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Making Sense of the Facebook Menace

Every day, a Twitter account run by Kevin Roose, a technology reporter for The New York Times, posts a list of the top 10 sources of the highest-performing links on Facebook in the United States.On one Friday in November, the list began with CNN. The eighth and ninth entries were NPR. But the seven others…

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Making Sense of the Facebook Menace

Every day, a Twitter account run by Kevin Roose, a technology reporter for The New York Times, posts a
list of the
top 10 sources of the highest-performing links on Facebook in the United States.

On one Friday in November, the list began with CNN. The eighth and ninth entries were NPR. But the seven others
were from Donald J. Trump, evangelical Trump supporter Franklin Graham, and conspiracy theorist Dan Bongino.
Indeed, Bongino, once largely unknown outside the world of right-wing Facebook groups and obscure video sites,
owned four of the top 10 spots. On many days Bongino, Trump, Breit­bart, Newsmax, and Fox News dominate the
list. Occasionally, The New York Times, Senator Bernie Sanders, or former President Barack Obama will
puncture the top 10. But consistently, suspect right-wing sources show up with far greater frequency than
legitimate news organizations.

What does this list tell us? Not as much as it might seem. The list obscures far more than it
illustrates—despite its popularity among reporters and pundits who regularly cite it to demonstrate a
right-wing political bias on Facebook. It’s worse than a rough measure of how the planet’s largest media system
handles a flood of politically charged content; it’s a distorting one. That’s because it pushes us to focus on
Facebook as a player in a narrow, American, partisan shouting match. And by homing in on this microstory, we
miss the real, much more substantial threat that Facebook poses to democracy around the world.

Roose’s top 10 list, along with shoddy, hyperbolic broadsides like the recent Netflix documentary The Social
Dilemma
, and constant invocations of the odious things Facebook failed to remove but should have, have
all pushed the timbre of public debate about Facebook to questions of “content moderation.” Obvious
political rooting interests aside, these screeds about unchecked incendiary and extremist content coursing
through the site are structurally akin to the steady chorus of Republican whining—orchestrated by
bad-faith actors such as GOP Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz—about anecdotal and often fictional claims
of Facebook “censoring” conservative content. It ultimately matters very little that this item or
that item flowed around Facebook.

There is far more to Facebook than what scrolls through the site’s News Feed in the United States—which
becomes readily apparent when you follow the campaign money. As the leaders of the two major U.S. parties
criticized Facebook for working against their interests, both campaigns spent heavily on the platform’s
advertising system. The Biden campaign spent nearly the same amount on Facebook ads that Trump’s reelection
effort did. The Trump campaign repeated the Facebook-first tactics that created a strong advantage in the 2016
cycle, using the platform to rally volunteers, raise money, and identify infrequent voters who might turn out
for Trump. So while both parties screamed about Facebook and yelled at Mark Zuckerberg as he sat stoically
before congressional committees, they gladly fed the beast. Everyone concedes that the power of Facebook, and
the temptation to harness it for the lesser good—or no good at all—is too tempting.

In one sense, this broadly shared political obsession with Facebook—together with other key mega-platforms
such as Twitter and Google—was refreshing. For too long policymakers and politicians saw these companies
as at worst benign, and all too often as great, American success stories. Criticism was long overdue. Still, the
tone and substance of that criticism were unhelpful—even counterproductive.

Panning still further back to assess how Facebook influenced the conjoined causes of decency and democracy around
the world, the picture gets darker still. Over the past year, scores of countries with heavy Facebook usage,
from Poland to Bolivia, ran major elections—and the results show a deeply anti-democratic trend within
the site that goes far beyond partisan complaints seeking to advance this or that body of grievances.

Despite all the noise and pressure from potential regulators, Facebook made only cosmetic changes to its
practices and policies that have fostered anti-democratic—often violent—movements for years.
Facebook blocked new campaign ads in the week before November 3, but because many states opted for early mail-in
voting as they contended with a new spike of Covid-19 infections, the ban kicked in many weeks after Americans
had started voting. Facebook executives expanded the company’s staff to vet troublesome posts, but failed to
enforce its own policies when Trump and other conservative interests were at stake. Company leaders also
appointed a largely symbolic review board without any power to direct Facebook to clean up its service and
protect its users. Sure, Trump did not pull off the same Facebook-directed upset he did in 2016, and he lost the
popular vote more soundly in 2020—and, unlike the 2016 Clinton campaign, Joe Biden did not allow Trump to
flip close states by using targeted Facebook advertisements. But, more than anything Facebook itself did, that
was a matter of the Biden campaign playing the Facebook game better.

Regardless, democracy is not about one side winning. Democracy is about one side losing and supporters of that
side trusting the result, being satisfied with the process, and remaining willing to play the game again under
similar rules. Democracy is also about a citizenry that is willing and able to converse frankly and honestly
about the problems it faces, sharing a set of facts and some forums through which informed citizens may
deliberate. Clearly, none of that is happening in the United States, and less and less of it is happening around
the world. Facebook’s dominance over the global media ecosystem is one reason why.

If we want to take seriously the relationship between the global media ecosystem and the fate of democracy, we
must think of Facebook as a major—but hardly the only—contributing factor in a torrent of stimuli
that flow by us and through us. This torrent is like a giant Facebook News Feed blaring from every speaker and
screen on street corners, car dashboards, and mobile phones, demanding our fleeting-yet-shallow attention. Each
source and piece of content tugs at us, sorts us, divides us, and distracts us. The commercial imperatives of
this system track us and monitor us, rendering us pawns in a billion or so speed-chess games, all half-played,
all reckless and sloppy, lacking any sustained thought, resistant by both design and commercial imperative to
anything like sustained concentration.

This global ecosystem consists of interlocking parts that work synergistically. Stories, rumors, and claims that
flourish on message boards frequented by hackers and trolls flow out to white supremacist or QAnon-dominated
Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, and Facebook groups. Sometimes they start on RT (formerly Russia Today) on
orders from the Kremlin. Sometimes they end up on RT later. Sometimes they start on Fox News. Sometimes they end
up on Fox News later. Sometimes Trump amplifies them with his Twitter account—which is, of course, echoed
by his Facebook page, and then by countless other pages run by his supporters. By then, producers at CNN or the
BBC might feel compelled to take the item seriously. Then everything churns around again.

Facebook is what Neil Postman would have called a metamedium: a medium that contains all other media—text,
images, sounds, videos. It’s improper to ask if Facebook is a publisher or a network, a media company or a tech
company. The answer is always “yes.” Facebook is sui generis. Nothing in human history has monitored
2.7 billion people at once. Nothing has had such intimate influence on so many people’s social relations, views,
and range of knowledge. Nothing else has ever made it as easy to find like-minded people and urge them toward
opinion or action. Facebook may be the greatest tool for motivation we have ever known. It might be the worst
threat to deliberation we have ever faced. Democracies need both motivation and deliberation to thrive.

That content cycle—from 8kun to Fox & Friends to Trump and back—and the question of what
sort of content does flow or should flow across these interlocking channels of stimuli matter less than the
cacophony the content creates over time. Cacophony undermines our collective ability to address complex problems
like infectious diseases, climate change, or human migration. We can’t seem to think and talk like grown-ups
about the problems we face. It’s too easy and inaccurate to claim that Facebook or any other particular
invention caused this problem. But it’s clear that the role Facebook has played in the radical alteration in the
global public sphere over the past decade has only accelerated the cacophony—and compounded the damage it
creates.

This means that reforming Facebook through internal pressure, commercial incentives, or regulatory crackdowns
would not be enough. Breaking Facebook into pieces, creating three dangerous social media services instead of
one, would not be enough. We must think more boldly, more radically, about what sort of media ecosystem we need
and deserve if we wish for democracy and decency to have a chance in the remainder of the twenty-first century.


The Facebook top 10 list is a perfect example of something that seems to teach us about Facebook and
democracy but, in fact, does not. Roose derives the list from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned engagement-metrics tool
that allows users to track how public content travels across popular Facebook pages, groups, and verified profiles.
Importantly, CrowdTangle ignores the growing role of private Facebook groups and any direct messages shared among
Facebook users. And the more salient—if decidedly wonky—point here is that this list measures relative
prevalence rather than absolute prevalence. “Top 10” is a relative measure. It could be “top
10” out of 450, like the “top 10 tallest players in the NBA.” But the Facebook top 10 list gives
no sense of the denominator. A top 10 sampling out of millions or billions might be meaningful, if the reach of the
top 10 is significantly greater than the median measure. But given how diverse Facebook users and content sources
are, even just in the United States, that’s not likely.

Claiming a position among the top 10 links on Facebook’s News Feed might not mean much if none of the top 10
actually reached many people at all. Given that millions of Facebook posts from millions of sources go up every
minute, we can’t assume that any source in the top 10 made any difference at all. The 10 tallest buildings in
Washington, D.C., are all very short buildings—in an absolute sense—compared with, say, those in New
York City. But they are still relatively tall within D.C.

And, just as important, the prevalence of Facebook sources does not indicate influence. Many people can watch a
video of one of Trump’s speeches, yet most of them could reject it, or even share it in order to deride or
ridicule it. Others could encounter it and think nothing of it. Propaganda is never simple, unidirectional, or
predictable—and most people are not dupes.

There’s also the issue of scale—something that critics of Facebook should never ignore in assessing its
impact. Roose’s list simply reflects a moment in time in the United States of America, where only about 230
million of the 2.7 billion Facebook users live. To conclude from it that Facebook favors right-wing content is
to ignore the possibility that left-wing content might rule such a list in Mexico or Peru, or that anti-Hindu
and anti-Muslim content might dominate such a list in Sri Lanka. It could be all about the Bundesliga, the
German soccer league, in Germany. We can’t know. Only Facebook has the rich data that could shed light on both
reach and influence of particular sources of content across the vast and diverse population of Facebook users.
But of course Facebook is not talking—such information may further damage the company’s reputation as a
responsible actor in any number of imperiled democratic polities. And far more consequently, it’s key to the
company’s wildly successful business model.

All these bigger-picture concerns allow us to see a larger, more disturbing truth about Facebook than the
stateside push for political influence on the site conveys. Facebook—the most pervasive and powerful media
system the world has ever seen—does indeed work better for authoritarian, racist, sexist, extremist,
anti-democratic, and conspiratorial content and actors. In fact, if you wanted to design a propaganda machine to undermine democracy around the world, you could not make one better than Facebook. Above that, the leadership of
Facebook has consistently bent its policies to favor the interests of the powerful around the world. As
authoritarian nationalists have risen to power in recent years—often by campaigning through
Facebook—Facebook has willingly and actively assisted them.

The question of just what role Facebook could play in the sustenance of democracy first arose in 2011, with the poorly named and poorly understood “Arab Spring” uprisings. At the height of these protests, Facebook received far too much credit for promoting long-simmering resentments and long-building movements across North Africa and the Middle East. Eager to endorse and exploit the myth that a U.S.-based tech colossus was democratizing the new global order with the click of a few million cursors, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embedded technological imperialism into U.S. policy. They aggressively championed the spread of digital technology and social media under the mistaken impression that such forces would empower reformers and resisters of tyranny rather than the tyrants themselves.

Over the ensuing decade, a rising corps of nationalist autocrats such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Andrzej Duda of Poland, Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, and the brutal junta that still rules Myanmar, quickly learned to exploit Facebook. The platform’s constant surveillance of users and opportunistic sorting of citizens—to say nothing of its
proprietary algorithms that focus attention on the most extreme and salacious content, and its powerful targeted
advertising system—have been an indispensable tool kit for the aspiring autocrat. In order to be at the
vanguard of a global democratic uprising, Facebook would clearly have to be designed for a species better than
ours. It’s as if no one working there in its early years considered the varieties of human cruelty—and the
amazing extent to which amplified and focused propaganda might unleash it on entire ethnicities or populations.

Facebook, with its billions of monthly active users posting in more than 100 languages around the world, is
biased along two vectors. The first vector is algorithmic amplification of content that generates strong
emotions. By design, Facebook amplifies content that is likely to generate strong emotional reactions from
users: clicks, shares, “likes,” and comments. The platform engineers these predictions of greatest
user engagement by means of advanced machine-learning systems that rely on billions of signals rendered by users
around the world over more than a decade. This content could range from cute pictures of babies and golden
retrievers to calls for the mass slaughter of entire ethnic groups. The only rule of thumb here is the crude
calculation that if it’s hot, it flies. The same rule holds for self-sorting online behavior among Facebook
users: The platform nudges them to join groups devoted to particular interests and causes—a feature that
also works very much by design, at least since a change ordered by CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2017. Many
of these groups harbor extreme content, such as the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory, coronavirus
misinformation, or explicitly white supremacist and misogynistic content.

The story of our interactions with Facebook—how Facebook affects us and how we affect Facebook—is
fascinating and maddeningly complicated. Scholars around the world have been working for more than a decade to
make sense of the offline social impact of the platform’s propaganda functions. And we are just beginning to get
a grasp of it. The leaders of Facebook seem not to have a clue how it influences different people differently
and how it warps our collective perceptions of the world. They also seem to lack anything close to a full
appreciation of how people have adapted Facebook to serve their needs and desires in ways the engineers never
intended.

Of a general piece with the source-spotting lists as a metric of Facebook influence is a misguided approach to
reforming the platform. Just as initial Facebook boosters naïvely embraced it as an engine of democratic reform,
so now an emerging cohort of Facebook critics intently documents the “truth” or “fakery”
of particular items or claims. This procedural focus has driven people to promote “fact checking” on
the supply side and “media education” on the demand side, as if either intervention addresses the
real problem.

As sociologist Francesca Tripodi of the University of North Carolina has demonstrated, the embrace of what so
many liberals like me would reject as dangerous fiction or conspiracy theories is not a function of illiteracy
or ignorance. These stories circulate among highly sophisticated critics of media and texts who do, in reality,
check facts, think critically, weigh evidence, and interrogate rhetoric. Like graduate students in English
literature, they are adept at close reading, textual analysis, and even what passes for theory. They just do so
within a completely different framework than the typical scholar or journalist would employ.

“Based on my data, upper-middle class Conservatives did not vote for Trump because they were ‘fooled’
into doing so by watching, reading, or listening to ‘fake news,’” Tripodi wrote. “Rather, they
consumed a great deal of information and found inconsistencies, not within the words of Trump himself, but
rather within the way mainstream media ‘twisted his words’ to fit a narrative they did not agree with. Not
unlike their Protestant ancestors, doing so gave them authority over the text rather than relying on the
priests’ (i.e. ‘the elites’) potentially corrupt interpretation.”

Among other things, this means seeing Facebook as a “sociotechnical system,” constituting hundreds of
people (with their biases and preferences) who design and maintain the interface and algorithms as well as
billions of people (with even more diverse biases and preferences) who generate their own content on the
platform. This latter group contributes photos, videos, links, and comments to the system, informing and shaping
Facebook in chaotic and often unpredictable ways—and its chosen patterns of engagement help us understand
how and why people share disinformation, misinformation, and lies. Through this sociotechnical understanding of
how Facebook works, we can recognize the complex social and cultural motivations that inform user
behavior—a set of deeper collective impulses that, in media scholar Alice Marwick’s words, “will not
be easily changed.”

If we recognize that the default intellectual position of most people means that identity trumps ideas, that
identity shapes ideology, we can see how much work we have to do. And we can see how misunderstanding our media
system—or even just the most important element of our media system, Facebook—can mislead us in our
pursuit of a better life.

Technology is culture and culture is technology. So don’t let anyone draw you into a debate over “is it
Facebook or we who are the problem?” Again, the answer is “yes.” We are Facebook as much as
Facebook is us. Those who have studied romance novels, punk rock, and soap operas have understood this for
decades. But those who build these systems and those who report on these systems tend to ignore all the volumes
of knowledge that cultural scholars have produced.

Facebook works on feelings, not facts. Insisting that an affective machine should somehow work like a
fact-checking machine is absurd. It can’t happen. An assumption that we engage with Facebook to learn about the
world, instead of to feel about the world, misunderstands our own reasons for subscribing to a service that we
can’t help but notice brings us down so often, and just might bring democracy down with us.


Perhaps the greatest threat that Facebook poses, in concert with other digital media
platforms, devices, and the whole global media ecosystem, is corrosion over time. What Facebook does or does not
amplify or delete in the moment matters very little in a diverse and tumultuous world. But the fact that Facebook,
the leading player in the global media ecosystem, undermines our collective ability to distinguish what is true or
false, who and what should be trusted, and our abilities to deliberate soberly across differences and distances is
profoundly corrosive. This is the gaping flaw in the platform’s design that will demand much more radical
interventions than better internal policies or even aggressive antitrust enforcement.

Standard policy interventions, like a regulatory breakup or the introduction of some higher risk of legal
liability
for failing to keep users safe, could slightly mitigate the damage that Facebook does in the world.
But they would hardly address the deep, systematic problems at work. They would be necessary, but insufficient,
moves.

Several groups, working with universities, foundations, and private actors, are experimenting with forms of
digital, networked interaction that does not exploit users and treats them like citizens rather than cattle.
These research groups reimagine what social media would look like without massive surveillance, and they hope to
build followings by offering a more satisfying intellectual and cultural experience than Facebook could ever
hope to. And most significantly, they hope to build deliberative habits. Civic Signals is one such group.
Founded and run by professor Talia Stroud of the University of Texas at Austin and Eli Pariser, the social
entrepreneur who coined the term “filter bubble” and wrote a book by that title, Civic Signals is an
experiment in designing a platform that can foster respectful dialogue instead of commercially driven noise.

Global web pioneer and scholar Ethan Zuckerman is working on similar projects at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst, under the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure. More than a decade ago, Zuckerman co-founded Global Voices, a network that  allows people across underserved parts of the world to engage in civic
journalism. Back in the heyday of democratic prophesying about the powers of the digital world, Global Voices
stood out as a successful venture, and it remains strong to this day. Zuckerman still believes that offering
alternative platforms can make a transformative difference. But even if they don’t, they still present an
invaluable model for future ventures and reform.

While these and similar efforts deserve full support and offer slivers of hope, we must recognize the
overwhelming power of the status quo. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and WeChat (the largest social media platform
in China) have all the users, all the data, and remarkable political influence and financial resources. They can
crush or buy anything that threatens their dominance.

Zuckerman often cites the success of Wikipedia as an alternative model of media production that has had an
undeniable and largely positive role in the world (while conceding its consistent flaws in, among other things,
recognizing the contributions of women). Digital enthusiasts (including myself) have long cited Wikipedia as a
proof-of-concept model for how noncommercial, noncoercive, collective, multilingual, communal content creation
can happen. While Wikipedians deserve all this credit, we must recognize that the world has had almost 20 years
to replicate that model in any other area, and has failed.

To make room for the potential impact of new platforms and experiments, we must more forcefully, creatively, and
radically address the political economy of global media. Here Zuckerman echoes some other scholars to advocate
for bolder action. Like professor Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania, Zuckerman promotes a full
reconsideration of public-service media—not unlike how the BBC is funded in the U.K. Pickard and Zuckerman
both join economist Paul Romer in advocating a tax on digital advertising—so, Facebook and Google,
mainly—to maintain a fund that would be distributed to not-for-profit media ventures through some sort of
expert-run committees and grantlike peer review.

I would propose a different, perhaps complementary tax on data collection. We often use stiff taxes to limit the
negative externalities of commercial activities we see as harmful yet difficult or impossible to outlaw. That’s
why we have such high taxes on cigarettes and liquor, for instance. While tobacco companies push the cost of
their taxes to the addict, a tax on surveillance would put the cost squarely on the advertiser, creating an
incentive to move ad spending toward less manipulative (and, most likely, less effective) ad platforms. The
local daily newspaper might have a chance, after all, if a few more car dealerships restored their funding.

Data-driven, targeted Facebook ads are a drain on a healthy public sphere. They starve journalism of the funding
that essential news outlets—especially local ones—have lived on for more than a century. They also
present a problem for democracy. Targeted political ads are unaccountable. Currently, two people residing in the
same house could receive two very different—even contradictory—ads from the same candidate for state
Senate or mayor. Accountability for claims made in those ads is nearly impossible because they are so narrowly
targeted. I have proposed that Congress restrict the reach of targeted digital political advertisements to the
district in which a given race is run, so that every voter in that district—whether it’s for city council
or to secure a state’s electoral votes for president—would see the same ads from the same candidates. A
jurisdiction-specific regulation for such advertising would not violate the First Amendment—but it would
send an invaluable signal that robust advertising regulation is both viable and virtuous.

Because anything the Congress would do would have limited influence on global companies, Congress must make taxes
and restrictions strong enough to hinder bad behavior overall and force these companies to alter their defining
practices and design. The problem with Facebook is not at the margins. The problem with Facebook is
Facebook—that its core business model is based on massive surveillance to serve tailored and targeted
content, both ads and posts. Other countries might follow the U.S. model (or the European model if, as is
likelier, Europe takes a more aggressive and creative strategy toward reining in the reach of these
oligopolies). One of the blessings and curses of being American is that the example this country sets influences
much of the world. When we retreat from decency, democracy, and reason, it encourages others to move in the same
direction. When we heal and strengthen our sense of justice and our democratic habits, we offer examples to
others as well. For too long, we have been laughed at for mouthing the word “democracy” while really
meaning “techno-fundamentalism.” We can no longer pretend.

But we must concede the limited reach of any local ordinance, just as we must recognize the formidable political
power of industry powers. There is no profit in democracy. There is no incentive for any tech oligopoly to stop
doing what it is doing. The broken status quo works exceedingly well for them—and especially for Facebook.

That’s why we also must invent or reinvest in institutions that foster deliberation. This means reversing a
50-year trend in sapping public funding for museums, libraries, universities, public schools, public art, public
broadcasting, and other services that promote deep, thoughtful examination of the human condition and the
natural world. We should imagine some new forums and institutions that can encourage deep deliberation and
debate so we can condition ourselves to fulfill John Dewey’s hopes for an active, informed, and engaged
citizenry. We can’t simultaneously hope to restore faith in science and reason while leaving the future of
science and reason to the whims of private markets and erratically curious billionaires.

Facebook deserves all the scrutiny it has generated and then some. We are fortunate that Zuckerberg’s face no
longer graces the covers of uncritical magazines on airport bookstore shelves, right next to glowing portraits
of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. But the nature of that criticism must move beyond complaints that Facebook
took this thing down or failed to take that thing down. At the scale that Facebook operates, content moderation
that can satisfy everyone is next to impossible. It’s just too big to govern, too big to fix.

The effort to imagine and build a system of civic media should occupy our attention much more than our
indictments of Facebook or Fox News do today. We know what’s wrong. We have only begun to imagine how it could
be better.

Democracy is not too big to fix. But the fix will likely take a few more decades. If this plan of action seems
mushy and ill-defined, that’s because it is. The struggle to foster resilient democracy has gone on for more
than two centuries—and even then, we’ve never really had it. We’ve only had glimpses of it. Now that Trump
is gone and Facebook is in a position to be chastened, we can’t afford to assume that democracy is restored in
the United States or anywhere else. But if we can take the overlapping system failures of Trumpism and
Facebookism as an opportunity to teach ourselves to think better, we have a chance.

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Trump’s Final Act of Extraordinary Corruption

Donald Trump’s presidency died on Wednesday as it lived: in a last-minute torrent of corruption. His final batch of pardons doled out mercy to a motley crew of personal and political allies, rap artists, well-connected ex-businessmen and financiers, and a few deserving recipients. Hours later, he signed an executive order to remove restrictions on his…

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Trump’s Final Act of Extraordinary Corruption

Donald Trump’s presidency passed away on Wednesday as it lived: in a last-minute torrent of corruption. His final batch of pardons doled out grace to a motley team of individual and political allies, rap artists, well-connected ex-businessmen and investors, and a few deserving recipients. Hours later, he signed an executive order to remove limitations on his ex-aides working as lobbyists in Washington. It was an extremely self-serving end to an extremely self-serving presidency.

Long ago, in the remote mists of the 2016 election, Trump had fashioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader. He argued that his expected wealth and supposed outsider status would insulate him from the everyday gunk of Washington politics. He pledged to “drain the swamp.” He condemned the People United ruling. He railed versus “Uneven Hillary.” Then he changed his service empire into a lorry for gain access to and impact, abused his power to sabotage his challengers, and blocked justice for himself and his buddies. It was perhaps the greatest grift in American history.

If you are a fan of white-collar wrongdoers, Trump’s final pardons resembled the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The marquee recipient was Steve Bannon, the previous White Home chief strategist who prompted Trump to take steps toward a coup over the last couple of months. Why did Bannon need a pardon at all? Because he was detained last August for his role in a plan to defraud Trump’s own fans by soliciting personal contributions to construct Trump’s wall on the Southern border. Trump did not bother trying to justify the decision. He didn’t even pardon the other people arraigned in the plan. He apparently simply thought Bannon might be useful to him in the future, and so he goes totally free.

Other pardon receivers include well-connected Republican lawmakers. Duke Cunningham kept a “bribe menu” that documented just how much he would receive in exchange for official favors, starting with $140,000 and a luxury yacht for a $16 million defense agreement, with an extra $50,000 allurement needed for every additional $1 million on the contract. Rick Renzi obtained a mining company by threatening to block a federal land offer unless it purchased land from one of Renzi’s organization partners to whom he was indebted. They join 3 other previous GOP members of Congress who were convicted of federal corruption offenses just to be pardoned by Trump years later.

Other wealthy and well-connected people got pardons and commutations, too. Elliot Broidy, a former Republican National Committee investor, had his conviction for serving as an unregistered foreign representative wiped away. Salomon Melgen, a Democratic donor in Florida founded guilty of healthcare fraud who played an essential function in the Bob Menendez corruption scandal, also received a pardon from the president. Trump handed out acts of clemency to some well-deserving receivers, consisting of criminal justice reform supporters and a couple of first-time drug offenders. However the overarching theme of his acts of clemency was that the rich and powerful play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.

Despite this, Trump’s last batch likewise revealed some restraint. He formerly asserted that he had the “absolute right” to pardon himself for any federal criminal activities, and reportedly considered it as the days and weeks ticked down towards his departure. No such self-pardon appeared in the last list. Trump might have been deterred by warnings that it would harm him in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. Some advisers cautioned that it would increase the chances that the Biden Justice Department would submit some sort of charges versus him– if only to tear down the awful precedent that a presidential self-pardon would set.

Trump also chose versus preemptive pardons for top allies like Rudy Giuliani and various White House aides. Nor did he hand them out to his two oldest children, Donald Jr. and Eric, who have actually led the household company for the past 4 years while it was under investigation by New York district attorneys. He did not provide to GOP lawmakers who apparently sought them for their function in the Capitol Hill riot. And he decreased to provide a mass amnesty to the Capitol Hill rioters who attempted to stage a putsch on his behalf previously this month. Several participants in those riots had actually openly asked him for help, to no get.

Other good friends and partners also weren’t so lucky. National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre, who is under examination for federal tax criminal offenses, did not get one. Nor did Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under examination by the FBI for abusing his office on a donor’s behalf. Paxton attempted to get the Supreme Court to throw out the election results; he was also the only attorney general in the country not to sign up with a declaration condemning the Capitol Hill riot. Sheldon Silver, the previous speaker of the New York State Assembly, did not receive an expected pardon for his own part in a state corruption scandal. Nor did WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who played a crucial function in Russian election interference 4 years earlier and has actually been prosecuted on other federal charges ever since.

Trump is hardly the only president to distribute suspicious pardons in his final days in workplace. Costs Clinton’s list of last-minute pardons in 2001 even drew a Justice Department examination. No other president might match Trump’s large cynicism when it comes to one of the president’s most sweeping powers. He used pardons as rewards for loyal supplicants and as presents to co-conspirators. He offered one to Paul Manafort after applauding him for not complying with unique counsel Robert Mueller’s workplace in the Russia investigation and to Roger Stone for pushing his behalf to Congress about the exact same matters. Even by his standards, it was shameless.

What did Trump’s advocates receive from all this? 4 hundred thousand Americans have already passed away from a coronavirus pandemic that Trump mainly failed to challenge, and the economy is even worse now for many Americans than it was 4 years back. Only 47 miles of the 2,000- mile border wall was developed by the time Trump left office; Biden is purchasing a freeze to more building on his very first day. America’s credibility around the world has never ever been lower and may never ever recuperate. The Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land. Among Trump’s Supreme Court candidates assisted broaden the Civil liberty Act of 1964 to safeguard gay and transgender Americans. Even owning the libs ended up being fleeting. Thanks to Trump’s failures, those libs now control the White House and both chambers of Congress.

For Trump, the difficult truth doesn’t matter. He mostly dwelled during his presidency in a fantasia constructed by conservative media outlets and his own magical thinking. His last official serve as president was perhaps his best one: a pardon for Al Pirro, who was convicted of conspiracy and tax scams in2009 Pirro is not a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, a miscarriage of justice, or a sign of much deeper flaws in the American criminal justice system. However he was as soon as wed to Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, who said nice features of Trump on TV for four years. That’s all that ever mattered to him.

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Farewell to Trump’s Baby Sociopaths

Today we say goodbye and good riddance to Donald J. Trump, the worst, laziest, and most tangerine-hued of our 45 presidents. He left a path of destruction in his wake that included 400,000 dead Americans, a decimated economy, shattered norms, broken laws, and endless grifting. And if his venality, corruption, and incompetence weren’t enough, he…

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Farewell to Trump’s Baby Sociopaths

Today we say goodbye and good riddance to Donald J. Trump, the worst, laziest, and most tangerine-hued of our 45 presidents. He left a path of destruction in his wake that included 400,000 dead Americans, a decimated economy, shattered norms, broken laws, and endless grifting. And if his venality, corruption, and incompetence weren’t enough, he punctuated his tenure in the highest (and before now, most respected) office by inciting an attempt to overthrow the same institutions that empowered him—the act of a malignant and sociopathic narcissist who is also, to use a diagnosis not technically listed in the DSM, a giant baby. 

But we also must bid farewell to the Trump children: the ambulatory evidence that narcissism, incompetence, and corruption are genetically inherited traits. Like their decency-challenged paterfamilias, they hardly bothered to veil their contempt for democratic norms, and used every available opportunity to exploit their positionsand by extension, taxpayersto make money and accumulate unearned power. They deserve their own send-off, especially considering the persistent rumors that they have political ambitions of their own and that some form of recidivism seems inevitable. Each one is unique and memorable, much in the same way that every individual experience of food poisoning is similarly horrible and yet surprisingly varied in its repulsiveness. 

A personal favorite among the things that won’t be missed: Donald Trump Jr.’s redneck cosplay. As a rural Alabama native who grew up in a family full of hunters, it’s sometimes entertaining to watch Junior—a New York City–native, Ivy-educated, Buckley School grad who probably spent many high school weekends doing coke in the bathroom of Dorrians—suit up like a Duck Dynasty extra and awkwardly pantomime those things that he thinks red-state Trumpists do (bless his heart). Only the unfettered racism comes naturally to him. It’s unnerving to watch him wave around such a vast assortment of absurdly souped-up guns, each one more accessorized with far-right stickers and gratuitous vanity mods than the last. As a rule, you never want a guy with unresolved anger issues to have easy access to high-powered firearms, let alone a collection that he probably has to transport with a forklift. 

You also generally don’t want anyone operating a firearm while they’re under the influence of … well, anything: recreational drugs, prescription drugs, Donald Trump. Junior’s public appearances have been concerning on that front. His Visine budget alone could probably fund two fiscal years of Meals on Wheels. His TV appearances have always been directed at an audience of one, and I won’t miss watching a 43-year-old man tell his father he’s desperate for love in a coded language that appears to consist entirely of conspiracy theories. 

On this front, Eric Trump seems a little more put together, or at the very least, I’ve never seen him look like he was on the verge of bursting into tears, which is a semi-regular feature of Junior’s appearances. Neither of them was supposed to be involved in their dad’s campaign, but the entire Trump family interprets “conflict of interest” as an ethical conflict that may be “of interest” in the participatory sense. Eric’s contributions to the Trump legacy mostly include guaranteeing his wife a $180,000 salary via marriage and funneling money from a kid’s cancer charity into his businessand admittedly, stealing money from children with cancer is so cartoonishly villainous it wouldn’t be plausible in a Marvel movie. My most controversial Trump-related opinion is that Eric is not actually The Dumbest One, but the competition is so heavy for the title that it’s sometimes hard to tell. 

Which brings us to Ivanka, who once got into an argument at a dinner party about the difference between liberal and libertarian, which she maintained were the same thing, and when the person she was arguing with suggested she Google it, she replied that she’d “take it under advisement.” Now she is in the position of having to take her own “advisement” and “find something new,” as she recently counseled millions of newly unemployed Americans (presumably because “Let them eat coding” was too awkward a construction).

Career coaches typically suggest that people who lose their jobs should highlight their primary skill sets when they apply for something new. Judging from her White House track record, Ivanka’s skills are: staging her own photo ops, developing a mastery of public self-congratulation, misattributing inspirational quotes to Alexis de Tocqueville, and pulling the rug out from under women as a class with Olympic-level vigor. 

I’ve historically maintained that she is the Edmund Hillary of social climbing, but have come to realize that my analogy is off: Hillary had to do the work himself and couldn’t just take credit for it. As someone who’s adept at taking credit for things she didn’t do, Ivanka’s equally accomplished at avoiding responsibility for the disastrous things she did or enabled. A high school friend of hers recalls in Vanity Fair that she once farted in class and blamed it on a classmatean apt, if pungent, metaphor for what she continued to do as she transformed herself magically from “Senior White House Adviser” to “just a daughter” every time the administration did something catastrophic and morally repulsive.  

Rumors suggest that she plans to run for office one day herself, demonstrating that delusions of grandeur may be inheritable, as well. But she won’t do it from her native New York Citywhere she and her brothers have worn out their welcomebecause as someone once said, “It’s not excusable to embrace right-wing extremists just because you weren’t embraced enough by Dad, or were, perhaps, inappropriately embraced by Dad.” (De Tocqueville, I think.) 

So Ivanka will soon be a Florida Woman, and will presumably adopt the in-state tradition of insisting that parts of Florida are “not really Southern” and that other parts are “lower Alabama,” but in a breathy voice that’s inexplicably two octaves lower than it should be. Her on-camera appearances will continue to have a certain hostage video quality, and the expert hair and makeup will not compensate for the unsettling uncanny valley effect she exudes when she tries to speak with authentic human emotion. 

She won’t be alone. Jared Kushner is not literally a Trump child, but he might as well be. He is as qualified as Ivanka to be a senior White House adviser, benefitted from the same nepotism, and has many of the traits most pronounced in the Trump children: an inflated sense of entitlement; a belief that his wealth is simultaneously a product of meritocracy and dynastic fate; and a visceral allergy to any kind of knowledge acquisition that involves listening to experts, talking to anyone with a lower net worth, or reading anything longer than the first paragraph of this column that doesn’t contain his literal name. 

I have some personal experience here: In 2011 and 2012, I was the editor in chief of The New York Observer, a newspaper he bought and proceeded to destroy with disastrous shortcuts framed as “optimization” and a seeming determination to interpret “move fast and break things” as an end goal and not a path to success. He occupies a special place in my heart: Specifically the part responsible for the ventricular contraction that sends my blood pressure to stratospheric heights any time I hear that he’s been put in charge of something important. The only comfort I get from the fact that Donald Trump had custody of the nuclear football for the last few years is that he wasn’t able to outsource that function to Jared, who might have just casually given it to Mohammad bin Salman in exchange for a small investment in a promising Kushner Co. property right at the center of New York City’s luxurious Fifth Avenue. 

The sheer number of bad decisions Jared has made is only rivaled by the number of times he’s declared his failures a success. Watching him do this in real time was like watching a football player run in the wrong direction toward his own end zone, cross the goal line, then spike the football and declare himself the winner. Repeatedly. And the coach was unwilling to bench him. 

Thankfully, voters have benched all of them. Aside from asking Jared if he happened to have misplaced the federal vaccine reserve, there’s no need for any of us to interact with or pay attention to them ever again. (I’m leaving Barron and Tiffany out of this analysis because, as a minor, Barron is trapped in this family for the foreseeable future whether he likes it or not; and no oneleast of all her fatherwas paying attention to Tiffany or her four-year plan to bigfoot her dad on his last day in office by announcing her engagement.) 

That doesn’t mean their names won’t appear in headlines, though. Don Jr. and Ivanka narrowly escaped an indictment on criminal fraud charges before their father was elected president, and it seems implausible than any of the many ongoing investigations into Donald Trump’s business affairs do not include scrutiny of them, as well. Eric Trump has already been deposed by the New York Attorney General’s Office. And the Senate Committee on Finance has been trying to determine whether Jared’s dealings with the Qataris, potentially in exchange for helping to bail out Kushner Co.’s 666 Fifth Avenue property, violate criminal conflict of interest statutes. 

Psychologists suggest that couples can improve their relationships by bonding over novel experiences. If that’s true, it bodes well for relationships between the Trump progeny as they encounter something new and uncharted for them: accountability. 

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Accountability Is the Cure for an Ailing Democracy

In the early 2000s, Peruvians faced a difficult choice. Their outgoing president, Alberto Fujimori, had been democratically elected as a populist only to preside over a regime of corruption, repression, and personal megalomania. Early in his first term, he orchestrated an autogolpe, or self-coup, in which he shut down congress and took over the judiciary…

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Accountability Is the Cure for an Ailing Democracy

In the early 2000 s, Peruvians faced a difficult option.
Their outbound president, Alberto Fujimori, had actually been democratically chosen as a.
populist just to command a program of corruption, repression, and individual.
megalomania. Early in his first term, he managed an autogolpe, or.
self-coup, in which he shut down congress and took over the judiciary with the.
assistance of the military and Peruvian elites.

Though Fujimori nominally brought back democratic institutions.
soon later, he used monitoring, intimidation, and supremacy over the media to.
neutralize his opposition. It was only after videos surfaced of a Fujimori ally.
paying off another authorities– en route to Fujimori’s triumph to an unconstitutional.
third term– that demonstrations lastly forced the president to call for a new.
election and leave office.

And so Peruvians had to choose: Would they hold their wannabe-autocratic.
former president accountable for his crimes in office– at the risk of outraging.
his fans and possibly not protecting a conviction? Or would it be best if everybody.
simply carried on, eyes on the future, not looking backward?

They chose to hold him accountable. Fujimori was tried,.
founded guilty of human rights abuses (and later corruption) and sentenced to the.
maximum of 25 years in jail. “By prosecuting a previous head of state,” the.
political researcher
Jo-Marie Burt has.
composed
, Peru revealed “its citizens that its system of justice can.
prosecuting even the most powerful– verifying that many fundamental of.
democratic principles, equality before the law.”

It shouldn’t be difficult to guess why I’m informing this story. At.
twelve noon Wednesday, Donald Trump will be lastly, ceremoniously ushered out of.
office. It will take years to tally his destruction in full: 400,000 dead and.
counting from the coronavirus; millions out of work; immigrant families.
separated; untold sums of public cash diverted to allies and buddies; thousands.
of civilians
droned,.
bombed,.
or
starved.
to death
overseas. He leaves America’s democratic institutions significantly harmed– in.
the case of the Capitol, actually.

As his term ends, so does the constitutional resistance that.
kept Robert Mueller and other district attorneys from seeking indictments versus him.
for 4 years. Just as the opportunity arrives to pursue some procedure of.
justice, the airwaves are filling with pleas to carry on. Erstwhile Trump allies.
like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio are making sanctimonious appeals for.
” healing.” James Comey– a man who has actually said and done quite enough at this moment,.
thank you!– is arguing that though Trump was “the dictionary meaning of a.
demagogue,” putting him on trial would just benefit the future ex-president.

” The nation would be better off if we did not offer him.
the platform that a prosecution would for the next 3 years,” Comey.
informed British broadcaster Sky News. “The nation needs to discover a method to recover.
itself, and the new president requires the chance to lead and heal us, both.
actually and spiritually.”

However there can be no recovery without duty. Just.
take a look at U.S. history. The abandoned efforts to hold Confederates responsible.
for the Civil War paved the way to the “Lost Cause” misconception and a century of Jim Crow. (You.
can draw a straight line from that to the appearance of the Confederate flag in.
the Capitol on January 6.) Richard Nixon’s escape from justice– by resigning and.
protecting a pardon from his picked follower, Gerald Ford– resulted in Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was never held to represent his role in the Iran-Contra affair. His.
top lieutenants were pardoned by
his former Vice President George H.W.
Bush, with the help of Bush’s chief law officer: Costs Barr.

We might have prevented the current crisis if we hadn’t missed out on a.
essential chance for responsibility a decade ago. Throughout the transition from George.
W. Bush to the Obama administration, many Americans hoped senior authorities.
would be held responsible for the lies that got us into the second Iraq War or.
the abuse and extrajudicial detention at sites like Guantánamo Bay that accompanied.
it. Obama declined at the time, saying, “We need to look forward rather than.
looking in reverse.”

Because Obama didn’t do so, the cadre of Bush authorities who.
should have been held to account– including ex-Trump adviser John Bolton and
now– Supreme.
Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh
— were enabled to continue their untrammeled.
ascent. Fox News had the ability to perfectly offload duty for the wars it.
had actually as soon as improved to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. Rather of being.
applauded for his evenhanded bipartisanship in enabling war crooks to go complimentary,.
Obama wound up castigated by both the left and the right, setting the stage for.
a 2016 election in which Trump might plausibly run as an “insurgent” against.
the “Bush-Obama” legacy.

The Fujimori case in Peru is an example of what legal.
specialists call “transitional justice”– a society-wide effort to actively move from.
a duration of crisis to among fairness and reconciliation through judicial and.
other means. It consisted of the development of a
truth commission
to investigate previous criminal activities– specifically those done in the name of a repressive.
war on horror against a violent Maoist revolt known as the Shining Course– and.
make suggestions of both criminal cases and structural modifications needed to.
protect Peru’s democracy in the future.

Unfortunately, even Peru did not go far enough. As Gisselle.
Vila Benites, a scientist at Peru’s Universidad del Pacífico, and Clark.
University teacher Anthony Bebbington recently argued, the failure to.
prosecute secondary authorities and security forces who contributed in.
Fujimori’s criminal activity and to offer redress for the regime’s bad,.
rural, and Native victims, have caused recent government tumult in Lima and

put Peruvian democracy in hazard once again

The United States, despite our overconfidence in the.
fundamental strength of our democracy, deals with such a crisis now. “I hope individuals.
recognize the absolutely critical moment in which we find ourselves,” Tricia.
Olsen, an associate professor in the department of company ethics and legal.
research studies at the University of Denver who studies transitional justice told The.
New Republic
“Democratic institutions work because the guideline of law is.
used similarly and to everyone … When wrongdoing happens, and in specific.
misbehavior that threatens the very institutions on which we rely, there needs.
to be accountability.”

Transitional justice specialists emphasize the requirement for a.
variety of responses to Trump and his enablers’ impunity and their stopped working attempts.
at toppling the 2020 election and executing autocratic rule. A series of.
institutional reforms, from pro-democracy efforts in federal government, such as.
ending gerrymandering and restoring voting rights, to totally examining.
authorities abuses in the summer’s civil liberties actions is needed. Andrew Reiter,.
a professional on transitional justice at Mount Holyoke College, informed
The New.
Republic
that both investigating and charging the individual.
insurrectionists at the Capitol, and regulating the social networks that.
radicalized and organized them, will be key steps in reducing the damage.
done so far.

While a lot of Trump’s criminal offenses have actually been out in the open (we.
hardly need a reality commission to read his
archived tweets), others need to be.
completely examined. In Peru, the commission investigated not only the criminal activities.
that had actually occurred under Fujimori’s administration however those of previous.
presidents. Here, too, it might be necessary and reliable to make.
examinations into U.S. federal government abuses in our own war on horror and.
anti-immigrant persecution a bipartisan affair, by opening the discussion up.
to the criminal activities of the Bush and Obama administrations also– holding even.
President-elect Biden responsible for his past actions as vice president.

Eventually, that probably requires the courts. As Olsen and her coworkers’ research suggests, the act of bringing an effective individual to.
trial– even if it does not lead to a conviction– can have a deterrent impact on.
future would-be abusers. Even some Trump-appointed judges have.
shocked many with their self-reliance throughout this election cycle: Offering the.
judiciary an opportunity to safeguard democracy is much better than presuming it has currently.
failed.

The alternative many appear to expect– to do nothing and hope.
that impunity will in some way cure impunity– is self-destructive. It will set the phase for.
the people who threatened our democracy to do it again, except next time with better.
preparation and more competent stars.

Healing, reconciliation, and preventing more violence are all.
worthy and required goals. But they can’t be attained without holding the.
guilty responsible. As the head of Peru’s truth commission stated: “The essential.
condition for reconciliation is justice.”

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