VOX Headlines -> Emotional testimony dominates 3rd day of Cosby trial – The Americans begin its long plunge toward the end in a riveting episode
VOX Headlines -> Emotional testimony dominates 3rd day of Cosby trial – The Americans begin its long plunge toward the end in a riveting episode
Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “Urban Transport Planning,” the third episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!
Oleg and Stan hash out their differences — and the one big thing they have in common — in the episode’s titular scene
Todd VanDerWerff: There are certain things a TV show can only do in its final season, when the audience knows the end is on its way. In the days before endings long planned in advance, I could always tell when a show’s writers and actors were thinking about hanging it up based on when they would start paying out long-teased answers and resolutions to conflicts that had been bubbling from the very beginning. A final season implies finality, and these story developments followed through.
That’s how I feel about much of “Urban Transport Planning,” which continues the hectic pace of The Americans’ final season but also slows down a bit to look back at everywhere the show has been before, particularly in the scene that gives the episode its name.
Oleg, see, is in the States on the pretense of attending a class in the titular subject, but Stan suspects something more is up. So he goes to see his old colleague, the man with whom he helped ease tensions both directly and indirectly. (Remember how Stan protected Oleg from being recruited by US intelligence in season five, without the two men sharing the screen? Remember how season five was a bunch of interesting ideas executed oddly?) Stan wants to feel out Oleg, wants to know why he’s really in DC. But Oleg will only admit to the class.
And then the two men talk about Nina, and an immense sadness suffuses everything that’s happening.
It’s inherent to the spy drama that there will be a high body count. It’s also inherent to spy dramas heavily influenced by the more realistic, grounded spy fiction of John le Carré (as The Americans is on some level) that said high body count will be contrasted with the stated missions of the spies, as they wonder just what it’s all for, why they’ve done such terrible things. And so it goes with Nina, a woman both men loved, who was both punished for her sins and eventually executed for refusing to sin further. At least, that’s how she saw it.
Beneath everything else Stan and Oleg feel for each other, beneath the respect and maybe even the would-be friendship, there is this dual connection through a character who hasn’t featured on the show in 25 episodes, who was killed quickly and summarily, as if crossing a number off a ledger. But she was someone who mattered to these two guys, and that sets the stakes for this season in some ways: No matter what happens, we know who cared about all these people, and that will make it all the worse when bad things happen.
Leave it to me to spend all this time talking about just one scene in an episode crammed full of good ones (including some terrific Philip/Elizabeth scenes), but that’s where my heart was after “Urban Transport Planning.” What about all of you?
Genevieve Koski: In the 24 hours or so since I watched this episode, the image that keeps popping into my mind is Elizabeth’s face as she yells at Paige for abandoning her post and wandering into the meet gone wrong with Rennhull. It reminded me a little of that scene from Fellowship of the Ring where Galadriel is briefly possessed by desire for the one ring and changes into a demonic version of herself: Every line and shadow on Elizabeth’s face deepens, her eyes seem to recede to little black pinpoints, her lips curling into a snarl as she shouts, “You stick to the plan!” at her horror-stricken daughter, as her slightly less obviously horror-stricken husband (who moments earlier assured Paige that Elizabeth would understand) looks on with dismay.
I talked a little in last week’s discussion about the chasm that’s opening up between Philip and Elizabeth as parents, which this scene underlines not just in how differently the two of them treat Paige, but also in the brief intrusion from Henry via phone.
Here’s Henry, just wanting to celebrate his big hockey victory with Philip — who looks like he’d much rather deal with that than what’s awaiting him in the living room — and here’s Paige, looking for and being denied comfort from an enraged Elizabeth, who is obviously projecting some of her own guilt over how things fell apart onto her unsuspecting daughter.
Elizabeth more or less cops to this in a later scene with Paige, but her passion in the moment, especially compared to Philip’s more removed attempts at comfort, reflects her anxiety over how things are progressing “back home” and what it could mean for her and Directorate S.
In a later scene between her and Philip, he challenges her assumption that everyone back in the Soviet Union feels the same as she does about Gorbachev and Pizza Huts in Moscow, and her angry reaction to the suggestion that things may be “opening up,” as Philip puts it, is laced with obvious fear that such progress undermines — maybe even renders moot — all the body- and soul-crushing work she’s done for the past 20 years. She’s not ready to admit it yet — she may never be ready — but it’s apparent to Philip, and to us, that Elizabeth is clinging with all her might to something that may have already slipped through her fingers.
Keri Russell is on fire in this episode
Caroline Framke: First of all, bless you, Genevieve, for bringing a long-overdue Lord of the Rings reference to our Americans recaps.
Second of all, bless you, Americans, for giving Keri Russell one hell of a showcase in this final season to remind everyone just how good she is. Elizabeth has had her explosive moments before — never forget the Forehead Vein — but Russell is a doing an expert job at showing exactly how much Elizabeth is wearing herself to the bone for this summit as she erupts with more and more frequency.
Her pervasive fatigue also makes the moments when she tries to break through it feel that much more significant. Her quiet contentment at getting to cook an old favorite dish with Claudia and Paige and her breaking a rule to bring Philip a taste of home show just how much Elizabeth values and is trying to remember where she came from.
So when Philip suggests that maybe she doesn’t know what their “home” is like after 20 years away, it’s unsurprising that it stings Elizabeth so hard. If she doesn’t know what the Soviet Union is actually like, if she doesn’t have a sense of what “home” even means anymore, what is she even fighting for? As Philip well knows, the times when Elizabeth can’t stop herself from lashing out are clear signs that she’s feeling especially stressed and vulnerable — and given the hints Oleg gave him about what she’s possibly working on these days, that worries him to death.
Speaking of: Did anyone else pump a fist when the episode ended with Philip and his blond mustache joining Oleg on a spy walk™? Because I am psyched. I know Philip is invested in his travel agency, but I sure am not, so I’m excited that he’s now decided staying out of the game is riskier than getting back in it. That shot of Philip staring at a sleeping Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys at his weary frowniest) made it clear that the strain of going back to spying on her is preemptively wearing him down, but it’s also clear that he feels he has no choice.
There are several points in this episode that could have sparked that realization, but for my money, it was the moment when Paige asked if she could stay the night and Elizabeth snarled that it was “a work night” at the same time that Philip went for a comforting, “Of course you can.” He was always terrified of what getting into spying could do to Paige, and watching Elizabeth just about kill herself for the job while treating their daughter like a co-worker feels like a last-straw moment if there ever was one.
Todd: You’re not heavily invested in the financial struggles of the travel agency? What? I’m hoping the show just wraps up the spy stuff early, and the entire back half of the season is Philip and Elizabeth coming up with ever-crazier financial schemes to save the beloved travel agency. A bake sale! A car wash! Entering a battle of the bands! Is there anything The Americans won’t do to save the travel agency?!
(Seriously, though, I have enjoyed Philip going full Wolf of Wall Street capitalist motivational speaker at work, and I would take more scenes like that in the future.)
I definitely have felt a draw to the story of Philip and Elizabeth struggling to remember this place they haven’t lived in ages, a place they obviously have nostalgia-coated, hazy ideas about anyway. The Americans gets talked about a lot as a show that’s relevant to our ongoing Russia storyline (though our writers are a lot less subtle than the crew at The Americans), but as a Midwestern transplant living in sunny California, I’ve always connected to it on the level of a story about finding a home, about building a place you can call your own, even as you’re miles and miles away from the place you grew up in.
And this idea is deeply tied in to the season’s central conflict. Philip and Elizabeth are fighting for the future of a place neither of them knows anymore, and where he thinks it needs to change, based on everything that’s happened since he left, she thinks it’s probably just fine the way it is, based on those nostalgic memories.
The truth probably lies in the middle, as it always does. The Soviet Union was choking on corruption at this point, and its people were in dire straits. But it also wasn’t as though everything Elizabeth remembered about it was dead and buried. The home she loves is still there, and it’s not hard to tap into why she might be so worried about change sweeping across it.
Step back from the political arguments within the show, and its conflict between Philip and Elizabeth has always been the conflict between any two people who are split between wanting to put down roots in a new place (as Philip has always been more inclined to do) and wanting to stay true to their cultural heritage (as Elizabeth has always hoped to do). Add in their kids — who have only ever known this new home — and things get even more complicated.
It’s a story of immigrants to the US, to be sure, but it’s also a story of anybody who moves very far away and sometimes misses the way things were. But change is inevitable, and fighting it tends to end up destroying you. Elizabeth is on a dangerous track, even if she seems to be the only one thinking ahead.
Just what’s up with Stan’s storyline this season? Or Renee, for that matter?
Genevieve: Maybe thinking too far ahead, at least when it comes to leftovers. Did anyone else cringe a little when Elizabeth dumped the zharkoye she brought home to Philip down the garbage disposal because “we can’t keep it around”?
I understand wanting to take every possible precaution against discovery, but zharkoye is literally just beef stew — as one of the summit attendees says in an earlier scene, “every dish in Russia starts with meat and potatoes” — more or less indistinguishable from pot roast to anyone who might be rummaging through the Jenningses’ fridge. (Even if they had instead made Elizabeth’s preferred dish, golubtsi, that’s also something that can masquerade as the cuisine of any number of countries.) The fear that Stan might wander over and help himself to some and think “Wait a minute — is this zharkoye?” seems pretty overblown, as corroborated by the dismayed look on Philip’s face as he watches his wife unceremoniously toss the food down the sink.
Then again, that could also have been a power play on Elizabeth’s part, a symbolic chastising of Philip for filling up on Kung Pao chicken and lo mein (both, it should be noted, notoriously Westernized interpretations of Chinese cuisine). He receives the dish with nostalgic fondness, even forces down a couple of bites, but this is an all-or-nothing proposition for Elizabeth: You enjoy this symbol of our home and our past, in its entirety, right now, or you lose it. Given the resentfulness she’s exhibited toward any small attempt by Philip to insinuate himself back into the spy life via Paige, it’s not hard to read a certain “and you call yourself a Russian” scorn into this small domestic moment.
And speaking of fraught domestic moments, what are we to make of that scene of Renee talking to Stan about her job prospects at the FBI? We all regarded Renee with instant skepticism when she wandered onto the scene last season, certain that she was part of some sort of nefarious scheme, but she’s insinuated herself so deeply into Stan’s life at this point that I admit I’d forgotten to be suspicious of her.
This sudden desire of hers to become a late-in-life FBI agent brought that suspicion roaring back, though I admit to being at a complete loss as to what sort of long con this might suggest. Is it possible she’s being sincere here?
Caroline: If she is, then she’s right to be concerned that she doesn’t know Stan very well at all, because he would never allow nepotism to get her into the FBI. And if she’s a spy, she’s not as subtle as she might think. What a weird request! That scene — and, to be honest, just about everything surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Teacup — felt a little bizarre to me, and were forceful reminders that Stan has felt a little unmoored from the main action for a while now.
I have to imagine there’s some kind of serious payoff coming with Renee and the Teacups, because why else would the show devote this much time and energy to Stan just kind of circling these stagnant storylines?
Then again, if Stan meeting up with Oleg again right before Oleg meets up with Philip is portending some kind of team-up between this trio of conflicted men who have always floated in one moral gray area or another, I’ll happily rescind all complaints. Philip and Stan have always genuinely gotten along, and I have a feeling Philip and Oleg will make a better team than probably either of them are hoping.
Maybe that would be too neat a solution. But hey, even just a season ago, I never would’ve guessed that we’d get multiple scenes of Elizabeth, Claudia, and Paige chatting over stew and television. As the clock keeps ticking down toward this potentially catastrophic summit, there’s no saying the lines between enemies and friends won’t keep getting redrawn in ways that may seem unthinkable — until they’re not.
One of Bill Cosby’s accusers confronted Cosby from the witness stand on the third day of his sexual assault trial on Wednesday. “You remember, don’t you, Mr. Cosby?” Chelan Lasha said tearfully to him from the stand.
Wrenching, hard to watch testimony from Bill Cosby prosecution witness Chelan Lasha who sobbed and cried almost continuously. Collapsed in tears against a wall in hall just outside courtroom as she left.
— Manuel Roig-Franzia (@RoigFranzia) April 11, 2018
Lasha’s testimony anchored what was perhaps the most intense, emotional day of Cosby’s trial so far. Cosby is charged with drugging and assaulting former Temple University employee Andrea Constand in 2004. The prosecution is calling five additional accusers, including Lasha, to the stand to establish a pattern for Cosby.
Lasha was the second of the five women to testify, and her outburst toward Cosby prompted the defense to ask Judge Steven O’Neill for a mistrial. The judge declined, though he struck the comment from the record.
In her testimony, Lasha recounted a 1986 encounter with Cosby in Las Vegas, when she was a 17-year-old aspiring actress who had just graduated from high school. She said Cosby expressed interest in helping her with her career, and had spoken with her and her grandmother before he invited her to his suite at the Las Vegas Hilton.
When Lasha arrived, she said, a photographer took some pictures of her. She had a cold, so Cosby offered her a pill that he described as an antihistamine and gave her a shot of amaretto. Lasha, who had a cold at the time, said she trusted Cosby and took the pills.
Lasha said Cosby then laid her down on the bed, and she could not move. “He kept pinching my breast and humping my leg,” she said. “Waking up, I was naked.”
She told the jury during the assault when she couldn’t move she kept thinking “Dr. Huxtable you said you were going to help me, why are you doing this to me?”
— Claudia Rosenbaum (@CJRosenbaum) April 11, 2018
Lasha said she remembered Cosby grunting and humping her; when she came to, she was naked. Lasha said she told her high school guidance counselor and her sister what had happened. She said a few days after the incident, she received a phone call from Cosby: “People who talk too much can be quieted,” he said, according to her.
Lasha’s tearful testimony was bookended by the defense’s cross-examination of Heidi Thomas, a music teacher from Colorado who said the comedian drugged and assaulted her in 1984, when she was 24. Thomas, who delivered her story on Tuesday, faced down defense attorney Kathleen Bliss, who questioned her about her decision to come forward with accusations against Cosby, asking about her frequent media appearances — a line of attack that echoes the defense’s tactics against Constand, whom lawyers painted as seeking fame and money in opening arguments — and asking her about a message of support she sent Cosby.
Thomas said she came forward to support other women who weren’t believed. She also stood firm when Bliss questioned her open support for Constand, including a posting on Facebook.
When questioned about this support by the defense, Thomas replied, “I want to see a serial rapist convicted.”
Bliss: “You’ve made it very clear that you want to help Andrea Constand, haven’t you?”
Thoma: ”I want to see a serial rapist convicted.”
— Jeremy Roebuck (@jeremyrroebuck) April 11, 2018
The jury heard from one more accuser on Wednesday: Janice Baker-Kinney, who said she met Cosby as a bartender in Reno in 1982. She said Cosby gave her pills, and as they played backgammon, she passed out. She woke up the next morning undressed, in bed with Cosby.
The defense, in cross-examination, tried to imply that Baker-Kinner took the drugs willingly by bringing up past drug and alcohol abuse. They questioned her past statements, including ones where she suggested she wasn’t aware she had been raped by Cosby until other accusers came forward.
Mesereau also stressing past statements where JBK said for 30 years she didn’t remember being raped. Didn’t realize until other Cosby accusers started coming forward. But JBK not wanting to give him an inch on anything.
— Jeremy Roebuck (@jeremyrroebuck) April 11, 2018
“I still don’t like to say the words — I was raped,” Baker-Kinney said on the stand at one point. “I don’t want to think that while I was unconscious someone thought it was okay to have sex with me. I don’t want to be that stupid idiot.”
Vox Sentences is your daily digest for what’s happening in the world, curated by Ella Nilsen. Sign up for the Vox Sentences newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday, or view the Vox Sentences archive for past editions.
Paul Ryan makes a big announcement; dozens die in Indonesia from bootleg alcohol.
A thankless job
- The rumor mill was right: House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he won’t seek reelection in November. [NYT / Jonathan Martin and Nicholas Fandos]
- House Republicans were already in a pretty tough spot for the midterms. By setting up a distracting leadership succession struggle and giving Democrats a better chance at his Wisconsin seat, Ryan’s move makes 2018 look even bleaker for the GOP. [Reuters]
- In a news conference, Ryan attributed his decision to a desire to spend more time with his children (the youngest of whom is 16, the age at which Ryan’s own father died). “My kids aren’t getting any younger,” Ryan said, “and if I stay, they’ll only know me as a weekend dad.” [NPR / Susan Davis and Domenico Montanaro]
- But his stated reasoning hasn’t stopped speculation that the move has something to do with President Trump, with whom the speaker has had a notably fraught relationship. (Let’s not forget Ryan’s efforts to distance himself, and the rest of the GOP, from then-nominee Trump before cutting ties entirely with the candidate in October 2016). [CNN / Chris Cillizza]
- Trump, for his part, seems to have taken the news in stride, tweeting shortly before Ryan was scheduled to hold a news conference announcing his retirement that the speaker is “a truly good man” and leaves “a legacy of achievement that nobody can question.” [Washington Post / Robert Costa, Mike DeBonis, and John Wagner]
- Ryan’s decision was foreshadowed by Politico in November with a report that the speaker saw his “wild Washington journey coming to an end,” but his final deliberations were followed closely. [Politico / Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade]
- The takeaway: Nobody is particularly surprised. On top of the personal factors and the fact that Ryan didn’t want the position in the first place, the speakership has always been one of the most difficult jobs in Washington, and was especially a headache during the Trump presidency. [Vox / Tara Golshan]
- With Ryan gone, the focus will turn to who will replace him as speaker (widely seen as a contest between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise). [Politico / Rachael Bade and John Bresnehan]
- It also raises the question of whether Democrats will be able to flip Ryan’s district. His retirement gives them their best opportunity in a decade to do so. [Vox / Ella Nilsen]
People are dying in Indonesia from bootleg liquor
- Legal alcohol can be hard to come by in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where tens of thousands of convenience stores are banned from selling the substance altogether and other sales are heavily taxed. [Australian Broadcasting Corporation / Adam Harvey]
- A booming black market has filled the gap, but a lack of federal oversight and regulations has had deadly implications. [Reuters]
- Just this month, 82 Indonesians have died and many more have been hospitalized after drinking tainted bootleg liquor, police announced Wednesday. At least a dozen men have been detained on suspicion of making and distributing the drink, police said, making good on what they vowed would be a “‘scorched earth’ crackdown” on makers and distributors. [AP via the Washington Post / Niniek Karmini]
- And this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in the country. In 2016, at least 24 people died after consuming spirits sold illegally and made from ethanol, water, and fruit. In 2014, meanwhile, more than a dozen died after drinking a similar cocktail. [BBC]
- Former House Speaker John Boehner is down with weed. Boehner said he’s joining the advisory board for one of the country’s largest (legal) marijuana companies, a sharp pivot. [NYT / Daniel Victor]
- Family reunification for refugees is no longer a guarantee. Here’s why that matters for more than just the families. [Foreign Policy / Vauhini Vara]
- The secretive, highly subjective admissions processes at elite universities have long been the bane of many high school students’ lives. But now, the Justice Department is getting involved to see if admissions departments are violating federal laws. [Atlantic / Adam Harris]
- The blow-up musical instruments and plastic fedoras that have become a staple of bar mitzvahs and sweet sixteens parties might not be as innocuous as they appear. [Atlas Obscura / Sonia Weiser]
“We are a nation made strong by people like you.” [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presides over a naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society, welcoming 200 immigrants from 59 countries / NYT]
Watch this: How the Catholic Church censored Hollywood’s golden age
A woman has accused Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens of coercing her to perform oral sex, undressing, kissing and touching her without her consent, and threatening to release a nude photo of her if she told anyone about their encounter, which took place in 2015.
The accusation — disturbing, detailed, and backed up by testimony from witnesses the woman spoke to at the time — was the centerpiece of a report from an independent panel of state legislators released Wednesday night. The report also included accusations that Greitens had physically abused the woman, including nonconsensual spanking and slapping.
The report followed Greitens’s February indictment on a felony charge of invasion of privacy carrying up to seven years of prison time, which saw him led away by the St. Louis sheriff’s office.
But the accusations in the report are even more damning and horrifying than the charges Greitens faces when the trial starts on March 14.
The scandal began in January when local CBS affiliate KMOV reported that Greitens cheated on his wife, secretly took photos of the woman he cheated with, and attempted to blackmail the woman into silence by threatening to release the photos. KMOV did not include the accusations that the encounter was not consensual, instead describing it as an extramarital affair — the framing Greitens has used in public statements but which the legislature’s report suggests is inaccurate.
Greitens called the report inaccurate and the result of a “political witch hunt.” The majority of the legislators on the panel were Republicans like Greitens, and they said they found the woman credible.
Greitens, a Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a doctorate in refugee studies, was the country’s second-youngest governor at 43 and getting presidential buzz before the allegations first emerged. Previously a Democrat, Greitens switched parties and successfully ran for Missouri governor as a Republican in 2016. A profile during the gubernatorial campaign declared, “If the man has an Achilles’ heel, it’s perfection.”
His actual Achilles’ heel appears to be that he is accused of sexually and physically abusing a woman.
Greitens faced mounting calls for his resignation as a trial nears and new details of his offenses continue to accumulate. For now, he is not resigning in the wake of these allegations. In a news conference Wednesday in advance of the report’s release, he declared that “this was a private mistake that has nothing to do with governing,” that the matter would be put to rest at his trial, which begins on May 14, and that the woman accusing him was confused and might have just been dreaming it all.
What Greitens allegedly did
The account the woman gave to the legislative committee is considerably more detailed than the initial stories that broke in January, and thus is the most complete accounting of what occurred to date. The committee talked to corroborating witnesses and concluded that the woman is “credible.”
The woman details a number of nonconsensual incidents, including when, during a haircut appointment on March 7, 2015 (before the revenge porn incident described above), Greitens felt up her leg all the way to her crotch without consent. On March 21, the woman says, she met Greitens at his house, supposedly to talk, and Greitens attempted to initiate “some sort of, like, sexy workout.”
She says he had “prepared clothes for her to change into,” and once she had changed into them, he led her into his basement, where he “taped her hands to pull-up rings … and then put a blindfold on her.”
She says he then drank water and spit it into her mouth, saying, “Before we start a workout you have to be hydrated.” “I realized he’s trying to kiss me,” she recalled, “but I don’t even want to kiss him. So I just spit it out. He does it and he’s like ‘You’re not going to be a bad girl, are you? Tries to do it again, to which I just let it dribble out, because I didn’t even want to kiss him again.”
Then, she says, Greitens began kissing from her neck down to her chest and ripped open her shirt, once again without consent. He then remarked on a scar on her stomach before continuing to kiss her stomach and pulling down her pants (again, without consent). That’s when she saw the flash of a camera through the blindfold, she said, and she recalls he told her: “You’re not going to mention my name. Don’t even mention my name to anybody at all, because if you do, I’m going to take these pictures, and I’m going to put them everywhere I can. They are going to be everywhere, and then everyone will know what a little whore you are.”
When he asked if she was going to mention his name, she said no through gritted teeth, and he replied, “Now that’s a good girl.”
He then began to kiss her stomach and motion toward attempting oral sex on her when, she says, “I just started freaking out and I started ripping down my hands. I was like, Get me out of here. I’m not ready for this. I don’t want this. I don’t want this.” “I was definitely fearful,” she said. She told him, “I don’t want this,” and, “I’m leaving,” and he “grab[bed] me and like — like, in a bear hug, and was like, Shh, shh, it’s okay, calm down, calm down, and like, lays me down on this ground in the basement.”
She says she started crying uncontrollably. “He starts undoing his pants, and he takes his penis out and puts it, like, near where my face is,” she recalls. At that point, convinced that he would not let her leave otherwise, she performed oral sex, she said. When investigators asked if it was consensual, she replied: “It felt like consent, but no, I didn’t want to do it. … Coerced, maybe. I felt as though that would allow me to leave.”
After that, he did let her leave, she says, though she returned later that day for her keys.
She returned to his house at 4 pm after work, where he explained the picture he took of her the following way: “He said, I know … but you have to understand, I’m running for office, and people will get me, and I have to have some sort of thing to protect myself. And I thought about you, though, and I felt bad, so I erased it. To which – you know, I didn’t believe him, but at least, he, like, acknowledged that it was messed up and had a reason why.”
Later, at another salon appointment, the woman says she and Greitens kissed consensually, and that in May, they met up at his house and had consensual oral sex. Then in June, she went over to his house to make out. She says he asked her if she had slept with her husband since the previous incident. She said yes, and he slapped her in the face. She recalled, “I said, I think you’re screwed up from being in the Navy.”
The next week, she went over to his house for a “workout.” “At first it was fine,” she said, and then he began “fingering me and … out of nowhere, just, like, kind of smacked me and grabbed me and shoved me down on the ground. And I instantly just started bawling and was just like, What is wrong with you?”
The accusations in the report are considerably more serious and damning than the initial reporting that emerged in January. KMOV News 4 investigative reporters Lauren Trager and John O’Sullivan based their initial report (a video of which you can view here) on a recording of the woman provided to the station by the woman’s ex-husband.
The recording, taken in March 2015 without the woman’s knowledge, depicts her and her then-husband discussing her relationship with Greitens. The tape was made days after the alleged March 21 incident with revenge porn and attempted forcible oral sex, according to the ex-husband. It covered the revenge porn but didn’t go into detail about Greitens’s other nonconsensual acts.
Shortly after that story broke, TPM’s Allegra Kirkland spoke to the ex-husband’s lawyer and Missouri Democratic operative Roy Temple, who both reported that the ex-husband mentioned that Greitens slapped the woman before sex. The legislative report confirms this account.
The legal and political fallout
The “invasion of privacy” statute under which Greitens has been charged applies to cases where a defendant “knowingly photographs or films another person, without the person’s knowledge and consent, while the person being photographed or filmed is in a state of full or partial nudity and is in a place where one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the person subsequently distributes the photograph or film to another or transmits the image contained in the photograph or film in a manner that allows access to that image via a computer.”
It is a class D felony, carrying a prison sentence of up to seven years.
And the other accusations in the woman’s account could open the door to much more serious charges, like sodomy and sexual abuse.
Whatever happens criminally, the scandal has completely destroyed Greitens’s administration, which saw Republicans return to the office after eight years in opposition.
Greitens was fairly popular before the scandal — 20 percent more Missourians approved than disapproved of him in polling last October — but the indictment follows more than a few major clashes during his first year in office. Greitens pushed through a law making Missouri a right-to-work state; while today the state has relatively few union members, historically its brewing industry has been heavily unionized. Opponents have successfully forced a referendum on the issue onto the 2018 ballot, suspending the law’s enforcement in the process.
More damaging were revelations that his gubernatorial campaign relied heavily on massive amounts of dark money from wealthy donors. Missouri has historically had among the laxest campaign finance laws of any state; this upcoming election will be the first one in which state candidates face any contribution limits at all. Before, anyone — individuals, corporations, unions, PACs — could give an unlimited amount to campaigns. That changed with a 2016 ballot measure that finally enacted limits, which passed 70 percent to 30 but which Greitens opposed.
But even by the state’s lax standards, Greitens stood out. During the governor’s race, he received $1.975 million in one day, and no one knows where it came from. It went from a Super PAC called SEALS for Truth to Greitens’s campaign, and to SEALS for Truth from a nonprofit called American Policy Coalition. This is an easy way to use Super PACs and nonprofits to evade donor disclosure, but it’s rarely done as brazenly as in Greitens’s case.
There’s more, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Kevin McDermott recaps in this helpful piece. Greitens was fined for not disclosing how his campaign got the donor list from his nonprofit, the Mission Continues; the Associated Press found that the campaign raised nearly $2 million from the Mission Continues donors, despite Greitens’s denials that he used the group’s list to fundraise.
He has also refused to release his individual tax returns; the amounts that companies, wealthy individuals, and lobbyists donated to his inauguration parties; and the funders of A New Missouri, a nonprofit he founded as governor to promote his agenda.
The inauguration issue took on new prominence after his administration offered a no-bid contract to one of the inauguration donors. It’s hard to evaluate if there was a quid pro quo involved because no one knows how much the firm actually gave Greitens; he refuses to disclose the numbers. Members of the Missouri legislature introduced bills attempting to demand disclosure from secretive nonprofits like A New Missouri after it aired an attack ad against state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican critic of Greitens, and displayed Schaaf’s personal cellphone number for viewers to call.
Greitens has defended his conduct by comparing dark money to the secret ballot: “The people who believe in voter intimidation believe that the minute you make a political donation, that you immediately need to turn all your information over to the government. … When people go in and they vote, nobody calls that dark voting.”
All that wasn’t enough to end Greitens’s tenure in office. But the accusations have already led some Republicans to call for his resignation. It is hard to imagine a governor credibly accused of sexual assault remaining in his job for long.
A disturbing report finds Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens coerced a woman into sex, then blackmailed her
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) coerced a woman into performing oral sex on him, claimed to have taken a compromising photo of her, and threatened to release the photo if she told anyone, according to a special investigative report from the Missouri state legislature released Wednesday night.
The report, which includes disturbing and graphic details, describes a 2015 sexual encounter between Greitens and a woman who worked as his hairdresser in which he also blindfolded her, pulled her pants and ripped her shirt without her consent, claimed to have taken a photo, and threatened to release the photo if she told anyone about the encounter. The encounter happened before Greitens took office.
Soon after, the woman told her now ex-husband about the incident with Greitens, she told investigators.
“You’ve been half-raped and blackmailed,” her husband said, according to the report.
“Yes,” the woman responded.
The woman testified that in a separate encounter, Greitens slapped her in the face and called her a “whore” when she talked about a past sexual encounter she had with her husband, from whom she was separated at the time.
“I felt like he was trying to claim me,” she later told lawmakers, describing the slap as “jarring” and “forceful.”
The investigative committee of Missouri lawmakers, including five Republicans and two Democrats, said they found the woman to be a credible witness and corroborated her testimony with a number of other witnesses, none of whom are named in the report. Greitens declined to testify, the report says.
The Greitens scandal blew up earlier this year, when the governor was indicted on a felony charge of invasion of privacy and led away by the St. Louis County sheriff’s office. Previous reports called it an extramarital affair, but the report from the legislature describes a relationship that, while it included one encounter the woman said was consensual, started through coercion and included physical violence as well as threats of blackmail.
Ahead of the report’s release, Democratic state lawmakers who had read the report called on the governor to resign, saying the details the report contained were too disturbing for him to continue in office.
Greitens pushed back in a televised press conference today, calling the investigation a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
The second-youngest governor in the nation, Greitens had clear political ambitions for higher office, taking the step to reserve the web address EricGreitensForPresident.com years ago. On paper, he had a sterling record: He was a Rhodes Scholar and served as a Navy SEAL; he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service. He got his doctorate in refugee studies and founded a nonprofit serving fellow veterans.
His trial is set to begin on May 14.
You can read the full report here or below:
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire on Wednesday from black lawmakers for his company’s lack of diversity and its connection to the spread of misleading ads targeting black activist groups.
Zuckerberg was answering questions about his company’s handling of user information and data privacy at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As Vox’s Emily Stewart and Jen Kirby note, he has been criticized in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that left the information of tens of millions of Facebook users exposed and raised questions about how Russia and other groups have used the platform to influence US politics.
In one egregious example, Russian hackers used some 3,000 ads on the platform to inflame racial tensions, with some of the ads suggesting that racial justice groups like Black Lives Matter were a political threat. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) asked Zuckerberg if the company’s lack of diversity affected Facebook’s ability or willingness to look into this.
“I’m concerned that there are not eyes that are culturally competent looking at these things,” she said.
In addition to the ads, Russian operatives working for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency used several social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — including ones called “Woke Blacks” and “Blacktivists” — to urge black Americans to vote for third-party candidates or sit out the election entirely, according to information released by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Other accounts targeting Trump supporters allegedly stoked fears of voter fraud in the lead-up to the presidential election by pushing already debunked claims about the practice.
In his response, Zuckerberg acknowledged that racial diversity was something the company needed to improve on, but argued that the company was slow to notice the entire Russian propaganda effort. He also talked about future steps to stop this kind of problem from happening again.
“We’re going to address this by verifying the identity of every single advertiser who’s running political or issue-oriented ads to make it so that foreign actors or people trying to spoof their identity or say that they’re someone that they’re not cannot run political ads or run large pages,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been criticized for its lack of diversity
Facebook’s poor diversity numbers have been a sore spot for the company for years, and while they’ve improved in some areas, that improvement has been relatively small. According to Facebook’s 2017 diversity report, last year the company increased its share of black and Hispanic employees by 1 percent each, to 3 and 5 percent respectively. Black and Hispanic employees each account for 3 percent of Facebook’s senior leadership.
The Wednesday exchange also comes after recent news that Facebook allowed a fake page about Black Lives Matter — which raised $100,000 and was the largest Black Lives Matter page on the platform — to remain active, even after a founder of the racial justice organization notified Facebook that the page was fake. On Monday, a CNN investigation revealed that the page was a “scam with ties to a middle-aged white man in Australia.”
Clarke, who serves as a member of the newly formed Tech Accountability Caucus, wasn’t the only black legislator to ask about Facebook’s relationship with users of color. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) also asked about Facebook’s diversity, saying that the racial makeup of the company’s leadership team “does not reflect America.”
And during Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees on Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) asked about Facebook’s role in the surveillance of activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter, calling on Zuckerberg to ensure “that the freedoms of civil rights activists and others are not targeted, or their work [is] not being undermined.”
Booker also asked Zuckerberg about a 2016 ProPublica investigation that found that Facebook had allowed advertisers to exclude black and Hispanic users from seeing certain ads. Last month, several civil rights groups sued Facebook, saying that the company’s ad practices facilitated housing discrimination by allowing housing advertisers to prevent members of certain racial groups from seeing their ads.
Zuckerberg responded by saying that Facebook is looking into the issues and would follow up.
In January 2017, when then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to claim that President Donald Trump’s inauguration was the most-watched in history, it felt like the beginning of a new, dark era of politics and public life.
And it’s pretty disorienting.
I’ve spent much of the past several years reporting on political psychology, asking the country’s foremost experts on human behavior some variation of, “What the hell is going on in the United States?”
Thankfully, at a time when we really need answers, they often deliver.
Here are the social science lessons I keep coming back to, to help me explain what’s happening in America in the Trump era. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful too.
- Rooting for a team alters your perception of the world.
- We can be immune to uncomfortable facts.
- Leaders like Trump have special powers to sway public opinion.
- People don’t often make decisions based on the truth.
- Political opponents are often really, really bad at arguing with one another.
- White people’s fear of being replaced is incredibly powerful.
- It’s shockingly easy to grow numb to mass suffering.
- Fake news preys on our biases — and will be very hard to stamp out.
- Conspiracy theories may be rampant, but they’re a specific reaction to a dark, uncertain world.
An uncomfortable theme you might notice here is that our leaders, the groups we were born into, and, increasingly, our echo-chambered media ecosystems can bring out the worst psychological biases that exist in all of us.
In other words, no one, be they Democrat or Republican, is inherently stupid. “At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we use the same psychological processes,” Dominique Brossard, a communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison, recently told me.
Consider this a primer on what current events and politics can bring out in the human mind. And be warned: It’s not always pretty.
A version of this piece originally published in March 2017. This has been updated to reflect current events, new studies, and other reporting I’ve done since then.
1) Motivated reasoning: rooting for a team changes your perception of the world
Psychology has been called “the hardest science” because the human mind comes with so many messy inconsistencies. Even the best researchers can get tangled up in them. What’s more, it can take decades to establish a psychological theory, which could be torn down in a month with new evidence. But despite its flaws, psychology is still the best scientific tool we have to understand human behavior.
The key psychological concept for understanding politics, and one of the oldest, is motivated cognition, or motivated reasoning. It often means that rooting for a team alters our perception of reality.
In the 1950s, psychologists noted how fans of two football teams came to very different conclusions about who was at fault for rough play, despite the fact that the fans were watching the exact same footage. The psychologists concluded it was like the two sets of fans were watching a different game.
Our teams are lenses through which we interpret the world. In a more recent experiment, researchers showed participants a video of a protest that had been halted by the police. Half the subjects were told the protest was of an abortion clinic. The other half were told it was a protest against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
People inclined to support abortion rights thought the protesters were more disruptive in the abortion clinic condition. People who had strong egalitarian ideals were more likely to express support for the protesters for LGBTQ rights. Again, it was the same exact footage. All the changed were who the participants thought the protesters were.
One crucial thing to know about motivated reasoning is that you often don’t realize you’re doing it. We’re quicker to recognize information that confirms what we already know, which makes us blind to facts that discount it.
Which is perhaps why being on a team makes us more susceptible to believing in and remembering false news stories. In a 2013 study, liberals were more likely to (falsely) remember President George W. Bush being on vacation during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. Conservatives were more likely to say they remembered President Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran (which never happened).
And it can cause us to rationalize the logically absurd. Consider how the head of the conservative Family Research Council suggest Trump should get a “mulligan” for his alleged affair with a porn actress.
When the status of our teams changes, so do our opinions. When Gallup polled Americans the week before and the week after the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans flipped their perceptions of the economy, even though nothing had actually changed about the economy. What changed was which team was winning. The economic prospects of the country suddenly looked a lot better for Republicans once their candidate won.
We’re so prone to seeing the world in terms of us versus them that psychologists start seeing people exhibit group bias when they’re randomly sorted into arbitrary “blue” teams and “red” teams in an experiment.
But the fact that our group preferences are so quickly formed means they’re also easily changed: We start to view people in a more positive light if we start to view them as a compatriot. “We’re not hardwired to hate or [be] hostile to out-groups,” says Mina Cikara, a neuroscientist who studies intergroup bias at Harvard University. “All of these processes are flexible.”
2) Evolution has likely left us with an ideological immune system that fights off uncomfortable thoughts
There’s a reason we engage in motivated reasoning, a reason facts often don’t matter: evolution.
The human mind is a clever tool. We’ve used it to send rockets to the moon, and to invent wondrous things like pizza and air conditioning. But why did we evolve such cleverness in the first place?
One hypothesis: We became so smart to to be able to cooperate in groups. We’ve since adapted these skills to make breakthroughs in topics like science and math. But when pressed, we default to using our powers of mind to protect our groups.
In this light, motivated reasoning is an adaptation that helps bonds us to others and aids our survival. It helps our group members share a common reality. It guides us to favor the people we see as “us” and shun people we see as “them.”
It also forces us to avoid uncomfortable facts that could harm our groups. You can see this immune system working in action. It’s a “motivated ignorance,” and psychologists can see it work in real time.
A 2017 experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology presented partisan participants with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint. If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read the opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.
You’d think everyone would want to win more money, right? More money is better than less money.
No. A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. “They don’t know what’s going on the other side, and they don’t want to know,” Jeremy Frimer, the University of Winnipeg psychologist who led the study, said in an interview.
In another test, Frimer and colleagues essentially asked participants to rate how interested they were in learning about alternative political viewpoints compared to activities like “watching paint dry,” “sitting quietly,” “going for a walk on a sunny day,” and “having a tooth pulled.”
The results: Listening to a political opponent isn’t as awful as getting a tooth pulled, but it’s trending in that direction. It’s certainly a lot more awful than taking a leisurely stroll.
This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be genuinely unpleasant. They insult our groups and, by extension, us. So we reject these facts, like our immune system would reject a pathogen.
“The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body,” Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, said in a 2017 interview. “The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.”
And here’s a final sticking point that keeps people away from facts. It’s often not the facts themselves that people fear and avoid. It’s where they lead.
This is called “solution aversion,” and it helps explain why many conservatives are wary of the science of climate change; many solutions to climate change involve increasing government oversight and regulations. Similarly, perhaps, this is why so many Trump supporters discredict the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling. The possible conclusion — that Trump’s election was doctored by outside influences — is unsettling.
3) Leaders like Trump have enormous power to sway public opinion
We’re motivated to believe what our groups believe. In the Trump era, that has yielded some stunning shifts in public opinion.
Most notably, the rise of Donald Trump has coincided with some remarkable changes of mind among Republicans.
In 2015, just 12 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Gallup. In February 2017, the firm found 32 percent of Republicans liked him, despite mounting concerns that Russia had run a campaign to influence the election.
In 2014, according to a YouGov poll, 9 percent of Republicans considered Russia to be a friend or ally to the United States. In early 2018, that figure was 23 percent.
Or take the issue of free trade: Historically, conservatives have been in favor of it. But from 2015 to 2017, Republican support of free trade dropped from 56 percent in 2015 to just 36 percent in 2017, according to Pew.
Researchers have long wondered whether strong shifts in public opinion come from the top down: that partisans simply follow their leaders cues on issues. Or from the bottom up: that leaders try to reflect their followers’ ideology. The Trump era has given us some good evidence that the “follow the leader” effect is real.
In January 2017, two Brigham Young University political scientists designed an experiment to take advantage of the fact that, aside from a few issues like immigration, trade, and a reluctance to disparage Russia, Trump has few consistent policy ideas. They wondered: Will Trump supporters follow him wherever his policy whims go? So right after the inauguration, they ran an online experiment with 1,300 Republicans.
The study was pretty simple. Participants were asked to rate whether they supported or opposed policies like a higher minimum wage, the nuclear agreement with Iran, restrictions on abortion access, background checks for gun owners, and so on.
One-third of the participants read statements where they were told Trump supported a liberal position, like this:
Please indicate whether or not you support or oppose the statement.
To increase the minimum wage to over $10 an hour. Donald Trump has said that he supports this policy. How about you? Do you support or oppose increasing the minimum wage to over $10 an hour?
The control group of the experiment saw these questions, but they didn’t mention Trump. Another arm of the experiments tested what happened when Trump was said to support conservative policies.
When participants were told Trump supported a liberal policy, Trump supporters were more likely to support it too. They followed their leader. “The conclusion we should draw is that the public, the average Republican sitting out there in America, is not going to stop Trump from doing whatever he wants,” Jeremy Pope, a co-author of the study, said. The effect even held true on questions about immigration. If Trump supported a lax immigration policy, his supporters said they did too.
Past experiments with liberal participants have found a similar effect: Liberals are more likely to support conservative policies when told their leaders support conservative policies. And it’s possible that when people are changing their minds in this manner, they’re not even aware their minds are changing.
You don’t have to look too far in the news to know Trump is particularly adept at polarizing the public. Just look at what happened when he started going after NFL teams and players this past fall for kneeling during the national anthem. Nearly overnight, Trump supporters began to express strong negative feelings about the league. Yes, that’s conservative Americans expressing a dislike of football. Hard to imagine in a previous time.
The takeaway from all of this: Even though Trump remains a largely unpopular president, he still has enormous power to influence the opinions of millions of people who support him.
But it’s also important to not overstate how powerful an effect this is in the mind of Trump voters. It’s not like they’ve been totally brainwashed, their prior convictions replaced with the whims of their leader.
The truth is that many people don’t think all that often, or all that deeply, about policy (except for you, dear Vox reader). When we’re confronted with a hard question like, “What do I think about tax policy,” we often substitute it for an easier question: “What might leaders of my party say about tax policy?”
It’s a cognitive shortcut. And we all use them.
“These shortcuts can be political ideology; it could be religiosity, deference to scientific authority,” says Dominique Brossard, the University of Wisconsin communications researcher. “We defer to organizations and institutions to make sense of things for us.”
Remember, you can be both biased — say, predisposed to believe climate scientists on global warming — and correct.
4) People can understand inconvenient facts. But it’s very hard to make them matter.
Here’s some good news: It’s possible to use fact-checking to nudge people to believe in the truth. Here’s the bad news: People don’t make decisions based on facts.
In a recent experiment, political scientist Brendan Nyhan and colleagues found that Trump supporters were willing to admit Trump misrepresents facts. “But it didn’t have much of an effect on what they felt about him,” Nyhan says.
So facts can sink in, but they don’t always change our behavior and opinions. Let that sink in.
In fact, studies find that people who know more facts about politics are more likely to be stubborn and partisan. We don’t use our smarts to get at the truth. Instead, “people are using their reason to be socially competent actors,” says Dan Kahan, a psychologist at Yale. Put another way: We have a lot of pressure to live up to our groups’ expectations. And the smarter we are, the more we put our brain power to use for that end.
In his studies, Kahan will often give participants different kinds of math problems.
When the problem is about nonpolitical issues, like figuring out the whether a drug is effective, people tend to use their math skills to solve it. But when they’re evaluating something political — let’s say, the effectiveness of gun control measures — math knowledge no longer matters. On these political questions, math knowledge actually makes it more likely for partisans to be biased. “The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them,” Ezra Klein explained in a profile of Kahan’s work.
And it’s not just for math problems: Kahan finds that Republicans who have higher levels of scientific knowledge are more stubborn when it comes to questions about climate change. The pattern is consistent: The more information we have, the more we bend it to serve our political aims.
This is another point where the debate over “fake news” is misguided: It’s not the case that if only people had perfectly true information, everyone would suddenly agree.
5) It’s really hard to change political opponents’ minds by arguing with them
The answer to polarization and political division is not simply exposing people to another point of view.
Recently, researchers at Duke, NYU, and Princeton ran an experiment where they paid a large sample of Democratic and Republican Twitter users to read more opinions from the other side. “We found no evidence that inter-group contact on social media reduces political polarization,” the authors wrote. Republicans in the experiment actually grew more conservative over the course of the test. Liberals in the experiment grew very slightly more liberal.
A psychological theory called “moral foundations” can help explain why our arguments often fail spectacularly at changing minds.
Moral foundations is the idea that people have stable, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. The liberal moral foundations include equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative moral foundations favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.
Moral foundations explain why messages highlighting equality and fairness resonate with liberals and why more patriotic messages like “make America great again” get some conservative hearts pumping.
Consider the unending gun control debate. Liberals make their arguments for restricting access in terms of protecting the vulnerable, and injustice (i.e., it’s not right that so many Americans have to live in fear of gun violence). Conservatives, meanwhile, ground their case in self-determination (i.e., I ought to be able to protect myself).
The thing is, we often don’t realize that people have moral foundations different from our own. When we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.
In a study, psychologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg had around 200 conservative and liberal study participants write essays to sway political opponents on the acceptance of same-sex marriage or to make English the official language of the United States.
Almost all the participants made the same mistake.
Only 9 percent of the liberals in the study made arguments that reflected conservative moral principles; only 8 percent of the conservative made arguments that had a chance of swaying a liberal. No wonder it’s so hard to change another person’s mind.
The bottom line: It helps to be empathetic when arguing with another person.
6) White people’s fear of being replaced is a powerful motivator
Last August, the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, were not ashamed when they shouted, “You will not replace us,” and, “Jews will not replace us.”
On the face of it, their fear — replacement — is absurd. White people (particularly white men) have been the dominant political and economic class of Americans from before this country’s founding.
But they actually do seem to feel this way. In April 2017, a team of psychologists got a sample of 447 self-identified alt-righters (though not those involved in the Charlottesville rally) in an online survey and led them through a barrage of psychological survey questions. They then compared the alt-righters to an online sample of 382 non-alt-righters.
The survey revealed that the alt-righters were much more concerned that their in-groups were at a disadvantage, compared to the control sample. The alt-right is afraid of being displaced by increasing numbers of immigrants and outsiders in this country. Yes, they see themselves as potential victims.
It’s easy to think these fears are abhorrent and confined to just people on the fringe. But they also do exist, to a smaller degree, among the mainstream, and among people who might not consider themselves to be racist.
These fears of outsiders, fears of replacement, and racial animus have become a powerful political instigator. Forty-one percent of white millennials voted for Trump. And among this group, political scientists find that a feeling that white people are losing out to other races is prevalent. “White millennials who scored high on the white vulnerability scale were 74 percent more likely to vote for Trump than those at the bottom of the scale,” political scientists Matthew Fowler, Vladimir E. Medenica, and, Cathy J. Cohen explain of their results in the Washington Post.
In experiments, when white participants are reminded that a majority of Americans will belong to minority groups in just a few decades, they begin to feel less warm toward members of other races. One test even showed that reminding white people of this trend increased support for Trump.
“People who think of themselves as not prejudiced (and liberal) demonstrate these threat effects,” said Jennifer Richeson, a leading researcher on racial bias who has conducted much of this research.
When people hear of one group rising in numbers, “a sense of a zero-sum competition between groups is activated,” Maureen Craig, who has collaborated with Richeson, says. When people hear about the rise of one group, they automatically fear it will mean a decline in their own. This happens even in well-intentioned people.
What this doesn’t mean is that all white people harbor extreme racial animus. It means fear is an all-too-easy button for politicians to press. We fear unthinkingly. It directs our actions. And it nudges us to believe the person who says he will vanquish our fears.
There’s also this fact to contend with: Negative, scary information is almost always more sticky and memorable than positive information.
And we tend to exaggerate the threat of people we don’t like. A 2012 paper nicely demonstrates this. The test was simple: The researchers asked participants to estimate the straight-line distance from New York to Mexico City. Participants who expressed more animosity toward Mexican immigrants rated Mexico City as being several hundred miles closer to New York than people who felt less threatened. The adversaries, in their minds, appeared to be much closer than they actually were. If people think the wall between the countries is secure, the effect goes away.
Savvy politicians understand that fear is motivating, and craft messages that stoke it. It’s hard to blame people for being afraid, and ideas like border walls might make them feel a bit more at ease. It’s just in our nature. But you can blame politicians who prey on it.
7) It’s shockingly easy to grow numb to the suffering of others
You might think that every time we see a shooting death or we’re reminded that there are millions of refugees and displaced people around the world, we’d all feel greater and greater empathy, and greater and greater sadness.
But no. It’s human to feel numb over time.
There’s a profound and infuriating psychological concept that can help explain increasing numbness in the face of long, slow-burning tragedy like mass gun violence in America. It’s this: As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to do something, reliably decreases.
This tendency is called psychic numbing. It describes how tragedies turn into abstractions in our minds, and how abstractions are easily attenuated and even ignored.
“There is no constant value for a human life,” University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, the leading expert on psychic numbing, said in an interview. “The value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”
One of his recent studies demonstrated this simply. Slovic and his colleagues asked participants how willing they would be to donate money to children in need. And all it took was raising the number of victims from one to two to see a decrease in empathy and donations to the children.
In another experiment, Slovic found participants were less likely to act on behalf of 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if the camp had 250,000 inhabitants than if it had 11,000, even though 4,500 lives should be as important in any context. It’s infuriating.
“The feeling system doesn’t really add,” Slovic explains. “It can’t multiply; it doesn’t handle numbers very well.”
That’s why it’s not surprising six out of 10 Americans support a travel ban that, in part, bars refugees from entering America. That many lawmakers aren’t horrified by the possibility of booting tens of millions from health insurance. That the world looked on as millions died in war and genocide in Darfur. That we haven’t really grappled as a nation with the opioid epidemic, which killed 33,000 people in 2015.
It’s not surprising why political leaders often turn a blind eye toward refugees, or grow callous when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.
8) Fake news preys on our biases — and will be incredibly hard to stamp out
Hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and fabricated news are nothing new in human history. But today, aided by social media, they spread at alarming speed. And they have terrifying consequences.
Fake news is so pernicious because it preys on our biases. “Fake news is perfect for spreadability: It’s going to be shocking, it’s going to be surprising, and it’s going to be playing on people’s emotions, and that’s a recipe for how to spread misinformation,” Miriam Metzger, a UC Santa Barbara communications researcher, says.
After tragedies like the Parkland, Florida, school shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, we’ve seen false news stories and rumors spread on social media at a frightening speed — often outpacing the truth.
Recently, the journal Science published a study validating that feeling — at least when it comes to the spread of misinformation on Twitter. The study analyzed millions of tweets sent between 2006 and 2017 and came to a chilling conclusion: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” It also found that “the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”
But perhaps even more important is what the study reveals about what’s responsible for fueling the momentum of false news stories. It’s not influential Twitter accounts with millions of followers, or Russian bots designed to automatically tweet misinformation. It’s ordinary Twitter users, with meager followings, most likely just sharing the false news stories with their friends. And it’s perhaps due to a simple reason: False stories are often more surprising than real stories.
What’s frustrating is that algorithms like YouTube’s recommended video feed, or Facebook’s newsfeed, or Google News, often promote false stories (perhaps in part because we tend to find this content engaging).
But each time a reader encounters one of these stories on Facebook, Google, or really anywhere, it makes a subtle impression. Each time, the story grows more familiar. And that familiarity casts the illusion of truth.
Psychologists call this the illusory truth effect. It’s the simple finding that the more often a lie is repeated, the more likely it is to be believed.
When you’re hearing something for the second or third time, your brain becomes faster to respond to it. “And your brain misattributes that fluency as a signal for it being true,” says Lisa Fazio, a psychologist who studies learning and memory at Vanderbilt University. The more you hear something, the more “you’ll have this gut-level feeling that maybe it’s true.”
9) Conspiracy theories may be rampant — but they’re a specific reaction to a dark, uncertain world
Perhaps the darkest consequence of our strange age, where human psychology mashes up against hyperpartisanship and social algorithm-driven media distribution, is how conspiracy theories — often cruel, damaging ones — so easily circulate.
Shortly after the school shooting in Parkland left 17 dead, the No. 1 trending video on YouTube was based on a lie. The video alleged that David Hogg — a 17-year-old survivor of the Parkland shooting, who had become a compelling and sympathetic proponent of gun control, making the rounds on cable news — was an actor.
The pain inflicted by conspiracy theories can be immense: To this day, parents of children slain in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are charged with making up the whole thing (including the lives of their children), for example.
Consider the agony of the family of Seth Rich, the Democratic Nationally Committee staffer who was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt in 2016. Despite zero evidence, conspiracy theorists and prominent conservative pundits have been fanning the suspicion that Rich’s murder was orchestrated by the Clinton campaign. “Seth’s death has been turned into a political football,” Rich’s parents wrote at the Washington Post. “Every day we wake up to new headlines, new lies, new factual errors, new people approaching us to take advantage of us and Seth’s legacy.”
Arguably, Trump — who for years boosted the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States — adds flames to this fire. “Trump, in trying to combat the media, delegitimized the media, and has created an environment in which conspiracy theory is normalized,” Asheley Landrum, a Texas Tech University psychologist who studied motivated reasoning, told me in December.
And rest assured, conspiracy theories spread on the left too.
Conspiracy theories are a type of motivated reasoning, Landrum explains. After the Parkland shooting, conspiracy theories that the teenage survivors were actors could, presumably, undercut their powerful anti-gun message.
But there’s also a more empathetic way to view conspiracy theorists: “It’s a self-protective mechanism people have,” Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist who studies conspiracy theories, told me last year. The theories are a tool by which people can feel more in control and find explanations in a scary and turbulent world.
People who feel powerless and who are more pessimistic are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, van Prooijen finds. And this is where education and outreach can help. Achieving higher levels of education correlates to feeling more secure about the world, and this, in turn, seems to protect against a conspiratorial mindset.
The thought of kids being gunned down at school is horrible. Why wouldn’t we seek refuge in a theory that insists it wasn’t so bad after all?
Further reading: political psychology in the age of Trump
You’ve just read more than 5,000 words on political psychology! Wow. Congrats! I’m impressed.
But if you want to read a few thousand more, here’s what I recommend:
- NYU psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira have a great, easy-to-read academic explainer on how our political identities shape our beliefs. Follow the citations in this article and learn nearly everything there is to know about political psychology.
- Racial bias isn’t always subdued and implicit. It’s often explicit, and people are not ashamed of it. The psychology of dehumanization helps explain racial animus. Researchers Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau find in their work that literally thinking of some racial groups as less than human is uncomfortably common in America.
- Ezra Klein’s How politics makes us stupid was one of the first pieces published at Vox, and it’s still relevant. In it, he discusses Dan Kahan’s work on how we use our intellect to benefit our groups, not the truth.
- After Trump’s election, America may have grown coarser, meaner. At the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova explains how societal norms change.
- Vox’s German Lopez sums up the evidence that racial resentment was a key factor in Trump’s victory.
- Lopez also has a great, thorough discussion on ways to reduce racial bias.
- And finally: Political persuasion is very hard. But it’s not impossible. Here are two promising efforts that show it’s possible to reduce bias.
Before many people join a network, it may not be so useful. But the more people join, the more useful it becomes. That’s the network effect. Facebook is a step beyond that — it’s the network effect on steroids.
This is what makes Facebook so great: It knows everything about you! That’s also what makes Facebook so awful: It knows everything about you. And while its 2.13 billion monthly users don’t pay any money to use the core service, Facebook makes plenty of money — millions daily — by selling access to users’ data to advertisers. And everyone on the site agreed to this when they signed up.
What happened with Cambridge Analytica illustrates how our personal boundaries for using that data in the real world are being tested. Facebook allows academic researchers more access to user data than commercial companies and app developers. So a researcher built a personality quiz app under those guidelines, and people used the app — and in doing so, allowed it to harvest anonymized data from their Facebook profiles.
But they also gave the app access to data from their friends, who did not directly consent to the terms of the app. So while only 270,000 users took the quiz, by Facebook’s latest estimate, the app was able to harvest data of at least 87 million users. Here’s the kicker: This was all aboveboard. The data collection didn’t violate any rules.
But what wasn’t allowed was selling that data — originally collected for research purposes — to Cambridge Analytica, which used it for business purposes.
This has a lot of people frustrated with Facebook. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much to Facebook’s bottom line whether you like their website, only that you’re using it. Because remember, you’re not just a customer; you’re also the product. And Facebook knows that as long as your 2 billion friends are online, you’re probably not going anywhere.
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President Donald Trump is toying with firing special counsel Robert Mueller, openly attacking him on Wednesday morning by calling him biased. Now a bipartisan group of senators is trying to save Mueller’s job.
Lawmakers led by Republicans Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Democrats Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced a long-shot bill Wednesday that would give judges a chance to reinstate Mueller if Trump fires him without a good reason.
“In order to avert a constitutional crisis, Congress has to act to protect Mueller’s investigation,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) told me in an email.
Tough rhetoric aside, the bill has little chance of making it through the House and Senate with margins big enough to overcome a certain presidential veto. There are also legitimate questions about whether it would be constitutional because the legislative branch isn’t supposed to meddle in the everyday functioning of the executive branch
Still, the simple fact that Republicans are abruptly working to pass the bill illustrates the mounting concerns about Mueller’s job security in the wake Trump’s outbursts after the FBI raided his lawyer Michael Cohen’s office Monday.
“A nation of laws cannot exist if the people tasked with enforcing them are subjected to political interference or intimidation from the president,” Booker said in an emailed statement.
The problem for Booker and his allies is that they have little to no realistic chance of preventing Trump from axing Mueller.
How the Senate would protect Mueller
The new bill, called the Special Counsel Integrity Act, would give Mueller a chance to appeal to a special three-judge panel if Trump fires him.
Current law says that Trump can only fire Mueller “for good cause,” meaning if Mueller does something wrong like major misconduct. The new bill would give Mueller 10 days to challenge his termination in a specially convened court. A three-judge panel would then decide if Trump had a valid reason to fire Mueller, and they could reinstate him if Trump didn’t.
The bill would also require that the Justice Department save all the documents generated by the special counsel’s office while the judges review Mueller’s firing.
Those bills floundered for months as Graham and Tillis wavered in their support. It’s only when Trump’s new direct attacks against Mueller started on Monday, after the FBI raided Cohen’s office, that the senators hammered out a deal on a combined bill.
One of the reasons the earlier two Senate bills didn’t advance was lingering concern among some Republicans that changing the rules on firing Mueller might be unconstitutional.
The idea is that Mueller is working in the executive branch as part of the Justice Department, and Congress isn’t supposed to interfere in the functioning of another branch of government.
Legal scholars who talked to Golshan said that a 1988 Supreme Court case, Morrison v. Olson, probably means that the law would be okay. Congress is typically allowed to shape the other branches of government; it just can’t directly interfere.
But getting to the point of a potential legal challenge is highly unlikely.
The bill is probably symbolic, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t appear interested in allowing a vote on a bill to protect Mueller.
“I haven’t seen a clear indication yet that we need to pass something to keep him from being removed,” McConnell said Tuesday.
The bill is unlikely to pass
The legislation would first have to go through the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee’s chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), is pushing for the committee to review the bill on Wednesday.
But even if the Judiciary Committee approves it, and McConnell changes his mind and allows a vote, the bill would also have to pass the House, where the odds of a vote on it appear low.
“Given the current leadership in the House and their recent history of turning a blind eye to, or even enabling, this president’s actions, I find it highly unlikely that they would act to protect” the special counsel, Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) told me in an email.
House Democrats are trying to protect Mueller, and they’ve drafted several bills of their own. Those bills haven’t gone anywhere yet, although Democrats continue to push.
Even if the bill doesn’t have a shot at becoming law, the sudden resurrection of bipartisan support in the Senate shows just how scared lawmakers are that Trump’s recent attacks might be a prelude to firing Mueller. If Trump does so anyway, the question will be what, if anything, Republicans do.
California is exploring a bold and controversial new plan to rein in health care spending by letting the state government set medical prices.
The bill will no doubt face significant opposition from the health care industry. California has struggled to pass more modest attempts at health care price controls before, like a 2016 ballot initiative that would have allowed the state to regulate drug prices in certain programs.
Still, California’s new proposal is worth examining as one that steps closer to single-payer — but doesn’t go quite all the way. It’s one plausible step a state could take without any assistance from the Trump administration, as we see more blue states looking for ways to shape the future of their own health care systems.
”I think we have appreciated how much we’ve been able to do with transparency and data, and how much we’ve been able to collect, but we reached the point where we felt like we had to tackle the issue of prices head on,” says Sara Flocks, policy coordinator for the California Labor Federation, which is backing the proposal.
The California proposal would give a new state board authority to regulate the prices that health insurance plans charge for anything from a doctor visit to a knee replacement. It would use Medicare prices as a baseline, setting prices as a percentage of what the federal program that covers elderly Americans currently charges.
This system would be similar — but not quite the same — to something we usually call all-payer rate setting, where the government doesn’t run all the health care insurance plans but does tightly regulate the prices they charge.
All-payer rate setting essentially shares the same goals of single-payer: It aims to increase efficiency and reduce insurer overhead in the health care system. Single-payer does this by eliminating private plans for one government plan. All-payer rate setting gets there by setting one price that every health insurer pays for any given medical procedure.
”[All-payer] has everything except the government-run plan,” Mark Pauly, a health economist at the University of Pennsylvania, has told me. “In all-payer systems, the government uses Blue Cross and other insurers as their agent. For consumers, it’s the exact same except for who they write their check for premiums to.”
Now, this California proposal isn’t quite an all-payer rate setting system: It wouldn’t have the state set rates for Medicare and Medicaid, which cover about one-third of all Californians. That type of plan would need a sign-off from the federal government, and it’s highly unlikely the Trump administration would give the go-ahead.
The people who put this proposal together did so with an eye toward creating something that wouldn’t need any approval from the federal government, something the state could do on its own.
”It’s clear that people want action; they want us to do something that is going to create relief,” says Ash Kalra, the California Assembly member sponsoring the bill. “We’re seeking opportunities that we can pursue as a state, without the hurdles and complications of working with the federal government.”
This means the California system wouldn’t be quite as efficient as a true all-payer system. Hospitals, for example, would need administrative staff to figure out how much a Medicare plan gets billed versus a commercial one.
Still, just setting commercial rates would be a really significant increase in efficiency. Prices in California — as in every other state — are all over the place. One especially revealing study from UC San Francisco’s Renee Hsia showed that the price of a routine appendectomy in the state can range from $1,500 to $182,955.
That ends up exceptionally expensive for the patient who gets billed $182,955 — and for the overall health care system, which has a whole medical bureaucracy built around figuring out which health insurance plan gets billed which amount for the exact same procedure.
The California plan leaves one key question addressed: how high it would set medical prices. Instead, it establishes a commission that will “establish prices for doctors.” Where those prices end up will, obviously, be critical to whether a plan like this actually saves money.
This is an area where Kalra, the legislative sponsor, was pretty moderate. He argued that the commission wouldn’t be used to make drastic cuts because of the disruption those could cause.
”Just by controlling costs at even today’s level, that will save hundreds of billions of dollars for Californians in the future,” he says. “I’m not looking to go back and set rates where they were 20 years ago. This is a prospective bill the commission would be looking at today and going forward. The suggestion that this is to go after hospital or doctors by slashing their compensation is just not true.”
This is a fine line that any health care cost effort has to walk. Cuts that are big enough to meaningfully reduce health care spending are often those that would be most disruptive — and beget more opposition from the health care industry.
The California plan is still a nascent one, but one that I’ll be keeping an eye on, especially as Democrats begin to think more seriously about single-payer systems. This is the type of health care reform that doesn’t go all the way there but takes a big step in the single-payer direction.
Want to nerd out even more about this California proposal, and other state efforts to set health care rates? Tune in to my podcast The Weeds this Friday, where Matt Yglesias, Dylan Scott, and I will do a deep dive into all-payer rate setting. Subscribe to the show here.
This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox along with more health care stats and news.