Quinn Norton and the New York Times’ short-lived courage

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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Trump’s national security strategy is a farce

Roger Cohen writes: The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon.

“It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,” a European ambassador told me last week. “We could go sleepwalking into a war.”

Let’s start with North Korea, whose small but growing nuclear arsenal is overseen by Kim Jong-un, a leader as volatile as Trump. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is “really quite clear.” He said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

That was Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. By Friday, at the United Nations, Tillerson was setting conditions.

North Korea must cease “threatening behavior” before talks can begin; it must “earn its way back to the table;” and pressure will “continue until denuclearization is achieved.”

Denuclearization is not going to happen in the real world. If that’s the condition, there will be no talks. As for Trump, he has said Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded.” He has never embraced talks without preconditions, favored by France, Britain and sometimes Tillerson.

Clear enough already?

Oh, I should add that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was not present when Tillerson spoke. Great optics there: Haley and Tillerson are known to be at loggerheads, with the secretary of state (regarded by some as a dead man walking) suspecting Haley wants to succeed him.

Now, effective pressure on North Korea has three components: China, China and China. Trump’s new national security strategy identifies China as “a strategic competitor.” It suggests the United States will get tough on Chinese “cheating or economic aggression.”

Great timing there: Trump is asking President Xi Jinping to cut off crude oil exports to North Korea as his “strategy” lambasts China. Our president believes everyone will do his bidding because he says so. Hello! You want a favor? You don’t double down on confrontation. [Continue reading…]

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While headlines focus on Mueller, Trump’s ire is directed at Sessions and Rosenstein

The Washington Post reports: Advisers who have spoken recently with Trump about the Russia investigation said the president was sharply critical of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller operation — but did not broach the idea of firing Mueller.

“I think he realizes that would be a step too far,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a private conversation.

Rather, Trump appeared to be contemplating changes in the Justice Department’s leadership. In recent discussions, two advisers said, Trump has called the attorney general “weak,” and complained that Rosenstein has shown insufficient accountability on the special counsel’s work. A senior official said Trump mocked Rosenstein’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, saying he looked weak and unable to answer questions. Trump has ranted about Rosenstein as “a Democrat,” one of these advisers said, and characterized him as a threat to his presidency.

In fact, Rosenstein is a Republican. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated him to be U.S. attorney in Maryland.

On Monday morning, after this story was published, a White House spokesman reached out to The Washington Post to say that Sessions and Rosenstein are safe in their jobs.

“The president is not considering changes to the Department of Justice leadership,” said Raj Shah, principal deputy White House press secretary. [Continue reading…]

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Why it’s far worse for Trump to fire Rosenstein than to fire Mueller

Asha Rangappa writes: Although under the Special Counsel regulations Mueller does not have to report to Rosenstein day to day, he does need to check in with the DAG three months before the end of the fiscal year with a status report on the progress of the investigation, and Rosenstein has the power to “determine whether the investigation should continue.” Separately, Rosenstein has the power to require Mueller to “provide an explanation for any investigative or prosecutorial step,” and can prevent Mueller from pursuing any action if, in his view, he believes that it is “inappropriate or unwarranted” under departmental practices. If he does so, he must report this decision to both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. The fact that, six months into Mueller’s appointment, no such report has been made and Mueller continues to take significant investigative and prosecutorial steps (including, most recently, obtaining tens of thousands of transition team emails from the General Services Administration) suggests that Rosenstein is on board with the breadth, scope, and direction in which Mueller is taking the investigation.

Removing Rosenstein and replacing him with a DAG who is at the very least more sympathetic to Trump could have drastic repercussions on the investigation. The new DAG could burden the Special Counsel with a requirement to provide an explanation for every move he makes, and then decide that they aren’t necessary or appropriate. In fact, since Mueller is required to provide the DAG with at least three days’ notice in advance of any “significant event” in the investigation, she would have plenty of time to intervene and challenge Mueller’s actions (and a less scrupulous DAG could even leak Mueller’s plans to the White House or others). A new DAG would even have the ultimate—er, trump card: she could decide at some point that the investigation should not even continue at all.

Of course, any attempt to override a decision by Mueller would need to be reported and justified to Congress. However, given the increased clamor of some GOP members and right-leaning media outlets against the Mueller investigation, a DAG’s rationale for pushing back on Mueller’s investigation would find a receptive audience in some circles, including on the Hill. The situation is delicate, and a DAG has a powerful platform to shift the balance of power against the investigation. Imagine the next DAG simply expressing doubts about Mueller in testifying before the Congress, instead of the level of confidence Rosenstein expressed last week before the House Judiciary Committee. Those are important moments in the life of this investigation, and a DAG not fully committed to the rule of law but to insulating the president and the White House from political and legal accountability could wreak havoc. [Continue reading…]

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Trump judicial nominee Matthew Petersen pulls out after struggling to answer basic questions

The Washington Post reports: Matthew Petersen, a nominee to the federal judiciary, has withdrawn from consideration days after a video clip showed him unable to answer basic questions about legal procedure, the White House confirmed Monday.

Petersen, nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the third Trump judicial pick to withdraw in the past week amid criticism from Democrats and others about their qualifications.

White House spokesman Raj Shah confirmed that Trump had accepted Petersen’s withdrawal but declined to comment further.

The video of Petersen that went viral Thursday captured five minutes of pointed questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) at Petersen’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before.

It was posted on Twitter by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who wrote that it showed Kennedy asking Peter­sen “basic questions of law & he can’t answer a single one.”

As of Friday, the White House was standing by Petersen, with a spokesman saying that he was qualified and that “the President’s opponents” were “trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations.” [Continue reading…]

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How the Pentagon’s cyber offensive against ISIS could shape the future for elite U.S. forces

Dan Lamothe reports: The U.S. military has conducted cyber attacks against the Islamic State for more than a year, and its record of success when those attacks are coordinated with elite Special Operations troops is such that the Pentagon is likely carry out similar operations with greater frequency, according to current and former U.S. defense officials.

The cyber offensive against ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State, was a first and included the creation of a unit named Joint Task Force Ares. It focused on destroying or disrupting computer networks used by the militant group to recruit fighters and communicate inside the organization. Such offensive weapons are more commonly associated with U.S. intelligence agencies, but they were brought into the open in 2016 after then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter pressured U.S. Cyber Command to become more involved in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

The move sparked a debate in the U.S. government over whether American allies would object to the U.S. military’s altering computer networks abroad, The Washington Post reported in May. Some intelligence officials argued that using such weapons in other countries could jeopardize the cooperation of international partners on which U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies depend.

But the cyber attacks were approved and launched anyway, and the campaign recently received the full-throated endorsement of Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Russia investigation now looking into Jill Stein

BuzzFeed reports: The top congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has set its sights on the Green Party and its nominee, Jill Stein.

Dennis Trainor Jr., who worked for the Stein campaign from January to August of 2015, says Stein contacted him on Friday saying the Senate Intelligence Committee had requested that the campaign comply with a document search.

Trainor, who served as the campaign’s communications director and acting manager during that time, told BuzzFeed News that he was informed of the committee’s request because during his time on the campaign, his personal cell phone was “a primary point of contact” for those looking to reach Stein or the campaign. That included producers from RT News, the Russian state-funded media company that booked Stein for several appearances, Trainor said. [Continue reading…]

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FBI warned Trump in 2016 Russians would try to infiltrate his campaign

NBC News reports: In the weeks after he became the Republican nominee on July 19, 2016, Donald Trump was warned that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign, according to multiple government officials familiar with the matter.

The warning came in the form of a high-level counterintelligence briefing by senior FBI officials, the officials said. A similar briefing was given to Hillary Clinton, they added. They said the briefings, which are commonly provided to presidential nominees, were designed to educate the candidates and their top aides about potential threats from foreign spies.

The candidates were urged to alert the FBI about any suspicious overtures to their campaigns, the officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump silences ‘We The People’ petition site

The Hill reports: The White House says it will take down a website that hosts petitions to the federal government, with a promise to restore it as a new site next year.

The “We The People” website, launched by then-President Obama in 2011, will be taken down on Tuesday at midnight, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Officials told the AP that platform will be replaced with a new website in late January and that all of the existing petitions will be restored at that time.

The Trump administration has yet to respond to any petitions that have exceeded 100,000 signatures, which necessitate a response from the federal government. [Continue reading…]

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Can the International Criminal Court be saved from itself?

Thierry Cruvellier writes: Last month, the International Criminal Court opened two investigations, including a sensitive one in Afghanistan, and a call has been made to allow it to intervene in Myanmar. But such a flurry of announcements mainly testifies to the impasse at which the court finds itself.

On Nov. 20, after 11 desperately long years conducting a “preliminary examination,” Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, formally requested authorization to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan thought to have been committed since 2003, after the United States-led invasion of the country.

It is a contentious move: Afghanistan recognizes the court’s jurisdiction, but the United States does not, and the I.C.C. is expected to investigate acts by American soldiers and C.I.A. personnel, along with some by the Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces.

The court was controversial from the moment it was created in 1998: Major states, including the United States, China and Russia, opposed its foundational treaty, the Rome Statute.

The I.C.C. has since come under repeated attack for being too slow, too accommodating to powerful states, inefficient and sloppy. It has gone after only Africans, indicted at most a few defendants in each of its eight concrete investigations, secured only four convictions and even botched investigations.

In November, the prosecutor also disclosed that she has opened an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi since April 2015 by state agents and the ruling party’s youth wing. Two days after the I.C.C. judges allowed the investigation, Burundi became the first country to formally withdraw from the court. There is meager hope of a significant outcome.

The fact that crimes were committed in Afghanistan is hardly in dispute. The Taliban, the office of the prosecutor wrote, has led “a widespread and systematic campaign of intimidation, targeted killings and abductions of civilians” perceived to oppose them, while the Afghan Army and police showed “systemic patterns of torture and cruel treatment” of war prisoners, including acts of sexual violence. Such acts are also alleged against United States agents and servicemen, principally in the 2003-04 period.

The problem is that none of the targeted authorities is likely to cooperate. The Taliban can’t be bothered with international justice. Despite being an I.C.C. member state, Afghanistan has shown no sign of commitment to a court that has no means to enforce arrest warrants.

The United States will at best ignore the I.C.C. or at worst be actively hostile, as it was during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, when it pressured more than a hundred states, including Afghanistan, to sign bilateral agreements not to surrender Americans to the I.C.C.

The I.C.C. will be able to claim that it no longer targets only Africans, which seems its primary motive to open the investigation now. But it will keep showing its powerlessness. [Continue reading…]

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Putin thanks Trump for CIA intel that ‘foiled’ a planned ‘terrorist attack’ in Russia

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday phoned President Trump to thank him for a tip from the CIA that thwarted a terrorist attack being planned in St. Petersburg.

The unusual call — countries share intelligence all the time, but presidents rarely publicly thank one another for it — was confirmed by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Putin told Trump that the information provided by the CIA allowed Russian law enforcement agencies to track down and detain a group of suspects who were planning to bomb the centrally located Kazan Cathedral and other crowded parts of Russia’s second-largest city.

“Based on the information the United States provided, Russian authorities were able to capture the terrorists just prior to an attack that could have killed large numbers of people,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together.” [Continue reading…]

I don’t have time to answer this question right now, but I can’t help wondering whether the conspiracy theorists who so often raise the specter of “false flag” operations are doing so right now.

We already know how easily the piggy in the Oval office can be led by the ring in his nose.

We also know Putin wants to presents Russia as an equal to the U.S. rather than an inferior partner.

But the picture being painted here is one in which the CIA supposedly has better intelligence on plots unfolding inside Russia than do Putin’s own security services.

Perhaps that’s the case, or perhaps bait was carefully laid for the CIA in order to conjure a useful bit of PR highlighting the cordiality of U.S.-Russian relations during a time when Russia isn’t too busy meddling in U.S. elections.

Update: I guess there are other observers with vastly more knowledge of Russian politics than I have, who are also casting a deeply skeptical eye on this report:

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Trump predicts exoneration in Russia investigation as allies fear a ‘meltdown’

CNN reports: President Donald Trump is privately striking a less agitated tone on the Russia investigation, sources say, even insisting he’ll soon be cleared in writing. But his new approach has some allies worried he’s not taking the threat of the probe seriously enough.

Trump has spent much of his first year in office so enraged by the federal investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election that lawmakers who work with him tried to avoid the issue entirely and his friends worried that Trump might rashly fire the special counsel. But in recent weeks, Trump has privately seemed less frustrated about the investigation, according to multiple sources who have spoken with the President.

There’s no indication from special counsel Robert Mueller or his team that the probe is in its final stages. A tipping point in the showdown could come as soon as this week when Trump’s private lawyers and Mueller meet, sources familiar with the matter told CNN. Trump’s team is hoping to get a clearer sense of Mueller’s next steps in the investigation, an assessment that could either pacify Trump or inflame him. [Continue reading…]

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Trump and allies are trying to destroy Mueller

Julian Zelizer writes: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has come under fierce political attack. President Donald Trump and his allies are systematically attempting to destroy the legitimacy of the investigation in the eyes of the public. And without a strong congressional investigative counterpart, Mueller finds himself increasingly isolated and alone.

While the White House issued a recent statement that it has no intention of firing Mueller, that is almost beside the point. In what should now be considered the classic Trumpian playbook, the President has moved aggressively to raise doubts about the credibility of his opponent. Ironically, he and his allies are attempting to crush an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians by insinuating that the Hillary Clinton campaign may, in fact, be at fault for such behavior.

The President’s attacks should not be taken lightly. As Brian Stelter has argued on CNN, Trump and the conservative media have perfected echo chamber politics, whereby the multiple charges about the investigation — that FBI agents were out to systematically bring down this presidency, that the agency is damaged by rampant conflict of interest problems, that Mueller is illegally obtaining information about the transition — have moved to the forefront of the national conversation regardless of the veracity or relevance of any of these claims.

Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, made a statement soon after the allegation emerged: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”

The stories bleed into the rest of the media as well. On Sunday morning, a Washington Post headline read, “Mueller unlawfully obtained emails, Trump transition team claims,” which was likely music to the President’s ears. An allegation by the Trump for America legal team had quickly made its way into the headlines.

Indeed, it is telling of how effective Trump can be that Mueller’s decision to fire an FBI agent for his email conversations about the campaign was somehow turned into a black mark against him, rather than a sign of how cautiously the process has been handled. [Continue reading…]

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Key officials push back against Trump campaign’s claim that a federal office illegally turned over emails to special counsel

BuzzFeed reports: A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel’s Office.

Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.

Officials with both the Special Counsel’s Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer’s claims in the hours after the letter was issued. [Continue reading…]

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Doug Jones doesn’t believe that sexual harassment is a ‘real issue.’ If it concerned enough voters, he argues, Trump wouldn’t be president

BuzzFeed reports: In the wake of Democratic Sen. Al Franken announcing his resignation after being accused of sexual misconduct, several Senate Democrats have called on Trump to step down because of the allegations against him leveled by more than a dozen women.

On Sunday, Jones broke with some of his fellow Democrats, saying he didn’t believe the president should resign and that “we need to move on and not get distracted by those issues.”

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, the Alabama senator-elect said, “Those allegations were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” [Continue reading…]

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Could Aung San Suu Kyi face Rohingya genocide charges?

Justin Rowlatt writes: Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is determined that the perpetrators of the horrors committed against the Rohingya face justice.

He’s the head of the UN’s watchdog for human rights across the world, so his opinions carry weight.

It could go right to the top – he doesn’t rule out the possibility that civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces Gen Aung Min Hlaing, could find themselves in the dock on genocide charges some time in the future.

Earlier this month, Mr Zeid told the UN Human Rights Council that the widespread and systematic nature of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar (also called Burma) meant that genocide could not be ruled out.

“Given the scale of the military operation, clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high level,” said the high commissioner, when we met at the UN headquarters in Geneva for BBC Panorama.

That said, genocide is one of those words that gets bandied about a lot. It sounds terrible – the so-called “crime of crimes”. Very few people have ever been convicted of it.

The crime was defined after the Holocaust. Member countries of the newly founded United Nations signed a convention, defining genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy a particular group.

It is not Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s job to prove acts of genocide have been committed – only a court can do that. But he has called for an international criminal investigation into the perpetrators of what he has called the “shockingly brutal attacks” against the Muslim ethnic group who are mainly from northern Rakhine in Myanmar.

But the high commissioner recognised it would be a tough case to make: “For obvious reasons, if you’re planning to commit genocide you don’t commit it to paper and you don’t provide instructions.”

“The thresholds for proof are high,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the future if a court were to make such a finding on the basis of what we see.” [Continue reading…]

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How Doug Jones won

Anne Applebaum writes: “How did he do it?” That’s the question I was asked more than once by European friends the day after Alabama’s Senate election: How did Doug Jones win? The question was not idle. In many ways, the electoral challenge Jones faced in Alabama was strikingly similar to the challenge facing European politicians of the center-left and even — or maybe especially — the center-right: How to defeat racist, xenophobic or homophobic candidates who are supported by a passionate, unified minority? Or, to put it differently: How to get the majority — which is often complacent rather than passionate, and divided rather than unified — to vote?

This was the same question asked after the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French elections, and part of the answer, in both cases, was luck. Nobody predicted a Roy Moore sex scandal. Nobody predicted that the French political establishment would fold so quickly either. France’s previous, center-left president was so unpopular that he discredited his party; France’s center-right leader, François Fillon, was knocked out of the race by a scandal. Macron wound up as the leader of a new centrist coalition, the electoral arithmetic was in his favor, and he won.

But beyond luck, both Macron and Jones also tried to reach across some traditional lines, in part by appealing to traditional values. Macron, fighting a nationalist opponent in the second round of the elections, openly promoted patriotism. Instead of fear and anger, he projected optimism about France and its international role. He spoke of the opportunities globalization brought to France instead of focusing on the dangers, and he declared himself proud to be both French and a citizen of the world.

He wasn’t the only European to take this route: Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader who is now president of Austria, used a similar kind of campaign to beat a nationalist opponent. Van der Bellen’s posters featured beautiful Alpine scenes, the Austrian flag and the slogan “Those who love their homeland do not divide it.”

In Alabama, Jones used remarkably similar language. [Continue reading…]

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Black voters and candidates might save America

Michelle Goldberg writes: The contest for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination is between two women named Stacey, both progressive lawyers who grew up in poverty, and it looks like a political science experiment about the future of the Democratic Party.

It’s not just that Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, is black, and Stacey Evans, a former state representative from suburban Atlanta, is white. More significant are their divergent strategies for victory, which show, in microcosm, the debate Democrats are having about how to rebuild the party in the age of Trump. Do they try to win back white voters who’ve abandoned them? Or do they assume that most of those voters are gone for good, and invest in turning out minorities and white liberals?

Evans, who has been endorsed by Roy Barnes, Georgia’s last Democratic governor, is running an education-focused campaign meant to lure white swing voters. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, it’s an approach that “failed her party the past four elections, but it helped a generation of Georgia Democrats win office before them.” Abrams, by contrast, thinks she can prevail with a coalition of mobilized minority voters and white progressives. It’s a new, largely untried strategy for a Southern politician running statewide, but after Jones’s miraculous victory in Alabama, it suddenly looks possible.

We’ve all heard a lot about how the calamity of Donald Trump’s election has led women of all races to pour into politics. But it’s not just women; there’s a new political intensity among people of color more broadly. African-Americans in particular are once again shouldering the burden of redeeming America from its worst impulses. High black voter turnout last month in Virginia — where the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, ran a campaign full of Confederate nostalgia — was crucial to the Democratic wave in that state. And in Alabama on Tuesday, black voters defied all predictions, as well as attempts at voter suppression, to turn out at historic levels. Though African-Americans are only 26 percent of the population, exit polls showed that they might have made up as much as 30 percent of voters. These voters went for Jones overwhelmingly; he won 98 percent of black women. “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” tweeted the Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez. [Continue reading…]

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