as his private fiefdom, demanding loyalty oaths, conducting purges and using the office for his personal profit. But people such as Attorney General Bill Barr and others in right-wing legal circles who were politically baptized by Nixon's downfall have used Trump's authoritarian instincts to institute the "imperial presidency" that Nixon once espoused.

When Trump says "I have an Article II that says I can do anything I want," he didn't get that idea from reading the Constitution. He has obviously never done that, and wouldn't understand it anyway. He has been told this by people who believe very strongly in unaccountable presidential power: "If the president does it, it's not illegal." Barr's covering for Trump's obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe, the White House refusal to cooperate with Congress, the assertion of novel rationales that render oversight null and void and the Department of Justice claiming that personal cases against Trump come under the rubric of presidential immunity, among many other instances are not just exercises in Trumpian corruption. They are assertions of executive power way beyond anything that Nixon, Reagan or Bush ever thought of.

That's not Trump. It's a Republican power grab, and it's just one of many we've seen coming from the right in recent years. This authoritarian strain of thought has been with us at least since the Nixon era and it's metastasizing.

I wrote the other day that should the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate they must take the necessary step of expanding the Supreme Court. There has also been considerable discussion about getting rid of the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. These ideas and others are starting to make people nervous.

The Washington Post published an essay by Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore this past weekend in which she argues against one of the ideas percolating on the left: that a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" is needed to examine what happened during the Trump administration. This idea stems from the suspicion that the law will not adequately deal with a corrupt former president and his accomplices. I suspect that many people believe that our system is so damaged at this point that Congress will be unable to properly handle the task of unraveling this disaster and putting it right. So something like a truth and reconciliation commission comes into play since that would make it possible for the truth to come out, even if no legal penalties for the abuses that took place are likely or possible. At least we would know.

Lepore doesn't think the situation is grave enough for that. Trump can be dealt with by journalists and historians; Congress will carry on with passing legislation. But as you can see, we've been dealing with this for more than 40 years and it's just getting worse and worse.

Donald Trump has turned 40% of the country into his private cult. The Republican Party has become radical, corrupt and power-mad and America is now seen as a rogue superpower around the world, unpredictable and dangerous. We're being tested by foreign adversaries and we don't seem to be able to respond. The nation's economic situation is dire and nearly a quarter of a million people have died in the last eight months because our system is so broken. The racial injustice at the heart of our society has become too much to bear.

Journalism and history, in Lepore's view, are going to keep us tethered to the truth? There is an entire right-wing information ecosystem based on lies and fantasy. We live in an age where tens of millions of people live in an alternate reality, believing that the Democratic Party is run by a Satanic pedophile cult and that John F. Kennedy Jr. is coming back from the dead to help Donald Trump save the children.

We are in very big trouble.

Our immediate survival depends upon electing new leadership — that much is true. Our democracy is under stress but it may not yet be so damaged that we can't make that happen. But whether it's a truth and reconciliation commission or a "presidential crimes commission" made up of independent prosecutors, as Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., has suggested, or some other mechanism by which we document what has happened and attempt to hold people accountable, we need something. Otherwise I'm afraid we'll just let it all slide out into the ether as if nothing happened at all. Until it happens again.

For more than 40 years the U.S. has been heading down this path, sometimes pushed back by various institutions that were designed in the wake of Watergate to keep it from going too far. But those institutions have been failing for a while and I don't think we can survive another onslaught, especially if someone smarter than Donald Trump comes along and picks up the the tools that Bill Barr and others have provided them. The Democrats must do their duty and deal with this now.

Misogyny helped Trump in 2016 — and he wants to repeat by attacking Gretchen Whitmer. So far it's not working

Donald Trump is getting hammered, badly, by female voters in the national polls. In the lastest NPR/PBS poll, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is leading Trump among women by 25 points. The Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a similar spread, with Biden beating Trump by 23 points with women. Even the Fox News polling data puts Biden ahead of Trump by 19 points among female voters. Trump is doing much better with male voters, but considering that women tend to vote at higher rates than men, Trump simply can't count on male support to push him to another Electoral College victory.

Facing a very high chance that female voters will send him packing next month send Trump packing in November — FiveThirtyEight's odds of a Biden victory, as of Monday morning are at 88% — how did the pussy-grabbing president react? By laughingl encouraging a crowd in Michigan, at another of his largely mask-free rallies, to chant, "Lock her up!"

"Lock her up? Lock them all up!" Trump responded in glee.

That chant was a Trump-rally greatest hit in 2016, aimed at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on the fallacious grounds that she had supposedly committed some crime for which she was escaping justice. (As usual, this was pure projection from Trump, who knew at the time he was a tax fraud and serial sexual assailant, whereas decades of effort to turn up some kind of malfeasance to pin on Clinton have resulted in bupkis.) This time, even that thin pretense was dropped, as the chant was aimed at Michigan's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who hasn't been accused, even falsely or facetiously, of committing any crimes.

Whitmer's only "crime" is being a woman — and a conventionally attractive woman, at that — who Trump can't control. Trump has spent months publicly lashing out at Whitmer, who, like most Democratic governors, rejected Trump's demands that she ignore public health recommendations to slow the coronavirus spread. Instead, Whitmer instituted restrictions that have likely saved tens of thousands of lives. Trump and his loyal followers haven't let go of this, and keep obsessing over what he clearly sees an unforgivable act of female defiance.

"Lock her up!" was always a misogynist battle cry, a prescription offered by Trump and his followers for any and all women who commit the "crime" of thinking themselves equal to men. Aimed at Whitmer, the charade that this was ever about anything but misogyny has been dropped.

The sadism of all this is particularly gruesome, in light of the recent arrest of a group of would-be domestic terrorists who were plotting to kidnap Whitmer, and perhaps murderer. The all-male would-be kidnappers fantasized about holding a "trial" for Whitmer on made-up charges before killing her, showcasing the extremely toxic, anxiety-ridden masculinity that Trump is calling forth from his most avid supporters.

It is traditional in more Politico-style publications, to attribute Trump's behavior in cases like this to some kind of "strategy," perhaps complete with quotes from Republican consultants eager to spin this to make their candidate look savvy. Hell, maybe Trump really does think this sort of grotesque malice toward women he's marked as disobedient will drive up his margins among resentful white men, and drag more of them to the polls.

But it's more likely that this is just Trump and his voters, throwing a massive temper tantrum, exposing the immaturity and insecurity that has always underpinned right-wing notions of masculinity. After all, Trump — who always had poor impulse control — has been even less in charge of his motormouth lately, complaining even more than usual during his speeches about how he doesn't want to lose and lashing out at voters, especially women, for rejecting him.

It's rational to be concerned this might work, of course. While racism was a leading factor in driving voters to Trump in 2016, sexism was right up there with it. Research shows that harboring beliefs characterized as "hostile sexism" — which is to say anger at women for speaking up or wanting equality — was as strong a predictor of a Trump vote as harboring racist beliefs. Those same voters are out there, chanting "lock her up" at rallies.

But what may have changed is that there's a strong feminist response to this misogyny this time around. In 2016, American women who didn't like this kind of sexism were cowed by sneering accusations of being "vagina voters," sometimes even from the left. There was a general fear of being seen as hysterical for raising the alarm about sexism, especially when it seemed almost certain that Clinton would win the election.

Clinton's defeat came as an emotional shock to the system, not just for many American women, but also for men who feel repulsed by the levels of sexism that clearly still exist in our society.

While it feels roughly one billion years ago in Trump years, it was less than four years ago that millions of people (most but by no means all of them women) hit the streets for the Women's March, likely the biggest single-day protest in American history. That anger and momentum fed into the 2018 midterms, where a record number of voters turned out and Democrats swept to victory in the House on the backs of female voters, 59% of whom voted for the Democrats, whereas just 54% of women voted for Clinton in 2016. Even among white women, a slight majority of whom supported Trump in 2016, shifted left, even as 60% of white men stuck with Republicans.

"Barring a giant polling error, the 2020 election will witness the largest gender gap in partisan preference since women gained the franchise," Eric Levitz writes in New York. "In 2016, the gender gap in voting preference was 20 points; if current polls hold steady, it will be 28."

It's telling that Trump and his followers respond to this not by considering what it would take to attract more female voters — dialing down the misogyny a bit, perhaps? — but instead by chanting "Lock her up" at yet another female politician. Fear of women's autonomy, along with racism, has been one of the twin carburetors driving Trumpism.

The irony is that Trump and his largely male supporters, by expressing such overt hatred, have caused exactly what they fear to happen: Women turning away from them in increasing numbers. Plenty of women didn't want to believe that patriarchy is still a problem, but it's hard to deny that when men are literally demanding women be locked up. Two weeks remain until the election, of course, and it's conceivable that some of the women who currently tell pollsters that they're voting against men's wishes will chicken out by Election Day. But right now, there's a good chance that women are hearing Donald Trump and his fans chant "Lock her up" and realizing that they have to fight for their freedom.

Trump 'equates wearing a mask with weakness': Fauci 'absolutely not' surprised president got COVID

Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview on Sunday that he was "absolutely not" surprised that President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after holding a "superspreader event" at the White House.

Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pushed back on the administration's coronavirus spin in an interview with "60 Minutes." He told CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook that he was "absolutely not" surprised that Trump tested positive after Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett's announcement last month in the Rose Garden, which also featured indoor festivities.

"I was worried that he was going to get sick when I saw him in a completely precarious situation of crowded, no separation between people, and almost nobody wearing a mask," Fauci said. "When I saw that on TV, I said, 'Oh my goodness. Nothing good can come outta that, that's gotta be a problem.' And then sure enough, it turned out to be a superspreader event."


Fauci said Trump's resistance to masks doesn't make sense.

"You know, he sometimes equates wearing a mask with weakness," Fauci said, suggesting the president was trying to make a " statement of strength, like, we're strong, we don't need a mask, that kind of thing."


"Do you have a feeling that there is sometimes an all-out war against science?" LaPook asked.

"Oh yeah. I mean, particularly over the last few years. There's an anti-authority feeling in the world," Fauci replied. "And science has an air of authority to it. So people who want to push back on authority tend to, as a sidebar, push back on science."

Fauci now has to be accompanied by federal agents on his routine walks after receiving threats against him and his family.

"That's sad. The very fact that a public health message to save lives triggers such venom and animosity to me that it results in real and credible threats to my life and my safety," he said. "But it bothers me less than the hassling of my wife and my children."


Fauci also said he was "really ticked off" when the Trump campaign used his comments out of context in an advertisement.

"I do not and nor will I ever, publicly endorse any political candidate," he said. "And here I am, they're sticking me right in the middle of a campaign ad. Which I thought was outrageous."



But even as the campaign uses him to score political points, the White House has blocked many of his media appearances.

"Has the White House been controlling when you can speak with the media?" LaPook asked.

"You know, I think you'd have to be honest and say yes," Fauci said. "I certainly have not been allowed to go on many, many, many shows that have asked for me."

Fauci added that that White House restrictions on his media appearances haven't been "consistent."


While Fauci was highly visible at the White House coronavirus task force briefings early in the pandemic, the administration has shrunk both his role and that of the task force. Fauci said last week that the task force meetings have been reduced from every day to just one day a week even as the US continues to see increases in new cases.

Instead, Trump has been more interested in discrediting the scientific consensus around masks and social distancing. He recently added controversial Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases who has pushed a deadly and "unethical" herd immunity strategy, to the task force.

Fauci told CNN last month that Atlas often says things that are "out of context or actually incorrect" and was an "outlier" among the infectious disease experts on the panel.

CDC Director Robert Redfield was reportedly heard saying that "everything" Atlas says "is false."

Atlas posted a Twitter thread misrepresenting the science around masks over the weekend, writing, "Masks work? NO."

Twitter removed the tweet. A spokesperson for the social network said that the tweet violated its policy on content that "could lead to harm," and "statements or assertions that have been confirmed to be false or misleading by subject-matter experts, such as public health authorities."

Here's why Amy Coney Barrett's 'originalist' doctrine is completely incoherent: legal expert

Many fear that Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation will erode the established rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons, given Barrett's private convictions. At last week's hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett responded clearly: "A judge must apply the law as written, not as the judge wishes it were." Barrett is an originalist and textualist, who prioritizes "what people understood words to mean at the time that the law was enacted." In pointing outward to the people, originalism conveys an alluring humility. Originalism is not personal; its conclusions reflect the objective fact of "public meaning."

But are originalists right about the facts? I ran experiments to test whether originalism's tools actually reflect public meaning. The results are surprising and troubling. In a forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review, I found that the tools originalists rely upon support false conclusions about public meaning — and often conflict with each other. Until originalists like Barrett articulate better methods, Americans have no good reason to believe the theory is succeeding, even on its own terms.

In historical interpretation, originalists rely on tools like dictionary definitions: How was the contested term defined? They also rely on patterns of language usage: What was the most common way to use the term? A "big data" version of this approach called legal corpus linguistics has gained popularity.

I tested whether these tools actually reflect public meaning today, with a simple experiment. Consider a well-known example from legal philosophy: What is the meaning of the term "vehicle"? Three different groups participated in an experiment. The first made judgments about vehicles (e.g., "Is an airplane a vehicle: Yes or no?"). The second made judgments equipped with a dictionary definition of "vehicle" and the third with data from legal corpus linguistics (e.g., data about how the word "vehicle" is most commonly used).

Those groups reached radically different conclusions. For example, about 50% of people today say that a canoe can be defined as a vehicle. Yet nearly all participants using a dictionary definition reached that judgment (95%), while nearly all the participants using the corpus linguistics data reached the opposite judgment (only 10% agreed). Similar divergences arose across many different examples, and across groups of ordinary Americans, law school students and United States judges.

This exemplifies how different originalist tools can easily support different answers. None of the Supreme Court's originalists has a methods manifesto: Is there one dictionary upon which they will unwaveringly rely; should examples of common usage be always considered or never considered? Originalists who do not commit to precise methods or who strategically evade precision ("all historical materials are relevant") choose liberally among those tools — citing a dictionary in one case, examples of common usage in another.

A broader problem for originalism concerns the concept of "public meaning" itself. If originalists can identify how the public understood our Constitution in 1787, surely they can identify the "public meaning" of very simple terms today. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, also an originalist, invites us in a recent opinion to consider again the meaning of "vehicle." Clearly a car is a vehicle, but what about a canoe, an airplane or a baby stroller? Kavanaugh provides straightforward answers: "the word 'vehicle,' in its ordinary meaning does not encompass baby strollers."

Does the American public agree? About 75% of Americans agree that baby strollers are not "vehicles." But 25% disagree. Other cases are even more difficult. People are divided 70-30 concerning whether airplanes are vehicles, divided 60-40 on bicycles and divided 50-50 on canoes. It's not obvious what originalists should make of these facts. Is "public meaning" the same as "75% meaning" or "50% meaning"?

This is a simple example. But its simplicity is the point. For even very familiar terms there is no univocal public meaning to find. Where there is no such fact, what remains is an imposed fiction. Americans should wonder about originalist fiction: Who is its author, who receives its royalties and is there judicial humility in forcing it upon us?

Originalism's flexibility and fictionalism are especially troubling in its relationship to settled law. Barrett has written cautiously about the "tension" between originalism and precedent. She is certainly a committed originalist, approvingly citing G.K. Chesterton: "a thing worth doing is worth doing badly." Originalism is worth doing, even if it is originalism done badly.

What is originalism done well? One answer is to do it "fearlessly," overturning precedents and striking down democratically enacted laws inconsistent with the judge's personal conclusion about public meaning. Barrett writes that a judge should "enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it." Her writing also suggests that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Other originalist scholars are very confident in the opposite conclusion. Yet "being a judge takes courage," said Barrett. You are there to "follow the law wherever it may take you."

Courage is a virtue when founded upon humility, but a vice when founded upon pride. As Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska put it during Barrett's confirmation hearing: "An originalist comes to the court with a fundamental humility and modesty." Yet true humility requires sharing with Americans a precise method, demonstrating that the method reflects the truth, and having the wisdom to know when no certain answer is found.

At the very least, originalists owe an explanation to today's American people. With no public method and an error-prone and flexible toolbox, why should we take a judge's personal "best understanding" of public meaning to be good enough? Where originalist judges proceed proudly with no answers, that is originalism done badly. And that, even originalists should agree, is not worth doing.

Michigan Republican fundraised at DeVos family home — while trying to downplay financial ties

Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James attended a fundraiser at the home of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' brother-in-law while trying to downplay the financial help his campaign has received from the family.

James attended a fundraiser at the home of DeVos' brother-in-law, Dan, and his wife, Pamella, last month. Though James was well-distanced from the crowd, none of the attendees appeared to be wearing masks, according to a photo published by former Allegan County Republican Party Chairman Kevin Whiteford to Facebook.


James has extensive ties to the DeVos family, which has poured money into his race against Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. His campaign recently hired Betsy DeVos' niece, and his wife has worked at the DeVos family's Amway empire for years. Members of the DeVos family have directly donated tens of thousands to his campaign.

The DeVos family has also funded the Better Future Michigan Fund, a super PAC which has now spent at least $7.1 million to help James defeat Peters. Dan and Pam DeVos have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the super PAC.

Despite other Republican Senate candidates being outraised by massive sums across the country, James has managed to outraise Peters throughout most of the campaign despite losing his 2018 Senate race to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., by seven points.

Two recent polls, one of which showed the race virtually tied, suggest that Michigan is one of the few competitive seats where Republicans could pull off an upset next month.

James has spent some of the money he's raised to buy ads downplaying his ties to the DeVos family.

James recently released an ad trying to distance himself from Betsy DeVos' assault on public education, insisting that he believes a "quality education is a basic civil right."

"You're not running against President Trump, or Betsy DeVos or any other boogeyman," James told Peters in the ad. "You're running against me. This may surprise you senator, but no one owns me."

James previously declared that he supports Trump "2,000%."

A Democratic super PAC accused James of backing "DeVos' agenda to cut public school funding and put it into wealthy private schools instead." Politifact Michigan rated the claim "mostly false," though only because James has repeatedly avoided saying anything specific about his education policy. James has frequently declined to state his views on education, and he turned down a request to push back on the claim. His campaign declined PolitiFact Michigan's "request for any details about his education policies that would rebut" the allegation. The campaign did not respond to questions from Salon, as well.

James has generally been supportive of DeVos' agenda, which has steered money away from public schools to private and religious schools.

"She's headed in the right direction," James reportedly said in 2018. "She's got a lot of inertia, I think. By doing things to get more power back to the states and to parents, I truly believe that if we give parents the resources and the opportunity to decide what's best for their children, they will make the best decision 100% of the time."

"The job Betsy DeVos is doing in pubic education, I think, is very, very good," he reiterated a few months later in audio published by the Democratic Senate Majority PAC.

Those comments came after DeVos sought to cut Department of Education funding while increasing federal grants to private schools.

"James is very on the record about supporting her," Senate Majority PAC spokesman Matt Corridoni told Politifact Michigan, "and she's very on the record about her positions."

A physics Nobelist has an odd theory about black holes and the universe. Here's the evidence for it

University of Oxford mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose won a Nobel Prize earlier this month for a lifetime of work studying black holes, singularities from which not even light can escape. Yet he is also behind a provocative and controversial theory about the formation of the universe — namely, that the Big Bang did not mark the beginning of the universe as we know it, but merely started the next iteration of our universe. In his theory, known as conformal cyclic cosmology, our current conception of the universe is merely one of a series of infinite universes that came before it and which will come after, too.

Cosmology, of course, is full of theories of assorted degrees of harebrainedness, and many of the most famous ones — such as string theory — lack any observational evidence. But Penrose's prediction is different, as there is some evidence in observations of the cosmic background radiation — meaning the average background temperature of the entire night sky, in which one can see remnant heat from the Big Bang and differentiate bright patches in the sky. As pictured in the featured photo on this story, some of those "bright spots" could be, as Penrose believes, radiation emanations from ancient black holes that predate this universe.

"The idea of Roger's 'conformal cyclic cosmology' [CCC], is based on three facts," Pawel Nurowski, a scientist at the Center for Theoretical Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences, explained to Salon by email.

"The idea of Roger's 'conformal cyclic cosmology' [CCC], is based on three facts," Pawel Nurowski, a scientist at the Center for Theoretical Physics at the Polish Academy of Sciences, explained to Salon by email. Specifically, Nurowski says, in order for Penrose's theory to make sense, one would have to observe a universe that has a positive cosmological constant (meaning the mysterious, constant repulsive force that pushes everything in the universe which is not gravitationally bound away from everything else), as well as a universe that would look similar at its end as it did in its beginning. Observations of our universe suggest that it will end in a disordered, empty state, with all matter converted to stray photons that never interact with each other.

Nurowski concluded, "We believe that every possible universe will have all these three features," that "we have an infinite sequence of universes (eons)" and that "Penrose considers this sequence of conformally glued eons as the full physical Universe."

"In this picture, our standard cosmology Universe is only one of the eons," Nurowski added. "So the main difference between 'conformal cyclic cosmology' and the standard cosmology is that our Universe is only a part of Penrose's universe," whereas adherents to the traditional idea of a Big Bang believe that that specific event began our current universe.

This brings us to the recent discovery that may support Penrose's CCC hypothesis. According to a paper co-authored by Penrose, Nurowski and two other scientists, unexpected hot spots that have been discovered in the cosmic microwave background of the universe suggest that there are "anomalous regions," perhaps enormous black holes left over from previous universes that have yet to decay. These regions are known as "Hawking Points," after Stephen Hawking, who first came up with the theory that black holes would very slowly decay over unimaginably long timescales, emitting what is called Hawking radiation in his honor. The discovery of these Hawking points suggests that Penrose's cosmological model is accurate.

"The existence of such anomalous regions, resulting from point-like sources at the conformally stretched-out big bang, is a predicted consequence of conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC)," the paper explains, adding that these so-called Hawking points would be caused by radiation emanating from "supermassive black holes in a cosmic aeon prior to our own."

It must be emphasized that Penrose's Nobel Prize was not awarded because of his theory of a conformal cyclical cosmology. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb clarified in an email to Salon: "In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a paper in Annals of Mathematics doubting that black holes exist in nature. Roger Penrose demonstrated that black holes are a robust prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity and in doing so invented a new mathematical tool to depict spacetimes, called Penrose diagrams."

Loeb added, "He also showed that it is possible to extract energy from a spinning black hole as if it was a flywheel, through the so-called Penrose Process."

Loeb says that Penrose's belief that the hot spots prove that the black holes in question came from previous universes is controversial.

"The particular theory advocated by Penrose, Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, asserts that the Big Bang expansion repeats in succession of cycles of expansion, implying that one can see through our current Big Bang into past Big Bangs, giving rise to patterns in cosmic microwave background," Loeb explained. "Penrose made the controversial claim that such patterns are seen in data, but it was shown by others that the patterns he identified are not statistically significant.... and so his claim is controversial."

There are skeptics in the astrophysics community. Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist who pens a science blog that is published in Forbes magazine, was very critical of Penrose's theory. Last week, he penned an article titled "No, Roger Penrose, We See No Evidence Of A 'Universe Before The Big Bang.'"

"The predictions that [Penrose] has made are refuted by the data, and his claims to see these effects are only reproducible if one analyzes the data in a scientifically unsound and illegitimate fashion," Dr. Siegel wrote. "Hundreds of scientists have pointed this out to Penrose — repeatedly and consistently over a period of more than 10 years — who continues to ignore the field and plow ahead with his contentions."

Nurowski and Loeb both pushed back against Siegel's claims.

"The person that wrote this article seems to never read our recent Monthly Notices paper," Nurowski wrote to Salon, linking to he and Penrose's article showing evidence for Hawking points. "[Siegel] also seems not to read our three other papers. He gives a quote of a picture from an old paper with Penrose and Gurzadyan. He has not a single argument against our newest MNRAS [Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society] paper.... I stress that the statistical analysis in our paper is at the highest astronomical standards."

He added, "I am happy to answer any critics, provided that I hear a single argument against this what we have written, and not the repetition of this what the standard cosmology says. Either we are talking about facts or beliefs. Our paper is about facts. But to talk about them, one has to read the paper first."

Loeb seemed to echo this view, despite his own skepticism about CCC.

"My problem with Penrose's theory is that it is not fully worked out and that there is no statistically irrefutable evidence to support the patterns that he claims to have identified in the cosmic microwave background, but we should remain open minded to new ideas on what preceded the Big Bang," Loeb explained. "This is the story of where we came from, our cosmic roots. The simple picture we have now is clearly incomplete and requires more scientific work. Not more bullying of any new idea."

Historian warns America is already in its own 'slow-motion Reichstag Fire'

Donald Trump continues to make it clear that he does not intend to leave office peacefully if he is defeated by Joe Biden and the Democrats on Election Day. Moreover, Donald Trump considers any election in which he is not the "winner" to be null and void. Trump's appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court is an obvious quid pro quo to secure his "reelection" if his attorneys and other agents can sufficiently sabotage the vote on Election Day and beyond.

On Thursday, Trump again followed the authoritarian's playbook when he bragged to his supporters at a rally in North Carolina that U.S. Marshalls essentially executed Michael Reinoehl, an anti-fascist activist accused of killing a right wing paramilitary member during protests in Oregon last August.

Celebrating the extra-judicial killings of one's political "enemies" is a common feature of fascist authoritarian regimes and the types of leaders admired and imitated by Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's commitment to and use of political violence is a matter of public record. Two of the most recent examples include how Trump's followers in Michigan allegedly planned to kidnap and possibly murder Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. During his debate with Joe Biden, Trump also commanded white supremacist paramilitaries to be prepared to attack his and their "enemies" if he loses on Election Day or is otherwise removed from office.

Trump also wants Joe Biden and other leading Democrats imprisoned and perhaps even executed because he deems them to be "guilty" of "treason" and a "coup" attempt against him. Donald Trump and his Attorney General William Barr have also threatened to use the United States military against the American people if they dare to protest the outcome of the 2020 Election if Trump somehow finds some extra-legal (if not outright illegal) way to stay in office.

Because he is a political sadist and master of misery and pain, Donald Trump is using the coronavirus pandemic as a weapon to physically and emotionally abuse the American people in order to make them more compliant and subservient to his regime. Like other autocrats and authoritarians, he is also using the economic and human devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic to personally enrich himself, his family, and allies as a way of guaranteeing the latter's loyalty.

In all, as with his obsessive rhetoric about "law and order," like other fascist authoritarians Donald Trump and his regime define the "law" in ways that benefit themselves and disregard the law when it does not serve their interests. Through that logic democracy is a tool for the Trump regime to stay in power indefinitely if they "win" and to disregard the outcome on Election Day and beyond if they are voted out of office by the American people.

Trump's strategy of attacking America's democratic norms, institutions, and culture is a constant torrent where the targets are corrupted, weakened, and then finally routed through sheer exhaustion.

In a new essay at The Bulwark, senior Democratic Party strategist James Carville summarizes this existential moment of crisis for the United States as:

Very seldom in American history have there been periods when people can nobly wage a crusade to create real and lasting change. But when these crusades do occur, when those moments arrive, what we do to vanquish the threat to freedom builds something everlasting into the framework of our society.

The American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma, were all historical flashpoints where Americans displayed their patriotism against oppressive forces in a resounding way. These movements overthrew an empire, ended slavery, staved off totalitarianism, and paved the way for the establishment of fundamental civil rights and liberties for women, LGBTQ+ and black Americans.

We find ourselves again at such a turning point. Donald Trump's authoritarian presence behind the Resolute Desk is amongst the gravest threats America has ever faced from within. And Americans have risen to meet this threat.

The Trump regime has created a defense in depth against the American people. A key part of Trump's defensive strategy consists of how those Americans and others who are expecting one dramatic and climactic assault on the country's democracy have been lulled into a type of complacency and surrender.

As wielded by Donald Trump and other fascist authoritarians, the poison they have injected into the country's body politic and democracy is actually quite slow acting, where the victim becomes used to chronic pain before finally succumbing.

Why does America's mainstream news media continue to avoid describing Donald Trump and his regime as fascist authoritarians? What are they afraid of? How has that evasion helped to empower and normalize Trumpism?

In what ways have Donald Trump and his regime used the coronavirus — and the pain and social injustice it has revealed and made worse — as a weapon against democracy and the American people?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Timothy Snyder. He is a Professor of History at Yale University and the author of the bestselling books "On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" and "The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America." His new book is "Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary."

At the end of this conversation, Timothy Snyder warns that the United States is in the midst of a years-long slow-motion Reichstag Fire emergency that Election Day 2020 may not resolve.

You can also listen to my conversation with Timothy Snyder on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.


Donald Trump's attacks on democracy are escalating. He continues to say that he will not respect the outcome of the election if he loses to Joe Biden and the Democrats. There are some public voices who have been warning about Trump and authoritarianism and fascism for several years. You are foremost among them. Why did more people not listen to the warnings?

It is structural. At present it is harder to reach people who do not already agree with you. This is true even for those of us with a public platform and big audience. More contact is virtual and less in person. It is also harder to surprise people. Ultimately, it is very hard to reach people before an algorithm does. By then a person's mind is already made up one way or another.

The second answer is that many Americans really like authoritarianism. Sure, the conventional wisdom says that Americans like freedom. Some of them do. Some of them do not. The Americans who do not like freedom are not going to be reached or otherwise have their minds changed. It is as simple as that.

In my view, it is less about reaching people and more about getting them to take action. People sometimes ask me, "Why do you preach to the choir?" To get people to do things. It is not enough to have the correct idea. If people act, even if it is a small thing, that makes a difference.

And of course, there is the challenge of the American exceptionalism consensus. The belief that America is insulated from authoritarianism because of our institutions took a long time to fight through. That myth was the direct target of my book "On Tyranny."

Why are so many journalists and other members of the political class continually surprised by Donald Trump's cruelty and assaults on democracy and norms? Trump is not changing. He is only getting worse. Why be surprised? Such a reaction is very crippling and ultimately counterproductive. It helps Trump to win.

That denial is a function of what I describe as "the politics of eternity." There is an ongoing stream of small to medium-level provocations from authoritarian movements and leaders. Those actions give a positive hit to their supporters and a negative hit to their opponents.

Everyone becomes addicted to the experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant. What you are describing is how many in the news media and elsewhere wait for Donald Trump to do the latest most outrageous thing — and then it is reported as being outrageous. That gives them a hit of sorts, a jolt to the system. Then they wait for the next outrageous thing, and so on. But the problem is that there is no thinking or theory to offer context for what is happening.

Too many people are still defaulting to these ideas that America's "institutions" are going to solve the problems of authoritarianism and Trumpism. Or history is somehow on America's side. If a person does not have some way of theorizing what Donald Trump is, then everything he does is a surprise to them. If you lack the theoretical framework to understand Trump and what is happening, then you will also lack an understanding of how to push back against it. You are helpless.

So many of the discussions are still focused on Donald Trump and what he is not. What we need to be able to do is to say what Trump is. Once you say what Trumpism really is, then you can start to fight it.

We talk about the pandemic as though it is a series of failures. No, the pandemic is not a series of failures. It is the "achievement" that Donald Trump is going to be most remembered for.

More than 200,000 people dead from the pandemic is a type of "achievement" for Trump. It took real effort to make that happen.

I'm not saying that he intended it from beginning to end. I'm not saying that there was a plot in January that 300,000 will be dead in December. What I am saying is that outcome is a result of the decisions made by Donald Trump. If the American people and most of the mainstream news media and other observers keep seeing Donald Trump in terms of omissions such as "he is not a normal politician" then we do not see and understand him for what he really is, whatever that may be.

Donald Trump is a white man. He is old. He wears a tie. What could he possibly be except somewhere in the zone of normal? That erroneous assumption contributes to why so many people are still surprised by his behavior.

Donald Trump is evil. His movement is evil. They meet all the criteria for evil. Yet, there is a willful avoidance of using that language to describe him by the mainstream news media, political elites, and other opinion leaders and public voices. If they admit that Donald Trump and his movement are evil, then there is an obligation to do something about it. To my eyes, that avoidance is a defense mechanism that will not save them or anyone else from Trump and his movement.

Evil is a helpful word to use here. I have been using that language in my new book "Our Malady." There is an almost taboo-like hesitation to move into truly ethical judgments in our discussions of Trump and his movement. As long as we are avoiding discussions of good and evil then his behavior is normalized. Avoiding that language of good and evil also leaves the public with a hope that this crisis will somehow turn back to normal.

There is a psychological dynamic at work here too. If a person did not name Trumpism as evil before, then it is hard to name it as such later on. If a political commentator or other observer did not see the danger of Trump and his movement back in 2016 then they are probably not getting it correct now even at this late point.

I think your word "fear," though, is very well taken. But I'd push that out in a different direction.

Fear is also an important concept here. Trump is running for reelection based on fear – much more so than in 2016. In 2016, it was a mix. Trump and his campaign were talking about infrastructure. They were trying to go to the left of the Democrats on some issues. Whereas in 2020, it's now just pure fear. A fear that Black people are going to rape white women in the suburbs, and they are going to burn down the cities. The pandemic is either Black people's fault or it is a conspiracy, or it is not really happening. Fear is being consciously created and then manipulated. The Democrats are really running against a Reichstag Fire. The Democrats are not really running against a political party and Donald Trump's campaign.

How can we better explain to the Democrats that Trumpism is a type of political and social movement, and normal politics, those old rules, no longer apply here in America?

History shows that people can learn to like pain. They can also learn to like inflicting pain on others. That is what the Democrats are up against. They are not competing against some theory of politics where voters and the public are purely rational and motivated by "the issues."

Donald Trump is a president who happily circulates as much pain as he can on the rationale that his people are going to suffer for him — and they're going to enjoy suffering because of their idea that other people are suffering more. Trump's supporters are suffering for a cause which is other people, Black people, immigrants, some Other, suffering more than they are.

Should the Democrats therefore imitate Donald Trump and the Republicans? The fact that there is now a Trump death cult does not mean that there should then be a Biden death cult. That would be absurd on any number of levels.

The coronavirus intersects with American fascism, Donald Trump, and his movement – including the Republican Party as a whole. How are you making sense of that relationship?

Because I was so close to death, the significance of those observations and experiences was brought home to me more than it would have been otherwise. America's racial and economic inequality is all the more obvious in life or death situations. The coronavirus of course reveals those disparities in an even more stark light.

Even before 2020 begins we are in a system where America does not have universal health care. Why? Because there is some type of practical everyday consensus that it is OK to have bad health care in this country. Such disparities in treatment are racial: In America we do not have a right to health care because then that would mean that Black people and Brown people and immigrants and so on would also have access to health care and then somehow abuse it — so goes the racist logic and history in this country.

Health care in the United States overlaps with race for white people in another way as well. The argument that is made to white people is "you are the frontiersmen, you're the rugged individualists." In that imaginary, white people know not to talk about pain or disease. There is the sadism then of some white people being pleased because they suffer less than other people. And you have the masochism of those same white people being willing to suffer, basically for nothing.

When the first reports of the coronavirus begin in March and April it was clear that it is taking the life of Blacks and Hispanics and Native Americans at a much higher rate than whites. Now that we have more numbers, it is much more fatal. In America white people live longer than Black people.

Once that fact is widely known it becomes normalized. For many white people, it is normal for Black people and Brown people to suffer more than them.

What do we know about the connections between a humane society and authoritarianism?

There is a strong connection. In my new book "Our Malady" I explore this.

For example, on an individual level, when you can't talk, you do not have freedom of speech. When you can't move, you do not have freedom of assembly. When you do not think that you are going to have a future, then freedom is no longer a meaningful concept.

If you cannot afford health care, you're afraid. If you're ashamed to talk about health care, you're less free. If you're aware of that the access to health care is going to be competitive and somebody who's less sick than you might come ahead of you because they have better insurance and better connections or whatever it might be, then you are less free. Pandemic or not, it all creates a situation where there is not an unnecessary reservoir of anxiety and fear. And that totally unnecessary reservoir of anxiety and fear can be directed to other places.

The talent that Donald Trump has is to either generate that anxiety or to take the anxiety and fear that already exists in America and to direct it in the ways that he wants to. Authoritarianism works through taking abuse and trauma and pushing it in other directions.

Donald Trump understands that he cannot win a free and fair election. Trump knows that the pandemic and the economic downturn can give him the sources of energy that he just might be able to use to stay in power some other way than an election. Donald Trump is in "the worse, the better" territory now, because he understands abuse, pain, trauma, fear and related things. Evil understands evil. Trump understands that the more anxiety and fear is out there, the larger the chances he must somehow turn the election in his direction and then pick up the pieces.

Election Day is imminent. How do you respond to those critics who would say that, "You were talking about a Reichstag Fire! It didn't happen! You are an alarmist. Hysterical! None of that happened!" What would you tell such people?

Obviously, we are in a slow-motion Reichstag Fire right now. That is what is happening. Donald Trump is not as skilled as Hitler. He doesn't work as hard as Hitler. He doesn't have the same level of confidence as Hitler, but he's clearly looking for that Reichstag Fire emergency. Trump tried to make Black Lives Matter into that emergency. "Antifascists" and "thugs" and "law and order" and so on is part of that effort. Donald Trump keeps trying to make the Reichstag Fire work.

If Trump is not successful, then that is a credit to the people who are resisting. Donald Trump is not involved in a political campaign; it is emergency politics in the constant search of an emergency. Whether Trump and his allies can line up the emergency politics with the emergency, I do not know. But that is all that Trump and his allies have got on their side — and it all they are going to have through to Election Day.

How toxic masculinity became a threat to public health

As if the first two waves of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States weren't enough to inspire serious political changes to stop the coronavirus, health experts have sounded the alarm that a third wave is underway. Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising across the nation, specifically in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Montana, as the seasons change and the election nears.

It's certainly taken a lot of resilience and strength to persevere through this pandemic — particularly given the backdrop of political chaos, uncertainty and immense change in our daily lives. Yet perhaps it is this attitude of "staying strong," and acting stoically — which is rooted in a culture that favors and thrives off toxic masculinity — that has hurt and continues to hurt us the most.

Toxic masculinity, which has become a household phrase over the last few years, is when the archetypal image of masculinity, like displaying strength, becomes harmful to oneself. In 2005, in a study of men in prison, psychiatrist Terry Kupers defined toxic masculinity as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence." The phrase is used to describe the issues men face or sometimes, wrongfully, justify them. Certainly, in a patriarchal society, toxic masculinity not only defines people but politics — as its mores trickle into our entertainment, discourse and politics.

Notably, the pandemic response is being led by the most psychologically compromised, toxic men in America. As I wrote last weekend, President Donald Trump's insistence on depicting himself as so strong as to be able to "work through" his COVID-19 illness is deeply harmful, and apt to put Americans' lives at risk who mimic his behavior — either by working while sick or hiding symptoms.

Meanwhile, Trump's re-election campaign has tried to frame Trump as a "warrior" — masculine, strong and void of emotion. The administration's individualistic, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric personifies toxic masculinity, and trickles down to Trump's underlings, too. In June, Vice President Mike Pence wrote an op-ed essay in The Wall Street Journal claiming there was no second wave of COVID-19, despite all the evidence to the contrary. "We are winning the fight against the invisible enemy," Pence wrote then, adding "our greatest strength is the resilience of the American people."

Yet as psychologists will warn, there is a dark side to resilience.

"There is no doubt that resilience is a useful and highly adaptive trait, especially in the face of traumatic events," psychologists Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk wrote in Harvard Business Review. "However, when taken too far, it may focus individuals on impossible goals and make them unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances." In other words, self-sufficiency is not always a show of strength; humans, as social creatures, rely on others for society to function and to remain healthy. Denying that means hurting ourselves, either by delaying care or eschewing guidance that may help us or save others.

I've often wondered how much my so-called "resilience" in all of this is just making me numb and tolerant, in an unhealthy way. When looking at which countries have the pandemic somewhat under control, we look and judge their leaders. It's interesting to do this through a gendered lens. For example, New Zealand has some of the lowest coronavirus numbers in the world under Prime Minister Jacinda Adern's leadership. That's partly because she never advertised grandiose ideas about being above or stronger than the coronavirus. As I've previously written, the strengths—such as empathy and compassion— Ardern has brought throughout her tenure are the very same traits that have been used against women seeking leadership positions in the workplace and in the public sector. When male leaders display traditionally feminine qualities, they can also be maligned as weak — former House Speaker John Boehner, for example, used to shed tears in public; Politico's response was to ask, "Why Does John Boehner Cry So Much?"

It's obvious the Trump administration is terrified of appearing "weak" during the pandemic. But where has that gotten us? Prioritizing the economy over our health. Over 8 million infections, and 218,000 Americans dead. And the politicizing of wearing masks, as though wearing them were a sign of weakness — something Trump mocked his opponent Joe Biden for at their first and so far only debate.

As much as toxic masculinity's social repercussion are harmful to our physical health, it is also taking a toll on our mental health. A study published in JAMA Network Open in September showed that three times as many Americans met criteria for a depression diagnosis during the pandemic compared to before it. According to an analysis of Google Trends, symptoms of anxiety increased too.

Why? In part, it could be a result of having to power through these extraordinarily abnormal times without seeking help — that "bootstraps" mentality innate to toxic masculinity. One's attempts to hold it together can devolve into emotional suppression, which in return can cause more emotional distress. In July 2018, Penn State researchers found that women tried to suppress their fears about the Zika virus reported higher levels of fear later. "It turns out that not only is suppression ineffective at handling fear, but it's counter-productive," one researcher said. "It creates a cycle of fear — and it's a vicious cycle."

As a society, many of us — particularly men — haven't been authorized to express sadness publicly, and these studies reflect that. With over 200,000 Americans dead of coronavirus, their loved ones are grieving. Seven months later, we've yet to have a moment of national reflection to mourn.

As it is with the death of a loved one, grief isn't lessened by ignoring one's uncomfortable emotions. Instead, it requires collective vulnerability, compassion and patience. As author David Kessler told HBR:

Emotions need motion. It's important we acknowledge what we go through. [...] We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn't feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn't help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they'll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we're not victims.

As we try to stay strong through this pandemic, the strength we seek to feel will come from falling apart and allowing ourselves to feel the loss and the chaos—physically and emotionally. By persevering through that, still standing in so much unknown, we can experience real strength. In other words, the non-toxic kind.

Alaska GOP senator routinely voted for policies that benefited family's chemical company

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who faces an unexpectedly tight challenge from Democratic-backed independent Al Gross, has repeatedly cast votes in favor of policies that benefit the financial interests of his family's multinational industrial manufacturing company.

Sullivan, first elected in 2014, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as Democratic-aligned groups pour money into the Alaska race in a surprising effort to expand the electoral map. A recent investigation by Popular Investigation detailed connections between Sullivan and corporate donors pushing to develop Pebble Mine, a sprawling project in a part of Alaska home to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery and a number of federally sanctioned tribal governments.

The Republican incumbent's committee appointments and voting record reviewed by Salon appear to show links to another industrial interest with a record of environmental negligence: Republic Powdered Metals International (RPM), a sealant and coating manufacturer founded by his grandfather in 1947. Sullivan's older brother, Frank, is the current CEO.

Senate records show that Sullivan holds between $1 million and $5 million in RPM stock. He has reported earning up to $300,000 in dividends and capital gains since filing his first financial disclosure in 2014. He has augmented that income with eight stock sales since 2018, bringing in a total of $495,000, the disclosures show.

Reached for comment, Sullivan campaign spokesperson Matt Shuckerow told Salon, "Unlike Al Gross' closest adviser, former Sen. Mark Begich, who actively day-traded while in office, Sen. Sullivan has long delegated the oversight of his investments to financial advisers."

The Associated Press reported in 2015 that Sullivan's committee assignments, which oversee areas of interest to RPM, were his "top picks."

"Sullivan said he is excited to get to work and pleased with his committee assignments, which he said were his top picks," the outlet wrote. "Sullivan will serve on the committees of Commerce, Science and Transportation; Environment and Public Works; Armed Services; and Veterans' Affairs."

The Committee on Environment and Public Works conducts oversight for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has targeted RPM during Sullivan's term. The conglomerate has paid more than $2.2 million in fines since 2015 to various environmental regulatory agencies, including the EPA, for violating the Clean Air Act and chemical reporting requirements, among other citations.

RPM expressed its frustration with government oversight in its July 2020 annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, claiming that the government had burdened the company with "numerous, complicated and often increasingly stringent environmental, health and safety laws and regulations."

That filing shows that an RPM subsidiary called Carboline agreed to a $1.3 million settlement with the EPA for violating the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act after a citation for what the company characterized as "the release or threatened release of hazardous substances" at the Lammers Barrel Superfund site in Beavercreek, Ohio. The final amount was still subject to approval at the time of the filing.

Other subsidiaries of RPM have also been hit with fines in previous years. New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection filed a $192,000 citation with Kirker Enterprises in 2019 for failing to fully meet conditions for an air permit.

Rust-Oleum, another RPM subsidiary, agreed to a $168,000 settlement in 2018 with the EPA for violating hazardous waste reporting requirements at its plant in Williamsport, Maryland. The same plant paid out another $133,000 one year later. (No waste was released, according to the EPA.)

RPM paid out another $181,000 to the EPA in 2017 for violations of the Clean Air Act by Rust-Oleum. Its 2018 SEC filing disclosed that Rust-Oleum had struck a $455,000 settlement with California's air quality regulator regarding hazardous compounds.

In committee, Sullivan voted against EPA regulations for certain harmful carcinogen contained in sealants manufactured and sold by RPM, such as formaldehyde. He also voted against a 2015 amendment which would have strengthened asbestos regulations. In the previous year, RPM subsidiary Bondex had paid $800 million to settle asbestos claims, pushing it to file for bankruptcy.

That amendment would have designated asbestos as a "high priority chemical for regulation under the law," according to Congressional Quarterly. Sullivan's vote was consequential, in that the committee rejected the amendment by a margin of two votes.

Sullivan also voted to confirm two EPA administrators nominated by President Trump — Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, the agency's current head — who both later blocked proposed Obama-era regulations of a chemical implicated in a wrongful death lawsuit pending against an RPM subsidiary. Both nominees were confirmed along party lines.

The woman who brought the wrongful death suit settled with Rust-Oleum in June 2020. She also sued the EPA in 2019 for refusing to ban the chemical outright. That case remains pending.

In committee, Sullivan voted against a number of amendments to the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act to strengthen EPA oversights on chemical companies and compounds contained in RPM products. One amendment would have imposed new compliance requirements, while another would have required the EPA to consider the threat the substances posed to drinking water. Both amendments failed, and in the case of the latter amendment, Sullivan's vote was decisive. (The amendment failed on a tied 10-10 vote.)

Sullivan also cast a pivotal vote on an amendment which would have allowed the EPA to investigate pollutants and toxic substances that may cause cancer and other disease clusters.

Throughout this time, RPM lobbied continually against environmental regulations and compliance standards that, in the company's words, "could subject us to unforeseen future expenditures or liabilities, which could have a material adverse affect on our business." Targets included the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.


The company's CEO — Sullivan's brother — commended the Trump administration's approach to environmental regulations, telling Crain's Cleveland Business in 2017 that he approved of the president's "lighter regulatory touch."

Sullivan, who sat on committees charged with overseeing military construction budgets and veterans' affairs, also voted for budget expansions that opened new opportunities for RPM to secure millions in federal contracts, federal records searches show.

Beyond Sullivan's stock sales and dividends, his campaigns have received more than $70,000 from RPM employees and executives. The company's PAC contributed the maximum $10,000 to Sullivan's 2020 re-election campaign, federal filings show.

Sullivan's Senate office and RPM International did not reply to Salon's requests for comment.

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