American Anger: Too Hot to Handle?

It increasingly feels like America is reaching a boiling point, more raging bonfire than flash in the pan. Already beset by a national recession and a deadly pandemic that has now surpassed 200,000 deaths, this week has stoked new fires, including a Supreme Court battle to fill the Notorious RBG’s seat, President Trump refusing to promise a peaceful transfer of power, mass protests after police officers faced no charges in the death of Breonna Taylor and the swirling of literal fire tornadoes out West. As American anger heats up, we bring a fresh lens to its origins and the core beliefs it threatens to topple, as well as the ways we can work together to douse the flames.

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The Boiling Point

Is This the Death of Civility? 

A moralization of politics, evolving beyond simple differences in opinion, is complete. How can society achieve the consensus it needs to function if everyone regards rivals as “Nazis,” “traitors” or “enemies of the people”? Trump, the torchbearer, has at times fueled racial tensions and stomped on his perceived enemies, citizens and institutions alike. Some have become radicalized by the president’s behavior, meeting fire with fire — from erecting guillotines to accosting Senators to defending violent looters as collecting what society owes them. Meanwhile, the American Fringes have continually hijacked the discourse, worming their ideas into some of America’s most revered institutions. The loss of civility playing out on the national stage has had ripple effects, reflected in an apparent uptick in nastiness nationwide, with ordinary citizens bickering over face masks in stores, trolling each other on social media and facing off over campaign signs next door. In a multiethnic, multicultural and increasingly crowded democracy, respecting commonality while acknowledging differences has been the surest way of moving forward — but it has become a casualty of rising American anger.

Read “Love in the Age of Trump: How the Election Changed Our Relationships” in OZY

Read “Guess Who’s Not Wearing Their Face Masks” on OZY

Is This the Death of Fair Play? 

Questioning fact-based truths and the media undermines democracy by enabling self-serving narratives and conspiracy theories on both sides. Without even basic facts that both sides trust on issues like mask-wearing and ballot security, finding common ground becomes almost impossible. Socially, internet users have become less generous and more aggressive toward those they perceive as enemies. Politically, fairness has been discarded by Republicans willing to flout their own talking points from 2016 in a naked power grab to fill a Supreme Court seat. The president, who notably didn’t win the popular vote, has nominated judge Amy Coney Barrett, who will likely be voted for by two appointed U.S. Senators who have never faced accountability from voters, Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia (the GOP will argue decorum went out the window with the aggressive fight Democrats led against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018). And as Donald Trump already discredits millions of mail-ballot votes in the 2020 election while refusing to promise a peaceful transfer of power, many wonder if the game is rigged.

Read about the “Deciders” Who Will Play a Role in a Contested Election on OZY

Is This the Death of Capitalism? 

Amid the pandemic, we have witnessed U.S. billionaires amassing nearly $1 trillion, unemployment rising to a 15 percent peak and the loss of employer-backed health insurance for 12 million Americans. Between 1975 and 2020, the top 1 percent took $50 trillion from the bottom 90 percent in wages that failed to keep up with the times. Wealth for white Americans is 13 times that of the median Black household, because while President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped expand the postwar middle class for white America, it left out communities of color. So American communities are struggling: They are working more and earning less while seeing the cost of living and education drastically increase. When society doesn’t feel its needs are being met, populism — from the right or left — can look inviting. Unless concrete fixes are made, “popular anger is here to stay,” writes the National Review’s Mathis Bitton. 

What About the Dream of Racial Harmony?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world where his Black children stood hand-in-hand with white children and were judged not by “the color of their skin, but the content of their character” remains elusive. The Black Lives Matter movement has spotlighted the many racial injustices faced by people of color today. Both activists and lawmakers have called for positive change but have seen little progress. 

Learn about bold ideas for addressing race on OZY

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Temperature Check: Where Do They Stand on Key Issues?

White Evangelicals

Despite everything that’s happened, white Christians are actually less motivated to face issues of race than in the past. According to an online survey by the California-based Barna Group, 36 percent of white Christians in 2020 were unmotivated to address racial injustice compared to 23 percent in 2019. This is likely because racial injustice issues carry more political “baggage” in 2020 than before. While a white Christian may have seen racial injustice issues as nonpartisan a year ago, today that phrase ties more directly to the left-leaning Black Lives Matter movement and liberal slogans like “Defund the Police,” which white Christians aren’t as likely to support.

Read More on OZY


Black Generational Divide

In polls that took place before the pandemic, younger Black voters said they were more likely to care about the economy, with about 40 percent saying it was their top issue — more than their older family members and white and Hispanic peers. They were also more likely to support shifting from capitalism to socialism than older Black Americans, although that number is still in the minority at just 33 percent. Since the George Floyd protests began, Black Americans now place policing and race as their top concerns, and, according to a Washington Post poll, overwhelmingly back Joe Biden. 

African Americans Want Better Policing, Not No Policing

Despite suggestions from #DefundThePolice advocates that they speak for Black people, that simply does not bear out in polling — 81 percent say they want more or the same amount of police presence in their neighborhoods, not less. That is in line with polls on a host of issues where white Democrats are significantly more liberal than their African American peers. (Gallup

The White Vote

White voters are abandoning Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania (tied) and Minnesota (Biden +2). They are driven by white women, the scapegoats of 2016 for many after 53 percent supported Trump. They’ve made huge swings in certain states, such as Wisconsin, which swung from +16 for Trump to -9 among non-college educated white women. Still, if white women actually do back Biden over Trump on Election Day, it will be a rarity: Only twice in 17 presidential elections since 1957 have white women chosen the Democratic candidate over the Republican one. A majority of white men still support Trump, but it’s a smaller majority than in 2016, which helps explain why Biden is leading significantly in general election polls. 

Immigrants Are Patriotic

The left sees immigrants as an ally in an effort to reform (and, for some, fully dismantle) an inherently racist America. The right paints immigrants as unwilling to assimilate and a threat. But neither have it right. Immigrants are the most patriotic group in America, owing to their overall optimism for making life in a new country work (while others simply lack a viable exit). But immigrants share neither the far left’s pessimism nor the far right’s racism. 

Another Seismic Party Shift?

The polling is clear: Trump has gained ground with minority voters since 2016 — marginally with Black and Asian American voters and significantly with Hispanic Americans. That isn’t enough to offset significant white flight from the GOP … yet. But it has the potential to create a new party alignment every bit as meaningful as the working-class departure from the Democrats four years ago.

Read More on OZY


Want to Truly Understand How America Is Reshaping Itself? Tune in to the hottest new podcast, “When Katty Met Carlos,” pairing OZY’s Carlos Watson with BBC’s Katty Kay …

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Let It Boil Over … and Clean Up Later

Some ideas of how being aggressive now can actually ease tensions in the long run.

Shut Down Facebook

Enough with the employee town halls, mealy-mouthed apologies and purple-prose press releases: It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to shut down Facebook for at least the weeks before and after Election Day. That drastic action is necessary given that the social media giant is used to spread mass election disinformation, particularly around the veracity of mail ballots, which could cause chaos in November. While Facebook has promised to ban new political ads, liberals rightly point out that doing so only prevents campaigns from counteracting the (significantly larger) organic reach of conservative outlets known to spread Trump propaganda that often goes viral. Facebook has repeatedly proven unable to police its own product, from allowing the spread of QAnon conspiracy theories to tolerating posts by paramilitary groups like the “Kenosha militia” that may have led to the shootings of protesters by teenager Kyle Rittenhouse. OZY’s Immodest Proposal? Shut it down to help foster a free and fair election.

Read More on OZY

End Minoritarian Rule

In a fascinating piece about Mitch McConnell’s impact on the Democratic Party, Vox founder Ezra Klein argues that the Republican Senate Majority Leader has escalated tactical maneuvers that have allowed Republicans — who have trailed Democrats in total votes in most of the last few national elections — to nonetheless run the country despite being a minority party. In order to get the country back to being both democratic and representative, Klein suggests Democrats may need to use nuclear options if they retake Congress and the White House in November — from axing the filibuster to adding Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states and even expanding and then stacking the Supreme Court. While they can certainly expect Republicans to claim foul, if Democrats can pass popular changes while in power, it may be hard for conservatives to justify unraveling them over time.

Enact Widespread Election Reform

After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by essentially arguing that it had worked so well in defeating racist election practices that it no longer was needed, the United States has seen a number of attempts to suppress the vote and use local election laws to keep incumbents in power. It is time for a 21st-century Voting Rights Act, created federally with the power to override state election laws, with a nonpartisan federal group created to require best voting practices that are well-known among election experts, including options like universal access to mail ballots, automatic voter registration and drive-thru ballot drop boxes. While Democrats will likely have to take up that cause and Republicans may oppose it, the evidence is clear that voter fraud is rare … and that attempts to tighten voting security are more often about keeping the GOP in power than about protecting the election process.
Read More on OZY

How to Bring Down the Boil

How to Bring Down the Boil

If Democrats win the White House and the Senate, here are some softer ways to ease tensions across America.

Change State Laws to Proportional Voting

Many opponents of the Electoral College want to scrap it constitutionally. But states could individually change their processes to send electors more proportionally, rather than the winner-take-all system that most states employ today. All Americans would benefit if Republican and Democrat governors alike could be convinced to buy into a more democratic system of governing, one in which few could doubt the mandate of a president.

Halt Bad Faith Campaigns

Slogans like “All Cops Are Bastards” and “Blue Lives Matter” have pitted activists against police in ways that fire past the other’s legitimate gripes and poison the well for actual change, even if well-intended. Of course, police unions have aggressively blocked progress on these issues, and the “us vs. them” tactics have escalated as both police critics and the police themselves have become more political. It will require a president and local leaders who are willing to douse the flames when dealing with public safety issues rather than fan them for political gain. Still, police chiefs like Houston’s Art Acevedo have shown that the right leaders are willing to court change while still living up to their sworn duty (although he, too, has his faults). 

Pass an Internet Bill of Rights

The tiny country of Estonia has declared internet access to be a human right — offering nearly universal, free, public wifi. That comes with a national Blockchain-based government system that protects citizens’ security, allows crimes to be reported and cases to be handled online while also making access to educational, electoral and legislative documents exponentially easier. Black Americans, rural white Americans and others on the margins disproportionately suffer from a lack of digital connectivity, limiting access to public services. Shifting more police work online could limit physical interactions that have sometimes led to tragic and unjustified shooting deaths. Critically, Estonian-style digital IDs would automatically grant, maintain and prove voter registrations, thwarting common voter suppression tactics. These rights could also include access to free fact-checking resources — provided by nonpartisan outlets like Logically, an A.I.-based app fighting disinformation in an effort to improve discourse and knowledge in the U.S., India and other nations.

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Stirring the Pot: Names to Know

Candice and Brian Brackeen: Investing in Overlooked Communities

The venture capital gurus lead Lightship Capital, an Ohio-based fund seeding $50 million to underrepresented founders in the Midwest. With innovative tactics, including moving in with the founders of companies they’re investing in, the Black empowerment duo are finding opportunity by investing in the often overlooked. 

Thomas Chatterton Williams: Deemphasizing Race 

The biracial New Jersey native turned Parisian intellectual eloquently (if controversially) speaks and writes about the importance of deemphasizing race at a time when Black Lives Matter has greatly accentuated it, decrying well-meaning Wokism as racial essentialism revived and advocating for liberal multiculturalism instead.

Aaron T. Walker: Diversifying Leadership

Philanthropy is too often a white man’s game, with white leaders disproportionately funneling donated money to white-led charities … even with stated missions to advance social justice. But Walker, founder and CEO of the accelerator Camelback Ventures, is fighting to change that by providing an incubator that helps innovative and diverse leaders. His project, Capital Collaborative, brings together white philanthropic and corporate executives from across the country to teach them about racial equity. 

Ashley Frawley: Agitating for Happiness

The newest happiness guru says it’s OK to be upset. As an Ojibwe teenager who spent summers on a First Nations reservation in Canada, Frawley was told her feelings of sadness as a teenager were “depression.” But Frawley realized that the negativity and poverty in her life were actually valid things to be sad about — not signs of a mental disorder. Now a lecturer at Swansea University in Wales, Frawley’s research focuses on the way cultural influencers, like wellness companies, try to make happiness a personal problem. She advocates for a more communal, society-focused approach to well-being.

Candace Owens: Red Pills

She used to run a Trump-bashing progressive website before converting to conservatism, and has used her platform the last two years to “red pill” minds to the GOP. Owens, now the founder of the #BLEXIT campaign for Black Americans leaving the Democratic Party, has never been shy with her attack lines — most recently tweeting that this time liberals can’t smear Trump Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett because “she’s a woman, so they can’t hire their usual fake sexual assault victims.” “Barrett has two Black children, so they can’t smear her as a racist,” she added. Owens enjoys a formidable following on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. 

Ben Smith: Media Maven

When the former Buzzfeed News editor-in-chief took over the media column at the New York Times, he was taking on a gig made famous by the legendary late David Carr — and since has revived the column’s popularity with a combination of newsy irreverence and breaking of news that nobody else is ready to divulge, including the infamous “Steele Dossier.” As one reporter wrote, Smith has “a compulsive desire to make hamburgers out of sacred cows.”

Tomi Lahren: Talking Points

The Fox News regular is far removed from her Colin Kaepernick-bashing “Final Thoughts” days … although she still proudly backs the police, as she did recently in an appearance on The Carlos Watson Show. From mimicking Trump’s warning about a rigged election and rampant mail fraud to ridiculing the intolerance of leftists, Lahren is also experiencing life changes: The South Dakota native has hopped from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee, where she is regularly recognized on the social scene. And, as she tells Watson in the revealing one-on-one interview, she’s an original conservative.

Michaela Coel: Standing Her Ground

She became famous with Chewing Gum, a coming-of-age story of a young Black woman exploring her religious roots, sexuality and voice in Great Britain. Her HBO show, I May Destroy You, has been a massive hit and has paid off her gamble from 2017, when she rejected a $1 million Netflix offer to buy the show rights because the streaming giant wouldn’t give her copyright royalties. With full creative and financial control, Coel is changing the conversation in a way only the daughter of Ghanian immigrants could.

Trump’s Mass Political Migration 2.0?

The 2016 president election was such a shock in part because pollsters didn’t account for a sudden, stark political migration — of working-class, non-college-educated Democrats to a Republican Party helmed by the billionaire Donald Trump. Four years later, Trump is once again behind in the polls. But if another political migration is afoot, it’s not based on blue- vs. white-collar dynamics. No, it’s in another, perhaps even more surprising potential shift — of a portion of minority voters leaving the Democrats to tout the Republican banner.

That may seem unlikely, given Trump’s reputation for racist comments and nativist politics. Yet the polls are starting to paint a picture that’s hard to ignore: one in which Trump has made statistically significant gains with Black, Asian and Latino voters since being elected president.

On Tuesday, Biden was shown to be up 54 to 30 percent over Trump with Asian American voters, according to the 2020 Asian American survey. That’s a significant advantage. However, it’s just about half the advantage Hillary Clinton had four years ago, when she beat Trump 69 to 25 percent among that demographic. With 15 percent of those voters still undecided, Trump will gain even more support on Election Day — likely earning him over a third of Asian Americans after just getting a quarter of them in 2016.

“He’s eating into the people who said they would vote for some other candidate,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder and director of AAPI Data, which helped conduct the survey, noting that third-party candidates aren’t getting nearly as much traction this time around.

That narrowing of the margins with Asian Americans has been happening with Black and Hispanic voters for months now, a mounting worry for Democrats if not a pressing one as Biden still has remained atop national polls. For instance, Trump’s share with Black voters has increased from 2016 as he has aggressively courted them by touting historically low unemployment rates and added funds for historically Black colleges. While Trump earned somewhere between 7 to 10 percent of Black voters in 2016, his share has expanded in 2020 polls — from a floor of 10 percent in most polls to some surveys showing as high as 24 percent approval.

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President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Freeland, Michigan.

Source MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

Meanwhile, Biden has been leaking Latino voters since becoming the Democratic nominee. Two polls in June showed his support hovering around 60 percent, a dip from the 66 percent who backed Clinton and 72 percent who last voted for Obama. “We kind of have an unwritten rule of thumb as Democrats when it comes to the Latino electorate: You really need to win 65 percent,” Moe Vela, a former Biden senior adviser, told OZY at the time. More recently, an NBC/Marist poll had Trump beating Biden with Hispanic voters in Florida by a 50-46 margin … echoing results from other potential swing states like Georgia and Texas, where the Latino vote is tight and still up for grabs with many undecided voters.

Those results overall suggest that Trump has made significant inroads with voters of color across the spectrum. If those gains are marginal, a few percentage points, perhaps it will be a drop in the bucket of a larger electoral loss. But if they are bigger and Trump wins — say with 20 percent of the Black vote, 40 percent of Latinos and 30 percent of Asian American voters — then Trump may have succeeded in reversing long-standing American political demographics once again.

There are number of reasons to suspect a shift is occurring, despite Trump’s continued racial rhetoric and exclusionary politics. Both Hispanic and Asian American voters view the economy as their most important voting issue far above immigration, and Republicans are still perceived as doing better on that issue (Black voters list race and policing as their top priorities, perhaps not a surprise given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement). And as the Democratic Party becomes the party of white-collar intellectuals, and the Republican Party scoops up more working-class, non-college-educated voters, it could be that Trump is starting to collect more minority voters by default — given that people of color (although not Asian Americans) are more likely to work in blue-collar jobs and not have attended college.

If that’s the case, class-based realities are driving migration to Trump, rather than race-based ones. Particularly among newer minority Americans, those who more recently immigrated to the country, his message resonates — multiple surveys have shown that the recently naturalized are more patriotic and are likely to back sitting presidents. “Among first-generation immigrants, they are highly nationalistic,” says Scott Tranter, a GOP strategist and founder of the data firm 0ptimus Analytics, although he admits long-term gains may not last. “I don’t know to the extent it will solidify.”

Trump has made explicit overtures to the Indian American community, both visiting India and hosting Prime Minister Nahendra Modi at a rally in Houston. He has also supported immigration reforms that would favor Indians, who currently face green card backlogs of as long as 151 years (interestingly, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, of Indian descent, co-sponsored a Senate bill to also address those delays). Trump has seen an increase with Indian voters supporting him, from just 16 percent in 2016 to 28 percent this September. And he’s also seen growing backing from Korean (18 to 26 percent) and Vietnamese (34 to 48 percent) voters. “The power of the incumbency explains some of the shift,” Ramakrishnan says, adding that “the president is able to prioritize what issues will be highlighted.”

It’s worth noting that specific demographic group changes have smaller sample sizes and, thus, higher margins of error. Plus, not all demographics appear to have shifted for Trump — Chinese support dipped from 24 percent in 2016 to just 20 percent now, despite the efforts of online activists to buoy his candidacy through WeChat and other social media platforms. It “remains to be seen” whether his improvement with minority voters “is something that’s temporary, just for this year, or whether four years from now it will disappear,” Ramakrishnan says.

Still, the fact that Trump is making gains at all is a trend to track ahead of a November election that may be closer than experts are predicting — even as our own OZY/0ptimus model gives Biden an 81 percent chance of winning at the moment, mostly because of his improved performance with seniors and white working-class voters. A lot can happen, particularly with a large vote-by-mail election that Trump is already working to discredit.

If Trump does succeed in winning over large swaths of minority voters, he will have restored the Republican Party to the days of George W. Bush, who won 44 percent of Hispanics and Asian American voters and believed the GOP could become the “big tent” party that Ronald Reagan envisioned.

Our Forecast: A Brewing Current Could Lift Biden … or Swamp Him

Last week, our OZY model with data and technology firm 0ptimus gave Joe Biden an 81 percent chance of winning the presidency. This week, that forecast is around 81.4 percent, so basically nothing has changed, right? Not so fast.

Even flat waters can hide rapid currents, and while the probabilities of the 2020 election have remained largely the same, a number of slight shifts have occurred below the surface — ones with the potential to disrupt the race more dramatically with time. “We just haven’t seen the waves yet,” says Scott Tranter, founder and CEO of 0ptimus.

The biggest news is a set of gold standard polls released in Minnesota and New Hampshire. Biden was up 16 points over Trump in an ABC/Washington Post poll of 615 likely Minnesota voters, a large break from three previous polls that had him up 9 points. Meanwhile, Trump received good news with a New York Times/Siena poll that had him down just 3 points in New Hampshire, closer than the 8-point deficit he had last month.

While Biden appears to be solidifying his lead in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, data shows the president may have growing momentum with Granite State voters. Trump has a soft spot for New Hampshire, after winning his first primary in the 2016 election there and bonding with voters over promises to end opioid abuse and the high cost of medical prescriptions. “There is some movement in the race, but it’s offsetting,” Tranter says.

Expect even choppier waters in the Senate races. While Democrats still have a three-quarters chance of taking control of the upper chamber, the races are getting tighter — with polls showing contractions in both Georgia Senate races and in Iowa, the two states rated as “Toss-Ups” in the OZY/0ptimus model. The former is particularly important to watch because in at least a fifth of the models, the fate of the Senate lies in the Peach State, where a runoff could leave the results up in the air until early January.

Meanwhile, the blue tilt of currently GOP-held Senate seats in Maine and North Carolina is putting Democratic control of the Senate into play for the first time since they lost it in the 2014 midterms. If Biden wins and pairs the presidency with a newly liberal Senate to go with the Nancy Pelosi–led House of Representatives, it would represent a seismic shift for U.S. politics — a blue wave that would soon transform into a liberal tsunami. Which goes to show that even beneath-the-surface shifts can lead to dramatic results.

American Fringes: How the Media Makes it Worse

On Sunday, we explored the ways that the American Fringes are bubbling up to become the mainstream of tomorrow — defining the extreme ideologies at war, their sordid histories and how technology has aided their ascent. Today, we further that discussion with a look at how the news media is incentivized to amplify conflict and conform to extreme ideologies, where fringe groups are emerging globally and how people can keep the fringes from winning hearts and minds. 

The Media Ecosystem Is Compromised

We Need Gatekeepers. Decimated by the rise of the internet and the decline of print advertising in the early 2000s, newspapers have lost half of their newsroom employees since 2008, and those numbers predate COVID-19. Newspapers traditionally served as gatekeepers of information, and while that system had its flaws — particularly in its lack of diverse views and voices — it often succeeded at keeping the most fringe views of society from reaching larger audiences. And now, these understaffed local newsrooms are struggling to cover QAnon in their communities, but there are steps we can take to save them

Incentivized by Extremes. While newspapers declined, radio and cable news held relatively steady. Virality and the drive to gin up page views have exacerbated the worst tendencies of some media toward hot takes and punditry. Watch this video of Jon Stewart skewering CNN’s Crossfire (and mocking Tucker Carlson’s bow tie) way back in 2006. And with digital media garnering eyeballs through increasingly inflammatory headlines and subject matter, it’s gotten worse. An MSNBC producer quit her job in the middle of a pandemic last month, calling the cable news industry “a cancer” without a cure. Meanwhile, partisanship is so crucial to their business model that media executives publicly wrung their hands about how not having President Donald Trump as an “antagonist” will hurt ratings should he lose in November. Read more about OZY’s mission to Reset America.

Pressure From the Fringes. More extreme voices now have direct public forums to advance agendas and pillory those they disagree with — often on Twitter, which is used by only 22 percent of Americans but holds an outsized sway over the media. The result is pressure on journalists to contort seemingly obvious truths to appease their most activist viewers. It’s pressure from woke theorists and the left that leads to a CNN chyron reading “fiery but mostly peaceful protests” over an image of burning buildings in Kenosha. It’s also why conservative outlets rarely criticize Trump, and Fox News — even amid its own ongoing tension with Trump — so readily spouts conspiracy theories, from racist birtherism to Benghazi to deep state plots against the president. 

The Trickle-Down Effect. Conspiracy beliefs increase in response to group threats, according to University of Miami experts Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent. Fox News has parroted conspiratorial Trump messaging that antifa is headed to pillage the suburbs, while liberals have become noticeably more susceptible to dubious facts since Trump’s election — from a former labor secretary tweeting about a plot between Trump and the right-wing news outlet Breitbart to crack down on American universities, to “Blue Detectives” chasing strands of reporting to “prove” illegal Trump activity in online Twitter screeds.

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Supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) chant songs during their 2nd National People’s Assembly held at Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 14, 2019. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP) (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Fringe Actors Abroad

Rise and Fall in Deutschland. Just two years ago, the German far right, led by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), appeared poised for mainstream success. In 2017, the AfD emerged as Germany’s third largest party after parliamentary polls, and a year later, 33 percent of the country’s population told pollsters they identified with populism. That support is now crashing. A new poll released Thursday by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that only 20 percent of Germans today have a populist mindset. Will the AfD recover, or have the centrist politics of Chancellor Angela Merkel won this battle?

Black Power. Never far from controversy, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the country’s fastest-growing political formation. Their far-left policies — they want to expropriate white-owned land, and offer free education and health — place them in direct opposition to South Africa’s two biggest parties: the ruling African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance. And that unique positioning is helping the EFF and its firebrand leader, Julius Malema, woo a predominantly young Black population frustrated and disenchanted with their country’s post-apartheid poverty and corruption. The EFF saw its vote rise sharply in the 2019 parliamentary elections where it finished third, even as the ANC and DA saw their votes drop. Could 2024 be their year?

Red Paranoia. More than half a century after a U.S.-backed military dictatorship massacred half a million Indonesian communists, a rising Islamist movement is whipping up anti-communist paranoia again to build support for itself. The Anti-Communist Youth Movement — called GEPAK — insists Marxism is reemerging in Indonesia, even though there’s no evidence of that. But the pressure from this Islamist movement has made President Joko Widodo revive the ghost of communism as he tries to balance the nation’s growing religiosity with his more liberal policies. Read more about Jokowi’s balancing act on OZY.

Cow Protectors. They sound almost like vegan activists, yet they’re anything but nonviolent. A loose network of activists who call themselves “gau rakshaks” (cow protectors) is behind many of the spiraling lynchings that have targeted Muslims and lower-caste Dalits in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing government took office in 2014. Working through WhatsApp rumor mills, these groups lay siege to highways, stop vans transporting cows to cattle fairs and slaughterhouses — beef is seen as holy by many Hindus — and assault the Muslims and Dalits in those vehicles. They’re the perfect mirror to Modi’s politics, reflecting the anti-Muslim indoctrination his rule facilitates while allowing him to claim distance from the worst lynchings (though his ministers have at times publicly supported the killers). They’re also evidence of the deep hypocrisy underpinning the regime’s so-called respect for cows: The country’s meat industry giants are the world’s second-largest exporters of beef, and the Modi government has done nothing to change that. 

Amazonian Judaism. For four decades they failed to qualify for Peru’s national election. Now the fringe religious group Israelites of the New Universal Pact, mostly unknown outside Peru, holds 15 seats in a fractured national legislature after 2019’s elections, making it the country’s third largest party. The largely secretive group marries Andean folklore and Hebrew Bible lessons, borrowing from both ancient Inca practices and the Ten Commandments. They believe that the Peruvian Amazon is the real Promised Land.

Nobel Week Dialogue on the Future of Truth

Zeynep Tufekci

Who Will Combat the Fringes?

Lyric Jain. This Cambridge and MIT-trained engineer knows more than most about the dangers of misinformation — not just because he witnessed Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election up close, but also because he believes his grandmother died prematurely from cancer after being convinced by online wellness gurus to stop taking her medicine and drink a certain juice instead. His fact-checking news curator company, Logically, promises to tear down echo chambers and fight fake news. In August, Logically helped alert Utah officials to the fact that an anti-sex-trafficking event was actually a QAnon march in disguise, leading to its permit being revoked. Read more on OZY.

Zeynep Tufekci. The University of North Carolina sociologist and professor has been consistently prescient. When the Centers for Disease Control suggested Americans didn’t need to wear masks in January, Tufekci called them out in a tweetstorm. She was early to sound the alarm on the pandemic while also arguing for keeping parks and beaches open. Tufekci has been years ahead of the curve in warning about how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm would radicalize viewers, that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing and that school shooting media coverage could inspire more killings. And in an age when clarity devoid of partisanship is needed more than ever, the European transplant’s voice is one to heed. 

Olya Gurevich. The Russia-born scientist first arrived in the Washington, D.C., suburbs as a fresh-eyed teenager watching the Soviet Union collapse and hopeful for the American future. But after watching Russian interference in the 2016 election, her faith was shaken — and so she helped found Marvelous AI, a startup using natural language processing to examine political speech and social media to sort fact from fiction in the 2020 presidential race. Read more on OZY.

Joe Biden. Surprised to see him on this list? Of all the presidential contenders who have plunged in since early 2019, Biden has been the most consistent in moving to lessen partisan name-calling, properly address the pandemic and call for the end of violent rioting that distracts from the positive goals of peaceful protest. His empathetic approach has brought a human edge that will be needed if the American fringes are to be defeated.

WHAT HAPPENS

What Happens Next?

Playing Interference. The Russians are coming. And their biggest weapon is us. While Russians attempting to help reelect Trump have used more direct means like hacking voter rolls, their most effective tactic has been to inflame racial and ideological tension — as they’ve already been doing around COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests. And even if the Russians are not involved, the fear alone is enough to drive people mad. The Chinese and Iranians are doing this too, according to what America’s intelligence community has released thus far, but indications suggest their persuasion motives are not as covert. Read more on OZY about China’s efforts.

Post-Election Chaos. The other day we wrote about the “red mirage,” coined by Democratic data firm Hawkfish to describe how its modeling shows a massive Trump Election Day lead that he loses over several days as Democrat-leaning mail-in ballots are counted. This scenario is a recipe for street clashes — with Trump and fellow GOPers trying to declare victory or hype the vote as stolen — and catnip for the fringes. Agitators spoiling for a fight will get one. 

Vaccine Panic. The anti-vaccine movement has traditionally lived on the kooky fringes. The debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism was hyped up by a small but vocal crowd — pre-presidency Donald Trump among them — and they were largely derided. But now with the most anticipated vaccine in world history creeping closer to market, a majority of Americans are skeptical: A USA Today/Suffolk poll last week found that two-thirds of Americans won’t opt to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available, and one-quarter say they never will. Aside from the true fringes — who have hyped bizarre theories about Bill Gates wanting to implant microchips in people via the vaccine — there are legitimate concerns around whether the Trump administration is rushing a vaccine out before the election for political benefit. As major drug companies prepare a public vow to adhere to the most rigorous vaccine safety standards, watch for a fringe-driven conversation against vaccines to accelerate.

How Aggressive Will Big Tech Get? Long accustomed to taking a light touch, major tech platforms are starting to adopt a more heavy-handed approach to trying to squelch the worst of the fringes. Facebook put down a marker last week by saying it would ban new political ads during the final week before the election, and that it would direct users to official results from Reuters while blocking attempts to tell people they’ll catch COVID-19 from voting. But the problem is not paid ads so much as what’s spread organically — often behind the walls of private groups and messages. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have removed thousands of QAnon groups, posts and accounts, but they often are behind the curve. Expect more pressure for bigger steps in the coming weeks.

SOLUTIONs

Solutions, Big and Small

Read Albert Camus. The French absurdist philosopher has rather profound views on the importance of avoiding prefabricated Theories of Everything in times of upheaval. While many castigated him for famously saying that “between justice and my mother, I choose my mother,” they missed his critical point: that he opposes violence on all sides. Camus shows a sensibility that writer Mathis Bitton argues is shared by many Black Americans as well: “that every inch of justice is worth capturing now” rather than waiting “for a great revolution to save us all.” But there has always been that tension within the Black community around whether incremental change is enough, including during the civil rights movement.

Think Before You Share. False memes and sketchily sourced news articles go viral because they play on preexisting biases. Think to yourself whether a particular article seems too good to be true, and seek out multiple reputable sources before giving it a signal boost. Here’s a good primer, including one key tip: Double-check the URL. Fake news sites often mimic mainstream outlets.

Don’t Be the Silent Majority. The fringes are loud. Maybe you’re not. But unless and until you call out fringe ideas and violent rhetoric to your friend groups, your social media followers and, yes, even your conspiracy-loving uncle, those ideas will go unchallenged and might creep ever more into the mainstream.

Big Tech: Shut It Down. Remember when it was a meme to change your profile picture to a black square to honor the BLM protesters? Maybe all of Facebook and Twitter should simply go dark for the week before and — perhaps more importantly — the week after the election. It won’t solve the problem, but it will sure as hell lower the temperature.

He’s Fighting QAnon With Sunlight

  • Lyric Jain’s new app, Logically, is tracking fringe movements and fact-checking the news in real time.
  • The U.K. native has already shown an ability to bust up misinformation in India. Can it work in 2020 America?

It was the third weekend of August, and an anti-sex trafficking rally was about to fill the streets of Salt Lake City. Except, late into Friday night, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes suddenly pulled the plug on the Saturday event. While it had originally been organized by legitimate nonprofits and government groups, its mission had been hijacked by the Arizona-based “Freedom for the Children” group — an organization whose founders traffic in the QAnon conspiracy theory that an elite cabal is secretly molesting children worldwide.

While that strange confluence of events may have surprised many, it didn’t surprise Lyric Jain, a 24-year-old, Cambridge-educated engineer who lives in the United Kingdom. In fact, his company, Logically — a news curator that uses artificial intelligence and other methods to tackle the spread of misinformation — had released an investigation a week before into dozens of similar child trafficking events that had been co-opted by QAnon for that same date. Its report included an interview with a Freedom for the Children founder Tara Nicole, in which she refused to deny that her beliefs aligned with QAnon, and the report made its way to the Utah attorney general’s office.

The incident highlighted the treacherous news landscape where both reporters and policymakers now tread, one in which even protecting children can be weaponized by extremists. But it also exemplifies the way fact checkers can fight back in new and varied ways, with people like Jain leading the charge.

Logically found that 12 to 14 percent of articles about the U.K. and Indian elections were unreliable and identified tens of thousands of fake news pieces.

“This is one of a family of tools to fight real civic challenges — the polarization of the left and the right, the echo chamber phenomenon of social media,” says Joost Bonson, an MIT lecturer who co-taught the Developmental Ventures program in which Jain first developed his plan for combating misinformation with tech. “What’s even more important than his technical skills is his ability to attract and entice people to join in to this compelling mission.”

While just about everyone has been affected by misinformation in the digital age, Jain has had more of a front row view than most. He was studying in the United States at the MIT Media Lab during a 2016 election defined in part by Russian attempts to manipulate the news cycle. Previously, he watched the Brexit vote from Britain — Jain notes that he was studying at the University of Cambridge, one of the highest “Remain” districts in the country, while having grown up in the rural town of Stone, which overwhelmingly voted to “Leave” the European Union in 2016.

But the real effect of virtual distortion was personal. Because months before Brexit, Jain’s grandmother died of cancer, in his view because of medical misinformation she had found online. “She believed somebody who told her to just, ‘Drink this juice, give up on your meds, and you’ll live longer,'” he says. That experience, compounded by Brexit and America’s 2016 election, led Jain to finally accept his fate — his original plan was to go to the “dark side” of finance, he says — and start working on Logically. “I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur [this early],” he laughs, adding that “there was just too much serendipity there.”

Early on, the company was “fairly agnostic,” Jain says, waiting to see whether machines or people could better fact-check the world. Ultimately, they settled on a combination of AI (to review more than 500,000 articles a day) and fact-checkers, many with journalism backgrounds (for more specific tasks). As of last year, Logically had around 30 employees in the U.K., mostly working in data science and artificial intelligence, with plans to expand its mostly fact-checking staff members in India to 70 people after announcing a $7 million seed funding round.

Logically examined global political content in 2019, finding that 12 to 14 percent of articles about the U.K. and Indian elections were unreliable and identifying tens of thousands of fake news pieces. During India’s state elections, Logically worked with the Maharashtra Cyber police and the state’s election commission to identify online disinformation that could lead to voter suppression.

In July, Logically entered the U.S. market with a fact-checking browser extension. It was followed quickly by a news curation app of the same name, which provides detailed summaries for storylines within articles and allows users to send their own fact checks of “any fact in any story” to the Logically team, which may then adopt the check broadly. “It’s been an ambition to be in the States right now — this election is like our cricket World Cup,” Jain says.

Of course, all the fact checking in the world can’t stop the spread of misinformation if people simply don’t want to change their views. “You can take the horse to the trough, but you can’t make them drink water,” Jain admits. He worries too that fact checkers broadly are still “playing catch-up” as propagandists increasingly move from open spaces — like a public Facebook feed or Twitter — to more hidden platforms, such as Facebook Messenger or private groups, as well as encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.

“If we could say it was the same tactics and same actors at play, I’d be confident we have everything under control,” Jain says. “We have some idea the new tactics and new tools that are coming, but what we don’t know is what countries or organizations are hiding up their sleeve, perhaps for an October surprise.”

That challenge will leave Jain fiddling for a solution, although the engineer and quad bike enthusiast has never been shy about tinkering. “I always liked building things and trying to fix them,” Jain says. Given the state of misinformation globally, he has a hell of a repair job ahead.

The American Fringes Go Mainstream

America is an occupied territory. The invaders aren’t foreign but rather an enemy from within: Americans fighting to push extreme ideologies into the mainstream. This resulting chaos is reflected in divisive rhetoric and burning cities, in militarized citizenry and dictatorial echo chambers. These are the American Fringes. The roots go back decades, but the past few months are instructive.

Amid a pandemic that has ravaged lives and decimated the economy while also fueling conspiracy theories, Black Lives Matter protests broke out following a series of police killings — and garnered large bipartisan support for a racial reckoning in America. But the fringes have come to dominate both the street theater and discussions around the issues, with meaningful consequences. Over the next two days (see part two here), we will explore how the fringes are threatening to become the America of tomorrow … if we don’t confront them today.

Battlefield

The Battlefield

Erupting in Kenosha and Portland. While the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, strange seeds also germinated in America’s streets. Far-right, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Boogaloo boys, aiming to incite a new Civil War, have been accused of multiple murders at protests and reportedly sought roles as ‘mercenaries’ for the anti-Israel militant group Hamas. Mass looting and violence, seemingly led by far-left Black Bloc agitators, filled the cable news networks. Shouting matches became street brawls, leading to at least 34 dead in the protests. That includes the recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a conservative teenager killed two leftists and shot another, and Portland, Oregon, where a self-proclaimed anti-fascist killed a Donald Trump supporter and then was killed as police apprehended him Thursday. 

The ‘Proud Boys’ and Western Chauvinism. Among the right-wing groups mixing it up in the streets this summer are the Proud Boys, who are planning a rally this month in Portland. The “Western chauvinist” group was created by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, whose pugilistic style and penchant for causing offense has gotten him deplatformed by tech giants after the Proud Boys were designated a hate group. Read more about McInnes on OZY.

Antifa and ‘Black Bloc.’ Anti-fascism as a loose coalition went mainstream after Trump’s election, with ordinary liberals wanting to define their opposition to the president. However, more organized Antifa groups can be traced to anti-Nazis in Germany or England, where the British punk scene was infiltrated by white power skinheads in the 1970s. This racist heritage birthed the slogan A.C.A.B. — “All Cops Are Bastards” — which has now has become a mainstay at the anti-racist BLM protests. The modern antifa movement has joined forces with BLM, given their shared frustration with police, and antifa members believe in violent action as necessary to counter what they view as a complicit government and media establishment. They often use “Black Bloc” tactics — the wearing of all Black clothing, including masks — to hide their identities while committing violence against property or people. Read more on OZY.

Ideological

Ideological Warfare

Rising Far-Right. Changing demographics driven by immigration, struggling global economies, the election of the first African-American U.S. president, anti-globalization sentiment and the increasing urban/rural divide within the European Union have all fueled a troubling trend: White nationalist groups worldwide are increasingly attracting younger members by “trying to make fascism cool again,” as OZY first wrote in 2017. Nationalist authoritarians from Trump to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have inspired their backers by rejecting multiculturalism and demonizing establishment institutions … although they have also inspired opposition from their critics and their electoral wins have been few in most European legislatures. Read about the far right fascination with ‘racial paganism’ on OZY.

The ‘Woke’ World Order. To be woke is, in theory, to be awake to issues of social and racial justice. Its greatest value is in clearly identifying systems in society that contribute to racial inequality — systems many Americans agree need reforming. However, as the protests have worn on, certain social justice theories have been stretched in potentially troubling ways. They have been used to defend looting as “joyous and liberating,” to argue for violence as the only way to achieve Black liberation and to decry white people as irreparably racist by virtue of their birth … and demand that they vocally agree and atone. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, has suggested creating a “Department of Anti-Racism” — a body with unprecedented power to veto any federal, state or local policies and punish those deemed racist by the arbitrary standards of a body of unelected “experts.” 

The Consequences of Wokism. A constructive Awokening could lead to meaningful action in addressing the disproportionate outcomes that Black Americans face — from poverty and health to policing and education, among other things. Critics, however, worry that these theories paradoxically revive illiberal, racist ideas, such as racial essentialism, a disdain for interracial dating and suggestions that people of color are intellectually less suited for tests in subjects like math and science. Such Wokism could unintentionally help re-elect Trump: When racial differences are accentuated, research shows it can actually reinforce racial stereotyping — possibly pushing white voters back to Trump despite their shift away from him in the 2018 midterms.

The Intellectual Dark Web. A movement of intellectuals who reject Wokism and the social justice discourses behind it, the members of the loosely aligned Intellectual Dark Web would likely be surprised to be named as part of “the fringes” — because in their view, they are arguing for basic liberal principles that, until recently, weren’t controversial at all, from encouraging a marketplace of ideas to valuing the scientific method and reason over subjective knowledge. But in professing a desire for open discourse and against “cancel culture,” they’ve given platforms to extremists such as race scientists Charles Murray and Stefan Molyneux. While of various ideological roots, the IDW are united by one commonality: a deep-seated feeling of persecution. Read More on OZY.

The Provocateur These anti-PC debates bubble up and fuel more mainstream commentary on the right. Take Tomi Lahren, the pot-stirring TV personality who worked her way up from One America News to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze to her regular spot on Fox News. During a recent sit-down with OZY’s co-founder and CEO on The Carlos Watson Show, Lahren expounded on the “closed-minded” left and the notion of “police officer — bad; white people — bad; anything that goes against BLM — racist; the cancel culture.” Watch now.

QAnon. The far-right conspiracy theory that an elite global cabal is hiding child sex rings from the public has taken a life of its own in recent months, with intense mainstream media coverage and President Trump refusing to disavow QAnon fans of his, saying he “heard these are people that love our country.” The FBI has named QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and it has gained more attention as its followers have run for Congress and attempted to co-opt legitimate anti-sex trafficking marches for their own political purposes. More recently, other conspiracy movements, including anti-vaxers, have latched onto it.

FB4

Randy Weaver, Kyle Rittenhouse and Timothy McVeigh

Source Getty

The Roots of the Fringes

Militias: From Timothy McVeigh to the Present Day. When a shot is fired, where does it come from? For Kyle Rittenhouse, the accused Kenosha killer, it may actually be rooted in the formation of state militias in the ‘90s, particularly the Michigan Militia, a gun rights group that influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh before he killed 168 people in 1995. Read more on OZY.

Anti-Semitic Legacy. From McVeigh, you can wind back even further to Henry Ford. The iconic industrialist was also a virulent anti-Semite who spread propaganda against Jews in the early 20th century via his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Those ideas influenced everyone from Adolf Hitler to the white supremacist William Luther Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired McVeigh. For more, listen to OZY’s ‘Flashback’ Podcast.

9/11 Truthers: The Q of the Left? Long before “deep state” conspiracies became a fixture of the right, a number of skeptics insisted that there was a plot within George W. Bush’s bureaucracy to hide the fact that 9/11 was an inside job — potentially orchestrated by the U.S. for nefarious reasons, including seizing oil from the Middle East. 

How a Stolen Horse Created the Microchips Conspiracy. In 1984, a prize horse owned by the president of Deston Fearing, a Minnesota-based animal identification company, was stolen. The horse theft set into motion a series of events that would lead to Bill Gates being ridiculously accused of wanting to implant millions of unwitting Americans with a microchip containing the mark of the beast in 2020. Read More on OZY.

The Bizarro English of the Sovereign Citizens. In 1989, a racist fabulist named David Wynn Miller invented his own take on English grammar and syntax that he said would end all human misunderstanding … only it was gibberish. Still, that didn’t stop it being adopted by the Sovereign Citizens, a cultish group that believed his unintelligible language was the key to freeing themselves from the “contracts” that require them to pay taxes and follow the law. Read More on OZY.

The Roots

Technological Radicalization

Facebook: Where Hate Organizes. In mid-August, Facebook removed 790 QAnon groups and more than 10,000 accounts from Instagram in an effort to diminish the virality of the conspiracy, which simply showed how pervasive social media indoctrination is. That followed Twitter’s clampdown on QAnon in July, and Facebook’s own decision to remove hundreds of boogaloo accounts in late June. Other platforms, such as 8chan, are typically where these extremist views originate, but Facebook is how they get distributed to the masses

Hidden Until Too Late. Despite Facebook’s efforts, experts say many conspiracy pages still remain — a fact proven after the Rittenhouse shooting drew attention to a “Kenosha Militia” page that had previously posted a “call to arms.” Founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for leaving the page up, revealing that it remained online even after two people reported it and several moderators saw it, angering many employees who feel that Facebook is too often being reactive instead of proactive in tackling hate. Now, extremist activity is increasingly moving out of the public eye, to closed groups on platforms such as WhatsApp or Telegram

Algorithmic Radicalization. The algorithms behind social media giants are designed to funnel viewers through a vortex of complementary interests — basically, to keep feeding them content they like in order to maintain interest and engagement. So the same scheme that immerses users in cats and baby goats can also blast them with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism over and over again. Preying on people’s bias toward self-affirming content, consumers can easily enter a media bubble that only accelerates problematic views and rarely challenges them. And it can lead to tragedy, from inspiring murderers like Dylann Roof and James Fields, to a pregnant woman being urged by online strangers to have a dangerous “freebirth” without doctors present … leading to the death of her child

Fanning the Flames From Afar. Foreign actors, from Russia to China, can take advantage of social unrest, the digital age and human psychology to stir discontent — and potentially affect elections. The U.S. Department of Justice found that, in at least one case in 2016, Russians created two Facebook groups and then advertised opposing protests to viewers … who then showed up in real life to the (originally fake) events. On another occasion, Russians paid people to attend pro-Trump rallies staged with a caged Hillary Clinton impersonator on a flatbed truck, echoing the “Lock her up!” chant popular among Trump supporters. Those tactics are still being used in 2020: Researchers found in May that nearly half of all Twitter accounts tweeting about coronavirus were likely bots. Read more on OZY.

Up Next. In Monday’s second part of OZY’s American Fringes magazine, we explore how the news industry is incentivized to stoke the flames of the fringes, profile those people who are fighting off extremism and forecast what will happen next. 

Defund the Police? Here Come the Private Security Patrols

  • Cities facing calls to cut police funding are doing so — and then hiring private security.
  • Private security officers are often better trained than police officers, but have lower accountability to the public.

Around 6 p.m. the day the George Floyd protests first hit Atlanta, Stephen Catus started getting deluged by phone calls. They didn’t slow down until noon the next day.

The owner of a private security firm that employs security agents across the state of Georgia, his typical clients used to be entertainment moguls: the athletes, musicians, actors and celebrities who flock to “Hotlanta” for its famed nightlife. But these were calls from business owners worried that looters would smash store windows and steal their wares; wealthy residents of gated communities afraid that protesters would soon spill out into the suburbs; and local governments whose police forces were overwhelmed, including those of the city of Atlanta itself. “We get called in to do the dirty work,” Catus says. “They don’t want the blood on their hands.”

In recent months, growing calls to defund the police have led to a widespread rethinking of the societal role of American police forces, which began as slave-catching patrols in the 18th-century South. Since May, at least 11 cities have started the process of cutting police budgets or disbanding police departments altogether. And it’s not just coastal centers like New York City and Los Angeles but also heartland hubs like Norman, Oklahoma, and Salt Lake City. This week’s unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake only fuels the fire. Yet these moves are also leading to an uncomfortable question: What comes after? In many cases, the answer is privatization.

Nowhere is that dynamic more evident than Minneapolis, where the City Council voted to defund its police force while at the same time spending $4,500 per day to hire private security guards to protect its members. In June, the Minneapolis Board of Education canceled its school security contracts with the police, then posted ads soon after for “public safety support specialists,” whose responsibilities would include things like breaking up fights.

We contracted anywhere from 20 to 30 Atlanta Police Department officers monthly.

Stephen Catus, private security firm owner

Meanwhile, Chicago hired more than 100 guards from three private firms to protect businesses in the South and West Sides for $1.2 million. Following criticism, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a statement promising that the guards would wear ID and be unarmed. In Portland, Oregon, private security forces were hired to supplement the police force for nonviolent work, while in New York City, more homeowners have hired private guards to protect their properties since the protests began.

US-CRIME-STABBINGS

A private security car in Santa Ana, California.

Source APU GOMES/AFP via Getty

Many of the people who make up these private security forces are retired police officers, looking to leave behind the poor pay, terrible hours and health risks. “We contracted anywhere from 20 to 30 Atlanta Police Department officers monthly,” Catus says, roughly a third of his total staff of approximately 65 at his company’s peak. Minimum pay begins around $75,000, but some make as much as $1,000 a day, or $200,000 a year. Interest from cops looking for a career change has risen dramatically in the past few months, Catus says: “It’s honestly just because the badge is so dirty right now.”

That shift carries pros and cons, for both police and public. On the one hand, privatized security forces made up of residents protecting their own neighborhoods might be more accountable since those they “protect and serve” are their neighbors (plus, they don’t have unions striking deals to safeguard them from prosecution). Catus argues that private security forces often require more training than the typical police academy does. Because private security officers don’t have the legal protection of the badge, they’re taught to use extra caution when exercising deadly force. That distinction extends even to the types of targets they use at shooting ranges — while police practice on heads, shoulders and torsos as targets, Catus trains his forces to focus on arms and legs. “We train to disarm, to stop you in your tracks,” he explains.

However, private security agents still face far less public scrutiny than the average cop. Critics of police departments who are demanding more accountability, from everything to body cameras to access to public documents, may be sorely disappointed if police work ends up being passed on to private forces with few disclosure requirements.

Both police and private security forces tend to attract military veterans. “Veterans have priority in hiring,” notes Neta Crawford, a co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University. There is evidence, she says, to suggest that combat veterans are likelier to fire their weapons. “Essentially, you’ve got a problem every society has: What do you with the violent individual you’ve trained to be violent, when they are no longer meant to be violent anymore?” Some veterans enter the industry after serving in private paramilitary groups: One of Catus’ business partners is a former soldier for Blackwater (now called Academi).

A shift toward further privatization in the United States would match global trends. Private security workers outnumber police officers in more than 40 countries, including Canada, China, India and Australia, according to research by the Guardian. In fact, half of the planet’s population lives in such countries, and even the U.S. has more than a million private security guards, compared to just 666,000 police officers. In the past decade, as budgets have been cut and interest in policing has declined alongside the profession’s reputation, cities from Detroit and Boston to Stockton and Oakland, California, have hired private security to supplement their police departments.

Now, with increasing activist calls, there is even greater pressure to dismantle and defund the police. Still, it’s unclear who is best served by a decrease in police forces. When asked whether they would prefer police to spend more, less or the same amount of time in their communities, 61 percent of Black Americans said they would prefer police presence to remain the same, while 20 percent wanted more of a presence, not less, according to a Gallup poll conducted from June 23 to July 6. And if private forces replace public ones, safety could soon become another luxury of the rich that the poor cannot afford.

The Candy Magnate Fueling Trump in Pennsylvania

  • A co-chair of Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania fundraising effort, Bob Asher is a longtime Republican fixture who found redemption after serving time in prison for corruption.
  • His fundraising skills will be critical in this pivotal state for Trump’s reelection.

When he won his race to become governor of Pennsylvania in November 2010, Republican Tom Corbett began his election victory speech by craning his neck back and shouting out: “Where’s Bob?” And anyone who was anyone at this GOP event knew exactly which “Bob” he was referring to — the candy magnate Robert “Bob” Asher, a real life Willy Wonka, if only Willy Wonka were a 5-foot-9 millionaire bankroller of conservative candidates who once served nearly a year in federal prison for corruption.

A decade later, Asher has another title: finance co-chair for Donald Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania — one of three swing states, along with Wisconsin and Michigan, where some 77,000 votes (of more than 136 million cast) won Trump the presidency in 2016. Through his 2016 campaign, Trump raised about $3.6 million from Pennsylvanians. But from his inauguration through June of this year, Trump’s campaign has taken in nearly $4.6 million from Pennsylvania — and the Republican National Committee has raised still more.

And in a race that could come down to the wire once more, what hasn’t changed is how much Republicans will depend on Asher, now in his eighties, to get them over the finish line. “He’s more than a bank account,” says Dennis Roddy, a GOP consultant and former Corbett aide. “This is somebody who doesn’t have to open his checkbook to be listened to.”

Asher grew up in the northwest Philadelphia suburbs, attending the historic Germantown Academy from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, eight years before Trump did, just one of the many similarities between the two family business-inheriting conservatives. While serving as co-chairman of Asher’s Chocolate Co., the candy company his Scottish immigrant grandfather founded in nearby Souderton, Asher became a force in Montgomery County politics from the late ’60s to the early ’80s.

It will always be there. It will never wash away.

Bob Asher, in 2010, on his corruption conviction

“Asher was, perhaps, the most powerful Republican in the state for decades … he knew how to play the game, built relationships and alliances,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. It didn’t hurt that everyone loves a man who can salve a sweet tooth, as Roddy puts it: “It’s hard to really hate somebody who runs a candy company.”

Yet Asher has found many ways to put that theory to the test in his contradictory career. In 1987, at the height of his influence while serving as chairman of the state GOP, Asher got caught up in a corruption scandal in which Republican state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer was convicted of accepting a $300,000 bribe. The case ended tragically when Dwyer killed himself in front of reporters at a state Capitol press conference the day before he was to be convicted.

Asher was accused of suggesting the bribe should go to the state party, not Dwyer, and spent 10 months and 10 days in prison for mail fraud, perjury and conspiracy to commit bribery. “It will always be there. It will never wash away,” Asher, who did not respond to our requests for comment, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010. “I still, to this day, maintain that I did not do anything improper. However, the court did not agree. So I paid my dues.”

After serving his time, Asher wasn’t necessarily embraced by Republicans, but after engineering a 1991 upset of two incumbent Montgomery County commissioners by two of his own allies, his influence was undeniable. (The fact that Dwyer had killed himself probably played a role in Asher being accepted back as well. “You don’t get much more atonement than that,” Roddy notes.) Since 2000, Asher’s PA Future Fund has donated nearly $18 million to conservative candidates and causes. He has been considered a kingmaker, a prime mover behind Republican candidates from Corbett to 2018’s GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner, as well as dozens more down-ballot candidates.

However, there are signs that Asher’s golden touch may be fading. Amid a flagging economy — Pennsylvania was 47th in job creation under his watch — Corbett became in 2014 the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor to lose reelection since 1854. Wagner suffered a disappointing blowout loss to Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf.

Robert Asher

And after backing the losing state party chairman last year, Asher himself was challenged for his spot as Pennsylvania’s Republican National Committeeman … a post he had held since 1998, and relinquished last week to state party secretary Andy Reilly. Asher bowed out of the race in July once it was clear he would lose.

Still, Asher’s work remains pivotal for Trump. He’s raising money to feed the expensive television ad market in Philadelphia and its suburbs, which are essential to a Trump victory … and which have markedly turned against the president. “The Republicans have a serious problem if they keep getting blitzed in the ’burbs like they did in 2018,” Madonna says.

That’s true in Asher’s backyard, as Montgomery County — once a GOP stronghold with Republicans, who outnumbered registered Democrats for decades until the 2008 election — voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by nearly a 22-point margin. And if those fortunes are to turn, Asher will play an important role. Much of it will involve a sales job from the chocolate merchant: Donors want to back a winner, but Trump has consistently trailed in the polls. Asher’s role “may not be as political as it was; it will be more financial,” says Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist based in the state capital Harrisburg. “He knows the players, knows how to talk to them and how to get into their wallets.”

How to House Hunt Safely

This is the second of three parts of “Decision Moments.” Jump back to part one here, or ahead to part three here.

Where you live has always been important to your happiness. And these days, when you’re not only sleeping but also working and doing pretty much everything else at home, a comfortable abode takes on even greater importance. But how do you apartment shop while staying safe?

Rachel Mooreland finds a way in this episode of “Decision Moments.” With the help of her leasing manager boyfriend, Roosevelt, the Chicago fashionista takes virtual tours of potential new apartments with some stunning views.

From a studio with near-floor-to-ceiling windows to a one-bedroom with high ceilings, smart appliances and a sweet industrial vibe, Mooreland weighs the pros and cons of each while imagining her new life in a new home … all from the comfort of her couch.

Join her on that journey, and then consider what it might be like to strike out on your own. With the help of some friends who’ve always got your back, of course.

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When Baker Mayfield Was a Walk-On

When sports fans think of Baker Mayfield, they probably think of the preternaturally confident quarterback who planted an Oklahoma Sooners flag on the Ohio State logo in one of the cockiest moves in college football history. Or that he was a Heisman Trophy winner, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and, now, the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.

Because of all that moxie, it’s hard to remember that Mayfield’s story is closer to that of Rudy, the ultimate underdog, than to a star quarterback like Peyton Manning, who was highly touted from an early age. Mayfield has had to scrap with every inch of his not-quite-6-foot-1 frame to earn respect on the gridiron, a lowly three-star recruit out of the legendary Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, who was a walk-on for not one but two major Division I programs before getting a chance to start.

His scrappy personality goes back to the sixth grade, when a 5-foot-nothing Mayfield told his health class teacher that he planned on being a professional athlete, only to get lectured on the long odds of achieving such a dream. “OK, I’m sorry, but you didn’t argue with anybody else’s dream. Why are you arguing with mine?” young Baker replied, as he recalls in the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, hosted by OZY’s co-founder and CEO. “I will never forget Coach Woods.”

She knows I’m stubborn as anybody could get, but when it comes to our relationship, I’ve had to let my guard down and open up.

Baker Mayfield on his wife, Emily

The dream never came easy. Despite winning the 4A state championship, Mayfield received only five Division I scholarship offers. Rather than take them, he made a massive bet on himself, choosing to walk on at Texas Tech. He started five games as the team’s first-ever walk-on true freshman starter, but then an injury knocked him out of the lineup.

By the time Mayfield returned, his starting slot had been handed to someone else, and his scholarship was in question — with future superstar Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. So he took another big risk, choosing not only to transfer but to do so with no guarantee that the football team would take him. In fact, the team didn’t even know Mayfield had arrived. He had picked his childhood favorite: the University of Oklahoma. That’s right, the bitter rival of his hometown University of Texas.

“I just loved stirring it up,” Mayfield says.

His willingness to be a contrarian has manifested itself in other areas of his life. Take his relationship with his wife, Emily, with whom he went on a lunch date before his final college football game and married in 2019 at age 24. “She knows I’m stubborn as anybody could get,” Mayfield says, “but when it comes to our relationship, I’ve had to let my guard down and open up.”

It’s telling that Mayfield’s favorite NBA player is Russell Westbrook, another athlete who has shuffled between Oklahoma and Texas and is known for his no-holds-barred, almost blindingly confident approach to his sport. “I just think when he flips the switch on, he’s not trying to make friends whatsoever on the court,” Mayfield says. “He’s an animal when he steps on there and he’s trying to bury you.”