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Mother Jones - May June 2018

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May + June 2018
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22 Cloak and Data
The story behind Cambridge
Analytica’s rise and fall
plus: Weapons of Mass
Disruption BY T E R R E L L
From Russia, With
Love for the nra
36 Hidden Figures
The 2020 census is
underfunded, behind schedule,
and increasingly politicized.
Millions of Americans likely
won’t be counted—and many
of them are afraid to be.
44 Bottled Up
5 to our readers
7 outfront
Drinking may have given
me cancer. The alcohol
industry worked hard to
downplay the risk.
54 The Best Viral News
You’ll Ever Read
Antibiotic resistance is
one of the scariest threats
today—but a forgotten
remedy may save us yet.
C O V E R : D O U G C H AY K A ; A B O V E : E D M O N D E H A R O
Run everywhere.
Trial by Skype
Private prisons get a
Trump bump.
Will Stacey Abrams
be America’s first black
female governor?
61 mixed media
Dribble and shout.
Raising hell with the
US poet laureate
May + June 2018
The urban voice
of Native lit
The art of war
70 food + health
Modern Family law
How a trendy altmilk could save Iowa
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
stephanie mencimer
has covered the courts and
domestic policy for Mother
Jones for the last 10 years. She
was diagnosed with breast
cancer in April 2017 and
soon set out to learn why
she never knew alcohol was
such a risk factor. Her story
on how the booze industry
has tried to convince people
that drinking is good for
them (“Bottled Up,” page 44)
is published as she marks her
first year as a cancer survivor.
Atlanta-based science journalist maryn mckenna
has written about epidemics, disasters, and superbugs
around the world: polio
eradication in India, a field
hospital in New Orleans
during Hurricane Katrina,
and, for this issue, a lost
Soviet antibiotic alternative
called bacteriophages (“The
Best Viral News You’ll Ever
Read,” page 54). Big Chicken,
her second book on antibiotics, was published in 2017.
espn senior writer howard
bryant has had his
columns on race and social
issues in sports twice nominated for National Magazine Awards. His new book,
The Heritage: Black Athletes,
a Divided America, and the
Politics of Patriotism (Beacon),
chronicles the rise, fall,
and post-Ferguson return
of the politically engaged
black athlete, from Jackie
Robinson to Colin Kaepernick
(“Holding Court,” page 61).
The age of Trump has been a
boom time for illustrators, as
artists compete to come up
with more ambitious designs
for the endless stream of news.
That raises the bar for designers like adam vieyra, who
joined MoJo as the digital art
director in 2017 after years
at San Diego newspapers.
His photo illustrations and
graphic designs (pages 11, 31,
and 32 to 35) for this issue
were fueled by lots of coffee
and basketball podcasts.
To see our masthead, visit For questions about your
subscription or to make a tax-deductible donation to support our journalism, call
(800) 438-6656. To advertise or for other questions, call (415) 321-1700.
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We’re only beginning to understand how our
democracy was rigged—and what we can do about it.
one of the most important pieces of political
E D I TO R- I N - C H I E F
prognosis of the past decade appeared in the Wall
Street Journal on March 4, 2010. It was a look ahead
at that year’s midterm elections, the first chance
for voters to render a verdict on a new president
whom many Americans disliked to the point of
considering him illegitimate. The author was Karl
Rove. (Yeah, remember Turd Blossom?) The bland
headline: “The gop Targets State Legislatures.”
The piece dispassionately noted that while Washington was “fixated” on whether the election would
deliver a rebuke to President Barack Obama, the
most significant votes were being cast way down
the ballot. That was because 2010 was a census year,
meaning that over the following two years, legislatures in dozens of states would redraw electoral districts. If Republicans could pick off just 107 legislative
seats in key states, they would be able to deny Democrats a majority in the House for a decade to come.
Consider Texas, Rove went on: “Democrats had a
17-13 edge in the state’s congressional delegation after
the 2000 elections. Republicans won control of the
Texas House in 2002 and redrew the state’s congressional map. As a result, the gop now controls 20 congressional seats in Texas while Democrats control 12.”
(Rove was being coy: That redistricting was a signature endeavor of a Texas ally, former House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay, financed with boatloads of dark
money to create a Republican “permanent majority.”)
The strategy worked. Republicans—buoyed by
the tea party and Rove-ified campaigns staked on
racial and cultural dog whistles—took over statehouses and redrew the maps. And before long, states
where a majority of voters had chosen Democrats
nonetheless ended up with mostly gop lawmakers.
(In 2012, Republican candidates in Wisconsin garnered less than 49 percent of the vote but won 61
percent of seats in the state Assembly.)
This is how you hack elections when you can’t
persuade enough voters to actually choose your
ideas. It may be legal (and has been practiced, at
some point or another, by both parties), but it’s also
a perversion of the core tenets of democracy.
We’re living in Rove’s world now—a world where
a majority of voters have chosen one party but the
other party governs. It’s because of the district
lines that Rove’s compatriots drew that President
Donald Trump has no counterweight in Congress.
And it’s this mercenary approach—if you can’t win
on the merits, hack the system—that we now see
playing out across the board.
This is the spirit behind the mendacious, manipulative messages Trump’s campaign and its allies at
Cambridge Analytica served up to Facebook users.
It’s the spirit behind the National Rifle Association’s
decision to go all in on anger and fear while coddling
the Kremlin. And it’s the driving impulse behind the
White House’s push to hack another vital piece of
democratic infrastructure: the census.
On that last issue, as Ari Berman shows in this
magazine, nearly every decision the administration
and its allies in Congress have made has served a
single goal: a tally that inflates the share of white
people in the population and undercounts communities of color. A whiter census will skew the
allocation of congressional seats and even affect
the makeup of Electoral College votes (which are
divvied up via the same population math). It will
also shift trillions in federal funding. Make America
White Again, you might say—a last-ditch effort to
deny the nation’s true diversity and vigor.
Which takes us back to Karl Rove. Eight years
ago—it feels more like 80—it was hard to tell exactly how far the hacking of our democracy would
go. We didn’t know that a demagogue would show
up prepared to cozy up to Nazis and Klansmen and
make common cause with a foreign adversary. We
didn’t know that a major US company would bury
evidence that its users’ data was stolen and used
to manipulate voting. We didn’t know that antidemocratic redistricting would give us a Congress
unwilling to exercise the most basic oversight.
But we do now. And we also know there are a lot
more dots to connect, more rocks to turn over. That’s
what we do here at Mother Jones. You can see it in this
issue—from Ari’s census story and Andy Kroll’s deep
dive on Cambridge Analytica to our timeline on the
nra-Russia dalliance and our investigation of how
much further Russian attacks could go.
We can do this because support from our readers
(especially folks like you holding this magazine who
subscribe or donate) gives us independence from
advertisers and platform behemoths (including,
yes, Facebook). And that’s never been more important. Thank you. n
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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This year, a surge of Democratic candidates is challenging Republicans in
places—and races—where progressives usually fear to tread.
before she could talk about her campaign for the
Texas House of Representatives, Lisa Seger needed
to check on her goats. Seger, who lives with her
husband and 30 goats on a farm outside Houston,
had a doe in the maternity stall that was due any
minute. “Spring is kidding season,” she explained.
If elected, the 47-year-old Seger, a sustainableagriculture proponent who got into farming after
reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma,
would likely be the only member of the Legislature
with her own brand of yogurt. Her crimson-dyed
hair and floppy-eared companions notwithstanding, Seger’s political origin story is unexceptional in
2018. After President Donald Trump announced his
“Muslim ban” early last year, she drove to George
Bush Intercontinental Airport to protest. A week
later, she was back in Houston demonstrating outside the Super Bowl. She joined a local chapter of
the progressive grassroots group Indivisible and
kept going. “I’ve become the cliché,” she says.
But what makes Seger really stand out in the
state’s 3rd District is her party affiliation—she is
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
the first Democrat to run for the seat since 2010. The incumbent, Cecil Bell Jr., received 100 percent of the vote in
2012 and 2016. Seger’s Republican state senator also ran unopposed in her last election. “I couldn’t remember the last
time I was even able to vote for a Democrat in one of our
elections here,” Seger says.
Meanwhile, 500 miles away in West Texas, two millennial
friends, 26-year-old Armando Gamboa and 24-year-old Spencer
Bounds, are running for neighboring state House districts where
Democrats had gone awol. No one has contested Gamboa’s
district in Odessa since 2004; Bounds’ opponent in Midland is
a 50-year incumbent who last faced a Democrat in 2008.
Seger, Gamboa, and Bounds are part of a trend. Call it
the “Virginia Effect”: A little more than a year after Trump’s
inauguration, Democrats in deep-red districts are running
for office at a historic clip, determined to find and turn out
progressive voters in places where no one has
competed in years. It’s a sign the enthusiasm
that swept progressive activists in the first
year of the Trump administration and led the
party to big gains in Virginia and elsewhere
is still burning as the midterm elections approach. These local races, mostly flying under
Democratic bigwigs’ radar, could also give a
"The lesson
party struggling for relevance in large swaths
from Virginia
of the country a quiet boost this fall.
is that parties
In Texas, Democrats are running in 132 of
should try to
150 state House districts, a nearly 50 percent
run candidates
increase since 2016 and the highest figure
since at least the early ’90s. Democrats also
have candidates in all 36 of the state’s congressional districts, the first time they’ve put
up a full slate since 1984, back when Rick
Perry won his first office—as a Democrat.
(That number is still tentative, pending the outcome of
a lawsuit in Dallas County, where Republicans are trying
to get about 80 Democrats running for state and local
races thrown off the ballot because the party chair didn’t
personally sign their ballot applications.)
The trend holds across the country. As of mid-March the
Democratic Party had enlisted candidates in all but eight
Republican-held congressional districts; in 2016, it failed to
run candidates in 28 districts. In March, Conor Lamb defeated
a Republican in a special election for a Pennsylvania seat that
hadn’t seen a Democratic challenger since 2012. Alabama
Democrats, buoyed by Sen. Doug Jones’ stunning special election victory, have candidates in all seven congressional districts
for the first time since 1996. Kentucky Democrats haven’t contested this many Statehouse races—93 out of 100—since the
middle of the Reagan administration. Democrats in Indiana
are contesting 84 of 100 state House seats.
That Trump has been good for Democratic candidate recruitment is now canon among progressive organizers. Party
organs such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee and allied groups such as Emily’s List, the incubator
for pro-choice women candidates, have had little trouble lining
up elected officials, veterans, and former Obama staffers to run
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
in all but a handful of the 101 races the dccc views as pickup
opportunities. But another metric for Democratic enthusiasm
may be the number of Democrats contesting seats at the state
and local levels that aren’t on the party’s target list at all.
While national attention is focused on the congressional
midterms, statehouses present an increasingly enticing opportunity for Democrats, in part because after conservative
waves in 2010 and 2014, the party has nowhere to go but up.
Republicans may be susceptible to reversals in Pennsylvania,
Florida, and North Carolina—swing states with overwhelmingly Republican legislatures where Democrats have left a lot
of seats on the table in recent years. Already, Democrats have
flipped 20 formerly Republican-held seats in special elections
since November 2016, some in districts that on the surface look
about as competitive as Seger’s (read: not very).
The candidate surge was a major storyline in last November’s elections in Virginia. Democrats fielded candidates in
88 of 100 House of Delegates districts—up from 56 the previous election cycle, and their biggest slate in 36 years. They
picked up 15 delegates’ seats and came within 2 seats of a majority, buoyed by an influx of first-time candidates. Schuyler
VanValkenburg, a high school civics teacher, was only the third
Democrat to contest his Henrico County district in at least
21 years—now he’s a delegate.
In Virginia, Democrats were quick to boast of a “reverse
coattails” effect, in which the glut of down-ballot candidates
actually boosted the party’s performance at the top of the
ticket. One data cruncher found that in deep-red precincts
where a Democratic delegate candidate was on the ballot,
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam picked up 17 percent more
votes than his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Northam saw a mere 4 percent improvement in similar precincts where the Republican delegate was unopposed.
Historically, big statewide races have always driven turnout
for small down-ballot races, not the other way around. Going
over the numbers in January, Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, found that this was likely the
case with Northam too. Nonetheless, he said the candidate
surge had made a landslide more likely. “The lesson from Virginia is that parties should try to run candidates everywhere—
ideally strong candidates—and especially if a wave favoring
their party is a possibility,” Skelley says. “That way, a party can
maximize the payoff of a wave. If turnout is disproportionately
favorable to one side, as can certainly happen in a midterm
environment, that rising tide can lift all of a party’s boats.”
Put simply: More candidates mean more opportunities,
especially when things are going awry for the other side. No
Alabama Democrat ran against Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2014;
the party wisely avoided that scenario against Roy Moore.
Grassroots movements and more established institutions
are both fueling the candidate boom. Consider Donielle
Lovell, a 39-year-old Western Kentucky University sociologist who’s the first Democrat to contest the state’s 18th
House District since 2004. A progressive who had never
been particularly politically active, Lovell got involved in
local Democratic groups after the presidential election.
She demonstrated outside an event held by Sen. Mitch
Taking back the Texas Legislature—or for that matter,
picking up another US House seat in Alabama—is still a project best measured in geologic time. No one recruited Seger
to run for office, and her district isn’t on anyone’s watch list.
With no primary to worry about, her campaign was getting
off to a slow start. Her first stop on the trail would come just
a few days after we spoke, when she would steer her bright
red tractor down Main Street in the Go Texan Parade. Seger
is realistic about her chances but says, “If it’s ever going to
happen, this is probably the year it’ll happen.”
“People don’t ever want to run a race they might lose,” she
adds. “I just don’t care. If I lose, I’ll continue farming. If I win,
I will be a representative and continue farming.”
McConnell and helped set up workshops on nuts-and-bolts
tactics like organizing a precinct. She was mulling a run for
a local office like magistrate but decided to aim higher with
some prodding from the state party.
“I always saw myself as the person who does that research
that allows policymakers to make evidence-based decisions,”
Lovell says, explaining why she decided to mount a bid. “And I
started to see less evidence in a lot of the decisions being made.
So that started to concern me.” Now she keeps in touch with
other first-time candidates in Kentucky on a private Facebook
group for educators like herself and another for women running with the support of Emerge Kentucky, an organization
that helps Democratic women seeking office.
As more immigration
hearings are held via
teleconference, thousands
of detainees never
get their day in court.
tess feldman stood in an empty San
Francisco courtroom, facing a three-footwide television screen. “Good morning!” she
shouted toward a camera connected to the
TV. “Can you hear me?”
A stunned-looking man in an orange
prison jumpsuit appeared on screen. An
inmate at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility
in Bakersfield, California, nearly 300 miles
away, he was facing deportation and weighing
his legal options. His father had been murdered back in Oaxaca, Mexico, he told Feldman, and he was afraid to return. That made
him a potential candidate for asylum, but he
worried he would sit in a cell for months as
his case wended through the courts. “That
takes a long time, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Feldman said. She checked her
phone for the time. “I’m so sorry, but we
only have one minute left to talk.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, and walked
offscreen, shoulders slumped.
Twice a month, Feldman, a senior immigration attorney for a Bay Area legal
nonprofit, serves as the counsel of the
day for detainees at Mesa Verde and other
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
facilities. She has two hours to interview approximately 18 inmates—six
minutes each. Because Mesa Verde is
a five-hour drive from San Francisco,
home to one of the nearest major
immigration courts, almost all these
detainees will never actually go in
person, but will instead appear before
judges—and meet their pro bono lawyers—via video teleconference.
To detainees and their attorneys,
video teleconference, or vtc, is an
ad hoc solution and a valuable timesaving measure. As of 2015, nearly onethird of detained immigrants in the
United States appeared in deportation
hearings via televideo.
In 2017, there were
114,000 hearings that
used vtc, a 185 percent
increase since 2007.
As vtc becomes increasingly
in the detention proappearing
cess, advocates and imvia video give
migration officials have
up more
to weigh its efficiency
at expediting court proquickly
ceedings against the
and resign
pressures it puts on
asylum-seekers. A study
to selfpublished in the Northdeportation.
western University Law
Review found that “detained televideo litigants were more likely
than detained in-person
litigants to be deported.” The reason?
Judges don’t necessarily adjudicate
their cases differently; rather, detainees appearing via video give up more
quickly and resign themselves to socalled self-deportation.
For the first six months of Donald
Trump’s presidency, 7,086 people opted
to go home before seeing a judge—58
percent more than during the same
time period the year before under President Barack Obama. “Detention itself
is a litigation strategy to demoralize
people and creates an easier deportation
process,” says Graeme Crews of the
Southern Poverty Law Center.
The rise of trial by screen is a result
of two factors: a massive spike in the
number of immigrants in detention,
begun under Obama and ramped up
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
by Trump, and the increasingly remote
locations of the facilities that house
them. Today, 34,000 immigrants are
detained at any one time nationwide,
and within the first month of Trump’s
presidency, his administration promised to “take all necessary action and allocate all available resources” to expand
detention facilities. In April 2017, a
confidential Department of Homeland Security “Progress Report to the
President” stated that Immigration and
Customs Enforcement had identified
“27 potential locations capable of providing 21,000 additional bed spaces,”
and suggested reopening two 500-bed
centers in the Texas hinterlands. On
October 12, dhs issued a public request for information to identify possible detention sites for immigrants
within 180 miles of Chicago, Detroit,
Salt Lake City, or St. Paul, Minnesota—
up to three hours away from the nearest immigration courts and most pro
bono lawyers.
Working by video presents practical challenges for immigrant advocates. Preparing asylum cases often
requires probing clients’ most horrific
life experiences in detail—rape, police
brutality, death threats—in order to
gather evidence to bolster their
claims. Take Josue, one of Feldman’s
clients, who came from El Salvador
three years ago. I met him in a small,
overly air- conditioned conference
room at Mesa Verde. The facility, a
massive concrete structure on the
outskirts of Bakersfield, is a renovated
former prison that houses up to 400
inmates awaiting deportation hearings. (Mesa Verde’s contract requires
the government to keep 320 beds occupied at all times.) It took me nearly
a full workday to drive there from San
Francisco, where Josue’s asylum eligibility hearing was set to take place in
a few days. Josue would conference in
to the hearing by video. “I’d prefer to
go in person,” he told me.
Josue had been diagnosed with
schizophrenia by a doctor at Mesa
Verde. He’d explained to Feldman,
who’d only been able to visit him twice,
that he was the victim of several brutal
beatings by the gang MS-13 in El Salvador, and that his wife, who lives in
the Bay Area and has a child with a
current MS-13 leader, had received
threats since taking up with Josue.
Legally speaking, his case was made all
the more complicated by the fact that
he had a criminal record, including an
assault conviction. Feldman thought
that a recent federal court ruling might
allow Josue to seek a hearing in person
due to his mental-health diagnosis.
However, the petition process would
have taken months. He was desperate
to get out, so he opted to go ahead via
video teleconferencing.
As we spoke, he had trouble keeping track of dates and specific events,
a tendency that signaled to Feldman
early on that he might have cognitive
challenges. He couldn’t always remember the details of his three assaults by
MS-13, and in the attempt to recall them
he became agitated. The circumstances
of his detention put him on edge, too.
“You never know if they are gangsters
or not,” he said of his fellow inmates.
“So it’s best just to keep quiet.”
Two days later, in the courtroom in
San Francisco, the picture on the screen
came into focus and Josue appeared,
nervous, clad in red, hair combed back.
Feldman leaned forward to wave to the
camera. Josue meekly waved back.
Over the next 30 minutes, as Feldman had feared, Josue had trouble recalling the exact dates of the MS-13
attacks. Key points of discussion between the judge and lawyers went untranslated, and as the morning wore on,
Josue appeared more and more skittish.
The case didn’t seem to be going well,
and he felt it. It was easy to see why he
might choose voluntary deportation.
Ultimately, the hearing was reset for
another day; the judge wanted to see
more evidence from Josue’s wife regarding previous threats back in El Salvador. For Josue, this was a good sign.
But it meant more time in detention,
far from his family. He would have to
hold out a little longer.
A few weeks after Josue’s hearing, I
received an email from Feldman. Josue’s
case, she wrote, was denied. He’d never
once been inside a courthouse, never
spoken to a judge except by video
camera. “He will be returning on the
next flight.” —Lauren Markham
The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown is
shaping up as a boom time for the private prison industry.
In the past 15 years,
apprehensions have
gone down. Yet
detaining immigrants
is on the rise—and
a big increase is
expected this year.
More than 300,000 people are put into immigration
detention annually. Nearly three-fourths are held in
privately run facilities. (Just 9 percent of state and
federal prisoners are held in for-profit facilities.)
$2.7 billion
President Bill Clinton signs
legislation expanding mandatory immigration detention.
The Intelligence
Reform and Terrorism
Prevention Act ramps up immigration detention capacity by
32,000 beds.
Congress sets a quota for
the number of immigration
detention beds.
geo Group, the nation’s largest prison company, hires a
senior executive who was previously
assistant director of enforcement
and removal for Immigration and
Customs Enforcement.
58% of detainees
have no criminal
Corrections Corporation of
America (now CoreCivic) says
its new South Texas Family Residential
Center will provide 14 percent of total
company revenue. Immigrant advocates brand it a “baby jail.”
For every 100 immigration detainees in the United States
32 are in geo Group facilities
The Department of Homeland Security
expects to hold 35 percent more detainees
in 2018 than it did last year, at a total cost of
21 are in CoreCivic facilities
74 are in
privately run
21 are in other private facilities
After the Obama Justice
Department says it will cease
contracting with private prisons, a
Department of Homeland Security
council votes to stop using private
facilities to detain immigrants.
A geo Group subsidiary gives
$225,000 to a pro-Trump super-pac.
geo Group and CoreCivic each
donate $250,000 to President Donald
Trump’s inauguration fund.
The Trump administration
says it will continue to
work with private prisons.
geo Group and CoreCivic
spend $2.6 million on federal
26 are in public jails
The immigration court backlog swells
to more than 650,000 cases before
292 judges.
Share of company revenue coming
from immigration detention,
2007 vs. 2017
geo Group
$148 $100
Maximum cost of
holding an immigration
detainee in a for-profit
adult facility
Cost of holding an
immigration detainee in
a local jail
Cost of putting someone
awaiting an immigration
hearing in an alternativeto-detention program
Wage paid to detainees
in for-profit facilities
who do work such as
cleaning and cooking
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
on a warm Friday evening in late
February, Stacey Abrams held a fundraiser at Old Lady Gang, a popular Atlanta
soul food restaurant owned by Kandi
Burruss, the star of The Real Housewives
of Atlanta. Abrams is running for governor of Georgia. If she wins, she won’t just
be the state’s first black female governor,
but the nation’s. Every detail of this evening had been strategically planned to
play up Abrams’ appeal to black women.
Nearly all of the hundred or so donors
had just come from Power Rising, a conference about black women in politics.
The celebrity host was Erika Alexander,
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
an actress and producer best known for
her role in the ’90s sitcom Living Single. A
who’s who of black women Democratic
officeholders had shown up to support
Abrams: Rep. Frederica Wilson, the bedazzled-cowboy-hat-wearing Florida
congresswoman who chastised President Donald Trump for allegedly telling the widow of a dead soldier that
“he knew what he signed up for”; Rep.
Gwen Moore, Wisconsin’s first black
representative; and Rep. Alma Adams, a
veteran lawmaker from North Carolina
known for her collection of more than
1,100 church hats.
Abrams is a tall, sturdy woman with a
warm, gap-toothed smile. Taking the
stage in a deep purple dress, the 44-yearold dived into a story about the time she
was chosen to represent her home state
of Mississippi at the Girl Scouts’ national conference in the mid-’80s. “But
there were some folks in our Girl Scout
troop who were unhappy with me”—a
black girl—“being selected,” she said.
When she got to the airport, she found
out that someone had changed her reservation. “They thought if they left me
behind, I’d stay gone.” Instead, she got
on her first flight ever and traveled by
herself to Arizona. “There are gonna be
a lot of people who try to stop you from
getting on that plane,” she told the rapt
audience. “There are a lot of people organizing themselves to make sure I land
at the wrong destination. There are
folks who don’t think it’s time for a
black woman to be governor of any
state, let alone a state in the Deep
South. But there’s no wrong time for a
black woman to be in charge.”
A prolific author who penned
romantic thrillers before she entered politics, Abrams excels at telling
stories—particularly tales in which a
protagonist encounters an evil, resists
the urge to give up, and charges into the
unknown. “Faith is difficult,” she says.
“That’s why the Bible talks about it so
much.” Abrams’ quest to become the
first black woman governor is a leap
of political faith. While she needs her
peers’ support, she also needs to build a
coalition of young people, immigrants,
and whites—including Republicans
who are uncomfortable with Trump’s
flirtation with white nationalism. Some
have dubbed this the “new Southern
strategy.” But to make such an approach work, Abrams must appeal to
people who usually don’t vote for candidates who look like her.
Born in 1973, the second of six children, Abrams grew up in Gulfport,
Mississippi. Her mother was a school
librarian and her father was a ship-
Stacey Abrams wants to be America’s first black woman governor. First, she has to build a delicate coalition.
yard worker. “Mississippi had perfected
soul-crushing poverty wrapped in gentility,” she would later write in her memoir
and self-help book, Minority Leader.
When Abrams was in high school, her
family moved to Atlanta so her parents
could attend divinity school to become
Methodist ministers. After graduating
as her class valedictorian, she went to
Spelman College, the premier historically black college for women.
At Spelman, she struggled to find her
footing among the school’s “daughters of
accomplishment.” Then, in April 1992,
when she was a sophomore, the Rodney
King verdict sparked violent protests in
black communities across the country,
including Atlanta’s West End, home to
Spelman, Morehouse, and two other
historically black colleges. As the Atlanta
police moved in with tear gas against the
students and residents of nearby public
housing projects, Abrams grew furious at
the media’s characterization of the young
people in the streets as “angry vandals,
rather than complex human beings who
had seen in a single verdict an indictment
of our humanity,” as she later wrote. She
began calling up local TV stations to complain about their coverage. When they
kept hanging up on her, she enlisted her
dormmates to make calls.
A local TV producer took notice and
invited her to participate in a town hall
meeting with Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. At the event, Jackson criticized the young people he said
had wreaked havoc on the city. Abrams
asked Jackson what he had done for dispossessed youth—a question that challenged the mayor but also impressed him.
A few months later, Abrams began work
as a research assistant for the mayor’s
office of youth services.
Abrams would earn a master’s degree
from the University of Texas and a law
degree from Yale before returning to
Atlanta as a tax attorney. In 2003, at just
29 years old, she was appointed Atlanta’s
deputy city attorney. She was elected to
the state Assembly in 2006 and became
Georgia’s House minority leader in
2010—the first African American to do so.
Abrams is tapping into a moment
when Democrats are finally realizing
how much they owe to the black women
who have long been intensely loyal to
“A stunning debut by a truly gifted writer—
an eye-opening read for both liberals and
conservatives—and it could not come at
a better time.” —ADAM GRANT
t a moment when we are facing an epidemic of animosity,
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M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
the party. In 2012, black women voted at
higher rates nationally than any other
demographic group. In 2016, 94 percent
of them voted for Hillary Clinton. (Less
than half of white women did.) And in
a fiercely contested special election
in Alabama in December 2017, black
women supported the Democratic
winner, Doug Jones, by a 98-2 margin.
After Jones’ slim victory, Democratic
National Committee Chair Tom Perez
tweeted, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we
can’t take that for granted. Period.”
How does Chicago make more than
$200 million a year on traffic and
parking tickets? By bankrupting
thousands of drivers.
p More than 3 million tickets are issued
annually in Chicago.
p Tickets brought in more than $260 million
in 2016—about 7 percent of the city’s
operating budget.
p Chicagoans owe $1.45 billion in ticket debt.
p Eight majority-black zip codes account for
40 percent of the city’s ticket debt but only
22 percent of tickets issued.
p Pay now: If you can afford $200 for not
having a city sticker on your car. If not, sign
up for a pricey city payment plan.
p Don’t pay: And risk having your fine doubled,
car booted and impounded, state tax refunds
garnished, and license suspended.
p Go for broke: Many ticket debtors file for
bankruptcy, often with help from law firms
that charge hefty fees. Last year, there were
more than 10,000 Chapter 13 cases involving
debt to the city of Chicago. The typical filer
owed $3,900.
Read ProPublica Illinois’ full investigation
But black women’s clout at the ballot
box has not translated into representation. Nationwide, only 12 black women
have ever been elected to statewide executive positions such as attorney general or lieutenant governor. Research
shows that women candidates have to
work harder than men to raise money,
and black women who run for office
face the additional burden of representing areas with less money to pull from.
Some feel their fundraising is unfairly
scrutinized because they are seen as
not raising enough cash—or raising too
much. Sarah Bryner, the research
director at the Center for Responsive Politics, says black women
candidates “face the same kinds
of intersectional problems that
they face in all sorts of areas—
they have difficulty raising money
because they’re women and because they’re black.”
On the one hand, Abrams is
quick to tout the significance of
being a black woman seeking
higher office. But she’s also aware
she has to beat her main opponent
in the May 22 Democratic primary, Stacey Evans, a white state
Assembly member. To do that,
she’ll need white voters, and white
women in particular, to rally to her
side. “I do not disparage anyone
based on race. I do not isolate any
community based on religion. I
want everybody,” Abrams says.
“But I am going to focus on progressive voters who run the cross
section of racial and economic and
regional geography but who share
core values that I have.”
Georgia is changing, and
Abrams’ campaign is a bet on the
future. Yet it’s not clear if the rainbow coalition she hopes to assemble is in place yet. People of color
are predicted to be a minority of
Georgia’s eligible voting population until 2036. Trump won the
state by 5 percentage points in
2016, and it has been nearly two
decades since a Democrat has
been elected governor there.
So far, however, Abrams’ burgeoning national profile has
helped get her fundraising off to
a good start. By mid-March, she had
brought in $2.3 million, about the same
as Evans. A Democratic donor in San
Francisco has said she’ll raise another
$2.5 million for Abrams. Yet Abrams
has already burned through $1.8 million opening field offices and building
her get-out-the-vote operation. “Any
businessperson will tell you it’s not who
has the biggest bank account when you
start a business, it’s who gets the most
customers,” she says at her campaign
headquarters. Whoever wins the primary will likely face Lt. Gov. Casey
Cagle, a Republican who made headlines when he got the state to revoke a
tax benefit for Delta Air Lines, a major
employer, after it announced it would
cancel its discounts for National Rifle
Association members. He has already
raised $6.7 million.
Back at Old Lady Gang, Abrams told
the room of supportive black women
another war story. In 2014, she recalled,
800,000 eligible Georgians weren’t registered to vote—a group equal to the population of South Dakota. Three-fourths
were black. Abrams took action, registering 200,000 people of color in less than
three years through her $7 million New
Georgia Project. “But I’ll tell you a dirty
little secret: Some of the folks who fought
against me looked like the folks in this
room,” she said, seeming to refer to the
former Atlanta mayor and other black
politicians who questioned the need for
her project and challenged her financial
transparency. But she persevered.
Abrams then pulled back to make her
broader pitch. After traveling to 155 of
Georgia’s 159 counties and talking to
voters who don’t look anything like
her—“my hair’s a little different and
I’m a little taller”—Abrams said she is
more certain than ever that her job
is not politics, but service. “I grew up
working poor in Mississippi. And I’ll tell
you this: I’ve never met a poor person
who hates rich people. We hate being
poor.” The crowd erupted in cheers as
Abrams explained that Georgia needs a
governor who understands the difference. “It’s not about begrudging anyone
else. It’s about wanting something for
yourself, and being willing to work for
it if the systems will work with you and
not against you.” —Jamilah King
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Dear Reader,
There’s nothing quite like sitting with a good book—or magazine—to slow down
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M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8
Oualaalou provides a fresh perspective on
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fear of Islam and Muslims.”
forward for future strategies in the Middle East.
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M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8
By Frédéric Martel
A panoramic view of gay
rights, gay life, and the
gay experience around
the world.
The Walls Have
the Floor
Mural Journal, May '68
Edited by Julien Besançon
The graffiti of the French
student and worker uprising
of May 1968, capturing participatory politics in action.
Trump and the
Edited by
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and Zizi Papacharissi
The election of Donald Trump
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Seeking new definitions of
ecology in the tar sands of
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Taming the Sun
Innovations to Harness
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How solar could spark a
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How The World
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How Gay Culture
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A Tar Sands Tale
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Am Johal
Global Gay
Global Warming
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Books that
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Fifty Years of
By François Cusset
An examination of the reactionary, individualist, cynical,
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M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8
—Atul Gawande, The New Yorker
“One of the ‘6 Books to Help
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—The New York Times on 11/9/16
today’s political climate, this may
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“Exemplary. . . . It is the clearest narrative exposition yet of the social
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and compelling book.”
The New York Times Book Review
“This is a smart, respectful
The American Prospect
M AY/J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
Inside the rise and fall
of Cambridge Analytica
by andy kroll
illustrations by doug chayka
In the late summer of 2015, Chris Wilson,
the director of research, analytics, and
digital strategy for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, had a conversation
with a contractor that left him furious. A
widely respected pollster who had taken
leave from his firm to work full time for
Cruz, Wilson oversaw a team of more than
40 data scientists, developers, and digital
marketers, one of the largest departments
inside Cruz’s Houston-based operation.
The Iowa caucuses were fast approaching,
and the Cruz campaign had poured nearly
$13 million into winning the opening contest of the primary season.
As the campaign laid the groundwork for
Iowa, a sizable chunk of its spending—$4.4
million and counting—flowed to a secretive company with British roots named
Cambridge Analytica. A relative newcomer
to American politics, the firm sold itself as
the latest, greatest entrant into the burgeoning field of political technology. It claimed
to possess detailed profiles on 230 million
American voters based on up to 5,000 data
points, everything from where you live
to whether you own a car, your shopping
habits and voting record, the medications
you take, your religious affiliation, and the
TV shows you watch. This data is available
to anyone with deep pockets. But Cambridge professed to bring a unique approach
to the microtargeting techniques that have
become de rigueur in politics. It promised to
couple consumer information with psychological data, harvested from social-media
platforms and its own in-house survey research, to group voters by personality type,
pegging them as agreeable or neurotic, confrontational or conciliatory, leaders or followers. It would then target these groups
with specially tailored images and messages,
delivered via Facebook ads, glossy mailers,
or in-person interactions. The company’s
ceo, a polo-playing Eton graduate named
Alexander Nix, called it “our secret sauce.”
As a rule, Nix said his firm generally
steered clear of working in British politics to avoid controversy in its own backyard. But it had no qualms applying its
mind-bending techniques to a foreign
electorate. “It’s someone else’s political
system,” explains one former Cambridge
employee, a British citizen. “It’s not ours.
None of us would ever consider doing
what we were doing here.”
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
Brought to Cruz by two of the campaign’s biggest backers, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter
Rebekah, Cambridge Analytica was put in charge of the
entire data and digital operation, embedding 12 of its employees in Houston. The company, largely owned by Robert
Mercer, said it had something special for Cruz. According
to marketing materials obtained by Mother Jones, it pitched
a “revolutionary” piece of software called Ripon, an all-inone tool that let a campaign manage its voter database,
microtargeting efforts, door-to-door canvassing, low-dollar
fundraising, and surveys. Ripon, Cambridge vowed, was
“the future of campaigning.” (The name is a clever bit of
marketing: Ripon is the small town in Wisconsin where
the Republican Party was born.)
The Cruz campaign believed Ripon might give it an edge
in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls. But the software wasn’t ready right away. According to former Cruz
staffers, Wilson inquired about Ripon’s status daily. It was
almost finished, he was repeatedly told. Weeks passed, then
months. Finally, in August 2015, one of the Cambridge consultants in Houston came clean. Ripon
“doesn’t exist,” he told Wilson, according to several former Cruz staffers. “It’ll
“They’re just
never exist. I’ve just resigned because I
full of shit,
can’t stand lying to you every day anyright?” Paul
more.” The campaign had hired Cambridge in the belief it could use Ripon
to help win Cruz the nomination; inasked. “I don’t
stead, it was paying millions of dolwant ’em
lars to build the Ripon technology. “It
anywhere near
was like an internal Ponzi scheme,” a
the campaign.”
former Cruz campaign official told me.
The Cruz campaign couldn’t fire
Cambridge outright. The Mercers
wouldn’t be happy, and the campaign
was too far along to ax a significant part of its digital
staff. Still, Cruz officials steadily reduced Cambridge’s
role. Even though the campaign used Cambridge’s psychological data in Iowa, Cruz’s victory there in February
2016 did nothing to quell the growing distrust campaign
officials felt toward the company.
The Cruz team wasn’t alone in its doubts about the
firm. Cambridge was also working, albeit in a more limited role, for rival Ben Carson’s campaign, whose experience with the company was similarly frustrating.
Cambridge, for instance, sold itself as an expert in TV
advertising yet failed to grasp basic facts about buying
ads. Carson staffers came away feeling like Cambridge
was at best in over its head and at worst a sham.
After Carson and Cruz dropped out and Trump all but
clinched the nomination, Doug Watts, a senior staffer
on the Carson campaign, got a call from Paul Manafort,
Trump’s campaign chairman. “What do you know about
Cambridge Analytica?” Manafort asked.
Watts replied that he didn’t think much of the firm.
“They’re just full of shit, right?” Manafort said, according
to Watts. “I don’t want ’em anywhere near the campaign.”
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
a few months later, on September 19, 2016, Alexander
Nix strode onstage at the Concordia Annual Summit in
Manhattan, a highbrow ted-meets-Davos confab. He was
a featured speaker alongside Madeleine Albright, Warren
Buffett, David Petraeus, and New York Sen. Kirsten
Gillibrand. Wired magazine had recently named him one of
its “25 Geniuses Who Are Creating the Future of Business.”
In a dark tailored suit and designer glasses, wearing a
signet ring on his left pinkie, Nix regaled the audience
with the story of how Cambridge Analytica had turned
Ted Cruz from an obscure and reviled US senator into “the
only credible threat to the phenomenon Donald Trump.”
Using Cambridge’s methods, the Cruz campaign had sliced
and diced Iowa caucus-goers into hyperspecific groups
based on their personality traits and the issues they cared
about, such as the Second Amendment. As Nix clicked
through his slides, he showed how it was possible to use
so-called psychographics—a fancy term for measuring
attitudes and interests of individuals—to narrow the universe of Iowans from the tens of thousands down to a
single persuadable voter. In this case, Nix’s slide listed
a man named Jeffrey Jay Ruest, a registered Republican
born in 1963. He was “very low in neuroticism, quite low
in openness, and slightly conscientious”—and would likely
be receptive to a gun rights message.
“Clearly the Cruz campaign is over now,” he said as he
finished his presentation, “but what I can tell you is that of
the two candidates left in this election, one of them is using
these technologies, and it’s going to be very interesting to
see how they impact the next seven weeks.”
That candidate was Donald Trump. After Cruz dropped
out in May 2016, the Mercers had quickly shifted their alliance to Trump, and his campaign hired their data firm over
Manafort’s apparent objections. “Obviously he didn’t bargain
for Rebekah Mercer being their big advocate,” Watts says.
“So I presume he just capitulated.” Soon Trump jettisoned
Manafort and installed in his place the Mercers’ political
Svengali, Steve Bannon, who was also a board member, vice
president, and part-owner of Cambridge Analytica.
Come November 9, 2016, Cambridge wasted no time
touting itself as a visionary that had seen Trump’s path to
the White House when no one else did. Nix took an international victory lap to drum up new political business in
Australia, India, Brazil, and Germany. Another Cambridge
director gushed that the firm was receiving so much client
interest that “it’s like drinking from a fire hose.”
Actually, the 2016 election was the high-water mark
for Cambridge Analytica. Since then, the firm has all but
vanished from the US political scene. According to Nix,
this was by design. Late last year, he said his company had
ceased pursuing new US political business. But recently,
an extraordinary series of developments unfolded that led
to Nix’s suspension as ceo and left the company’s future
uncertain. A whistleblower went public with allegations,
since cited in a class-action lawsuit, that the company
had used unethical methods to obtain a massive trove of
Facebook data to fuel its psychographic tactics. “We ex-
ploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles.
And built models to exploit what we knew about them
and target their inner demons,” Chris Wylie, who helped
launch the company, told the British Observer. “That was
the basis the entire company was built on.” Next came the
release of an undercover investigation by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, which captured video of Nix and other
Cambridge executives explaining how they could covertly
inject propaganda “into the bloodstream to the internet.”
They also described how their services could include bribing a politician and recording undercover video or sending
“very beautiful” Ukrainian “girls” to entrap a candidate.
The fallout was swift. Facebook, already under fire
for facilitating the spread of disinformation, suspended
Cambridge from its platform. British officials sought a
warrant to search the company’s office. Lawmakers on
both sides of the Atlantic demanded answers. “They
should be barred from any US election or government
work until a full investigation can be conducted,” Rep.
Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House
Intelligence Committee, tweeted.
The story of Cambridge Analytica’s rise—and its rapid
fall—in some ways parallels the ascendance of the candidate it claims it helped elevate to the presidency. It
reached the apex of American politics through a mix of
bluffing, luck, failing upward, and—yes—psychological
manipulation. Sound familiar?
Like Trump, Nix was a master of hype who peddled a story
that people wanted to believe. Take Jeffrey Ruest, the voter
Nix identified at the Concordia Summit, down to the latitude
and longitude of his home, to illustrate the firm’s psychographic prowess in Iowa. The message was that Cambridge
had the ability to peer into the minds of—and to persuade—
voters on the most granular level. Ruest wouldn’t have been
useful to Cruz or any of his gop rivals in Iowa, though. He
lives a thousand miles away in North Carolina. But why let
inconvenient details interfere with the perfect pitch?
“We use the same techniques as Aristotle and Hitler,” the
consultant said. “We appeal to people on an emotional
level to get them to agree on a functional level.”
The year was 1992. The consultant was Nigel Oakes,
a former Monte Carlo TV producer and ad man for
Saatchi & Saatchi, and he was speaking to the trade magazine Marketing. Oakes was then running the Behavioural
Dynamics Institute, a “research facility for understanding
group behaviour” and for harnessing the power of psychology to craft messages that change hearts and minds. But in
reality, Oakes’ institute was a stalking horse for the company
he would launch the year after the interview.
Strategic Communication Laboratories, the public affairs company that would later spawn Cambridge Analytica, began small, applying its behavioral-science-minded
approach to public influence campaigns in the United
Kingdom, including one that, it boasts, rescued Lloyd’s of
London by convincing Britons to invest another $1.5 billion
Alexander Nix
in the ailing insurance market. But scl soon branched into
politics. Oakes says he advised Nelson Mandela’s African
National Congress on how to prevent violence during the
1994 elections, as well as politicians in Asia, South America, and Europe. In 2000, the government of Indonesian
President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was struggling to
contain the violence and upheaval in his country, hired
Oakes to burnish his image, which involved building an
elaborate media command center in Jakarta for monitoring
and shaping public sentiment. “We called him Mr. Bond
because he is English,” one of Oakes’ Indonesian employees
told the Independent, “and because he is such a mystery.”
In 2005, scl expanded into military and defense, pitching the use of “psychological operations” and “soft power”
in the war on terror. The firm began picking up major
clients, including the Pentagon and the UK Ministry of
Defense, advising them on which Afghan leaders to target
with counterinsurgency messages or how to dissuade teenage boys from joining Al Qaeda.
The company had meanwhile hired Nix, a former financial analyst, to grow its nondefense business. Former
colleagues say he was just the man for the job. “Nix the
salesman is an artist, to be honest,” one told me. Another
referred to him as a “chancer,” the British term for a consummate opportunist. “He’ll always be like, ‘Can I give it
a go?’” the colleague said. “‘Can I sell this to you and work
out the details afterward?’”
Nix had an eye on the United States, where the courts
were stripping away restrictions on political spending and
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empowering a new class of individual megadonors. He
traveled here in 2010 to get the lay of the land but came
away discouraged. Political consultants picked sides in
America, he learned. A British outfit that worked with
both left- and right-of-center clients might struggle to
break into the market.
Then, on Election Day in November 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney watched as his
campaign’s voter-turnout app, code-named Project orca,
crashed. It was humiliating but indicative of a larger dynamic: Democrats, powered by President Barack Obama’s
2008 and 2012 runs, had gained a huge advantage over
their Republican counterparts in the realms of data and
technology. The gop’s 2012 postmortem report called for
a cultural shift inside the party to embrace new tools and
methodologies to win. “We have to be the Party that is
open and ready to rebuild our entire playbook,” it read,
“and we must take advice from outside our comfort zone.”
Nix saw his opening. scl had recently rebranded itself
as an expert in data analytics, the sifting and distilling of
vast amounts of information from different sources into
actionable outcomes. That skill set, combined with scl’s
previous work in microtargeting and psy-ops, made it an
ideal candidate to find an audience in the world of Republican politics. “The Republicans had been left behind,”
Nix later said. “By the time Romney lost in 2012, there was
a vacuum. And so that was the commercial opportunity.”
Nix was soon introduced to Chris Wylie, then a twentysomething Canadian technologist. Wylie had worked
under Obama’s director of targeting and consulted for
Canada’s Liberal Party. Nix hired him and put him to
work building a company that could attract clients in the
hypercompetitive US political market. Wylie,
for his part, had an idea about how his new
employer, scl, might gain an edge.
How the megadonors have leveraged their political spending
into profits for their data firm —Olivia Exstrum
Mercer backing
2014 Republican
US Senate
candidate in
North Carolina
Paid Cambridge
2014 Republican
US Senate
candidate in
2014 Republican
US House
candidate in
Super-pac that
supported Tillis
and Cotton
$5 million
$1.2 million
2016 presidential
$13.5 million
$133,000 (Cruz super-pac Jobs,
Freedom, and Security)
Thom Tillis
Tom Cotton
Art Robinson
John Bolton
$217,000 (Mercer-funded
Cruz super-pac Make America
Number 1)
Ted Cruz
$5.8 million (Cruz for President)
2016 presidential
Donald Trump
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
$2.5 million
$1.3 million super-pac Make
America Number 1)
$5.9 million (Trump for
in 2007, david stillwell, then a Ph.D. student
in psychology, stumbled onto a digital gold
mine. He’d always wondered about his personality and how he would score in the five-factor
model, a test that measures openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and
neuroticism. Known as ocean, this model is
widely used by psychologists. But one challenge
they encountered when applying it to different
areas—marketing, relationships, politics—was
gathering sufficient data. People naturally hesitate to give personal information about their
fears, desires, and motivations.
Stillwell knew a little code, so he pulled certain Big Five questionnaires off the internet,
stuck them in a quiz format, and uploaded
an app to Facebook called myPersonality. It
quickly went viral. Millions of people took the
quiz, and with their permission, Stillwell went
on to accumulate data on personality traits and
Facebook habits for 4 million of them.
Using this data, Stillwell, now working at
the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics
Centre, and two other researchers published
a paper in 2013 in which they showed how
you could predict an individual’s skin color or
sexuality based on her Facebook “likes.” They
found a correlation between high intelligence
and likes of “thunderstorms,” “The Colbert
Report,” and “curly fries,” while users who
liked the Hello Kitty brand tended to be high
on openness and lower on conscientiousness,
agreeableness, and emotional stability.
Stillwell told me that as an afterthought, he
and his co-authors threw in some language at
the end about the commercial possibilities of
their findings. The paper attracted the atten-
tion of companies looking to leverage Facebook and other
social-media data for their own purposes. One person who
took a keen interest was scl’s Chris Wylie.
According to emails obtained by Mother Jones, Wylie
approached Stillwell and a colleague via a fellow faculty
member, a young Russian American professor named
Aleksandr Kogan, hoping to cut a deal in which the firm
would get access to Stillwell’s data.
Stillwell hadn’t heard of scl. But he agreed to a meeting.
When dates were circulated between the Cambridge academics and the scl representatives, the title wasn’t subtle:
“Panopticon meeting.” (Panopticon refers to a prison or
building constructed so that all parts of it are visible by a
single watchman but the surveilled can’t see who’s viewing
them.) In the end, Stillwell decided not to partner with scl.
Undeterred, scl instead hired Kogan, who went on to
create his own Facebook app, thisisyourdigitallife. As detailed in a class-action suit against Facebook and Cambridge
Analytica, the app—which purported to be for academic research—not only collected personality data on the 270,000
people who took the quiz, but also let Kogan vacuum up
Facebook user data on all their friends. The Washington Post
reported in late March that Facebook separately provided
Kogan with data on 57 billion friendships as part of his work
with two of the company’s data scientists between 2013
and 2015. Around the same time he was mining Facebook
data for scl, Kogan also forged a relationship with Saint
Petersburg State University, which hired him as an associate professor and provided him with research funding. He
denies this research had any connection to his work for scl.
According to Wylie, Kogan acquired more than 50 million profiles. He says Kogan then passed that data to scl—
in apparent violation of Facebook’s terms of use—in order
to build its psychographic profiling methods. “Everyone
knew we were wading into a gray area,” Wylie later said. “It
was an instance of if you don’t ask questions, you won’t get
an answer you don’t like.” (Kogan denies any wrongdoing:
“My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat.”)
Nix now had his calling card. scl would break into
the $10 billion American political market by pitching
itself as a “cutting-edge” consultancy using “behavioral
microtargeting”—that is, influencing voters based not
on their demographics but on their personalities—and
sophisticated data modeling to win elections. His timing
couldn’t have been better.
One day in 2013, a knockabout Republican political consultant named Mark Block and his colleague boarded a
flight from Los Angeles to New York. As the plane took off,
they got to talking with the man seated next to them, an
ex-military officer who mentioned he worked as a subcontractor for a company seeking US political clients. “They do
cyberwarfare for elections,” the subcontractor said. Block
dozed off as his colleague and her seatmate continued to
chat. When they landed, his colleague told him excitedly
that they needed to talk to a guy named Alexander Nix.
Not long after, they met with Nix in a conference room
in the Willard InterContinental hotel, a stone’s throw from
the White House. The meeting lasted more than six hours,
Block recalls, as Nix described how they could use personality data and psychographics in American campaigns. “By
the time he was done, I’m going like, ‘Holy shit,’” Block told
me. “I had been aware of what Obama had done…But this
seemed to be light-years ahead.”
At a subsequent meeting Block attended, Nix was introduced to Rebekah Mercer, who was quickly becoming one
of the biggest donors in Republican politics. Bekah, as she’s
known to friends, is the middle daughter of Robert Mercer,
a billionaire computer scientist who pioneered the use of
algorithms in investing at the Long Island-based hedge
fund Renaissance Technologies. Bekah is the political
animal of the Mercer family, and in the late 2000s and early
2010s she plowed $35 million from her family foundation
into conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation,
the Federalist Society, and the Heartland Institute. The
Mercers also invested a reported $10 million in Breitbart
News in 2011. They’ve donated millions to Republican candidates and super-pacs, from Mitt Romney and Herman
Cain to a congressional candidate in Oregon named Arthur
Robinson, who caught Robert Mercer’s attention with a
pseudoscientific newsletter in which he argued that small
doses of nuclear radiation have health benefits.
The Mercers had attended the semiannual donor retreats organized by Charles and David Koch and, according to a source familiar with their political work, invested
in the Kochs’ data venture, Themis (named for the Greek
goddess of wisdom and order), which was supposed to
close the gap with Democrats in the data arms race. But
after Romney’s loss in 2012, the Mercers were fed up.
Bekah Mercer turned heads at a 2012 postmortem event
at the University Club in Manhattan when she excoriated the Romney campaign for its lackluster data operation. According to people familiar with the Mercers’
thinking, Bekah and her father set out to find their own
data geniuses.
Over lunch in Manhattan, Bekah listened intently as Nix
gave his pitch. When he finished, she said, “I really want
you to tell this to my dad.” She gave him an address with
instructions to meet later that day. At the appointed time,
Nix and Block arrived at a grungy sports bar on the Hudson
River, north of the city. “We’re going like, ‘What the fuck?’”
Block says. Bekah texted to say she and her father would soon
arrive. Moments later, Sea Owl, the Mercer family’s 203-foot
superyacht, pulled up to the dock behind the sports bar.
Aboard the yacht, Nix took a seat next to Robert Mercer,
opened his Mac, and launched into his spiel again. Bekah
sat next to her father on the couch. Behind them stood
Steve Bannon, the investment banker turned Hollywood
producer and conservative activist who took over Breitbart
News after the death of Andrew Breitbart. Whatever Nix
told the Mercers that day in 2013, it worked: They agreed to
invest a reported $15 million in a new company that would
be the face of scl’s American political work. Bannon was
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given a seat on the board and a stake in the new company
to help, as Nix later said, the firm navigate the US political scene. Nix installed himself in Mercerworld, presenting himself as Bekah Mercer’s political guru and taking
meetings at the Breitbart Embassy, the Capitol Hill row
house that served as the conservative website’s offices and
Bannon’s crash pad. The company was incorporated in
Delaware on December 31, 2013. The name was a mix of
old and new: Cambridge Analytica.
But if the Mercers had paid closer attention to a test run of
Nix’s venture in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, they might
have reconsidered going into business with scl. A political
action committee called the Middle Resolution had paid Nix’s
company several hundred thousand dollars that year for a list
of persuadable voters to help elect Republican Ken Cuccinelli,
who was running for governor. Months passed, and the list
never arrived. When the group’s chairman, Bob Bailie, demanded the list, Nix asked for more money and Bailie cut
bait. Another Virginia-based group, Americans for Limited
Government, then paid scl $100,000 to create a list of suburban female voters who traditionally
supported Democrats but might be
swayed to vote for Cuccinelli if shown
the right message. Late in the race, the
was always
group’s canvassers took Nix’s list into
the field and returned with a perplexing result: The people on it were already
a former
Cuccinelli supporters. The higher-ups
colleague says.
at Americans for Limited Government
“In the end, he
asked another firm to analyze the list.
will always
It turned out scl had handed them a
hang himself.”
roster of die-hard Republicans.
Despite these early missteps, Cambridge Analytica quickly signed on a
host of new clients thanks to the Mercers, who leveraged their position as megadonors to effectively strong-arm politicians into using their new firm. “It
was the Mercers that made people work with us,” an early
Cambridge employee told me. Cambridge boasted eight
clients at the federal level in 2013 and 2014, and members of
the Mercer family have supplied financial backing to each
of them, including to five during that election cycle. One
was former Ambassador John Bolton’s super-pac, a potential vehicle for a presidential run. During the 2014 midterms,
Robert Mercer gave $1 million to the group, which soon paid
Cambridge more than $340,000 to develop Cambridge’s personality-based targeting on the issue of national security. It
was an odd arrangement: Recipients of Mercer money would
turn around and pay a vendor partly owned by the Mercers.
(Rebekah Mercer did not respond to requests for comment.)
Cambridge Analytica’s work in the 2014 midterms received mixed reviews. A consultant for Thom Tillis’ US
Senate race in North Carolina singled out for praise a
Cambridge contractor who had embedded with the campaign. But in other instances, the firm’s seemingly weak
grasp of American politics turned off operatives. Once, a
Cambridge employee appeared unaware what a precinct
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was. In another case, according to a prominent Republican
consultant, Cambridge proposed influencing Republican
voters living overseas by creating a model that targeted all
absentee voters, suggesting that the firm didn’t realize that
people who live in the United States can also vote absentee.
The most common criticism I heard about Nix was that he
habitually overpromised and underdelivered. According to a
person who worked with him, Nix had a saying: “Marketing
materials aren’t given under oath.” (Nix, Cambridge, and scl
did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.)
But Nix and his company used their work helping to elect
Tillis and another Mercer-backed candidate, Tom Cotton of
Arkansas, as a steppingstone. Cambridge explored new corporate clients, pitching the Colorado-based dish Network.
(“dish does not have, nor has it ever had, a business relationship with Cambridge Analytica,” a spokesman said.)
Perhaps inspired by Bannon, whom Wylie described to
the Washington Post as “Nix’s boss,” the company began
testing messages designed to tap into immigration fears,
anti-government sentiment, and an affinity for strongmen—“build the wall,” “drain the swamp,” and “race
realism” (a euphemism for rolling back civil rights protections). It also surveyed opinions about Russian President Vladimir Putin. It seemed as if Cambridge was getting
ready for a presidential campaign—but which one?
At 8:05 p.m. on March 22, 2015, Ted Cruz’s personal Twitter
account posted a message: “Tonight around midnight there
will be some news you won’t want to miss. Stay tuned…”
There wasn’t much suspense—Cruz had effectively launched
his presidential bid the day he arrived in the Senate two years
earlier, but now he would make it official.
At midnight, the senator’s team in Houston would turn
on the campaign website built by Cambridge Analytica.
Then, at 12:01 a.m.…nothing. “We couldn’t even get the website up,” one former Cruz staffer told me. Eight excruciating
minutes passed before Cruz simply sent another tweet: “I’m
running for President and I hope to earn your support!”
It was a harbinger of things to come. Interviews with
eight people who worked on the Cruz campaign reveal a
litany of disputes with Nix. As the campaign’s frustrations
mounted, it winnowed the number of Cambridge staffers
in Houston from 12 to 3.
Cruz’s campaign did, however, employ Cambridge’s psychographic models, especially in the run-up to Iowa. According to internal Cambridge memos, the firm devised four
personality types of possible Cruz voters—“timid traditionalists,” “stoic traditionalists,” “temperamental” people, and
“relaxed leaders.” The memos laid out how the campaign
should talk to each group about Cruz’s marquee issues, such
as abolishing the irs or stopping the Iran nuclear deal. A
timid traditionalist, the memo said, was someone who was
“highly emotional” but valued “order and structure in their
lives.” For this kind of person, an “Abolish the irs” message
should be presented as something that “will bring more/restore order to the system.” Recommended images included
“a family having a nice moment together, with
a smaller image representing Washington off to
the side—representing that a small state makes
for better private moments.” But for a temperamental type, the suggested image was a “young
man tossing away a tax return and taking the key
of his motorbike to head out for a ride.”
Almost two months before the Iowa caucus,
the Guardian reported that Cambridge and
the Cruz campaign were using unauthorized
Facebook data—an early indication of what
Chris Wylie would later reveal in full. In response, Facebook told Cambridge to delete any
Facebook data it held. Wylie says that while he
deleted the data in his possession, he merely
filled out a form and sent it back to Facebook
certifying that he’d done so. Facebook, he adds,
never verified whether he actually had. A former
Cruz staffer told me that well after the Guardian
report, he could still use Cambridge’s Facebook
data to build voter models.
The Cruz campaign eked out a victory in
Iowa, and Nix was quick to take credit during an
interview on Fox News. Whether Cambridge’s
psychographics played any part in Cruz’s win
is debatable: When the firm began using these
techniques on December 1, two months before
the caucus, Cruz was polling at 28 percentage
points in Iowa. From there to caucus day, his
numbers fluctuated between 23 and 32 percent.
Contrary to Nix’s claim that Cruz was languishing in the single digits until Cambridge came
along, the candidate was already well on his
way to winning when Cambridge’s secret sauce
kicked in. “If we weren’t using the personality stuff until
that point in time,” a former Cruz official says, “then Nix
can’t credibly make the argument that it mattered, right?”
Adding to suspicions about whether Cambridge’s personality profiling worked as claimed was the fact that the
company refused to share any of its underlying models. Cambridge advised the campaign on how best to deliver Cruz’s
message to “stoic traditionalists” and “relaxed leaders,” but
it wouldn’t divulge how it came up with those personality
types in the first place. “They’re the least transparent company in the business,” a former Cruz staffer told me. Nor
did Cambridge seem to understand the fundamentals of
how a presidential campaign operated: Two weeks out from
the South Carolina primary, Cruz’s data team discovered
that the company hadn’t updated the voter database feeding its models in seven months. The result: In a primary
where the victory margin could be in the low thousands,
there were 70,000 people Cruz wasn’t targeting because
his data was stale. “How fucked up is that?” the former Cruz
staffer told me. “That’s political malpractice.” Cruz finished
third in South Carolina. After the opening four states, he
stopped using Cambridge’s personality-profiling models.
The company’s lackluster performance on the Cruz cam-
paign didn’t stop Nix from walking onstage at the Concordia Summit and taking credit for Cruz’s second-place
finish in the nomination fight. Word of his speech spread
in Cruz circles, and campaign alums watched the video
of Nix and scoffed. “Most of that’s bullshit or things we
designed on the campaign,” one senior Cruz staffer told
me. “Everybody has respect for the Mercers. But they’ve
gotten the wool pulled over their eyes.”
The Cruz campaign was still in the process of unwinding
when Cambridge, following the lead of its investors, the
Mercers, offered its services to the Trump campaign. Cambridge had previously reached out to Trump’s team, but
his advisers didn’t want to hire the firm if it was also working for his rivals. Now, this was no longer an issue. Nix
sent three employees to Texas to meet with Brad Parscale,
Trump’s head of digital operations, who had no political
experience and had gotten to know the Trump family
while building websites for their company. (Parscale was
recently named Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.)
As Nix courted the Trump campaign, he came up with
an idea to boost the gop nominee-in-waiting—one that
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was more in line with the political dirty tricks he and his
colleagues would later discuss with Channel 4’s undercover reporter. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange had recently
told a British TV station that he had come into possession
of internal emails belonging to senior Clinton campaign
officials—the result of a cyberattack later revealed to be
the work of Russian hackers. Nix reached out to Assange
via his speaking agency, seeking a meeting. Nix reportedly
hoped to get access to the emails and help Assange share
them with the public—that is, he wanted to weaponize
the information. According to both Nix and Assange, the
WikiLeaks founder passed on his offer.
Nevertheless, by late June Nix had landed a contract with
the Trump team. At first, a handful of Cambridge employees set up shop in San Antonio, where Parscale was running
Trump’s digital operation out of his marketing firm’s offices.
But Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, was
eventually put in charge of the San Antonio office after Parscale relocated to campaign headquarters in Trump Tower.
What exactly Cambridge Analytica did for Trump remains murky, though in the days after the election, Nix’s
firm blasted out one press release after another touting the
“integral” and “pivotal” role it played in Trump’s shocking
upset. Nix later told Channel 4’s undercover reporter that
Cambridge deserved much of the credit for Trump’s win.
“We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all
the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy,” he
said. Another Cambridge executive suggested the firm had
delivered Trump victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and
Wisconsin—states crucial to his ultimate win. “When you
think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular
vote by 3 million votes but won the Electoral College vote,
that’s down to the data and the research.”
Cambridge helped run an anti-Hillary Clinton online
ad campaign for a Mercer-funded super-pac that paid the
company $1.2 million. The ads stated that Clinton “might
be the first president to go to jail” and echoed conspiracy theories about her health. But according to multiple
Republican sources familiar with Cambridge’s work for
Trump, the firm played at best a minor role in Trump’s
victory. Parscale has said that $5 million of the $5.9 million
the Trump campaign paid Cambridge was for a large TV
ad buy. When Cambridge bungled that—some of the ads
wound up running in the District of Columbia, a total waste
of money—the firm was not used for future ad buys. During
an interview with 60 Minutes last fall, Parscale dismissed
the company’s psychographic methods: “I just don’t think
it works.” Trump’s secret strategy, he said, wasn’t secret at
all: The campaign went all-in on Facebook, making full use
of the platform’s advertising tools. “Donald Trump won,”
Parscale said, “but I think Facebook was the method.”
Nix, however, seemed determined to capitalize on
Trump’s victory. Cambridge opened a new office a few
blocks from the White House, where Bannon would soon
take on his new role as Trump’s chief political strategist.
(Bannon retained his stake in the firm, valued between
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
$1 million and $5 million, until April 2017, months after
Trump took office.) scl, its UK-based affiliate, eventually relocated its global headquarters from London to
Arlington, Virginia, and began chasing government work,
quickly landing a $500,000 State Department contract
to monitor the impact of foreign propaganda. scl briefly
signed on Lt. General Michael Flynn as an adviser and
later hired a former Flynn associate to run its DC office.
But even as Nix jetted around the globe and Cambridge
opened new offices in Brazil and Malaysia, the company
found itself with few allies in the United States. Trump
campaign alums and Republican Party staffers distanced
themselves from the company—especially after news broke
last October that Nix had communicated with Assange.
“We were proud to have worked with the rnc and its data
experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics,” Michael Glassner, the Trump campaign’s executive
director, said in a statement released in response to these
reports. “Any claims that voter data from any other source
played a key role in the victory are false.”
By late 2017, after giving every indication that Cambridge Analytica intended to be a major player in American
politics, Nix told Forbes the firm was no longer “chasing any
US political business,” a decision he framed as a strategic
move. “There’s going to be literally dozens and dozens of
political firms [working in 2018], and we thought that’s a
lot of mouths to feed and very little food on the table.” This
seemed dubious—working on a winning presidential race
is a golden ticket that most consultants would dine out
on for years. In reality, Cambridge Analytica’s reputation
for spotty work had circulated widely among Democratic
and Republican operatives, who were also put off by Nix’s
grandstanding and self-promotion. Mark Jablonowski,
a partner at the firm DSPolitical, told me that there was
“basically a de facto blacklist” of the firm and “a consensus Cambridge Analytica had overhyped their supposed
accomplishments.” Perhaps even worse for a company
that had relied on its billionaire patrons to open doors to
new clients, the Mercers ceased “flogging for” Cambridge,
according to Doug Watts, the former Ben Carson staffer.
For any upstart company, this would have constituted a
crisis. But being shunned from the American political scene,
it turned out, was just the start of Cambridge’s problems.
Nix was near his London office when a Channel 4 correspondent confronted him. “Have you ever used entrapment
in the past?” the reporter asked, thrusting a microphone in
Nix’s face. “Is it time for you to abandon your political work?”
Captured on tape musing about entrapment and spreading untraceable propaganda, accused of misappropriating Facebook data to meddle with the minds of American
voters—by March 20, scandal had reached Nix’s doorstep.
He brushed past the reporter and into his building.
“I am aware how this looks,” Nix said in a statement. He
explained that the explosive comments he and his colleagues
had made to an undercover reporter (continued on page 68)
When it comes to Russian cyberattacks, we’ve seen nothing yet.
by t e r r e l l j e r m a i n e s ta r r
oleh derevianko was on the road to his
parents’ village in Ukraine on a bright
June day in 2017 when he got a call from
the ceo of a telecommunications company. Computer systems were failing at
Oschadbank, one of the largest banks in
Ukraine, and the ceo suspected a cyberattack. Could Derevianko’s digital security
firm investigate? Derevianko told his response team to look into it and kept driving. Then his phone buzzed again. And
again. Something big was happening.
Across Ukraine that day, cash registers suddenly shut down. People trying to
withdraw money saw demands for ransom
Security experts fear
that Trump’s refusal
to challenge Putin will
leave America exposed
to attacks even more
devastating than what
happened in 2016.
appear on atm screens. Lawmakers in the
country’s parliament could not access their
laptops. Turnstiles in Kiev’s subway stopped
working, and departure boards at the airport went down. Technicians at Chernobyl,
the site of the deadly nuclear disaster in
1986, had to manually check radiation levels
after their computers failed.
It became clear to Derevianko that
this was no random malware. It was an
act of cyberwar—the latest digital attack
from Russia. The Kremlin had previously
targeted Ukraine with information warfare, using social platforms to spread propaganda that exploited ethnic divisions.
It had also launched cyberattacks on election systems and the power grid. But this
attack was the biggest one yet—designed
to simultaneously bring down multiple systems to create maximum chaos.
If that progression sounds ominous, it
should. Ukraine, many cybersecurity experts believe, showed the evolution of Russia’s digital-disruption arsenal. And while
the debate over Moscow’s interference in
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
the United States has focused
on disinformation and email
hacking, other cyberweapons
could be even more destructive. “Any type of attack,”
Derevianko told me as we
sat in his firm’s glass-walled
conference room in the capital, Kiev, “can be launched
against the United States.”
I first visited Ukraine in
2008, when I took a twoand-a-half-hour flight
from Tbilisi, Georgia. That
summer, Russia invaded
Georgia and launched cyberattacks against its government, and there were plenty
of worries that Ukraine was
next. And indeed, in February
2014, Russian special forces
flooded Crimea, and Russian
troops soon started showing
up in eastern Ukraine to fight
alongside ethnic separatists.
I’ve visited Ukraine at
least three times a year ever
since, and each year the disruption from cyberattacks
has grown. In 2015, hackers went after the electrical
grid and shut off power to
225,000 Ukrainians. Another attack, in
2016, blacked out one-fifth of Kiev. And
last year came the multipronged offensive
that would eventually be known as NotPetya (after the Petya ransomware that it
partially mimicked).
Jessica Robinson is the ceo of the
cybersecurity company PurePoint International. Like many digital security professionals I interviewed for this story, she
is convinced Ukraine is “ground zero from
the standpoint of being hacked and attacked by Russia. There’s so much that
could be learned there.”
There is plenty of indication that
Moscow has at least tested the possibility
of similar attacks in the United States. As
far back as 2014, Russian hackers compromised 500 million Yahoo accounts. In 2016,
Russia-backed actors attempted to breach
electoral systems in 21 states, according to
the Department of Homeland Security. (So
far, the administration has refused to publicly confirm which ones.) And in March,
fbi and Homeland (continued on page 69)
Are Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina just a couple of Russian
activists who love guns and Donald Trump—or something shadier?
2011: Alexander Torshin, then a
Russian senator, is introduced to nra
President David Keene through Kline
Preston IV, an American lawyer who
had been doing business in Russia for
years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of
Russians are very much in line.”
Maria Butina, then in her early 20s,
creates a group called Right to Bear
Arms, trying to seed a gun rights
movement in Russia.
US gun manufacturer Arsenal sells
$5,000 limited-edition AK-74s signed
by Russian gun designer Mikhail
Kalashnikov—a friend of Torshin’s.
Proceeds go to the nra’s political arm.
for more than a year, reports have
trickled out about the ties between the
National Rifle Association, conservative
Republicans, Russian gun rights activists—and the Trump campaign.
Many of the stories center around a
middle-aged Russian central bank official and a young gun activist from Siberia
whose social-media accounts document
their shared interests: posing with assault rifles, attending nra conventions,
and making connections with Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates. Alexander Torshin, a former
Russian senator and longtime ally of
Vladimir Putin, has been accused of
having ties to the Russian mob (which
he denies). His protégée and former assistant, Maria Butina, founded a Russian gun rights group and has reportedly bragged about her connections to
the Trump campaign.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election,
the two tried to connect with the Trump
campaign and its allies. In 2015, Butina
publicly asked Donald Trump what he
would do about the “damaging” US sanc32
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
tions against Russia. Torshin reportedly
made overtures to Trump and met with
Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 nra convention. A day after Trump was elected,
Torshin tweeted, “Today in nra (usa) I
know only 2 people from the Russian
Federation with the status of ‘Life
Member’: Maria Butina and I.”
In recent months, the House Intelligence Committee has heard sworn
testimony about possible Kremlin “infiltration” of the nra and other conservative
groups before the 2016 election. And the
fbi reportedly is investigating whether
Torshin illegally funneled money to the
nra to support its unprecedented $30
million effort to elect Trump.
Do this duo’s tweets and travels represent anything more than a charm offensive
by well-connected Russian gun enthusiasts? Torshin, Butina, the nra, and the
Trump administration did not respond to
requests for comment, but a close examination of the movements and intersections of the various players over the last
seven years raises intriguing questions.
—Denise Clifton and Mark Follman
2012: The fbi warns
Republican Rep. Dana
Rohrabacher—a cold
warrior turned Russia
apologist who claimed
to have once lost a
drunken arm-wrestling match to
Vladimir Putin—that the Kremlin aims
to recruit him as a source.
April 15, 2012: Torshin tweets about
returning from the nra convention
to a rally in Moscow for Right to
Bear Arms. He notes how “similar,”
“good-looking,” and “confident” the
supporters of both groups are.
July 24, 2012: Butina and Torshin
lobby the Russian senate to expand
gun rights.
May 2013: After attending the nra’s
annual convention in Houston,
Torshin writes, “Kalashnikov couldn’t
join me, though we have both been
‘life members’ of the nra for years,”
adding that “dozens of AK-47 clones”
displayed at the event represented
one of “our country’s greatest
November 2013: Torshin and Butina
invite Keene to Moscow for a Right
to Bear Arms meeting that draws
200 people and features a fashion
show that includes attire designed for
carrying concealed weapons.
At Keene’s request, future Trump
national security adviser John Bolton
appears in a video talking up gun rights
in Russia. npr later reports that Right
to Bear Arms used it in its lobbying.
December 2011: Preston serves as
an international observer of Russia’s
legislative elections, calling them
free and fair despite mass protests
and European observers reporting
fraudulent activity.
A Moscow
fashion show put
on by Right to
Bear Arms
politics of sanctions that are damaging
on both economy?” Trump responds,
“I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we
get along with Putin…I don’t think you’d
need the sanctions. I think that we
would get along very, very well.”
July 13, 2015: Butina posts photos from
an event where Gov. Scott Walker
announces his presidential candidacy.
January 2014:
Following the death
of Kalashnikov at age
94, the Washington
Times publishes an
appreciation written
by Torshin. Former nra
President Keene is the paper’s op-ed
editor at the time.
April 2014: Torshin and Butina attend
the nra convention in Indianapolis,
where Butina joins Keene for meetings.
She explains, “We would like to be
friends with nra.”
September 2014: Paul Erickson—an
nra member and longtime Republican
operative from South Dakota—attends a
Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow
with Butina.
also present, later tells Bloomberg that
he had a “jovial exchange” with the
future president.
August 29, 2015: Preston tweets a
picture of Trump speaking to the
National Federation of Republican
Assemblies, writing in Russian, “Donald
Trump today in Nashville. He is a friend
of Russia.”
April 16, 2015: Butina gives a talk at the
University of South Dakota. She says
Right to Bear Arms now has 10,000
members and 76 offices “all over Russia.”
June 2015: Four days before Trump
announces his campaign, Butina writes
in the conservative National Interest,
urging friendship between “the bear
and the elephant”: “It may take the
election of a Republican to the White
House in 2016 to improve relations
between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
December 8-13, 2015:
Erickson, Keene, future
nra President Pete
Brownell, and Milwaukee
Sheriff David Clarke
meet with Kremlin officials
in Moscow, where they enjoy lavish
meals and visit a gun manufacturer.
Clarke, an outspoken Trump supporter,
later files an ethics report showing
that Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000
for his expenses.
July 11, 2015: At a questionand-answer session at
Freedom Fest in Las Vegas,
Butina asks Trump, “What will
be your foreign politics…and
do you want to continue the
November 18, 2014: Russia changes its
laws to allow citizens to carry guns in
public for self-defense.
December 10, 2015: Future Trump
national security adviser Michael Flynn
attends a gala for the Kremlin-controlled
RT media network in Moscow. Flynn,
who sits next to Putin and across from
future Green Party candidate Jill Stein,
is paid $45,000 to give a speech—which
he fails to report on his White House
financial disclosure forms.
January 2015: Torshin is appointed
deputy governor of Russia’s central bank.
March 2015: Butina announces on
Facebook that she will attend the nra’s
upcoming convention in Nashville. She
notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more
similarities than differences [with].”
April 2015: Butina posts about 200
pictures from Nashville, including one
with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of
Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in
Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US
President” and ponders the “beginning
of a new dialogue between Russia and
the US.” Donald Trump also attends,
telling the crowd, “I promise you one
thing, if I run for president and if I win,
the Second Amendment will be totally
protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin,
September 25, 2015: Right to Bear Arms
posts a meme on Facebook, attributing
a quote to Trump in Russian: “Nobody
can encroach on the citizenry’s right to
store and carry firearms. Period.”
January 21, 2016: Trump speaks at the
National Shooting Sports Foundation’s
annual shot Show in Las Vegas. Don
Jr. and Eric Trump also attend, posing
with representatives from Sig Sauer,
whose “Black Mamba” mcx assault rifle
would soon be used in the Orlando,
Florida, nightclub massacre. Ten days
after the speech, at an event at an Iowa
gun shop, Don Jr. and Eric Trump shoot
assault rifles and brag about their
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
concealed-carry permits. “I shoot all
the time,” Don Jr. tells the Telegraph.
“Every weekend.”
February 13, 2016: Torshin tweets, “Maria
Butina is currently in the usa. She writes
to me that D. Trump (an nra member)
really is for cooperation with Russia.”
Donald Trump
says his son
Don Jr. “loves
the rifle stuff.”
February 2016: Butina and Erickson
form a South Dakota-based company
called Bridges llc. Erickson later tells
McClatchy that they created the firm
so Butina could get financial assistance
for her graduate studies at American
University in Washington, DC, where
she would enroll that fall—“an unusual
way to use an llc,” as the reporters
dryly note.
March 3, 2016: In a primary debate,
Trump is reminded that in his 2000
book, The America We Deserve, he supported a ban on assault weapons. His
response: “I don’t support it anymore.”
May 2016: In an email to Trump
campaign aide Rick Dearborn with
the subject line “Kremlin Connection,”
Erickson says Russia is “quietly but
actively seeking a dialogue with the
U.S.” and proposes using the upcoming
nra convention to set up “first contact” with the Trump team. According
to a New York Times report, Erickson
writes that he’s in a position to “slowly
begin cultivating a back-channel to
President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email
doesn’t name Torshin but appears to
mention him as “Putin’s emissary” who
planned to attend a dinner hosted by
conservative Christian activist Rick
Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to
Dearborn with the subject line “Russian
backdoor overture and dinner invite,”
seeking a meeting between Trump
and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s
email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared
Kushner, who reportedly nixes
the proposal.
Amendment is to vote for a person that
you all know named Donald Trump.”
Torshin poses for photos wearing an
nra “Ring of Freedom” ID badge.
June 15, 2016: House Majority Leader
Kevin McCarthy tells fellow gop leaders
in a private conversation, “There’s two
people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher
and Trump. Swear to God.” House
Speaker Paul Ryan immediately shuts
down the conversation and tells those
present to stay quiet. When a recording
of the conversation later becomes
public, McCarthy says he was just joking.
August 2016: Hours after Trump
appears to threaten Hillary Clinton
during a campaign rally by invoking
“Second Amendment people” who might
“do something” to stop her, Politico
reports that the nra has bought a $3
million spot attacking Clinton, its most
expensive pro-Trump campaign ad yet.
October 2016: A wave of nra-sponsored
TV political ads targets voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. In four
months, the group airs more than 10,000
ads criticizing Clinton or extolling Trump.
Trump goes on to win all three states.
Early November 2016: Pro-gun
messages feature prominently in “junk
news” spread by Russian trolls and
others on Twitter, particularly in key
battleground states.
May 19, 2016:
Torshin meets
Don Jr. at a private dinner the night
before his father speaks
at the nra convention in
Louisville, Kentucky. Don
Jr.’s lawyer later says the exchange “was
all gun-related small talk.”
May 20, 2016: The nra endorses Trump
at its convention. Trump tells the crowd,
“The only way to save our Second
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
November 8, 2016:
Donald Trump is
elected president—
boosted by $30 million
in spending by the nra.
November 12, 2016: Butina
hosts a costume party in DC for her
28 birthday, attended by Erickson
and Trump campaign aides. Erickson
dresses as Russian mystic Rasputin,
and Butina dresses as the czarina
Alexandra. Two guests tell the Daily
Beast that Butina bragged about being
part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.
January 20, 2017: Butina and Erickson
make an appearance at the Freedom
Ball, one of the three official inaugural
balls Trump attends.
January 31, 2017: Torshin, Erickson,
Rohrabacher, and former Kremlin staffer
Andrey Kolyadin attend a private event
on Capitol Hill hosted by George O’Neill
Jr., a longtime conservative activist.
February 2, 2017: Torshin and Butina
accompany a delegation of more than a
dozen Russian officials and academics
to the National Prayer Breakfast, where
Trump is speaking. Kolyadin posts a
photo with then-Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson, commenting that he
“treats Russia pretty well, by the
way.” Kolyadin later brags about
his “direct access to leadership,”
noting, “We sat very close to
each other and just smiled.”
Torshin is scheduled to meet
with Trump, but the
meeting is canceled
when a national
security aide
points out that
Torshin reportedly is under
February 23, 2016: After winning the
Nevada primary, Trump gives a victory
speech hailing his sons’ gun rights bona
fides: “[Don Jr.] loves the rifle stuff…This
is serious nra, both of them, both of
them. We love the Second Amendment,
folks. Nobody loves it more than us, so
just remember that.”
investigation by Spanish authorities for
his alleged “godfather” role in Russian
organized crime and money laundering.
Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News that
Torshin is “sort of the conservatives’
favorite Russian.”
February 24, 2017:
“For years, the media
couldn’t have cared
less about Vladimir
Putin or Russia,” nra
leader Wayne LaPierre
says in a speech at the Conservative
Political Action Conference, voicing
a “deep state” conspiracy theory
on Trump’s behalf: “But now, barely
a month into Trump’s presidency,
they’re ‘horrified’ and all a-fret over the
‘Russian-American equation.’ Even more
alarming is that they’ve apparently
found willing co-conspirators among
some in the US intelligence community.”
April 28, 2017: Having recently reversed
an Obama-era rule that made it more
difficult for mentally ill people to buy
guns, Trump addresses the nra annual
convention: “You came through for
me,” he says, “and I am going to come
through for you.”
August 15, 2017: After Rohrabacher
meets with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange
in London, he claims he has evidence to
share with the White House that the
Russians did not hack the Democratic
National Committee. But Trump’s
chief of staff John Kelly rebuffs him.
Rohrabacher later tells the Intercept,
“What is preventing me from talking
to Trump about this is the existence
of a special prosecutor. Not only Kelly,
but others are worried if I say one word
to Trump about Russia, that it would
appear to out-of-control prosecutors
that that is where the collusion is.”
October and November 2017: Russialinked online trolls spread conspiracy
theories following mass shootings on
the Las Vegas Strip and at a church in
Sutherland Springs, Texas.
November 14, 2017: “It appears the
Russians…infiltrated the nra,” Glenn
Simpson, founder of the opposition
research firm Fusion
gps, testifies to the
House Intelligence
Committee. “They
targeted various
organizations, religious
and otherwise, and they seem to
have made a very concerted effort
to get in with the nra.” Referencing
Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most
absurd [thing] about this is that, you
know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of
universal gun ownership for Russians.
And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”
January 18, 2018: McClatchy reports
the fbi is investigating whether Torshin
illegally funneled money to the Trump
campaign through the nra. (The fbi
would “neither confirm nor deny” the
investigation to Mother Jones.)
January 29, 2018: Democratic Rep.
Adam Schiff, the ranking member of
the House Intelligence Committee, tells
npr that the committee’s probe of the
nra-Russia angle has been stymied by
its Republican majority.
February 2, 2018: Sen. Ron Wyden
sends letters to the nra and Treasury
Secretary Steve Mnuchin demanding
any documents showing financial ties
between the nra and Russia: “I am
specifically troubled by the possibility
that Russian-backed shell companies or
intermediaries may have circumvented
laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections.” The nra’s general
counsel responds, “The nra and its
related entities do not accept funds from
foreign persons or entities in connection
with United States elections.”
Trump meets
with survivors
of the Parkland
school shooting.
survivors at the White House, Trump
endorses nra talking points to end
“gun-free zones” and arm teachers to
“harden” schools.
February 22, 2018: Trump hails the
leaders of the nra on Twitter: “Great
People and Great American Patriots.
They love our Country and will do the
AGAIN!” Echoing Trump, nra spokeswoman Dana Loesch blames the fbi’s
Russia investigation for the failure to
prevent the Parkland shooting: “Maybe
if you politicized your agency less and
did your job more, we wouldn’t have
these problems.”
February 28, 2018: Referring to the
nra, Trump tells lawmakers, “They have
great power over you people. They have
less power over me.”
March 2018: In an nra magazine,
LaPierre blasts media bias against
Trump, calling out coverage of “the
bogus Russia investigation.”
February 14, 2018: Following the school
massacre in Parkland, Florida, Kremlinlinked trolls immediately go into action
on Twitter, stirring both sides of the
gun debate.
March 1, 2018: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet in the Oval Office
with nra Executive Director Chris Cox.
Trump calls the meeting “great.” Cox
later announces, “potus & vpotus support the Second Amendment, support
strong due process and don’t want gun
control. #nra #maga.”
February 21, 2018: During a televised
“listening session” with Parkland
Additional reporting and translations
from Russian by Hannah Levintova.
Mother Jones has been digging into the Trump-Russia connection since 2016. Go to
/russia to see projects including our investigative timeline of Trump’s ties to Russia since the 1980s; our
series documenting the Kremlin’s social-media attacks on US politics; and excerpts from Russian Roulette,
the scoop-filled new book co-authored by Washington bureau chief David Corn. To sign up for our Russian
Connection newsletter, go to
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
The 2020 census will shape the future of our democracy.
The Trump administration is working to make that future whiter
and more conservative. b y a r i b e r m a n
p h o t o g r a p h s b y p r e s t o n g a n n away
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
Jorge Sanjuan
pulled back a chain-link fence,
and Cindy Quezada squeezed
through the gap. They stepped over two rotting mattresses and an
old tire and peered into a backyard. The neighbors eyed them suspiciously. “You guys with ice?” one teenager asked.
Quezada laughed and shook her head. It was a sunny January afternoon, and she and Sanjuan had spent the past three hours crisscrossing
the alleys of a Fresno, California, neighborhood with small one-story
bungalows and Mexican restaurants, looking for sheds, garages, and
trailers serving as makeshift homes. They weren’t out to harass the
immigrants living there; they were there to count them.
Quezada and Sanjuan were working with the Central Valley
Immigrant Integration Collaborative, a network of organizations
embarking on a pilot program to identify “low-visibility housing” in
Fresno in preparation for the 2020 census. The Constitution requires
the executive branch to tally “the whole number of persons in each
state.” But every 10 years, the census counts some people more than
once—such as wealthy Americans who own multiple homes—and
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
others not at all, particularly those who are poorer, move
often, or fear the government. The 2010 census, the most
accurate to date, overcounted white residents by nearly 1
percent while failing to count 1.5 million people of color, including 1.5 percent of Hispanics, 2.1 percent of blacks, and
4.9 percent of Native Americans on reservations, the Census
Bureau later concluded. Mexican immigrants were especially
undercounted because the bureau didn’t know where they
lived or because multiple families lived in one household.
That’s why Quezada and Sanjuan were in Fresno, where
70 percent of residents are people of color, 20 percent are
immigrants, and one-third live in poverty, making it one of
the hardest places in the country to count. Only 73 percent
of residents in the east Fresno neighborhood they were
canvassing mailed back their census forms in 2010—if they
ever received them in the first place.
Quezada and Sanjuan are both immigrants, but with
very different backgrounds. Quezada, who is in her late
30s, fled war-torn El Salvador with her family in the 1980s
after her father got a university research job in California.
She has a doctorate in biology from the California Insti-
tute of Technology and worked
for the State Department in
Washington and the US Agency
for International Development
in Egypt before returning home
and eventually taking a job with
the collaborative. She wore a
stylish tweed blazer and skinny
jeans as she roamed the alleys
and enthusiastically took
photos of everything she saw,
including a dead rat. Sanjuan,
43, came from Mexico when he
was 17, and since then he’s
barely left California and hasn’t
attended school, apart from
English-language classes. He
wore a black “CA” baseball cap
and a blue T-shirt. Having remodeled many unconventional
structures as a construction
worker, he was an expert at
spotting hidden housing.
Quezada compiled the data.
A rooster darted from roof to
roof. A canine symphony arose
from behind the fences. “There
should be a census for dogs,”
Quezada remarked. Behind a
Sanjuan and
yellow one-story house with a
search for
faded wood fence, they spotted
a small garage next to an orange
housing in
tree. It had two pipes for runFresno.
ning water, which Sanjuan said
meant it had been converted
into a dwelling. Immigrants,
particularly those who are undocumented, often live in
such clandestine housing because they don’t have the credit
to rent a conventional home or apartment. The house next
door also had a converted garage in the backyard. Quezada
marked the residences on her phone and sent the information through Facebook Messenger to the Census Outreach,
an intermediary that would verify the data and eventually
pass it along to the Census Bureau, which was cooperating with the pilot project in an effort to update addresses
in advance of the 2020 census. “You have to go the extra
mile to count people,” she said. “The average census worker
isn’t going to go into the alleys like we do.”
The census is America’s largest civic event, the only one
that involves everyone in the country, young and old, citizen and noncitizen, rich and poor—or at least it’s supposed
to. It’s been conducted every 10 years since 1790, when US
Marshals first swore an oath to undertake “a just and perfect enumeration” of the population. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to
states and localities each year for things like health care,
schools, public housing, and roads; how many congressio-
“They’re afraid. They tell you, ‘They’re
not going to count me. They only count
people with documents.’”
nal seats and electoral votes each state receives; and how
states will redraw local and federal voting districts. Virtually every major institution in America relies on census
data, from businesses looking for new markets to the US
military tracking the needs of veterans. The census lays the
groundwork for the core infrastructure of our democracy,
bringing a measure of transparency and fairness to how representation and resources are allocated across the country.
But with the Trump administration in charge, voting
rights advocates fear the undercount could be amplified,
shifting economic resources and political power toward
rural, white, and Republican communities. The census is
scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020, in the middle of the
presidential election season. Of all the ways democracy is
threatened under President Donald Trump—a blind eye to
Russian meddling in elections, a rollback of voting rights, a
disregard for checks and balances—an unfair and inaccurate
census could have the most dramatic long-term impact. “It’s
one of those issues that’s often the least sexy, least discussed
in certain corners, and yet the ramifications for communities
of color and vulnerable communities are so high in terms of
what’s at stake for economic power and political power,” says
Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights
Division under President Barack Obama and now directs the
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
A “perfect storm” is threatening the 2020 census, says Terri
Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. Budget cuts enacted
by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress
forced the bureau to cancel crucial field tests in 2017 and
2018. The bureau’s director resigned last June, and the administration has yet to name a full-time director or deputy
director. The next census will also be the first to rely on the
internet. The Census Bureau will mail households a postcard with instructions on how to fill out the form online;
if they don’t respond, it will send field-workers, known as
enumerators, to knock on their doors. But in an effort to
save money, there will be 200,000 fewer enumerators than
in 2010, increasing the likelihood that households without
reliable internet access will go uncounted. Enumerators
will carry tablets instead of paper forms, and the reliance
on technology raises cybersecurity fears in the wake of
high-profile hacks and foreign election interference.
“They’re putting together the census under a pall of uncertainty,” says Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the 2000 census.
“How much money, who’s going to be in charge, what are
we going to do on the core questionnaire itself? To do that
under such a level of uncertainty is literally unprecedented.”
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
In places like Fresno, there’s another giant concern: that
the census, despite confidentiality rules barring the bureau
from sharing personal information with other government agencies, will be used by the Trump administration
to deport undocumented immigrants. In December, the
Justice Department requested that the bureau include a
question about US citizenship on the census form for the
first time since 1950. The bureau had a March 31 deadline
to decide whether to comply with that request. When this
story went to print, it had not yet announced its decision,
and it did not respond to requests for comment. But even
if the question is left off the census, it’s too late to undo the
fear it has caused in immigrant communities.
Sanjuan has been in the United States for 26 years and
The census has never been a perfect enumeration of the US
population, but it has disproportionately undercounted minority
groups, including African Americans and Hispanics (a category that
was not included as an option on the census before 1980). —Eli Day
Percentage of the population under- and overcounted
n White
n Black
n Hispanic
in his first state of the Union address, Trump returned
Source: Census Bureau
States expected to gain and lose congressional seats
based on a fairly conducted 2020 census
n Potential gain in seats
n Potential loss in seats
Source: Election Data Services
has a 12-year-old son who is a US citizen. He filled out the
census for the first time in 2010, in part to ensure that his
state and local governments received their share of federal
funding for social programs. (California’s finance office estimates the state will lose $1,900 annually for each uncounted
resident in 2020.) “The benefits weren’t really for me because I never ask for anything, but there are benefits that
can help my son,” he told me at La Luna, a Mexican bakery
in a working-class Latino neighborhood near the Yosemite
Freeway, after a long afternoon canvassing Fresno’s alleys. In
the run-up to the 2010 census, he helped conduct research
on low-visibility housing in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural region that runs from Stockton in the north to
Bakersfield in the south, with Fresno in the middle. He met
farmworkers sleeping under trees near irrigation canals and
urged them to respond to the census so they could receive
better housing. “I’ve always said that they don’t have anything to fear because if [the government] really wanted to get
rid of you, they would have done it a long time ago,” he said.
But now undocumented immigrants are “much more
fearful that they’re going to deport everyone,” he said.
“They’ve arrested people in stores, at work, on buses.” He
showed me a video posted to Facebook that day of Border
Patrol agents searching for farmworkers in a field near the
Mexican border. That week, Immigration and Customs
Enforcement raided 77 businesses in Northern California,
then the largest sweep since Trump became president. “California better hold on tight,” ice Acting Director Thomas
Homan told Fox News. “They’re about to see a lot more
special agents, a lot more deportation officers.”
Sanjuan said it would be easier to persuade fellow immigrants to respond to the census if not for Trump. “I believe
it’s going to be difficult to convince people now,” he told me.
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to familiar themes from his presidential campaign, decrying “open borders [that] have allowed drugs and gangs to
pour into our most vulnerable communities.” Immigrants,
he said, had stolen jobs from native-born Americans and
“caused the loss of many innocent lives.” He highlighted the
stories of families who’d lost children to the MS-13 gangs,
and of the cops who’d battled them.
The next morning, 25 Latina women gathered for a
monthly support group at the Fresno Center for New
Americans, located in a strip mall next to a Family Dollar
and an El Pollo Loco restaurant. They sat at a long U-shaped
table beneath a mural of verdant farmland scenes that celebrated Fresno as “the best little city in the usa.”
Quezada was there to give a presentation on the census.
“I am an immigrant,” she said in Spanish, and she described
how her family had escaped the civil war in El Salvador
after the American-backed military regime falsely accused
her father of being a communist. “When I was little, all I
knew was war,” she said.
Quezada showed a slide of an ice agent knocking on the
door of a terrified woman. “You have the right to say nothing
and also to ask to speak with your lawyer,” Quezada said.
Security experts warn that an online census will
leave us more vulnerable than ever.
“This is [true] if you have documents or do
not have documents.” The census, too, she
said, “is a right that one should exercise. And
in 2016, Australia tried to run a more
the census. They could launch an attack
it is a right that we all have as immigrants and
efficient national census by conducting
like the one in Australia to overwhelm the
as human beings.”
it online. Things went badly from the
system and undermine confidence in it.
She asked how many of the women had
start. On the day the survey was posted,
They could flood the portal with phony
participated in the census before. Only a few
hackers launched a denial-of-service
data to manipulate the results. Or they
raised their hands. Maria, a farmworker who’d
could breach the system and leak people’s
attack that brought down the system
been in the United States for 37 years, said
personal information. Any of these would
for 40 hours. The census was eventushe’d filled out the form in 2010 but couldn’t
ally taken, but the government suffered
take substantial time and money to fix.
convince her neighbors to do so. “They’re
massive embarrassment.
“It’s asymmetric warfare,” Williams
afraid,” she said. “They tell you, ‘They’re not
Now the United States is planning its
says. “If I can spend $1 and force you to
going to count me. They only count people
first census that will be conducted prispend $10, that’s the Cold War all over
with documents. We thought we were going
marily online. And with ongoing hacking
again. That’s how we won.”
to be investigated.’” Her friends who received
of US political and government data by
Already, problems have cropped up.
the form threw it in the trash, she added.
foreign powers, it’s no surprise security
The bureau’s compressed timeline preAdela, who came to Fresno 10 years ago,
experts are warning that things could
vented it from conducting reliable tests
had never filled out a census form either.
go very wrong.
to detect holes in the computer sys“You come not knowing the laws,” she
“We know that certain foreign inteltem’s security. In tests it did conduct,
said. “People say, ‘Oh, don’t fill it out beligence services like to mess with US indata collected by census workers could
cause you don’t have insurance. You’re not
stitutions and to try and cause distrust
not be transmitted and in some cases
here legally. As a result, you can’t fill it out.
in the system, right?” says Patrick Gray,
was deleted completely.
It doesn’t count. Even if you fill it out, it
a leading cybersecurity journalist based
A lack of confidence in the internet
doesn’t count.’” She also recalled seeing 2010
in Australia who was the first to piece
census could be self-fulfilling. In Australia
census forms in trash cans in Fresno.
in 2016, people opted to leave some pertogether what happened there in 2016.
Quezada explained that California resonal information blank on their forms
“Messing with the census would be a
ceived $77 billion annually from the fedgood way to do that.”
after civil liberties groups warned that
eral government, allocated according to
The US Census Bureau tested an intertheir data might not be properly secured.
census data, for programs that many people
net survey in 2000 and scrapped it in 2010
Kenneth Prewitt, who led the Census
in the room used, like Head Start, Englishbecause of concerns over data collection
Bureau from 1998 to 2001, says a breach
language classes, and Medi-Cal public
effectiveness and security. Now, despite
of the basic information people submit
health insurance. If these 25 women were
cost overruns, underfunding, understaffto the census probably wouldn’t lead
counted, she said, then over 10 years they
ing, and tight deadlines, it’s back for 2020.
to identity theft but could erode trust
would attract funding on the order of “half
Jake Williams, a former National
in government. “It wouldn’t amount to
a million dollars, in this little room.” She
much because there’s not much to learn,”
Security Agency hacker, says there are
added, “I hope you see the magnitude of the
he says. “But the optics of it would be
several ways state-sponsored or politiconsequence of not participating.”
cally motivated hackers could undermine
devastating.” —AJ Vicens
Francesca, a mother of four from Guerrero,
Mexico, who had lived in Fresno for 18 years,
raised her hand. She wanted to know why,
despite staying at the same address in Fresno
for 11 years, she didn’t receive a census form
in 2010. “Almost everyone I know has never filled out a
after the 2010 census failed to count 1.5 million US
form,” she said. She wondered if that was one reason there
residents of color, the government might have been exweren’t enough teachers at her children’s schools and the
pected to devote more resources to ensure an accurate
classes were too large. (Census data helps school districts
count. Instead, in 2012 Congress told the Census Bureau,
decide where to build new schools and hire teachers.)
over the Obama White House’s objections, to spend less
Twenty percent of Californians live in hard-to-count areas
money on the 2020 census than it had in 2010, despite
like Fresno, where more than a quarter of all households
inflation and the fact that the population was projected
to grow by 25 million. After Trump took office, Congress
failed to mail back their 2010 census forms, including a third
cut the bureau’s budget by another 10 percent and gave
of Latinos and African Americans, Quezada told the group.
She pulled up a map showing that California contains 10
it no additional funding for 2018, even though the census
of the 50 counties in the country with the lowest census
typically receives a major cash infusion at this juncture
to prepare for the decennial count.
response rates. Those 10 counties are home to 8.4 million
people; 38 states have smaller populations.
The bureau’s director, John Thompson, testified on
“There I am,” Francesca said, pointing at the map.
Capitol Hill in May 2017 that the budget cuts would
“Yes,” Quezada responded. “There you are.”
force “difficult decisions.” A week later, he announced his
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resignation. The bureau canceled field tests last year in
Puerto Rico and on Native American reservations in North
Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington state that were designed to help the census reach hard-to-count communities.
It then eliminated two of three “dress rehearsals” planned
for April 2018, leaving Providence, Rhode Island, as the only
site to test the bureau’s new technology before the 2020
census begins. (Rhode Island’s secretary of state says she’s
received almost no communication from the bureau about
the test.) Prewitt, the census director in 2000, compared the
situation to the Air Force putting a new fighter plane into
battle without testing it first. “You would never do that to
the military,” he said, “but they’re doing that to the census.”
The Census Bureau has half as many regional centers and
field offices today as it did in 2010. The Denver office oversees a region that stretches from Canada to Mexico. With
the Boston office closed, the New York office covers all of
New England. There are only two census outreach workers
for all of the New York City metro area, according to Jeff
Of all the ways democracy is threatened
under President Donald Trump, an
unfair census could have the most
dramatic long-term impact.
Wice, a census expert at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of
Government in New York. The first digital census may make
the process more convenient for some people, but 36 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of Hispanics have
neither a computer nor broadband internet at home, and a
Pew Research Center survey published last year found that
more than a third of Americans making less than $30,000 a
year lack smartphones. In California’s Central Valley, “people
aren’t just sitting around in a beaten-down trailer or an
old motel on their laptop waiting to fill out their census
form,” says Ilene Jacobs, director of litigation, advocacy, and
training for California Rural Legal Assistance. (The Census
Bureau will partially mitigate this issue by mailing paper
questionnaires to the 20 percent of American households
that have poor internet access.)
Quezada and Sanjuan identified more than 600 unconventional structures in Fresno that could be sent census
notices in 2020, increasing the number of housing units
in the Census Bureau’s database by 6.3 percent in the
areas they canvassed. But there will be fewer people dispatched by the bureau to count their occupants in person
if they fail to respond, with the number of enumerators
nationally dropping from more than 500,000 in 2010 to
about 300,000 in 2020.
The technological shortcomings of the census are becoming apparent. Last year, the Government Accountability
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
Office labeled it a “high risk” program and warned that the
census website’s scheduled launch in April 2020 could resemble the disastrous rollout in 2010. The gao
found that only 4 of the bureau’s 40 technology systems had
cleared testing, and none were ready to be used in the field.
Cybersecurity is also a major concern. Thompson says
the bureau receives a “large number of attacks” every day.
An internal review in January listed cybersecurity and
public skepticism of the bureau’s ability to handle confidential data as the top two “major concerns that could affect
the design or the successful implementation of the 2020
census.” The gao has warned that “cyber criminals may attempt to steal personal information collected during and
for the 2020 Decennial Census.” Hackers, including from
Russia, could even seek to manipulate the overall count by
breaking into the bureau’s databases.
strong leadership could remedy some of these defi-
ciencies, but there’s essentially no one steering the ship.
Thompson announced his resignation on May 9, 2017, the
same day fbi Director James Comey was fired. Thompson’s deputy, Nancy Potok, had already left to become the
country’s chief statistician. The administration still hasn’t
nominated anyone to replace them.
In November, Politico reported that Thomas Brunell, a
professor of political science at the University of TexasDallas, would become the bureau’s deputy director, the
position in charge of running the decennial census. Unlike
past deputy directors, who were nonpartisan career civil
servants with extensive census experience, Brunell had
never worked in government. He had, however, written
a 2008 book called Redistricting and Representation: Why
Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, which provocatively argued that segregating voters by party affiliation in
ultrasafe electoral districts offered them better representation than spreading them across competitive ones. He’d
also been hired by Republicans in more than a dozen states
as an expert witness in redistricting cases, defending some
gop-drawn maps that were later struck down by federal
courts for racial gerrymandering.
The reports about Brunell sparked furious pushback
from civil rights advocates. “It’s breathtaking to think
they’re going to make that person responsible for the
census,” former Attorney General Eric Holder told me.
“It’s a sign of what the Trump administration intends to
do with the census, which is not to take a constitutional
responsibility with the degree of seriousness that they
should. It would raise great fears that you would have a
very partisan census.”
In February, Brunell withdrew from consideration. Yet
the bureau has already become politicized. Last year, Trump
installed Kevin Quinley, the former research director at
Kellyanne Conway’s Republican polling firm, whose clients
included Breitbart News, as a special adviser to the bureau.
Quinley reports to the Office of White House Liaison at
the Commerce Department, which reports to the White
House, according to a former department official. “If some-
thing like that happened to me as a director, I would feel
intimidated by it,” says Prewitt. In March, the bureau chose
as its head of congressional affairs a top aide to former Sen.
David Vitter (R-La.), who repeatedly introduced legislation
to add a question about US citizenship to the census form.
In December, when the Justice Department took up that
call and requested the citizenship question, it said it needed
the information to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Gupta,
the former head of the department’s Civil Rights Division,
says that’s “plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately
to sabotage the census.” Five former directors of the bureau
who served under Republican and Democratic presidents
wrote a letter opposing the citizenship question.
“It would be a horrendous problem for the Census Bureau
and create all kind of controversies,” says Steve Murdock,
who led the census from 2008 to 2009 under President
George W. Bush. When I asked immigrants in the Fresno
area whether they would respond to the census if it included
a question about citizenship, virtually all of them said no.
Prominent anti-immigration hardliners, including
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the former vice
chair of Trump’s election integrity commission, are hoping
to use citizenship data from the census to further reduce
immigrants’ political influence. They have issued a radical
proposal to draw legislative maps based on the number of
citizens in a district rather than the total population, which
would significantly diminish political representation for
areas with large numbers of noncitizens.
Even before the Justice Department proposed the citizenship question, field surveys and focus groups conducted
by the bureau in five states in 2017 found that “fears, particularly among immigrant respondents, have increased
markedly.” Interviewees “intentionally provided incomplete
or incorrect information about household members due to
concerns regarding confidentiality, particularly relating to
perceived negative attitudes toward immigrants,” according to a memo from the Center for Survey Measurement,
a division of the bureau. One Spanish-speaking field representative told the bureau that a family moved away from a
trailer park to avoid being interviewed: “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left
the information on the door. I could hear them inside. I
did two more interviews, and when I came back they were
moving...It’s because they were afraid of being deported.”
Such fear has precedent. During World War II, the
Census Bureau gave the names and addresses of Japanese
Americans to the Secret Service, which used the information to round up people and send them to internment
camps. That abuse led to strict confidentiality standards
for the bureau. But many immigrants will never trust the
Trump administration with their personal information.
“Immigrants and their families all feel under attack, under
siege, by the federal government,” says Arturo Vargas,
executive director of the National Association of Latino
Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, who
serves on a Census Bureau advisory committee. “And then
we have to turn around and tell these same people, ‘Trust
Latino tenants at a lowincome housing complex in
Huron, California, discuss
the census at a community
meeting in February.
the federal government when they come to count you.’”
The Commerce Department now estimates that only
55 percent of Americans will initially fill out the census in
2020 after receiving a postcard in the mail, down from 63
percent who sent back the first form in 2010. The need to
reach out to the remainder of the population will drive up
expenses and could result in further cutbacks. Commerce
Secretary Wilbur Ross, who worked as an enumerator
while attending Harvard Business School, told Congress
in October that the census would cost $3 billion more
than initially projected.
Already, the bureau’s outreach is lagging. For the 2010
census, it ran a $340 million promotional ad campaign featuring Winter Olympians, nascar drivers, and Dora the
Explorer. “Everyone counts on the census form!” Dora said
in one ad. The popular Telemundo telenovela Más Sabe el
Diablo (“The Devil Knows Best”) even featured a storyline
where the character Perla got a job working for the Census
Bureau in New York City.
So far, the bureau has only 40 employees working with
local governments and community groups on outreach,
far short of the 120 at this point 10 years ago. The bureau is
focusing its limited budget on perfecting the new technology it will use in 2020, shortchanging the advertising and
local partnerships it typically uses to (continued on page 67)
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M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
i thought i’d done everything right: breastfeed-
ing my children, a careful diet, plenty of exercise. I
wasn’t overweight and didn’t have a family history.
I bought bpa-free bottles for my filtered water. But
on a visit to the radiology department last spring, a
pair of red brackets highlighted something worrisome on the ultrasound monitor.
Invasive lobular carcinoma—a malignant breast
tumor. This spidery little beast measuring nearly three
centimeters meant I had stage 2 cancer.
At 47, I was a decade and a half younger than the
median age for breast cancer diagnosis in the United
States. Was this just bad luck? Maybe, but the journalist in me was still curious to know: Why me? So I
dug into the literature on risk factors to see where I
might have fit in. It’s an impossible question to answer
definitively for an individual, like trying to prove that
a single weather event was caused by climate change.
As one doctor told me, “You know who’s at risk for
getting breast cancer? People with breasts!”
Still, most of the broad indicators didn’t seem to
apply to me. The biggest one is age: The median diagnosis in the United States is at 62, and the highest
breast cancer rates are in women older than 70. Another is taking hormone replacement therapy after
menopause, but I’m premenopausal and haven’t taken
it. Obesity raises risk, but I’ve never been overweight.
Then I saw one that gave me pause: alcohol consumption. I’m not a heavy drinker, but like most women
I know, I have consumed a lot of alcohol in my lifetime.
While doctors have frequently admonished me for
putting cream in my coffee lest it clog my arteries—a
correlation that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked—
not once has any doctor suggested I might face a
higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking.
I’d filled out dozens of medical forms over the years
asking how much I drank every week, but no one ever
followed up other than to say with nodding approval,
“So you drink socially.”
I quickly discovered that way back in 1988, the World
Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s been proved to cause cancer.
There is no known safe dosage in humans, according to
the who. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer,
but it kills more women from breast cancer than from
any other. The International Agency for Research on
Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily,
the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent.
The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is
deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol,
regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage
Bordeaux, is carcinogenic. More than 100 studies over
several decades have reaffirmed the link with consistent results. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol
raises breast cancer risk even at low levels.
I’m a pretty voracious reader of health news, and
all of this came as a shock. I’d been told red wine was
supposed to defend against heart disease, not give you
cancer. And working at Mother Jones, I thought I’d written or read articles on everything that could maybe
possibly cause cancer: sugar, plastic, milk, pesticides,
shampoo, the wrong sunscreen, tap water…You name
it, we’ve reported on the odds that it might give you
cancer. As I schlepped back and forth to the hospital
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
for surgery and radiation treatments, I started to wonder
how I could know about the risk associated with all these
other things but not alcohol. It turns out there was a good
reason for my ignorance.
i was born and raised in Utah, and after my cancer diag-
nosis, I wondered what would have happened if I’d stayed
put. My home state has one of the lowest rates of breast
cancer in the country. Observant Mormon women don’t
drink, and like other populations that abstain, they have significantly lower rates of breast cancer than drinkers. In Utah,
Mormon women’s breast cancer rates are more than 24 percent lower than the national average. (Mormon men have
lower rates of colon cancer, which alcohol can also cause.)
Researchers suspect the low overall rate of breast cancer
in Utah has to do with the lds church’s strict control over
state alcohol policy. Gentiles, as we non-Mormons are called,
grouse mightily over the watery 3.2 percent beer sold in Utah
supermarkets, the high price of vodka sold exclusively in
state-run liquor stores, and the infamous “Zion Curtain,” a
barrier that restaurants were until recently required to install to shield kids from seeing drinks poured. Yet all those
restrictions on booze seem to make people in Utah healthier,
Mormon or not, especially when it comes to breast cancer.
Epidemiologists first recognized
the connection between cancer and
alcohol consumption in the 1970s.
Scientists have since found biological
explanations for why alcohol is carESTIMATE THAT
cinogenic, particularly in breast tissue.
When you take a drink, enzymes
in your mouth convert even small
amounts of alcohol into high levels
of acetaldehyde, a carcinogen. People
who consume more than three drinks
a day are two to three times likelier to
contract oral cavity cancer than those
who don’t. Alcohol also damages the
cells in the mouth, priming the pump for other carcinogens: Studies have found that drinking and smoking
together pose a much higher risk of throat, mouth, and
esophageal cancer than either does on its own.
Alcohol continues its trail of cellular damage as enzymes from the esophagus to the colon convert it into
acetaldehyde. The liver serves as the body’s detox center,
but alcohol is toxic to liver cells and can scar the organ
tissue, leading over time to cirrhosis, which raises the
risk of liver cancer.
As acetaldehyde courses through the body, it can bind
to dna, causing mutations that can lead to cancer, particularly in the colon. Alcohol is suspected of inflicting a double
whammy on breast tissue because it also increases the level of
estrogen in a woman’s body. High levels of estrogen prompt
faster cell division in the breast, which can lead to mutations
and ultimately tumors.
Researchers estimate that alcohol accounts for 15 percent of US breast cancer cases and deaths—about 35,000
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
and 6,600 a year, respectively. That’s about three times
more than the number of breast cancer cases caused by
a mutation of the brca genes, which prompted Angelina
Jolie, who carries one of the abnormal genes, to have both
her healthy breasts removed in 2013. The breast cancer risk
from alcohol isn’t nearly as high as the lung cancer risk from
smoking. But alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than
twice as many American women as drunk drivers do. And
alcohol is one of the few breast cancer risk factors women
can control. Others, like starting menstrual periods before
the age of 12 and entering menopause after 55, are baked in.
Overall, American women have about a 12 percent lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. Walter Willett, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of
Public Health who has conducted studies on alcohol and
breast cancer, says a woman who consumes two to three
drinks a day has a lifetime risk of about 15 percent—a 25
percent increase over teetotalers. By comparison, mammography reduces the death rate from breast cancer by
about 25 percent. “Alcohol can undo all of that at about
two drinks a day,” Willett says.
when the evidence of alcohol’s cancer risks emerged,
public health advocates sought to spread the word. In 1988,
California added alcohol to its list of cancer-causing chemicals that required a warning label. The next year, when
Congress first mandated nationwide warning labels on
alcohol, advocates tried to include cancer on them. Battered by activism around drunk driving and fetal alcohol
syndrome, the booze industry was already in a slump, with
alcohol consumption per capita on a steep slide since its
1981 peak. Fearing health advocates would do to alcohol
what they had done to tobacco, the industry fought back
with an audacious marketing campaign.
Alcohol companies worked to rebrand booze as a staple of
a healthy lifestyle, like salads and jogging. The wine industry
led, with vintner Robert Mondavi taking rabbis and doctors
on educational tours about the alleged health benefits of
moderate drinking. He told the New York Times in 1988 that
wine “has been praised for centuries by rulers, philosophers,
physicians, priests, and poets for life, health, and happiness.’’
The industry’s attempt to transform its products into
health tonics might never have succeeded without the
help of Morley Safer. In 1991, Safer hosted a 60 Minutes
segment about the “French paradox,” the idea that the
French eat heaps of red meat, cheese, and cream but have
lower heart disease rates than Americans, who were many
years into a low-fat dieting craze. On the show, he held
up a glass of red wine and declared, “The answer to the
riddle, the explanation of the paradox, may lie in this inviting glass.” New research, he said, showed red wine might
flush out fatty deposits on artery walls and counteract the
effects of the heavy French diet.
That TV episode, which according to the International
Wine & Food Society was viewed by more than 20 million
people, created a media sensation and caused a spike in
red wine sales nationwide. Researchers soon debunked
the idea that wine was helping French heart health, and
France’s heart disease rate turned out to be higher than
advertised. Meanwhile, all the wine the French consumed was killing large numbers of them. The same
year as the 60 Minutes episode, France passed some of
the world’s strictest regulations of alcohol advertising
to combat prevalent liver cirrhosis.
Even so, the US wine industry lobbied to include a positive health message about alcohol in the 1995 Dietary
Guidelines for Americans published by the Department
of Agriculture. The new guidelines removed language
indicating that alcohol had “no net health benefit” and
stated that for some people, moderate alcohol consumption might reduce the risk of heart disease.
At a conference of beer wholesalers in 1996, the Miller
Brewing Co.’s vice president of corporate relations touted
the success of the 60 Minutes episode and the subsequent
changes in government health messages as progress in the
industry’s effort to brand its products as healthy. She urged
attendees to open every meeting with an elected official by
saying, “Alcohol can be part of a healthy diet.”
Over the past two decades, the alcohol industry has
gone all out to tie its products to an active lifestyle. Peter
Cressy, the former ceo of the Distilled Spirits Council of
the United States (discus), the liquor lobby, explained in
2000, “discus is working to ensure cultural acceptance of
alcohol beverages by ‘normalizing’ them in the minds of
consumers as a healthy part of a normal lifestyle.”
Alcohol companies, long sponsors of football games
and nascar events, now sponsor 5K races and triathlons.
During last year’s Super Bowl, a Michelob Ultra ad featured
extremely fit people working out and then grabbing a beer
to quench their thirst. (Drinking alcohol after exercise
causes dehydration and impedes muscle recovery.) Hard
liquor companies concocted products like Devotion Spirits
vodka, which supposedly contained a protein that would
help build muscle while preventing hangovers. (In 2012,
Devotion Spirits withdrew many of its health claims after
the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation.)
Indeed, the supposed health upside of moderate drinking
is one of the industry’s go-to talking points. When Mother
Jones reached out to the leading beer and liquor companies
and the major industry groups, those that responded acknowledged the connection between alcohol and cancer,
but some argued the risk belongs mostly or entirely to
heavy drinkers. Sarah Longwell, the managing director of
the American Beverage Institute, said in a statement that “a
substantial number of well-conducted studies reveal no correlation between cancer and moderate to light alcohol consumption.” Moderate drinking, she noted, has been found
to reduce the risk of heart disease, among other benefits.
“There has been a concerted effort by some researchers to
reverse that knowledge,” she said in an earlier conversation.
“I think it is flying in the face of good science.”
Marketing alcohol as a health product should be a tough
sell. Cancer is only one of the many ways it can kill you.
Drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, injuries, domestic violence, liver disease—alcohol is responsible for the deaths
of nearly 90,000 Americans every year, more than double
the estimated 40,000 US opioid deaths in 2015. To overcome this hurdle, the industry needed to give its PR campaign scientific backing. The strategy came straight from
the tobacco playbook, which wasn’t a surprise: Sometimes
the companies were one and the same. The tobacco giant
Philip Morris, which bought Miller in 1970, later became
Altria, which today has a big stake in Anheuser-Busch.
Big Tobacco had set up research centers to dispute science tying smoking to lung cancer and funded research
designed to show benefits from smoking, like stress reduction, to help fend off stricter regulation. The alcohol
In the early
2000s, the alcohol
industry sought
to attract new
young and female—
with “alcopops,”
sweetened drinks
in bright childlike
colors. The industry
has also tried to
brand alcohol
as healthy with
ads featuring
athletes and with
sponsorship of
major sporting
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
industry took a similar tack, aided by research it had
been funding since the late 1960s. In a 1993 book called
Forward Together: Industry and Academia, Thomas Turner,
the former dean of the Johns Hopkins University medical
school, explained how, starting in 1969, he had worked
with the heads of the world’s biggest beer companies to
create the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation (now called the Foundation for Alcohol Research).
The foundation took academics to exotic destinations for
conferences and gave grants to scientists.
Between 1972 and 1993, Turner bragged, the beer foundation and its precursor funded more than 500 studies
on alcohol and distributed grants to dozens of researchers and universities. One was Dr. Arthur Klatsky of Kaiser
Permanente. In the early 1970s, Klatsky had access to extensive data through Kaiser’s health system that included
information about patients’ alcohol intake. In 1974, he published one of the first papers suggesting that light drinkers
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
had lower rates of heart disease than abstainers. Soon after,
the beer foundation started funding Klatsky’s data collection at Kaiser, a relationship that continued for decades.
Between 1975 and 1991, according to Turner’s book, the
foundation contributed $1.7 million to Klatsky’s research
on alcohol and health. The industry widely promoted
his work suggesting health benefits from drinking, and
Klatsky is still quoted regularly in the media, often without any disclosure of his relationship with the industry.
Klatsky says industry funding has never compromised
the objectivity of his research. He notes that the first study
he did with beer foundation money showed that drinkers
had an elevated risk of high blood pressure. He also published an early study on the link between alcohol and breast
cancer. “I think that most people who know me and know
my work think I’m unbiased,” he told me. “I see both sides
of the alcohol issue. It’s a double-edged sword.”
The industry has also funded researchers who cast doubt
on studies that pose problems for it. For example, the Distilled Spirits Council paid for
a 1994 study by Dr. H. Daniel Roth, who was
then helping Philip Morris reach a settlement
with lung cancer victims, that disputed the
link between alcohol and breast cancer. “You’re
looking at industries that are adept at creating doubt when it comes to protecting their
profits,” says Robert S. Pezzolesi, the founding
director of the public health group New York
Alcohol Policy Alliance.
In the early 1990s, the beer foundation
funded research by George Koob, who served
as a foundation adviser between 1999 and
2003. In 2014, he became director of the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism (niaaa), the only federal agency
devoted exclusively to alcohol research.
Washington’s revolving door sends people in
both directions. At least a half-dozen government officials working on alcohol policy have
left for gigs with the industry over the past 20
years. Among the most prominent is Dr. Samir
Zakhari, the former director of the Division of
Metabolism and Health Effects at the niaaa. In
2012, the Distilled Spirits Council hired him to
head its science office.
The niaaa has long recognized that alcohol
increases breast cancer risk, and literature on
the Distilled Spirits Council’s website acknowledges this, too. But in 2015, Zakhari published
a scientific journal article asserting that “there
is no solid evidence associating moderate alcohol consumption with an increased incidence of
breast cancer.” He advised women worried about
cancer to consult a doctor because “moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with potential health benefits, including decreased risk
of coronary artery disease and overall mortality,
protection against congestive heart failure, decreased risk of
ischemic stroke, and protection against type 2 diabetes and
rheumatoid arthritis.” An industry group recently cited the
paper to try to fend off restrictive government recommendations about alcohol consumption in the United Kingdom.
Zakhari keeps in touch with his old colleagues at the
niaaa, according to emails Mother Jones obtained through
a public records request. In 2014, the Baltimore Sun ran an
op-ed by the industry-supported Competitive Enterprise
Institute that complained tax dollars were paying for “antialcohol advocacy” and cited an niaaa-funded study about
industry marketing to underage drinkers that had been conducted by David Jernigan, the director of the Johns Hopkins
University Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. An
email circulated among niaaa employees alerting them to
the article. Koob, the niaaa director, forwarded the email
thread to Zakhari and wrote, “Sam: For the record. This will
NOT happen again. I will NOT be funding this kind of work
under my tenure.” Zakhari responded that some researchers
advocated these types of studies “out of shear [sic] ignorance
or because they are sympathetic,” but that he was confident
Koob would “spend research money on real science.”
Zakhari takes issue with the idea that he is emblematic of
Washington’s revolving door and says the 2015 paper “reflects
my personal scientific opinion.” In a statement to Mother
Jones, he said, “I came to the Council, after my retirement
from nih, because I share their commitment to responsible
alcohol consumption. My dedication to evidence-based research remains the same regardless of where I am employed.”
my discovery that alcohol consumption was a risk factor
for my breast cancer contradicted everything I thought I
knew about drinking. Like 76 percent of Americans surveyed by the American Heart Association in 2011, I believed
a little wine was good for the ticker. The fact is, people want
to believe that drinking is good for them, and the science
in this field is easy to manipulate to convince them.
Scientists have long known that heavy drinking causes
high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks. That’s
why early studies investigating drinking and heart disease started with the logical supposition that people who
abstain from alcohol should have low rates of heart disease
compared with moderate or heavy drinkers. As it turned
out, they didn’t. When plotted on a curve, drinkers fell into
a J-shaped pattern: Abstainers in the studies had rates of
cardiovascular disease similar to those of heavy drinkers.
But this J-curve is deceptive. Not all the nondrinkers in
these studies were teetotalers like the ones I grew up with
in Utah. The British epidemiologist A. Gerald Shaper began
a wide-ranging men’s heart health study in the late 1970s,
and when he examined the data, he found that 71 percent of
nondrinkers in the study were actually former drinkers who
had quit. Some of these ex-drinking men were as likely to
smoke as heavy drinkers. They had the highest rate of heart
disease of any group and elevated rates of high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, diabetes, gallbladder disease, and even
bronchitis. Shaper concluded that ex-drinkers were often
sicker than heavy drinkers who hadn’t
quit, making them a poor control group.
Yet for decades, researchers continued to include them and consequently
found an implausible number of
health benefits to moderate drinking,
including lower rates of deafness and
liver cirrhosis. The industry has helped
promote these studies to doctors.
That’s one reason why, until recently, alcohol’s heart health benefits
have been treated as incontrovertible science. But in the mid-2000s,
Kaye Middleton Fillmore, a researcher at the University
of California-San Francisco, decided to study Shaper’s
ex-drinkers. When no one in the United States would fund
her work, she persuaded Tim Stockwell, then the director
of Australia’s National Drug Research Institute, to help her
secure Australian government funding.
Stockwell and Fillmore analyzed decades’ worth of studies on alcohol and heart disease. Once they excluded studies with ex-drinkers—which was most of them—the heart
benefits of alcohol largely disappeared. Since then, a host
of other studies have found that drinking does not provide
any heart benefits. (Some studies have found that drinking
small amounts of alcohol—sometimes less than one drink
per day—can be beneficial for certain people at risk of heart
disease.) Robert Brewer, who runs an alcohol program at the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “Studies
do not support that there are benefits of moderate drinking.”
The Agriculture Department removed language suggesting
that alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease in the most
recent US Dietary Guidelines.
Yet the debate rages on, in part because the industry
continues to fund and promote studies indicating that
alcohol helps the heart. The niaaa is currently embarking on another one with $100 million in funding, most of
which was solicited directly from the industry, according
to the New York Times. The study was planned in consultation with industry leaders and pitched as a way to
prove that moderate drinking can be healthy. It is being
billed as the most definitive study on moderate drinking
to date, but it will likely understate the risks, partly because it won’t run long enough to track any increases in
cancer rates. At least five researchers on the project are
past recipients of industry money.
Public health experts say that even if there is a small heart
benefit from alcohol, it will never outweigh the risks. Alcohol “would never be approved as a medicine,” says Jennie
Connor, a preventive- and social-medicine professor at the
University of Otago in New Zealand who wrote one of the
landmark papers linking alcohol to cancer. “It’s addictive,
like opioids. If you give medication to people that could
affect their unborn child or make them aggressive and hit
their wife, what kind of medicine is that? From a public
health standpoint, using alcohol for heart disease is utterly wrong. It goes against everything medical people do.”
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
“From a pure scientific perspective, what is the point
of this [pro-alcohol] research?” asks Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“How is it going to change policy or practice? It’s not. Even
if it turns out that there are true benefits, we’re not going
to start recommending that people who have never had
alcohol before start drinking.”
There are far safer ways than drinking to reduce the
risk of heart disease—walking, for instance—that also
won’t give you cancer. That’s why the American Heart
Association strongly warns people not to start drinking
if they don’t already.
i drank my first beer when I was 13. My dad and I had
been out pheasant hunting on a cold day. After we bagged
our birds, we got into the Jeep to warm up, and my dad
handed me a Mickey’s Big Mouth. It was nasty, but I drank
it to prove my worthiness of the adult gesture. When I was
done, he said, “You wanna drive?” That was Utah in the
’80s, at least if you weren’t Mormon.
Later, I went to a Catholic high school, where we distinguished ourselves from the future missionaries in the
public schools with excessive drinking. Even in Utah, booze
was easy to come by. There was Doug at Metro Mart, who
sold us beer from the drive-thru window. When he wasn’t
around, we stole it from our parents, siphoning off small
amounts of bourbon, rum, gin, and vodka and then dumping the whole awful mix into a cola-flavored Slurpee and
sucking it down through a straw.
I went off to the University of
Oregon, where Animal House had
been filmed 10 years earlier. During
my time there, the university decided
to crack down on underage drinking
on campus. Riots broke out, and the
local police had to deploy tear gas.
I’ve never drunk as heavily as I did
before I could legally buy a drink. My
experience isn’t unusual. Ninety perWAYS IT CAN KILL YOU.
cent of alcohol consumption by underage Americans is binge drinking,
defined as four or more drinks on one
occasion, according to the cdc. I’ll never know for sure, but
all the drinking I did in my adolescence may have helped
pave the way for the cancer I got at 47.
Human breast tissue doesn’t fully mature until a woman
becomes pregnant. Before then, and particularly during
puberty, breast cells proliferate rapidly, which may make
them especially vulnerable to carcinogens. That’s one
reason why never getting pregnant is itself a risk factor
for breast cancer. Scientists have understood this for nearly
40 years, thanks to studies of women in Nagasaki exposed
to radiation from the atomic bomb. Japanese women who’d
been exposed before age 20 had the highest rates of breast
cancer. Other studies suggest that the risk of premenopausal breast cancer goes up 34 percent for every daily
drink consumed before the age of 30. And the longer
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
women go between their first period and their first baby,
the riskier drinking becomes.
With a first pregnancy at 33, I had a good 20 years of
drinking to damage my breasts, and my adolescent binge
drinking may have been especially devastating. Dr. Graham
Colditz, a cancer prevention specialist and epidemiologist
at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in the British
medical journal Women’s Health in 2015 that “women who
report seven drinks on the weekend but no alcohol consumption on the weekdays may have higher risk of breast
cancer as compared with those who consistently have one
drink every day.” One study Colditz cited found a nearly 50
percent increase in breast cancer risk among women who
consumed 10 to 15 drinks over a typical weekend compared
with those who had no more than three.
Colditz says cancer prevention efforts haven’t kept up
with demographic trends. As women across the globe
have delayed childbearing, he says, “We’ve really extended this period of life when the breast is most susceptible, and we haven’t mounted a prevention strategy
to counter the marketing of alcohol.”
In fact, just as the evidence was becoming clear that
women are disproportionately vulnerable to alcohol’s
cancer risks, the industry mounted a campaign to get
them to drink even more. “Women all over the world
are underperforming consumers,” explains Jernigan, the
Johns Hopkins researcher who is now a professor at the
Boston University School of Public Health. The distilled
spirits industry, facing flagging sales, created “alcopops”—
sweetened alcoholic beverages such as Zima, Smirnoff Ice,
and Skyy Blue that are packaged in childlike bright colors.
Marlene Coulis, director of new products at AnheuserBusch, explained in 2002, “The beauty of this category
is that it brings in new drinkers, people who really don’t
like the taste of beer.”
Just who were those “new drinkers” who didn’t like beer?
Federal data shows the median age for the first consumption of alcohol is about 14, and Jernigan says the people who
don’t like the taste of beer tend to be young women. The
alcopop-makers managed to convince state and federal regulators that the products were “flavored malt beverages” like
beer, even though the main ingredient was distilled spirits.
The designation allowed companies to sell these products
in convenience stores that also sold beer, at a much lower
tax rate than hard liquor required, making them more accessible to underage drinkers. The liquor companies then
blasted the youth market with ads for the new products.
The distilled spirits industry had voluntarily given up
advertising on the radio back in 1936 and on TV in 1948
to avoid regulation by Congress, but it jettisoned those
pledges in 1996. Still, TV liquor ads didn’t fully take off
until the advent of alcopops. In 2001, says Jernigan, there
were fewer than 2,000 ads for spirits on cable TV. In 2009,
that figure had jumped to more than 60,000, and many ads
targeted TV audiences with large numbers of viewers too
young to drink legally. (In 2012, all the major TV broadcast
networks also abandoned their ban on liquor ads.) In an
email to Mother Jones, Coulis said the idea that alcopops
were intended to appeal to underage drinkers is a “gross
mischaracterization and absolute falsehood.”
Traditionally, young people in the United States have
been beer drinkers, but in the early 2000s, surveys showed
that women were increasingly turning to harder stuff, and
they’ve remained there. Ads and products now push alcohol as a salve for the highly stressed American woman.
There are wines called Mother’s Little Helper, Happy
Bitch, Mad Housewife, and Relax. Her Spirit vodka comes
with swag emblazoned with girl-power slogans like “Drink
responsibly. Dream recklessly.” Johnnie Walker recently
came out with Jane Walker scotch, to market a liquor “seen
as particularly intimidating by women,” according to the
company. (Johnnie Walker is owned by Diageo, a multinational alcohol conglomerate. One of Mother Jones’ board
members is also an executive at Diageo.)
Booze-makers have also “pinkwashed” products targeted
at women, literally draping the ads in pink ribbons, with
promises to donate some proceeds to breast cancer charities. In 2015, Alcohol Justice, a California-based policy advocacy group, found 17 brands of pinkwashed booze. “They’re
marketing a carcinogen,” says the New York Alcohol Policy
Alliance’s Pezzolesi. “Can you imagine if Philip Morris did a
pink tobacco pack? People would be up in arms.”
The campaigns seem to have worked. An niaaa study
found that drinking by women jumped 16 percent between
2001 and 2013, more than twice the increase among men. The
change is greatest among white women, 71 percent of whom
drink today, compared with 64 percent in 1997, according to
a Washington Post analysis. The alcohol-related death rate for
white women more than doubled between 1999 and 2015.
the ad is graphic: A glass of red wine spills onto a white
tablecloth and starts to form the image of a woman. “Alcohol is carcinogenic,” the narrator says. “Once absorbed
into the bloodstream, it travels through the body. With
every drink, the risk of cell mutations in the breast, liver,
bowel, and throat increases. These cell mutations are also
known as cancer.” The wine pools around the woman like
blood, and the narrator advises limiting cancer risk by not
having more than two drinks on any day. The ad campaign
aired in 2010 in Western Australia.
In England in 2013, a public health charity broadcast an
ad campaign featuring a man drinking a beer with a tumor
at the bottom of the glass, which he ultimately swallows
as the narrator explains, “The World Health Organization
classifies alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen. Like tobacco and
asbestos, it can cause cancer.”
Other countries have begun to take heed of alcohol’s
cancer risks. For the first time, in 2010, the World Health
Organization issued a global strategy for reducing the harms
of alcohol. It recognized cancer as one of those harms and
called on countries to implement measures to lower consumption. Many have done so. South Korea has tightened
its recommended alcohol limits, and new Dutch guidelines
urge people not to drink at all, but if they do, to consume
no more than one drink a day. In December, Ireland’s upper
house of parliament approved a cancer warning label for
alcohol that is now being debated in the lower house. Even
the Russians raised their alcohol taxes. (Canada recently
launched an experiment to test cancer warning labels on
alcohol in the Yukon but stopped the project a month later
amid intense pressure from alcohol companies.)
In 2016, Britain reduced its recommended alcohol consumption limit for men to the same level as for women,
about six pints of beer a
week. Sally Davies, the chief
Alcohol industry
medical officer for England,
spending on lobbying
told the bbc, “If you take
1,000 women, 110 will get
breast cancer without drinking. Drink up to these guide$25m
lines and an extra 20 women
will get cancer because of
that drinking. Double the
guideline limit and an extra
50 women per 1,000 will get
cancer…That’s not scaremongering. That’s fact.”
It’s not the kind of straight
’99 ’02 ’05 ’08 ’11 ’14 ’17
talk you’re likely to hear in
Source: OpenSecrets
the United States, where the
industry is fighting to prevent cancer fears from hurting its bottom line. In spring 2016, the American Beverage
Institute’s Longwell told a brewers’ conference that public
health officials “want to tell you that alcohol causes cancer,”
according to the Wall Street Journal. Such public health activism, she suggested, was a threat to the industry’s “health
halo.” At another 2016 conference, Jim McGreevy, president
of the Beer Institute, an industry lobbying group, said of
public health advocates, “We can’t let them gain traction.”
He did not respond to a request for comment.
For more than a decade, the alcohol industry has bulldozed long-standing public health regulations designed
to reduce harmful consumption. It has mounted successful campaigns to allow the sale of liquor in supermarkets
and on Sundays and to loosen restrictions on the hours
liquor can be served in restaurants and bars. Not surprisingly, alcohol consumption per capita in the United States,
which hit a 34-year low in 1997, has shot up to levels not
seen in two decades.
Alcohol companies are enormous multinational corporations. AB InBev controls nearly 50 percent of the US
beer market, including the all-American brand Budweiser.
Jernigan analyzed Nielsen data and estimated that the industry spent $2.1 billion on advertising in 2016, a figure that
doesn’t include online ads or those in stores. It also spent
$30.5 million last year to lobby Congress. The Distilled Spirits
Council, which alone spent $5.6 million on federal lobbying
last year, holds whiskey tastings on Capitol Hill attended by
Democrats and Republicans alike. “Alcohol is the drug of
choice of the people who make the laws,” observes Jernigan.
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
While other countries are considering World Health
Organization recommendations to impose steeper alcohol taxes, the tax law President Donald Trump signed
in December further slashed US alcohol excise taxes,
which, thanks to inflation, were already down as much
as 80 percent since the 1950s.
Koob, the niaaa director, has attended events at the Distilled Spirits Council and met with its representatives, according to documents obtained through a public records
request. He gets holiday party invites from the Beer Institute and meets with its ceo. In 2015, Koob and the niaaa’s
director of global alcohol research appeared in a promotional video for AB InBev’s “global smart drinking goals,”
filmed at an AB InBev Global Advisory Council meeting.
“We went through the normal procedures here at nih
for approval, and we were given approval to do it,” says
Koob. “Under no circumstances are we promoting alcohol beverages or any product. That’s not our nature. But if
people want to help prevent alcohol misuse, we’re all for it.”
Boston University’s Siegel counters, “The whole idea
[behind the campaign] is that if you drink properly, not to
excess, it’s okay. That’s not true. If you drink moderately,
you’re increasing your risk of cancer, and that’s the part
of it they don’t want people to know.”
after i had surgery to remove my tumor, my oncologist
sent me to see the cancer dietitian last June. The dietitian
outlined a joyless regimen so complex it required a spreadsheet for compliance. Along with more fish and flaxseed,
she recommended five weekly servings of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, as well as loads of beans for additional
fiber. She put the kibosh on bacon and sausage—processed
meats are considered carcinogenic. She instructed me to
eat natural soy like tofu at least three times a week but not
processed soy like that found in garden burgers because it
can boost cancer-causing estrogen levels. And she sternly
admonished me to lay off the cream in my coffee.
Not once did the subject of alcohol come up. “There’s
more data for counseling you to decrease alcohol than to
eat broccoli or tofu,” says Noelle K. LoConte, an oncologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin.
But she says the message about alcohol and cancer hasn’t
gotten out, even to cancer doctors, which may be one
reason not a single one of my doctors raised the issue
with me before or after I was diagnosed.
To address this problem, in November LoConte coauthored a statement from the American Society of Clinical
Oncology that officially declared alcohol a cancer risk. (The
society also commissioned a poll, which found that 70 percent of Americans had no idea alcohol can cause cancer.)
In its statement, the group called for policy measures to
reduce alcohol consumption and prevent cancer, the same
ones recommended by the US surgeon general, the federal
Community Preventive Health Task Force, and the World
Health Organization. They’re similar to strategies that
brought down smoking rates: higher excise taxes, limits
on the number of outlets selling alcohol in a particular area,
stricter enforcement of underage drinking laws, and caps
on the numbers of days and hours when alcohol can be sold.
There’s a huge body of research supporting the effectiveness of these policies, yet there is not a single public health
group in Washington lobbying for any of them. The few
groups that once battled with the alcohol industry have
abandoned the effort in recent years. The American Medical Association, which used to focus on alcohol-related harm
and campus binge drinking, stopped working on alcohol
policy in 2005. The Ralph Nader-linked Center for Science in
the Public Interest stopped during a budget crunch in 2009.
That same year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which
for decades had been one of the biggest funders of efforts
to reduce underage drinking, largely pulled out of the field.
“It’s astounding that one of the leading causes of premature death and illness is ignored by almost every foundation that works in the health area,” says Richard Yoast, who
ran the ama’s alcohol programs until they ended in 2005.
Government funding for alcohol harm reduction has
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
also dried up. In 2009, the Justice Department budget for
grants to states to enforce underage drinking laws was $25
million. By 2015, it was zero. At the request of the Obama
White House, Congress also eliminated an Education
Department program that combated underage drinking,
among other initiatives.
Without independent funding for public health work
on alcohol policy, the industry has filled the void, creating
nonprofits to promote “responsible” drinking. Industry
groups have used these to respond to the news about alcohol and cancer. When I asked the Beer Institute to comment for this story, a spokesman sent me a link to a report
from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, a
nonprofit funded by the world’s largest alcohol companies,
and quoted one line from the report: “The most clear association of cancer risk is with heavy drinking, particularly
regular heavy drinking over extended periods of time.”
Mark Petticrew, a professor of public health at the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently published a study finding that many alcohol industry websites
and nonprofits have actively misled the public about the link
between alcohol and cancer. They suggest that only problem
drinkers have an elevated risk of cancer and present long lists
of other risk factors to confuse readers, particularly when it
comes to breast cancer. “Female consumers are more health
conscious than male consumers,” Petticrew explains. “The
female consumer is seen as part of the alcohol market that
needs to be marketed to more. The female drinker is the last
person you want to be a fully informed consumer.”
Over the past 30 years, breast cancer survivors have
become a powerful political force in their own right, raising millions of dollars for research and education. But wine
tastings are a staple of breast cancer fundraising events.
The Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University has been holding a “women and wine”
fundraiser annually for breast cancer research for more
than a decade. “Brews for Breast Cancer” events have proliferated. In October, the American Cancer Society threw
Alcohol companies
have tried to
persuade consumers
they can help fight
breast cancer
by purchasing
products that
benefit cancer
charities, obscuring
alcohol’s proven
breast cancer risk.
its 40th annual Wine and Spirits In“ALCOHOL IS THE DRUG
dustry Gala in New York City “to supOF CHOICE OF THE
port the Society’s mission of eliminating cancer as a major health problem.”
In response to questions from Mother
Jones, Dr. Richard Wender, the chief
cancer control officer for the American
Cancer Society, says alcohol is much
less risky than tobacco. “Our goal is to
find the right balance that allows companies to engage with us, while staying
true to our values and our public health mission,” he says.
The more I looked into the conflicts of interest among
those responsible for informing the public of alcohol’s
health risks, the more I began to recognize my own industry’s entanglement. The press, which starting with
Morley Safer has flooded readers with stories declaring
that drinking is good for your health, has repeatedly accepted alcohol companies’ largesse. In 2016, the Wall Street
Journal sponsored a party with the Distilled Spirits Council at the Republican National Convention. In April 2017,
the council and the Beer Institute helped pay for a “Toast
to the First Amendment” party with RealClearPolitics.
In 2016, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council,
Kraig Naasz, wrote in an email newsletter that the group
had recently treated writers from a wide range of publications to cocktails at a New York bar during a lunch briefing
on alcohol and health. On hand to chat up the journalists
was Zakhari, the former niaaa scientist. “The presenters
underscored that moderate alcohol consumption can be
incorporated into a healthy adult diet,” Naasz reported.
The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, funded by companies such as Bacardi and Diageo,
paid for journalists to attend workshops last year held
by the Poynter Institute, the self-appointed watchdog
of journalism ethics. “The conflict of interest is so big it
makes me gasp,” New York University nutritionist Marion
Nestle told Health News Review when it broke the story
on Poynter. “The alcohol industry wants journalists to
extol the (purported) health benefits of drinking alcohol
and to minimize the risks.”
Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice president, says the foundation’s involvement did not affect the content of the
workshops and the institute may collaborate with the
foundation again. “They are a non-profit foundation that
promotes responsible consumption of alcohol,” she said
in an email. “They funded workshops where we taught
journalists to apply the skills of fact-checking to scientific
research. That seems like a consistent overlap of purpose.”
susan sontag once wrote that telling people about your
cancer diagnosis tends to fill them with mortal dread.
But when I’ve disclosed my illness to friends and told
them that alcohol can cause breast cancer, I’ve never invoked enough mortal dread to deter anyone from ordering a second drink. Most women have no idea drinking
causes breast cancer, and they really (continued on page 69)
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
ance is one of the
Antibiotic resist
scariest threat
ed y
may save us yet.
n McKenna | Illustra
steffanie strathdee hunched over her
laptop, fretting. She barely noticed the
kittens asleep next to her or the serene
Buddha figure across the living room,
anchored next to the glass doors that
looked toward the gleaming Pacific. Her
mind was 20 miles away in the intensive
care unit of the University of CaliforniaSan Diego’s medical center, where her husband, Tom Patterson, lay in a coma.
Patterson was 68; Strathdee was 49. They
had been married 11 years, after meeting
in a grant review group convened by the
National Institutes of Health. He was a psychologist and she was an infectious-disease
epidemiologist; when they fell in love, they
also formed a powerhouse research team,
studying the effect of the aids virus on vulnerable people in Tijuana, Mexico.
But it was a bacterium, not a virus, that
was bedeviling them now. Three months
earlier, on the last night of a Thanksgiving
vacation in Egypt, Patterson had suddenly
fallen ill, so severely that he had to be
medevaced to Germany and then to ucsd.
There were several things wrong—a gallstone, an abscess in his pancreas—but the
core of the problem was an infection with
a superbug, a bacterium named Acinetobacter baumannii that was resistant to every
antibiotic his medical team tried to treat
it with. Patterson had been a burly man,
6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds, but
now he was wasted, his cheekbones jutting
through his skin. Intravenous lines snaked
into his arms and neck, and tubes to carry
away seepage pierced his abdomen. He was
delirious and his blood pressure was falling, and the medical staff had sedated him
and intubated him to make sure he got the
oxygen he needed. He was dying.
Strathdee’s friends knew she was desperately searching for solutions, and one
told her about an acquaintance with an
intractable infection who had traveled to
Eastern Europe to seek out a century-old
cure. Strathdee spent days reading whatever she could find about it, and now she
by Ery Burns
was composing a last-ditch email to the
hospital’s head of infectious diseases, the
person who would rule on whether they
could use it to help her spouse.
“We are running out of options to save
Tom,” she wrote. “What do you think
about phage therapy?”
Strathdee didn’t realize it at the time,
but her attempt to save her husband’s life
would test the bounds of the American
medical system—and throw its limitations
into stark relief.
the treatment Strathdee had fixed on
as a last-ditch hope is almost never used
in the United States. The Food and Drug
Administration has not licensed phage
therapy, keeping it out of pharmacies and
hospitals. Few physicians have used it even
experimentally, and most civilians have
never heard of it. But phages are a natural
phenomenon, frequently deployed in the
former Soviet Union. When used properly,
they can save lives.
To understand how phage therapy
works, it helps to know a little biology,
starting with the distinction between bacteria and viruses. Most of the drug-resistant
superbugs that cause medical havoc are
bacteria, microscopic single-celled organisms that do most of the things that other
living things do: seek nutrition, metabolize
it into energy, produce offspring. Viruses,
which are much smaller than bacteria, exist
only to reproduce: They attach to a cell,
hijack its reproductive machinery to make
fresh viruses, and then, in most cases, explode the cell to let viral copies float free.
Phages are viruses. In the wild, they are
the cleanup crew that keeps bacteria from
taking over the world. Bacteria reproduce
relentlessly, a new generation every 20 minutes or so, and phages kill them just as rapidly, preventing the burgeoning bacterial
biomass from swamping the planet like a
B-movie slime monster. But phages do not
kill indiscriminately: Though there are trillions in the world, each is tuned evolution-
arily to destroy only particular bacteria. In
1917, a self-taught microbiologist named
Félix d’Herelle recognized phages’ talent
for targeted killing. He imagined that if he
could find the correct phages, he could use
them to cure deadly bacterial infections.
That was a gleaming hope, because at
the time, nothing else could. (Sir Alexander
Fleming wouldn’t find the mold that makes
penicillin, the first antibiotic, until 1928.)
Treatments were primitive: aspirin and ice
baths to knock down fever, injections of
crude immunotherapy extracted from the
blood of horses and sheep, and amputation when a scratch or cut let infection burgeon in a limb and threaten the rest of the
body with sepsis. Phages—whose full name,
bacteriophages (or “bacteria eaters”), was
given by d’Herelle in 1916—did something
that medicine had never before been able
to accomplish: They vanquished the infections for which they were administered
without otherwise harming patients. A
medical sensation and a cultural phenomenon, they provided the key plot device in
the novel Arrowsmith, about an idealistic
doctor, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926,
and they saved the life of the Hollywood
cowboy actor Tom Mix, a 1930s superstar.
D’Herelle was a restless researcher who
seems to have felt undervalued despite
being awarded jobs in Paris and Vietnam
and at Yale. That insecurity made him
vulnerable to an offer he received in 1933
to relocate to Tbilisi in Georgia, home
territory of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
With a protégé, Georgi Eliava, d’Herelle
co-founded the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology. Stalin showered the institute with
attention and money because it offered
something he badly wanted: a scientific
achievement that he could portray as a
pure product of communism. Antibiotics became the basis of infectious-disease
medicine in the West, but behind the Iron
Curtain, phages took their place.
Eliava was murdered in a political purge
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
Y O U ’ L L
in 1937, and d’Herelle died in 1949. Their institute dwindled, but it survived the collapse
of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Georgian
civil war the following year. When the former
ussr opened up to the West, physicians in
the United States and Europe learned the
Eliava Institute was one of the few places
in the world where researchers were still
studying and administering phages. That
was fortunate timing, because antibiotics
in the West were losing their power under
the onslaught of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics began as natural compounds, the chemical weapons that bacteria aim against each other to compete
for living space and food. For millennia
before humans arrived, bacteria countered
those attacks with mutations—and when
humans turned those natural weapons into
medicine, by taking them into laboratories
to synthesize and perfect them, bacteria
routinely added to livestock feed, they permeate the food supply. In 2015, for instance,
an fda project discovered that 47 percent
of salmonella bacteria samples found in
retail chicken were resistant to tetracycline,
as were 76 percent of the E. coli found in
ground turkey.
Phages’ vast biological diversity helps
them against the mutations that make up
disease organisms’ resistance defenses.
Plus, because phages kill only specific
strains of bacteria, they can quell infections
without inducing a terrible diarrheal disease from Clostridium difficile (usually
known as C. diff) that occurs when the balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted by
antibiotics wiping out good bugs along
with the bad. The cdc estimates that in
2011 there were more than 450,000 cases
of C. diff infections in the United States,
leading to more than 15,000 deaths. It’s
“I always thought viruses were the bad
guys. Now I see that viruses may
actually be used for good, too.”
kept on adapting. The mutations they produced in response to antibiotics are what
we call antibiotic resistance.
Penicillin-resistant staph infections
swept the world not long after penicillin
came into use during World War II.
Methicillin-resistant staph (mrsa) immediately followed the 1960 debut of methicillin,
designed to replace some of penicillin’s lost
firepower. Over the decades, as each new
antibiotic arrived, resistant infections have
arisen to undermine them. In the United
States, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimated in 2013 that at least
23,000 people die each year from resistant
infections, and that 2 million are made sick
enough to go to a doctor’s office or hospital.
Worldwide, the death toll is estimated at
700,000 people a year. And because resistance is accelerating ahead of production
of new drugs to counter it, the death toll is
expected to rise to 10 million per year and
cost the world as much as $100 trillion in
lost economic activity by 2050.
Superbugs pervade health care, causing
grave infections after surgeries and in intensive care units, and because antibiotics are
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
possible that using phage therapy instead
of antibiotics could prevent some of them.
But for phage therapy to be deployed routinely in the United States, phages would
have to be approved as drugs by the fda. To
treat an American patient with them now
requires emergency compassionate-use
authorization—effectively an acknowledgment that nothing with an fda license can
save the patient’s life. And Strathdee was
about to learn that because phages have no
such approval, awareness of them is scarce
and unevenly distributed, and finding the
right researchers and physicians requires
extraordinary luck.
strathdee directs ucsd’s Global Health
Institute and like her husband is a professor in the medical school. Decades earlier,
she had tinkered with phages in lab science classes, using them as a tool to differentiate bacteria. Before her husband
got sick, she had never heard they could
be used as treatments.
The physician whom she’d emailed—Dr.
Robert “Chip” Schooley, at the time ucsd’s
chief of infectious diseases, and an old
friend—knew a little more. Anyone who
works in infectious diseases is aware of the
peril of drug resistance, and the wish for
reliable alternatives to antibiotics is a constant companion to that work. But phages
had no direct relevance for him because
his personal expertise is disease-causing
viruses—hiv and hepatitis—that phages
would not affect.
He knew the next step to take, though.
The fda maintains a hotline that lets physicians ask permission to use an unapproved
treatment on a single patient if every other
hope has been exhausted. The fda’s reviewer agreed to let the pair attempt phages.
Time was short, and the odds were against
Strathdee. She needed to find someone who
was conducting phage research, who had
already isolated phages that worked against
Acinetobacter, and who would be willing to
test those phages on Patterson’s infection
to see if there was a match.
She cast a wide net, sending about 10
emails to labs around the world, including
the Eliava Institute. Two and a half hours
later, she got a message from one of the few
phage research groups in the United States,
the Center for Phage Technology at Texas
A&M University, run by a biologist named
Ryland Young. Strathdee called Young and
talked at him for more than an hour.
“She has persuasive power,” Young recalled. “And she has made herself probably
the most knowledgeable civilian in the
world on the use of phage therapy. She got
us mobilized.”
What happened next illustrates how
time-consuming it can be to try to use an
unapproved treatment. Young’s lab has
been isolating and testing phages since
2010 and has several hundred individual
viruses in its collection, but when Strathdee
called fewer than 10 of them were known
to work against Acinetobacter. Young put
out a call to the small worldwide network
of phage researchers, asking for contributions, and was sent some 35 new viruses. He
and his lab tested all of them on a sample
from Patterson’s infection, sent by Schooley.
None of Young’s phages made a dent. One
virus, sent by a company called AmpliPhi,
did kill cells from the infection. They would
need more to make a difference, so Young
and his team embarked on what he drawlingly calls “a good old-fashioned phage
hunt.” To find a phage that worked against
Acinetobacter, Young reasoned, he would
have to go look for Acinetobacter in the wild.
So he sent his students hunting for environmental samples, dipping into effluent
from sewage-treatment plants, pulling
water from ponds, and taking swabs of
pigs on ranches near the university. Among
the 126 samples obtained during the expedition, the Texas lab identified three
phages that worked against Patterson’s
strain of Acinetobacter.
Now they had individual viruses that
might do the trick—but they needed
to grow enough of them to make up a
treatment. They let the bacteria from
Patterson’s infection reproduce under
lab conditions and then unleashed the
phages on them. The viruses worked the
way they had evolved to: They attached
to the bacteria, inserted their dna, copied
themselves, and exploded the pathogens.
The team fed the phages more and more
Acinetobacter. In 10 days, they had trillions
of copies. Young shipped them in a refrigerated box to Schooley, who meanwhile
had been explaining to the university’s
biohazard-safety committee why letting
a minimally tested living virus into an icu
full of very sick people would not be a risk.
(If the phage escaped, it would affect only
patients who happened to have the exact
same infection as Patterson, and no one
else there did.) Schooley had also found
another source of phages, in a lab maintained by the US Navy. In tests, four of the
Navy phages killed the bacterium from
Patterson’s infection as well.
The Texas phages arrived in San Diego
first, all four of them combined into a cocktail to increase the odds of success. They
had to be scrubbed of cellular toxins and
debris from the bacteria they had been
grown on, because those contaminants
could have sent Patterson into shock.
Schooley and his team infused the clean
solution into the drains that pierced Patterson’s abdomen, hoping to sterilize the
cavities where the infection was lurking.
That was on a Tuesday. Patterson didn’t
get better, but he also didn’t get worse—
encouraging, given how rapidly he had
been slipping away. Two days later, the
Navy phages arrived, and the ucsd team
took a gamble and gave them to him intravenously, to chase the bacteria that had
found homes in his lungs and bladder and
blood. That was on a Thursday. On Saturday night, Patterson awoke from his coma
and recognized his daughter. The phages
had done their work.
He was not yet cured, not by a long shot.
His infection surged and he crashed back
into septic shock the next week, only to be
brought out of it with more phages. The
same thing happened again a month later,
and this time the Navy lab analyzed his infection and tinkered with the phage cocktail.
The whole treatment process was a
scramble. “We had two people working literally 24/7 for six weeks to find and supply
phages to the clinical team at ucsd,” Young
said. “That is not sustainable.”
The effort was such an emergency, Young
added, that his group did not have time to
fully analyze the phages they sent. Later
they discovered that almost all the viruses
used in the first round of Patterson’s treatment, both from Texas A&M and from the
Navy, targeted the same single attachment
point on the outside of the bacterium. It
was as if they were all the same drug, instead of eight different ones. That meant
the bacterium had to make just one small
mutational change to defend itself against
them, producing phage resistance—a problem that appears in only a small number
of scientific papers about phages and that
medicine has not yet had to develop strategies against, because phages have not been
a treatment in most of the world.
“If we had been able to do genetic and
molecular analysis of the phages, we could
have avoided that,” Young said. “The ideal
thing would be to have a walk-in cooler of
thousands of phages, each of which you
know everything about.”
actually, two decades ago, someone
attempted to do just that. Alexander
Sulakvelidze, who holds a doctorate in
microbiology, is a native of Tbilisi, the
home of the Eliava Institute. Sulakvelidze
grew up experiencing phage treatments as
a routine part of medical care, off-the-shelf
products that doctors would prescribe like
Western physicians prescribe antibiotics.
Then he came to the United States to serve
a postdoctoral fellowship at the University
of Maryland School of Medicine. One day
during his fellowship, his supervisor, Dr.
J. Glenn Morris, announced that a patient
was gravely ill with a resistant bug called
vre and would likely die.
“I asked him, ‘Why can’t bacteriophages
get rid of the vre?’” Sulakvelidze recalls. “I
The Resistance
Phages are viruses capable of infiltrating
and exploding bacterial cells that can cause
dangerous infection.
Step 1
The phage
to the host
bacterial cell.
Step 2
The phage
sends its
dna into the
bacterial cell.
Step 3
The phage
dna replicates.
New proteins
are made.
Step 4
New phages
are formed
inside the
bacterial cell.
Step 5
The newly
made phages
burst out of
the bacterial
cell, killing it.
The process
thought it was a naive question.” But later,
after the patient died, Sulakvelidze says he
realized, “Something very strange is going
on. Somebody just died in the most developed country in the world, from something
that could probably be very easily cured in
a country like Georgia.”
Out of that realization, Sulakvelidze and
Morris and a handful of other researchers
formed a company, Intralytix, in 1998. They
set out to license phage treatments for vre,
considered at the time the most dangerous
of the superbugs. It did not go as planned.
“The investors had no idea what the risks
are, the patentability, the return on investment,” he said. “The regulatory agencies
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
Y O U ’ L L
had no idea how to regulate this. It was a
huge uncertainty.”
This was only a few years after the opening of the ussr. Most of the research written about phages had never been published
in English and never evaluated by Western
scientists. To make a case for phages in
American medicine, clinical trials such as
the ones that prove antibiotics’ efficacy
would have to be conducted.
But here was the problem. To be approved, an antibiotic must at least reliably
kill the common strains and subtypes of
the bacteria that cause a particular infection; the broadest-spectrum antibiotics,
which doctors usually reach for first, kill
multiple species in several groups. But
phages do not work against entire groups
or even against species. They are weirdly
specific and attack bacteria (or not) based
on minute genetic differences.
Clinical trials of antibiotics—which progress through three phases before approval
and in the third phase can include thousands
of patients—are constructed to prove a compound is safe and effective and causes a cure,
no matter what minor genetic differences
exist from one infection to another. Phages
cannot pass that test, because any one phage
will only work on a subset of patients.
After hitting a roadblock with the fda, Sulakvelidze and Intralytix canceled the plan
to try to get phages approved as drugs. But
they had discovered another opportunity:
Food safety is regulated by a different fda division than drugs are. The company pivoted
to isolating phages that would kill the most
important foodborne-illness organisms—
listeria, salmonella, Shigella, and E. coli. Between 2012 and 2016, the fda’s food safety
arm granted “generally recognized as safe”
status—a much lower bar than a new drug
approval—to phage cocktails targeting three
of the food safety bugs. Sulakvelidze thinks
the fda’s
fda comfort with phages for food is an
opening. He is on track to begin trials of a
new human product this year.
Phages brought
Tom Patterson back
from the brink of
death—three times.
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
Sulakvelidze will be successful, because
the fda says federal law prohibits it from
talking about the process of possibly
licensing phages for medical purposes.
The agency seems to take the position
that since it might someday be required
to rule on drug licensing for phages, it
can’t give any information now about why
it’s impossible to know whether
there have been so few licensing attempts.
It won’t even comment on how many licensing attempts there have been, though
the database maintained
by the National Institutes of Health shows
that in the United States over the past two
decades, 15 studies have used phages: Just
two applied phages as a treatment and got
through phase one—which uses a small
group of people to test safety but doesn’t
test efficacy—and those studies did not
proceed. The fda declined to make any of
its scientists available for an interview. A
spokeswoman, Megan McSeveney, said in
a statement that the agency “stands willing
to work with bacteriophage developers to
provide scientific guidance and clarify regulatory and data requirements necessary
to move these products forward in development as quickly as possible.”
The nih, which focuses purely on research and isn’t responsible for drug licensure, was a little more forthcoming. “Given
the problems that we have with antibiotic
resistance in this country and throughout the world, it certainly behooves us to
explore alternative means of controlling
and fighting and countering bacterial infections,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of
the nih’s National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases, told me. “Certainly
phage therapy is one of those.” In 2016,
Fauci said, the nih wrote about $5 million
in grants to medical research centers to
gather data on antibiotic alternatives, including phage therapy’s potential against “a
variety of recalcitrant infections.” (The US
medical establishment isn’t alone in struggling with phage research; the first major
EU-backed clinical trial, called Phagoburn,
did not proceed beyond phase two.)
Elsewhere in the nih, Randall Kincaid,
a pharmacologist and the senior scientific
officer in what’s called the concept acceleration program, explained that launching new
categories of treatments isn’t as simple as
working out the right structure for a clinical
trial. The research has to be worth the end
result, he said—which means knowing that
physicians will use the treatments when the
compounds enter the market, and also that
pharmacy managers will buy them.
“You have spectacular life-and-death stories, and everyone wishes to see this pushed
forward as concerns about antimicrobial
resistance increase, yet you have the real
dilemma of demonstrating that these are
in fact reliable,” he said. And commercially
viable: Since phages are hyperspecific and
can’t be pulled off a pharmacy shelf as an
antibiotic can, physicians may be deterred
from seeking them out, he added—and
that would make the trouble and expense
of clinical trials pointless.
A set of treatments that the fda recently
accepted might show a path forward for
testing and approving phages. Personalized cancer treatments known as car-t (for
“chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy”)
involve extracting immune system cells
from a patient’s blood so they can be genetically modified in a lab and then reinfused
into the patient. In 2017, the fda gave licenses to two car-t treatments, Kymriah
for advanced leukemia and Yescarta for a
type of lymphoma.
Like phages, car-t treatments are tuned
to an individual patient. But here’s a key
some of the 2 million who seek a doctor’s
help or hospital care. There are applications: Phages could coat artificial joints
and heart valves to prevent pathogenic
bacteria from developing sticky drugresistant mats called biofilms. Phage solutions could be infused into the raw surfaces of diabetic foot ulcers, which are hard
to treat because they have a thick, fibrous
backing that prevents intravenous drugs
from penetrating; that is partly why diabetic patients were among the first victims of vrsa, a staph resistant to even the
last-resort antibiotic vancomycin. Intralytix has proposed using phages to kill disease bacteria that are picked up from food
and water and live quiescently in the gut
for unpredictable periods of time—the superbugs ndm and mcr, which originated in
India and China, spread around the world
that way. The process of clearing out bad
Strathdee posted a desperate
plea on Twitter asking for phages.
At the last minute, two came in
that looked like a match.
difference that made drug developers
think car-t was worth pursuing for two
decades: If it goes into widespread use, it
will make manufacturers tons of money.
The cost of a single dose of Kymriah is projected to be a breathtaking $475,000. But
antibiotics have never been priced anywhere near as high as cancer drugs, and
it seems unlikely that prices would rise
for the phages that might supplant them.
Those low prices have historically been
one reason it has been hard to get drug
companies to develop new antibiotics.
Consider: In contrast to Kymriah, the antibiotic Avycaz, hailed as a major advance
when it was approved in 2015 for hospitalized cases of grave drug-resistant pneumonia, costs as little as $3,500 on price lists
and rarely rises above $15,000—and that’s
for 10 doses.
For phages to justify investment, developers will have to make a case for using
them not just to save the 23,000 people
who die of resistant infections in the
United States each year, but also to treat
bacteria that aren’t currently causing an
infection is called decolonization, and it’s
difficult to accomplish with antibiotics,
which kill good cells along with bad ones.
Phages could be more targeted.
A handful of companies still believe
in the possibility of phages, enough to
invest in research while the fda works out
its issues. One is AmpliPhi Biosciences,
which conducted one of those phaseone treatment trials in the nih database.
AmpliPhi sits north of the ucsd medical
center where Patterson was treated, and
its phages were among those that became
part of his treatment after Young at Texas
A&M launched his worldwide plea for
phages that might help.
Paul Grint, AmpliPhi’s ceo, is a physician who was a successful antibiotic developer earlier in his career and understands from the inside the Catch-22 of the
federal research bureaucracy. The company’s phase-one trial investigated the safety
(but not the effectiveness) of a cocktail of
three phages that (continued on page 66)
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
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The return of the political athlete
for all the clichés about sudden death and
there being no tomorrow, sports were always sup­
posed to be a substitute for reality, a place where
Americans could fight for three hours and hug it
out afterward. The newspapers used to call the
sports pages the “toy department” for a reason.
It was, after all, only a game.
But sports were always more than that for the
black athlete. Sports was the place, at least ideal­
istically, that fit the American Dream, where the
scoreboard guaranteed fairness. Even that was an
exaggeration, for when black athletes used their
wealth and fame to exercise their full citizenship—
as rich people do across the world—they were in­
evitably told to stick to sports.
A recent example came in February, when LeBron
James appeared in a video discussing President
Donald Trump on his multimedia site, Uninterrup­
ted. James, long the best basketball player in the
world and increasingly an unflinching critic of
Trump, said the president’s frequent, harmful com­
ments were “laughable” and “scary.” Shortly after the
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
segment went online, the demagogic Fox
News host Laura Ingraham told James
to “shut up and dribble.” Her response,
so harsh and absolute—reminiscent of
Trump saying football owners should
“get that son of a bitch off the field” for
kneeling during the national anthem—
was a reminder: In theory, sports were
where athletes were seen as most American, but in reality, the minute a black
player spoke about the American condition with even a hint of dissidence, the
white public believed it could revoke his
license to speak up.
Of all the black employees in the history of the United States, it was the ballplayers who were the most influential
and most important, the ones who made
the money. The black thinkers—the doctors, lawyers, scientists, and intellectuals—were roadblocked by segregation.
Playing ball was the first occupation that
allowed black Americans passage in the
mainstream, permission to attend white
universities and integrate white neighborhoods—a chance to be American
without the asterisk. Black entertainers,
for all their prominence, were never
proof that America was fair, because John
Coltrane didn’t have a scoreboard, a final
buzzer that told you coldly and definitively who won. America liked that. Ballplayers were the Ones Who Made It.
And being the Ones Who Made It
soon came with the responsibility to
speak for the people who had not made
it, for whom the road was still blocked.
The responsibility became a tradition so
ingrained that it hung over every player.
The tradition became the black athlete’s
coat of arms, and the players who upheld
it—Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali,
Tommie Smith, John Carlos—would one
day be taught in the schools. The ones
who did not—the commercial superstars
who followed, like O.J. Simpson, Michael
Jordan, Tiger Woods—could never
escape the criticism that they shrank
from their larger duty to the people. The
tradition was so strong that it even had
an informal nickname: the Heritage.
Before his disgrace, Simpson was
America’s first commercially viable black
athlete, creating pathways perfected by
Jordan and Woods, who enjoyed so
much access to the good life that the sacrifices of Ali and the old guard seemed
quaint and unnecessary. The Heritage is
now back, with a difference: The player
with the biggest number of zeros on his
paycheck has grown to realize that being
insulated from the fight by his money is
no longer a compliment—or a victory.
LeBron James is the first black athlete
since Ali to be both the best, most recognizable player in American professional
sports and one who makes unequivocal
support for black America inseparable
from his public persona. Unlike Colin
Kaepernick, who wasn’t a good enough
player to protect himself from severe retribution by fans, media, and ultimately
his league, James’ once-in-a-generation
ability shields him, allows him to be
himself. James does not hide from his
liberal politics, publicly supporting
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He
loudly rejects Trump and his policies,
and unlike Jordan, who kept himself at
a corporate remove from social issues,
James wrote a check and showed his
face, unafraid of offending the white
mainstream. He spoke up for Trayvon
Martin after the teen’s killing in 2012,
wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt following Eric Garner’s killing by police in
2014, and has done what Jordan would
not: give cover to the athletes without
his talent and bank account to be more
vocal politically. His leadership sent the
Tracy K. Smith stirs up America’s demons,
if only to bring us a little peace.
back in 2012, Princeton professor Tracy K. Smith won a Pulitzer
Prize for the poetry collection
Life on Mars. But her highest
distinction came last year, when
Smith, 46, was named US poet
laureate. Wade in the Water, her
latest book, deftly covers 250
years of the American experience, from the refugee’s plight
to a company’s toxic spill to the
complications of black motherhood. The slim, potent volume
includes “found” poems drawn
directly from letters between
slave owners and from black Civil
War soldiers seeking redress—
Smith visits these hauntings on
her readers without ever sounding didactic or preachy. In conversation, she reveals herself as
a soulful teacher intent on using
her stature to mend the nation’s
oldest divisions.
mother jones: As America’s
poet laureate, what’s your
responsibility to the people?
tracy k. smith: I see it as saying
this thing, poetry— language
being applied as fearlessly as possible in pursuit of many-faceted
emotional truths that we live
with—is humanizing. This voice
T IKT H / E Y E V I N E / R E D U X
message: Being a politically active black
athlete should no longer be considered
radical, but commonplace.
But even James didn’t venture easily
into the hard space of activism. He was
shaped by the times when being an advocate for African Americans meant sometimes wandering into the unwelcome
space that once belonged to the Heritage
but was purchased at auction by Shut Up
and Play. For when Tamir Rice was killed,
James did not show up in Cleveland and
walk arm in arm with the people, as
Carmelo Anthony had done in Baltimore
after police killed Freddie Gray. It would
have polarized the city and altered the
energy of his return to the hometown
Cavaliers after his years with the Miami
Heat. Like the rest of the modern incarnation of the Heritage, James was stuck
facilitating “conversation,” being the
bridge, ironically, to nowhere.
Then, in July 2016, James and his
fellow nba superstars Anthony, Chris
Paul, and Dwyane Wade took the stage
in Los Angeles at the espys, espn’s
annual glitterati and glamourfest
award show, and officially announced
joining the Heritage. Days before the
show, James’ representatives contacted
that made a stab at naming something that maybe you have felt,
too, makes the world more real
and makes us more capable of
recognizing each other.
mj: How has your own writing
played that kind of role?
ts: I’m working on an opera
drawing from the history of land
ownership in the South, so I was
visiting coastal Georgia with the
historian Erskine Clarke. He read
my memoir before we met, and
he said, “Seeing how you’re stirring the cheese into the grits, I
know that!” And somehow, all
the distances between us—age,
culture, gender—suddenly got
really small. That can happen as
often as we’re willing to let it.
It’s really exciting when somebody says, “You’re black, I’m
white. You’re from one place, I’m
espn on behalf of the foursome with a
request: They wanted to use the espys
to make a statement to America after a
week of violence between black communities and police so gruesome that even
Michael Jordan, now part of the ruling
class as owner of the Charlotte Hornets,
eventually released a statement.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 37-yearold Alton Sterling was killed by police
after they confronted him for selling
compact discs on a sidewalk. Then, in a
suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, another
black man, 32-year-old public school
cafeteria worker Philando Castile,
was shot seven times and killed by a
police officer after being stopped for a
broken taillight. The next night, Army
veteran Micah Johnson ambushed and
killed five police officers in Dallas in
alleged retaliation.
Anthony, Paul, Wade, and James
stood together on the espn stage,
each dressed in a black suit. James
went last: “It’s not about being a role
model. It’s not about our responsibility
to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali,
the goat [Greatest of All Time], but
to do his legacy any justice, let’s use
from another. I don’t know your
mother. And yet your mother in
this poem is my mother.”
mj: Tell me about your parents.
ts: My mom was deeply faithful and believed that instilling
in our family a sense of duty and
trust in God would do a lot to
counteract all those forces telling me, “You’re small, you don’t
matter—because you’re black.”
My dad was an engineer, a
meticulous man who was fascinated by how things were made,
how systems operated. So there
was this beautiful sense of curiosity and wonder that brought
to our home an order.
mj: Does that factor in when you
craft a poem?
ts: Maybe. He loved making
things—he used to make furniture. So maybe you’re working
this moment as a call
to action for all professional athletes.”
The negotiations beBeing a
tween espn and the playpolitically
ers had been intense. The
active black
network had tweaked
athlete should
and edited comments
no longer be
from the players that
sounded anti-police,
while the players worked
with their teams and
sponsors to ensure they
were not harming their
business partners. The editing of the
statements continued right up until the
show began. The message was powerful,
but it was the result of compromise, concession. If the original goal of the Heritage, as Tommie Smith described it, was
to support oppressed people around the
world, the black athlete today resembled
a privileged, corporate bridge between
the races whose job wasn’t to advocate
for black people—but to advocate for everybody. It was to be a peacemaker.
That meant being caught in the
middle during a time when there is
no middle. “The racial profiling has to
stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has
through feelings and questions
in the first draft, and then you’ve
got to start sanding down the
edges and make sure everything’s squared off.
mj: Was it hard for you, writing
this book, to relinquish the spotlight to the voices of others?
ts: It was sort of involuntary. I
hadn’t written many poems after
Life on Mars, and I was invited to
write one about the Civil War for
the National Portrait Gallery. I had
to find material that was interesting to me. Most antebellum
history has to do with white
stakeholders. There are very
few even names of the enslaved.
In Dwelling Place, Clarke’s book,
there are all these letters from the
Colcock Jones family about how
much they love to bid on slaves
and how much a chore they are to
maintain, and “What are we going
to do with these people?” Reading these letters, there’s another
story. I wanted to find what’s
between these lines.
mj: Your poem “The Greatest
Personal Privation” made me
physically angry. How do you
keep your wits about you
when you’re working with such
intense, emotional material?
ts: I have to find a way of letting
the language guide me to understand that I am as complicit in
what is wrong as I am certain of
what is right. If a poem can’t do
that, then it doesn’t feel honest.
If I use my moral convictions
like a crutch to point out, “This
is bad,” then the poem is doing
nothing more than just being, I
don’t know, what I might say at
a dinner party. —Chinaka Hodge
to stop. Not seeing the value of black and
brown bodies has to stop,” Wade said. Then,
he added a negotiated, balancing qualifier,
necessary to appease the corporate entities
involved. “But also the retaliation has to
stop. The endless gun violence in places like
Chicago, Dallas—not to mention Orlando—
it has to stop. Enough. Enough is enough.
Now, as athletes, it’s on us to challenge each
other to do even more than what we already
do in our own communities. And the conversation cannot stop as our schedules get
busy again.” Wade’s words underscored the
corporate minefield today’s players tread.
Wade’s inclusion of the “endless gun violence in places like Chicago” was personal—
it is his hometown—but was also seen as a
negotiated appeasement to the “What about
black-on-black crime?” sect. It was always
a bizarre and illogical leap, a derivative of
“shut up and play”: Black people kill one
another, so why should anyone complain
when the good guys kill them too?
Still, what James and the others said the
night of the espys should have been a call to
action for all athletes. But just as in the 1960s,
few white players have accepted the challenge.
The police unions reacted to player protests
by threatening to withhold services to events
where criticism was expected to be on display.
Black players found themselves where they
had always been whenever they sought white
support: pleading to be seen as full Americans to a public that only saw flag over grievance, authority over justice. It was about the
most important black employees in America
reclaiming a voice and responsibility from an
American public that didn’t think they had
ever earned the right to speak at all. And it was
why many whites hated Kaepernick so. He
did not negotiate. He was not a peacemaker.
So when James confronted Trumpism two
years later with public defiance, Ingraham
responded with an old weapon: an attempt
to deny his voice—“Must they run their
mouths like that?”—and, indeed, his citizenship. James and others shot back with I
will not shut up and dribble, and Ingraham
ultimately outed herself as a fraud, inviting James to appear on her show in a weak
attempt to spin her condescending, racist
attack into chummy celebrity banter. She
failed, naturally, but her attitudes succeeded
in reminding players, despite their millions
and after all these years, why the Heritage
endures: Even when African Americans
think they’ve made it, they haven’t. n
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
Novelist Tommy Orange highlights a group
of urbanites we seldom hear about.
in 1935, when gertrude stein returned to Oakland, California,
for the first time in decades, she stopped by her childhood home
to find the big house and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge
she remembered all gone. “There is no there there,” she later wrote
in Everybody’s Autobiography, a phrase for which she (and, unfairly,
Oakland itself) would long be remembered.
Author Tommy Orange uses Stein’s words to evoke a different
sort of erasure in There There, his debut novel, out in June. The
book’s 12 main characters, like its 36-year-old author, are Native
American—their ancestral land, one reminisces, buried in “glass and
concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory.” Their
stories, which become ever more tightly braided as the book moves
toward its explosive finale (at a powwow in a football stadium), are
those of contemporary Oaklanders—postal workers and custodians
and high schoolers who are fighting “to be a present-tense people.”
Some 70 percent of the country’s roughly 5 million
Native Americans are now city dwellers. Yet the urban
Native experience had never been portrayed in literature, “as far as I could tell,” Orange says as
we walk around Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
That, coupled with his “raw virtuosic talent”
(as novelist Claire Vaye Watkins puts it in
her cover blurb), sparked a bidding war among
publishers who hoped to end the drought of
major books from Native American writers.
Sherman Alexie, who first made
waves with his 1993 story collection, The Lone Ranger
and Tonto Fistfight in
Heaven, lamented
It’s hard to convince
Americans to care about war
in a faraway land, which is
what makes Brothers of the
Gun so remarkable. Out May
15, this brave, honest memoir
by Marwan Hisham, who
comes of age as his Syrian
homeland descends into
chaos, is made all the more
relatable by collaborator
Molly Crabapple, whose ink
illustrations imbue Hisham’s
story with a deeper sense of
urgency—and heartbreak.
this “fallow period” during a Fresh Air interview last year. After
reading one chapter of Orange’s book, he emailed his writer
friends to say, “It’s here. That book I’ve been waiting for.”
Orange, who calls himself a “timid, shy guy,” has deep brown
eyes and a smattering of freckles. His white mother comes
from a longtime Bay Area family. His father, raised in Oklahoma, is a member of the state’s Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.
Dad is a “walking stereotype,” Orange says. He has long hair,
and when they were growing up he made his children listen
to “peyote tapes”—recordings of Native American Church
songs Orange only later came to love. Orange remembers “a
lot of fighting at home” as his parents’ marriage dissolved, and
brawling in high school with kids who called him Chinese.
After getting a college degree in sound engineering, he couldn’t
find relevant work, so he took a gig at a used bookstore in San
Leandro. That’s when “I fell head over heels” for literature, he
says, starting with Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. “I always
felt like I was playing catch-up, so I got obsessive about how
much reading and writing I was doing.”
It was around the same time that Orange began opening
his eyes to his heritage. He spent eight years working on and
off at Oakland’s Native American Health Center, eventually
creating a media lab there. When his dad was diagnosed
with stage 4 lymphoma and decided to treat it with traditional Native healing methods, Orange joined him in New
Mexico for the ceremonies. “That was the turning point for
me,” Orange says. “I learned about who I am and what I
come from.” (His father, he adds, is alive and cancer-free.)
The concept for There There came along in 2010, as
Orange was driving down to Los Angeles for a concert.
He’d just learned his wife was pregnant, and he was thinking it was time to get serious with his writing. And then
“the thing just popped into my head; the whole thing felt
right there,” he recalls, curling his wide hand into a fist.
“It was somehow getting everybody to this powwow.” He
spent the next six years honing his characters, including
Thomas Frank, a bumbling janitor whose “one thousand
percent Indian” father was modeled on Orange’s dad, and
Orvil Red Feather, who secretly dons his grandmother’s tribal
regalia to practice TV dance moves in the mirror.
In 2014, Orange enrolled in an mfa program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
a first-of-its-kind writing course whose instructors are
mostly of indigenous descent; he teaches there now. His
thesis reader, Pam Houston, author of the story collection
Cowboys Are My Weakness, describes Orange as “more than a
good student—he’s a deeply soulful man who makes everyone around him want to try harder, do better, without him
seeming to say or do anything at all.” Classmates included
Terese Mailhot, whose lauded 2018 memoir, Heart Berries,
sold within weeks of There There.
After a stop for lunch near the lake, Orange leads me to an old
haunt, the Intertribal Friendship House, one of the first community centers geared toward urban Native Americans. We’re
greeted by 22-year-old program manager Javier Patty, who, with
Orange’s mentoring, edited a film about relocation. Patty, a
member of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes, tells me
he dreams of working at Google as he shows me a greenhouse
where the nonprofit grows onions and cabbage used for food
events, such as an upcoming “precolonial” dinner.
Orange sits down with the center’s director, Carol
Wahpepah, with whom he keeps in touch. She asks for photos
of his six-year-old son. He then presents her with an early UK
edition of There There, whose cover depicts a painted feather
surrounded by a pattern of droplets. “Carol, let me tell you
what they tried to get on here—a headdress!” Orange says.
“Oh, no!” she says. They shake their heads and laugh.
“It was really sweet to be able to hand-deliver my book to
Carol,” Orange tells me as we make our way back toward the
lake. There There is fiction, but he sees it as filling a blank in the
historical ledger. “I’m super happy I can at least be one voice
saying, ‘No, but wait—there’s this, too.’” —Maddie Oatman
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
(continued from page 59)
work against drug-resistant staph bacteria
by applying the solution to the forearm
skin of healthy volunteers. With that box
checked, AmpliPhi has been strategizing
how to move to the next step, which requires using the cocktail in patients who
are experiencing staph infections.
The fda’s emergency exemptions only
allow for treating one patient at a time.
But in research, one case is an anecdote. To
demonstrate to the fda that a phase-two
trial would be safe, the developers need
more data than a single case can give them.
Grint’s solution is to patiently assemble
an array of single cases, by contributing his
company’s phages to cases such as Patterson’s. “We’ve set a goal of, say, 10 by the end
of this year, and 10 to 15 in the early part
of next year,” he told me in 2017. “We will
then have a data set that allows us to better
design a phase-two study and answer some
of the questions that regulators have.”
but while companies and the fda ne-
gotiate, patients need saving now. In
October last year, a 25-year-old woman
in Pittsburgh named Mallory Smith, who
had cystic fibrosis and had received a lung
transplant, developed an infection in her
new lungs with a stubborn bacterium
named Burkholderia cepacia, to which CF
patients are more susceptible. The infection was resistant to every antibiotic her
physicians treated it with. Her father, who
had heard of Patterson’s ordeal, turned to
Strathdee for help.
On November 7, Strathdee posted a
plea on Twitter, asking scientists for any
phages that might have a hope of matching: “#Phage researchers! I am working
with a team to get Burkholderia cepacia
phages to treat a 25 y old woman with CF
whose infection has failed all #antibiotics.
We need…phage URGENTLY to find
suitable phage matches.” Of the several
hundred phages from around the world
that Strathdee was offered, Smith’s father
recalls that at the last minute two looked
like a match. They were rushed to Smith’s
hospital and administered, but it was too
late. Mallory Smith died November 15.
Patterson, however, made it. He left
the hospital in mid-August 2016—gaunt
and weak, having lost most of his muscle
mass but having beaten the superbug
using phages. He was the first person in
the United States to have been successfully treated intravenously.
He is still frail; the last-resort antibiotics
he was given before the phage treatment
temporarily harmed his kidneys. On the
day I met him in their home in Carlsbad,
California, he had just taken a nap, and he
talked to me from a recliner, with a blanket
and a cat stretched across his lap.
“I’ve studied aids for many, many years,
since the beginning of the epidemic, and I
always thought viruses were the bad guys,
evil,” he said. “Now that I’ve gone through
what I have, I can see that viruses may actually be used for good, too.”
Strathdee, who is working on a book
with Patterson about their experience,
says she hopes to see phages become a routine option for serious infections, available to substitute for antibiotics or to be
administered alongside them, given early
in treatment and not as a desperate last
resort when nothing else may work well.
“It certainly seems to me a lot less risky
than antibiotics,” she said. “They’re
self-limiting: When the bacteria they attack
are gone, they’re gone. That’s a pretty good
designer drug, and nature gave it to us.” n
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(continued from page 43)
reach hard-to-count communities. (More
than 30 private foundations—including the
Oakland, California-based wkf Fund, which
sponsored the outreach effort in Fresno—
are attempting to fill the void and have
raised $17 million to support community
groups working on the census.) “They’re
going to have to spend a lot of money to
convince people it’s okay to be counted,”
says Thompson. If the money isn’t there,
“you’re not going to count everyone.”
after the 1990 census failed to count 4
million people—including 4.6 percent of
African Americans, 5 percent of Hispanics, and 12 percent of Native Americans—
the bureau issued a proposal to more accurately tally minority communities. It
would use statistical sampling, which
included detailed demographic data
and survey research, to adjust the final
census count and compensate for the demographic skew. That provoked a furious
response from Republicans, who claimed
sampling would be inaccurate and cost
their party 24 seats in Congress and 410
seats in state legislatures. “At stake is our
gop majority in the House of Representatives as well as partisan control of state
legislatures nationwide,” said Republican
National Committee Chair Jim Nicholson.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich sued the
Census Bureau and took the case to the
Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in his
favor, even though, as Justice John Paul
Stevens wrote in his dissent, “the use of
sampling will make the census more accurate than an admittedly futile attempt to
count every individual by personal inspection, interview, or written interrogatory.”
Brookings Institution demographer
William Frey projects that in the 2020
census, for the first time, the white share
of the population will fall below 60 percent. Trump, who won the white vote by
20 points in 2016, would stand to gain politically if the census were manipulated to
slow that shift. Undercounting minority
populations would do the greatest harm to
states like California, which has the most
immigrants in the country. A significant
undercount in 2020 could cost the state
more than $20 billion over a decade and
potentially one or two congressional seats
and electoral votes. California is planning to
spend $50 million over the next two years
on outreach to hard-to-count populations.
“If we lose a congressional seat or two, our
voice is minimized,” says state Rep. Joaquin
Arambula, a Democrat from the Fresno area.
“Our representation in the Electoral College
is diminished. Our ability to influence who
the next president is has changed. And it’s
not reflective of what our democracy truly
represents: one person, one vote.”
Some former directors of the census
worry Republicans could simply choose
to disregard the 2020 count. There’s precedent for that, too.
Back in 1920, the census reported that
for the first time, half the population lived
in urban areas. Those results would have
shifted 11 House seats to states with most of
these new urban immigrants, who tended
to vote Democratic. The Republicancontrolled Congress recoiled. “It is not best
for America that her councils be dominated
by semicivilized foreign colonies in Boston,
New York, and Chicago,” said Republican
Rep. Edward Little of Kansas.
Congress refused to reapportion its seats
using the 1920 census. Instead, it imposed
drastic new quotas on immigration. It
didn’t adopt a new electoral map until 1929.
There’s no indication Congress will
ignore the results of the 2020 census. But
Prewitt sees parallels between the Republican Congress of 1920 and the one today.
“You could make a plausible argument
that one party benefits from the current
distribution of seats across the legislative
bodies, and they can’t necessarily improve
on the ratio they now have, so therefore
why reapportion?” he says. “It’s unlikely,
but not implausible.”
a day after canvassing the alleys of east
Fresno, Quezada and Sanjuan drove me
30 miles south, past almond, pistachio,
and orange fields. We reached a sprawling, unofficial trailer park, three miles
square, inhabited by farmworkers and
known as Tijuanitas.
Across the street from a grape field, we
met a woman named Jacinta in front of her
white trailer, next to a huge pile of abandoned refrigerators and tires. Her three
children played by a plywood chicken coop
in the backyard while her husband was out
picking lettuce.
Jacinta arrived 11 years ago from Oaxaca,
Mexico, where she’d grown up speaking
Triqui, an indigenous language. She doesn’t
remember receiving a census form in 2010
and said that if anyone from the government came to Tijuanitas, she wouldn’t open
the door. When Quezada asked whether
she would fill out the census form if she received one, Jacinta responded, “I can’t read.
How can I fill it out if I can’t read or write?”
Her next-door neighbor, a grape picker
named Gilberto, had lived there for 20
years. A cage with two doves hung from
a tree in his front yard; his work tools
dangled from another. He was also from
Oaxaca but spoke Mixtec, another indigenous language. When Quezada asked
if he’d ever received the census form,
Gilberto said no. “The census is for US
citizens only,” he said. “If I received the
form, I would return it because I’m not a
US citizen.” Quezada told him the census
counted noncitizens, too. “I didn’t know
that,” Gilberto responded.
Tijuanitas isn’t visible from any major
roads. It’s accessible only by a potholefilled dirt road. It lacks safe drinking
water and internet access, according to
Quezada. Many residents have no street
address and receive mail at PO boxes in
nearby San Joaquin. From the perspective
of the Postal Service or internet providers
or utility companies, it’s as if Tijuanitas
doesn’t exist. It appears ever likelier that
the 2020 census will regard Tijuanitas and
other underserved and neglected communities across the country the same way. n
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(continued from page 30)
were untrue. They were just “playing along”
with “ludicrous hypothetical scenarios” proposed by a prospective client. His company,
meanwhile, claimed that it did not “use or
hold data from Facebook profiles.” By the
end of the day, Cambridge Analytica had
suspended Nix pending an investigation,
and he had offered to resign if it would spare
the company. “Alexander was always entertaining,” a former colleague told me.
“In the end, he will always hang himself.”
The revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged political tricks and shady
data mining added to a growing list of
problems the company was already facing.
A few months earlier, in December, Nix
had appeared before the House Intelligence Committee—though not in person.
The panel’s Republicans, who ran the committee’s Russia probe with an eye toward
minimizing any political damage to the
president, arranged for Nix to beam in by
video link. One topic of discussion was
Nix’s outreach to WikiLeaks. His testimony
remains secret, though he subsequently
acknowledged approaching Assange in an
effort to get his hands on “information that
could be incredibly relevant to the outcome
of the US election.” (In the Channel 4 undercover footage, Nix mocked the Intelligence Committee and said the Republican
members asked him only three questions.
“Five minutes—done,” he said, adding,
“They’re politicians; they’re not technical.
They don’t understand how it works.”)
The committee’s Democrats had taken
a keen interest in Trump’s data operation
and Cambridge Analytica’s role in particular. Michael Bahar, a former general counsel on the committee who worked on the
investigation before entering private practice, told me that one line of inquiry explored whether Cambridge Analytica had
deployed its targeting tactics to more effectively spread Russian disinformation, and
whether it had been enlisted to use data
and analytics stolen from the Democratic
National Committee by Russian-directed
hackers. “Maybe [hacked information] was
actually given to a campaign to help with
the microtargeting,” Bahar says. “That’s
why I think the role of Cambridge Analytica…needs to be looked at very carefully.”
Scrutiny will likely intensify given revelations that Cambridge’s Russian connections predated the 2016 election. Wylie,
the former Cambridge employee, provided
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
documents to the Observer revealing that
the firm briefed Lukoil, the Russian oil
company, on its behavioral microtargeting strategies. In a recent interview with
cnn, Wylie drew a startling connection
between the firm’s work and the Russian
cyberattacks during the election. “I am concerned that we made Russia aware of the
programs that we were working on,” he
said, “and that might have sparked an idea
that eventually led to some of the disinformation programs that we have seen.”
In addition to Nix, Democrats, according to a House Intelligence Committee
memo, had hoped to call as witnesses Alex
Tayler, Cambridge Analytica’s chief data officer; Julian Wheatland, the chairman of
scl; and Rebekah Mercer. Instead, in early
March, committee Republicans hastily shut
down the probe, though Democrats have
vowed to continue investigating on their
own without subpoena power. On March
21, the committee’s ranking member, Rep.
Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), wrote to Aleksandr
Kogan seeking an interview and requesting
documents about his interactions with scl
and Cambridge Analytica. Chris Wylie has
agreed to meet with committee Democrats.
The firm also remains a subject of interest
to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller
last fall requested the emails of any Cambridge employee who worked on the Trump
campaign. Nix’s unguarded comments to
Channel 4 may be of interest. He said the
firm relied on an encrypted email system
that deleted messages two hours after they
were read. “So then there’s no evidence,
there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing.”
Yet another avenue of interest for investigators is Cambridge’s possible role in a
second 2016 election that featured covert
Russian meddling—the British referendum to leave the European Union, known
as Brexit. In 2016, Cambridge seemed to
break its informal rule of forgoing UK political work when it unveiled a partnership
with Leave.EU, the more extreme of the
pro-Brexit campaigns, only to backtrack
and deny any involvement in Brexit.
In February, as part of a broader inquiry
into fake news, members of the British
Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and
Sport Committee grilled Nix for more
than two hours. He unconvincingly
blamed the announcement of the Leave
.EU partnership on “a slightly overzealous
PR consultant.” He claimed that he and
his staff had “never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other
country.” And he denied that his firm used
Facebook data. After the latest round of
revelations, Damian Collins, a conservative member of Parliament who chairs
the committee, said Nix had “deliberately
misled” his panel “by giving false statements” and vowed to further investigate.
The blowback from the Cambridge Analytica scandals also hit Facebook, which
faced a torrent of criticism for its lax handling of users’ data. The company’s stock
price tumbled by 7 percent, losing more
than $50 billion in value, and the Federal
Trade Commission reportedly launched
an investigation into its data practices.
The hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended on
Twitter. Facebook ceo Mark Zuckerberg
finally broke his silence, issuing a statement admitting to a “breach of trust” between Facebook and its users.
Yet, critics wondered, just how many
times had their trust been breached?
Cambridge Analytica was hardly alone
in hoovering up user data. And how exactly were Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic techniques different from Facebook’s core business model—tapping into
the vast amounts of data it collects on its
users to guide hypertargeted advertising,
be it for shoe companies or political campaigns or dubious fake news sites.
By most accounts, Cambridge Analytica’s main feat of political persuasion was
convincing a group of Republican donors,
candidates, and organizations to hand
over millions of dollars. (A company called
Emerdata that lists Nix as a director recently
added Rebekah Mercer and another Mercer
daughter to its board, suggesting that Nix
hasn’t fallen out with all his gop patrons.)
But Cambridge’s controversial foray into
US politics spawned larger questions about
how our social-media habits can be turned
against us, and how companies such as Facebook hold more power over our lives—the
ability to shape public conversation, even
political outcomes—than many people are
comfortable with. Whether or not Cambridge Analytica survives, data about our
personality types, our predilections, our
hopes and fears—information we unwittingly divulge via status updates, tweets,
likes, and photos—will increasingly be used
to target us as voters and consumers, for
good and ill, and often without our knowledge. These tactics will facilitate the spread
of fake news and disinformation and make
it easier for foreign interests to intervene
in our elections—whether they are Russian
trolls or British chancers. n
(continued from page 31)
Security officials warned that “Russian government cyber actors” had targeted companies and systems involved with America’s
water supply, nuclear plants, aviation, and
other key infrastructure.
Still, the Trump administration appears
to have done little to counter these rising
threats. Since 2016, Congress has earmarked $120 million to counter foreign
interference, but the State Department
has spent none of it, according to the New
York Times. President Donald Trump has
dragged his feet on enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia
and told the public he believes Vladimir
Putin’s assertions that there was no election interference. Admiral Michael Rogers,
who heads the National Security Agency
and the Pentagon’s US Cyber Command,
told Congress in February that Trump had
not given any order to disrupt Russian
election interference. (Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the White
House would comment for this article.)
“I do not believe that we are prepared
and focusing nearly enough on bolstering
our cyberdefenses,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (DPa.), who has introduced legislation that
would direct the State Department to study
the Ukrainian experience, told me. “Cyber
is the battlefield of the 21st century, and I
am deeply concerned that we are woefully
unprepared in this area.”
Junaid Islam, the chief technology officer and founder of Vidder, a Californiabased cybersecurity firm, told me that
one of the most troubling aspects of the
NotPetya attack was that it involved nextgeneration cyberweapons. Unlike malware activated when a user clicks an email
attachment or a link, NotPetya, once installed by an unwitting user in a single
computer, spreads by itself through the
network connected to the machine. That
kind of weapon, notes Islam, can target
one person (say, a candidate’s campaign
manager) and erase her hard drive as soon
as she logs in to the network. Or it can
target an entire organization, company,
or government agency.
Such a self-propagating piece of malicious code, Islam points out, would move
even faster in America, where 90 percent of
the population has internet access, versus
just over half in Ukraine. “That to me is a
true cyberweapon,” he says.
There’s no telling how the Kremlin will
hit America as election season heats up—
but what is certain, says Camille Stewart,
an Obama-era Homeland Security official,
is that Putin has every incentive to continue with his disinformation strategy. “If
there haven’t been enough precautions put
in place,” she says, “they’re likely to use the
same methods. Hacking the public confidence has been very effective, and they are
likely to continue in that vein.”
Andrei Soldatov, a leading cybersecurity
journalist based in Moscow, agrees that
Putin has come to see cyberwar as high
reward and low risk. “That’s the explanation of why [the Kremlin] has become so
adventurous,” Soldatov said. “They don’t
see any risks coming their way.”
Cybersecurity experts told me they fear
that Trump’s refusal to challenge Putin
will leave the United States exposed to
attacks even more devastating than what
happened in 2016. Michael Carpenter, the
former deputy assistant defense secretary for Ukraine, Russia, and Eurasia, says
that because so much of America’s critical infrastructure is privately owned, the
government can do little to standardize
security protocols, so levels of preparedness vary wildly. And Americans are
just more dependent on digital systems,
period. In Ukraine, he notes, “the only
way those [nuclear] power plants got back
online is because they were so old they
had manual functionality. Had our plants
been hit by a similar virus, they would
have gone down, and the consequences
are enormous. I think a lot of Americans
haven’t woken up to this yet.”
In February, the House of Representatives passed Rep. Boyle’s US-Ukraine
cybersecurity bill, and the legislation is
now headed for the Senate. But if it becomes law, will the Trump administration
follow its directive? Carpenter told me
bluntly that he believes the president “is
turning a blind eye because he is beholden
to the Kremlin.” Boyle was more circumspect: The president, he told me, appears
to have reacted to every revelation about
Russia with a focus on self-preservation.
“This whole topic feeds into his insecurity,” he said. “If we can take this outside
the realm of the 2016 election and couch it
as an issue of national defense, then I think
we have the prospect of being successful.”
But there’s the rub. To protect the
nation, Trump would have to acknowledge
that his success may have been buoyed by
Russian support. And that, it seems clear,
he refuses to do no matter what. n
(continued from page 53)
don’t want to be told that it does.
Marisa Weiss, a breast oncologist and
the founder of, gives
talks on college campuses, where she explains to young women the cancer risks
they face from drinking. “I see the same
people get completely trashed that night,”
she laments. But she understands why.
“It’s because life is a bitch,” she says. “We
work long hours, and alcohol becomes like
self-medication. It’s relaxing. It’s fun.”
I get it. But you know what’s not fun?
Watching your 10-year-old daughter keen
and hyperventilate after you tell her you
have cancer. Or having six-inch needles
full of radioactive dye plunged repeatedly
through your nipple, without anesthesia,
so a surgeon can see if the cancer has
spread to your lymph nodes. Or leaving
work early while awaiting biopsy results
because your hands are shaking so badly
you can’t type. Cancer isn’t fun, in ways far
beyond the obvious. And in relative terms,
I’ve had it easy so far. I’m still alive.
A few months ago, I plugged my data
into the National Cancer Institute’s breast
cancer risk calculator to see what my odds
had been before I discovered my tumor. The
bare-bones assessment showed I had a 1.1
percent risk of getting breast cancer in the
next five years. The calculator doesn’t account for my alcohol consumption (or the
protective effects of exercise and breastfeeding), but the experts I’ve spoken with
say booze probably bumped up my risk.
I’ll never know for certain whether alcohol caused my cancer. There are so many
factors: Just in December, a Danish study
found that being on birth control raises the
risk of breast cancer more than previously
thought. What I do know is that cutting
back on drinking, particularly when I was
young, is virtually the only thing I could
have changed about my lifestyle to try
to prevent this cancer if I’d been fully informed. Now I’ve mostly given up alcohol to
hedge my bets against a recurrence. I can’t
be sure I would have done the same thing
if someone had told me when I was 15 or 20
that drinking could give me breast cancer.
I’d like to think so—I never smoked—but
there’s no guarantee I wouldn’t have been
just like the students Weiss talks to. At least
they have a choice—they’ve been told the
risk they’re taking. Like most women, I didn’t
have that choice, and a powerful industry
worked to keep it that way. n
M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
How to protect an unconventional family in the age of Trump
by nicole pasulka
for several years, friends Megan Hessenthaler and Sully
Ross lived on a boat in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, played in
a punk rock marching band, and joked about having a baby
together. They’re queer, so they would crack up thinking
about Ross providing the sperm for artificial insemination
and taking on the name “Uncle Daddy.”
Then the joke got real. They lost their boat. Hessenthaler
got married, and she and her wife, Heather Sommerville,
did, in fact, want Ross to help them have a baby. “We had
to talk about it like a real thing,” Hessenthaler says.
In recent decades, America has come to look more
like Modern Family than Leave It to Beaver. The number
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of unmarried couples living together increased by 61 percent between 2005 and
2016, and more than half the nation’s
kids are no longer raised in households
headed by a heterosexual couple in their
first marriage. Most of our family law,
though, is still written for the Cleavers.
The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision gave millions of gay couples the right
to marry, but it didn’t do much for a single
lesbian having kids with her best friend
or for sperm donors who want contact
with their progeny. The Trump administration’s efforts to undermine Obama-era
lgbt protections have put nontraditional
families further on alert.
Which is why Hessenthaler, Sommerville,
and Ross decided to sit down and puzzle out
the details—visitation, financial responsibilities, what would happen if Hessenthaler
miscarried—and codify them in a contract
called a “known-donor agreement.”
Martha Ertman, a University of
Maryland law professor and the author of
Love’s Promises: How Formal and Informal
Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families, is the
foremost evangelist for setting the terms
of less-than-mainstream relationships in
writing. A family contract may feel “cold
and mean and scary,” she acknowledges,
but the “default rules can be a lot colder
than people realize.” The legal rights and
responsibilities of marriage—spousal inheritance, shared custody of children,
etc.—are sufficient for most people, she
says, but “Plan B families” need an extra
layer of protection. Trump is empowering
social conservatives who may be inclined
to deny nontraditional families their rights.
“If you can whip out a contract that says
‘order of parentage,’” Ertman explains, “that
suggests to the person behind the desk, ‘I’m
buying myself a huge headache.’”
These legal arrangements may turn out
to have special currency in the Trump era,
but the conversation has been going on for
decades. Long before gay marriage became
legal, same-sex couples were drafting their
own enforceable agreements. In the 1980s,
tennis star Martina Navratilova and her
girlfriend, Judy Nelson, had a contract
that promised Nelson half of the millions
that Navratilova earned during their relationship if the couple were to split. In
1992, gay sex was still illegal in Georgia
when the state Supreme Court upheld a
woman’s written agreement to co-own
her home with a female partner.
Sixteen years ago, Ertman decided to
have a child with Victor Flatt, a gay male
friend. There were details to be worked
out before he FedExed his sperm. Ertman
borrowed a sample contract from a sociologist and tailored it: She would do most
of the parenting, and Flatt would chip
in for major expenses like college and
spend summers with them. Four years
later, Ertman fell in love with Karen Lash.
Ertman and Flatt wrote her into their legal
agreement, and when the two women tied
the knot in 2009, they made their own
contract. “Without the contracts, it’s a
mess,” Ertman told me.
Some contracts go beyond mere legal
provisions to lay out a family’s emotional
expectations. Hessenthaler and Sommerville wrote several drafts as they pondered
details like how long they would try to get
pregnant and what the baby would call
Ross. (They settled on “Uncle.”) Ross surprised the women, and himself, when he
realized he wanted to be the child’s legal
guardian in the case of their deaths.
Unfortunately, these contracts remain
a Band-Aid solution. Judges have “a lot of
discretion” in deciding what’s in a child’s
best interests, New York lawyer Andy
Izenson says. There’s a patchwork of laws
governing whose name goes on a baby’s
birth certificate. In states like Alabama,
judges or hospitals could decide that for
children of same-sex couples who inseminated at home, the donor is the legal
parent. But at least a written document
forces people to put their expectations
on the table in advance. “It made us think
through things,” Hessenthaler told me.
If you’re planning to write a contract
with your partner, Ertman recommends
pouring a glass of wine and creating a list
of what you care about, including columns with what you’re willing to give up
and what you want to receive. For instance,
how much of your paycheck do you want
to deposit into a joint bank account with
your partner? If you’re going to ask a friend
for sperm to make a baby, consider whether
he’ll be a donor, or a father figure—and
what those two things mean to you. Then,
sit down together and “let the back-andforth set the stage for this new aspect of
your relationship,” Ertman says.
Sure, these contracts can feel clinical—few
besides Ertman would call the experience
romantic. But romance without the ability
to agree on what matters is a lot like living
on a boat: awesome when it’s sunny, not so
much when the weather gets rough. n
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M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8 | M O T H E R J O N E S
How a milk trend could stoke an
agricultural revolution
by tom philpott
in late 2016, the Swedish company Oatly set up
production in North America and began shopping its oat-derived “milk” to New York City’s latte
cognoscenti. By the next autumn, oat milk had
conquered the city’s “most esteemed coffee bars”
at a “practically unheard of” rate, according to the
coffee trade magazine Sprudge.
Chic cafés peddling a grainy Scandinavianinspired formula may sound too twee for words.
But the market for dairy alternatives is growing
quickly in the United States, where negative perceptions of cow’s milk have created a thirst for
substitutes made from coconut, peas, and hemp.
Oat milk offers another benefit. If consumption
approaches levels now enjoyed by industry leader
almond milk, those urban hipsters may be the
vanguard of a soil revolution.
Oat milk has three times the protein of its almondbased rival and at least twice the fiber, though it’s
higher in carbs. When it comes to each drink’s environmental footprint, there’s no comparison. As I first
reported in 2014, in California, home to 80 percent
of the world’s production of almonds, nut trees are
swallowing up land once devoted to crops that could
be fallowed during droughts. California’s almond
crop commands more than three times as much
of the state’s annual water supply as Los Angeles.
As droughts become more frequent, few ecologists
would argue for extra almond groves.
Oats, however, thrive all over the world and
come with ecological benefits. They would be
especially helpful in the Upper Midwest, where
most prime farmland is currently devoted to just
two crops: corn and soybeans. As a result of this
unholy duopoly, insect, weed, and fungal pests
have flourished, prompting farmers to use a slew of
pesticides and fertilizers. Corn and soybeans don’t
emerge until late spring and are harvested in the
early fall; when the ground is bare in between, it is
vulnerable to erosion, which washes away topsoil.
Simply rotating in oats—along with a legume
like red clover, a cover crop that remains after the
M O T H E R J O N E S | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 8
such a transition started, she says. If the beverage went the way of
almond milk, it could incentivize Iowa’s farmers to sow double the
acreage of oats they do now. Subbing oats for just 10 percent of the
corn currently fed to the state’s livestock would require more diverse
crop rotations on 3.6 million acres, enough to virtually eliminate soil
erosion on the state’s most vulnerable farmland.
For now, annual oat milk sales are paltry. But almond milk, too, was
obscure until trendsetting baristas started foaming it into lattes. Sales
surged 250 percent between 2011 and 2016, and almond milk now accounts for 64 percent of the $2.1 billion alt-milk market. Oat milk may
be on the same path: Oatly is sold at more than 1,000 locations nationwide. In February, Blue Bottle Coffee, a chain majority-owned by Nestlé,
replaced soy milk with oat milk at all its stores.
I don’t drink much milk, plant-based or otherwise, but I recently
took one for the team and tried some made from oats. It was creamy,
lightly sweet, and pleasantly grainy. If this is what an agricultural
revolution in the heartland tastes like, sign me up.
oats are harvested—would change all that, explains Matt Liebman, an
agronomist at Iowa State University. Since 2002, he has been running
test plots near Ames that compare a conventional two-year corn-soy
rotation with a three-year corn, soy, and oat and red clover scheme.
His research shows that adding a third crop like oats disrupts weed
patterns, resulting in a startling 96 percent drop in herbicide use. Red
clover grabs nitrogen from the air and deposits it into the soil, providing natural fertilizer. All together, three-year plots require 86 percent
less added fertilizer to yield slightly more corn and soybeans—while
dramatically reducing erosion and chemical runoff.
Back in 1950, Iowa farmers led the nation in oat production, planting
6.6 million acres, more than a quarter of the state’s cropland. But demand
for oats has plummeted, a change that has helped trigger the erosion of
one of the world’s largest stores of fertile topsoil.
Oat milk could begin to turn this around. Jessie VanderPoel, a
buyer for Grain Millers, which supplies oats to Oatly’s US operation,
says an oat milk boom alone wouldn’t be enough incentive for farmers to add the grain to their rotations. That would require tweaking
subsidies that help keep farmers wedded to corn and soybeans, and
adding oats to the feed of chickens, cows, and pigs—a massive untapped market. Still, an oat milk boom “would be huge” in getting
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