One poll shows the Democrat a point behind in the most conservative district in the state.
Longtime Republican Rep. Steve King, who recently retweeted a Nazi and routinely makes white supremacist comments with aplomb, is suddenly looking like his reelection bid could be in trouble.
Just a week from Election Day, three big corporations, Intel, pet food company Purina and dairy company Land O’Lakes, announced they are pulling financial support from the Iowa Republican’s campaign, which is already low on cash. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official campaign arm for House Republicans, condemned King’s comments and actions.
Congressman Steve King’s recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate. We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior.
A new poll from Change Research also shows King’s Democratic opponent J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player and paralegal, polling within a single digit of King. To be clear, this is one poll; FiveThirtyEight still gives King about an 80 percent chance of winning reelection in a seat he has held for 15 years and won in 2016 with a resounding 61 percent of the votes.
On the other hand, this could a sign of larger trouble for King. Coming a few days after a mass shooting believed to be motivated by anti-Semitism that killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, King is taking heat for his racist rhetoric and support for politicians in Canada and Europe with ties to neo-Nazis. Local Jewish faith leaders and a separate group of more than 40 interfaith leaders within the district are penning two letters to the editor denouncing King’s run and calling on more donors to abandon him.
For his part, King is blaming “fake news” and “Establishment Never Trumpers” in a statement released Tuesday.
King’s district — the most conservative in Iowa — has always come home to him. But the Republican, who hasn’t put up a single campaign ad on TV this cycle, is suddenly at risk of being overshadowed by Scholten. The Democrat has been beating King in fundraising and is putting even more ads on air in the final week.
“What is interesting about the Fourth [Congressional] District is that Steve King doesn’t expect a challenge, and he doesn’t campaign very hard,” David Andersen, a political scientist at Iowa State University told Vox. “I have not seen Steve King’s message. He keeps a year round campaign staff that is his family. And I don’t know what they’re doing.”
Steve King is a long-time racist. So far, he’s sailed easily to reelection.
King’s explicit racism has a long history, but he has been given even more of a platform under President Donald Trump, who himself has repeatedly echoed far-right and neo-Nazi messages. King notably has the Confederate flag displayed prominently in his office, and has repeatedly disparaged black, Muslim, and Hispanic people. He’s often said he doesn’t believe in multiculturalism, saying it holds America back.
In the House, the Iowa Republican holds a leadership position on a Judiciary Committee subcommittee on immigration, and isn’t particularly popular with even his most conservative colleagues. But until now, he’s been tolerated.
When King tweeted that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” Speaker Paul Ryan responded that he “would like to think [King] misspoke.”King went on television to try to clarify: “I meant exactly what I said. … If you go down the road a few generations or maybe centuries with the intermarriage, I’d like to see an America that’s just so homogenous that we look a lot the same.”
The district, which covers northwest Iowa, has embraced King. He has won by more than 20 points in every congressional race he’s mounted. Andersen says voters don’t seem particularly happy with how King represents them, but there is some pride in not being some “sleepy conservative district.”
“He doesn’t bring any federal dollars, he doesn’t sponsor legislation, but he brings notoriety,” Andersen said.
The two biggest issues in this district are the economy — especially the impact of how Trump’s trade regime is impacting the agricultural industry — and how people feel about Trump himself.
People in this part of Iowa love Trump. But also there is an understanding that if Trump’s trade wars with China continue, a lot of farms are going to have to shut down.
That’s where the Democrats’ message can step in.
The Democrat who thinks he can beat King
Until recently, JD Scholten’s campaign seemed like a longshot. But while King has been acting like his seat isn’t competitive at all, Scholten has raised more than $1.4 million, put up ads, and is planning to campaign in every county in the district.
Scholten is bombarding voters with ads, but King seems to be channeling most of his energyinto his Twitter feed. He has dwindling financial resources with which to make his case; King had just a little more than $176,000 cash on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings.
Scholten is a first-time candidate who was jolted into politics by Trump’s 2016 election, but his eyes are squarely on King’s seat.
“When you’re a young(er) Midwesterner who admires Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin, there’s not a greater political fight than defeating Steve King,” Scholten told Vox’s Jane Coaston in a March email interview. “His controversial statements are an embarrassment, and his ineffectiveness and votes to the detriment of the district are what fuel my passion in this pursuit.”
In such a conservative district, Scholten can’t win on Democratic votes alone, and he’s hoping to win over moderate Republicans and independents. He’s walking a fine line, supporting progressive policies like Medicare-for-all (he says he supports a public option first, but wants to work toward Medicare-for-all eventually) and supporting the Second Amendment.
King is explicitly anti-abortion, and while Scholten supports a woman’s right to chose, he is Catholic and supports expanding access to contraception, family planning, and adoption to reduce abortion rates.It’s a strategy embraced by special election breakout star Conor Lamb.
Even though King’s rhetoric hasn’t put him in electoral danger in the past, Scholten is banking the constituents of the Fourth Congressional District are sick of the racism.
“This is the best chance we’ve ever had to beat Steve King,” Scholten said. “People have finally grown tired of his divisiveness. A lot of moderate Republicans have told me they’re supporting me because they’re tired of him embarrassing them and giving their party a bad name. His rhetoric has grown stale at a time where people are paying attention more than ever.”
Sri Kulkarni’s innovative midterms strategy: campaigning in 16 languages.
When Democrat Sri Kulkarni started campaigning in the deep-red Texas district once represented by Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, consultants told him not to even bother trying to getthe district’s Asian-American vote.
“I was told, ‘Don’t chase after Asian voters, they don’t vote,’” Kulkarni said in a recent interview with Vox, adding: “Maybe they don’t vote because we don’t bother.”
Kulkarni, a 40-year-old former foreign service official under the Bush and Obama administrations, is doing the opposite of what the consultants told him. “Why don’t we try reaching out in other languages, not just English?” Kulkarni thought. He’s running a campaign with volunteers speaking to voters in 16 languages — aggressively trying to convince the district’s Asian-American voters to cast their ballots for him.
The district sits in the Houston suburbs, a rapidly diversifying part of Texas. The non-Hispanic white population has fallen to 40 percent, while the Asian community now makes up nearly 20 percent of the district.
It’s a simple premise: greeting a voter in his or her native language builds a relationship with that voter and opens a door to the community. Kulkarni already proved it worked in the primary, emerging on top in a field of five candidates. His campaign’s internal numbers suggested their outreach had dramatically increased Asian-American primary turnout, from 6 percent in 2014 to 28 percent in 2018.
“This thing that was a waste of time resulted in a 12-fold increase in people coming out in the Asian community,” Kulkarni told Vox.
Winning against Republican Rep. Pete Olson on Election Day will be tough. But Kulkarni and his campaign believe he has a fighting chance, and are buoyed by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently shifting the race to merely “Lean Republican.”
“I’d watch this one,” Cook’s Dave Wasserman tweeted.
Asian Americans are an important Democratic bloc. But turning them out can be tough.
Though Kulkarni appears to be proving the political consultants wrong, there was a reason they advised him not to chase the Asian-American vote.
Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters are a rapidly growing demographic; nationwide, the Asian-American population grew 72 percent between 2000 and 2015. They also have a tendency to register as Democrats. But the Democratic Party has had a tough time successfully courting this bloc.
A recent Pew study found 65 percent of Asian Americans identify as Democrats or lean Democrat, compared to 27 percent who identify as Republicans or lean Republican. But they don’t turn out as often as white voters: In the 2016 election, 49 percent of eligible Asian-American voters cast ballots, compared to 64 percent of white voters.
In other words, while Asian-American voters are far more Democratic than other, similarly educated white voters, they don’t show up to the polls as reliably.
This makes outreach to Asian Americans a risky bet for candidates, especially those in conservative districts like Kulkarni’s. It’s a diverse demographic that speaks a wide array of languages and therefore demands more staff and volunteers. For a typical campaign, that can be a lot of investment for what has historically been a low return.
But if Kulkarni has figured out how to crack the code in TX-22, that could be good for Democrats’ future electoral chances, especially in rapidly diversifying suburban districts.
The Texas Democratic Party and other issues-based progressive campaigns have been reaching out to Kulkarni to learn more about his strategy.
“We think that’s exactly what other candidates and the party should be doing,” said María Urbina, the national political director for Indivisible. “They’re redefining what it means to engage with voters where they are.”
Campaigning in 16 languages
It all starts with a deep dive into voter data.
Kulkarni and others in his campaign combed the voter files of the district and separated out all the individual groups they could identify: Out of 85,000 registered voters, they broke up the list into Gujaratis, Punjabis, and Bengalis from India; Latino voters; and Vietnamese-American voters and voters from other Asian countries.
The plan was to pair a campaign volunteer from each ethnic group or country with each community — someone who could speak the language could make connections and convince people from these insular communities to vote Democratic.
“When you break it down into these smaller groups, each one is small enough to be managed,” Kulkarni said.
The campaign then follows upwith campaigning in churches, temples, and community centers in the district.
“You campaign at places where immigrants gather,” he said. “They want you to talk to them, and they want you to listen to them.”
Just a simple greeting in another language can open countless doors, he added.
“That shows, ‘I see you’; that’s what we’re saying,” he added.
Kulkarni’s campaign style is very focused on something he calls “relational organizing” — volunteers put effort into getting family, friends, co-workers, or other people they know in the community to get out and vote.
“I think that by 2020, this is how all canvassing is going to be done,” he said.
Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and James Lankford have all brushed aside concerns.
It’s been a disturbing week of violence in the United States: A Florida man was arrested for sending bombs to 13 prominent Democrats and critics of the president; a white man in Kentucky shot and killed two black people at a grocery store in what appears to have been a racially-motivated attack; a Pittsburgh man killed 11 people in a synagogue in what has been deemed a hate crime.
That’s led to questions about whether President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and divisiveness have played a role in encouraging violence or, at the very least, need some toning down. Republicans don’t want to talk about it.
Vice President Mike Pence at an event in Las Vegas on Saturday called for “unity” and decried the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as “evil” and criminal. “There is no place in America for violence or anti-Semitism, and this evil must end,” he said.
In a subsequent interview with NBC News, he was asked whether Trump calling Democrats a “mob” might be something to reconsider, given recent events. He hedged.
“The American people believe in the freedom of speech,” Pence said. “And throughout the history of this country we’ve always had vigorous debates and then we settle those debates in the ballot box. We don’t settle them through acts or threats of violence like the pipe bombs we saw sent to the Obamas, the Clintons, to CNN and others.”
Trump’s response to the pipe bombs has not been one of firm condemnation — at a rally in North Carolina on Friday, he decried “political violence” and then resorted to his normal attacks on the media and encouraging the crowd’s “lock her up” chants. He acknowledged that he was supposed to be “nice” in light of recent events, but he just couldn’t help himself. At another rally the following day, he toned it down a bit — not calling Hillary Clinton by his usual nickname for her, “Crooked” — but continued to lob attacks at Democrats, including Rep. Maxine Waters, who received a bomb this week.
Pence on Saturday was also asked whether Trump’s rhetoric is healthy for the civil discourse. He said there’s no connection between “the kind of violent behavior we witnessed in Pittsburgh” and political debates.
It’s not just Pence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who is retiring at the end of this year, in an interview with John Dickerson on CBS’s Face the Nationsaid that he’s worried about “tribal identity politics becoming the new norm of how politics is waged” and said that the issue, on both sides of the aisle, is “unfortunately working.”
He placed some blame on the media, which he said isn’t covering bipartisan accomplishments and instead focusing on divisions. Dickerson asked him about whether Trump’s rallies, which often entail attacks on his opponents and fear-mongering about issues such as immigration and race, are an example of an attempt to unify.
“Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t,” Ryan said, acknowledging that Trump’s tactics get “the base running.”
These suspects’ motivations appear to be Trump-adjacent
While there’s no precise one-to-one connection between the president’s rhetoric and the shootings and attempted bombings this week, there are common threads.
Cesar Sayoc, the mail bomber, was a Trump supporter and was vocal about his contempt for the president’s opponents. The Washington Post notes that his social media accounts mentioned multiple of the people he attempted to send pipe bombs to, including Barack Obama, George Soros, and Hillary Clinton. He often attacked George Soros as a “globalist.”
Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, in his social media posts attacked Trump as a globalist and said Jews were at fault for helping transport members of the migrant caravans from Central America.
It’s not hard to see the similarities between these men’s beliefs and Trump’s rhetoric. The president often complains about globalists and at a recent rally declared himself a nationalist. The term “globalist” is often considered code for anti-Semitism.
Trump has for weeks been stoking fears about the migrant caravan, and much of his appeal to his supporters is based on fear of immigrants and racial minorities. Though he strongly condemned the Pittsburgh attack and anti-Semitism Saturday, he’s failed to do so at other key points of his presidency, including after racist violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.
The president has pointed the finger elsewhere, saying the media is at fault for fueling political divisions and hate in America and has unfairly cast him as a contributor to the current situation.
Many in the GOP are backing him up. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, also on Face the Nation on Sunday, said the Pittsburgh shooter’s beliefs couldn’t be tied to Trump because he considered the president a globalist who was allowing the caravan to happen (despite the fact that Trump is the one who’s keeping the caravan in the news).
“I wouldn’t connect the president to this particular shooting, just like I wouldn’t see that connecting Democrats when a person walked up to a baseball game last year in Washington DC and said, ‘Is this where the Republicans are practicing?’” Lankford said, referring to the shooting at a Congressional baseball practice last year.
Lankford acknowledged that the president’s conduct has not, perhaps, met the standard for public discourse that would be expected. “I think that the president needs to be more clear in his rhetoric and doesn’t need to be as caustic in his rhetoric,” he said.
Trump, however, disagrees.
“I think I’ve been toned down,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “I could really tone it up.”
Rep. Beto O’Rourke is still trailing incumbent Ted Cruz for the state’s Senate seat.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke might only have a long shot at flipping one of Texas’s US Senate seats blue, but he is making gains among one group that generally votes Republican: Texas independents.
O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, is trailing his opponent by six points, according to a new poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. The survey found that 45 percent of likely voters said they would cast their ballot for O’Rourke, compared with 51 percent for Cruz. (That’s consistent with other recent polls of the Texas race: RealClearPolitics’ average has Cruz leading by about seven points, though one outlier poll conducted last month found O’Rourke beating Cruz by two points.)
But Texas independents have broken with their usual political allegiances in a surprising way. Republicans in Texas generally rely on independents and moderate Democrats to maintain their significant hold over state politics. In the Senate race, however, independent voters prefer O’Rourke to Cruz by 12 points, which suggests the grassroots enthusiasm that has rallied local progressives around O’Rourke may be spreading beyond the Democratic base.
Respondents in the Tribune and University of Texas survey were asked about their electoral preferences from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21 — before President Donald Trump visited the state to rally support for Cruz. At a campaign event in Houston on Monday night, the president tore into O’Rourke, branding him a “stone-cold phony” and an “open-borders left winger.” O’Rourke has made an unusually strong showing in a state that Trump won by nine points in 2016, campaigning on subjects normally taboo to red state Democrats like immigration and gun reform. The last time Texas had an election for the Senate, in 2014, incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn beat his Democratic rival by nearly 30 points, which may be why Republican strategists are nervous about how tight the current race is sitting.
Texas independents’ preference for O’Rourke is another worrying sign for the GOP at a time when Democrats across the country appear poised to outperform their traditionally weak midterm showings. For other statewide offices that the University of Texas poll asked about, like the governor and attorney general races, the Republican candidate is favored among independents. Independents break for Republicans in those races by double digits, and when asked whether they would support a generic Republican or Democrat for Congress, independents choose the former by 10 points.
O’Rourke probably won’t win, but he’s leading a national Democratic surge
In order for Democrats to capture the Senate in November, they will have to hold onto nearly all of the 10 Democratic seats currently up for reelection in states Donald Trump won in 2016. Should they clear this uncertain hurdle, Democrats would need to flip two additional seats currently held by Republicans. The polls don’t indicate that O’Rourke will be the one to do so. But even if he can’t pull off an upset victory, his unusually high enthusiasm among Democratic voters during this cycle may help drag down-ballot Democrats across the finish line in competitive races.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan notes, “November could mean the difference between a very conservative Texas and a perhaps more moderate, but still Republican-controlled, Texas.”
“And in the long term, 2018 could be a foundational year to rebuild the Democratic Party in Texas — a state with quickly changing demographics that could become increasingly liberal in years to come.”
O’Rourke’s campaign raised more than $38 million during the third quarter of this year, setting the all-time quarterly fundraising record for a Senate candidate. The campaign said that was a product of 800,000 small donations, reflecting the outsize attention and enthusiasm surrounding his bid. Whether that — and the support of Texas independents — will be enough to turn the Senate seat blue, is another matter.
Federal authorities arrest a man in connection to the pipe bombs mailed to public figures; Israeli forces kill five Palestinians in a Gaza protest.
Florida man charged in connection to bomb threats
Federal authorities arrested a man suspected to be behind the recent bomb threats against prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump, the Justice Department confirmed Friday. [Vox / Jen Kirby]
Attorney General Jeff Sessions identified the suspect as Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., 56, of Florida, who has been charged with five federal crimes, including illegal mailing and interstate transportation of explosives. He currently faces up to 48 years in prison. [CNN]
Federal authorities have also seized a white van in connection with the case; the vehicle’s windows are covered in pro-Trump and pro-Republican stickers. [NBC Miami]
Sayoc, a registered Republican, has an extensive criminal record. He’s been arrested at least 10 times, at one point for making a bomb threat. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to grand theft to the third degree. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]
In a White House event, President Trump applauded the FBI, Secret Service, and other law enforcement for their quick action in identifying and catching a suspect. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America,” he said. [AP / Jonathan Lemire and Catherine Lucey]
The FBI narrowed its investigation to the state of Florida late Thursday, after identifying that many of the packages went through a mailing facility outside Miami. [Newsday]
Authorities said four more bombs have been intercepted, addressed to Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and billionaire Tom Steyer. [New York Post / Ruth Brown]
Two possible reasons the pipe bombs didn’t detonate include better security practices to identify suspicious packages and the fact that the bombs could have been created without the intention to harm anyone, or to provide a false sense of security before additional bombs actually go off. [Vox / Alex Ward and Stavros Agorakis]
Five Palestinians killed in latest Gaza protest
Israeli forces shot and killed five Palestinians and injured hundreds more after protests erupted along the Gaza border on Friday. [Jerusalem Post]
The Israeli Defense Force said 16,000 Palestinians gathered along the fence for the 31st Friday in a row. They hurled grenades, firebombs, and rocks at Israeli troops, who then retaliated with live ammunition. [Fox News / Trey Yingst]
Palestinians have taken to the border since March 30, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the territory and the right to return to lands from which they fled or were driven away. More than 210 Gazans have been killed in that time. [Reuters / Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta]
The American government has long backed Israel in the conflict with Palestine. Most recently, the US announced it will merge its Jerusalem Consulate, which serves as an unofficial embassy to the Palestinians, with the new embassy in Israel. [Reuters / Doina Chiacu]
Palestinian officials have cut ties with the US after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year and moved the US Embassy there. [Al Jazeera]
NBC confirmed Megyn Kelly Today will not return. Kelly received backlash after commenting on blackface Halloween costumes on the show Tuesday. [Today / Rheana Murray]
Merriam-Webster launched a new tool Friday that lets you find the new words used in print the year you were born. [Time / Raisa Bruner]
Actor Johnny Depp is reportedly not returning to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after playing the lead role for the past 15 years. Depp also received criticism for starring in the Fantastic Beasts sequel after allegations of domestic abuse against ex-wife Amber Heard arose last year. [Page Six / Fay Strang]
Another classic ‘90s teen film is going through the “remake machine,” as GLOW writer Marquita Robinson has been confirmed to write a new script for the 1995 hit rom-com Clueless. [THR]
An episode split in two emphasizes what’s working — and what isn’t — about season 3.
Every week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and culture writer Karen Han get together to discuss the latest episode of NBC’s loopy comedy The Good Place. This week, they’re discussing the sixth episode of the third season, “The Ballad of Donkey Doug.” (Because the first two episodes aired as one installment, the episode number is one ahead of the number of weeks the show has aired.) Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!
Karen Han: While watching “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” I was reminded of what Todd said a couple weeks ago about the early part of the season, in that it seemed like The Good Place was going to have to put on its running shoes and sprint in order to ever surpass the high bar it had previously set for itself, and shake off the relatively slow start to the season. While “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” actually made me tear up — and laugh out loud more than once — I’m not sure it reflected the show hitting the stride that we thought it would.
That the gang is split up into smaller groups isn’t as much of a sore spot here as it was in previous episodes (Eleanor, Chidi, and Janet go one way; Tahani, Jason, and Michael go another), but not having everyone together still slows down the action. Watching Eleanor and Chidi workshop how Chidi could break up with Simone was both sad and hysterical (who hasn’t had to deal with that kind of anxiety?) but it felt like filler to me. Removing Simone from the equation seemed designed to inch the season’s plot forward while keeping Eleanor and Chidi in the episode, as Jason’s journey to help Donkey Doug — who was revealed to be his dad — allowed the episode to meet its moral development quota.
Or maybe I’m still adjusting to the fact that The Good Place has fundamentally altered its characters’ motivation. Now that they can’t get into the Good Place, more of their energy is directed toward helping other people, rather than toward their own self-improvement.
Then again, that’s why Jason’s storyline works. It’s the deepest dive the show has taken into his past to date, and, like Chidi’s break-up, though all the Florida insanity is funny, it’s semi-tragic, too. I mean, the fact that Jason calls his dad Donkey Doug stems not from how dope the nickname is but from the fact that his dad doesn’t really dig the idea of taking on a father’s responsibility.
I feel like my conflicting emotions about the episode are driving me into Chidi “I’ve made my decision, I want … to start crying” territory. Todd, maybe you had a little more success in parsing it all out.
Is this The Good Place’s new status quo?
Todd VanDerWerff: “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” so far as I can tell, represents The Good Place’s new status quo. Instead of being about its characters trying to help themselves, it’s now going to be about them trying to help their other loved ones, the better to help said loved ones avoid the Bad Place. Which isn’t bad as a premise for trapping everyone on Earth, even if it kinda leaves Michael and Janet without a lot to do. (Janet makes up for it by saying, “Bing!” every time she does something, because she misses her sound effects so.)
That may be why the Chidi side of this episode, which I would agree wasn’t on the same level as the Jason side of the episode, felt a little extraneous. Yeah, we probably need to know what happens to Simone, but I’m not sure an entire B-plot was necessary in the end. Plus, it’s wrapping up old business, instead of exploring new ideas.
It’s mostly an excuse to set up the fact that Janet has constructed an elaborate virtual reality simulation, which means she can effectively put people in an unreal world to test things out. This lets the show keep some of its “wild and surreal things can happen” tone, but almost everything that happened in the Chidi half of “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” seemed like it was blazing along at light speed, so I never had the chance to go, “Wait, what?” Maybe the breakneck pace was meant to gloss over Janet inventing seamless virtual reality, but I still felt like the show was on step 17 when I was still on step one.
(Sidebar: So far, it hasn’t broken the show, but the fact that Janet is functionally omniscient feels like something the writers either have to lean into or work hard to neutralize. So far, they’ve done neither and haven’t quite nailed the balance.)
That said, the Jason side of “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” is truly wonderful. The reveal that Donkey Doug is Jason’s dad is terrifically funny, and Michael and Tahani’s utter amusement at all of the circumstances of Jason’s upbringing made the story click even more. If this sort of story is where The Good Place is headed, I’m intrigued. If, instead, we’re just going to see a bunch more attempts to recreate the wild, anything goes atmosphere of the afterlife here on Earth, the show might start to chase its own tail too much for me.
Karen: I do wonder if we’re seeing a case of Chekov’s virtual reality simulation, given that there’s never a Good Place detail that hasn’t turned out to serve a purpose. (Or maybe I’m just overinvested in Eleanor’s Jason Statham fantasy. Girl, same!)
I’m also not entirely convinced that the new ideas we’re seeing are new enough. Jason’s half of the episode really was great (his tearful secret handshake with Pillboy is a work of art), but it looks like The Good Place is setting up what I’m going to refer to as a video game scenario: We’re seeing the characters help other people, yes, but they’re doing so by working through their own stories in a way that doesn’t feel organic so much as it feels like steps leading up to a grand finale. Jason has achieved closure, now it’s time for Tahani and Eleanor to do the same.
I think that’s why I was ultimately disappointed that “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” ended on the reveal that Eleanor’s mother is still alive, not least because it means the gang will be divided up once more. The only upside is that what comes next looks like it will be evenly balanced, as opposed to one side of the episode functioning as pure fluff, à la Chidi’s ordeal this week.
On that same token, though, what you said about The Good Place being on step 17 while we’re still on step one is enough to make me reconsider. Again, this is a show that does everything deliberately; so far, nothing is without a purpose, and maybe I should trust that this season is built the same way.
Lest we forget, everyone is still on the Judge’s shit list, which means there’s a cosmic reckoning waiting for them at some point. And I get the feeling that season three won’t end until we see some more moral hemming and hawing from our party’s supernatural contingent of Michael and Janet. Or maybe I’ll just end up eating my hat on all of this.
The show might be trying too hard to get back to an “anything goes” kind of storytelling
Todd: No, you’re right on that account, and the video game idea is astute. The characters are embarking on some side-quests to help characters who drop in pretty much for a single episode, then leave the narrative. I mean, I’d love to see Donkey Doug and Pillboy become series regulars, but it strikes me as unlikely.
There’s also the rub that the characters can’t tell anybody about the whole Good Place/Bad Place system, because that would make it impossible for anyone they tell to get into the Good Place. That pesky little detail complicates every relationship they have with anybody who isn’t one of the other series regulars.
The Good Place has always been a pretty insular show, but at least in the afterlife, we had figures like the Judge and Trevor and Vicky and on and on, characters who would pop in just frequently enough to keep the story moving. So far, the Earthbound antics haven’t developed the same set of supporting characters, and any time someone like Trevor ends up hanging out with our heroes, he’s quickly written out.
I think the virtual reality of it “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” bugged me just a little bit because — so far, at least — it has no bearing on the show’s larger reality. It was fun to watch William Jackson Harper run through a bunch of possible versions of breaking up with Simone, just as it was fun to see Kristen Bell play Eleanor slowly realizing she’s into Simone, at least in the simulation. (And, really, why don’t more men say they’re bisexual? It’s 2018!) But it’s inherently a story that runs in place, a comedic conceit that works in a scene but can’t carry a whole storyline. Chidi’s gutted feeling when he finally does break up with Simone is inherently more interesting, but the show buzzes right by it.
And yet the virtual reality stuff made me think about the simulation hypothesis, which Elon Musk (a particularly loathsome Tahani ex, it turns out) was obsessed with for a while there. The idea is that we live in an incredibly advanced simulation, created by descendants of people very like us, designed by them to get a sort of window into their past. It posits that we are, in essence, the Sims, but with autonomy. Or something like that.
The major philosophical question raised by the simulation hypothesis is — how do we behave morally if we live in a simulation? And the answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. The moral code you live by doesn’t change one iota, because even if you’re somehow aware of the simulation, it doesn’t make the people around you, or your interactions with them, less real. You still have a responsibility to them. We all still owe each other kindness and sincerity.
So maybe there’s more to “The Ballad of Donkey Doug” than I’m giving it credit for. But nearly halfway through season three, I’m increasingly concerned The Good Place is trying to extend its old heavenly delights to the planet Earth and struggling with just how little our reality affords those kinds of opportunities. In the Good Place, you can jet all over the universe in an instant. On Earth, it still takes the better part of a day to get from Australia to Florida, to say nothing of going back again.
After a string of attempted bombings against Democrats, Trump cast blame away from himself for divisive political rhetoric.
President Donald Trump sounded more somber than usual as he kicked off a Mosinee, Wisconsin, rally on Wednesday. It didn’t take him long to turn a call for unity in the face of political violence into a jab at the media and an allusion to Democratic “mobs.”
The news of the day was dominated by attempts to send pipe bombs tohigh-profile Democrats — including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director John Brennan, and billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. All were sent packages containing “potentially destructive devices.” (The package addressed to Brennan was sent to CNN, and the package addressed to Holder ended up at the Florida office of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former Democratic National Committee chair.)
After two years of encouraging his crowds to “lock her up” (and once tweeting a video in which he body-slammed a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face to the ground), Trump was the onecalling for an end to political violence.
His prescription was calling for unity — and thenblaming the media.
“Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on our democracy, itself,” Trump said. “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion, or control.”
Right after asking the country to come together, Trump sounded off on the media for what he characterized as sowing divisiveness.
“As part of a larger national effort to bridge our divides and bring people together, the media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories,” Trump said. “Have to do it. They’ve got to stop.”
Trump also appeared to foist some of the blame for the heightened tension on Democrats. Though he did not mention the party by name (or note that many of those targeted were Democrats or had served in Democratic administrations), the president alluded to “mobs,” something he has clearly tied to the Democratic Party in his pre-midterms messaging of“jobs not mobs.”
“We should not mob people in public spaces or destroy public property,” Trump said at the rally. “No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains, which is done often.” (Earlier this week, Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report on socialism that compared Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin.) “It’s done all the time,” Trump said. “Got to stop.”
The president added the way to settle disagreements peacefully was at the ballot box, nodding to the November 6 midterms that are just a few weeks away.
Then he made sure to point out that he waskeeping his own behavior in check — a joke that ended the solemn message with a sort of wink to the audience.
“By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving tonight?” Trump said. “Have you ever seen this? We’ve all been behaving very well. We want to keep it that way.”
Trump hasn’t been shy about stoking political violence in the past
The president was in the position of asking for less discord and an end to political violence on Tuesday night, which is somewhat of an unusual position for him.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump once wondered aloud if there was something “Second Amendment people” could do to stop Hillary Clinton from being able to pick judges — seemingly alluding to violence against the Democratic nominee. And Trump has made light of attacks on reporters, something he did at a rally just last week.
The first female Supreme Court justice announces she’s been diagnosed with dementia; Hurricane Willa is set to make landfall in Mexico.
O’Connor withdraws from public life
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said Tuesday she will withdraw from public life after being diagnosed with early stages of dementia, likely Alzheimer’s disease. [AP / Jessica Gresko]
She was highly influential during her Supreme Court tenure, including casting the decisive vote in Bush v. Gore, the ruling that made George W. Bush president in 2000. [AP / Jessica Gresko]
O’Connor was only the ninth woman ever to serve on the federal bench of any court, and she shattered a glass ceiling when she was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1981 by a vote of 99-0. [NYT / Linda Greenhouse]
Since her retirement, O’Connor has worked to promote civics education, and in her statement announcing her diagnosis, she emphasized the importance of “deepening young people’s engagement in our nation.” [SCOTUSBlog / Amy Howe]
This is not the first time O’Connor has publicly discussed health issues: In 1994, she spoke about the mastectomy she’d undergone six years earlier in an “extraordinarily personal speech.” [AP via NYT archives]
Hurricane Willa to make landfall Tuesday
Hurricane Willa, which briefly reached Category 5 strength before weakening to a Category 3 rating, is set to bring life-threatening storm surge to the Pacific coast of Mexico when it makes landfall Tuesday. [AP / Marco Ugarte]
Mexico’s coast has already been hit by deadly storms and rains this hurricane season. The area is also threatened by Vicente, a tropical storm tracking south of Willa that’s also primed to make landfall Tuesday. [Al Jazeera / Kevin Corriveau]
The northeastern Pacific is more prone to hurricanes than the Atlantic. Three Category 5 storms have formed in the northeast Pacific this year, probably due to a combination of favorable atmospheric conditions and warm ocean waters. [The Verge / Rachel Becker]
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has instructed the National Emergency Committee to take the necessary preventive measures to safeguard the population of the affected areas. In the meantime, low-lying areas have been evacuated and schools in coastal cities have closed. [CNN / Matt Rehbein and Brandon Miller]
Starbucks opened its first American Sign Language location Tuesday in Washington, DC, near Gallaudet University, a liberal arts school for the deaf and hard of hearing. [CNN / Lilit Marcus]
This week, Christie’s in New York will for the first time auction off a computer-generated artwork. The print, which depicts a man against a dark background, is part of a Parisian trio’s exploration of the interface between art and artificial intelligence. [NPR / Vanessa Romo]
The New York Times has created a satirical infomercial and hotline in response to white people calling the police when they witness black people performing everyday activities. The hotline’s number: 1-844-WYT-FEAR. [Twitter Moments]
A Canadian rapper died Saturday after attempting to film a stunt for a music video on the wing of a flying plane. [Time / Raisa Bruner]
Republican congressional leaders don’t have any details.
President Donald Trump didn’t have much to say about Sen. Ted Cruz at his rally for Cruz’s reelection in Houston, Texas, on Monday, but he did repeat a tax plan to cut rates for middle-class Americans that he’s seemingly invented out of thin air.
Trump said Congress would be putting forward a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class next week — a tax cut he suddenly started touting over the weekend and that actual members of Congress don’t seem to know anything about.
Congress is also on recess next week and doesn’t plan on coming back until after the midterm elections in November.
“We are going to be putting in a 10 percent tax cut for middle income families,” Trump said at the rally. “It’s going to be put in next week. Ten percent tax cut. Kevin Brady is working on it. We have been working on it for a few months. That is in addition to the big tax cuts you have already gotten.”
These proposed tax cuts have perplexed Washington ever since Trump first mentioned them over the weekend. While one Republican congressional aide told Vox individual lawmakers have been musing the idea of additional tax cuts, there isn’t a plan in placeor under discussion. Trump, when told Congress was on recess, told reporters a vote would happen after the elections.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office has referred all questions about the proposal to the White House. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the chair of the committee with purview over the nation’s tax code, was in the audience in Houston, but his committee staff could not offer any details on this proposal.
“There is continued interest in building on the success of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and constantly improving the tax code for hardworking families and America’s small businesses,” Rob Damschen, the Republican Ways and Means spokesperson, told Vox, referring any questions on the actual details to the White House.
Trump also lied about the tax cuts that he actually did sign into law late last year, falsely claiming that Republicans eliminated the estate tax — they did not, although they changed the law so that fewer families would have to pay the tax.
That tax law, which gave a massive permanent tax break to corporations as well as some temporary cuts on the individual side, is among the few Republican legislative accomplishments the GOP has to tout in the 2018 midterms.
Fifteen days from Election Day, Trump’s presence was meant to energize the base behind Cruz, who is facing a surprisingly competitive challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Trump’s closing argument for Cruz hit all his favorite talking points. He called undocumented immigrants criminals, declared himself a proud nationalist, cheered on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and called Democrats names — and touted a seemingly made-up tax break that no one can explain.
Somehow, this show, of all shows, captures the arbitrary horrors of war.
Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 14 through 20 is “Vietnam,” the fourth episode of the third season of NBC’s This Is Us.
The worst thing that happened to This Is Us came at the very end of its pilot, when a seemingly simple story about a bunch of people who shared the same birthday ended with a twist.
What seemed like a fairly basic family drama instead revealed its ambitions to encompass the vast history of the particular family at its center, as it slowly became clear that three of the characters were kids born on the same day, raised by the same parents (one adopted), and just happened to share a birthday with their father. The show, it seemed, would take place in two timelines — one in which the kids were grown and living in the present day and the other set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the kids were growing up and their parents were still young.
The twist worked. It expanded a good but kinda mawkish pilot into something with larger ambitions. But it also became something the series seemingly felt it had to replicate in future episodes. Where the original This Is Us pilot mentioned that the kids’ dad had died sometime between their teenage years and the present day, the version that aired omitted that detail entirely, saving it for a later episode, where it was deployed as a twist. (The mystery of Jack’s death eventually took over the entire series, to its detriment.)
And yet, to give credit where it’s due, sometimes This Is Us comes up with a twist so good that it pulls everything together, crystal clear. Sometimes it comes up with a twist so good that the show actually realizes its lofty ambitions and feels, for a few minutes at a time, as if it were the best show on TV.
Sending This Is Us to the Vietnam War could have been so, so terrible. Instead, it worked really well.
“Vietnam,” the third season’s fourth episode, is the first of this particular season to feel like it’s building toward something. Season three’s earlier installments were hampered by many of the show’s established problems — its forced sentimentality, its weird insistence on upholding traditional gender roles, its inability to let any moment play naturally when it could lard on the music and the tears. In particular, the flash-forwards to the future (yes the show now contains a future timeline) and a mysterious “her” have taken the series’ penchant for mystery to laughable degrees.
“Vietnam” is different. Believe me, I was skeptical that This Is Us could possibly do anything with the Vietnam War that didn’t feel derivative of millions of war movies before it — much less do anything non-derivative within the standards of broadcast television. And for roughly the first half of the hour, it felt a little like series creator Dan Fogelman and acclaimed author Tim O’Brien (whose short story collection The Things They Carried is one of our most essential pieces of fiction on Vietnam) couldn’t crack this particular riddle in the script they co-wrote, settling for structural trickery at the expense of anything meaningful.
The part of the episode that’s actually set in Vietnam is fine, especially for a broadcast TV show. We know that Vietnam vet Jack (Milo Ventimiglia, the only series regular to appear in the entire hour) lost his younger brother Nick (Michael Angarano) in the war, and we know that the relationship between the two of them was a darkly codependent one, thanks to how often Jack had to protect Nick from their abusive father as boys.
Now, if you’ve ever seen a movie set during the conflict, none of the Vietnam-set story will be new — the brotherhood among soldiers, the slowly deflating morale, the men hollowed out by conflict, etc., etc., etc. It’s all been done much, much better elsewhere, and this episode loses a little something from forcing viewers to read between the lines, to fill in the gaps with other Vietnam stories they’ve read or seen. (Ken Olin’s direction is sharp, however, helping viewers fill in those gaps with clear, motivated camerawork.)
But what we’re watching for here isn’t the Vietnam stuff, not really. The episode begins with Jack finally encountering Nick in Vietnam for the first time; it shows us that the two brothers are emotionally ruined in very different ways, and then it begins skipping backward in time. It feels like a gimmick, like This Is Us is jumping around in time just to do it. But Fogelman and O’Brien have a destination in mind for this particular story.
In the end, the reason that “Vietnam” seems to rely so heavily on viewers’ knowledge of other Vietnam-set stories — and their knowledge that Nick will lose his life in the war — is that it knows its options to depict the war in an honest fashion will run headlong into the standards and practices of broadcast television. The episode is using the war as its foundational tragedy, so that once the story moves backward in time past the war, the episode can ruminate on the sheer, horrible coincidence of any human life.
This second half of the episode, set in the United States, reveals not just that Jack tried to save Nick from going to Vietnam at all by helping him dodge the draft in Canada, but also that the date of Nick’s birth — October 18, 1948 (exactly 70 years before the episode first aired) — was the date of his birth by just two minutes.
He was born at 11:58pm — and because that meant he was born on the 18th instead of the 19th, he was drafted. He went to Vietnam. He died there. Two minutes make up the gap between a Nick who perhaps avoided the war entirely and one who was consumed by it.
And Fogelman and O’Brien save their most chilling image for last — a room full of baby boys, who all share the same birthday as Nick, not knowing that horror and death are in their future. All thanks to a pointless war that became a bloody mess, a government that failed to see them as anything other than numbers, and an accident of timing.
This Is Us is at its best when it understands that coincidence can be a force for tragedy in our lives
This Is Us occasionally indulges in the idea that little accidents of timing and fate are just as likely to lead to tragedy as to something warmer. After all, this is the show that spent an entire heart-rending musical montage on a Crock-Pot setting a house on fire.
More typically, however, the show uses its twists to talk about the unlikely coincidences that make our lives better — the old “And that’s how I met your mother” gambit. This makes sense within the show’s vision of the world, where its characters struggle with emotional repression and are gently encouraged to release their tears (whether happy or sad) by recalling those moments when fate twisted exactly the right way to allow for them to exist.
But “Vietnam,” like a handful of other This Is Us episodes, is interested in the idea that we sometimes have incredibly little control over our own fate, that being born two minutes before midnight might lead to a lifetime of gutted sorrow. None of us have any say in our births, but sometimes, the simple fact of when they happen makes us complicit in great horrors or marks us for great tragedies, all thanks to accidents of history.
Fogelman and O’Brien put some of these ideas directly in Nick’s mouth as he and Jack embark on a trip together, one that will culminate in Jack helping Nick escape the country and run to Canada. (Obviously, Nick ultimately decides against this course of action.) If only, Nick says, he could see his life play out backward, could understand how the things that make up who he is came to be.
It’s clunky and unnecessary dialogue — we’d understand the notion without the show explicitly saying it — but the concluding moments, that shot of a room full of baby boys, give it power anyway. After all, if we really could trace our lives backward, we’d all eventually find ourselves back in a bassinet, howling our lungs out, unaware of just how much our fate would be dictated by the circumstances of our birth, a lesson that every day moving forward will underline and mark in bold yellow highlighter.
There’s a danger in telling schematic stories like the ones This Is Us tells, because they run the risk of reducing their characters and those characters’ actions (as well as, by extension, all of us and our actions) into helpless wards of the plot, shuffled from event to event without any sort of agency or moral reckoning. And yet in the show’s best hours, like “Vietnam” or season one’s “Memphis,”This Is Us finds a way to tell schematic stories in a way that underlines how easy it can be to get sucked beneath the water by history’s never-ending undertow.
Still, the series remains honest about these accidents of timing. They’re not everything. Would Nick have been okay if he had been born two minutes later? It’s tempting to say yes, but “Vietnam” also emphasizes a paternal line filled with rage, abusive behavior, and alcoholism. Even if Jack wasn’t abusive to his wife or kids (so far as we know), he certainly struggled with rage and with drinking. And on it goes.
This Is Us’s odd, pointillist structure, in which each new episode adds another dot to an enormous picture meant to represent something — about this family, or about America, or whatever — often feels more complicated and clever than it’s worth. But every so often, the show comes up with an episode like “Vietnam” and an image like that of a room full of babies, none of whom asked to be born, none of whom will later ask to die, but all of whom will be required to do both.
This Is Us airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.