Mother Jones Magazine

From Our Archives, the US Chamber of Commerce Is Not Your Friend

Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.

Well, looks like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went ahead and did my job of pulling something from the Mother Jones archive to dig into. After a new jobs report indicated somewhat weak growth, the US Chamber of Commerce pulled out its austerity klaxon and called for the end of unemployment benefits. The argument is that the $300 a week is making people lazy. They won’t go back to work. AOC tweeted that the real problem is that many businesses still do not “actually pay a living wage.” And then she included our old article on the US Chamber of Commerce.

If you’re interested in learning more about their secretive/bizarre lobbying operation, check out this archived piece from @MotherJones

“the Chamber had been routinely inflating its membership numbers by 900 percent”https://t.co/wk3c1cQrKG

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 7, 2021

So, yes, you should go read our story from 2010 on the group. It outlines how the group parades as the arbiter of Main Street while cashing out for the most elite of businesses. As the Chamber moves to stop UI, it is relevant.

How Liz Cheney and Her Dad Paved the Way for the Big Lie

In recent days, Liz Cheney has become the hot celeb of the American media-political world. The conservative Republican representative from Wyoming is on the verge of being excommunicated from the House GOP leadership ranks because she has dared to speak an inconvenient truth: Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and his incitement of the seditious attack on the US Capitol “is a line that cannot be crossed.” Those recent remarks—coupled with her vote to convict Trump during Impeachment II—have provoked outrage from the Trump cultists within her party who are now demanding she be stripped of her post as the conference chair, the No. 3 spot in the Republican House caucus. And the betting odds are not in favor of the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. 

Cheney is undergoing a GOP version of a Soviet show trial. She has not demonstrated full and complete obedience to the party leader, so she must be destroyed. This is Orwellian. As the author of 1984 wrote, “In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.” And in that dystopian novel, poor Winston Smith is tortured at the Ministry of Love until he shouts two plus two equals five. Only then is he allowed to rejoin society. Cheney challenges Trump’s Big Lie—I won!—and refuses to whitewash the January 6 attack and Trump’s responsibility for it. Consequently, GOP Big Brother must squash her, and it looks as if her fellow House Republicans will vote to remove her from the conference chair. If they could defenestrate her, they probably would. 

But for accepting reality and stating the obvious—Biden won, and it’s bad for a president to encourage a violent assault on Congress—Cheney (outside of Republican congressional circles) has won hoorays. Writing on CNN’s website, GOP consultant Scott Jennings observed that Cheney is “now positioned as a principled martyr.” In a recent Washington Post column, she wrapped herself in such noble garb, slamming Trump for “seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this.” And she noted, “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” Cheney also sharply pointed out that her boss, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House Republican leader, said in January that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on Congress “by mob rioters”—but has shifted his position since then. 

Cheney does these days look like a courageous truth-teller, defying the cultism and alternative-fact addiction that has taken over her Grand Old Party. But, in a way, she is the victim of her own success–that is, the success of her family. In particular, the success her father had in lying to the American public.

In the 21st century, American presidents have at least twice tried to shape the world with a lie of enormous impact. Trump attempted to demolish the nation’s constitutional order and retain power with his false claim that the 2020 election was rigged and Joe Biden did not truly receive more votes. As Cheney points out, this lie delegitimizes the essence of the American political system. And two decades ago, another Big Lie was concocted and pushed by a Republican president that resulted in profound (and lethal) consequences. Her dad was its main architect.

That was the untrue allegation that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass of destruction and was prepared to use them against the United States. The Bush-Cheney administration used these charges to garner public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Dick Cheney was the chief pitchman for this flimflam. In an August 2002 speech, he proclaimed, “There is no doubt [Saddam] is amassing [WMDs] to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Soon after that, he publicly asserted that Saddam was trying to obtain aluminum tubes that could only be used for enriching uranium for weapons. And he also publicly cited a report that one of the 9/11 ringleaders had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague.

None of this was true. And Dick Cheney’s lies were not the result of intelligence failures. US intelligence over the previous year had assessed that Saddam did not have a worrisome WMD program. Government scientists had concluded that the aluminum tubes in question were not usable for weapon-grade enrichment. And the CIA had discredited that Prague report. Yet none of this inhibited Cheney and President George W. Bush. They spent months dishing out an assortment of false statements—including the untrue claim that Saddam was in league with al-Qaeda—to grease the way to war. They succeeded. Bush won the support of Congress and the American public for his massive blunder in Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam’s dictatorship but it yielded a geo-strategic and deadly mess in the region. About 200,000 Iraqi civilians died in the ensuing years due to the war. More than 4,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the war. 

One lesson of the Iraq war is that a big lie can work. Liz Cheney, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs during this stretch, supported the war—and has defended it ever since. (She co-wrote a 2015 book with her dad on US foreign policy.) She even insisted that one of the main lies of the Bush-Cheney fraudulent case for war—that there had been a significant connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq—was true. (She also hawkishly defended a sordid chapter of that sordid war: torture, saying it was “libelous” to call waterboarding “torture.”)

There was another odious lie that Liz Cheney also defended—or played footsie with: the racist conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Asked about birtherism in 2009, she replied, “I think the Democrats have got more crazies than the Republicans do. But setting that aside, one of the reasons you see people so concerned about this, I think this issue is, people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.” Without endorsing the conspiratorial and disproven details of this nutty notion, Cheney was providing moral support to its adherents. (Trump’s championship of this lie helped turn him into a right-wing hero and set up the foundation for his 2016 presidential bid.) 

It is a good thing that a hardcore conservative like Liz Cheney has joined the opposition to the Trumpian authoritarianism that has fully infected one of the nation’s two major political parties. Most of the GOP base is beyond persuasion. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of Republicans believe Biden did not win the election legitimately. The denialists lost in the swamps of Foxlandia won’t be swayed by a Liz Cheney op-ed. But for conservative Americans who give a damn about Trump’s war on reality and the Constitution—unfortunately, a minority—Cheney’s current stance could boost their spirits and spine. And the fight to protect American democracy needs as many enlistees as can be mustered, on the left, in the middle, and on the right. 

Still, Liz Cheney deserves hardly a cheer, for it ought to be remembered that Trump is pushing his Big Lie in the wake of other big lies—and that Cheney, her father, and so many other Republicans not so long ago did much to blaze the path for the dangerous political villainy she now decries.

Elise Stefanik Was Always Playing the Long Game

On Wednesday, as GOP rivals in Congress vied to strip her of her leadership role for her criticism of ex-president Donald Trump, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, gave her party an ultimatum. “The Republican Party is at a turning point,” she wrote in the Washington Post, “and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” 

The decision had already been made. CNN’s Manu Raju reported that Cheney’s colleagues were poised to anoint a successor—Elise Stefanik, a 36-year-old fourth-term congresswoman from Upstate New York, who has been endorsed for the job by Trump himself. In a thorough write up of the power struggle, the New York Times describes Stefanik’s career as a political “metamorphosis”:

While she began as one of the more moderate members of the Republican Conference—her voting record is far less conservative than Ms. Cheney’s, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation—Ms. Stefanik became one of Mr. Trump’s most strident loyalists. That role has buoyed her rapid ascension and brought in millions of dollars in campaign donations.

Stefanik’s political rise is a familiar Washington tale. After graduating from Harvard, she joined George W. Bush’s White House, worked in Republican policy circles for a few years, and served as a staffer for Paul Ryan during his vice presidential campaign. Then, in November 2012, she decided to suddenly leave all that behind to take a job in sales at her parents’ successful plywood company. She moved back to New York—not to the Albany area where she grew up and the business was headquartered, but to her family’s vacation home in Willsboro, a few hours north.

When, a few months later, Stefanik announced that she was running for Congress, these steps made a lot more sense. She described herself in one newspaper op-ed as “a small businesswoman who works in North Country sales, marketing and management” for a family business. Another local newspaper described her as “a businesswoman from Willsboro.” Campaign ads made it seem as if Willsboro was her actual hometown. (Residents of Willsboro told North Country Public Radio they’d never even heard of her.)

This kind of choreographed homecoming is a rite of passage for Washington political professionals. Jonah from Veep did it. (“Vote for Jonah Ryan–the outsider!“) Paul Ryan did it. Actually, so did Liz Cheney. But Stefanik told Politico that she hadn’t moved Upstate with the intention of running for office at all. She had just been that affected by the perspective she’d gained outside the “Beltway Bubble.”

That outsider’s perspective was a core part of her pitch. “I don’t look like a typical candidate,” Stefanik said at one point during the race. “But what I’ve realized is people have been really looking for someone who isn’t necessarily the status quo in Washington.” She was promising “new ideas.”

Stefanik was different from her Republican colleagues in a notable way—when she took office in January of 2015, she joined a Republican caucus that consisted almost entirely of older men, something she’s challenged party leaders in the intervening years to change. But in another sense, she was the purest form of Washington Republican—a creature of think tanks and campaigns and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. When she started an online magazine for conservative women in 2009 called “American Maggie” (named for Margaret Thatcher), as North Country Public Radio reported, she got Mary Matalin, Ed Gillespie, and Dana Perino to be on the advisory board. She was a liaison for lobbyists during the 2012 Republican National Convention. She’d hosted a fundraiser for Tim Pawlenty at a $1.3 million investment property she owned near the Capitol. She won her primary with more than $1 million in outside spending from Karl Rove’s super PAC and the hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer. You can be an outsider plywood saleswoman bucking the status quo with fresh ideas or you can be the person who literally introduced Joel Kaplan, the Facebook lobbyist, to Facebook (they were working together at the time, in the White House), but these really are two different categories of people.

Stefanik’s first term in Washington was a famously tumultuous one for her party, and Stefanik, like Ryan, did her best to leave all of her options option—when reporters tried to ask her about Trump in 2016, she literally ran away.

But when Trump did win (and by a huge margin in her district), that caution went away. Stefanik distinguished herself as Trump’s most ardent defender on the House Judiciary Committee in the run-up to Trump’s first impeachment trial, and raised big bucks off her newfound celebrity. Rather than run from Trump (and reporters) again in 2020, she ran as a proud Trump ally; after a mob sacked the Capitol in January, she voted with most of her caucus to overturn the presidential election results in Pennsylvania. In an interview Wednesday with a David Lynch character vaguely resembling Steve Bannon (or maybe that was Steve Bannon?), she said she supported the ongoing election “audit” in Arizona, where a company calling itself the “Cyber Ninjas” was inspecting ballots at an old basketball arena to determine whether they were bamboo forgeries from Asia.

Appearing on Steve Bannon's podcast, @EliseStefanik flaunts her Big Lie bona fides. pic.twitter.com/g5CqoR1bk8

— The Republican Accountability Project (@AccountableGOP) May 6, 2021

This kind of behavior is often presented as, in the words of the Times, a metamorphosis, but that’s not really what it is. The circumstances changed for Stefanik, but not the instincts; the kind of person who spends several months moonlighting as a small businesswoman from a politically neglected rural area in order to move up the ladder in the city where she spent her entire professional career is very much the kind of person who, when it becomes politically convenient, also decides to become a devoted super-fan of a loathsome grifter she once kept at arm’s length.

Liz Cheney is the story of how Bush administration loyalists—promoters, in their own time, of another Big Lie, the invasion of Iraq—fell out of favor with the Republican Party. But Elise Stefanik is the story of how most of them actually didn’t, and it’s the far more prevalent one. For every ex-hardliner with a CNN gig, or every legacy admission on the outs, there are many, many more rank-and-file officials, staffers, fundraisers, and consultants with none of the same family entanglements who haven’t thought twice about falling right in line. There’s no civil war in Trump’s GOP, not really. Just a whole lot of careerists angling their sails once more to ride the shifting winds.

I Hate Seeing Myself on Zoom. Turns Out, I’m Not Alone.

For the first time in my life, I understand why so many people who make their living in front of the camera—reality show personalities, news anchors, movie stars—get plastic surgery. I empathize with them. I get it. I, too, have had the experience of spending an inordinate amount of time looking at myself—not with millions of others on Bravo, but with a select group of colleagues on Zoom.

When I first installed Zoom, I didn’t think too much about the personal implications. As with much of the rest of the world, the pandemic forced my work life online, so I got the tool that allowed me to have meetings and see co-workers while we stayed physically apart. But I could never have imagined how hours and hours of looking at myself would affect me psychologically. I’m someone whose makeup routine takes five minutes max, who doesn’t wear high heels as a matter of principle, and who avoids taking selfies or looking at photos of myself. For most of my life, this hasn’t been a problem.

But slowly, during my Zoom-focused, quarantined life I’ve felt my occasionally ambivalent but generally self-confident sense of my appearance erode. Day in and day out I was forced to stare at the puffy bags under my eyes, the unfortunate spattering of adult acne on my chin, the way my face looks when I laugh too hard (which I usually do). It became impossible not to critically dissect my appearance, to silence my hectoring inner Anna Wintour. After one particularly Zoom-heavy day, I googled eye-lift procedures and how much they cost. (Around $3,000 with a recovery time of two weeks.) 

After one particularly Zoom-heavy day, I googled eye-lift procedures and how much they cost. (Around $3,000 with a recovery time of two weeks.) 

Why not merely select the “hide self” function on Zoom, you might reasonably ask. Because now that I have the option to stare at myself in action, I need to know what everyone else sees my face do. During the pre-pandemic days of uncomplicated indoor dining, when I found myself eating at a restaurant with a mirror on the wall opposite my seat, I couldn’t help checking myself out. It’s too tempting to try to plumb the depths of that impossible question: What do other people see when they see me? And how can I fix it so that what they see looks like I want it to?

Turns out, I’m not alone. 

Plastic surgeons are reporting that interest in plastic surgery has markedly increased during the pandemic, especially for the whole menu of facial procedures, from rhinoplasty to face lifts, cheek implants, ear surgery, eye lifts, forehead lifts, neck lifts, botox, and fillers. They’ve even given the phenomenon a name: the “Zoom Boom.”

The market research firm Equation Research surveyed more than 1,000 women across the United States and found that interest in plastic surgery has gone up by 11 percent among women over the last year, though we don’t know the age breakdown. (The absence of men in the survey is glaring—certainly they’re not exempt.) Although almost all cosmetic procedures decreased overall during the pandemic due to office closures, facial procedures decreased by the smallest percentage.

A survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) of their nearly 8,000 members revealed that nose reshaping (352,555 procedures), eyelid surgery (352,112 procedures), and face lifts (234,374 procedures) were the top three cosmetic surgical procedures in 2020. When accounting for the fact that most plastic surgeon were closed for an average of eight weeks in the year, the demand for each of these procedures actually rose by 12 percent, 7 percent, and 4 percent respectively. Demand for the most popular body-focused procedures, by contrast, dropped. Breast augmentation surgeries were down by 18 percent, liposuction was down by 5 percent, tummy tucks were down by 2 percent, and breast lifts were down by 6 percent. During these days spent sitting and staring at the screen, why bother fixing anything from the neck down? (Though demand for butt implants has notably soared!)

I decided to talk to some experts about this—just as a reporter of course. So I tracked down Dr. Lynn Jeffers, a plastic surgeon and chief medical officer at the St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, California, to ask what this Zoom Boom is all about. (Jeffers has also been working overtime running the vaccine rollout at her hospital.) She thinks there are three main factors. People had more disposable income during the pandemic because they were saving money on things like travel and dining out. Also, working from home made recovering from surgery easier and more discreet. And the only factor I could personally relate to: “We were suddenly all on Zoom, and our faces were so big in front of us, and most of us didn’t have great lighting or great webcams and so forth,” says Jeffers. “A number of people attributed the increased interest in facial procedures, as well as Botox and fillers, because that’s what everybody was seeing.”

“We were suddenly all on Zoom, and our faces were so big in front of us, and most of us didn’t have great lighting or great webcams.”

While Zoom fatigue has been a struggle for many of us, the effects have been especially distressing for the roughly 2 to 3 percent of Americans who struggle with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). “Skin, nose, lots of different facial features tend to be the focus of concern in BDD,” says Dr. Hilary Weingarden, a practicing psychologist and clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in OCD and related disorders, such as BDD. She explained to me that any concerns I might have about my facial appearance can take on a heightened, or even distorted, presence in my self-perception when I see myself on Zoom for long periods of time. 

“When you sit on Zoom, you’re staring at them all day long, and so we can tend to over-focus on that body part of concern,” she says. “When we look at ourselves in that way, we can start to actually distort our perception. And it starts to look more blown out of proportion.”

Weingarden points out that when people focus on small flaws about themselves, they are seeing a very different picture from what other people see, which is more holistic. Also, Zoom is a particularly strange and unforgiving vehicle in that it literally lines our faces up next to other faces, which creates a situation that’s ripe for unflattering comparisons—a dangerous rabbit hole, as anyone with a propensity for late-night Instagram scrolling will tell you.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to want to tweak or alter appearance, but my own obsessive dissection of my face just made me feel bad. Self-conscious about laughing or smiling. Deflated by a bad hair day. But more than anything, I’ve felt disappointed in myself that I can be troubled by an issue that is so damn superficial when, yes, I have much to be grateful for. I don’t value other people based on their appearance. Why can’t I extend that same courtesy to myself? 

But I think it goes deeper than that. OCD disorders like body dysmorphia have strong ties to anxiety and depression. The obsessive checking and rituals around perceived issues are a channel for anxieties around much bigger things: like the fear of social exclusion, or illness, or dying, or other catastrophic, irreparable calamities—that the pandemic brought to all of our lives to a certain extent. It should be noted that BDD is a severe disorder with high rates of co-morbid depression, high rates of suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts, and, in severe cases, a paralyzing fear of leaving the house. I do not have OCD or BDD, but I think the ties to anxiety are interesting.

“Most of us have aspects of our physical appearance that we don’t like, that we worry about. And that’s normal to being human,” says Weingarden. “So that experience of worrying about physical appearance, and even engaging in some of these ritual behaviors—we all do some of that to some extent. It can vary anywhere from very mild to full-blown BDD, and everything in between.”

If someone had offered to install a mirror in my computer so that I can stare at myself all day, I never would have agreed to it. Yet somehow that’s what I got. That’s what we’ve all got. Among the innumerable aspects of the pandemic that have been unnatural, add functioning under the constant surveillance of a virtual mirror.

Flow theory posits that people achieve peak performance when they are engrossed in an activity to the point that they lose their sense of self. It’s like being in the zone, or in a groove. For me the best feeling is when my self-awareness fades into the background and I am fully immersed in editing, or reading a good book, or listening to a friend’s story. 

When I confided to a friend about my Zoom Appearance Crisis (ZAC!), she pointed out that Narcissus stared at himself all day every day and it didn’t work out so well for him. Sitting at the edge of a lake and engrossed in his own reflection, he ultimately lost all interest in his worldly surroundings and turned into a flower. Clearly, this is not an ideal picture of engagement with the world—much less baseline productivity.

But maybe we got the message from the myth all wrong. Maybe Narcissus didn’t expire because he loved looking at himself. Maybe he just couldn’t look away.

Trump Spawned a New Group of Mega-Donors Who Now Hold Sway Over the GOP’s Future

This story was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Wesley Barnett was just as surprised as anyone to learn from news reports that the Jan. 6 Trump rally that turned into a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was funded by Julia Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the fortune of the popular Publix supermarket chain. But Barnett had extra cause for being startled: Fancelli is his aunt.

Barnett said he was at a loss to explain how his aunt — who isn’t on social media, lives part time in Italy and keeps a low profile in their central Florida town — got mixed up with the likes of Alex Jones and Ali Alexander, the right-wing provocateurs who were VIPs at the Jan. 6 rally in front of the White House.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that former President Donald Trump has activated a new set of mega-donors who were not previously big spenders in national politics. Some of the donors appear to share the more extreme views of many Trump supporters, based on social media posts promoting falsehoods about election fraud or masks and vaccines. Whether they will deepen their involvement or step back, and whether their giving will extend to candidates beyond Trump, will have an outsized role in steering the future of the Republican Party and even American democracy.

ProPublica identified 29 people and couples who increased their political contributions at least tenfold since 2015, based on an analysis of Federal Election Commission records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The donors in the table below gave at least $1 million to Trump and the GOP after previously having spent less than $1 million total. Most of the donations went to super PACs supporting Trump or to the Trump Victory joint fundraising vehicle that spread the money among his campaign and party committees.

MAGA Money

These donors each contributed more than $1 million to Trump and other Republicans since 2015, at least a tenfold increase from their prior political giving. The names of both people in a couple are shown if they each donated in their own names; the description applies to the first person named unless otherwise stated.

In the current system of porous campaign finance rules and lax enforcement, a handful of ultra-rich people can have dramatic influence on national campaigns. Many of Trump’s biggest backers, such as the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, or the Illinois packaging tycoons Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, aren’t shown in ProPublica’s analysis because they gave millions to Republicans even before Trump. But several of the biggest new donors — banking scion Timothy Mellon and his wife, Patricia; Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and his wife, Laura; and Dallas pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and his wife, Amy — now rank among such better-known, longer-running donors as Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, professional wrestling founders Linda and Vince McMahon, and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

For some new donors, the sudden increase in their political contributions may have as much to do with newly acquired wealth as with the ascent of Trump and his grip on the Republican Party. But others inherited fortunes or made them long ago, yet never made a splash in campaign finance records until now. Several of the donors have not spoken publicly about their support for Trump or have not been extensively covered before. ProPublica requested interviews with everyone named in this article and included comments from those who responded.

“Things are diametrically different from when Trump was in office,” Marlyne Sexton, who has given more than $2 million since 2015 after giving less than $115,000 before, said in a phone interview. Sexton, whose husband runs an Indianapolis-based property management company, attended a dinner with Trump in 2019, Politico reported.

“People are afraid to walk down the street, it’s a joke,” Sexton continued. Asked why people were afraid, she said, “You can answer that for yourself, and if you can’t then we probably don’t agree. I can’t help you understand that.”

Big Lie Believers: Julia Fancelli and Gregory Fancelli

In addition to pledging $300,000 to fund the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, Julia Fancelli actually had a hotel suite reserved, according to organizers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But in the end she did not attend, according to Caroline Wren, a Trump fundraiser involved in the planning.

Fancelli did not respond to requests for an interview, including one placed through the office of her family’s foundation. Her estate manager, Schuyler Long, who also donated to Trump, declined to comment. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported her involvement in the Jan. 6 rally, Fancelli said: “I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded.”

Publix distanced itself from Fancelli, whose father, George Jenkins, founded the chain. The company said she isn’t involved in operations and doesn’t “represent the company in any way.” Fancelli’s holdings in the privately held company aren’t known and she is not listed in financial disclosures as an owner of 5% or more of the company’s stock.

Forbes has estimated the entire Jenkins family’s wealth at $8.8 billion, ranking 39th in the country. Fancelli served as president of the family’s foundation as of 2019, according to the organization’s most recent tax filing. In addition to nonpolitical charities, the foundation also made a $30,000 grant to the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.

Fancelli grew up with the rest of the Jenkins clan in Lakeland, Florida, and met her husband Mauro, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, on a study abroad year in Florence, the local newspaper reported in 2018. Though the Jenkins family is prominent in Lakeland, Fancelli is not civically engaged and lives for much of the year in Italy.

I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded.

In past elections, she generally gave a few thousand dollars at a time to the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional candidates, amounting to less than $200,000 total, according to FEC records. Her contributions took off starting in 2016. Since then she’s given more than $2 million. Besides backing Trump, she was the largest donor to a super PAC supporting Michigan Republican Eric Esshaki, who lost to Rep. Haley Stevens.

Fancelli’s donations to Trump drew some notice. But until the Jan. 6 rally, the most news she made was for being a theft victim: In December 2020, a murder suspect stole three pieces of a silver tea set through the window of Fancelli’s modest house.

Fancelli’s son, Gregory, accompanied her to a Trump campaign luncheon in Palm Beach in 2019 and donated in his own name. “My mother and I are big supporters of the president,” he told a local reporter in October.

Unlike his mom, Gregory Fancelli is active in the Lakeland community. He works on restoring local houses and mosaics, as well as a planetarium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the last with the help of a grant from the National Park Service in August 2020. He has donated money to a school board candidate through shell companiesnamed after fictional characters such as Tony Stark (better known as Iron Man) and a Ghostbuster, Peter Venkman.

He also occasionally posts online about politics, and in the months after Trump lost the election, his views appeared to harden. On Christmas Day in 2020, Fancelli said on Facebook that COVID-19 was a “fake pandemic” and argued with Facebook friends who referenced case numbers and people they personally knew who died of the coronavirus. “It doesn’t have the magnitude of a pandemic, unless you combine all the illnesses and flues and give it one name,” Fancelli wrote. “Definitely a very powerful scare tactic by the Chinese and the UN.”

In other posts, Fancelli appeared to embrace Trump’s rhetoric calling President Joe Biden soft on China and falsely claiming that the election was stolen. In March, Fancelli posted a video mocking Biden for tripping on the stairs to board Air Force One, mashing up the footage with video of Trump hitting a golf ball. To a friend who commented “Fore more years!” Fancelli replied, “Fore more years of chinese puppetry!”

Another friend commented, “80 million people voted for this?” Fancelli replied, “Some people voted for him, the rest is fraud.”

Gregory Fancelli declined to be interviewed.

Online Conspiracy Theorists: Leila Centner, Michael and Caryn Borland

David and Leila Centner have never spoken publicly about their support for Trump and hadn’t made a political donation (except two that were refunded in 2018) until they gave a combined $1 million to support Trump’s 2020 campaign. Come Jan. 6, the Miami couple were VIP guests at the rally on the Ellipse, according to organizers. The couple declined to comment through a spokesperson.

David Centner started and sold several successful web businesses, then made a fortune on a company that processed highway tolls. In 2019, taking advantage of a provision in Trump’s tax bill, the Centners reportedly invested $40 million in a fund to build affordable housing for teachers. The tax incentive, known as Opportunity Zones, was intended to entice investors into developing poorer neighborhoods. But many wealthy and well-connected people have foundwaysto use it to subsidize their preexisting projects.

After not being able to find a school that felt right for their daughter, the Centners started their own, the brightly colored Centner Academy in Miami’s Design District.

Some school parents objected when Leila Centner used the building to host a campaign event for a conservative mayoral candidate. According to emails quoted in the Miami New Times, Centner responded to their concerns by saying, “Please do not tell me what types of events I can host in my own building after hours.”

In January, the school hosted an event with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent antivaccine activist. David Centner introduced him as his “hero” and “personal inspiration,” according to a video of Kennedy’s talk.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Leila Centner (@leilacentner)

In April, Centner instructed school employees not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In a message to faculty and staff, she falsely claimed the vaccines don’t prevent death or transmission of the disease, despite trials and research showing they do. She also cited a baseless conspiracy theory that merely being around other vaccinated people can cause reproductive problems in women.

“We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known,” Centner said in the message to staff. She told employees who wished to get the vaccine that they should wait until the end of the school year and that they might not be allowed to return to their jobs.

Centner’s Facebook and Instagram posts are filled with misinformation urging people not to wear masks or get a COVID-19 vaccine. She falsely claimed that the media has covered up vaccine side effects ranging from rashes to death. She also has posted attacks on the nation’s top infectious disease adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as drug companies and other doctors. She has cited debunked studies claiming masks harm children and compared face coverings to the yellow stars that the Nazis ordered Jews to wear. Years ago, she posted a video — now covered by a fact-checking warning — about testing bottled water for pH levels and fluoride.

Centner is slated to speak next month at a “mask-free, freedom-fighting” conference featuring Trump adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known.

Centner is not the only major new Trump donor who has promoted conspiracy theories. Michael and Caryn Borland of Newport Beach, California, have given a total of about $1.6 million since 2015. In the past they’d given less than $13,000. With their new high-roller status, they were guests at the 2020 GOP convention. Then-Vice President Mike Pence canceled a planned fundraiser at the Borlands’ Montana home after the Associated Press reported that the would-be hosts shared QAnon memes on Facebook and Twitter. The posts are no longer available.

“This is not a forum for politics,” Caryn Borland, a singer-songwriter of Christian music, later posted on her Facebook page. “Whether they be my opinions or anyone else’s. If you express any political opinions on this page they will be taken down immediately.” The couple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Borlands met while working in a grocery store and started a modest life together, according to David Wood, a film producer who worked with them on an ill-fated project. Then they inherited a fortune on Caryn’s side, Wood said. Her father was an executive of a California-based industrial materials company in the 1980s, according to corporate records, and court filings indicate that she has a multimillion-dollar trust in her maiden name. The trust’s holdings include land assessed at $1.6 million in Arizona, according to tax records.

“They were not even middle class, then they inherited a massive fortune,” said Wood, who received a $10 million check from the trust for the film project in 2019. Amid a lawsuit, he agreed to return $4 million, according to court papers. “I don’t think they were completely prepared for it,” Wood said. “I don’t know if anyone would be.”

Business Benefits: Kelcy Warren, Roger Norman, Palmer Luckey

Some of the biggest new donors are less outspoken about their ideologies but gained tangible benefits from Trump’s presidency.

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren welcomed the impact he anticipated Trump would have on his company, Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two days after the 2016 election, he told investors, “Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we’re going to support infrastructure, we’re going to support job creation, we’re going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing.”

On Trump’s fourth full day in office, he signed an executive order to help clear the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a thousand-mile link to North Dakota’s oil fields. Energy Transfer’s stock price soared, and Warren’s wealth climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. The magazine said the percentage gain was bigger than that of any other American that year.

The Dakota Access Pipeline became a high-profile controversy in 2016 when environmentalists and Native Americans rallied to the support of the local Standing Rock Sioux, who raised concerns that the pipeline would endanger their drinking water. With Trump’s support, the pipeline was completed in April 2017 and started shipping oil the next month. But legal challenges continued, and a federal court in Washington eventually held that the Trump administration cut corners on the required environmental reviews.

Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we’re going to support infrastructure, we’re going to support job creation, we’re going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing.

Warren’s company is now trying to convince a judge not to shut down the pipeline, arguing in an April court filing that the company stands to lose as much as $4.28 million a day. Some Democrats are calling on Biden to close the pipeline, but the current White House hasn’t taken a position.

Warren and his wife are prominent philanthropists in Dallas (they developed a downtown park and named it after their son). But they were not major political donors until Trump came along, having spent less than $600,000 in total. Since 2015, however, they’ve given more than $17 million. Warren declined to comment through a company spokesperson.

Another first-time mega-donor who benefited from Trump’s actions was Roger Norman, a reclusive real estate investor in Reno, Nevada. In his first-ever interview, with a Reno TV news station in 2018, Norman recounted making and losing fortunes several times over, despite never learning to read or write.

Norman’s crown jewel is the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, 104,000 acres of desert that he and his partners bought for $20 million in 1998. Today it’s worth billions after becoming a hub for companies including Tesla, Google and Switch.

The site benefited from the Opportunity Zone program in Trump’s tax bill, thanks to some influential friends. As The Washington Post reported in 2018, Treasury officials originally decided the area was too prosperous to qualify for the benefit. But Norman’s business partner recruited Nevada Republicans, including the governor and a senator, to lobby for the designation.

Norman then gave more than $2 million to support Trump’s reelection, compared to the less than $100,000 in total political contributions he’d made in the past. “You’re a little late to that story, I’m not donating anything now,” Norman said in a brief phone conversation, declining to discuss the matter further.

Another new mega-donor turned a professional setback arising from his support for Trump into a new opportunity. Palmer Luckey built a prototype for a virtual reality headset as a teenager and sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. Forbes estimated the 21-year-old’s cut at more than $500 million.

Luckey has credited Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” with inspiring him at age 13, according to The Wall Street Journal, and he sent Trump a letter in 2011 encouraging him to run for president. During the 2016 campaign, Luckey donated $10,000 to Nimble America, a pro-Trump group associated with misogynistic and white-supremacist online posts. Luckey has given conflicting accounts of whether he wrote some of the messages under a pseudonym. After an internal uproar at Facebook, the company placed Luckey on leave and fired him in 2017, the Journal reported.

Luckey deepened his political activism, expanding his giving and hosting a fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He started a new company, Anduril, that would cater directly to the Trump administration by making security technology for the southern border. The company raised $200 million from investors and won government contracts totaling almost $100 million.

Luckey didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Luckey’s sister, Ginger Luckey, is engaged to Matt Gaetz, the embattled Florida congressman and Trump ally. Their mother, Julie Luckey, who home-schooled Palmer, was slated to be a VIP guest for the Jan. 6 rally. It’s not clear if she attended. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Government Posts: Ike Perlmutter, Duke Buchan, Lynda Blanchard

Duke Buchan, a wealthy but little-known Wall Street investor, wasn’t shy about coveting an ambassadorship after he and his wife gave the Trump Victory fund almost $450,000 each, the maximum amount allowable by federal campaign finance laws in 2016. One of the last vestiges of the spoils system, cushy diplomatic posts routinely go to campaign patrons. Buchan and his wife, joint donor Hannah Flournoy Buchan, declined to comment.

Buchan told friends that he viewed Trump as a disrupter and cheered the candidate’s attacks on political correctness, looking forward to saying “Merry Christmas” again, The New York Times reported in 2017. Buchan was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to Spain, where he had studied abroad decades earlier. He reportedly complained that European Union regulations scuttled his plans to bring his polo ponies along. While in office, Buchan took part in the Trump administration’s controversial efforts to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

While ambassadorships are common rewards for big donors, Lynda Blanchard was unusually blunt about it. According to a person familiar with her appointment who asked not to be named in connection with the discussions, Blanchard explicitly reminded transition officials how much she donated. She and her husband gave more than $2 million to Republicans between 2015 and 2018, when Trump nominated her as ambassador to Slovenia, Melania Trump’s native country. Blanchard didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Blanchard, who founded a real estate investment firm, is now staking millions on her own candidacy for U.S. Senate in Alabama. She held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in March with a surprise appearance from Trump, but then he endorsed her rival: Rep. Mo Brooks, one of the leaders of the congressional effort to overturn the 2020 election results.

One new Trump-era mega-donor was rewarded with a less-conventional role in his administration. Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Entertainment chairman who was one of Trump’s largest overall backers and belongs to his Mar-a-Lago club, became an unofficial yet influential adviser on veterans issues. As ProPublica first reported in 2018, Trump gave Perlmutter and two associates sweeping influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs. They had a hand in policy and personnel decisions, even reviewing budgets and contracts.

Perlmutter, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he had no formal authority and sought no personal gain.

A liberal veterans group, VoteVets, sued the VA over Perlmutter’s role, alleging that it violated a Watergate-era sunshine law. In March, an appeals court said the case could proceed.

Personal Ties: Anthony Lomangino, Steve Witkoff, Vernon Hill

Though Perlmutter, 78, was drawn in by his personal relationship with Trump, he has become a bigger force in Florida Republican politics. Before backing Trump, he and his wife gave $2 million to a super PAC supporting then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, and more recently he’s become a major benefactor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a leading contender for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination if Trump doesn’t run.

For other new mega-donors who got involved because of their personal ties to Trump, it’s less clear if their support will extend to other candidates.

Fellow Mar-a-Lago member Anthony Lomangino and his wife have given more than $3 million, plus $150,000 to help aides cover legal fees arising from the Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. They had previously given less than $40,000 total. Lomangino, whose wealth derives from selling a recycling-collection company to industry giant Waste Management, declined to comment.

Vernon Hill, Trump’s sometime banker and golf buddy, gave more than $2 million, 10 times more than he’d ever given before. In 2020 he praised the federal government’s small business relief program, which his bank, like many others, helped administer. Hill didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Steven Witkoff, a New York real estate friend, gave more than $2 million and served as an informal adviser on tax cuts, opioids and reopening businesses during the pandemic. He has also since become a DeSantis backer. Witkoff didn’t respond to requests for comment.

John McCall, the business partner of Trump’s friend and purported hairspray supplier Farouk Shami, gave $1.7 million to Trump and the GOP since 2015, versus less than $20,000 previously. McCall didn’t respond to requests for comment.

How Bitcoin Mining Keeps Old Fossil-Fuel Plants Alive

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One decade and $1 trillion after the debut of Bitcoin, the environmental footprint of “mining” the cryptocurrency is still hotly contested. What’s certain, however, is that the amount of electricity the process requires is growing at a breakneck speed. Each time transactions are added to Bitcoin’s digital ledger, they have to be verified by its network, which requires “miners” to devote huge quantities of computational power to solving cryptographic problems. As more miners join the network—lured by the skyrocketing value of the bitcoin they receive in exchange for their work—the puzzles get harder, requiring ever greater amounts of processing power, and thus electricity, to solve.

Bitcoin mining is now estimated to gobble up more electricity than many entire countries. Since 2019, when the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance placed the cryptocurrency’s power needs ahead of Switzerland’s, its consumption has more than doubled, surpassing that of Sweden. The energy used by the Bitcoin network in a single year could power all the tea kettles in the United Kingdom for over three decades.

Adding so much demand to the world’s electricity grids is risky, especially at a time when the window to meaningfully cut greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly closing. Proponents of Bitcoin would have you believe that many or even most mining operations are in far-flung locations using renewable energy that otherwise would have gone to waste. Bitcoin miners have an incentive to keep electricity costs low, they reason, so they’re likely to seek the cheapest electricity possible.

Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk, whose respective companies Square and Tesla have invested heavily in Bitcoin, claim the cryptocurrency will actually hurry the green energy transition by steering investment into renewables. A paper prepared by Square predicts that electricity producers and Bitcoin miners will soon become one and the same.

 As of last March, Bitcoin mining was reportedly sucking up enough of the plant’s energy to power 9,000 homes.

On the sleepy shores of Seneca Lake in Dresden, New York, that prediction is already being realized. Greenidge Generation, a former coal power plant that converted to natural gas and began a Bitcoin mining operation, is positioning itself as part of the clean energy future. The company’s promotional materials describe a “clean” and “environmentally-sound” plant with a “unique commitment to environmental stewardship.

There’s just one problem: If it weren’t for Bitcoin, there would almost certainly be no reason to run the power plant in Dresden at all. Without the revenue from mining, Greenidge would have no reason to spew hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide from the plant’s stacks, discharge hundreds of billions of gallons of hot water into a nearby trout stream, or pipe in and burn billions of cubic feet of fracked natural gas.

In fact, the plant was shut down in 2011 because there wasn’t enough regional energy demand to justify the operating costs. Its owners filed for bankruptcy and told the state that the plant’s closure was permanent. After belching noxious fumes and dumping toxic coal ash into a nearby landfill for seven decades, the plant was poised to be remediated and reused.

And that’s sort of what happened, in 2014, when Atlas Holdings, a private investment firm based in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, purchased Greenidge. After several years of lobbying New York state officials—and some well-timed donations to Gov. Andrew Cuomo—the company won a $2 million regional economic development grant to convert the plant to run on natural gas.

When Greenidge applied for permits to restart operations, it claimed it would be generating power to meet existing electricity demand. In 2016, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, concurred and cited the fact that the “plant itself will not create a new demand for energy” as part of the agency’s justification for letting the plant skip the normal requirement to produce an environmental impact statement.

But when Greenidge reopened in 2017, there wasn’t any more demand than there had been when it shut down. By 2019, the plant was no longer producing power for the public at all. In an attempt to claw back the tens of millions that Atlas invested to convert the plant to natural gas, Greenidge turned to mining Bitcoin.

By March 2020, the plant was reportedly using over 14 megawatts of power, enough for roughly 9,000 homes, to mine around $50,000 worth of Bitcoin per day. As of this writing, that same amount of Bitcoin is worth about $300,000. The plant is now one of the largest cryptocurrency mines in the country, and it’s angling to get even bigger.

As Greenidge increased its mining capacity last year, there was a corresponding jump in its contributions to global warming. The plant’s greenhouse gas emissions increased nearly tenfold from 2019 to 2020, according to DEC records obtained by the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, one of several local environmental groups that have risen up in opposition to the plant.

The equivalent of over 220,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted over the course of last year, a volume comparable to putting nearly 50,000 new cars on the road. That’s just a fraction of the 580,000 metric tons the plant is currently permitted to emit annually, and the nearly 1 million metric tons it could release every year if operating at full capacity. And since the plant’s growing appetite is driven entirely by cryptocurrency, these emissions can’t be written off as the price of providing heat and power to homes or businesses.

Greenidge isn’t even close to done expanding. In late March, the company revealed plans to merge with Support.com, a publicly traded tech company. In its announcement, Greenidge said it wants to more than double its mining capacity on Seneca Lake by July—and to double it again by the end of 2022, at which point it will total 85 megawatts. The company is not a power plant with a side hustle, but rather a “bitcoin mining company with a wholly-owned power plant.”

“We’re just the first, but they’re going to be coming after all these old power plants.”

Greenidge also said that the company plans to replicate its vertically integrated model—cryptocurrency mining at the source of energy production—at other power plants, with a goal of at least 500 megawatts of combined mining capacity by 2025. To accomplish that, the company would have to acquire and open at least four other power plants of similar capacity. They probably won’t have trouble finding them: National environmental nonprofits Earthjustice and the Sierra Club have already warned that nearly 30 power plants in upstate New York could be used for similar purposes. Atlas Holdings itself partially owns five power plants in New Hampshire that have more than 1,000 megawatts of combined capacity. Like Greenidge before its pivot to Bitcoin, they’re only used at times of peak demand.

Others are already following in Greenidge’s footsteps. In April, a cryptocurrency mining company called Digihost moved to acquire a 55-megawatt natural gas-fired plant in Niagara County, New York. It could theoretically happen at any aging fossil fuel plant around the country: A source of dirty energy that has outlived its profitability could find a second life as a Bitcoin mining operation. Contra Dorsey and Musk, there’s no incentive for Bitcoin miners to purchase or invest in renewable energy if it’s less expensive to produce their own by burning fossil fuels at dirt cheap plants that nobody else wants. 

“It’s a gold rush,” observed Vinny Aliperti, the owner of a winery 10 miles up the road from Greenidge. “We’re just the first, but they’re going to be coming after all these old power plants.”

Although emissions from Bitcoin mining have global consequences, many of the locals opposing Greenidge are equally concerned about its effects on water quality and wildlife. They’ve enumerated their issues with Greenidge in a recent lawsuit against the Town of Torrey (within which the village of Dresden is located), the Torrey Planning Board, and Greenidge itself. This lawsuit is only the latest legal action organizations like the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes have taken to try to halt the plant’s operation and proposed expansion.

In late March, Phil and Linda Bracht, two of the 30 petitioners on the lawsuit against Torrey, the county planning board, and Greenidge, took me and another petitioner, Carolyn McAllister, out in their boat to get a look at the plant from the water. All three live on Seneca Lake, just a mile from Greenidge.

The first part of the facility to catch the eye is its giant intake pipe, which is 7 feet in diameter and extends further than the length of two football fields from the shore over the water, like an elevated train to nowhere, before dropping below the lake surface. This is where Greenidge can draw up to 139 million gallons of fresh water per day to cool the plant.

Like all thermoelectric power plants, Greenidge uses steam to spin the turbines that produce electricity, but the steam has to be condensed back to water by exchanging heat with the fresh water before it can be reused. Once-through cooling systems like this—where water is used once and then expelled at a higher temperature—require vast amounts of water, with consequences for both wildlife and water quality.

Intake pipes like this one will suck in water, plants, and animals indiscriminately, resulting in fish, larvae, and other wildlife becoming either “impinged”—caught or mangled by the screens at the pipe’s entrance—or sucked into the cooling system entirely in a process called “entrainment.” A 2011 Sierra Club report put the matter less technically, describing once-through cooling systems as “giant fish blenders.”

Environmentalists fear the New York plant’s discharges will harm local fisheries. 

Greenidge’s former owners once commissioned an engineering study that estimated that the plant impinged or entrained nearly 10,000 fish and crayfish annually in 2006-2007, while an additional 592,000 eggs, larvae, and juvenile fish were entrained every year. The federal Clean Water Act requires facilities that withdraw more than 2 million gallons a day for cooling purposes to, at minimum, cover intake pipes with protective screens to reduce these harms, but New York’s DEC gave Greenidge five years to comply, meaning its pipe won’t have screens until late 2022.

After the water is circulated through the plant, it’s expelled through a 7-by-10-foot concrete tunnel into a canal that flows into Keuka Lake Outlet, a trout stream that empties into Seneca Lake and has been designated by the DEC as a fishery requiring special protection. According to a statement to the court from Lori Fischline, another petitioner against Greenidge who often kayaks up the Outlet, the area has been overtaken by “sludge, algae, insects, dead fish, and foul smells.”

Greenidge is permitted to discharge up to 134 million gallons of water daily at temperatures that range from 108 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 86 degrees F in the winter. Given that the lake’s normal surface temperatures range from just 32 to 70 degrees F, depending on the season, the potential for ecological havoc is high.

Seneca Lake is known as the lake trout capital of the world—it’s the site of the annual National Lake Trout Derby—but water temperatures greater than 68 degrees F can impede the fishes’ development and increase mortality. In recent years, fishers have reported fewer and smaller catches on the lake. John Halfman, a professor of geoscience and environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith College on the northern end of Seneca Lake, says the size of the biggest fish caught in the derby has been steadily decreasing, while the time it takes to make a catch is increasing. Michael Black, a petitioner and fisherman going on his 50th summer living on the lake, said he used to catch between 60 and 100 lake trout each year from his dock south of Greenidge. In the last three years combined he’s caught just four. While there are multiple reasons fish might be suffering, Black worries that hot water discharges are exacerbating the threats they face.

Tiffany Garcia, a freshwater ecologist at Oregon State University, wrote a letter to the Town of Torrey raising similar concerns about the effects of hot water discharges on the larger lake ecosystem. “You don’t want to increase temperatures artificially in water bodies that are already going to be suffering from or experiencing increased water temperatures from climate shifts,” she told Grist by phone. She compared the lake’s resiliency to a rubber band and said there’s no telling when additional natural and unnatural stressors will cause that resiliency to snap.

Residents fear that warmer waters will also increase the likelihood and severity of harmful algal blooms, or HABs, near Greenidge. While the presence of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria is normal in lakes, a small number of these organisms produce potent toxins that can be dangerous or even fatal for people and other animals. Under the right conditions—which include lots of sun, still water, and, crucially, heat—these algae can explode in vast, dangerous blooms that are becoming increasingly common in the U.S.

Gregory Boyer, the director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium at the State University of New York, studied the effect of artificially increasing water temperature by just 2 degrees on Lake Champlain. That small change resulted in a surge of bacteria growth, with toxic species of bacteria increasing to a greater degree than nontoxic species.

In earlier lawsuits challenging permits the DEC issued to Greenidge, Boyer submitted affidavits on behalf of local environmental groups saying that the large discharges of heated water from Greenidge could increase HABs in the area and should be studied further. Gary McIntee, who lives just south of Greenidge, told me that the water flowing down the Outlet is often flush with nutrient-rich runoff from farms as well as discharge from a wastewater treatment plant upstream, creating an ideal mix for HABs.

Many people who live near Seneca Lake, including petitioners like Black and McIntee, use water drawn directly from the lake in their homes: to shower, to wash clothes and dishes, to water their gardens or—in the case of the region’s dozens of wineries—even their vineyards. HABs would render their only source of running water unusable. As the DEC points out, not even boiling, chemical disinfectants, or water filters will protect people from HABs and their associated toxins.

HABs can also overwhelm industrial water filtration systems, temporarily rendering public water undrinkable. And as winemaker Vinny Aliperti pointed out, algal blooms keep the tourists away. More than anything, many locals object to being subject to these ecological risks for a power plant that’s not actually providing them needed electricity in return.

Greenidge Generation vigorously denies that its plant is having an adverse impact on the environment. It also claims it’s once again producing power for the grid. “Greenidge is a unique success story,” Mike McKeon, a lobbyist and crisis communicator retained by Greenidge, told Grist in a statement. “Today, Greenidge is a clean, reliable source of power for thousands of homes and businesses in upstate New York and is home to a new data processing center mining bitcoin that is already paying enormous dividends to our community at large.”

In response to concerns about impingement and entrainment in the cooling system, Greenidge has said that the risk is mitigated by variable speed drives recently installed on the facility’s water pumps, which lower the speed of water intake—making it easier for fish to swim away and escape. Those drives, however, can be turned off whenever the plant needs maximum water flow. Greenidge also affirmed that it is on schedule to install protective screens by 2022. As for the effect of hot water discharges on fisheries, the company counters that the designated Keuka Lake Outlet trout area is upstream from Greenidge and won’t be affected. However, although there are specific fishing regulations upstream from the Greenidge discharge canal, the lower part of the Outlet is also a designated trout stream; this explanation also does not account for the trout that live in Seneca Lake itself.

The company’s response to residents’ concerns about HABs is to say there were no HABs within 4 miles of the plant last year, so it couldn’t possibly cause them. However, as Boyer told me, the number of HABs was down across the region in 2020, likely because of high winds over the summer. He explained HABs only explode when all necessary conditions are met, so this one data point doesn’t prove Greenidge won’t help cause them in the future.

Finally, Greenidge reiterated that its activities are all within the limits set by its permits from the DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, which determine how much water the plant can withdraw and discharge and at what temperatures, as well as the plant’s air emissions limits. The DEC verified that Greenidge is in compliance with its permits and insisted that it “strictly oversees” the plant’s activities. Greenidge often boasts that these permits are “uniquely strong.”

How Greenidge received those “uniquely strong” permits is a point of longstanding interest to Peter Mantius, a journalist who resides in Watkins Glen, a town at the southern tip of Seneca Lake. Mantius has been covering Atlas Holdings and Greenidge since at least 2017, carefully documenting their sustained lobbying of state officials, as well as contributions to Andrew Cuomo’s reelection campaigns totaling at least $120,000.

Atlas’ lobbying began in 2013, before the firm even bought the plant. Through the law firm Hiscock Barclay, Atlas enlisted a lawyer who had previously been the general counsel at the DEC. That lawyer wrote his former employer on his new client’s behalf, requesting that Greenidge not be treated as a “new” facility under the Clean Air Act, which would avoid the stricter environmental review to which new or significantly altered air pollution sources are otherwise subject.

That same year, the firm and its principals began donating to Governor Cuomo’s reelection campaign, beginning with a $25,000 donation from the company in March. In December, Timothy Fazio and Andrew Bursky, Atlas’ managing partners, each contributed an additional $25,000 on the very same day. Fazio donated another $20,000 in January 2014, shortly before his firm bought the plant. (When asked for comment on these donations, Cuomo’s senior advisor Rich Azzopardi told Grist that “no contribution of any size has any impact or plays a role in any official action, period.”)

In March 2014, the plant hired McKeon, a lobbyist at Mercury Public Affairs and the founder and former executive director of Republicans for Cuomo, which organized bipartisan support for the now-governor during his first run for the office. The plant initially paid a monthly retainer of $20,000 to secure his services. As Mantius has reported, McKeon’s primary activities were lobbying the executive chamber and, for a time, the New York State Legislature. Over the next few years, Greenidge paid Mercury at least $500,000.

In March 2015, Atlas representatives met with top state officials, including Joe Martens and Basil Seggos, the former and current commissioner of the DEC, as well as Thomas O’Mara, a member of the State Senate who also happened to be a partner at the law firm retained by Greenidge Generation. Although details of their conversation are not public, McKeon and O’Mara both told Mantius that they discussed the “new source review” process under the Clean Air Act. (O’Mara also claimed that he was unaware of his conflict of interest going into the meeting.)

Despite these efforts, Greenidge was ultimately subject to stricter treatment as a “new source” under the Clean Air Act, but only after the EPA took the DEC to task for trying to reissue the plant’s air permits after nearly five years of inactivity. “In issuing the proposed permit, NYSDEC did not adequately explain why Greenidge’s reactivation would not constitute a major modification,” the EPA wrote. “NYSDEC relied on Greenidge’s conclusion that the reactivation is not a major modification.”

“They’re using power plants out in the middle of nowhere, where no one’s going to fight it, to line their pockets.”

However, Greenidge’s lobbying paid off in other ways. To start, they secured a $2 million grant to help convert the plant to natural gas through an “upstate revitalization” program meant to stimulate the region’s economy and create jobs. More significantly, when the DEC renewed the plant’s water withdrawal and discharge permits in 2016, the agency waived the normal requirement that the company complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement. The agency essentially reasoned that, since the plant was already built and was resuming operations using a cleaner fuel than coal, it could “not have an adverse environmental impact.”

Environmentalists have repeatedly challenged this decision in court. They argue that, since the plant was shut down, presumably for good, the question shouldn’t be: Is the current Greenidge plant less harmful than the dirty coal plant that was there before? Instead, the question should be: Is the plant more harmful than no plant at all? After all, the most likely counterfactual is not that Greenidge would have continued burning coal—it’s that it would have stopped burning fossil fuels altogether.

Furthermore, Greenidge’s opponents believe the plant should have been required to upgrade the facilities to the environmental standards required of new construction, which are higher than those for old plants. For example, since 2011 the DEC has recommended new and repowered plants use so-called closed-cycle cooling, in which cooling water is recirculated through the plant instead of discarded, significantly reducing wildlife mortality from impingement and entrainment, as well as the volume of hot water discharges. Greenidge, on the other hand, was allowed to continue using its antiquated once-through cooling system, in part because it was deemed too costly to upgrade given the facility’s historic annual revenue. 

Of course, that was before the plant started mining hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoin every day.

Some locals told me they wouldn’t have a problem—or as big a problem—with the plant’s environmental impact if it were supplying much-needed energy to the grid. But it isn’t. The region didn’t suffer for lack of power while Greenidge was closed, and there still isn’t enough demand to make the plant profitable without Bitcoin.

“The only good thing about mining Bitcoin is somebody makes money,” John Halfman told me on a video call. “You’re not feeding electricity to homes; you’re not feeding electricity to industry. You’re not doing anything else good with electrons other than min[ing] money. So somebody is greedy. They’re using power plants out in the middle of nowhere, where no one’s going to fight it, to line their pockets.”

Halfman also said that Greenidge’s operations pose a serious threat to the state’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050. Opposition to the plant is coalescing around exactly that fact, and it’s picked up momentum since the company declared its intention to expand. In early April, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club wrote to the DEC to sound the alarm regarding Greenidge’s emissions. There are subtle signs that the DEC is feeling the heat; after the agency received the environmental organizations’ letter, it described its oversight of Greenidge as “aggressive” and said it would carefully review the “precedential” nature of the facility.

Meanwhile, Greenidge’s expansion is barreling ahead. At the end of April, the Town of Torrey gave the company a green light to build four new buildings to house additional Bitcoin-mining hardware. Once those go up, local activists fear it will be that much harder to reverse the plant’s activities.

Before leaving town, I spent some time on the Keuka Outlet Trail. It follows the stream that connects Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake, running over an old railway, and ends near the Greenidge property line, which is posted liberally with no-trespassing signs.

The stream used to power an industrial thoroughfare. In 1820 there were seven gristmills, 14 sawmills, an oil mill, four carding machines for processing wool and other fibers, as well as multiple distilleries. A nonprofit has since transformed the area into a nature retreat with a wide gravel path for walking, running, and biking, well-situated benches for moments of quiet repose, and water access for fishing or boating. The waterfalls once harnessed for their power generation now flow uninterrupted, and the ruins of the area’s industrial past are being reclaimed by new growth.

This could have been the fate of an old coal-fired power plant on Seneca Lake, which in its later years produced energy people rarely needed and was too costly to run at a profit. Nearby residents might have breathed easier, and there would have been one less threat to Seneca Lake and the animals and people who depend on it.

Then a private equity firm found a way to give the plant a second life.

The Wave of GOP Anti-Protest Bills Will Criminalize Protesters—and Sabotage Police Reform, Too

In the wake of the widespread George Floyd protests last year, Republican lawmakers across the country flooded the zone with so-called anti-riot bills. Last month, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the draconian “Combating Public Disorder” measure that expands the definition of riot to mean a “violent public disturbance involving 3 or more people,” increases the penalty for participating in a riot, and gives police the discretion to decide what a riot is—and isn’t.

“The criminal aspects of this bill are already illegal,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said. “[It] protects no one, makes no one safer, and does nothing to make people’s lives better. It’s simply to appease the Governor’s delusion of widespread lawlessness.”

Despite being criticized for extremism, dozens of Republican-dominated states like Ohio and Arizona have similar measures succeeding in state legislatures and on their ways to become laws. “I think you’re going to see other states sort of picking up the ideas as well, so yeah, this is a real victory for him,” Florida State University Professor Carol Weissert told an NBC affiliate.

According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, there are 69 anti-protest bills pending across the nation. These proposals vary, but many of them expand the definition of rioting in such a way that it can potentially entrap peaceful protesters, while increasing penalties for unlawful assemblies, and offering civil protection for people who injure protesters like, say, individuals who ram their cars into demonstrators on the street.

This wave of extreme anti-protest bills signals a new era in the post-Trump Republican Party. The GOP has not only criminalized protests, they have also made it harder to vote and restricted abortion rights, all the while riling up and pandering to their largely white and fearful base. The party offers little in terms of substantive policy, instead choosing to focus on suppressing civil rights and engaging in dumb but still-dangerous culture wars. Not long ago, these types of bills may have been considered too extreme to become law, but now the flood gates have opened, and the anti-protest bills are rocketing through state legislatures, undermining both constitutional rights and efforts for police reform. 

After Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, protests in every state erupted in response to the viral video of his death. The unrest sparked a national reckoning on race, policing, and justice, with a commitment from liberal politicians to reform police. But while advocates and activists pushed for change, conservative politicians have attempted to double down on the very conditions that triggered the demonstrations in the first place. By criminalizing an increasing number of what should be constitutionally protected activities, these bills only sanction more police interactions with the public. 

One of the major obstacles to police reform has been entrenched approaches by law enforcement officials. Many departments or agencies are reluctant to change and are backed by powerful unions, who see reform efforts as a direct attack on the people they represent. But these bills offer seemingly unlimited opportunities to come into contact with police officers because of our obsession with criminalizing actions, like walking in public, which in most other circumstances would be just a part of daily life. If one of the goals of police reform is to end police brutality, that won’t happen as long as Republicans continue to introduce bills that add to the long list of criminalized activities—including exercising the right to protest.

In Florida the broad definition of what counts as a riot is what has advocates worried. For instance, the new Florida law makes it a crime to use what they refer to as “mob intimidation,” which they define as when three or more people “gather to threaten to force another person from taking a viewpoint against their will.” Hypothetically speaking, if three people are wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts and are trying to engage a passerby, what happens if that person decides they’re all secretly Antifa? Is that mob intimidation? Who decides how to interpret that?

“The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

 

“[The legislation] is racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple,” Micah Kubic, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement after it became law. “The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest.”

The dynamic implicit in the dozens and dozens of laws currently in state legislatures is that of a political party deeply invested in paring down civil rights. In Iowa, both chambers of the state legislature introduced similar anti-protest bills that would increase the penalties for a “riot” from an aggravated misdemeanor, to a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The bills also enhances the punishment for “unlawful assembly” by those who block streets or sidewalks during protests, and provides immunity for drivers who happen to injure protesters who are unlawfully assembled.  

In South Carolina, a bill introduced in December 2020 criminalizes blocking a street or sidewalk during a protest, a crime punishable by three years behind bars. The legislation also changes the state’s rioting laws to require anyone convicted of rioting—including “by being personally present [at], or by instigating, promoting, or aiding” a riot—to pay restitution “for any property damage or loss incurred as a result.” Lastly, the bill provides civil immunity for a person who uses deadly force or points a firearm when “confronted by a mob,” a callback to the Missouri couple that pointed guns at protesters last year and were subsequently charged with unlawful use of a weapon and tampering with evidence.

And in Wisconsin, lawmakers introduced a bill that expands the definition of a riot. Under the proposed legislation, an “unlawful assembly” during which at least one person commits an act of violence or threatens to constitutes a riot. In practice, according to the ICNL, a large street protest can become a riot if just a single person commits violence or threatens it.

After hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building on January 6 during the routine count of electoral college votes, assaulting police officers and chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the Republican party went on the defensive.  They conflated the insurrection, which left six dead, including a police officer, and scores more injured, with the George Floyd protests during the summer of 2020. “The left in America has incited far more political violence than the right,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) falsely implied in the aftermath of the insurrection. “For months, our cities burned, police stations burned, our businesses shattered.”

But as much as the GOP wants to draw parallels between the two events in order to deflect from their own culpability in the attack, there is no better indication of just how deeply corrupt they are than their behavior during the aftermath. The GOP has largely resisted an investigation into the January 6 attack, voted to acquit former president Donald Trump, and created dozens of bills intended to suppress any future racial justice protesters. 

When Gov. DeSantis signed the new anti-protest bill into law shortly after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder, the Trump protegé expressed disappointment at the police officer’s guilty verdict. In so doing, he signaled that the bill just might be less about so-called rioting and more about interfering with police reform attempts. “I can tell you that case was bungled by the attorney general there in Minnesota,” he said. The message he appeared to be sending was clear: Floridians could be assured that no such unsavory verdicts would occur in the Sunshine State. Why? Because this new law was, according to the governor, the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.” As far as he was concerned, that’s the only reform that was necessary. 

“I Longed for That Hug”: A Mother Reunites With Her Sons Four Years After Being Separated at the Border

The last time Keldy Mabel Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga hugged her sons Erik and Mino, they were 13 and 15 years old and seemed “so little” to her. Tuesday night, she reunited with them in Philadelphia, almost four years after being separated at the border by the Trump administration. Now, her sons towered over her. 

“I was overwhelmed with happiness and could feel all the love my sons have for me,” she told me Thursday. “I longed for that hug and for that moment to be with my children again.” 

The family’s story was first reported by the New Yorker‘s Jonathan Blitzer on Wednesday; he had spent three years speaking with Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga and joined a film crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for the reunion Tuesday night. When I spoke with Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga, she’d been reunited with her family for just a day and a half and was still understandably emotional. 

Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga was separated from Erik and Mino in El Paso back in September 2017, as the Trump administration implemented what was then a pilot program but which would become an official family separation policy at the US-Mexico border.

“The separation caused much pain and so much suffering,” Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga said. “That moment of being separated broke our hearts and it marked our lives forever.” 

“That moment of being separated broke our hearts and it marked our lives forever.” 

The family fled Honduras “after losing close family members to violence and facing direct threats to their lives,” according to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the El Paso-based nonprofit representing her. After reaching the border, Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga sought asylum in the United States but instead was taken away from her children. The teenage boys were held first by US Customs and Border Protection, then sent to a shelter, and ultimately were released to their aunt who was already living in the United States. Meanwhile, their mom was jailed in an immigration detention facility in El Paso for two years. She was then deported back to Honduras in 2019, to the place she fled to protect her life and the lives of her sons. 

It didn’t take long for Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga to make the trek back to the US border again, never losing hope that one day she’d find a way to be with her two sons again. She was then stuck in Cuidad Juárez while Las Americas staff “tried every possible legal avenue” to get her reunited with her children. 

Then, just a week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order forming a task force to reunify migrant families separated by the Trump administration under its “zero tolerance” policy between January 2017 and January 2021. In that time, the Trump administration separated more than 5,500 families at the border and more than 1,000 of them remain separated today. On Sunday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that the administration would start to reunite some of those families in the United States this week. Also on Sunday, Michelle Brané, a longtime advocate for migrant women and children who now serves as the executive director of the administration’s reunification task force, said that separated parents will enter the United States via humanitarian parole, though the task force is looking at ways to provide parents with longer-term statuses in the country. Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga was one of those first four parents brought through the special permit, which will give them work authorization and protection from deportation for the next three years.

As she and her sons held each other and sobbed, she kept thinking to herself, “Is it true? Is this really happening?” 

“Tuesday night, for the first time in three and a half years, two children were able to get a kiss goodnight from their mother after the U.S. government ripped them apart from the most important person in their lives,” said the mother’s attorney Linda Corchado, director of Legal Services at Las Americas, in a press release. “Children flee persecution every day around the world, and our country is capable of honoring our asylum laws and respecting the dignity of families. On Tuesday, we saw the power of a mother’s love. Let this be the example for the change we fight for every single day.”

But still, so many more families are not as lucky, at least not yet. As my colleague Noah Lanard wrote Monday, organizations like Al Otro Lado, an immigrant advocacy group based in California and Baja California, have criticized Biden’s slow progress, arguing the administration did little to bring the parents and children back together in the last few months. The American Civil Liberties Union was one of the first to sue to stop the family separation policy in 2018 and it continues to negotiate with the Biden administration. Lee Gelernt, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, has said that all families who remain separated must be reunified, and the US government must provide trauma-related medical care, offer a path to permanent legal status, and ensure that family separations “never occur in the future.” 

But, at least for now, there is some relief for Gonzáles Brebe de Zúniga and her family. As she told me, “Throughout those years I often went to sleep imagining that I would hug my kids again, and that moment has come true.” She added that as she and her sons held each other and sobbed Tuesday, she kept thinking to herself, “Is it true? Is this really happening?” 

“I still kept thinking back to how it was even possible that they were taken from me, and that this ever happened to us.” 

Some Thoughts on Eric Clapton and Classic Rock Nostalgia

If you grew up listening to your local classic rock radio station, there are probably a few facts about Eric Clapton that have been engrained in your head.

He taught himself to play guitar as a teenager and became the engineer of classic rock hits including “Layla” and “Crossroads.” He’s been a member of more rock groups than you can shake a stick at: the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, Blind Faith, and the Plastic Ono Band, to name a few. His four-year-old son died after falling from a high-rise window, inspiring the song “Tears in Heaven.”

There are two crucial facts that I didn’t know about Clapton until very recently. One is that “Crossroads” was not an original song but a cover of Delta blues musician Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” first recorded in 1936. The other is that, in 1976, Clapton went on a drunken, racist diatribe at a concert, hurling racial slurs about immigrants and arguing that England should be a white country. No one knows Clapton’s precise language, because there are no known recordings of the outburst, but numerous witnesses have recounted the incident, which spurred the “Rock Against Racism” punk movement.

Clapton profited off of the work of a Black blues singer whom he revered and who had died about 30 years prior. And he held the belief that Black people and white people ought to be segregated—at least enough to drunkenly rant about it on stage one night. 

These two facts cannot be disconnected. I listened to Robert Johnson’s recordings for the first time earlier this year. I found them to be a revelation. In them, I heard the seed of much of the music I’d always known: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones (whom I naively assumed had written “Love in Vain”), and, of course, Eric Clapton. Greil Marcus summarizes this sense of discovery in his 1975 book Mystery Train:

After hearing Johnson’s music for the first time—listening to that blasted and somehow friendly voice, the shivery guitar, hearing a score of lines that fit as easily and memorably into each day as Dylan’s had—I could listen to nothing else for months. Johnson’s music changed the way the world looked to me.

Appreciating Clapton’s art requires a certain ignorance of its origins. Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff,” for example, found more commercial success than Bob Marley’s original. But the lines “Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know” undeniably carry less weight coming from a white man’s mouth.

Clapton recorded an entire studio album of Johnson’s songs, but, in the world of classic rock radio stations, Johnson is less an artist to be loved and enjoyed than a secret. I think that my ignorance about one of Clapton’s greatest influences reflects a broader cultural willingness to forget racism in favor of loving the music. But in pasting over the complexity, you lose out on the actual history.

Saturday is the 110th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. Listen to his “Cross Road Blues” here.

They Went Back to India to Care for Parents Dying of COVID-19. Now, They’re Stranded.

In early April, Ashu Mahajan and his wife, Neha, got the bad news: Ashu’s father in India was sick with COVID-19. For days, Ashu and Neha kept tabs on him from New Jersey, but when he took a turn for the worse, Ashu decided to fly to India to see him one last time.

Nearly two weeks ago, Ashu arrived in India, and rushed to his father’s bedside to say goodbye. His father passed away a few days later. Ashu was consumed by grief, yet he was also eager to get back to Neha and their nine- and 15-year-old daughters in the United States. But there’s a problem: He can’t. President Biden’s ban on travel from India began Tuesday night, so Ashu is effectively stranded.

Even before Ashu left, Neha said she knew in her heart that her husband may have bought a one way ticket to India.

“We both knew that this can get really, really bad for us,” she said. “Immigrant workers here in the United States of America, we’re all going through this dilemma—to take care of our sick parents in India, or to stay here just to make sure that our visa stamping doesn’t expire, so that we don’t lose what we’ve built with all the hard work that we’ve done.”

Technically, Ashu should be able to come home. President Biden’s travel ban, instituted amid skyrocketing cases of COVID-19 in India, isn’t supposed to include US citizens, permanent residents, international students on visas, or Indians on non-immigrant work visas such as H-1B who have children born in the United States.

Ashu and Neha Mahajan with their two daughters in New Jersey

Neha and Ashu Mahajan

Ashu is in that last category, but a bureaucratic hurdle stands in his way: H-1B workers, whenever they leave the United States, have to get their visas stamped at a US consulate in their home country before they can return. But right now, all the consulates in India are closed because of the pandemic. “I heard about the travel exemption, but it doesn’t do anything for us,” said Neha, who is an advocate for skilled visa workers and an outreach manager at a law firm.

What about those who need to get a visa stamped but cannot get it as the consulates are closed? DOS should restart visa stamping within US like they did till 2004. Makes no sense to make someone travel to to get a visa when he is living in for 10+ years.

— Anirban Das (@anirb_das) May 5, 2021

Neha and Ashu aren’t the only ones whose family has been separated by the travel ban. While it’s hard to estimate the actual number of Indian H-1B visa holders stuck in India, my reporting turned up dozens of stories. Earlier this week, I joined a Telegram group on Indian visa holders with 20,000 members and asked how many were in this situation. More than 200 people replied to my message on the same day, though Indian advocates say the number is likely to be in the higher hundreds or thousands.

On Telegram, the heart-wrenching stories just kept coming: a father separated from his toddler son. Children on dependent visas of H-1B holders unable to get their visas stamped and return to school. Pregnant women who couldn’t get their visa on time and had to deliver in India in the middle of a pandemic. A fiancé who flew for his wedding and is stuck. Many left the United States to take care of sick parents during the pandemic. My phone is continuously pinging with replies such as these (responses very lightly edited for clarity):

“Both me and my husband are stuck here. My husband is going to lose his job with a reputed employer as they don’t allow working from India.”

“My wife and US born kid are stuck. Cannot get stamping.”

“We’ve been stuck in India for the last six months. I got my visa stamped, but my son who is not a citizen and is on a dependent visa had his appointment cancelled. He’s very upset and depressed.”

“I traveled while pregnant as my mom and dad were both diagnosed with COVID and were admitted to hospital. My son needs an H4 visa which he can’t get because the consulates are closed. Husband is also here and can’t work remotely for very long. Our future has become uncertain.”

“I am stuck in India and two-year-old son and wife are alone in San Francisco.”

“We came since my father passed away, but our appointments were canceled last week We can travel with a US born kid, but how can we travel without a valid visa? My elder son studies there and his education has also gone for a toss.”

“We are stuck in India because of stamping and our company can’t hold the job for long…we could lose our jobs. We have mortgages.”

According to a 2020 report from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are around 500,000 workers on H-1B visas in the United States Most of them work in the technology sector, though there are also many doctors, pharmacists, consultants, and marketing professionals. Around 70 percent of these visas are held by Indians.

“We are stuck in India because of stamping and our company can’t hold the job for long…we could lose our jobs. We have mortgages.”

Because of a Trump administration policy, many H-1B workers were already in India before the ban went into effect. In 2020, during the last year of his presidency, Trump ordered a temporary suspension on all new H-1B visas. For many months last year, US consulates in India were also closed due to the pandemic. Both of these things together made it difficult for H-1B visa holders to travel back and forth to India.

The Trump-era ban expired at the end of March, and the situation was supposed to improve. The Covid situation in India improved for a little bit earlier this year, and consulates opened for a short while and resumed processing visas, but with this new travel ban and an escalating pandemic, those who have been stuck since last year have no way of getting back anytime soon.

Another complicating factor is the absurdly long waitlist for green cards: over to 50 years, according to estimates from the CATO institute. Every year, thousands of H-1B holders qualify for green cards, yet there’s a cap on how many green cards can be issued to each nationality. As of May 2018, nearly 600,000 workers and their families were waiting for employment-based green cards. More than 90 percent are Indians, who receive about 10,000 employment-based green cards a year. Meanwhile, they have to rely on visa renewals and stamping of the visa at consulates at regular intervals.

“Without a green card, there is always an invisible sword hanging over my head,” said Neha, who has been stuck in the green card backlog since 2012.

Immigration advocates believe the travel ban isn’t worth the stress it’s causing families. Cyrus Mehta, a New York based attorney who specializes in immigration law, said that the ban isn’t very useful in stopping the spread of the virus since citizens, permanent residents, and others are still allowed to travel. But the ban disproportionately affects those who are working on temporary visas such as the H-1B visa.

“Representing H1B visa holders, I know what they’ve gone through,” he said. “Each time they go to India, there’s a ban imposed on them. In the Trump administration, they were subject to bans. Then they wait patiently. They’ve now scheduled a visa appointment. And their appointment for later this week has been cancelled because of this latest COVID ban on India. So they’ve got a double whammy.”

Mehta suggests stricter controls and protocols such as rigorous testing, quarantining, and vaccination requirements as a better approach to controlling the spread of the virus.

Neha has a full-time job, two kids and is recovering from surgery. For the past few weeks, Neha has spent all her free time calling consulates, politicians and speaking with journalists to find a way to get her husband back into the country.

“I haven’t slept a wink,” she said. “I am not a religious person, but these days I am praying to god everyday.”

Doctor, Lawyer, Insurrectionist: The Radicalization of Simone Gold

When rioters broke into the US Capitol on January 6, chants of “Fuck the police!” “USA!” or “Treason!” echoed in the marble halls. When Dr. Simone Gold got inside the rotunda, she stepped over a velvet rope and announced to anyone who would listen, “I am a Stanford-educated attorney!”

Thus she distinguished herself among the motley crew of Proud Boys, MAGA types, and the QAnon shaman who paraded through the Capitol to overturn the 2020 presidential election, an event that left five people dead. Not only is Gold a Stanford-educated lawyer, she’s also a board-certified emergency room physician. Neither qualification prevented the FBI from coming to her Beverly Hills house on January 18 and arresting her. Nor did it make a federal grand jury think twice in early February before indicting her on five criminal counts, including entering a restricted building and obstructing an official proceeding.

The arrest marked the end of one chapter in her Icarian trajectory into right-wing fame. Before April 2020, Gold had been just another over-achieving Beverly Hills doctor. But with the arrival of the pandemic, she donned her white lab coat to protest lockdowns and promote President Donald Trump’s favorite unproven COVID treatment, the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. It seems that’s all it took to find an enthusiastic audience among the MAGA faithful, putting her on a glide path to a certain kind of right-wing stardom. Conservatives who love to bash educated, liberal elites as out of touch quickly embraced Gold and gleefully touted her impressive credentials to support their attacks on public health measures designed to combat the pandemic. She sailed into their well-funded ecosystem, snagging speaking gigs, appearances on cable talk shows, and robust opportunities to fundraise.

Simone Gold, with John Strand (left) uses a bullhorn to address protesters in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Within days of her first media hit, she had teamed up with tea party groups working with the Trump reelection campaign to demand that governors reopen the economy. Fox News put her on national TV to publicly denounce lockdowns and mask mandates as overblown responses to a disease she insisted wasn’t fatal to most people. In July, her new right-wing friends ushered her to meetings with members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. The sudden fame seems to have propelled her right up the steps and into the Capitol on January 6.

Her arrest highlights the role of conservative media in fomenting an insurrection, but Gold’s personal experience also illustrates what experts on extremism have long known: Education is no defense against radicalization. “If you think of who is susceptible of extremist ideology, people tend to think it’s people who don’t have much education,” says Don Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas political science professor who has studied extremism and radicalization. “That’s not the case at all. It tends to be more middle class and upper class. Those who have spent more time educating themselves tend to think they know better than other people.”

“If you think of who is susceptible of extremist ideology, people tend to think it’s people who don’t have much education, that’s not the case at all.”

In fact, much like the tea partiers of the Obama era, the Capitol insurrectionists were by and large an aging, middle-class mob. Researchers at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago have dug into the demographic profiles of hundreds of people charged with crimes related to the Capitol incursion. They’ve found that about 30 percent of the arrested rioters are white-collar professionals like Gold. Only about 13 percent were affiliated with traditional far-right militias or extremist groups like the Proud Boys, and only 7 percent were unemployed.

Even so, Gold still stands out from that well-heeled crowd, and not just because she’s a woman. (Women make up only about 15 percent of the Capitol defendants.) Of the more than 420 defendants the Chicago researchers studied, she is one of only two lawyers and the only doctor. That’s why it’s hard not to look at Gold’s CV and wonder: How does someone go from medical school to Stanford Law School to an FBI wanted poster?

Gold’s resume doesn’t scream budding far-right revolutionary as much as it reflects unusual precocity and ambition. Raised in a wealthy section of Long Island, New York, Gold, 55, likes to say that she trained as a physician at her father’s knee. Reuben Tizes, her father, was a doctor, a medical school professor, and even served as the Orange County, New York, health commissioner in the early 1970s. Her mother, Carol Tizes, was an elementary school teacher.

After graduating from the City College of New York at 19, she claims she was the youngest person in her graduating class at the Chicago Medical School in 1989. She obtained a California medical license in 1990 but then enrolled in Stanford Law School, graduating in 1993. “That was my idea of rebellion,” she told a religious broadcaster in August, explaining that her father had wanted all his children to be doctors. (They are.) Her legal prowess didn’t stand out much in Palo Alto, however. I reached out to a host of her Stanford Law classmates, but none of those who responded could recall much about Gold aside from her red hair.

Stanford Law School class photo

The intervening decades between law school and her indictment were unconventional only in the ambition of her professional endeavors. In January 1997, she was admitted to the New York bar and then completed a residency in emergency medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. That same year, according to her LinkedIn profile, she served as a congressional fellow in DC and wrote speeches for the late Vermont senator James Jeffords, who famously left the Republican Party to become an Independent in 2001. (Susan Boardman Russ, who served as Jeffords’ chief of staff for 25 years before retiring in 2004, does not remember Gold.)

Over the past three decades, Gold has practiced emergency medicine at various hospitals in the LA area, but the lure of Washington seems to have endured. According to her LinkedIn page, in 2009, she worked in DC as an assistant to Michael Oren, then Israel’s ambassador to the US, who credited her in print for stories she helped him research for the Wall Street Journal and New Republic. Oren told Mother Jones that he had no memory of her working for him, nor did anyone on his staff.

In Los Angeles, Gold married businessman Larry Gold and had two children. Active in the Los Angeles Jewish community, she and her husband once provided a glowing testimonial for a local mohel for the bris he performed for their son. A 2003 Jewish Journal article featured Gold and her then two-year-old son in a story about “Shalom Time” at a local bookstore. She and her husband donated thousands of dollars to their children’s private, conservative Jewish day school in Beverly Hills, where Gold volunteered on the PTA, managing the shabbat swap one year.

But by 2010, Gold had filed for divorce. Los Angeles County court records suggest that her relationship with her ex-husband was somewhat contentious. In 2017, a judge ordered them to attend mediation over child custody and visitation issues. (Larry Gold declined to comment for this story other than to say that he was “shocked” to learn about his ex-wife’s participation in the events at the Capitol.)

“As a C-Suite Physician, Dr. Gold works the same way as a highly effective Fortune 100 CEO…all with an eye toward fixing her client’s exact problem.”

In her October 2020 book I Do Not Consent: My Fight Against Medical Cancel Culture Gold writes, “I have always worked with the poor and underserved,” treating ER patients in places like Inglewood, California, which she describes as a “low-income, gang-ridden majority-minority city that provided the setting for the tough 1991 drama Boyz N the Hood.” She does not, however, include any mention of her services as a pricey “concierge physician,” which she advertised on her now-defunct personal website: “As a C-Suite Physician, Dr. Gold works the same way as a highly effective Fortune 100 CEO…all with an eye toward fixing her client’s exact problem.” Gold charged $5,000 for an initial appointment and between $25,000 and $50,000 for ongoing consultations.

The concierge medical practice is just one of several business enterprises she attempted to launch over the years—including MedicaLife, a short-lived lifestyle magazine for doctors that launched in 2006 and folded in 2008. (“Confessions of a Hospital Fundraiser,” teased one cover mockup.) In 2017, Gold started a company called Gold Healthcare Solutions that advertises assistance to hospitals facing government audits. Until recently, the company website listed as CEO the venture capitalist Howard Sherman, who’s married to the actress Sela Ward and who ran in the Mississippi Democratic primary for the US Senate in 2018.

When I asked Sherman about his role at the company, he replied in an email: “I have ZERO relationship with Dr. Simone Gold’s company. I work in the medical device world and at one time she approached me with an idea she had that I vetted with some of my contacts. I was not able to achieve the kind of interest she wanted so we stopped talking about the project.” His name and photo were subsequently removed from the company website.

Lots of people flame out in business, get divorced, and don’t end up storming the Capitol. But Haider-Markel says that those who do become radicalized are searching for broader meaning in their lives or a sense of identity. “Oftentimes there is a precipitating event. They lose a partner. They have a financial crisis,” he says. “They develop some grievance around that and connect that to a broader social movement.” If Gold was looking for a mid-life reboot, the heady mix of the pandemic, President Trump, and right-wing media provided the perfect catalyst.

The moment that “changed my life completely,” she told a California KGET TV reporter in January, took place in April 2020. She had been treating COVID patients in Los Angeles emergency rooms with President Donald Trump’s favorite unproven COVID cure, hydroxychloroquine, just a few weeks after the president had announced that the FDA would be fast-tracking emergency use authorization for the drug for COVID treatment. Trump called it “a game changer,” despite warnings from the FDA that the anti-malaria drug may cause heart rhythm problems in some people. 

Gold was enthusiastic about the drug’s treatment possibilities. In her book, she describes how, after extensive research, she had used hydroxychloroquine to cure a woman suffering from mild COVID. “I had expected to get kudos,” she writes. “Instead I was met with hostility.” The hospital medical director challenged her independence and dressed her down for prescribing a drug that wasn’t indicated for outpatients. Gold argued she had science to back her up, and cited the drug’s long safety profile. Unpersuaded, the medical director threatened to fire her if she ever prescribed the drug to an outpatient again. 

For most of her life, Gold doesn’t seem to have been politically active. She donated $1,000 to the campaign of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) in 2019, but before that, the only other federal candidate to whom she gave money was a Democrat—California Rep. Raul Ruiz—in 2011. “I have never considered myself a political person. I’ve supported both parties at various times in my life,” she says in her book. “I’d fall in the middle of any partisan test. I don’t believe in the right-left distinction…That’s the trouble with being in the middle of the road. Sometimes you get run over.”

“That’s the trouble with being in the middle of the road. Sometimes you get run over.”

But after the hospital threatened to fire her over her prescribing practices, Gold picked a lane. On April 14, she called Dennis Prager’s radio show. Prager has been broadcasting in LA since 1982, but he has become an important though underappreciated part of the modern right-wing infrastructure thanks to his online Prager University. Popular with young people and the alt-right, Prager U publishes five-minute tutorials on everything from climate change to economics. The videos are designed to promote “Judeo-Christian values.” (A sampling: “The Dangers of Islam” and “Just Say Merry Christmas.”)

Identifying herself as an ER doctor, Gold described her success at treating patients with hydroxychloroquine and voiced dismay that medicine was becoming so politicized that a perfectly safe drug could not be dispensed by doctors without controversy. “The science has taken a backseat to the hatred of the president,” Prager commiserated.

A week later, Gold made a series of Twitter videos, a platform that she had rarely before used, to share her experience “practicing emergency medicine in this era of the COVID-19 crisis.” Standing in her white lab coat in front of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center—a hospital she didn’t work at—Gold panned the camera over the quiet grounds. “It’s really quite empty. The emergency department volume is down,” she says. “The patient census is down.” 

Gold wasn’t entirely wrong about the hospital census but her causality was off. Hospitals all over the country, including in California at that time, were relatively empty because elective surgeries were canceled and fear of the virus kept people out of the ER. Doctors and nurses would soon be laid off. In her book she describes how her own hospital hours were cut by 30 percent. She doesn’t say how much this may have hurt her bottom line, but in June, her medical practice received more than $150,000 in federal bailout loans, suggesting the lockdowns caused a personal budget deficit large enough to turn many a doctor into an activist.

None of her videos garnered more than 12,000 views but they hit a certain zeitgeist, as conservatives and conspiracy theorists alike pushed the idea that virus cases were overblown and some people in the government were using COVID to take away individual freedom and undermine President Trump. Three weeks earlier, Fox News radio host Todd Starnes had gone to a Brooklyn hospital and made a video claiming that the emergency room was empty. “I’m afraid that the mainstream media has been overblowing the coverage here,” he narrated. “There’s been a lot of fear mongering going on.” With help from a QAnon enthusiast, the video spawned the hashtag #filmyourhospital and prompted a host of right-wing figures like failed California congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero to rush to their nearest hospitals to make their own “empty hospital” videos weeks before Gold did.

Even in such a climate, Gold’s white coat stood out, and she managed to catch the attention of one particularly influential audience member: Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. One of the largest of the original tea party groups that arose to oppose President Barack Obama, Tea Party Patriots encompasses a trio of nonprofit groups funded by wealthy conservatives and conservative foundations like Donors Trust. A Tea Party Patriots super-PAC also raised $1.2 million to help reelect Trump in 2020.

Martin was dialed into the Trump White House—so much so that she would later join Trump’s Georgia legal team to help overturn the 2020 presidential election, even though she’s not a lawyer. Early in the pandemic, she was working with a newly formed Save Our Country Coalition to help oppose lockdowns and defend Trump’s handling of the pandemic, along with powerful conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council. She is also the executive committee secretary of the Council for National Policy, a secretive but powerful religious-right organization that was working with the Trump reelection campaign to find doctors to help burnish the president’s approval ratings.

Gold was just the sort of surrogate they had been looking for. “I reached out to her and said, ‘Hey, I’m working on this effort and I’d like to talk to doctors,’ and we started emailing and talking, and as things have developed and she watched the virus, things have evolved,” Martin later explained to Yahoo News. The pair met in April, and Gold asked Martin to deliver a letter she’d written to Trump, calling the lockdowns a “mass casualty event,” which she’d been urging other doctors to sign. More than 400 had.

With lightning speed, Martin put Gold on the ready-made conservative media grievance circuit. On May 19, Tea Party Patriots hosted a conference call with conservative media luminaries, including Fox News’ Ed Henry and Breitbart News, featuring Gold and a handful of other doctors who had signed Gold’s letter to Trump. On the call, Gold described the hidden victims of the lockdowns, including a woman she’d treated who’d fallen and broken her hip and shoulder while trying to color her own hair because she couldn’t go to a salon. “I just feel that’s there’s a very big disconnect between what the average American thinks is going on and what’s actually going on,” Gold said.

The call sent Gold on a grand round of media hits with all of the biggest names in the MAGA firmament—former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, Glenn Beck, Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk—and ultimately with some of the major stars of Fox News. In early July, Fox host Laura Ingraham had Gold on her show to promote her favorite drug as an over-the-counter COVID cure. “This is like a medical cancel culture applied to this particular medication,” Ingraham said sympathetically, conflating some cherished conservative points of fury.

“Shouldn’t you as a practicing physician with a medical degree be allowed to express your views on science as you practice it without being censored?”

It’s probably hard to overstate just how much of a role conservative media played in nudging Gold towards insurrection. University of Maryland psychology professor Arie W. Kruglanski is a co-author of the book The Three Pillars of Radicalization. In his research on extremist networks across the globe, he identified three crucial factors in political radicalization: a need to feel significant, a narrative to follow, and a network that supports and validates that narrative. “It’s difficult to become very glamorous or glorious as an emergency room doctor,” Kruglanski told me. Gold’s splash into right-wing media, he says, probably fulfilled all three of the pillars. “This is sort of an overnight stardom. She has the narrative, and she now has the network that supports her.”

Gold really hit the big time in July. After brainstorming with Martin, Gold helped Tea Party Patriots convene an “America’s Frontline Doctors” summit in DC, an event that resembled the “white coat” protests Martin had organized back in the tea party heyday to oppose the Affordable Care Act. The two-day summit garnered almost no media attention until the very end, when Gold and about a dozen white-coated physicians appeared on the steps of the Supreme Court to talk about “medical cancel culture” and spent nearly 45 minutes making misleading claims suggesting that COVID can be prevented and cured with, no surprise here, hydroxychloroquine. Most of them had never treated a COVID patient; ophthalmologists were overrepresented in the group. And one was really out there: Stella Immanuel, a Houston doctor who believes that some gynecological problems are caused by having sex with demons. “You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” she said. “Nobody needs to get sick.”

President Trump and his son Don Jr. retweeted a video of the event and it went viral, receiving more than 16 million views in a matter of hours before Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter took it down for spreading misinformation. Twitter even blocked Don Jr. from using his account for most of the day.

Simone Gold’s summer media splash included big names: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Ed Henry, plus Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk, Glenn Beck, and conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager.

Gold has claimed that the California hospital she worked for promptly fired her for appearing in the video, and says she hasn’t practiced medicine since. But the episode provided her with instant celebrity as a victim of Big Tech censorship, a credential even more beloved by conservative media than her white coat and fancy law degree. The next day, Gold accompanied Martin to meet with Vice President Mike Pence to press for emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and talk censorship. The day after that, she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, one of the most watched prime-time cable news shows, with more than 3 million regular viewers.

On the show, Carlson expressed outrage that Gold’s hospital had fired her. “Shouldn’t you as a practicing physician with a medical degree be allowed to express your views on science as you practice it without being censored?” he asked.

Gold agreed and then seized the opportunity to make her case for hydroxychloroquine to Carlson’s millions of viewers. “Look, I majored in Russian History. I don’t know anything about hydroxychloroquine,” he told her in response. “I do know about the way the country is supposed to work, and physicians should be allowed to explain their experiences, their clinical experiences, treating patients and you’re not allowed to because Joe Biden getting elected is more important, and that’s scary.”

In a sign of how far down the far-right rabbit hole she’d already gone by then, Gold told Carlson that because of “some negative things” people had said since the video aired, she had retained attorney and conspiracy theorist L. Lin Wood to put “to rest anything people want to say that’s defamatory.” Wood would later join with Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani to file a host of baseless lawsuits to try to overturn the presidential election.

By early fall, it was clear that Gold’s original analysis of the pandemic was mostly wrong. The virus spiked across the country and researchers declared hydroxychloroquine useless for treating COVID. Even Trump didn’t take it when he got sick. As her prospects in medicine dimmed, Gold seems to have become too toxic even for Fox News, which hasn’t had her on the air since July. She had turned America’s Frontline Doctors into a more traditional nonprofit organization, complete with website, spokesperson, and white papers decrying various alleged flip-flops by Anthony Fauci. But in her quest for publicity, Gold had to dive even deeper into the far-right fever swamp.

For the next few months, Gold gave interviews to or public speeches with QAnon conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, B-list talk show luminaries, and a few politicians, including Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a “stop the steal” movement promoter affiliated with far-right militia groups that were part of the Capitol riots. She even went on the Patriot Radio show hosted by Matt Shea, a former Washington State legislator who has been involved in a number of armed federal standoffs, including the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 led by Ammon Bundy. Associated with Christian nationalists, Shea has written a manifesto calling for a fundamentalist holy war, in which non-Christian males would be killed if they didn’t submit to Biblical law.

The Jewish doctor chatted happily with him about vitamins and the value of exercise in preventing COVID. “Before I was called a quack and a fraud, people used to clap for me for working out there on the front lines,” Gold lamented, before encouraging people to give up masks and to freely gather for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

But Gold found her most loyal audience among evangelical Christian prosperity preachers, many of whom had refused to close their church doors during the lockdowns and were vaccine skeptics. After big tech companies pulled down the doctors’ video in July, it was rebroadcast by Daystar, the second-largest Christian TV network in the country. Since then, Gold has made at least six different appearances on the network founded by televangelists Marcus and Joni Lamb—and those visits have paid off.

In mid-August, when she headlined the Lambs’ program “Ministry Now,” along with the anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr, Marcus Lamb made a surprise announcement: He was issuing a $10,000 matching challenge from Daystar for donations on Gold’s behalf. “I know that you lost your job and now it may be that God has placed something else in your heart to where you’re gonna make a stand,” Joni Lamb told Gold. “It’s going to take money to do that.” In October, Gold returned to chat with the ladies of “Joni Table Talk,” Daystar’s televangelical version of “The View.” Over coffee with the hosts, Gold thanked “the whole Daystar family for being so generous,” and talked about the small donations from viewers she’d received. “It really adds up,” she said gratefully. “It gave me some breathing room to keep fighting for advocacy.”

“I know that you lost your job and now it may be that God has placed something else in your heart to where you’re gonna make a stand. It’s going to take money to do that.”

Evangelical churches were especially receptive to Gold’s anti-vaccine advocacy, which she pivoted to as hydroxychloroquine faded as a right-wing cause célèbre. Three days before the Capitol riot, Gold appeared at a religious revival event in Tampa, Florida, billed as an “open air mass healing and miracle service,” run by Rodney Howard-Browne. A conspiracy theorist, Howard-Browne has appeared on Alex Jones’ far-right site InfoWars and has called the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, a “false flag” operation. He was arrested in March for holding religious services in violation of a stay at home order. Gold took the stage before a room full of people without masks and gave an hour-long speech, where she decried the evils of the “experimental biological agent,” better known as the COVID vaccine. She said it’s being tested on minority communities that have been prioritized for vaccines, which she dubbed “pure racism.”

“They are making an overt and covert attempt to push this heavily on Blacks and browns,” she warned. “If you take the vaccine, you’re signing up to be in a pharmacovigilance tracking system.”

For most of 2020, the formerly apolitical Dr. Gold was able to separate her personal crusade for “health freedom” from the presidential election that provided the backdrop to the fight over lockdowns and hydroxychloroquine. She rarely touched on the subject in public other than to suggest that “Orange Man bad” and not science drove opposition to the anti-malaria drug. But whether Gold realized it or not, the battle over the drug was less about health care policy and more of a proxy war over Trump and the future of democracy.

Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in November was a blow to Gold’s cause, as polls showed voters resoundingly rejected his handling of the pandemic, which embraced much of what Gold advocated. It also put her on a collision course with the “stop the steal” movement that metastasized after the presidential election, as her tea party and evangelical benefactors quickly backed Trump’s effort to brand the election as illegitimate and overturn the results. Gold’s Stanford law degree suggests she is smart enough to know a big lie when she sees one, but “stop the steal” was where the action was, not to mention the speaking gigs and fundraising ops she now relied on for her livelihood since her medical career cratered. Once she started down the MAGA path, there was no turning back.

When Trump supporters first converged in DC on November 14 at the “Million MAGA march” to contest the election results, Gold was right there with them, along with other Trump die-hards like Mike Lindell, the MyPillow guy who helped bankroll the march; Sebastian Gorka, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, the Georgia congresswoman who’d expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory. “You do not give up your inalienable rights just because there’s an epidemic,” Gold shouted from the Supreme Court steps, warning that the government was using an “age-old tactic” to seize power by scaring people with a disease that she said causes mostly mild illness. “Do not live in fear. Be joyful, be happy, go forward!”

The event was advertised on the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, and drew hordes of militia outfits and white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys and Nick Fuentes’ Groypers. The rally descended into violence; 21 people were arrested on assault and gun charges, and one person was stabbed.

That didn’t stop Gold from coming back to DC to speak with many of the same people at the January 5 “stop the steal” rally at Freedom Plaza—the warmup to the main event at the Capitol, organized by Ali Alexander, a convicted felon and conspiracy theorist. Speakers represented a parade of far-right figures ranging from anti-abortion activists to former Trump adviser Roger Stone. Standing under an umbrella held by a man in a “Baby Lives Matter” shirt, Gold said to the crowd, “I’m here to ask you a personal question: Why are you here?…I believe the reason you are here is the same reason I am choosing to be here. Because we all have recognized a blatant assault on the rule of law… We are sick and tired of being lied to.”

Kruglanski isn’t surprised that Gold would move from promoting a bogus COVID cure to joining with people who thought the election had been stolen. “In many cases the radical groups first shower you with love without you even accepting their ideology,” he explains. “But once you are accepted by the group, to maintain your good standing in that community you’ve got to accept their narrative.”

The next day Gold was scheduled to speak again at the “Wild Protest” organized by Alexander near the White House, along with Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin and Brandon Straka, founder of the Walkaway Campaign that urges Democrats to quit the party. (Straka was also later arrested for entering the Capitol.) But the speeches were inexplicably canceled, and instead, protesters heeded Trump’s call to march on the Capitol while Congress and the vice president were certifying the results of the 2020 election. Gold joined them.

She was accompanied by John Strand—an international underwear model who serves as the communications director for America’s Frontline Doctors. Strand, 38, had been part of regular Beverly Hills “freedom protests” against the lockdowns over the summer and now lives with Gold. On the steps of the Capitol, he tweeted, “I am incredibly proud to be a patriot today, to stand up tall in defense of liberty & the Constitution, to support Trump & #MAGAforever, & to send the message: WE ARE NEVER CONCEDING A STOLEN ELECTION.”

Lawyers generally know that after engaging in a potentially criminal act, it’s best to stop talking publicly about it. But Gold apparently couldn’t resist the siren call of an interview with the Washington Post. In a January 12 story, Gold admitted to being inside the Capitol on January 6. “I can certainly speak to the place that I was, and it most emphatically was not a riot,” she said, explaining dubiously that she thought it was legal to go inside. “Where I was, was incredibly peaceful.”

Simone Gold (top left), on the FBI poster that became fodder for internet sleuths, who quickly ID her and posted videos like these online.  

“Peaceful” is not a word the FBI used in court filings to describe where Gold was that day. According to an FBI agent, Gold and Strand were photographed “in a large crowd attempting to push past multiple officers blocking the entrance to the Capitol, which had visibly broken windows at the time. One of the officers, who had been pinned near the doors to the Capitol, appears to be pulled down by someone in the crowd and lands near where Strand and Gold were standing.” Videos and still photos also show the pair pressed up against the door to the House chamber where law enforcement was trying to block them. Gold told the Post that she worried that those photos and videos would impact her ability to advocate the America’s Frontline Doctors. “I do regret being there,” Gold admitted.

Her regret is understandable. For days, an image of her standing in the Capitol Rotunda with a bullhorn appeared on an FBI wanted poster seeking help identifying people who participated in the insurrection. Five days after her interview with KGET, FBI agents went to her Beverly Hills house and arrested her and Strand. A DC federal grand jury indicted her on February 5. By then, L. Lin Wood was facing disbarment efforts in Georgia, where authorities have demanded a mental health evaluation after he called for Vice President Mike Pence to be executed. He was thus unavailable to defend Gold.

So why did she do it? It’s impossible to know what combination of impulse, exhilaration, and conviction led Gold to follow a mob into the US Capitol. She did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but there are a few likely dynamics at work. Let’s start with her own reflections on what happened, which were surprisingly uncomplicated: “When you’re crossing the street and the light turns green, you go,” she said in an interview with KGET. Shaking her head somewhat ruefully, she added that she came up with the “genius” idea to give the speech she had planned to deliver at the canceled rally. “I…I just wanted to,” she stammered. “Someone had a bullhorn. I asked to use it. Those of us who were there believe the election is completely fraudulent. We just kind of wanted to be heard.”

“Someone had a bullhorn. I asked to use it.”

Several months before her arrest, she foreshadowed her new militancy. “Not everyone can, or should, turn to political activism. I fully understand those who point out the negative consequences this approach can have for one’s career and personal life,” she wrote in her book. “Going along with the crowd in times of fear and uncertainty present their own pitfalls, as we have seen. In Judaism we often ask ourselves, ‘What does God expect of me in this situation?’ It’s this emphasis on action that is essential to the Jewish faith. Trust in God, believe in yourself, and courageous conduct will follow.”

It is always perilous to engage in psychoanalyzing a relatively public figure, even one who seems to be having a midlife crisis in plain sight. And yet, Haider-Markel says that while most people don’t react to personal existential crisis by storming the Capitol, it might not be that surprising that Gold did. Many people who’ve spent a long time investing in their own education and status tend to socialize with others—like, say, in the PTA of an exclusive Beverly Hills private school—who have the same or similar credentials. In these circles, they discover that the very qualities that once made them special, all those degrees and awards they worked so hard to attain, are just the ticket to admission. Where will their prestigious resume still stand out?

Simone Gold poses as a hostage for a video she made framing her as victim of government persecution. With co-defendant John Strand (left) and former professional boxer and current Nevada cannabis lawyer Joey Gilbert, a member of the “legal eagle dream team” at Gold’s America’s Frontline Doctors. 

Few paths to fame are as reliable as switching sides. Conservatives claiming to represent “we the people” love to dump on professional expertise and fancy pedigrees in latte liberals—just listen to Fox’s Tucker Carlson repeatedly mock MSNBC host Joy Reid for having gone to Harvard. But when someone with fancy degrees and professional credentials abandons their over-educated tribe and converts, the right-wing superstructure will shower them with love—and money.

Others in right-wing politics share similar credentials as Gold’s—think Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law), or Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law), both of whom worked to overturn the election of President Joe Biden. But as senators, Cruz and Hawley are still very much part of the establishment. Their extremism is checked by their need to fundraise and get reelected.

Experts say that far-right radicalism of the sort on display on January 6 and elsewhere over the past year has strong parallels not in Cruz’s “defund the IRS” agenda but in Islamic radicalism, which studies have shown is full of doctors, engineers, and other professionals, even in the United States. In 2017, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats studied more than 100 people in the US, mostly American citizens, who’d been prosecuted for perpetrating a domestic attack on behalf of ISIS or going to fight for the Islamic State in Syria. They discovered that, like the Capitol rioters, two-thirds of the defendants had a college education.

Kruglanski notes, too, that many of the leaders of the neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, which left one woman dead and scores injured, were college educated, including Richard Spencer, who has a BA from the University of Virginia, a masters from the University of Chicago, and spent two years working on a PhD in modern European intellectual history at Duke University before leaving to “pursue a life of thought-crime.”

“You do not have to be poor and left behind to embrace these theories,” Kruglanski told me.

When it comes to real extremism, as opposed to political grandstanding, Gold much more resembles Stewart Rhodes than Ted Cruz. Rhodes is the founder of the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia group of which about a dozen members have been charged with crimes related to the Capitol riot. Rhodes was there that day, too, but unlike Gold, he was smart enough to stay out of the building. If he had gone in, he could have joined her in the rotunda and announced, “I am a Yale-educated attorney.”

Gold’s initial regret about her actions at the Capitol has given way to defiance as she returned to the lecture circuit, where she has reframed herself as a victim, and her prosecution as an assault on free speech. On their podcast recently, she told sympathetic Newsmax hosts Diamond and Silk that she looks forward to making her case to a jury. The vaccine rollout has also provided fresh opportunities for spreading misinformation in her ongoing crusade against “medical discrimination” through America’s Frontline Doctors.

Evangelical groups have continued to shower her with Biblical hospitality. At the end of March, Gold took her anti-vaccine schtick to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, a hotbed of far-right extremism, where she spoke at the “Steeling the Mind” conference put on by Compass International, a Christian ministry founded by Bill Perkins. Perkins is part of the “young earth” creationist movement, ties reflected in the conference lineup, where Gold’s fellow speakers explored such topics as whether “When God created the earth in six, 24-hour days, was that 7-day creation week God’s template for 7,000 years of humans on earth?”

The evangelical anti-vaccine circuit has put Gold back in close quarters with people who helped set the stage for the siege at the Capitol. In mid-April, Gold appeared at a two-day “health and freedom” conference in Oklahoma at the Rhema Bible College that ended with a mask-burning ceremony. There, she took the stage along with many others who’d been involved in the “stop the steal” efforts after the election, including Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, and L. Lin Wood.

In her speech, Gold announced that her America’s Frontline Doctors was setting up a legal task force to help people fight pandemic-related restrictions and vaccine passports. The audience cheered when she introduced her “legal eagle dream team” member Leigh Dundas. A Scientologist, an anti-vaccine activist, and far-right agitator from Orange County, California, Dundas also happened to be at the Capitol on January 6. She can be seen in videos not far from the QAnon shaman, yelling “Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!” at the police. After getting tear gassed outside, she went back to a nearby stage where she implored people to “stand the hell up! Because you are far better off fighting on your feet and being prepared to die on your feet than living a life on your damned knees. Fight on.”

Like any good victim of cancel culture, Gold is also fundraising. For weeks after her arrest, the America’s Frontline Doctors website featured a popup box that said, “Dr. Gold and her Communications Director were arrested by the FBI in an extremely aggressive manner. They need your support. This fight is not just for them, but for you. Clearly this political persecution of a law-abiding emergency physician is designed to threaten and intimidate any American who dares to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. The legal pressures mounting against Dr. Gold require your urgent and generous donations to withstand such aggressive assaults from the ruthless enemies of free speech.”

As of May 5, she’d raked in $392,000.
 
Top image credit: Mother Jones illustration; Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia; Getty

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Signs a Voter Suppression Bill, and Fox News Has the Only Camera

After Republican Gov. Brian Kemp drew widespread outrage in March for signing Georgia’s controversial voter suppression law behind closed doors—an event that also saw the arrest of a Black lawmaker who knocked on them during the signing—it appears as though Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is ready to one-up him.

According to local reports from Thursday morning, DeSantis prohibited the press from covering a signing ceremony for Florida’s own new voter suppression bill, instead giving Fox News an “exclusive” to the event. The result was every bit as dystopian as you’d imagine. 

There was the Florida governor speaking directly to Fox & Friends, where he touted the bill as “the strongest election integrity measure in the country,” before taking pen to paper as a group behind him broke out in applause. Then, as if he had taken stage direction from former President Donald Trump, DeSantis held up the freshly signed legislation for all to behold.

Many observers on social media compared the stunt, which comes as DeSantis continues to attract 2024 presidential buzz, to state-sponsored television

NEW: News media is barred from entry at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of controversial elections bill, SB 90. DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske says bill signing is a “Fox exclusive” pic.twitter.com/NAos6kmtQS

— Steve Bousquet (@stevebousquet) May 6, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) just signed the state's new restrictive voting bill live on Fox News (after barring local press from the bill's signing). pic.twitter.com/hR2ZXooABy

— The Recount (@therecount) May 6, 2021

While offering a friendly news outlet exclusive access to a bill signing likely comes with few precedents, Florida’s voter suppression law was enacted against the backdrop of similar legislative initiatives in GOP states across the country, including Arkansas, Utah, and Wyoming, that have enacted extreme bills aimed at rolling back ballot access after Trump’s 2020 election loss. As my colleague Ari Berman reported, in addition to significantly restricting mail-in voting, Florida’s new law, like Georgia’s, bans the distribution of water and food to people in line to vote and includes measures likely to disqualify more ballots.

Florida’s voting rights advocates are already ramping up a fight. Shortly after Thursday’s signing ceremony, three civil rights groups launched a lawsuit against the new law, condemning it as an effort to make it substantially more difficult for minority voters and retirees to cast ballots.

Kushner Companies Violated Multiple Laws in Massive Tenant Dispute, Judge Rules

This story was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

It’s been six years since Dionne Mont first saw her apartment at Fontana Village, a rental housing complex just east of Baltimore. She was aghast that day to find the front door coming off its hinges, the kitchen cabinet doors stuck to their frames, mouse droppings under the kitchen sink, mold in the refrigerator, the toilet barely functioning and water stains on every upstairs ceiling, among other problems. But she had already signed the lease and paid the deposit.

Mont insisted that management make repairs, but that took several months, during which time she paid her $865 monthly rent and lived elsewhere. She was hit with constant late fees and so-called “court” fees, because the management company required tenants to pay rent at a Walmart or a check-cashing outlet, and she often couldn’t get there from her job as a bus driver before the 4:30 p.m. cutoff. She moved out in 2017.

Four years later, Mont has received belated vindication: On April 29, a Maryland judge ruled that the management company, which is owned by Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm, violated state consumer laws in several areas, including by not showing tenants the actual units they were going to be assigned to prior to signing a lease, and by assessing them all manner of dubious fees. The ruling came after a 31-day hearing in which about 100 of the company’s current and former tenants, including Mont, testified.

“I feel elated,” said Mont. “People were living in inhumane conditions—deplorable conditions.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh brought the consumer-protection case against Westminster Management, the property-management arm of Kushner Companies, in 2019 following a 2017 article by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine on the company’s treatment of its tenants at the 15 housing complexes it owned in the Baltimore area, which have served as profitable ballast for a company better known for its gleaming properties in New York. The article revealed the company’s aggressive pursuit of current and former tenants in court over unpaid rent and broken leases, even in cases where tenants were in the right, as well as the shoddy conditions of many units.

To build its case, the attorney general’s office subpoenaed records from the company and solicited testimony from current and former tenants, who provided it via remote video link to Administrative Law Judge Emily Daneker late last year.

In her 252-page ruling last week, which was first reported by the Baltimore Sun, Daneker determined that the company had issued a relentless barrage of questionable fees on tenants over the course of many years, including both the fees identified in the 2017 article and others as well. In more than 15,000 instances, Westminster charged in excess of the state-maximum $25 fee to process a rental application. In more than 28,000 instances, the company also assessed a $12 “agent fee” on court filings against tenants even though it had incurred no such cost with the courts—a tactic that Daneker called “spurious” and which brought the company more than $332,000 in fees. And in more than 2,600 instances, the Kushner operation assessed $80 court fees to tenants at its two complexes within the city of Baltimore, even though the charge from the courts was only $50. “The practice of passing court costs on to tenants, in the absence of a court order,” Daneker wrote, “was deceptive.”

The manifold fees suggested a deliberate strategy to run up tenants’ tabs, Daneker wrote, repeatedly calling the practices “widespread and numerous.” She concluded that “these circumstances do not support a finding that this was the result of isolated or inadvertent mistakes.”

Daneker also found that the company violated consumer law by failing to have the proper debt-collection licenses for some of its properties and by misrepresenting the condition of units being leased to tenants. However, she found that the attorney general’s office did not establish that the company violated the law in several other areas, such as by misrepresenting its ability to provide maintenance on units or in some of its calculations of late fees.

Kushner Companies, which has since sold some of the complexes and put others of them on the market, declined to be interviewed for this article. A statement from Kushner general counsel Christopher Smith suggested that the ruling amounted to a victory for the company, despite the judge’s many findings against it. “Kushner respects the thoughtful depth of the Judge’s decision, which vindicates Westminster with respect to many of the Attorney General’s overreaching allegations,” Smith said.

In previous statements, the company had alleged that Frosh, a Democrat, had brought the suit for political reasons, and was singling out the company owned by the then-president’s son-in-law for a host of practices that the company said were common in the multi-housing rental industry. In her ruling, Daneker stated that she found no evidence of an “improper selective prosecution” in the suit.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment, noting that the case is not yet final. Each side will next have the chance to file exceptions, as objections are known, that will be considered by the final arbiter in the consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office. The state’s lawyers will also propose restitution sums for tenants and a civil penalty. Once the consumer protection arbiter issues a ruling, both sides will have the right to challenge it in the state’s appeals courts.

Also awaiting resolution is a separate class-action lawsuit brought by tenants that alleges, among other things, that the company’s late fees exceeded state limits. A Court of Special Appeals judge has yet to issue a ruling following a January oral argument on the plaintiffs’ appeal of previous rulings against both their attempt to certify themselves as a class and against the substance of their claim regarding late fees.

Despite the drawn-out process, including a three-month delay because of the pandemic, former tenants took satisfaction in the first judicial affirmation of their accounts of improper treatment. Kelly Ziegler, an orthodontic assistant, lived for two years in Highland Village, just south of Baltimore. She also didn’t get to see her unit before she moved in, in 2015, and was confronted with a litany of problems: a leak from the tub into the kitchen, a loose bedroom window that she worried her young child might fall out of, and a roach infestation so bad that she couldn’t use her stove. After some neighbor kids rolled a tire into her yard to use as a swing, she was fined $250 with no warning. “They did a lot of petty stuff,” she said.

But when she asked to break her lease over the problems with the house, management warned her that they would take her to court. She finally got out of the lease in 2017.

When the attorney general’s office approached Ziegler over her case, she was eager to share her experience. But when she found out that the complex was owned by President Trump’s son-in-law, she started to worry she would face repercussions for speaking out. “It made me scared that I was doing something wrong. This is a person with power,” she said. She said that her grandmother tried to reassure her: “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Kushner has of course since left the White House and moved to Florida. Ziegler now lives with her family on a dead-end street in southwest Baltimore. It’s near a high-crime strip where, not long ago, a 17-year-old friend of her daughter was fatally shot. But Ziegler is still glad to be out of Highland Village, out of Kushner’s reach.

“I hope I don’t run into him,” she said.

Facebook Oversight Board Is “an Elaborate Public Relations Stunt”

In January, following the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, Facebook halted Donald Trump’s ability to post to Facebook and Instagram, and asked the company’s new Oversight Board to determine whether Trump’s ban should be made permanent. The board’s ruling came Wednesday—but a final decision on Trump’s status did not. Instead, the board pushed the question back onto Facebook: The ban will remain in place while Facebook deliberates.

The platform’s ostracizing of the former president brought its Oversight Board enormous attention. Facebook created the board to take on some of its trickiest content moderation decisions, wrote the board’s rules, and funded it through a trust. But it also limited the panel’s authority: Board members only consider individual content decisions, such as whether a given post should be removed, but cannot make broader changes to how Facebook operates.

For this reason, Facebook critics see the board as a clever distraction from the true problems plaguing the world’s largest social media company. The longer the public debates the board’s merits, they say, the less we pay attention to Facebook’s structural problems, including a business model based on outrage, surveillance capitalism, and anticompetitive practices. Even Trump is part of this elaborate side show, according to the company’s foes—a distraction from Facebook’s myriad issues.

I spoke with Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who in recent years has become one of the company’s most prominent critics and the author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, about the board’s decision, and what people should be minding instead. This conservation was edited for length and clarity.

What’s your quick take on the Oversight Board’s decision today?

I’m mostly focused on the fact that at a point in time when Facebook is the subject of a Texas antitrust case related to price fixing with Google, where an insurrection was actually organized on its platform, where Facebook’s own research and internal disclosures have suggested that people were radicalized into Qanon by the platform, where disinformation about COVID amplified on Facebook has undermined the nation’s response to a pandemic. We’re sitting here talking about the Oversight Board instead of talking about those issues. That is a huge win for Facebook.

I think of the Oversight Board as an elaborate public relations stunt. The controversies are essentially created to make the distraction more effective. As much as I’m sure they would rather have had the Oversight Board take the hit for this, better to buy another six months than have to put the Trump thing behind them, and then face whatever scrutiny they were going to get on those other issues.

So Facebook doesn’t mind that we get to have this same Trump conversation over and over for another six months?

Facebook is in the business of attention. They know more about the manipulation of human attention than just about any business on Earth. And once you recognize that the Oversight Board—in fact, frankly, all of their communication strategy—is really about attention, then everything makes sense, because suddenly you realize they’re like a magician. And they know how to draw your attention to the left hand, so you don’t see what the right hand is doing. And they’ve done that here.

To me, the Oversight Board’s decision to punt back to Facebook today reinforced that critique. Because it just kept us in this sort of like loop, talking about the same thing.

Rather than asking the question of should Donald Trump be reinstated to Facebook, a more useful question would be: Is there any way that Facebook can be made safe for democracy, public health, and self determination? And what would that look like?

Do you have an answer?

If we put this in the frame of how US policy and law work, there are three areas you have to look at. You have to look at safety. You have to look at privacy, which is really code for self-determination, And then you have to look at competition, which is antitrust.

Under safety, the issue is that the software industry has no standards. There’s no equivalent to the Hippocratic oath. There’s no requirement that engineers anticipate, much less mitigate, harm before shipping a product. And there’s no accountability for when they do, in fact, ship a harmful product. And so we have to fix that.

[On privacy] the place you start is by recognizing that all humans need a sanctuary, that constant surveillance is a terrible thing. And that it would be best if we agree that there were certain classes of data that should not be shared, things that are incredibly intimate. I think you start by banning that, and I think you then maybe have an opt-in rule for everything else.

And then, lastly, you have the competition stuff. That’s the place where our system of government is further along. We have now a bipartisan consensus that this industry needs to be regulated with antitrust laws.

To bring this back to Trump a bit, you’re saying that the Trump decision is just one little patch, while these broader problems persist? 

I think of Trump as one of the black holes of internet platforms. He just absorbed all the energy. But he was also more or less enabled by them.

Say Facebook decides to let Trump back on. What do you think are the consequences of that?

Our [political] system is in a very dangerous place right now, where the forces of right-wing extremism have political power greatly in excess of their numbers. And internet platforms have been central to enabling that. It all became really obvious with Trump’s election in 2016. I think it’s better that he’s not on. But how big a difference it makes I have no idea.

You can’t really ever know the counterfactual.

Forget counterfactual for a minute. The Republican Party’s refusal to acknowledge the outcome of the election is as extreme as it could possibly be. How different would things be if Trump were still on internet platforms? I mean, obviously, the quality of the platforms is slightly less toxic without him on there. I’m not sure that our politics could be any worse than they are right now.

Rep. Liz Cheney Lashes Out at Her Critical Colleagues

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) published a scathing opinion piece in the Washington Post Wednesday afternoon arguing that the Republican Party must either accept the results of the 2020 election and fully investigate the January 6 insurrection—or crumble. 

House Republicans are working to oust Cheney from party leadership because she refuses to accept the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says he’s concerned “about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair.” The party’s proposed replacement as House Republican Conference chair is Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), an unblinking Trump ally.

“The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution,” Cheney wrote in the Post. “The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have.”

Cheney argued that Republicans should support the Justice Department’s investigations into the events of January 6, encourage the formation of a bipartisan panel with subpoena power to convey facts about the insurrection to the public, and hold fast to “genuinely conservative principles” while avoiding “the dangerous and anti-democratic cult of personality.”

Still, Cheney’s estrangement from the rest of the Republican Party in no way makes her a progressive hero. After she repudiated Trump’s lies, she blasted “Black Lives Matter and antifa violence,” calling destruction of property during protests against police violence “illegal and reprehensible.”

One thing is certain: The GOP won’t succeed with its agenda “if Republicans choose to abandon the rule of law and join Trump’s crusade to undermine the foundation of our democracy and reverse the legal outcome of the last election.”

Read Cheney’s entire article here.

Judge Throws Out Nationwide Eviction Moratorium

On Wednesday, a federal judge invalidated the national eviction moratorium first enacted at the start of the pandemic and most recently extended by the Biden administration through the end of June. 

Though the moratorium has been challenged in a number of courts, the ruling from Judge Dabney Friedrich of the US District Court for the District of Columbia is the first to nullify the moratorium on a nationwide basis. Friedrich wrote in his decision that the Public Health Service Act—which the Centers for Disease Control cited to issue its original moratorium—does not give the agency authority to implement an eviction freeze as a national health measure. 

“Because the plain language of the Public Health Service Act unambiguously forecloses the nationwide eviction moratorium, the Court must set aside the CDC Order,” wrote Friedrich, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump .

The case was filed by a group of realtors from Alabama and Georgia, who said that the eviction moratorium was causing landlords like their association members to lose billions in unpaid rent.

According to the most recently available census data from April, at least 6.9 million households—and likely millions more—are currently behind on rent. These households are disproportionately Black and Latino, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The eviction moratorium has helped millions of these renters stay in their homes if they’re facing economic hardship during the pandemic. The latest stimulus package, passed by Congress in early March, allocates $45 billion in rental assistance. Biden’s CDC extended the moratorium through the end of June, in part to leave time to roll out these rent relief dollars. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House has said it will weigh in on the ruling and what this could mean for renters later on Wednesday.

Facebook Made Sure Its Oversight Board Couldn’t Give Too Much Oversight

Facebook’s Oversight Board was never set up to succeed. The premise was that a group of experts, handpicked by Facebook last year and paid by the company, could provide independent accountability for the platform as it faced torrents of criticism for controversial moderation decisions. 

To the board’s credit, in its written decision that will at least temporarily keep Trump off Facebook, it put pressure on the company by openly criticizing it for making “up the rules as it goes” and raising the issue of the company’s potential “excessive concentration of power,” among other concerns.

The decision also spotlighted a detail that suggests Facebook wasn’t too interested in keeping up the charade that its para-judiciary wing has meaningful power over the company. The board noted that it asked Facebook 46 questions—and that the company outright declined to answer seven of them. It only partially answered others about “how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts.”

In other words, when the board pressed Facebook for details on how its own decisions may have played a role in laying the ground for the Capitol Hill riot, Facebook said no. That’s the case even though there’s evidence Facebook’s own actions actually played a pretty big role.

The deadly attack and Trump’s hand in sparking it was the inciting action that ultimately spurred Facebook to suspend Trump. While Facebook did not itself cause the riots, its platform became a tool for it. Immediately after the election, the Stop the Steal groups that eventually showed up outside the Capitol on January 6  popped up in waves on Facebook and persisted there despite the company’s promise to get rid of them for pushing dangerous and false claims about the outcome of the 2020 vote. Users posted detailed maps of the Capitol on Facebook-owned Instagram, and spread digital flyers for “Operation Occupy the Capitol.”

Facebook own role, as both a tool for insurrectionist rioters and for Trump to encourage their efforts, is essential in helping determine, as is the Oversight Board’s own stated purpose, “if [moderation] decisions were made in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies.”

Many critics have assailed the board as having been designed as an elaborate PR vehicle that takes heat off Facebook’s executives by putting an extra institution between it and difficult moderation decisions. When Facebook dodges important questions posed by the boards, it’s all but admitting that’s the case.

Facebook Oversight Board Punts on Chance to Take a Stand on Trump

Former President Donald Trump cannot resume posting to Facebook and Instagram, following a long-awaited decision by Facebook’s new Oversight Board. But the board, formed and appointed by Facebook itself, asked Facebook to make the ultimate decision on whether to let Trump back on the platform, ceding back full control to the company over a content moderation process that’s been accused of undermining democracy and civil rights.

Facebook indefinitely halted Trump’s ability to post content after he incited the violent January 6 attack on the US Capitol, including through his posts to the platform. It then asked the Oversight Board to review that decision. On Wednesday, the Board upheld the suspension but punted on the issue of whether to make that suspension permanent, sending the decision back to Facebook and leaving open the possibility that Trump will return to the platform later this year.

The board found that Trump’s posts on January 6 praising the rioters “severely violated” Facebook’s rules against praise for people engaged in violence. It also found that Trump’s many false posts about election fraud leading up to January 6 “created an environment where a serious risk of violence was possible.”

But it did not conclude that this dangerous situation should result in a permanent ban. Instead, it argued that Trump’s indefinite suspension did not follow the company’s rules, which include both temporary suspensions and permanent bans—not indefinite ones.

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board stated. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” The board gave Facebook six months to determine Trump’s punishment. In response, Facebook agreed to reconsider Trump’s ban.

The decision to send the ultimate decision back to Facebook simply lengthens what many of Facebook’s critics believe is ultimately a sideshow: an important case that sucks up all the attention while Facebook continues to host and spread dangerous, destabilizing content around the world. 

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” the board stated.

“This is a distraction from the fact that Facebook on a repeated basis is letting tons of other liars and haters run rampant on its site,” Jessica González, co-CEO of the digital rights group Free Press and a critic of Facebook and the Oversight Board, said on Tuesday as she awaited the board’s decision. “I’m frankly offended that we have to spend so much time on this sideshow. It’s an important sideshow because Trump shouldn’t go back up, but it’s a sideshow.” Now, that sideshow will continue at least another six months.

A group called the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a coalition of Facebook critics that called for Trump to remain off the platform, said in a statement that Wednesday’s decision proves the uselessness of the board. “This muddled ruling…reveals the Oversight Board as an empty suit…which took nearly four months to reach a partial ruling that does nothing to fundamentally challenge Facebook’s business model or approach to content,” the group said in a statement.

The result is also a letdown for civil rights advocates who continue to fear Trump’s return to the platform. “We are extremely concerned that the Board’s decision leaves the door open for Facebook to let Trump back on the platform in six months—an unacceptable and dangerous outcome,” Madihha Ahussain, Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, said in a statement. “Letting Donald Trump back on Facebook will hurt Muslims. Donald Trump has used Facebook to spread hate and conspiracies about Muslims and immigrants and to amplify anti-Muslim white nationalists.”

The board issued several recommendations urging Facebook to better police dangerous content from world leaders and other influential Facebook users, but it’s up to Facebook whether to adopt those recommendations. This again reinforces the fact that this case has taken up four months of media attention without anything concrete actually happening and raises questions about why such a consequential decision for the entire globe placed on the board’s shoulders.

Facebook created the Oversight Board in an attempt to shift a handful of content moderation questions onto an outside body. It began issuing its first decisions in January. Paid for by Facebook through a trust, the board has become an object of obsession and debate, an experiment in corporate self-regulation, and a de facto free speech arbiter of the internet. To Facebook’s critics, this is a problem: The board is a distraction from Facebook’s own failings and lacks the power to reform the company. The Trump decision is a consequential example of this—a point exacerbated by the board’s unwillingness to make a final ruling Wednesday.

“This is a distraction from the fact that Facebook on a repeated basis is letting tons of other liars and haters run rampant on its site.”

Many of the board’s current members are lawyers and human rights experts from around the world. It’s an august body to decide what in many ways is a simple situation. “In the instance of Trump, it’s not a hard case,” says González. “One in four of his posts last year contained either extremist content or outright lies [according to an analysis by left-leaning watchdog Media Matters]. So clearly, in regular violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service, if he was anyone other than a world leader, he would have been off the platform long ago.”

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want to boot Trump. For years, Facebook looked the other way, made excuses for the president, and even changed its policies to accommodate him. In 2019, Facebook announced that it would now include politicians’ posts and ads under its “newsworthiness” policy, exempting them from independent fact-checking. The idea, shared by some free speech advocates, was that people should hear what politicians have to say, and that Facebook shouldn’t be in the business of silencing political leaders. Yet the policy had the perverse effect of letting the most powerful people post some of the most dangerous content—and that in itself, civil rights advocates have argued, is a perversion of free speech as a protection from those in power, not a means to protect the powerful.

By ultimately passing Trump’s fate on the platform off to the Oversight Board, Facebook tried to offload a problem that it had created—and not just by allowing Trump to stay on the platform with little consequence until January 6. As Facebook’s critics point out, a business model of growth at any cost had led to the spread of extremism on the platform. Its policy decisions and algorithms, aimed at increasing engagement, have caused people to see more extreme content in their feeds, and in many cases pushed users into extremist groups. All of this contributes to Trump’s toxicity on the platform, yet none of it is within the Oversight Board’s purview. 

In fact, the board stated in its decision that Facebook had refused to answer several questions that would shed critical light on the company’s own culpability for the January 6 riot and its role in amplifying Trump’s dangerous messages. “The questions that Facebook did not answer included questions about how Facebook’s news feed and other features impacted the visibility of Mr. Trump’s content; whether Facebook has researched, or plans to research, those design decisions in relation to the events of January 6, 2021; and information about violating content from followers of Mr. Trump’s accounts,” the decision states.

For years, Trump used Facebook to malign Muslims and immigrants, threaten Black Lives Matter protesters with violence, spread anti-Asian hate, promote disinformation about the COVID-19, and finally destabilize faith in US elections in an attempt to overturn his electoral loss and stay in power. Repeatedly, the culmination of his rhetoric on and off of social media has been violence—including the attempted coup at the Capitol. Despite apprehension about corporate censorship, this history led many scholars and advocates to argue that keeping Trump off the platform is the only responsible way forward. Lifting Trump’s ban “set a precedent of valuing political elites’ expression over the right of the public to self-govern,” media scholars Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor warned recently in Wired. 

“The board puts a really heavy focus on forward-looking, prospective likelihood of future harm,” says David Brody, senior counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and leads its Digital Justice Initiative, reflecting on the board’s decision. “A ban on trump has to evaluate the full scope of the harms he has caused, and the hate and racism that he has promoted. It can’t just be, ‘OK, we put you in timeout, don’t do it again.”

But the board ultimately punted that decision back to Facebook—and Facebook will do what it wants, and what is best for its bottom line.

Facebook Oversight Board Will Not Restore Donald Trump Back on the Platform

Facebook’s Oversight Board, the independent panel charged with making final content moderation decisions, is upholding the company’s decision to keep Donald Trump off of the social media platform. But the decision to ban Trump without a set timeline, the panel ruled, was not appropriate. The board is recommending the company review the issue once again within six months.

The closely watched announcement on Wednesday comes after Facebook decided to temporarily ban Trump in the immediate wake of the January 6 Capitol insurrection, later tasking the board with making a ruling on whether to restore the former president down the road.

“The Board has upheld Facebook’s decision on January 7, 2021, to restrict then-President Donald Trump’s access to posting content on his Facebook page and Instagram account,” the panel wrote in a statement

“However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension,” adding that, “the Board insists that Facebook review this matter to determine and justify a proportionate response.”

As my colleague Pema Levy wrote, the decision marks a critical moment for the social media giant, which has faced years of intense criticism over its refusal to clamp down on disinformation and harmful content, particularly during the Trump era. In 2018, amid growing calls for government regulation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered the Oversight Board as a potential alternative. But serious questions over its independence and utility loom:

While the company has touted it as an independent body that will make final content moderation decisions, thus far, the board has only decided a handful of cases, and concerns about its true independence remain. The outcome of the Trump case could either help build the body’s reputation among academics and civil and human rights advocates as a valuable shield against harmful content—or dash hopes, both in the board and in Facebook’s broader future as an ally of democracy and enemy of hate.

This is a breaking news post. We’ll have more on Facebook’s announcement shortly.

“Queen Sugar” Author Natalie Baszile on How Black Farmers Can Help Save the Planet

Natalie Baszile knew she was onto something when she got the call from Oprah’s people. A novelist and food justice activist, Baszile had been working for years on a semi-autobiographical novel about a Los Angeles-based Black woman who is unexpectedly faced with reviving an inherited family farm in Louisiana. The book became Queen Sugar, which was published in 2014 and, with Oprah’s backing, later debuted as a TV series on OWN in 2016. American audiences were getting an intimate glimpse into how reverse migration was reshaping Black life in America.

Now, in a new anthology, Baszile is broadening her scope. In We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Baszile offers up a carefully curated collection of essays and interviews that get to the heart of why Black people’s connection to the land matters. Mother Jones food and agriculture correspondent Tom Philpott recently published an investigation called “Black Land Matters,” which explores how access to land has exacerbated the racial wealth gap in America. The story also takes a look at a younger generation of Black people who have begun to reclaim farming and the land on which their ancestors once toiled.

In this discussion on the Mother Jones Podcast, host Jamilah King talks with Baszile about how this new generation of Black farmers is actually tapping into wisdom that’s much older than they might have imagined.

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