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How Violent Protests Change Politics

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Examining the protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Omar Wasow says, gives us clues about the efficacy of violent vs. nonviolent protests.Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.

I spoke by phone, on Friday afternoon, with Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed which tactics worked best in the civil-rights era, what violent protests have meant, historically, for Democrats running for office, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of order or disorder.

How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?

I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.

What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.

The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.

What did you find in your research, specifically about the 1968 election?

There has been a debate in social science for a long time about whether there was a backlash to the waves of violent protest in 1967 and 1968. Commonly, people will say “riot,” but I am using “violent protest” and “nonviolent protest” as the two categories. I looked at a hundred and thirty-seven violent protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, 1968. There is a bunch of evidence that protests are sensitive to weather, and when rain happens it is much less likely people engage in protests. And so we should expect that when there is more rainfall there is less likelihood that people will engage in protest, and when there is less rainfall there is more likelihood. So we get a crude natural experiment—it’s as if some places were randomly assigned a violent protest and some were not.

And what I find is that, in the week following King’s assassination, when ninety-five per cent of those violent April protests occurred, if your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November. But maybe there was something correlated with rainfall driving this result, and so to address the possibility of a confounding factor, like geography, I also looked at rainfall in periods where we should expect no effect of rainfall on voting—e.g., periods before and more than a few days after the assassination. This is called a placebo test. It is only rainfall in the one week after the assassination that predicts this conservative shift in November, and, in the absence of a plausible alternative story for why rainfall in April was predicting voting in November, the most obvious explanation is that the violent protests were the cause. And so we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition.

What protest tactics would you recommend for people concerned about police brutality today? On the one hand, these current protests were already sparked by state violence, so they don’t need to incite more of it. On the other hand, we have had these viral videos of police brutality for years, and it is not clear all that much is changing.

If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, “How can we advance our interests?,” it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence, if we get everything we would from a violent protest, plus we don’t splinter a coalition that favors change. One puzzle is, if you are an activist, are nonviolent tactics going to get you more of what you want, or are violent tactics? And what I found from the sixties is that nonviolent protest achieved many of the same sorts of outcomes that the more militant activists were fighting for without splintering the Democratic coalition. There was a pro-segregation media at the time, and there were all kinds of state and federal repression—and, despite all of that, the nonviolent wing of the civil-rights movement was really able to move the country from tolerating Jim Crow to breaking Jim Crow.

So I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preëxisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.

Your answers are making me think about the Régis DeBray line that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.” Because whether intentional strategy or not, firing rubber bullets and police violence against protests may have the effect of making the protests more violent, and thus hurting the cause.

It’s a great question, and, in cross-national studies, that has definitely been shown to be a strategy. We definitely observe politicians in other countries ginning up ethnic conflict before an election, to try and heighten people’s sense of in-group identification before they vote. The evidence in the United States I have seen points more toward a kind of racialized incompetence, where the police chief in Los Angeles can behave with a certain disregard—I am thinking of the uprising in 1992. [The authorities’] response was so ham-fisted and hands-off that it allowed something to escalate to an epic scale. And I suspect most of what we saw in Minneapolis was not a strategic effort to inflame protesters, but an idiotic and incompetent over-response that also had the effect of inflaming protesters.

And it was an idiotic and incompetent response tinged by race. You don’t see these kinds of overreactions to the armed white militias. So I don’t have evidence about these being strategic efforts. I do think there is a lot of evidence that there are overreactions when the protesters are black, and that this excess of force is deployed in ways that have precisely the opposite effect of what a police chief is intending. Instead of trying to bring order, they create more chaos.

Trump has run as a law-and-order candidate, and today repeated the looting-and-shooting comment that was made by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, in 1967. At the same time, it seems like Nixon was fundamentally selling stability, and Trump often tries to destabilize situations. How do you think this will or won’t have political ramifications?

On the first part, I have looked at polling data from the sixties, and the numbers are really surprising. It was something like eighty per cent of Americans said that law and order had broken down. We had King’s assassination, and two Kennedys assassinated, and these waves of violent protests. So it was more than just urban unrest. There was a sense that the social fabric was tearing, and I think Nixon was clearly appealing to voters for whom that was an anxiety. And I also found that, in the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, Democrats who thought Pat Brown, who was the Democratic governor at the time, had handled the Watts riots poorly were hugely less likely to support him. [Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by fifteen percentage points.] So it really was pivotal in the nineteen-sixties.

What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters.

You are absolutely right that Trump, to a lot of people, is an instigator of chaos rather than a restorer of order, so I think that potentially works against him. But if you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter. So the real danger for advocates of reform in Minneapolis trying to get better policing, and for those trying to pursue racial justice nationally, is that there are people who are turned off by Trump but who have a strong taste for order, and so if they are more concerned about racial disorder, then Trump is their racial order.

Yes, essentially, to view Trump as a figure who will bring order, in any rational sense, is to have a racially tinged view of order. The only kind of order he promises—even if he can’t actually deliver it—is an order based on racial issues. This is a guy who cheers on protesters showing up with automatic weapons to state capitols.

That’s right. There was a tweet that said something like, “Who could want four more years of this?” It’s got a sort of Rorschach-like quality. If you are exhausted by Trump’s chaos, you think about who could want four more years of Trump. But it could also be that, if this is how you perceive Democratic governance—letting a police station go up in flames—then who could want four more years of disorder and lawlessness, particularly if you are someone who has a bunch of stereotypes about African-Americans and Democrats in cities.

And so, to your point, I think it is exactly right that there are different kinds of chaos people are weighing in their minds. I might say the pandemic and economic dislocation are my top priorities, but if you are someone who has deep-seated anxieties about an unsettling of the racial hierarchy in America, about an egalitarian society where you might lose some status, or a society where there isn’t enormous state capacity brought to bear on controlling out-groups, then you might say, “I want Trump because he is promising to maintain the racial hierarchy. I want someone who is tough on crime. Those are my top priorities.”

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The New Politics of Race? – The New York Times

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Credit…Apu Gomes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Trump famously won the 2016 election thanks to a surge of support from white voters. This year, Trump is trailing Joe Biden largely because some of those voters have swung back to the Democrats. In several recent swing-state polls, Biden is even winning a narrow majority of white voters.

But Biden is not quite running away with the election. He leads by six percentage points in The Times’s national polling average, down from almost 10 points earlier this summer.

What’s going on? In large part, Biden continues to struggle with Hispanic voters. Trump, despite making repeated appeals to white nationalism and castigating immigrants, has a chance to do better among Hispanic voters than he did in 2016, and win more than a third of them, even as he does worse with white voters.

One possible explanation — a worrisome one for Democrats in the long run — is that Hispanics are following a path not so different from earlier European immigrant groups, like Italian and Irish Americans. As they assimilated, they became less reliably Democratic. To oversimplify, they voted for F.D.R. and then for Reagan.

Ross Douthat, a Times columnist, argues that Trump’s relative strength among Hispanic Americans is a sign that Democrats are misreading the politics of race. Liberals often draw a bright line between whites and people of color (as the acronym BIPOC — for Black, Indigenous and people of color — suggests). But this binary breakdown doesn’t reflect reality, Ross argues.

For starters, about 53 percent of Latinos identify as white, Andrea González-Ramírez of Medium notes. Others do not but are conservative — on abortion, taxes, Cuba or other issues. In some states, Hispanic men appear to be especially open to supporting Trump, Stephanie Valencia of Equis Research, a polling firm, told my colleague Ian Prasad Philbrick.

A recent Times poll of four battleground states captured some of these dynamics. Most Hispanic voters said Biden had not done enough to condemn rioting, said he supported cutting police funding (which is not true) and said they themselves opposed police funding cuts. For that matter, most Black voters also opposed such funding cuts.

Credit…Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters from Sept. 8 to Sept. 11

It’s a reminder that well-educated progressive activists and writers — of all races — are well to the left of most Black, Hispanic and Asian voters on major issues. These groups, in fact, are among the more moderate parts of the Democratic coalition in important respects. If Democrats don’t grapple with this reality, they risk losing some of those voters.

For more: Two recent podcasts — the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast and “The Argument,” from Times Opinion — delve into Trump’s relative strength among Hispanic voters.

Credit…Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

New Jersey is poised to become one of the first states to adopt a so-called millionaires tax, raising taxes on income over $1 million by nearly two percentage points. Phil Murphy, the state’s Democratic governor, and legislative leaders reached a deal on the tax as a way to alleviate a budget shortfall caused by the pandemic.

“We do not hold any grudge at all against those who have been successful in life,” Murphy, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, said. “But in this unprecedented time, when so many middle-class families and others have sacrificed so much, now is the time to ensure that the wealthiest among us are also called to sacrifice.”

Taxes on high incomes are likely to be central to the Democratic Party’s agenda if Biden wins the presidency. He has proposed raising tax rates on people who earn more than $400,000.

In other political news:


Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outraged many public health experts last month by discouraging people without coronavirus symptoms from being tested. It’s now clear that Trump administration officials — and not C.D.C. scientists — wrote the recommendation, as a story by The Times’s Apoorva Mandavilli documents.

In other virus developments:


Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The writer Anand Giridharadas has written a fascinating response to my recent item on Biden’s vulnerability on so-called law and order issues. Giridharadas writes:

America does have a law-and-order problem, but it’s nothing new. And the nature of that law-and-order problem is being the most violent country in the rich world. And the genesis of that violence isn’t Black and brown communities rising up against friendly, overwhelmingly white suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s white America, from the founding days of the republic, committing to an economic and political model that made violence a daily, systemic necessity.

I’d add one point: It’s possible to agree with all of that and still think Biden is vulnerable. “Law and order” is indeed often a dog whistle for racism, but it can still be politically effective. And “law and order” issues aren’t only and always about racism. Just consider the views of Black and Hispanic voters about police funding (which are highlighted in the chart earlier in today’s newsletter).

Along with his response, Giridharadas includes an interview with Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. He’s the author of a new book, “The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy,” which delves into the racist roots of America’s propensity toward violence.

Credit…Michael Kraus for The New York Times

In honor of the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, here’s a recipe for a delicious brisket. Coca-Cola, along with chunks of fresh ginger, are the ingredients behind the sweet-and-sour sauce. For more ideas, the Cooking team curated a collection of holiday recipes.


Our weekly suggestion from Gilbert Cruz, The Times’s Culture editor:

Less than two months before a presidential election, it might seem odd to recommend a series about politics, given that it’s everywhere. But I am locked into watching “Borgen,” now available on Netflix.

The three-season drama follows Birgitte Nyborg, a moderate Danish politician who becomes that nation’s first female prime minister. The tone falls somewhere between the often-too-idealistic “The West Wing” and the always-too-self-serious “House of Cards.” It’s a peek into a system in which compromise and deal-making between multiple political parties are often as necessary as pure power plays.

And, as our TV critic Margaret Lyons wrote recently in her Watching newsletter (subscribe!), “Alongside the political material, ‘Borgen’ is a grounded, rich domestic drama, and Birgitte’s seemingly #relationshipgoals marriage becomes something much messier and more fraught.”


Credit…Jill Frank for The New York Times

The nature of fame on TikTok is inherently different from other platforms like Instagram: It has an algorithm that propels kids to stardom overnight, and entire fandoms are often built around creators of relatively mundane videos.

In The Atlantic, the writer Kaitlyn Tiffany explains how fame on TikTok serves as a reflection of what modern girlhood looks like. Videos often spotlight activities girls have been doing for decades, from dancing in their bedrooms to fighting with parents.

“TikTok is a massive network of girls talking primarily to one another,” she writes. “Every major cultural trend that has come from TikTok is a girl-culture trend: VSCO girls, e-girls, the dances created by girls and copied by other girls.”



Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Birthplace of the Renaissance (five letters).

Or try this week’s news quiz.

You can find all of our puzzles here.


Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you on Monday. — David

P.S. The word “gympietides” — the minute, pain-causing molecules of Australia’s giant stinging trees — appeared for the first time in The Times this week, as noted by the Twitter bot @NYT_first_said.

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about the reopening of schools in New York City. On “The Argument,” Opinion writers talk about Bob Woodward’s new book and QAnon.

Lalena Fisher, Ian Prasad Philbrick and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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Playing Politics With a Vaccine – The New York Times

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Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump have finally persuaded a lot of Democrats and Republicans to agree on something: that the idea of getting a coronavirus vaccine, at least right now, seems kind of scary.

Over the past four months, the number of Americans who say they’d be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine has dropped — significantly.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans are now evenly divided over whether they would get a vaccine to prevent Covid-19, if it were available today.

And just 21 percent said they would “definitely” get a coronavirus vaccine today, half the share who said that in May.

The growing mistrust is bipartisan: The percentages of Republicans and Democrats who said they’d get the vaccine both fell by 21 points. (A majority of Democrats still said they would take it.)

The numbers are a vivid illustration of how political posturing can transform our beliefs.

The virus, of course, hasn’t changed. About 850 people in the United States have been dying of the coronavirus, on average, every day in mid-September. That’s down from a peak of near 3,000 in April but an increase from the death rate in the early summer.

What has changed is how Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden talk about a vaccine.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden accused the president of playing politics with a potential vaccine, saying he did not trust Mr. Trump to determine when a vaccine was ready for Americans.

“Let me be clear: I trust vaccines,” Mr. Biden said. “I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump, and at this moment, the American people can’t either.”

Shortly after Mr. Biden’s speech, Mr. Trump rebuked his own government scientists, publicly slapping down Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mr. Trump has focused for weeks on convincing the public that a vaccine will be available imminently — even before Election Day — and that the worst of the pandemic is over. Those statements have heightened fears that the approval process could be rushed for political purposes, prompting Mr. Biden’s attacks on the president.

Dr. Redfield told a Senate committee on Wednesday that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year. Mr. Trump said that his top public health official had “made a mistake” and that vaccines would go “to the general public immediately.”

The president is incorrect: Scientists, companies and federal officials all say that most people won’t get a vaccine until well into next year, even in a best-case scenario.

But with no coherent federal government response, voters are left to figure out their own public health guidance. The vaccine becomes political collateral.

The whole situation is a fun-house mirror version of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump has expressed anti-vaccine views since 2007. He has met with anti-vaccine crusaders and, as president-elect, even floated appointing them to government committees, spreading alarm among medical experts that he could be giving credence to debunked conspiracy theories about immunizations.

Now, Mr. Trump is the country’s No. 1 cheerleader for vaccine development, and is misleadingly accusing Mr. Biden of spreading “anti-vaccine theories.”

Mr. Biden, who has consistently praised the virtues of science and pushed for more funding for research, now finds himself casting doubt — out of necessity, he would argue — on the government’s handling of a potential vaccine.

When asked whether he trusted the C.D.C. and the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Biden said he did not trust “people like the fellow that just took a leave of absence.” The comment appeared to be a reference to Michael Caputo, the top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, who had accused government scientists of “sedition.”

While it’s true that Mr. Trump’s misleading assertions about vaccine timetables have raised concerns about a hurried, politicized process, it’s also the case that Mr. Biden stands to benefit politically if voters distrust the president and the pandemic is still raging. (Still, Mr. Biden has said that if scientists agree a vaccine is safe, he would personally take it even if it was approved under Mr. Trump’s watch.)

All this political gamesmanship is a problem. Mistrust of vaccines is an urgent — and deadly — public health issue.

Once a safe and effective vaccine is available, if enough people refuse to get it, the country’s ability to reach widespread immunity will suffer. And all of this could exacerbate mistrust of other, well-established vaccines — a worrisome trend that was already underway before the pandemic.

Pharmaceutical companies have tried to restore public trust by pledging to thoroughly vet any coronavirus vaccine candidates.

But, I suppose, the public’s skepticism makes sense, in a depressing sort of way. Distrust of our institutions is at record highs. Why should anyone feel differently about a now highly politicized vaccine, until it’s proved safe?


Drop us a line!

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.


A little over a month ago, the rough consensus among many Opinion editors like me, who were watching the congressional negotiations over a second pandemic relief package, was that some sort of follow-up bill, even if it wasn’t much, would pass and be signed into law.

After all, the labor market has been hobbling all summer; state and local governments are struggling to make ends meet, and so are millions of income-depressed families. Many of those families live in swing states, which gave Senate Republicans and President Trump a motive to provide an economic boost with Election Day nearing.

Instead, negotiations on Capitol Hill stalled. Now there is a decent chance that no further stimulus measures will be taken before November.

In an opinion essay published this morning, Jay C. Shambaugh, who was the chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2010 to 2011, urged congressional leaders to come to an agreement.

“It may be easier, politically, to give up and devolve into partisan blaming as Election Day nears,” he wrote. “However, it is imperative that a new deal is reached to avoid suffering and to keep the economy from further slowing.”

Mr. Shambaugh praised a bipartisan group in the House made up of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans for putting forth a proposal on Tuesday that, “while not perfect, may open prospects for a deal.” But top House Democrats have already said that the plan, which is worth as much as $2 trillion, does not go far enough.

Mr. Shambaugh argued that the compromise’s framework merited consideration for the sake of “the one in five families who report their children don’t have enough to eat this week and the panicked states already forced into firing workers.”

Those stakeholders, he argued, “cannot wait until after the election for a deal.”

— Talmon Joseph Smith


I, for one, welcome our new duck overlords.


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When Politics Distorts Science – Scientific American

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I knew things had changed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early 2018 when my routine request to interview a CDC scientist was held up for days on end. I’d been interviewing researchers there for decades and had never before hit a delay that meant missing my deadline. When I asked what was going on, I was told, off-the-record, that media requests were now being routed from the CDC press office in Atlanta up to the bosses at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., for approval.

Yikes, I thought, that’s insane. And this was well before the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and mask debates made the nuts-and-bolts field of epidemiology a politically incendiary topic.

Still, I never imagined the level of Big Brothering would extend to the CDC’s most essential tool for communicating science: its world-class weekly bulletin known as the MMWR—for Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (It was the MMWR that first reported in 1981 a spike in cases of opportunistic infections in gay men—the first glimmer of HIV/AIDS in the United States.) On Friday night, Politico revealed that even the MMWR is being routed to political overseers at HHS to soften science and health recommendations that might contradict the president’s often dishonest and sometimes dangerous messaging about the pandemic, among other CDC matters.

Such interference is “unprecedented,” says Tom Frieden, the infectious disease specialist who served as CDC director from June 2009 through January 2017. While politics and public health inevitably intersect, Frieden says, “I can tell you that in my eight years, no political appointee ever read the MMWR before it was published or before the media got it.”

According to reporting by Politico and the Washington Post, which have obtained leaked e-mails, political operatives at HHS have attempted to add caveats to the findings of CDC scientists and tried to slow down the release of politically inconvenient data, including a negative report on hydroxychloroquine—the malaria drug wrongly touted by the president as a COVID-19 therapy—and data on children spreading the virus.

Who are these political overseers, filtering and twisting federal science? Back in April, the Trump administration appointed Michael Caputo to be assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS. Caputo has no training in science or medicine. (Neither, for that matter, does his boss, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, a lawyer who was a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist and executive.) Unlike Azar’s appointment, Caputo’s did not require Senate approval.

What were Caputo’s qualifications to manage communications for an 80,000-employee federal department and to direct the nation’s health messaging during a pandemic? His anodyne official HHS bio describes his 17 years as president of his own PR firm. It doesn’t mention his association with convicted felons Roger Stone, who served as Caputo’s mentor, and Paul Manafort, with whom he worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Nor does it mention his earlier work helping to burnish the image of Vladimir Putin—a project he admitted to his hometown paper, the Buffalo News, that “I’m not proud of.” The same 2016 article noted that Caputo then owed U.S. government more than $100,000 in back taxes and quotes him as follows: “If I were to run for office, my skeletons would come dancing out of the closet in a can-can.”

Caputo was doing some fast tap dancing this week after he let loose with bizarre remarks on Facebook Live and Twitter over the weekend. He accused the CDC of harboring an anti-Trump “resistance unit,” warned of violence by armed left-wing hit squads after the election and encouraged Trump supporters to prepare by buying bullets now: “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.” Both his Facebook and Twitter accounts have since been deleted.

With #CAPUTOMUSTRESIGN trending on Twitter, Caputo apologized to HHS staff on Tuesday for his remarks about an internal cabal. On Wednesday, the department announced he was taking a 60-day medical leave of absence.

Also departing was the scientist Caputo had hired to challenge and edit MMWR reports and CDC statements that might contradict White House positions. Paul Alexander has worked under contract as a part-time assistant professor of health research methodologies at McMaster’s University in Canada.

E-mails leaked to Politico show that Alexander had attempted to muzzle public statements by Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, and downplay the risks of kids and college students spreading COVID-19 and the need to test young people for the infection. In one leaked e-mail. Alexander writes with exaggerated certainty: There is no data, none, zero, across the entire world, that shows children especially young children, spread this virus to other children, or to adults or to their teachers.”

In July, the Washington Post reported that Alexander scolded the CDC for warning about the coronavirus’ risk to pregnant women, writing in an e-mail that the warning would “frighten women … as if the President and his administration can’t fix this and it’s getting worse.”

It’s clear that political minders such as Caputo and Alexander have succeeded to some degree in tilting federal health policies and statements. The emergency use authorization of hydroxychloroquine for severe COVID-19  back in March by the Food and Drug Administration, is one example. The FDA reversed itself in May when evidence showed the drug likely caused more harm than good.

Frieden points to other examples. “What is unprecedented—and deeply disturbing— is things on the CDC website being written by people who aren’t public health experts, he says. “I think that is analogous to someone vandalizing a national monument and scrawling graffiti on it.”

He cites three examples: omitting a mention that choir singing represents a significant risk in the reopening of houses of worship. “The White House asked for that,” Frieden says. Second, a statement on the CDC website about the importance of kids going back to school that reads more like a position paper than a public health analysis.

Third, “and most egregious,” he adds, is the suggestion that people who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus do not need to be tested if they have no symptoms. “This clearly was the writing of people in Washington who don’t understand public health,” Frieden says. Better information, urging that all contacts be tested, appears elsewhere on the CDC site.

Even if November’s election should bring an end to efforts to run federal science and health policy through a political distortion field, the reputational damage may be done. Will reporters like me be able to look at the MMWR in the same way as before? More importantly, will the American public be able to trust federal assessments of coronavirus treatments and vaccines?

An NBC/SurveyMonkey poll out on Tuesday shows declining trust in the promised vaccine: only 39 percent of poll respondents said they would get it, down from 44 percent in August.

As Richard Besser, who was acting CDC director in 2009, writes in Scientific American, “we now see the undermining of the public’s trust of our key institutions at the very moment we should be shoring up that trust.”

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