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Journal Archives

How Long Does COVID-19 Immunity Last?

A new study from King’s College London inspired a raft of headlines suggesting that immunity might vanish in months. The truth is a lot more complicated—and, thankfully, less dire.


They were the most depressing headlines I’d read all year. And that’s saying a lot. ”Immunity to COVID-19 Could Be Lost in Months,” The Guardian declared last week, drawing on a new study from the United Kingdom. Forbes grimly accelerated the timeline: “Study: Immunity to Coronavirus May Fade Away Within Weeks.” And the San Francisco Chronicle took things to a truly dark place: “With Coronavirus Antibodies Fading Fast, Vaccine Hopes Fade, Too.” Terrified, I read the study that launched a thousand headlines—and did not come away much less terrified. Researchers at King’s College London had tested more than 90 people with COVID-19 repeatedly from March to June. Several weeks after infection, their blood was swimming with antibodies, which are virus-fighting proteins. But two months later, many of these antibodies had disappeared.

The implications seemed dire. If our defenses against COVID-19 evaporate in weeks, people could contract the disease for a second time, as some widely-shared stories have suggested. In such a world, herd immunity would be out of the question. Even more depressing, it could mean that vaccines that work on the basis of antibody response would be useless after a few months. The study conjured for me a future in which the pandemic never went away. Their response: Please calm down—but don’t expect us to make you feel entirely relaxed. (I also reached out to several co-authors of the King’s College London paper, but did not hear back.) “I was definitely very worried when I saw the headlines,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. “But then I looked at the data. And actually, looking at the data, I feel okay about it.”

Acquired immunity is cellular memory. When our bodies fight off an infection, we want our immune systems to remember how to defeat it again, like a person who, after solving a big jigsaw puzzle, recognizes and remembers how to set the pieces the next time. The whole point of vaccination is to teach the immune system those same puzzle-solving lessons without exposing it to the full virus. This is why the KCL study initially seemed so dreadful. It found that the number of certain active antibodies—called “neutralizing antibodies”—declined significantly between tests, especially in patients with mild or no symptoms. Antibody levels are one proxy for the immune system’s memory. If they plunge quickly, that might mean that our immune system can't remember how to solve COVID-19 for more than a few months at a time, dooming us to start from square one with each new exposure. No COVID-19 researchers are rooting for antibody levels to decline so quickly. Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that the study might reveal something important and concerning. But overall, the scientists converged on three reasons to hold out a bit of skepticism about the most apocalyptic headlines.

First, our immune system is a mysterious place, and the KCL study looked at only one part of it. When a new pathogen enters the body, our adaptive immune system calls up a team of B cells, which produce antibodies, and T cells. To oversimplify a bit, the B cells’ antibodies intercept and bind to invading molecules, and the killer T cells seek and destroy infected cells. Evaluating an immune response without accounting for T cells is like inventorying a national air force but leaving out the bomber jets. And, in the case of COVID-19, those bomber jets could make the biggest difference. A growing collection of evidence suggests that T cells provide the strongest and longest-lasting immunity to COVID-19—but this study didn’t measure them at all. “To look at just one part of the immune response is woefully incomplete, especially if many COVID patients rely more on T cells,” said Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the founder and director of the Scripps Research facility. He pointed me to a study from France’s Strasbourg University Hospital, which found that some people recovering from COVID-19 showed strong T-cell responses without detectable antibodies. “There is a chance that if a similar longitudinal study looked at T-cell response, the outcome would be far more optimistic,” he said.



Immunity to COVID-19 is probably higher than tests have shown


New research from Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital shows that many people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 demonstrate so-called T-cell-mediated immunity to the new coronavirus, even if they have not tested positively for antibodies. According to the researchers, this means that public immunity is probably higher than antibody tests suggest. The article is freely available on the bioRxiv server and has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. “T cells are a type of white blood cells that are specialised in recognising virus-infected cells, and are an essential part of the immune system,” says Marcus Buggert, assistant professor at the Center for Infectious Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and one of the paper’s main authors. “Advanced analyses have now enabled us to map in detail the T-cell response during and after a COVID-19 infection. Our results indicate that roughly twice as many people have developed T-cell immunity compared with those who we can detect antibodies in.”

In the present study, the researchers performed immunological analyses of samples from over 200 people, many of whom had mild or no symptoms of COVID-19. The study included inpatients at Karolinska University Hospital and other patients and their exposed asymptomatic family members who returned to Stockholm after holidaying in the Alps in March. Healthy blood donors who gave blood during 2020 and 2019 (control group) were also included.

T-cell immunity in asymptomatic individuals

Consultant Soo Aleman and her colleagues at Karolinska University Hospital’s infection clinic have monitored and tested patients and their families since the disease period. “One interesting observation was that it wasn’t just individuals with verified COVID-19 who showed T-cell immunity but also many of their exposed asymptomatic family members,” says Soo Aleman. “Moreover, roughly 30 per cent of the blood donors who’d given blood in May 2020 had COVID-19-specific T cells, a figure that’s much higher than previous antibody tests have shown.” The T-cell response was consistent with measurements taken after vaccination with approved vaccines for other viruses. Patients with severe COVID-19 often developed a strong T-cell response and an antibody response; in those with milder symptoms it was not always possible to detect an antibody response, but despite this many still showed a marked T-cell response.

Very good news from a public health perspective

“Our results indicate that public immunity to COVID-19 is probably significantly higher than antibody tests have suggested,” says Professor Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren at the Center for Infectious Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and co-senior author. “If this is the case, it is of course very good news from a public health perspective.” T-cell analyses are more complicated to perform than antibody tests and at present are therefore only done in specialised laboratories, such as that at the Center for Infectious Medicine at Karolinska Institutet. “Larger and more longitudinal studies must now be done on both T cells and antibodies to understand how long-lasting the immunity is and how these different components of COVID-19 immunity are related,” says Marcus Buggert.


sums it up

Researchers Say Earth Is Headed for "Jaw-Dropping" Population Decline

"It's extraordinary, we'll have to reorganize societies."


People around the globe are having way fewer babies. By the year 2100, that might turn into a pretty big problem for humanity — rather than the relief one might expect. If they aren’t already, dozens of countries’ populations will be going into decline in this century, according to a new study published in the Lancet this week. 23 countries are expected to feel this effect intensify, with their populations dropping to half of what they are now by the year 2100.

The global population will peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, according to the new projection, and then drop off to 8.8 billion towards the end of the century. “That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” Christopher Murray, co-author and researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, told the BBC. “I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognize how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganize societies.”

The reality is that with more women receiving an education and entering the work force, combined with the wide availability of contraception, fertility rates are dropping, sometimes precipitously, around the world — a stark reversal of the baby boom following the Second World War. Countries including Spain, Portugal, and Thailand will have their populations more than halve by the end of the century — “jaw-dropping,” according to Murray.

But aren’t fewer humans better for a ravished world that’s rapidly being drained of its resources? The researchers suggest that there may be fewer babies being born, but any positive consequences for the environment would be offset by the challenges of a rapidly aging population. Much older populations “will create enormous social change,” Murray told the BBC. “Who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work?” “We need a soft landing,” he added.


Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study




The global TFR in the reference scenario was forecasted to be 1·66 (95% UI 1·33–2·08) in 2100. In the reference scenario, the global population was projected to peak in 2064 at 9·73 billion (8·84–10·9) people and decline to 8·79 billion (6·83–11·8) in 2100. The reference projections for the five largest countries in 2100 were India (1·09 billion [0·72–1·71], Nigeria (791 million [594–1056]), China (732 million [456–1499]), the USA (336 million [248–456]), and Pakistan (248 million [151–427]). Findings also suggest a shifting age structure in many parts of the world, with 2·37 billion (1·91–2·87) individuals older than 65 years and 1·70 billion (1·11–2·81) individuals younger than 20 years, forecasted globally in 2100. By 2050, 151 countries were forecasted to have a TFR lower than the replacement level (TFR <2·1), and 183 were forecasted to have a TFR lower than replacement by 2100.

23 countries in the reference scenario, including Japan, Thailand, and Spain, were forecasted to have population declines greater than 50% from 2017 to 2100; China's population was forecasted to decline by 48·0% (−6·1 to 68·4). China was forecasted to become the largest economy by 2035 but in the reference scenario, the USA was forecasted to once again become the largest economy in 2098. Our alternative scenarios suggest that meeting the Sustainable Development Goals targets for education and contraceptive met need would result in a global population of 6·29 billion (4·82–8·73) in 2100 and a population of 6·88 billion (5·27–9·51) when assuming 99th percentile rates of change in these drivers.


Shops Aren't for Shopping Anymore - How the Smartphone Changed the Purpose of Retail Shops

Retail stores used to be places to buy things. Smartphones changed that, and retailers are struggling to invent new reasons, and methods, for shopping.


In the year 2000 at Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, Abercrombie and Fitch opened the first location of its new shop, Hollister, and set Midwestern high schoolers like myself California dreaming. Designed with a “Dude” or a “Betty” in mind, Hollister had a West Coast–meets–That ’70s Show vibe. There was a dimly lit “lounge” where you could sink into vintage velvet chairs with funky rope fringe and flip through the latest surfer or skateboard magazine. Or you could select the store soundtrack through a special touch screen, which offered a curated list of rad music. My favorite feature was a giant, wall-size screen that streamed a live feed of sunny Huntington Beach, California, into the mall on dreary Ohio afternoons. Even if I never purchased Hollister’s clothing, I always stopped in the store to watch surfers in real time and transport myself into a new lifestyle. Sometimes—a decade before Instagram selfies—my friends and I would sneak photos of ourselves in front of the screen, as if we were on the beach. Years later, I found myself working as a store designer for Abercrombie and Fitch. I once helped facilitate the municipal approval of upgrades to the cameras on the Huntington Beach pier for Hollister’s live-feed system, which now streamed California to suburbs all across the country. I knew then what I hadn’t as a teenager in Ohio: Retail stores have become a host for experiences first, and buying things second—if at all.

In retail spaces, consumer attention has shifted away from goods on racks and shelves, and toward smartphones and apps instead. In response, retailers face a growing need for elevated in-store experiences that seamlessly mesh with online platforms and web stores. The resulting retail model looks a lot less like previous notions of conspicuous consumption and a lot more like visual culture. Customers no longer kick the tires or shop till they drop. Instead they cultivate virtual feeds and inspiration boards. Thanks to smartphones, apps, and social-media platforms like Instagram, a broader public has developed a visual vocabulary and aesthetic sensibility. Retailers, particularly in fashion, have overhauled marketing and branding strategies to promote their individual labels among broader audiences. But they also face a new challenge: how to adapt retail design to sell pictures on social-media profiles as much as, or more than, they sell garments for real bodies. To bridge the gap between virtual and physical retail operations, behind-the-scenes organizational shifts have occurred. The professionals who actually select the merchandise for sale in retail stores once had stiff, corporate job titles like global procurement manager or internal buyer. They have since transformed into tech-savvy art directors and independent-minded brand ambassadors. These individuals focus on marketing more than goods, telling customers which brands and products are worthy of hashtags, geotags, and reposts. Likewise, the antiquated roles of store clerk and retail customer have also evolved: Shopworkers now have titles like brand specialist, and buyers have given way to “influencers” who remix shopping into a new kind of job.

Two categories of retailers have emerged from this shift. The first consists of existing companies that have overhauled their retail stores to incorporate physical and technological experiences. Nordstrom is one such example, with their Pop-In series by Olivia Kim, the company’s vice president of creative projects. The second includes web-based start-ups that are nimble with apps and social-media platforms, such as Glossier, a “people-powered beauty ecosystem” founded by Emily Weiss. Both types of retailers focus on building strong marketing narratives and immersive online experiences. Among those are “pop-up” stores, displays, or events—nomadic retail spaces that arrive and depart again within weeks or days. You may have experienced one of these pop-ups yourself, perhaps at a smaller scale while cutting through a department store to enter a mall. Comprised of only a few racks, the display is like a store within a store. Inside, a pulsing soundtrack might drown out the surrounding Muzak, while customized lighting illuminates the specialty mannequins and displays. At a larger scale, pop-ups can become huge undertakings. The Nike+ Run Club pop-up events allow you to test-run a 5K in their newest, knit shoes—while sipping pressed juice during a live DJ set before customizing your own pair on an iPad, next to an irresistibly Instagrammable neon-light Nike swoosh. In cases like this, retailers foreground experiences worthy of capturing on a smartphone, pressing customers to share them on social media. That sharing produces both immaterial value for the individual and brand exposure for the retailer.

But the best technological integrations into the retail environment are those that cannot be seen. To assist in the development of both physical and virtual retail spaces, retailers commission designers and architects. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, a firm helmed by Rem Koolhaas and commonly referred to as OMA, did precisely this for their series of Prada epicenter stores nearly 20 years ago. In the Prada SoHo epicenter, OMA inserted plasma screens seamlessly into fitting-room mirrors so that customers trying on clothes were recorded from all angles for a visual playback. The glass containers of the fitting rooms were made from Priva-Lite, an electronically activated material that can be controlled by the customer to appear transparent or opaque, challenging notions of public and private space. OMA also programmed the store for various non-retail activities, like the hidden DJ booth in a large sloping ramp or stadium seating that captured the familiar feeling of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The whole affair was meant to connect the in-store retail experience to a global market in real and virtual time and space.

Now that the smartphone is over a decade old, retail has moved beyond OMA’s 2001 vision. More importantly, consumer priorities have changed drastically in regards to material purchases. Buying things has become less important than pursuing experiences. That poses a problem for retailers, who are in the business of selling consumer goods. Brands like Warby Parker, a web-based eyewear retailer with stores in major U.S. cities, have redefined retail partly by changing the purpose of stores. By keeping only samples on their sales floor, Warby Parker reduced their back-of-house stockroom square footage while simultaneously grooming customers to prefer an online retail experience. Customers can bring a prescription to the store and play with the various glasses on display, or they can upload a head shot and try on glasses virtually. Browsing in person and ordering online later is nothing new, but Warby Parker deliberately decoupled the retail experience from purchase completely. That turns the retail showroom into a place to experience the products’ style without guilt or pressure from salespeople.

The band Rapture plays at an event at the Rem Koolhaas–designed Prada Soho store in 2009. (Amy Sussman / Getty)


How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture

Beware splashy corporate gestures when they leave existing power structures intact.


Tumbrels are rattling through the streets of the internet. Over the past few years, online-led social movements have deposed gropers, exposed bullies—and, sometimes, ruined the lives of the innocent. Commentators warn of “mob justice,” while activists exult in their newfound power to change the world. Both groups are right, and wrong. Because the best way to see the firings, outings, and online denunciations grouped together as “cancel culture” is not through a social lens, but an economic one. Take the fall of the film producer Harvey Weinstein, which seems inevitable in hindsight—Everyone knew he was a sex pest! There were even jokes about it on 30 Rock! But it took The New York Times months of reporting to ready its first story for publishing; the newspaper was taking on someone with deep pockets and a history of intimidating critics into silence. Then the story went off like a hand grenade. Suddenly, the mood—and the economic incentives—shifted. People who had been afraid of Weinstein were instead afraid of being taken down alongside him. The removal of Weinstein from his company, and his subsequent conviction for rape, is a good outcome. But the mechanism it revealed is more morally ambiguous: The court of public opinion was the only forum left after workplace protections and the judicial system had failed.

The writer Jon Schwarz once described the “iron law of institutions,” under which people with seniority inside an institution care more about preserving their power within the institution than they do about the power of the institution as a whole. That self-preservation instinct also operates when private companies—institutions built on maximizing shareholder value, or other capitalist principles—struggle to acclimatize to life in a world where many consumers vocally support social-justice causes. Progressive values are now a powerful branding tool. But that is, by and large, all they are. And that leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival. (I’m not using the word woke here in a sneering, pejorative sense, but to highlight that the original definition of wokeness is incompatible with capitalism. Also, I’m not taking credit for the coinage: The writer Ross Douthat got there first.) In fact, let’s go further: Those with power inside institutions love splashy progressive gestures—solemn, monochrome social-media posts deploring racism; appointing their first woman to the board; firing low-level employees who attract online fury—because they help preserve their power. Those at the top—who are disproportionately white, male, wealthy, and highly educated—are not being asked to give up anything themselves.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the random firings of individuals, some of whose infractions are minor, and some of whom are entirely innocent of any bad behavior. In the first group goes the graphic designer Sue Schafer, outed by The Washington Post for attending a party in ironic blackface—a tone-deaf attempt to mock Megyn Kelly for not seeing what was wrong with blackface. Schafer, a private individual, was confronted at the party over the costume, went home in tears, and apologized to the hosts the next day. When the Post ran a story naming her, she was fired. New York magazine found numerous Post reporters unwilling to defend the decision to run the story—and plenty of unease that the article seemed more interested in exonerating the Post than fighting racism. Even less understandable is the case of Niel Golightly, the communications chief at the aircraft company Boeing, who stepped down over a 33-year-old article arguing that women should not serve in the military. When Barack Obama, a notably progressive president, only changed his mind on gay marriage in the 2010s, how many Americans’ views from 1987 would hold up to scrutiny by today’s standards?

This mechanism is not, as it is sometimes presented, a long-overdue settling of scores by underrepresented voices. It is a reflexive jerk of the knee by the powerful, a demonstration of institutions’ unwillingness to tolerate any controversy, whether those complaining are liberal or conservative. Another case where the punishment does not fit the offense is that of the police detective Florissa Fuentes, who reposted a picture from her niece taken at a Black Lives Matter protest. One of those pictured held a sign reading who do we call when the murderer wear the badge. Another sign, according to the Times, “implied that people should shoot back at the police.” Fuentes, a 30-year-old single mother of three children, deleted the post and apologized, but was fired nonetheless. In the second group, the blameless, lies Emmanuel Cafferty, a truck driver who appears to have been tricked into making an “okay” symbol by a driver he cut off at a traffic light. The inevitable viral video claimed that this was a deliberate use of the symbol as a white-power gesture, and he was promptly fired. Cafferty is a working-class man in his 40s from San Diego. The loss of his job hit him hard enough that he saw a counselor. “A man can learn from making a mistake,” he told my colleague Yascha Mounk. “But what am I supposed to learn from this? It’s like I was struck by lightning.” The phrase is haunting—not being racist is not going to save you if the lightning strikes. Nor is the fact that your comments lie decades in the past, or that they have been misinterpreted by bad-faith actors, or that you didn’t make them. The ground—your life—is scorched just the same.


Joe Biden's Vice President Could Be the Most Powerful in History

He’d need to maintain a healthy partnership with his deputy—without worrying that she’ll outshine him.


If Joe Biden wins in November, his running mate could become the most consequential vice president in modern American history. The woman Biden picks could be seen as a potential president-in-waiting, a signal for the Democratic Party’s agenda in the years to come, and perhaps the most significant player trying to help Biden manage a country—and a federal government—in crisis. Under normal conditions, the presidency and its manifold obligations are already too much for one person to handle. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden redefined the office by assuming a level of responsibility that his predecessors never had. If elected, Biden would likely follow a similar model, and potentially expand the authority of a constitutionally insignificant office beyond precedent. Those responsibilities will be even more weighty as the country combats the coronavirus pandemic; endures the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; and reckons with questions of race, policing, and discrimination reignited by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Joe Biden’s vice president will most likely be the most powerful vice president in history because the trend is toward more powerful vice presidents, Joe Biden knows the value of having a vice president with lots of responsibility, and Joe Biden is going to inherit an epic disaster,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama senior adviser and co-host of Pod Save America, told me.

At the same time, with Biden planning to serve as a “transition candidate” for a new wave of younger and more racially diverse Democratic politicians, she’s also likely to face a degree of attention and scrutiny that few vice presidents ever have. The task for Biden come January would be to maintain a healthy partnership with his vice president—without worrying that she’ll outshine him. “History tells us that consequential presidents and vice presidents come out at times where they’re tested and tried, and I can’t imagine a period of time where the president and vice president are going to be tested more than in January 2021,” Michael Feldman, a senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, told me. “There’s just no chance that the person who he picks is not a consequential vice president or consequential historical figure. They just will be.” For most of American history, the vice presidency was an insignificant office famously described as a “bucket of warm piss” and as “useful as a cow’s fifth teat” (or “a fate worse than death,” according to the HBO comedy Veep). That changed in 1976, when Walter Mondale accepted Jimmy Carter’s VP offer and laid out a vision for how the vice president could play a more intimate and active role in White House politics. Mondale, who would be leaving a safe Senate seat and a position on a select committee conducting one of Congress’s first major oversight investigations of the intelligence community, made clear to Carter that he wanted real authority, and he didn’t want to be bound to a singular policy area.

“The one thing that was not always true was that the vice president had power—it was only to the extent that the president allowed it,” Mondale told me. “I was able to help a lot because Carter had not been in Washington … and I had quite a bit of experience there.” Carter agreed to Mondale’s terms. He integrated Mondale’s staff with his own, gave him an office in the West Wing, set up weekly lunches for the two to discuss the president’s agenda, included Mondale in the flow of national-security paperwork, and assigned him to be his chief troubleshooter to manage relationships on Capitol Hill, in state governments, and with labor unions. “Mondale didn’t want to be in charge of any specific program or department, because he thought that would be infringing on somebody else’s turf,” Richard Moe, Mondale’s chief of staff and a former Carter senior staffer, told me. “He wanted to be a general adviser and to take specific assignments when required.” To this day, vice presidents have kept their White House offices and weekly lunches (though Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s are no longer one-on-one), and successive administrations have expanded the Carter-Mondale model of power-sharing. Gore, for example, championed environmental reforms and the “information superhighway,” an effort to expand the internet’s reach. Dick Cheney wielded tremendous influence on national security and the War on Terror.

But Biden’s vice presidency was the biggest leap forward from the Carter-Mondale model yet. Unlike previous veeps, Biden sustained a high level of influence with the president throughout their two terms in office, Joel Goldstein, a vice-presidential scholar at St. Louis University, told me. As Goldstein has previously written, much of that prestige was derived from Biden’s public loyalty to Obama, which he accomplished “without surrendering his public identity and becoming lost in the president’s shadow.” “It was a natural role for Biden because it involved a lot of dealing with governors and mayors and legislators, and Biden likes that,” Goldstein told me. “He was good at it.” In addition to his weekly lunches with Obama, Biden’s schedule was packed with time with the president, in keeping with his request to be the “last man in the room.” On any given day, Biden would start the morning by joining Obama for the Presidential Daily Briefing in the Oval Office after making the crosstown drive from the Naval Observatory. He might have additional meetings in the Oval Office with Obama and a Cabinet secretary, or a Situation Room briefing with intelligence-agency heads. Depending on the day, he’d head out of town for an address, a tour, or a foreign visit, or stay in Washington for meetings with legislators. While previous vice presidents did wield authority over special projects, they weren’t in charge of the defining issues for an administration, such as Biden’s role in implementing the Recovery Act after the Great Recession and leading efforts to whip Republican support to pass the Affordable Care Act. Biden also received major foreign-policy assignments throughout both terms, including his role as a chief adviser and surrogate as the administration debated its Afghanistan policy in 2009.


Laura Ingraham's Descent Into Despair

At some point, her Reaganite optimism slowly hardened into something better described as a form of apocalyptic pessimism.


“It was cocktail hour on the opening day of the new, Republican-dominated Congress, and the long, chandelier-lighted parlor of David Brock’s town house in Georgetown was filling up with exuberant young conservatives fresh from events on the Hill.” That was the opening sentence, in 1995, of a New York Times Magazine cover story called “The Counter Counterculture.” The author was the late James Atlas, and one by one, he introduced a series of characters. There was young David Brooks, then of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. There was Brock himself, best known at the time for his vicious investigations into the personal affairs of President Bill Clinton. There was David Frum—now a writer for The Atlantic—and his wife, Danielle Crittenden, with whom, years later, I co-wrote a Polish cookbook.

There are amusing details—expensive Georgetown restaurants where educated conservative elites pour scorn upon educated liberal elites—but the tone of the article was not negative. It included a parade of other names and short profiles: Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza. I knew most of them at the time the article appeared. I was then working in London for The Spectator, a conservative political magazine, and my relationship to this group was that of a foreign cousin who visited from time to time and inspired mild interest, but never quite made it to the inner circle. I wrote occasionally for The Weekly Standard, edited by Kristol; for The New Criterion, edited by Kimball; and once for the Independent Women’s Quarterly, then edited by, among others, Crittenden.

I also knew, slightly, a woman whose appearance, in a leopard-skin miniskirt, was the most notable thing about the magazine’s cover photograph: Laura Ingraham, who had been a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and was then an attorney at a tony law firm. In the penultimate paragraph Atlas finds himself, near midnight, “careering through the streets of downtown Washington with Brock in Ingraham’s military-green Land Rover at 60 miles an hour looking for an open bar while the music of Buckwheat Zydeco blasted over the stereo.” As the Fox News presenter whose career is most closely tied to President Donald Trump, Ingraham is now far more famous than she was back then. She spoke for Trump at the Republican convention, in 2016; during the coronavirus pandemic, she has risen to prominence once again, not just supporting him but pushing him to “reopen” the country with maniacal fervor, accusing those who urge caution of having a political bias.

Nevertheless, she still occasionally reconfirms, on her television programs or in public speeches, the main thing I associated her with in the 1990s: a devotion to Ronald Reagan and Reaganism, the same devotion that would have been shared, back then, by all of those people at Brock’s cocktail party. Or perhaps devotion to Reagan is a bit too specific. What really held that group together—and what drew me to it as well—was a kind of post–Cold War optimism, a belief that “we had won,” that the democratic revolution would now continue, that more good things would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union. This wasn’t the nostalgic conservatism of the English, or the hard-right nationalism found elsewhere in Europe; this was something more buoyant, more American—an optimistic conservatism that wasn’t backward-looking at all. Although there were darker versions, at its best it was energetic, reformist, and generous, predicated on faith in the United States, a belief in the greatness of American democracy, and an ambition to share that democracy with the rest of the world.


The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility

The popular book aims to combat racism but talks down to Black people.


I must admit that I had not gotten around to actually reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility until recently. But it was time to jump in. DiAngelo is an education professor and—most prominently today—a diversity consultant who argues that whites in America must face the racist bias implanted in them by a racist society. Their resistance to acknowledging this, she maintains, constitutes a “white fragility” that they must overcome in order for meaningful progress on both interpersonal and societal racism to happen. White Fragility was published in 2018 but jumped to the top of the New York Times best-seller list amid the protests following the death of George Floyd and the ensuing national reckoning about racism. DiAngelo has convinced university administrators, corporate human-resources offices, and no small part of the reading public that white Americans must embark on a self-critical project of looking inward to examine and work against racist biases that many have barely known they had. I am not convinced. Rather, I have learned that one of America’s favorite advice books of the moment is actually a racist tract. Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us. This is unintentional, of course, like the racism DiAngelo sees in all whites. Still, the book is pernicious because of the authority that its author has been granted over the way innocent readers think.

Reading White Fragility is rather like attending a diversity seminar. DiAngelo patiently lays out a rationale for white readers to engage in a self-examination that, she notes, will be awkward and painful. Her chapters are shortish, as if each were a 45-minute session. DiAngelo seeks to instruct. She operates from the now-familiar concern with white privilege, aware of the unintentional racism ever lurking inside of her that was inculcated from birth by the white supremacy on which America was founded. To atone for this original sin, she is devoted to endlessly exploring, acknowledging, and seeking to undo whites’ “complicity with and investment in” racism. To DiAngelo, any failure to do this “work,” as adherents of this paradigm often put it, renders one racist. As such, a major bugbear for DiAngelo is the white American, often of modest education, who makes statements like I don’t see color or asks questions like How dare you call me “racist”? Her assumption that all people have a racist bias is reasonable—science has demonstrated it. The problem is what DiAngelo thinks must follow as the result of it. DiAngelo has spent a very long time conducting diversity seminars in which whites, exposed to her catechism, regularly tell her—many while crying, yelling, or storming toward the exit—that she’s insulting them and being reductionist. Yet none of this seems to have led her to look inward. Rather, she sees herself as the bearer of an exalted wisdom that these objectors fail to perceive, blinded by their inner racism. DiAngelo is less a coach than a proselytizer.

When writers who are this sure of their convictions turn out to make a compelling case, it is genuinely exciting. This is sadly not one of those times, even though white guilt and politesse have apparently distracted many readers from the book’s numerous obvious flaws. For one, DiAngelo’s book is replete with claims that are either plain wrong or bizarrely disconnected from reality. Exactly who comes away from the saga of Jackie Robinson thinking he was the first Black baseball player good enough to compete with whites? “Imagine if instead the story,” DiAngelo writes, “went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.’” But no one need imagine this scenario, as others have pointed out, because it is something every baseball fan already knows. Later in the book, DiAngelo insinuates that, when white women cry upon being called racists, Black people are reminded of white women crying as they lied about being raped by Black men eons ago. But how would she know? Where is the evidence for this presumptuous claim? An especially weird passage is where DiAngelo breezily decries the American higher-education system, in which, she says, no one ever talks about racism. “I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism,” she writes. “I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.” I am mystified that DiAngelo thinks this laughably antique depiction reflects any period after roughly 1985. For example, an education-school curriculum neglecting racism in our times would be about as common as a home unwired for electricity.

DiAngelo’s depiction of white psychology shape-shifts according to what her dogma requires. On the one hand, she argues in Chapter 1 that white people do not see themselves in racial terms; therefore, they must be taught by experts like her of their whiteness. But for individuals who harbor so little sense of themselves as a group, the white people whom DiAngelo describes are oddly tribalist when it suits her narrative. “White solidarity,” she writes in Chapter 4, “requires both silence about anything that exposes the advantages of the white population and tacit agreement to remain racially united in the protection of white supremacy.” But if these people don’t even know whiteness is a category, just what are they now suddenly defending? Diangelo also writes as if certain shibboleths of the Black left—for instance, that all disparities between white and Black people are due to racism of some kind—represent the incontestable truth. This ideological bias is hardly unique to DiAngelo, and a reader could look past it, along with the other lapses in argumentation I have noted, if she offered some kind of higher wisdom. The problem is that White Fragility is the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult.


How Americans Became Part of the Trump Family

The president’s dark emotional inheritance has become the nation’s.


Here is part of an email alert that The New York Times sent to its readers over the weekend: “Breaking News: President Trump wore a mask publicly for the first time.” The announcement would not seem, at first glance, to merit the urgency. Breaking news is typically the stuff of shock, its revelations suggesting a rupture in the assumed order of things—and this was, after all, an update about face fabric. But the sad truth was that the bit of news, for all its absurdity, also deserved the designation. After months of resistance—the seeming result of vanity and spite and stubbornness—Donald Trump, on Saturday, had finally deigned to model the simple public-health protocol proven to halt the spread of a virus that has killed more than 129,000 Americans. Changing Trump’s mind—the result, reportedly, of negotiation and “pleading” on the part of his aides—wasn’t just an exercise in optics; it would save lives. The belated development could not qualify as good news. But it was news.

And it was a type of news that is, more than three years into the Trump era, all too familiar. Americans’ awareness of their president exists, now, at almost the cellular level: Never has the public been so intimately acquainted with the body of the executive, its impulses and its fickle humors. The 5 a.m. tweets tell us when he has awakened. Their tone tells us when he is angry, or indignant. Their ellipses invite us to fill in the blanks: What did he mean? What will he do next? Presidents, traditionally, have operated at a public remove; Trump, by contrast, is inescapable. News stories regularly report on his funks and his furies, turning what was once merely the subtext of national news events—the president’s feelings—into the text. The reporting is rational: Trump’s wayward whims are matters of national security. His rage can threaten. His pride can harm. That grim knowledge has turned Americans, over time, into a nation of armchair psychologists, struggling to understand the workings of one particular psyche. The efforts are fruitless, but they continue all the same. The public—both in spite of Donald Trump’s ubiquity, and because of it—remains ever tuned to his frequency.

Around the time that trump’s aides were finding ways to cajole their charge into putting on his mask, a book began to make its way around American media outlets. Too Much and Never Enough, by Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is both a memoir and a manifesto. One of its theses is that the mind of the president, the subject of so much fixation, is beyond fixing. Donald Trump, she suggests, is not a riddle to be answered or a mystery to be solved; he is what he is, full stop. He is a tautology wrapped in a spray tan. And he has been what he is now, really, all along. Mary Trump, chastened by her own, earlier silence about her uncle’s unfitness for office, is sounding a belated alarm. People have suffered, she writes, because her uncle is incapable of understanding other people’s suffering. People have died because her uncle cares more about the illusion of competence than its realization. “His ability to control unfavorable situations by lying, spinning, and obfuscating,” she writes—a power he has relied on throughout his life—“has diminished to the point of impotence in the midst of the tragedies we are currently facing.”

With this psychographic reading of the president, Mary Trump is doing the work many other Americans have been: analyzing, decoding, explaining. She is, however, uniquely qualified for that effort. In addition to her membership in the Trump family, Mary Trump holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. (She also has a master’s degree in comparative literature: As political tell-alls go, her book is remarkably well written.) The author’s assessment of her uncle is both hedged and blunt. “I have no problem,” she writes, “calling Donald a narcissist—he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—but the label gets us only so far.” She adds that Trump likely has dependent personality disorder, an undiagnosed learning disability (making it difficult for him to process and retain new information about the world), and sleep disorders (likely related to his habit of ingesting some 12 Diet Cokes a day), and that he is also, very possibly, a sociopath. That helps to explain why the Trump family tried, and failed, to halt the book’s publication. And why the White House responded to the book’s claims using the familiar rhetoric of “fake news.” (The president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said of the book last week, “It’s ridiculous, absurd allegations that have absolutely no bearing in truth.” She added: “I have yet to see the book, but it is a book of falsehoods.”)

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