Vox

29 Jan. 2023
In a navy suit, white shirt, and red tie, Trump speaks emphatically into a microphone behind a podium bearing his last name. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Henry McMaster, and other South Carolina politicians applaud behind him.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a January 28 campaign event in Columbia, South Carolina. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump tried cast himself as both a great Republican leader and the ultimate outsider.

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The South Carolina statehouse’s second floor is a study in profound historical contradictions. A full plaque engraved with the state’s resolution seceding from the Union in 1860 faces a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune. A statue of John C. Calhoun stands feet away from where Nikki Haley announced that Tim Scott would be the first Black senator since Reconstruction and where she, years later, finally removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

It’s also the place where Donald Trump tried to brand himself as both an incumbent and an insurgent while being neither.

In the first public event since he announced his 2024 presidential campaign, the former president struggled to achieve the synthesis of the anti-establishment impulses that helped him capture the presidency in 2016 or the air of total control and inevitability that led him to avoid any serious primary challenge in 2020 despite colossal midterm losses — and the first of what would be two impeachments.

Introducing Trump, first-term Rep. Russell Fry declared, “Never before in the history of the South Carolina primary has a presidential candidate received this much support this early in the day.”

More than a year before the primary, Trump unveiled the backing of the state’s governor, lieutenant governor, senior senator, and three of its six Republican members of Congress. It would be an astonishing lineup of endorsements for an insurgent candidate. When Trump was endorsed by then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster in 2016, that alone made national headlines. But Trump is no longer a political outsider: He is a former president. If he went to any state before his 2020 reelection bid where half of the congressional delegation didn’t show up, he would be viewed as weak.

The question is how to interpret just what the former president’s political strength is right now. No defeated former president has mounted a comeback bid since Grover Cleveland, who was controversial for his support for lower tariffs as opposed to, say, inspiring an attack on the US Capitol in an effort to overturn a presidential election. Other Republicans, of course, see Trump as vulnerable. It was pointed how he appeared in a space with such political significance to potential rivals like Nikki Haley or Tim Scott and while other potential rivals like Ron DeSantis sniff around.

Joe Wilson, a longtime Republican Congress member in the state, told Vox that Trump was “much stronger” than he was in 2016 when he faced his last competitive primary election in the Palmetto State. Wilson, who was supporting Trump, thought that the former president had “a real leg up” based on his record in the White House and cited what “he did for our country for jobs, for economic development, for national security, for the military, to the courts.”

The challenge is whether Trump can recapture the magic that helped propel his unprecedented 2016 presidential campaign this time around. His speech was a familiar mix of bellicose rhetoric off a teleprompter and an array of Trumpian riffs where he informed attendees about topics like the Taliban’s treatment of dogs and the fact that he, a millionaire real estate developer, is not much of a cook.

It also laid bare the contradictions facing his campaign. He started off with a denunciation of “RINOs” while standing next to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a comparative moderate in the modern Republican Party — the sort of Republican Trumps needs to win the nomination again. Graham was later heckled by the crowd because he did not accept Trump’s false claims about the 2020 elections. Trump went on to denounce electric cars next to McMaster, who has pushed for South Carolina’s automotive industry to become a center of EV manufacturing.

Earlier in the day, Trump spoke at the New Hampshire state GOP convention. There, the former president tried to reinforce his commitment to the race after not campaigning publicly for months, telling the crowd, “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was,” in the course of a Trump stemwinder of the type the former president often delivered in 2016.

The question is just how committed he will be in the course of the nearly two years remaining in the 2024 campaign. The former president is no longer the television personality who can lob bombs freely at all comers ranging from elected officials to Rosie O’Donnell based on his moods and the promise that his much-touted real estate expertise can solve all problems.

But he also isn’t the all-powerful president of the United States with all the resources that provides. Trump is caught in a middle ground without any measuring stick to gauge how he’s doing or precedent to put him in perspective. Instead, he has to navigate a maze of contradictions where it’s hard to tell just what Trump is or how he fits in — save, of course, the fact that no one is confusing him with Grover Cleveland.

28 Jan. 2023
A huddled group of mostly Black faces, some partially hidden by hats and scarves, are lit by candlelight. The Black woman at the center of the photo holds a candle near her face, which seems drawn with grief. The expressions on the faces surrounding her, seen dimly though the gloom, match hers.
People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Five Memphis police officers are facing murder charges over Nichols’s death.

Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died earlier this month after he was pulled over by Memphis police who violently beat him for three minutes, an incident shown in footage that was released Friday.

Lawyers for the Nichols family said in a press conference Monday that Nichols had been treated like a “human piñata.” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a video statement Thursday that the attack was “heinous, reckless, and inhumane.” Protests, most of them peaceful, sprang up across the country on Friday after the city of Memphis released video footage of Nichols’s brutal assault.

Five Black officers for the Memphis Police Department — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith — were fired after an internal departmental investigation found them to be “directly responsible” for the beating. They also were found to have violated departmental policies regarding excessive force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced Thursday that each would face charges of “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, two charges of aggravated kidnapping, two charges of official misconduct, and one charge of official oppression.” They could each face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charges alone.

Two Memphis Fire Department workers who were involved in Nichols’s initial care have been “relieved of duty,” according to the department. It’s not clear whether they could also face charges.

The US attorney for the Western District of Tennessee also announced that there is an open civil rights investigation into Nichols’s death, which could result in federal criminal charges.

Police stopped Nichols for reckless driving on January 7. Memphis’s police chief later told CNN that investigators have “been unable to substantiate” the claim that Nichols was driving recklessly, however. Nichols expressed confusion about the stop, saying in the footage that he was “just trying to go home.”

The officers who initially stopped him responded by threatening to “knock your ass the fuck out,” and to break his bones. Nichols fled from the stop; once he was caught, those threats were carried out. Officers encircled Nichols, and repeatedly punched, kicked, and hit him with a baton — sometimes while he was restrained on the ground.

He was taken to a hospital after his arrest, where he died three days later of injuries sustained in the beating.

Memphis’s special police unit turns deadly

It’s not the first time that police have turned a traffic stop into a deadly altercation. Deaths like Nichols’s are all too common, especially for Black Americans, who nearly every available study shows are stopped more often than white Americans.

As Lauren Bonds, the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, told Vox in an interview Friday, “so many of the high-profile police killings that we’ve seen in recent years have started out as a traffic stop — started out as an expired tag, reckless driving, fines or warrants due.”

“One thing I’d say about the murder of Tyre in particular is that these officers were all part of a specific unit that was essentially designed to engage in, more or less, broken-windows policing, enforcing low-level offenses in order to identify higher-level crimes,” Bonds said.

The unit that Bonds referred to is called SCORPION, or the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods; it was founded in 2021, ostensibly to address violent street crime in Memphis by flooding high-crime areas with officers from the hand-picked special unit. In 2021, according to the New York Times, Memphis had 346 homicides; in September, the city was on edge after a teacher was abducted and murdered, and days later a gunman shot and killed four people.

Officers from the SCORPION Unit — 40 in total, according to the Washington Post — were trained to use routine traffic stops as opportunities to find and arrest people for more serious offenses.

Ben Crump, an attorney for Nichols’s family, indicated the unit has had previous issues with excessive use of force. “We believe that this was a pattern and practice and that Tyre is dead because this pattern and practice went unchecked,” Crump said, according to the Washington Post.

On Saturday, the Memphis Police Department announced that it had disbanded its SCORPION unit, which had previously been suspended after Nichols was beaten by officers in the unit.

The fact that both Nichols and the officers accused of his murder are Black isn’t unusual, either in Memphis or in other incidents of police brutality. Memphis is “a pretty Black city,” Bonds said; both the city and its police department are majority Black, and the department is led by a Black chief of police.

Ultimately, Bonds said, the race of those carrying out the violence is incidental.

“It’s systemic, and it’s ultimately state violence, which doesn’t really have a color except for the color of the people who are in power in this country,” she said. “So to say that there are no racial implications because there’s a Black victim and Black officers involved is a really myopic way of looking at the problem.”

Comprehensive data on police brutality is lacking, particularly when it comes to looking at violence other than shootings and information broken out by race, William Sousa, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the Los Angeles Times. But available information indicates there hasn’t been meaningful change in police violence since the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.

Still, Bonds noted, prosecutors are more likely to bring cases against police officers involved in civilian killings since Floyd’s murder, which sparked a national protest movement, and there have been recent high-profile convictions, like Chauvin’s.

Why traffic stops can be dangerous for Black Americans

Black Americans are often taught — at home, through personal experience, and by the news — to see encounters with police, particularly traffic stops, as dangerous, if not potentially fatal.

The deaths of Americans like Nichols, or Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, and Rayshard Brooks, validate that teaching. But it’s not just Black civilians who learn to fear traffic stops. As University of Arizona law professor Jordan Blair Woods wrote for the Michigan Law Review, police are taught to view stops as dangerous as well — not for those they’re stopping, but for themselves and their colleagues.

“Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” Woods wrote.

That training belies the fact that police officers are rarely injured in traffic stops. In Woods’s analysis of Florida traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014, the professor finds police had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured. Overall, more than 98 percent of stops saw zero or minor injury to officers.

Data in other states mirrors Woods’s findings. In their book Suspect Citizens, UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner, University of Texas government professor Derek A. Epp, and University of South Carolina political science professor Kelsey Shoub found that North Carolina “officers encountered violence about 24,000 times, or just over once per 1,000 stops.” When someone was injured at a stop, it was usually the person being stopped, the authors found.

Complicating matters for Black individuals is that the data suggests they’re stopped more often than white people — in some localities, by a large margin. The Stanford Open Policing Project, a database of more than 200 million traffic stops, found that in St. Paul, Black drivers are a little over three times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over; in San Jose, California, Black drivers are six times more likely to be stopped.

Arguably, drivers of all races ought to be stopped at about the same rate — anyone of any race or gender could engage in the reckless driving Nichols was allegedly stopped for. This has led to a number of researchers trying to understand the disparity in who is stopped. In general, their results suggest that the issue has to do with officer bias, conscious or unconscious, that casts Black people as inherently more dangerous than their white counterparts.

Tied to this idea is the question of what stops are for. As a group of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College researchers led by Baumgartner wrote in a 2017 paper, in many departments, traffic stops are meant to serve a dual purpose: to deter illegal behavior and as a chance for officers to investigative past or potential crimes. In many ways, this system is akin to stop-and-frisk, a practice most prominently used in New York City that was meant to uncover criminal behavior through street searches. The program was ruled unconstitutional.

As Baumgartner wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking. When officers are serving these broader goals, they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.”

If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem. When a Black driver is stopped, the interaction is more likely to begin with the officer even more on guard for trouble than they might otherwise be.

This can lead to the kind of rapid escalation seen in Nichols’s case, in which officers ended the stop through violence. Some officers favor beginning with violence, perhaps out of fear, like during the encounter that ended George Floyd’s life. Body camera footage released during Chauvin’s trial, for example, shows an officer drawing his weapon shortly after approaching Floyd’s vehicle and yelling at him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.”

These tactics, as well as the fear and bias that fuel them, put Black drivers in mortal danger. Law enforcement representatives have argued the stops are necessary — “we find drugs, evidence of other crimes ... it’s a very valuable tool,” Kevin Lawrence, the Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive director, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2020 — but those discoveries are rare. Nationally, about 4 percent of stops resulted in searches or arrests in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This has a number of activists and elected officials questioning whether the risks traffic stops pose to drivers — particularly Black drivers — are worth such a small number of arrests.

Is there hope for meaningful change?

Politicians both on the national and local levels have expressed sadness and outrage over Nichols’s death. President Joe Biden called Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, and his stepfather, Rodney Wells, on Friday to express his condolences, and Vice President Kamala Harris urged Congress in a statement to “act with urgency and pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. To truly honor Tyre Nichols’s memory, and the memory of so many others before him, we must demand that our justice system lives up to its name.”

A version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in 2021 before dying in the Senate; the bill would have ended qualified immunity for police officers, among a raft of other reforms.

Crump, one of the attorneys for Nichols’s family, put out a statement Wednesday calling for better data on police use of force in SCORPION and similar special units, insisting on “reform, transparency, and better oversight of these ‘saturation’ units, or for their removal as a tactic in American policing.”

He also called for the introduction of “Tyre’s Law,” which would create a “duty to intervene” for police who witness crimes being committed.

Some police departments have also taken steps to address inequitable and sometimes deadly traffic stops. Berkeley, California, for instance, approved a plan in 2021 to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety; Oakland has a similar policy in place. Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have contemplated such measures as well. Washington, DC, stripped its police department of some of its authority to regulate traffic laws in 2019, empowering its transportation department to do enforcement instead. New York’s attorney general has recommended New York City make a similar change, and in 2022, New York City police announced they’d no longer use stops to randomly check for open warrants.

The long-term effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. But they represent a small step away from the kind of policing that left Nichols, and so many before him, dead.

Update, January 28, 5:20 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 27 and has been updated with additional context from released video footage and the death of Tyre Nichols.

28 Jan. 2023
A demonstrator holds a sign reading “Abolition NOW!” at a protest over the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee.
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Body camera footage shows Memphis police viciously beating Nichols, who died three days later.

Video of five Memphis police officers punching and kicking Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after police escalated a traffic stop on January 7 into a brutal beating, was released on Friday by the city of Memphis. Multiple video clips show police kicking Nichols in the head, beating him with a baton, and punching him while restraining him — ultimately resulting in his death at St. Francis Hospital on January 10.

The city released the video — more than an hour of total footage between four clips — at 7 pm Eastern time on Friday. Three of the clips are taken from body cameras and include sound, while one silent clip comes from a light pole camera.

Though one of the videos shows the moments preceding the beatings, the videos do not show Nichols driving erratically, the reason police gave for pulling him over in the first place. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis later told NBC that her department couldn’t substantiate that claim.

The five police officers, all of whom are Black and all of whom have been fired, were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression on Thursday; if found guilty, they each face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charge alone.

Officers say that they did not film the initial encounter with Nichols, and the footage begins after an officer has already pulled Nichols out of his car and backup is arriving at the scene. The officers appear to Taser Nichols, at which point he frees himself and runs from the officers. After a brief chase, officers pepper-spray Nichols before beating him.

All five officers belonged to the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Unit, which was created in 2021 and designed to saturate high-crime areas with police officers; the unit’s name is short for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The program has been suspended in the wake of Nichols’s death, the Washington Post reports.

The disturbing video footage at times shows officers restraining Nichols as an officer kicks him in the upper body and head, beating him with a police baton, and punching him. At points, Nichols staggers or attempts to stand and screams for his mother. In one video, an officer says he’s going to “baton the fuck out” of Nichols; video footage also shows officers speculating that Nichols was high during the encounter. No drugs were found in Nichols’s car, according to an officer on the scene, and police claims that Nichols reached for one of the officers’ guns as he attempted to run away are also not supported by the video evidence.

An initial police statement from January 8 describes the beating only as a “confrontation” and does not mention the violence Nichols suffered at the hands of police, but does include the details that the officers involved were relieved of duty and that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was handling the case.

One video also shows Nichols waiting more than 20 minutes to be transported to a nearby hospital, slumped over and propped up beside a police car. According to an autopsy report, Nichols “suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”

Protests — mostly peaceful, as Nichols’s mother RowVaughn Wells and stepfather Rodney Wells requested — sprang up in cities across the country after the videos were released. “I don’t want us burning up cities, tearing up our streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” Nichols’s mother said Thursday in anticipation of the footage being made public, according to NPR. In Memphis, protesters shut down the I-55 bridge, which connects Memphis and West Memphis and crosses the Mississippi River.

In addition to his mother and stepfather, Nichols leaves behind a 4-year-old son, as well as a community of skateboarders and friends in his native Sacramento. Nichols was an avid photographer, the Associated Press reports; on the evening he was stopped and beaten by police, Nichols was driving home from photographing the sky at a local park. Nichols came to Memphis on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic and ended up staying with his mother and stepfather; he was less than 100 yards from home when he was fatally beaten by police.

Nichols can be heard in the video attempting to deescalate the situation and return to his family’s house, telling officers, “I’m just trying to go home.”

28 Jan. 2023
Protesters stand holding signs about climate change in front of a building.
A group of activists protest the World Economic Forum (WEF) at its closing in Davos, Switzerland, on January 20, 2023. | Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The concept of “polycrisis” was everywhere in Davos. But is it saying anything meaningful?

There is nothing that Davos loves more than a good buzzword, and in 2023 that buzzword was “polycrisis.”

The folks at this year’s World Economic Forum adopted the term after historian Adam Tooze popularized it in his inaugural Financial Times column last year. At its annual meeting last week, the WEF released its “Global Risks Report 2023,” warning that “eroding geopolitical cooperation will have ripple effects across the global risks landscape over the medium term, including contributing to a potential polycrisis of interrelated environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks relating to the supply of and demand for natural resources.”

This warning generated a lot of hand-wringing on the narrow streets of Davos. Little wonder — a “polycrisis” sounds pretty bad! But it also sounds to some like a confusing and redundant neologism. In the opening Davos panel, historian Niall Ferguson rejected the term, explaining it as “just history happening.” In a bit of hot FT-on-FT action, columnist Gideon Rachman characterized polycrisis as one of his least favorite terms, asking, “Does it actually mean anything?”

As someone who has written a book about zombie apocalypses and taught a course about the end of the world, I have a smidgen more sympathy for the polycrisis concept. I think its proponents are trying to get at something more than just history happening. They are putting a name to the belief that a more interconnected, complex world is vulnerable to an interconnected, complex global catastrophe.

That is a legitimate concern. Just because the concept of a polycrisis is real, however, does not mean that the logic behind a polycrisis is ironclad. Some of it echoes 1970s concerns about resource depletion combined with an increasing population — in other words, neo-Malthusianism gussied up to sound fancy. A lot more of it can be reduced to concerns about climate change, which are real but not poly-anything. Those warnings about a polycrisis might be well-intentioned, but they also assume the existence of powerful negative feedback effects that may not actually exist.

The future will not be crisis-free by any stretch of the imagination — but the notion of a polycrisis might do more harm than good in attempting to get a grip on the systemic risks that threaten humanity.

The history of the idea of the polycrisis

As with many buzzwords foretelling despair, the origins of polycrisis can be blamed on the French.

In their 1999 book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium, French complexity theorist Edgar Morin and his co-author Anne Brigitte Kern warned of the “complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet.” Other academics began using the term in a similar way. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker adopted the term to characterize the cluster of negative shocks triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.

So far, so redundant — none of these initial references really seem to mean much beyond “A Big, Bad Catastrophe.” Tooze’s initial column and Substack post, however, referenced the work of political scientists Michael Lawrence, Scott Janzwood, and Thomas Homer-Dixon. They work at the Cascade Institute, a Canadian research center focusing on emergent and systemic risks. In a 2022 working paper, they provide the fullest etymology of “polycrisis” and what they mean by it.

So what the hell is a polycrisis? The quick-and-dirty answer is that it’s the concatenation of shocks that generate crises that trigger crises in other systems that, in turn, worsen the initial crises, making the combined effect far, far worse than the sum of its parts.

The longer answer requires some familiarity with how complex systems work. Complex systems can range from a nuclear power plant to Earth’s ecosystem. In tightly wound and complex systems, not even experts can be entirely sure how the inner workings of the system will respond to stresses and shocks. Those who study systemic and catastrophic risks have long been aware that crises in these systems are often endogenous — i.e., they often bubble up from within the system’s inscrutable internal workings.

For example, when Lehman Brothers declared Chapter 11 in September 2008, few observers understood that Lehman’s bankruptcy would cause panic in money market funds. That was a relatively risk-free asset class seemingly far removed from the subprime mortgage debt that felled Lehman.

Except the Reserve Primary Fund, the oldest money market fund in the country, had invested some of its assets at Lehman, which had enabled it to offer a slightly higher rate of return. With those investments frozen by Lehman’s bankruptcy, the Reserve Primary Fund had to “break the buck” and price its fund below a dollar — hitherto unthinkable for a fund that was seen as pretty secure. That caused credit markets everywhere to seize up, and the Great Recession unfolded. The crisis cascaded so quickly that it was impossible for regulators and central banks to get out in front of the disaster wave.

The folks who warn about a polycrisis argue that it is not just components within a single system that are tightly interconnected. It is the systems themselves — health, geopolitics, the environment — that are increasingly interacting and tightly coupled. Therefore, if one system malfunctions, the crisis might trigger other systems to fail, leading to catastrophic negative feedback effects across multiple systems and affecting the entire world. Or, as Lawrence, Janzwood, and Homer-Dixon put it in their paper:

The core concern of the concept is that a crisis in one global system has knock-on effects that cascade (or spill over) into other global systems, creating or worsening crises there. Global crises happen less and less in isolation; they interact with one another so that one crisis makes a second more likely and deepens their overall harms. The polycrisis concept thus highlights the causal interaction of crises across global systems.

Think of rising commodity prices triggering the Arab Spring in 2010. Or think of the vicissitudes of the Covid-19 pandemic helping to trigger both the stresses in global supply chains and social dysfunction. These are examples of one systemic crisis generating another systemic crisis. Imagine all the myriad crises that climate change can trigger — from food scarcity to new pandemics to a surge in migration. The Cascade Institute paper defines a polycrisis as when three or more systems wind up being in crisis at the same time.

Given all the interconnections in the current moment, a polycrisis is not hard to conceive. To contemplate it is to be overwhelmed by catastrophic possibilities. Here, look at Tooze’s chart:

Or look at the World Economic Forum’s similar chart:

Or, if you prefer sci-fi narratives as a means to better comprehension, watch this clip from Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral, which talks about a cluster of events called “The Jackpot” in a way that sounds awfully similar to a polycrisis.

How real is the polycrisis?

Take a second now and consider all the shocks that have buffeted you, dear reader, in the past few years alone.

There is the largest land war in Europe in recent memory, a devastating pandemic, the surge in refugee flows, high inflation, fragile global governance, and the leading democracies turning inward as they face populist challenges at home. It seems easy — and enervating — to believe that the polycrisis is upon us.

The thing about the previous paragraph is that it does not just describe the current moment; it also captures the global situation almost exactly a century ago. The First World War devastated Europe. The war also helped to facilitate the spread of the influenza pandemic through troop movements and information censorship. The costs of both the war and the pandemic badly weakened the postwar order, leading to spikes in hyperinflation, illiberal ideologies, and democracies that turned inward. All of that transpired during the start of the Roaring ’20s; the world turned much darker a decade later.

So maybe Niall Ferguson has a point; what some are calling a polycrisis could just be history rhyming with itself.

Those warning about a polycrisis vigorously dispute this. They argue that the growing synchronization and interconnectivity of systemic risks increases the chance of a polycrisis. As one recent New York Times op-ed co-authored by Homer-Dixon explained, “complex and largely unrecognized causal links among the world’s economic, social and ecological systems may be causing many risks to go critical at nearly the same time.”

These concerns are borderline Malthusian. Thomas Malthus famously warned that the human population would exponentially outstrip mankind’s capacity to grow food. This proved to be spectacularly wrong, but the power of Malthusian logic remains. Neo-Malthusians are less concerned about food specifically and more about human civilization outstripping other necessary resources.

In the same op-ed, Homer-Dixon and co-author Johan Rockström worry that “the magnitude of humanity’s resource consumption and pollution output is weakening the resilience of natural systems.” The WEF report ranked a “cost-of-living crisis” as the most severe global risk over the next two years.

Concerns about climate change should not be minimized. At the same time, there are ways in which the notion of a polycrisis obfuscates more than it reveals.

Looking at the charts above makes it seem as though little can be done to prevent a polycrisis. Indeed, the Cascade Institute paper is written as though the polycrisis has already happened.

This sort of framing is bound to generate a sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming complexity and crisis. In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman warned about the “futility thesis” — the rejection of preventive action due to a fatalistic belief that it is simply too late.

It is far from obvious that there will be a polycrisis (let alone that we’re already in one). As the economist Noah Smith pointed out in his rejoinder to Tooze, its proponents underestimate how much “the global economy and political system are full of mechanisms that push back against shocks.” Indeed, for all the concerns that have been voiced over the past two years about global supply chain stresses and rampant inflation, both of those trends appear to have reversed themselves quite nicely. Complaints about scarce container ships and computer chips that dominated 2021 have turned into stories about gluts in both markets.

Cargo ships seen from overhead. CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Cargo ships are loaded with containers as they prepare to dock at the container terminal in Lianyungang, East China’s Jiangsu province, on January 25, 2023.

On the sociopolitical side of the ledger, it is noteworthy that as societies emerge from the pandemic, indicators of social dysfunction might start to subside. Political populism has actually been trending downward for the past year or so. Even skeptics of democracy have noticed that autocracies have been facing greater challenges as of late than democracies.

Malthusian arguments rest on producers being unable to keep pace with growing demand, and modern history suggests that the Malthusian logic has been proven wrong time and again. Homer-Dixon in particular has been a strong proponent of neo-Malthusian arguments, positing for decades that resource scarcity would lead to greater international violence. So far, the scholarly research testing his claim has found little empirical support for the hypothesis.

Predicting the unpredictable

The deeper flaw in the polycrisis logic is the presumption that one systemic crisis will inexorably lead to negative feedback effects that cause other systems to tip into crisis.

If this assumption does not hold, then the whole logic of a single polycrisis falls apart. To their credit, the Cascade Institute authors acknowledge that this might not happen, but they posit: “it seems more likely that causal interactions between systemic crises will worsen, rather than diminish, the overall emergent impacts.”

At first glance, this seems like a plausible assumption to make. Remember, however, that the proponents of a polycrisis also assert that the systems under stress are highly complex, leading to unpredictable cause-and-effect relationships. If that is true, then presuming that one systemic crisis would automatically exacerbate stresses in other systems seems premature at best and skewed at worst.

Indeed, over the last year there have been at least two examples of one systemic crisis actually lessening stress on another system.

China’s increasingly centralized autocracy generated a socioeconomic disaster in the form of “zero Covid” lockdowns. Xi Jinping kept that policy in place long after it made any sense, accidentally throttling China’s economy. The timing of China’s lockdown was fortuitous, however, as stagnant Chinese demand helped prevent an inflationary spiral from getting any worse. China’s exit from zero-Covid will likely also be countercyclical, jump-starting economic growth at a time when other regions tip into recession.

Another weird, fortuitous interaction has been the one between climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Europe aided Ukraine and resisted Russia’s blatant, illegal actions, Russia retaliated by cutting off energy exports. Many were concerned that Russia’s counter-sanctions would make this winter extremely hard and expensive for Europe.

Climate change may have provided a weird geopolitical assist to Europe, however. The warming climate is likely connected to Europe’s extremely temperate fall and winter. That, in turn, has required less electricity for heating, leaving the continent with plenty of energy reserves to last the winter. Russia’s ability to wreak havoc on the European economy has been circumscribed.

None of this is to say that systemic crises cannot exacerbate each other. Just because a polycrisis has not happened yet does not mean one is not on the horizon. Just as one buys insurance to guard against low-probability, high-impact outcomes, policymakers and elements of civil society need to guard against worst-case scenarios.

As a term of art, however, “polycrisis” distracts more than it adds. It mostly seems like a device to make people care about the Really Bad Things that climate change can do, without turning people off by warning them yet again about the hazards of climate change.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School and is the author of Drezner’s World.

28 Jan. 2023
New York Representative-elect George Santos speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on November 19. | David Becker/Washington Post via Getty Images

The Republican representative who allegedly made up his life story, explained.

The biography of newly elected Congress member George Santos seemed quite impressive. The 34-year-old son of immigrants had graduated from Baruch College, a public college in New York, before going on to work at firms like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Santos eventually became a successful financier who started an animal rescue charity. The problem is that biography was apparently a lie, and now he might be facing not only political consequences but legal consequences for his wholesale inventions.

As revealed in the New York Times on December 19, it wasn’t just that Santos exaggerated his résumé — he had allegedly invented it out of whole cloth.

The Times found that he apparently did not graduate from Baruch College, he did not work for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, there were no records of him being a successful financier, nor were there of him registering his animal rescue charity. The Times also found that he had been charged with check fraud in Brazil.

Further, a number of outlets have found no evidence of Santos’s repeated claims to be Jewish, to have Jewish heritage, or to be descended from refugees fleeing the Holocaust. Santos even described himself at one point as a “proud American Jew” in a campaign position paper.

In a media tour with friendly outlets on December 26, Santos admitted to putting “a little bit of fluff” on his résumé. In other words, he conceded that he never graduated from college, never worked for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, and wasn’t Jewish (though he claimed to be “Jew-ish”). Santos brushed off lying about basic biographical information as embellishment, and he pushed back on the Times’s reporting about his criminal charge in Brazil. “I am not a criminal,” he told the New York Post.

The story has sparked one of the more bizarre political scandals in American history. Members of Congress have committed murder in office. In fact, a member of Congress has even killed another member of Congress. Even in the present day, we’ve seen every scandal under the sun, from Anthony Weiner tweeting a lewd picture of himself, to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s infamous Facebook post about Jewish space lasers. But it’s hard to think of a precedent for a scandal like this as Santos faces calls for his resignation from fellow Republicans and investigations into potential criminal misconduct.

Who is George Santos?

There are some things we know about Santos. The openly gay son of Brazilian immigrants, he was elected in November to an open congressional seat that includes a thin slice of Queens and much of the North Shore of Long Island in Nassau County. Santos defeated Democrat Robert Zimmerman by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. This represented a major swing from 2020 when Biden had won the district by the same margin. That year, Santos ran against incumbent Tom Suozzi in a similar district and lost handily by a margin of 56 percent to 43.5 percent.

Santos is also an ardent Trump supporter — so much so that he was at Trump’s Ellipse rally on January 6, 2021, and has repeatedly falsely claimed that the former president won the 2020 election.

Also, for all his alleged lying about his résumé, it is clear that one company Santos worked at, Harbor City Capital, has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of being a Ponzi scheme. As for Santos’s other employment, he did spend a stint as a Portuguese language customer service agent for DISH Network a decade ago.

Santos has also been accused of setting up a GoFundMe that raised $3,000 to pay for lifesaving surgery for the dying service dog of a disabled homeless veteran and then pocketing the money. He responded on Twitter by claiming “the reports that I would let a dog die is shocking & insane.” Santos added, “Over the past 24hr I have received pictures of dogs I helped reduce throughout the years along with supportive messages.”

Santos has also pushed back against the claim that he dressed in drag while living in Brazil. A drag performer who goes by the name Eula Rochard told multiple outlets that Santos used to perform in drag under the name “Kitara Ravache.”

Santos mounted an aggressive denial Thursday morning on Twitter. “The most recent obsession from the media claiming that I am a drag Queen or ‘performed’ as a drag Queen is categorically false,” said the embattled New York Republican. “The media continues to make outrageous claims about my life while I am working to deliver results.”

On Saturday, he conceded to reporters at LaGuardia Airport that he did dress in drag but that he was simply having “fun at a festival.”

What don’t we know?

We don’t know a lot. This ranges from basic facts about Santos’s biography to details about his dealings with the Brazilian criminal justice system, and everything in between, including where he actually lives.

But most importantly, we don’t know where Santos’s money comes from. The representative loaned his own campaign $700,000 during the 2022 cycle and claimed an income of $750,000. He also listed millions of dollars in assets including an apartment in Rio De Janeiro worth up to $1 million and a seven-figure savings account. It’s a major shift in fortune for someone who was evicted twice, in 2015 and 2017, for failing to pay rent and had been taken to court for not paying debts. Even in 2020, he reported income in only one category — compensation in excess of $5,000 paid by one source — with no other assets.

Santos initially provided no information on his finances on his media tour, except to concede that he owned no property. He had previously claimed on Twitter to be a landlord who owned 13 properties. The representative eventually claimed in an interview with Semafor that his newfound wealth came from “capital introduction” where he helped broker deals for the wealthy. Santos used a yacht sale as an example of how he earned a living, “If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht, my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000.”

What happens now?

Santos is already being investigated by federal and local prosecutors while the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James has been “looking into some of the issues that have come out.” Further, a complaint has been filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center alleging Santos illegally hid the source of the money he loaned his campaign through a straw donor scheme and other alleged violations, including whether he used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. The Washington Post reported Friday that the Justice Department has asked the FEC to hold off any enforcement actions so that it can pursue a criminal investigation.

Dan Goldman, a fellow representative from New York and a former prosecutor, has suggested that Santos face criminal investigation for conspiracy to defraud the United States as well as filing false statements to the FEC.

In a December interview with Vox, Goldman shied away from weighing in on whether Santos should be denied his seat in Congress. “I think the bigger question is not whether I think George Santos should be a member of Congress. The bigger question is whether Kevin McCarthy and the Republican leadership think that George Santos should be a member of Congress.”

A number of Santos’s fellow Republicans have called on him to resign as well. The Nassau County Republican Party, long considered the most powerful county party in New York, called on Santos to step down as have other fellow New York Republicans, including Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Mike Lawler, Nick Langworthy, and Brandon Williams. Joe Cairo, the chair of the Nassau County GOP, told reporters, “George Santos’ campaign last year was a campaign of deceit, lies and fabrication” while demanding his resignation.

Rep. Max Miller (R-OH), one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House and a longtime Trump White House aide, called on Santos to resign in mid January, and cited the New York Republican’s lies about his family ties to the Holocaust in doing so. Republican leadership has equivocated, with Speaker Kevin McCarthy acknowledging that while Santos has “a long way to go to earn trust” and still has to face investigation by the House Ethics Committee, Santos is still “a part of the Republican conference.” But McCarthy acknowledged to reporters on Wednesday that if the Ethics Committee found that Santos broke the law, the New York Republican should be ousted from Congress.

However, as of now, McCarthy needs Santos almost as much as Santos needs McCarthy. McCarthy only became speaker by the skin of his teeth on the 15th ballot. With a narrow majority — and the likelihood of frequent member absences now that the House has gotten rid of proxy voting — McCarthy needs every vote he can get.

Further, because Santos represents one of the most Democratic seats in Congress held by a Republican, forcing him to resign under any circumstance is risky. It would be a difficult seat for a Republican to hold in a special election and a loss would further imperil an already slim GOP majority.

In the meantime, it’s a matter of waiting for the next shoe to drop. As unsustainable as the current status quo might seem, the only impetus right now for Santos to resign would be a sense of shame, and it seems unlikely that he carries that burden.

Update, January 27, 9:41 pm ET: This story was originally published on December 21 and has been updated multiple times, as more details have been reported about Santos’s background and calls for him to resign.

27 Jan. 2023
A woman Israeli police officer wearing a camouflage uniform holds a military-style rifle and looks to her left. Behind her is an Israeli ambulance.
Israeli police investigate after 7 people were killed in an armed attack in a Jewish settlement at East Jerusalem on January 27, 2023. | Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A shooting in Jerusalem and a raid in Jenin, briefly explained.

It’s been a violent two days in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. On Friday evening in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian gunman killed at least seven Israelis in the most lethal attack in the city since 2008. Israeli officials described the shooting outside a synagogue as an act of terrorism. Earlier Friday, three rockets were shot from Gaza and Israeli jets attacked an underground Hamas bomb-making facility, according to the Israeli military.

A day prior, in the refugee camp of Jenin in the occupied West Bank, Israeli commandos raided an apartment building and the surrounding area, and killed nine Palestinians and wounded 20, in what a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority called “a massacre.” Israel said the site of the raid housed a terrorist cell of the Islamic Jihad group.

More than one Palestinian has been killed a day on average in the first month of 2023, on track to double the tragic rate of lethal violence in the occupied West Bank last year — which was already the highest on record since the United Nations began collecting this data, and double that of 2021.

Little is known about the Friday shooter or his motives; he was killed by police after attacking the synagogue.

The escalating cycle of violence comes as CIA director Bill Burns visits Israel and Palestine; Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives there on Monday. “We underscore the urgent need for all parties to de-escalate, prevent further loss of civilian life, and work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Thursday.

But analysts described the increasingly deadly and volatile situation as a product of foreclosed hope and other structural factors, exacerbated by an extreme-right Israeli government taking power earlier this month. At the very least, things are unlikely to calm.

The situation for Palestinians was already bad and continues to get worse, says Mairav Zonszein, an International Crisis Group analyst. “With a new far right government committed to continued dispossession of Palestinians and expansion of settlements, with the Palestinian body politic in shambles and no international stakeholder taking proactive steps, the crisis is likely to continue escalating,” she wrote in a message.

What we know about the attacks

It’s unusual, if not unprecedented, for a Palestinian attacker to respond so quickly to an Israeli raid like the one on Thursday in Jenin, an Israeli analyst speaking on condition of anonymity told me. Though it’s too soon to draw big conclusions about the particulars of each developing story, it is clear that the already dire situation could get very ugly.

On Friday evening outside a synagogue in the Israeli settlement of Neve Yaakov in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian militant shot at least 10 people and then was killed by police. The situation is still unfolding, and no militant Palestinian groups immediately claimed credit, but police have identified the shooter as a 21-year-old resident of East Jerusalem. The attack occurred on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. No information about the victims was immediately shared.

The Jerusalem police head pledged an “aggressive and significant” pursuit of anyone who abetted the attacker. “Israel will continue to act forcefully against the threat of terrorism. We will pursue and reach every terrorist who harms Israeli citizens,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

A day earlier, a deadly Israeli raid on a Palestinian home in the Jenin refugee camp killed nine, among them an elderly woman named Majida Obaid. “Most injuries that arrived at the hospital today were in the head and chest area,” read a Palestinian Ministry of Health statement Thursday on the raid, cited by the news site Mondoweiss. “This means that the shooting of live ammunition towards residents was with the intent to kill.” Israeli forces also obstructed the movement of ambulances with gunfire, the hospital’s head, Wissam Baker, told Al Jazeera.

 Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Relatives mourn during the funeral ceremony, on January 19, of two Palestinians who were killed by Israeli army bullets during a raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.

Armed Palestinian resistance groups have been expanding in the occupied territories, including in Jenin, partially in response to the fractured nature of Palestinian leadership, the lack of opportunities for Palestinians, and the long-stalled negotiations that could lead to an sovereign state of Palestine. Over the past year, Israeli forces have responded to these new groups, notably Lion’s Den, with intensive raids with high numbers of civilian deaths.

The State Department’s top Middle East official, Barbara Leaf, told reporters Thursday that the lethal strike in Jenin had dismantled “a ticking time bomb of a threat — of a terrorist threat,” apparently amplifying comments from a senior Israeli military official.

In response to the Israeli operation, Palestine Liberation Organization chair Mahmoud Abbas said he would cut off security coordination with the Israeli government. Some experts noted that’s often been a talking point for Abbas, but one he has not always followed through on.

UN special rapporteur for human rights Francesca Albanese noted Israel’s obligation as an occupying power to safeguard Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and emphasized the “deeply alarming high rate of apparent extrajudicial killings of Palestinians of 2022 continues in this new year.”

Should we expect more violence under Israel’s new government?

In November, Israelis elected the most extreme government in the country’s history. More than 80,000 protesters demonstrated against the government’s new members and their judicial moves that would weaken the authority of the country’s supreme court. Even Moshe Ya’alon, a former defense minister who had served as a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party, has called the new Israeli government “a dictatorship of criminals.” But less attention inside Israel has been paid to the radical new governing coalition’s drastic implications for Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under occupation.

“The death toll over both in the West Bank and now in Jerusalem is in fact the entirely predictable result of an extremist Israeli government that is propagating violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the advocacy and research organization Democracy for the Arab World Now.

The Biden administration, for its part, has restrained its criticism of the government so far. Though the Biden administration still holds out the prospect of a two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state, those talks have been frozen since 2014, and more recently Israel has forged diplomatic relations with Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, giving the government of Israel little incentive to advance any two-state outcome.

It’s not entirely clear how Secretary of State Blinken will manage to deescalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians during his upcoming trip. The priorities for the visit include “preserving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the protection of human rights and democratic values,” all which appear at risk of devolving further.

Tom Pickering, a career ambassador who previously served in Israel, is concerned that the rising violence could lead to a third Intifadah, or uprising, among Palestinians. “At the moment, the two-state outcome, as most people are fond of saying, is dead,” he told me. “But there is a no-state outcome that’s in the making” — that is, a status quo sought by the current Israeli government, in which a Palestinian state is no longer a viable possibility.

But the tragic violence of the past two days shows that’s not much of a solution at all.

27 Jan. 2023
Pelosi, in a pale blue suit, is seen in profile against a dark background, speaking into a microphone.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks at a vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on April 4, 2022, in Washington, DC.  | Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Footage and audio reveals new details about the attack, which is the culmination of Republicans’ years-long efforts to make Nancy Pelosi out to be a public enemy.

A court on Friday released footage of the October attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi. The incident was overtly political, and the logical endpoint of the decades of deeply personal villainization the former Democratic House speaker has weathered from her political opponents.

Capitol Police security footage shows the assailant, David DePape, breaking a window to enter the Pelosis’ San Francisco home. Police body cam footage also shows DePape and Paul Pelosi struggling over a hammer for a few seconds after police arrived at the front door. The video shows DePape bludgeoning Pelosi with it, knocking him to the ground and leaving him with a skull fracture from which he is still recovering months later.

Additionally, the court released audio from Paul Pelosi’s 911 call that led police to perform a wellness check, as well as from a police interview with DePape in which he espoused false conspiracy theories about a Democratic “crime spree” involving Nancy Pelosi.

In the audio, DePape admits that he had intended to take Nancy Pelosi hostage and “break her kneecaps” if she failed to answer his questions in a way that he thought was truthful. He explains that he did not flee after Paul Pelosi called the police because he did not want to surrender, comparing himself to the founders fighting British tyranny.

“He thinks that I’ll just surrender, and it’s like, I didn’t come there to surrender,” DePape said. “And I told him that I would go through him.”

DePape has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him, which include federal attempted murder, attempted kidnapping, and assault.

For months, Republicans have dismissed any connection between their words and the attack, despite having made Nancy Pelosi the target of harsh rhetoric for years. Instead, they’ve blamed Democratic policies on crime and suggested that growing political violence may be the result of general anxiety around election legitimacy. In the aftermath of the attack, Elon Musk, the billionaire Tesla CEO who was cheered by Republicans when he bought Twitter, advanced a right-wing anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory around the circumstances of the attack. Though he deleted his post, it remained on Twitter long enough to be amplified and repeated by many on the right.

After the video of the attack was posted online Friday, Republicans were largely silent on the subject. Ronna McDaniel, the newly reelected chair of the Republican National Committee, touted the party’s gains in midterms at the organization’s annual meeting, which she said was in Southern California just to “rub Nancy Pelosi’s face in it one more time.”

Even before Pelosi became speaker, Republicans in the party and those adjacent to it have demonized her regularly, featuring her in attack ads and lambasting her on Fox News. At least one of her colleagues in the House, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), has directly indicated support for violence against her. And members of right-wing militia groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters have sought her assassination.

Based on his statements in the audio released Friday, it’s now even clearer that DePape has been influenced by that rhetoric that made Pelosi a familiar target of the right — and not just on the political fringes.

The long history of Republicans demonizing Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi has been villainized by Republicans since she first ascended to Democratic leadership.

In 2003, within days of her election as House minority leader, she quickly faced gendered attacks from Republicans who were, as Mark Z. Barabak wrote for the Los Angeles Times at the time, “eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face — garish and twisted — showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site.”

Such attacks continued throughout her tenure as minority leader, including during the 2006 election when Republicans ran a swath of attack ads featuring unflattering photos of Pelosi often looking angry, bug-eyed, or startled. And they increased in 2010, after she had become speaker. Republicans made her the face of their attacks on Democrats’ Affordable Care Act and launched a “Fire Pelosi” campaign, which involved a bus tour and images of Pelosi engulfed in flames.

Under the Trump era and in the years since, the attacks have only escalated in tenor. Former President Donald Trump, who has remained silent about the attack on Paul Pelosi, shared doctored videos of the speaker designed to call into question her mental fitness, retweeted accusations that she was “drinking booze on the job,” and had a litany of derogatory nicknames for her, among them “Crazy Nancy,” “Nervous Nancy,” and “Nancy Antoinette.”

Many of Trump’s followers echoed his rhetoric, online and in conservative media such as Fox News. In 2021, Fox News host Mark Levin called her “a nasty old bag — that’s what she is, a nasty, vicious, unhinged fool” who “has the hots for Trump” and “can’t get Trump out of her head.”

Rhetoric involving Pelosi has often taken violent turns as well. In 2018 and 2019, Taylor Greene repeatedly seemed to suggest support for Pelosi’s execution, among that of other prominent Democrats, liking a Facebook post that said “a bullet to the head” would be the most expedient way to end Pelosi’s speakership. Taylor Greene also claimed in a Facebook video that Pelosi was guilty of treason, noting “a crime punishable by death is what treason is.”

One candidate in the GOP primary for Senate in Arizona this year aired a Super Bowl ad that featured him dressed as sheriff shooting down an actor playing Pelosi, identified as “Crazy Face Pelosi,” after he says, “The good people of Arizona have had enough of you.” In the period since Labor Day, Republicans have reportedly since spent nearly $40 million on ads that mention Pelosi.

Last week, National Republican Congressional Committee chair Tom Emmer (R-MN) posted a video of himself firing a gun with the hashtag #FirePelosi. And even on Friday, just hours after the attack, Virginia’s Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin linked the attack on Pelosi’s husband to the November elections, drawing condemnation from Democrats who called the comments insensitive.

“There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send [Pelosi] back to be with him in California,” Youngkin said at a campaign rally in Stafford for GOP congressional candidate Yesli Vega.

Fox News anchors have also tried to tie the attack to Republicans’ message on crime in the midterms. “This can happen anywhere. Crime is random and that’s why it’s such a significant part of this election story,” Fox anchor Bill Hemmer said on air Friday. Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel echoed that talking point on Fox News Sunday, saying, “If this weren’t Paul Pelosi, this criminal would probably be out on the street tomorrow ... This is what Democrat policies are bringing.”

Other Republicans — including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm — denounced the attack but argued against Republicans having a key role in fomenting the conspiracy theories of the attacker. Scott seemed to suggest the attack was rooted in a general lack of public confidence in elections.

“I think what we have to do is, one, we have to condemn the violence, and then we have to do everything we can to get people — make sure people feel comfortable about these elections,” he said Sunday on CNN.

The vilification of Pelosi has taken an even uglier form in ultra-right-wing circles online. Conspiracy theories like the one shared by Musk abound, and even Republican members of Congress are spreading misinformation:

Some on Trump’s social media platform Truth Social have also been openly celebrating the attack, with the hashtag #PelosiCrimeFamily trending in the days following the attack.

Arguably, the venom aimed at Pelosi wouldn’t exist without the decades of Republican vitriol against her. President Joe Biden made that connection explicit at a fundraising dinner in Philadelphia in October, saying that political violence is the natural outcome of the kind of rhetoric that Republicans have enabled. “What makes us think that it’s not going to corrode the political climate?” he asked.

Misogyny, anti-elitism, and anti-democratic ideas feature heavily in attacks on Pelosi

As the first female speaker of the House, and one serving at a time of increasing political polarization and anti-democratic violence, Pelosi faced uniquely intense attacks that have channeled right-wing anger about her gender, wealth, and pro-democratic rhetoric.

Even when she first ran for Congress, Republicans sought to portray her as unserious, a “liberal dilettante” and “airhead” — insults that ring of sexism.

In 2007, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh mocked her election to the speakership: “This is a triumph of feminism and estrogen. ... And ladies, the long 200-year national nightmare without a woman at the top is now over.” In 2009, Democrats accused Republicans of advancing antiquated attitudes toward women when they ran an ad suggesting that Pelosi should be put “in her place” on the issue of Afghanistan. And in 2014, a Republican member suggested that she “might want to try” doing her research on the border, comments that her Democratic colleagues took to be patronizing and sexist.

Pelosi doesn’t talk about her gender much, but on occasion she has pointed out the disparate treatment and unique attacks she’s faced as a woman in congressional leadership. For instance, amid questions in 2014 about her age and whether she should hand the mantle to a successor, she retorted that then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is just two years younger than her, should be fielding similar questions. And in 2018, after being demonized by Trump and the GOP and still winning the speakership, she told CNBC, “I don’t want women to think if you get attacked, you run away.”

The attacks against Pelosi over the years have also focused on her wealth. On the right, there have long been harsh critiques of “elites,” often stoked by Fox News; increasingly, as my colleague Andrew Prokop recently explained, influential members of the right argue an “elite left ‘ruling class’ has captured and is ruining America, and that drastic measures are necessary to fight back against them.”

For many — including one January 6 rioter and recruiter for the Three Percenters, an anti-government movement — Pelosi is the face of that “evil” ruling class. And she’s often been attacked as one of that class’s most hypocritical members. She’s faced criticism for initially dismissing the idea that members of Congress and their family members shouldn’t be allowed to trade stocks, despite the fact that they have access to confidential intelligence.

It’s a critique that was particularly intense given she is one of the richest members of Congress, with an estimated net worth of at least $46 million, and that fortune has grown in part thanks to lucrative trades by Paul Pelosi, a venture capitalist. She later endorsed legislation that would make it harder for members of Congress to use information they receive on the job for their own financial gain, but it currently seems unlikely to pass.

Ironically, Trump attacked Pelosi for her wealth and elite status a number of times; perhaps most notably, he sought to use her wealth to portray her as out of touch in a 2020 campaign ad ridiculing her expensive fridge filled with ice cream while Americans were going hungry during the Covid-related economic downturn.

Both the sexist and anti-elite lines of attack have directly fed into the anti-democratic attacks that have recently overshadowed the rest. She was a top target during the January 6 insurrection, when the mob tore apart her office, calling out her name and searching for her. Rioters, emboldened by Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, left no doubt as to what they would have done to her: “We did our part. We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the frickin’ brain. But we didn’t find her,” one woman said in a selfie video.

After the insurrection was put down, Pelosi declared that “democracy won.” But it’s clear that pro-Trump extremists like DePape aren’t willing to give up the fight.

Update, January 27, 6:45 pm ET: This story, originally published on October 29, 2022, has been updated to reflect the court-ordered release of footage of the attack and audio from that night.

27 Jan. 2023
A graphic of Jeff Bezos, in black-and-white, in front of a collage of $100 dollar bills.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

The Amazon founder has committed to giving most of his money to charity — and he’s got roughly $120 billion to burn. How’s he doing?

During a CNN interview last fall, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed that he intends to give away most of his fortune — $120 billion as of January 2023.

When one of the richest people in the world signals that his immense wealth will go to helping others, ears tend to perk up. The announcement brings into focus how the business tycoon will spend the coming years, but it also raises plenty of questions around the way he plans to dispense such an unfathomable sum of money. Who will Bezos give his wealth away to, and how quickly? How will the world be affected?

We know this much: He’s given country singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton $100 million to spend as she wished, but beyond that, Bezos hasn’t yet shared much detail. He’s issued no press release sketching out an overarching vision for where his hundred billion-plus dollars — an amount bigger than some nations’ GDPs — will go. Bezos also hasn’t signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010 that calls on the world’s wealthiest people to pledge at least half of their wealth to philanthropy. Famous signatories include Bezos’s ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, Michael Bloomberg, Elon Musk, George Lucas, Mark Zuckerberg, and even fallen crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried, whose name has been removed from the site.

Pledges often come with a letter that elucidates what inspired the commitment and what their philanthropic priorities are. In her letter, for example, Scott expressed why she doesn’t believe in waiting to give her “disproportionate amount of money” away. “I will keep at it until the safe is empty,” she wrote. By comparison, Bezos has been fairly reticent to discuss what motivates his philanthropy and the pace at which he’ll do it.

Unlike philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who have specialized in global health funding for decades, Bezos has so far given hefty grants in disparate areas, such as homelessness and climate. “It feels a bit piecemeal,” said Rhodri Davies, founder of Why Philanthropy Matters, a site that publishes analysis and commentary on the philanthropy world.

Bezos “kind of has a habit of rushing with these big announcements, and then not having a lot of detail to answer some of those follow-up questions,” said Davies.

Some of the curiosity around Bezos’s new philanthropic streak stems from the fact that Amazon, the source of his fortune, is increasingly under scrutiny. Amid the pandemic, Amazon raked in incredible profits as online shopping demand soared — and faced a torrent of negative press, from allegations of pandemic price gouging to the long-simmering labor issues that erupted in 2020 through worker protests and culminated in the recognition of the first Amazon union in the US last spring. Last year, tech companies’ stocks cratered from their pandemic surge. But Amazon was one of 2021’s most profitable American companies. The growing size and reach of the “everything store,” however, has affected its public perception: A 2019 CNBC survey of 10,000 Americans showed that a majority of respondents believed the company was bad for small businesses.

Christian Smalls speaks into a bullhorn at a protest. He’s wearing a shirt that says “Amazon Labor Union.” Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, leads pro-union demonstrators on a march on 11th Street in New York City on September 5, 2022.

Bezos is no longer Amazon’s CEO, but as the company’s biggest individual shareholder, his money remains tied to Amazon’s fortunes, and his sudden commitment to saving the world is being met with criticism from some in philanthropy and activist circles who argue that his philanthropic vision is disjointed and fails to be bolder, especially considering Amazon’s record on labor and climate. But Bezos’s giving is also impressing others with the no-fuss simplicity of his grant-making style and his trust in respected experts.

Bezos’s philanthropic track record

Before 2018, Bezos didn’t have much of a philanthropic résumé. It was a source of growing criticism from the press and nonprofit experts as his net worth climbed, topping $100 billion by the end of 2017. He’s since kicked his philanthropic efforts into high gear, committing $2 billion to his Day 1 Families Fund in 2018, of which about $521.6 million so far has been granted to organizations addressing homelessness, and in 2020, announcing the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund (BEF). In an Instagram post announcing the fund, Bezos wrote, “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share,” noting that averting the crisis would require action from “big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals.”

Since stepping down as Amazon CEO in 2021, Bezos has had more time to focus on this new chapter of his public life. With the Bezos Earth Fund, which responds to the climate crisis with an emphasis on conservation and restoration, he indicated that he would give away roughly $1 billion a year through 2030. According to the fund’s website, it has granted $1.63 billion since its launch.

That’s both a lot of money for the relatively small number of nonprofits receiving lump sums of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars — and not a lot of money, given that Bezos is worth north of $100 billion.

What’s been most notable about Bezos’s approach so far is how surprisingly easy it is for organizations to receive grants from him. Applying for a grant can often be a long, burdensome process for nonprofits. With the Day 1 Families Fund, Bezos has appointed an advisory board that reaches out to organizations to recommend that they apply for a grant, removing a lot of the leg work and uncertainty from grant seekers. PATH, a homelessness prevention organization based in Los Angeles, received $5 million from the Day 1 Families Fund this past November. Tyler Renner, PATH’s director of media, recalled that the application was “simple and straightforward,” amounting to about 2,000 words. PATH has flexibility in how to use the funds — but the fund stipulated that it had to focus on “ending homelessness for families.”

“The grants have few restrictions and often grantees note this as an important benefit to doing what is needed most,” a spokesperson for the Day 1 Families Fund confirmed to Vox.

Solo Por Hoy Inc., a nonprofit based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, providing assistance with homelessness and other crises, received an email out of the blue in August from the Day 1 fund saying that the advisory board had recommended it for a $600,000 grant. “Prior to that I had never heard of this foundation before,” Belinda Hill, Solo Por Hoy’s executive director, told Vox in an email. Then, at the end of October, the organization was told that, in fact, it would be granted $1 million. “I can tell you it is a game changer for us and the homeless population we serve,” said Hill.

LA Family Housing, one of the largest homeless services providers in the Los Angeles region, received a second $5 million grant from the fund last year, with the first having come in 2018. The only restriction, again, was that the money be used to support families experiencing homelessness, rather than individuals. Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, the group’s president and CEO, echoed that the process was remarkably streamlined. “We received a call and then an email inviting us to apply,” she told Vox. The application itself was just one or two prompts. “The prompt was something like, ‘You find yourself at the intersection of needing an emergency response to accomplish long-term sustainability on ending family homelessness — please propose what you would do.’”

“I thought it was thoughtful and respectful of the expertise,” she said.

Safe choices?

One of the emerging criticisms of Bezos’s philanthropy is that in striving not to be controversial, it misses funding approaches that attack the deeper roots of the climate crisis and homelessness that advocates say need urgent attention.

Marion Gee, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), told Vox that many of the initial rounds of Bezos Earth Fund grants went to “much bigger, Big Green organizations that often fund market schemes [and] techno fixes.” It gave a whopping $100 million each to already well-funded organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund that, in the CJA’s view, don’t disrupt the status quo of fossil fuel dependence. Focusing on environmental conservation is also less politically heated than organizations that frame the climate crisis as a problem of unfettered capitalism, of economic extraction and injustice, that harms communities of color most.

The CJA has not received a grant from the BEF, but it has been in conversations with the organization about where its grants could go. “From a climate justice perspective,” Gee said, “we pushed back hard and asked those groups [that did receive grants] to reallocate some of that money directly to the Fund for Frontline Power,” which gives money to communities that have been directly and disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice.

 Jair F. Coll/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A worker pulls vines from a bean crop in a greenhouse at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s Future Seeds genebank in Palmira, Colombia, in August 2022. Future Seeds last year received a $17 million pledge from the Bezos Earth Fund.
 Jair F. Coll/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A scientist sorts bean seeds with imperfections in a laboratory at CIAT. The new genomics facility holds the world’s largest repository of beans, cassava, and tropical forages used to study climate change mitigation for crops.

The Bezos Earth Fund has shown some willingness to listen. In 2021, seemingly in response to activist pressure, it granted about $150 million to at least 19 climate justice organizations in support of the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative. It gave $4 million to the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, which conducts research and policy advocacy in the Gulf Coast, including the Mississippi River Chemical Corridor — also known as “Cancer Alley” — where a proliferation of petrochemical factories has increased the risk of cancer in the predominantly Black neighborhoods where many plants were built. The BEF also gave $6 million to WE ACT, a group that works to ensure low-income communities of color have a voice in shaping environmental health policies, as well as $5 million to the climate justice group Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) to build more climate-resilient infrastructure in California.

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, told Vox in a statement that it was led by a team of diverse experts in climate science, philanthropy, public policy, and other fields. He did not respond to questions from Vox asking for further details on how its grant-making process worked — such as whether it used an advisory board that makes recommendations the way the Day 1 fund does. “We remain committed to environmental justice, granting over $300 million so far to environmental justice groups in the US,” wrote Steer.

Climate justice advocates have balked at some of these grants. Late last year, the BEF, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and the State Department, announced the creation of a carbon offset program called the Energy Transition Accelerator. It would allow corporations in wealthy countries to buy offsets for their carbon emissions, and that money would go to renewable energy projects in developing countries. But carbon offsets have a dubious track record; it’s hard to ensure that emissions have actually been offset. The BEF has also dedicated $11 million to initiatives focused on improving the quality of voluntary carbon markets.

In an email to Vox, Gee called these latest BEF grants “very wide of the mark.” “These grants do not cut emissions at source, allow for continued pollution of frontline communities, prolong our dependence on fossil fuels, and divert needed resources from real solutions grounded in justice, equity, and sustainability that work for people and the planet,” she wrote.

Similarly, though the Day 1 Families Fund has doled out grants to well-respected organizations providing crucial homelessness services, critics say it has mostly focused on groups addressing family homelessness, which is more likely to be temporary, while neglecting chronic homelessness.

“The people experiencing chronic homelessness are so enormously neglected in philanthropic giving,” Sara Rankin, a law professor at Seattle University and director of the law school’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, told Vox.

“You’re never going to find me or anyone else saying that family homelessness is not worthwhile or important to pay attention to,” she said. “But what I’m saying is, the history of philanthropic giving, especially when you focus on homelessness, completely excludes the most visible, arguably the most vulnerable, and the most costly segment of the homeless population — which are people experiencing chronic homelessness.”

This is especially worrying because around 30 percent of homelessness is chronic, and that number is increasing. It often occurs because the person has a disabling condition that prevents them from working and maintaining housing. People who are chronically homeless aren’t usually families, but single adults, and they’re more likely to face violent forced hospitalization, criminalization, and public contempt. It’s politicized in a way that family homelessness is not — and less palatable for philanthropic giving, which has historically been “overwhelmingly focused on really sympathetic recipients, like families, children,” said Rankin. “You get a double bang for your buck by donating to sympathetic recipients — it sort of fulfills a marketing function as well.”

The failure to be bolder for fear of reputational damage is a problem of philanthropy in general, not just Bezos. But it underscores the limits of philanthropy in effectively, radically solving problems, especially when billionaire donors place limits and stipulations on grants. The virtues of no-strings-attached, trust-based philanthropy — in which donors rely on grant recipients to know best how their grant should be used — have become widely discussed in the sector in recent years, but it’s still fairly uncommon for billionaire philanthropists to bestow unrestricted gifts. (Scott is one notable exception, having become renowned in the few years since signing the Giving Pledge for giving enormous gifts to smaller grassroots organizations, with no strings attached.)

Rankin mused that a number of people on the Day 1 fund’s advisory board, which she praised as being full of “incredibly smart and experienced professionals in the homelessness space,” would likely agree that the fund needs more focus on housing solutions and chronic homelessness. “But they don’t get to determine the philanthropic mission,” she said.

Bezos the philanthropist enters the spotlight

Philanthropists craft their image not only through the kinds of organizations they fund — and which they exclude — but also through showy announcements and events where they’re lauded for their work. In October of last year, Bezos received an award that conferred philanthropic prestige from a venerated moral authority: the Vatican. One of the recipients of the inaugural Prophets of Philanthropy Award from the Galileo Foundation, a tax-exempt nonprofit supporting the initiatives of the Pope, Bezos gave a speech at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He also made a $200 million donation to the Smithsonian last year — the largest since its founding — that comes with 50-year naming rights to a new building within the institution.

Linsey McGoey, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex and author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift, said that billionaire philanthropists often make announcements “in a way that’s geared at high-press visibility.”

“There’s no doubt, with the resources at his disposal, it’s incredibly important to pay [Bezos] attention,” said Ben Soskis, a senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute. “But he clearly also wants a certain kind of attention.”

Soskis described Parton receiving the Courage and Civility Award from Bezos as “heavily choreographed.” “Bezos himself was an important part of that ceremony,” he said, and the award cemented his association with a largely beloved celebrity. The award went to Parton personally, not to her Dollywood Foundation, and the singer has not yet revealed how she plans on using the $100 million.

In past years, Bezos gave the award to other well-known figures, such as CNN political commentator Van Jones and chef José Andrés. He has also invited several celebrities on spaceflights with his aerospace company, Blue Origin, including actors Pete Davidson (who later backed out) and William Shatner, and Good Morning America anchor Michael Strahan.

William Shatner, dressed in a blue flight jacket, sunglasses, and baseball cap, waves. Mario Tama/Getty Images
Blue Origins vice president of mission and flight operations Audrey Powers, left, watches as Star Trek actor William Shatner waves on the landing pad of Blue Origin’s New Shepard near Van Horn, Texas, after they flew into space on October 13, 2021.
 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Jeff Bezos holds the aviation glasses that belonged to Amelia Earhart as he speaks about his flight into space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard near Van Horn, Texas, on July 20, 2021. Bezos said he took the glasses with him on the flight.

“I think there’s often an element of philanthropy that is driven a bit by a desire for recognition and social status,” said Davies.

Compared to philanthropists like ex-wife Scott, Bezos has yet to find his distinct identity, experts said.

If Bezos does have a philanthropic identity, said Soskis, “it probably has more to do with his identity as an entrepreneur — the entrepreneur as someone who transcended politics, which is itself very much a political stance.”

That’s become evident in the vague manner in which Bezos has spoken publicly about his philanthropic values. During his CNN interview, explaining why he chose Parton to steward his $100 million gift, he emphasized that she behaved “always with civility and kindness.” He lamented that the world was full of conflict and “ad hominem attacks,” but gave no specific examples of the kinds of political divisiveness he referred to.

“We want to bring a little bit of light, a little bit of amplification to these people who use unity instead of conflict,” he continued.

Amazon looms over Bezos’s generosity

Despite Bezos’s efforts to keep his philanthropic giving apolitical, the manifold criticisms of Amazon’s business model, much of which was formed during his 27 years as the company’s chief executive, have become impossible to ignore: There are the labor concerns that have only grown as the company has strived for e-commerce dominance, accusations of tax avoidance, its rising carbon emissions. Amazon has complicated how Bezos’s generosity is digested in the public eye. His money goes to good causes more often than not, but how does the impact of Bezos’s philanthropy weigh against the record of the company where he continues to make his wealth?

It’s a question that’s become more urgent for modern-day philanthropists. Once upon a time, it was more common for the wealthy to wait until the twilight of their lives to bestow their fortunes (and names) to universities, museums, and other cultural institutions. The old model exemplified by Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller was “you make your money, people hate you, and then you start giving it away and people like you in the last decade,” said Soskis. Today, there’s more public pressure against the waiting approach, as Bezos experienced before starting the Day 1 fund in 2018. There are also a lot more billionaires today (north of 2,600 by Forbes’s count) than there were during the Gilded Age. “The problem of publicity is increasingly more prominent in the time when you have engaged living donors, especially if they are making the money at the same time they’re giving it away,” Soskis said.

It makes the relationship between who they are as philanthropists and who they are as business magnates more visible — negative press around a billionaire-owned company can break alongside an announcement of a giant philanthropic gift. The week that Bezos announced that he plans to give away most of his wealth, news of impending mass layoffs at Amazon broke, and in early January the company revealed that close to 18,000 employees would lose their jobs.

“I think whenever Jeff Bezos comes out and says, ‘I’m doing something philanthropic,’ 80 percent of the coverage, if not 90 percent, is yes, but what about the way you treat work in warehouses and pay taxes?” said Davies.

Those are far from the only issues complicating the reception to Bezos’s personal philanthropy. The impact that corporations like Amazon can have on gentrifying already high-cost areas has become a hot-button issue, too, standing at odds with the work that the Day 1 Families Fund is doing. Amazon’s announcement in 2017 that it would construct a second headquarters outside of Seattle sparked a furious bidding war between cities — and equally furious opposition from residents and politicians. In its hometown, when Bezos was still Amazon CEO, the company also gained notoriety for helping snuff out a bill that would have levied an extra tax on Seattle’s big businesses, aiming to raise an extra $47 million per year to address the homelessness and affordable housing crisis in the area. The city council passed the bill in a unanimous vote; Amazon voiced its displeasure by halting construction on a new downtown office. Less than a month after the bill’s passage, it was repealed.

The next year, Amazon spent $1.5 million on the Seattle city council races — a record-breaking amount for its city council elections — in support of a more pro-business council and to defeat council member Kshama Sawant, a stalwart Amazon critic who sought to raise corporate taxes.

Having made its position on taxes clear, in 2021 Amazon launched a $2 billion fund for affordable housing in Seattle and other regions across the US. Its Housing Equity Fund has so far invested $500 million in the form of grants and loans to affordable housing developments, including another recently announced $150 million commitment. Compare that to the $47 million per year Seattle’s city council hoped to raise. But it also sends a message: Amazon is willing to bestow generosity on its own terms, not on the government’s.

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is the dissonance between Bezos’s climate philanthropy and Amazon’s ballooning carbon emissions. The company’s emissions, which stem not only from its products but also from its corporate offices, data centers, and warehouses, and its increasing growing delivery and logistics services, grew by 18 percent in 2021, and are likely to keep growing as it continues to expand warehouses.

According to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, this is likely an undercount, because unlike major retailers like Walmart, Amazon doesn’t include emissions from products it sells made by third-party manufacturers. According to a new report from the environmental nonprofit Oceana, its plastic packaging waste — a major source of ocean pollution — also increased by 18 percent in 2021. (Update: Amazon, using its own data, contends that the company reduced average plastic packaging weight per shipment by more than 7 percent in 2021. Oceana’s report noted that Amazon’s data excludes orders fulfilled through third-party sellers.) The Bezos Earth Fund made a $50 million grant at the UN Ocean Conference to help expand the number of marine protected areas.

It’s a conflict that Gee of the Climate Justice Alliance has grappled with. Should climate activists refuse to associate with or engage with the Bezos Earth Fund given the source of its money? “The wealth accumulation is based on extraction,” she said. “We know that this money has come from paying workers low wages and harsh conditions.”

Ultimately, by Gee’s calculus, taking money seems better than leaving it in a billionaire’s hands. “We know, as a climate justice organization, if we don’t try to influence where that money will go, it will continue to go to things that just continue to allow pollution, continue to allow harm to frontline communities,” she said. “It puts us in a difficult position where we’re relying on billionaires that have capitalized on the extractive economy to make the transition that we need.”

The Asian Pacific Environmental Network, which received $5 million from BEF, echoed the sentiment that it was important to proactively try to shift money to climate justice groups. “The amount of money that was going to be pouring into the climate space — it would have a real impact on the conditions that our climate justice movement will face in building power for a just transition,” said Vivian Huang, a co-director at the organization. She noted that the fund’s initial $100 million grants went to “large traditional environmental organizations” advocating for policies “that allow big polluters to continue treating our neighborhoods as environmental sacrifice zones.”

Amazon was also a major presence in APEN’s internal conversations around whether to apply for a BEF grant. “While most of the funds distributed through philanthropic foundations are gained through the exploitation of land and people, the scale and immediacy of the impact that Amazon has had on our communities has been devastating,” Huang said. “From inhumane working conditions to tax avoidance and increasing pollution burden, Jeff Bezos is remaking entire industries to concentrate even more profits in the hands of the wealthy at the expense of workers and communities.” APEN and the Bezos Earth Fund agreed that if the group applied for a grant and received one, it would still be able to join and support future campaigns around Amazon’s labor and climate issues.

Ultimately, Bezos’s philanthropy won’t fix the harms caused by Amazon. “If he wanted to redress those harms, he could change the practices of his company, recognize Amazon worker unions, and negotiate fair contracts,” said Christine Cordero, co-director of APEN. Cordero noted that billionaires should be giving their wealth away, but that there were still a lot of concerns around how philanthropic decisions are made and by whom.

This past March, a youth-led feminist organization called FRIDA made waves when it revealed it had received a $10 million gift from Scott, whose billions also come from Amazon stock — and made clear that it considered the money a kind of reparations. “While we are humbled and excited to receive this donation and map out the ways in which this money could strengthen the FRIDA community and our existing strategy, we acknowledge the source of MacKenzie Scott’s wealth and its association with one of the most exploitative companies in the world,” the announcement post read. “We work to challenge wealth and privilege, and recognize that philanthropic giving exists because of inequality and exploitation.”

Philanthropy also can be an attempt to erase negative reputations. Today, Bill Gates is synonymous with global health philanthropy; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an estimated endowment of $70 billion, and it’s the second-biggest contributor to the World Health Organization. But Gates’s entry into philanthropy roughly coincided with a tumultuous time at Microsoft in the late ’90s, when the tech giant was facing a major court case accusing it of ruthless, anti-competitive practices. Today, that controversial past has mostly been smoothed over, and Gates is first and foremost associated with the image of a benevolent, thoughtful public citizen.

In the wake of the scandal surrounding Sam Bankman-Fried and his crypto exchange FTX, the concept of “earning to give” was suddenly everywhere. Bankman-Fried’s version of effective altruism argued that one should maximize their wealth because that would also maximize the amount of money one could give away. But a certain variation of this logic exists in philanthropy at large. Philanthropists have long leaned on their ability to do a lot of good for society as a justification for deeply unequal wealth distribution. If, in the end, their riches were benefiting the public — wasn’t that wealth well-earned?

The “burden” of giving money — and control — away

Bezos’s fairly muted announcement may or may not pan out. The fruits of it also probably won’t be seen right away.

In his November CNN interview, Bezos called philanthropy hard. “There are a bunch of ways you can do ineffective things, too,” he remarked. It’s a surprisingly common sentiment among the ultrarich. Elon Musk echoed this sentiment not long ago, saying, “If you care about the reality of doing good and not the perception of doing good, then it is very hard to give away money effectively.”

There’s some truth to it, but it’s also a line big donors have long used to justify taking their time. The narrative dates back to the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller, said Soskis. In one way, it served to “legitimize the vast accumulation of wealth” by presenting philanthropy as a great burden to shoulder. “Heavy weighed the crown for the industrialist,” he said. It painted an image of a “careworn philanthropist, who was so focused on giving away money well.”

“At that time as well, there was this focus on the distinction between indiscriminate giving and scientific philanthropy, which was discriminating and focused and really paid attention to outcomes,” said Soskis.

But there’s no dearth of experts and activists willing to put forward thoughtful, effective ideas on how wealth can be redistributed, and there’s a huge gap in funding for the climate crisis in particular, which only received about 2 percent of philanthropic dollars as of a 2020 report. Gee pointed to the many climate justice groups — as well as intermediary funds that exist to figure out which grassroots groups need money — that are prepared to receive and spend grants today. “There are mechanisms, there are projects, there are solutions that are already being implemented,” she said.

In some ways, the billionaire philanthropist’s pledge to give away their fortune is an acknowledgment that they have far more than they could ever spend on themselves, and that their wealth continues to accumulate at an astonishing clip. If Amazon’s value increases, Bezos stands to passively add to his already enormous pile. Part of why Scott is uncommonly well-regarded even among critics of billionaire philanthropy is her supercharged pace of giving. Since divorcing Bezos in 2019, she has donated at least $14 billion. In contrast, Bezos, who has much more money than Scott’s $28 billion, has given away about $2.4 billion, according to Forbes. That’s about 2 percent of his wealth.

Whether or not one agrees with Scott’s rapid-fire approach, it’s a counterargument to the claim that giving billions away is so difficult that it takes decades, if not entire lifetimes. She’s become the role model of a less prescriptive model of philanthropy that hands off decision-making power to the people receiving grants — often grassroots groups and schools — instead of the wealthy philanthropist writing the checks. But committing to this strategy requires ceding control.

For Davies, it’s one of the biggest questions he has about the Amazon founder’s future as a philanthropist: Will Bezos be willing to give away not just money, but power as well?

Correction, January 25, 10 am ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Amazon was one of 2022’s most profitable American companies. Full earnings information for 2022 is not yet available. Amazon was one of the top-profiting US companies in 2021.

Update, January 27, 3 pm ET: This story has been updated to include Amazon’s own data on its plastic packaging waste, which shows a reduction in such waste in 2021.

27 Jan. 2023
Mexican President Felipe Calderon (R) and the Secretary of the Mexican Federal Police Genaro Garcia Luna (L) prepare to inaugurate the Mexican Federal Police new Intelligence Center, in Mexico City, on November 24, 2009.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, right, and Secretary of the Mexican Federal Police Genaro Garcia Luna, left, prepare to inaugurate a new police intelligence center, in Mexico City, on November 24, 2009. | Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images

Did El Chapo have a double agent in the Mexican government?

This week, a federal drug trial got underway in Brooklyn that, in some ways, is an indictment against the war on drugs itself.

The Eastern District Court of New York trial is of Mexico’s former top cop, Genaro García Luna. Prosecutors say García Luna, who led Mexico’s version of the FBI and served as public security secretary — a powerful Cabinet-level position under President Felipe Calderon — was playing a double game throughout the US and Mexico’s war on drugs.

García Luna spent much of the 2000s being the face of a heroic crackdown on a brutal drug trade. But all that changed during cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s 2018 trial in New York City, which was a hotspot for the drugs his Sinaloa cartel smuggled into the United States. At the trial, a former cartel lieutenant told the jury that he personally met with García Luna twice in a restaurant, each time delivering a briefcase stuffed with at least $3 million in cash.

Now García Luna is charged with engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, among other charges. His defense has told jurors that the government’s case rested on “rumors, speculation and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world,” who were apprehended by García Luna.

The revelations were a major scandal in Mexico, said Peniley Ramírez, a former investigative journalist at Univision and now co-host of Futuro Media’s podcast USA v. García Luna. But it was less surprising to Mexican journalists who’d been questioning how a civil servant became wealthy enough to own several luxury properties.

“There were a few people, a few journalists in Mexico that were asking too many accountability questions about him and the money that he had and the businesses that he was doing,” said Ramírez. “And those people were facing a lot of retaliation. Some of them left the country, some of them received death threats. And some of them are here [in New York] now covering the trial.”

Below is an excerpt of the conversation between Ramírez and Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so find Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.


Sean Rameswaram

Help us understand how this guy who’s close to the DEA and working with the US government is now on trial in New York City for being a part of the drug trade.

Peniley Ramírez

One of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel said [in a US federal court trial] that, “Yeah, I was working with El Chapo” — he was the leader of the Sinaloa cartel — “but guess what? We were bribing top Mexican officers to smuggle drugs here.” And in the middle of that, he drops García Luna’s name.

You can imagine that was a huge scandal in Mexico. So García Luna, who by then was living in Miami, took the first flight back to Mexico, and he gave a bunch of interviews saying “No! Oh, my God, I’m going to sue this person. How can he say that? He’s a criminal. I was the leader of the government trying to capture these people and extradite them.”

But less than one year after that, so December of 2019, he was arrested here in the US. And now he is going to be on trial before the same judge, Brian Cogan, and in the same place where El Chapo was on trial. So it’s the most important case derived so far from this big trial that was in the news a lot here in the US in 2018 and 2019.

Sean Rameswaram

And tell us his story. Where does it begin?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he was born in Mexico City in 1968. It was a working-class neighborhood, his father had a moving business. [García Luna] wanted to be a soccer player, so he tried to become a professional soccer player but he couldn’t make it because he was not good enough. But then he moved to another career and he started studying engineering, and in the middle of that, he became a low-ranking spy. He entered the equivalent, in Mexico, to the CIA.

This is like the late ’80s, and really soon, just in about a decade, the guy becomes the head of the Mexican equivalent to the FBI. And then after that, just in six years, he becomes the head of the Mexican equivalent to the DHS, plus the NSA, plus the CIA. So he became [one of] the most powerful people in the civilian government of Mexico. And also he became one of the closest people in Mexico to the US government — especially to the DEA and to the FBI.

Sean Rameswaram

Was he good at his job?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he was good at selling himself, that we can tell. He advanced really fast in his career, and he became this person that was, at some point, managing millions of dollars from US taxpayers that were sent to Mexico to fight the war on drugs. From 2001 to 2012, he was a top officer. So the guy was all the time in the news in Mexico. He was meeting with really important people from the US. He has pictures with Hillary Clinton, with Joe Biden. He was like a top, top officer. He was in a lot of bilateral meetings. He was receiving awards from the CIA, saying, “Thank you for helping us.” But the crazy thing is that now he’s being accused, here in New York, in the US Eastern District Court in Brooklyn, of helping El Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel smuggle the drugs to the US while working with the DEA and the Mexican government.

And at the same time, he was seeing himself as a top spy. So this guy was obsessed, for example, with James Bond. When he turned 50 years old, he organized a party with a James Bond theme. And for example, his work email was AFI01, so he was “agent number one” of the agency that he was leading. And he was also obsessed with a lot of things American. For example, he had a secret basement in his house with a lot of records from Donna Summer and he was also obsessed with CSI. So he received part of the money from the US and he created a show, a TV show that was called The Team.

Sean Rameswaram

Wait, he had his own TV show in Mexico?!

Peniley Ramírez

Yeah, yeah. They paid up to $11 million to create a TV show, and one of the helicopters that was donated by the United States to Mexico to fight the war on drugs was in the trailer of the TV show saying “Oh, these are the good cops from Mexico that are fighting the war on drugs.” And then in 2012, the guy left office, left the Mexican government, and he moved to Miami to a $3 million house. It was like a super luxury lifestyle. It’s hard to believe that you can pay all of that with just, you know, your salary as a public servant. The salary of a public servant in Mexico is less than the middle-class salary in any part of the US. So I think it’s hard to believe that you can afford that. So he was living in Miami all that time after he left office until he was arrested in 2019. So he got a pretty cool life. But now he’s in jail in Brooklyn.

Sean Rameswaram

What charges is García Luna facing?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he’s facing several charges. Most of them are for conspiring with a cartel to bring the drugs. They’re also charging him with lying to the DHS, because as he moved to Miami when he left office in Mexico, he became a resident and then he was seeking American citizenship. And as you know, when you are trying to become a citizen, you need to respond to a questionnaire. One of the questions is, “Have you ever committed a crime?” And he said no. Now they’re accusing him of lying, saying, “Oh, yeah, you did.” So let’s see if they prove it.

Sean Rameswaram

You’ve been in the courtroom. What’s it like in there?

Peniley Ramírez

First, it’s a high-security case. So reporters during the jury selection weren’t allowed to be in the same room where the jury was being selected. The jury will remain anonymous. So we know their numbers, but we don’t know their names and they’re partially sequestered.

Sean Rameswaram

How is García Luna’s team defending him?

Peniley Ramírez

The narrative is … he was a Mexican “good cop,” [the] top good cop, the guy who was saving Mexico. So the defense right now is playing this card of saying, first, that most of the potential witnesses against him are people that are taking revenge because he apprehended them and he extradited them, and now they’re just coming back for him. And the second thing [they’re saying is] “He couldn’t be corrupt because he was working with the US. He was working with the American government.”

Sean Rameswaram

What’s the prosecution saying so far?

Peniley Ramírez

They’re saying so far that they will have more than 70 witnesses. So that’s huge. That’s way more than a typical trial. They have been delivering more than a million pages of documents related to the case to the defense. So the defense has been trying to go over all these documents to try to find out, what’s the prosecution’s smoking gun, if they have it. We know that a lot of the witnesses are going to be cooperating witnesses — people that were with the Sinaloa cartel or with other cartels, and they allegedly knew something about García Luna. And now they are able to testify what they know and try to get some good treatment from the prosecution in exchange for saying what they know. So we are expecting big, big names in the narco industry and people that were really crucial to understand why this so-called war on drugs has been mostly a failure so far.

And I think this is the important part for the US audience, because I think it is important to say that this is not just a trial of a wild Mexican politician that liked Donna Summer and James Bond and CSI. It’s something really American, because most of the money that is involved, it’s money from the US taxpayers that went to Mexico to help fight the war on drugs. Most of the victims of the violence are in Mexico. But the victims of these drugs, the hundreds of thousands of people dying from overdoses, are here in the United States. They are not in Mexico. So that’s why I think it’s important to tell the story here, because it’s not just a story about Mexican politics.

Sean Rameswaram

It sounds like the outcome of this trial will mostly just affect García Luna. But has the American government addressed how embarrassing these revelations so far have been?

Peniley Ramírez

Oh, of course not. They have not addressed it at all.

[In fact], they have been trying to prevent the defense from presenting any evidence that García Luna was close to the United States. For example, the prosecution asked Judge Cogan to prohibit the defense from presenting any evidence [like] “Here is a picture of him with Hillary Clinton… here is the award that he received from the CIA,” because as you said, it is embarrassing. García Luna is accused of helping the Sinaloa cartel since 2001. So in 2012, 11 years after that, he received this fancy award from the head of the CIA, David Petraeus, saying, “Thank you in recognition for your effort and your help to the United States.” And you know, I think that you used the correct word, which is: it’s embarrassing.

Sean Rameswaram

When the trial is over, this war on drugs will not be over. But is there a way it could be conducted better in a way to avoid embarrassing incidents like this with García Luna?

Peniley Ramírez

I would truly expect that after this trial, especially if he’s declared guilty, that the United States does a deep revision of their international allies. So how many other García Lunas are out there? If he is declared guilty, how many other people that the US government is trusting right now with money, with information … are receiving awards from the US government and nothing is actually happening? Because the numbers are really clear, you keep seeing drugs coming into the border every day. You keep seeing people dying from overdoses of fentanyl, of cocaine, every day. So the war is not over, because people are still dying from overdoses in the United States. People are still dying from the violence in Mexico. So I would love to see some accountability regarding not just this guy. What other people are out there that, right now, should be fighting the drugs [coming] in and they are not doing it?

27 Jan. 2023
Special Counsel John Durham, who then-United States Attorney General William Barr appointed in 2019 after the release of the Mueller report to probe the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, arrives for his trial at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Special counsel John Durham, who then-Attorney General William Barr appointed to probe the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation after the release of the Mueller report in 2019, arrives for his trial at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. | Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty

A new report reveals how politicized and conspiratorial the Durham investigation was.

In 2019, a few weeks after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Trump administration flipped the script and began investigating the investigators.

Attorney General Bill Barr appointed US Attorney John Durham to investigate those government officials who had presumed to look into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

The FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, Barr argued publicly, was born of chasing thin conspiracy theories and relied on phony evidence, and its investigators were either blinded by political bias or acting with blatant political motives.

And then Durham and Barr proceeded to do all those same things.

A new, detailed exposé by the New York Times’s Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman, and Katie Benner digs into what exactly happened with the nearly four-year Durham investigation, which is purportedly about to conclude, and it isn’t pretty. Anecdote after anecdote portrays Durham and Barr as believing in conspiracy theories without evidence but with clear political motives to bolster one of Trump’s favorite arguments: that he was the victim of a nefarious plot.

Basically, Durham and Barr wanted to prove that the Trump-Russia investigation was manufactured in bad faith by either “deep state” officials or the Clinton campaign (or both), with the goal of hurting Trump politically. Again and again, Durham pursued various versions of this theory, and again and again, he fell short of proving his case.

If Barr and Durham started off with suspicions but found upon investigation that they were baseless, that’s not necessarily so terrible. Yet both men kept on saying or implying publicly that the “‘deep state’/Clinton campaign hit job” theory was true — Barr in public statements where he said this outright and Durham in court filings and trial questioning that seemed designed to advance a narrative he couldn’t actually prove.

Bizarrely enough, when checking out one of these theories — that Italian officials were somehow involved in launching the Trump-Russia investigation — Durham and Barr were instead presented with evidence linking Trump himself to potential financial crimes. “Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham decided that the tip was too serious and credible to ignore,” the Times reporters write. Barr kept this new investigation of Trump in Durham’s hands, and it’s unclear what became of it.

The Trump-Russia investigation certainly shouldn’t be exempt from criticism, and a fair-minded review of whether investigators made misjudgments would be reasonable. But the Durham probe was not that. Instead, it repeatedly assumed dastardly plots against Trump, even when the evidence kept failing to establish those plots, while Barr seeded a narrative to conservative media and President Trump himself that Durham was closing in on Trump’s “deep state” enemies. The politicized, blinkered investigation they were looking for was inside them all along.

The many conspiracy theories of Bill Barr and John Durham

The grand theory of the Russia investigation from Trump’s supporters has always been that it was a “deep state” Democratic witch hunt. This is what Barr and Durham evidently set out to try to prove — and they explored many possibilities.

Perhaps something was off about the FBI’s decision to open the investigation in July 2016. Or maybe it was the post-election period when the FBI acted oddly. Maybe the CIA cooked its analysis of Russian interference with the election. Or perhaps a Western intelligence service seeded misinformation. But Durham’s probe did not lead to any charges against officials in any of these matters.

Instead, Durham’s only charge against a government official, in 2020, stemmed from a referral made by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who found that an FBI attorney had altered an email when trying to get sign-off on a fourth round of FISA surveillance on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months of probation, but the judge in his case concluded he didn’t have political motives and was instead engaged in bureaucratic corner-cutting.

By 2021, Durham had seemed to give up on the “deep state.” His team’s new theory seemed to be that Trump/Russia investigators were bamboozled by malicious outside actors — with ties to Hillary Clinton — knowingly making false or misleading claims to drum up a phony investigation into Trump.

So he focused on one episode where Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, told the FBI about research by a group of computer scientists into secret online communications between a Trump server and a Russian bank. The charge against Sussmann was narrow, with Durham alleging he lied to his FBI contact about whether he arranged their meeting on behalf of his client.

The indictment, however, seemed written to imply something bigger — that the Clinton campaign knowingly concocted a bogus Trump-Russia link, and fed it to the FBI and the media. The problem with that theory is that other evidence suggests the researchers involved really believed their theory. (Sussmann was acquitted of the charge at trial.)

Durham also dug into Igor Danchenko, the lead researcher for Christopher Steele’s infamous (and infamously flawed) “dossier” claiming Trump-Russia connections. Durham seemed to have been trying to imply that Democrats deliberately seeded false claims in the dossier — like the claim about the “pee tape.”

But what he could prove was much less impressive — a Democratic PR executive, who had been previously involved in some Clinton campaigns but never at high levels, had claimed to know about some Trump campaign personnel gossip that he had actually read in the newspaper. (Danchenko was charged with lying to the FBI but acquitted at trial.)

Now, the new Times report reveals another episode where Durham used questionable means to try to prove Democratic malfeasance. The background is that the CIA had obtained some purported Russian intelligence memos asserting there was a deliberate plot by Clinton to drum up a phony investigation against Trump, but the memos were believed by internal analysts to be dubious.

Durham, however, tried to prove their veracity, in part by trying to secretly obtain emails from an executive at George Soros’s Open Society Foundation (since the memos had made some accusations about this executive). A judge, however, rejected Durham’s request to get this private citizen’s emails without informing him.

The Times reporters pointed out that this is quite similar to what the FBI did with the allegations in the dubious Steele dossier — except now, apparently, it’s okay because Barr’s people are the ones doing it.

It remains possible that Durham has found some unflattering things that he’ll disclose in an eventual report. But so far, his investigation has seemed to be a politicized mess, bumbling from one conspiracy theory and weak case to the next.

Everything Barr thought was true about the Trump-Russia investigation has turned out to be true about the investigation that he ordered.

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