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Joe Biden and Donald Trump (AP Photo, File)

Dean's List

Biden’s blunder and Trump vs. Twitter

A grab-bag of politics, religion, and other news ahead of the 2020 election

Editor’s Note: This occasional column will publish weekly beginning in September.

1. Biden and black voters

When an African American radio host told Joe Biden he had more questions near the end of a recent interview, the former vice president replied: “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

Biden later said he shouldn’t have been cavalier, but the remark played into a talking point of the Trump campaign: Democrats take black voters for granted. 

Only 8 percent of black voters picked Donald Trump in 2016, and Republicans don’t expect to peel off a substantial number this fall. But in a close election, a couple of percentage points could make a difference.

Trump’s campaign has made a pitch to black voters this cycle, but the pandemic could upend the playbook: The coronavirus has hit the African American community particularly hard, and early plans to launch field offices in black neighborhoods won’t look the same as the campaign had hoped. 

For now, the Trump campaign is seizing on the Biden blooper: By the end of last week, the campaign reportedly planned a $1 million advertising blitz to turn the comment into a catchphrase and began selling T-shirts emblazoned with #YouAintBlack.

2. Trump and Twitter

President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday aimed at limiting legal protections for social media companies after Twitter fact-checked one of his tweets about mail-in voting. Trump called the action censorship. 

Meanwhile, a separate battle still simmered: A Florida widower defended the memory of his late wife against a recent Twitter barrage by Trump. Timothy Klausutis wrote a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, asking him to remove the tweets that stoked conspiracy theories about his wife’s death.

Lori Klausutis worked in the Florida office of Joe Scarborough when Scarborough served as a Republican congressman. The 28-year-old died in July 2001, after apparently collapsing in the office and striking her head. The police ruled out foul play, but conspiracy theories bubbled up suggesting she was murdered.

Nearly 20 years later, Scarborough works as an MSNBC television host—and a frequent Trump critic. The president recently resurrected rumors about Scarborough on Twitter: “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.” Trump later said he thinks there’s “more to the story” of Klausutis’ sudden death: “An affair?”

An understandably aggrieved Timothy Klausutis told Dorsey that the president “has taken something that doesn’t belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain.” Twitter execs declined to remove the tweets. 

It may be tempting to dismiss the controversy as a sideshow, but in a swirl of conversations about media censorship, it’s important to remember the value of self-censorship: It’s wrong to circulate salacious rumors—and it certainly doesn’t offer steadiness in unsteady times. 

The same applies to Trump’s tweet about potentially sending National Guard troops to quell riots in Minneapolis, after a video showed a white police officer using his leg to pin down a black man by the neck on Monday: George Floyd died in police custody. The National Guard might help with unrest, but this part of Trump’s tweet likely won’t: “... when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

3. Church politics

The president urged American churches to re-open last Sunday and pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for taking precautions. The move evoked alarm from some and praise from others.

Politico reported Trump’s move came in response to recent polls showing the president’s favorability rating slipping among white evangelicals. A poll from P.R.R.I. in late April  reported 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants view the president favorably. That was down from about 77 percent in March. 

It’s worth noting pollsters vary in how they define “evangelical,” and it’s not always clear what it means to voters. In 2016, exit polls from the National Election Pool reported 26 percent of voters self-identified as evangelicals, but only 64 percent of that group reported going to church at least once a week. 

Whatever Trump’s motives, many churches made decisions about re-opening based on local guidelines set by their state governments. And despite the president’s threat to “override” governors who try to block churches from gathering, most of those disputes will be settled in local or state courts.

4. Unsound bites

Some media outlets won’t admit bias, but others are more transparent. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, began a recent column: “I would vote for Joe Biden if he boiled babies and ate them.” Pollitt called critics of her remarks “tender souls” who don’t appreciate “dark humor and comic overstatement.” She added: “They must have a hard time in this fallen world.”

Indeed we do.

5. Off-the-trail

Last week, we reported on the approaching launch of the SpaceX capsule. Officials scrubbed the launch earlier this week because of bad weather, but they’ll try again on Saturday at 3:22 p.m., when two astronauts hope to blast off for the International Space Station (ISS). If you’re still sticking to home, this might be the perfect break from politics and other online diversions: See if you can spot the ISS from your own backyard.

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AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Justin Amash (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Dean's List

Dean’s List: Justin Amash bids adieu

A grab-bag of politics, religion, and other news ahead of the 2020 election

Editor’s Note: This weekly feature will publish Fridays during the 2020 election season.

1. Amash’s adieu

Less than three weeks after jumping into the presidential race, Rep. Justin Amash (Libertarian-Mich.) jumped back out. Amash was exploring a bid for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, but the congressman said on May 16 he realized success isn’t likely under the current circumstances. 

That’s likely true—with or without a pandemic. But it also wasn’t certain Amash could win the party’s nomination.  Amash left the GOP in July 2019, but he filed paperwork to change his affiliation to the Libertarian Party on May 1, 2020. He officially announced his Libertarian bid just 24 days before the party’s scheduled convention. 

Amash drew media attention, but longtime Libertarian Jacob Hornberger had already won a handful of primaries. Those contests are non-binding in the party, but they revealed a base of support. 

In an online debate, Hornberger grilled Amash on a slate of issues, including his pro-life position. On abortion, the Libertarian Party platform asserts “people can hold good-faith views on all sides,” but says the government should stay out of it.

Amash didn’t deny his pro-life beliefs. But he said he thought a Libertarian presidency wouldn’t require him to compromise the party’s platform, since the party opposes federal funding for abortion. Still, there are other abortion-related issues a president must face, and it wasn’t clear how Amash would handle them. 

The Libertarian Party is set to hold its nominating convention online over Memorial Day weekend. The decision to go virtual came only after an extensive debate over party by-laws that require the group to meet “in a place” they agree on. A question they debated—perhaps one we’re all pondering these days: Is the internet a place? 

2. Swinging low

At a moment when nursing homes are suffering some of the highest death rates related to COVID-19, frailty isn’t funny. But, sadly, that’s the schtick in a recent Trump campaign ad pointing out opponent Joe Biden’s mishaps on the presidential trail.

Biden has stumbled with his speech and concentration at more than one public event this cycle. Though he’s struggled with a stutter since childhood, it’s still fair to ask reasonable questions about his mental acuity if he aspires to the presidency. 

But it’s folly for the Trump campaign to produce an ad that begins with an image altered to appear like Biden is being spoon-fed in a nursing home. The recent Facebook spot featured jaunty music and a string of Biden’s slip-ups. Another ad declared: “Geriatric mental health is no laughing matter,” while playing a jovial tune and showing Biden falter. 

Ben Carson, now secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was once a presidential candidate who liked to quote the book of Proverbs on the campaign trail. One of the Proverbs that campaign managers might keep in mind: “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense.” 

3.  Loving thy neighbor 

Nursing home residents are some of our most isolated neighbors, with COVID-19 contributing to a steep death toll at many residential care facilities. President Trump announced an independent commission to assess COVID-19 response in nursing homes, and to make recommendations to the federal government for preparing for outbreaks.

Emma Green of The Atlantic penned a moving story about nuns from the Roman Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor, as they cared for residents falling ill in a nursing home in Delaware. “If you don’t have a strong faith, this thing would just succeed in crushing you,” one of the nuns told Green. 

A few weeks later, attorneys for the Little Sisters of the Poor were making oral arguments via telephone to the Supreme Court (the court was quarantining). The nuns are still battling regulations related to the Affordable Care Act requiring the religious order to provide contraceptives and abortifacients in its health care plan. 

Biden served as vice president in President Barack Obama’s administration when the rules rolled out. The case is a reminder that Biden, a lifelong Catholic, should face questions about his views on religious liberty during the presidential campaign. 

4. Sound bites 

The Atlantic also published an expose of QAnon, an anonymous online entity with a group of followers professing belief in a vast, deep-state conspiracy theory they say is aligned against Trump. 

Some of the followers also use Biblical language, and the article leans toward suggesting the group could be partly an outgrowth of the evangelical church. Denny Burk, professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offered a crisp response on Twitter: “I know what Christianity is, and Qanon ain’t it.” 

5. Off-the-trail

In non-campaign news, two NASA astronauts are scheduled to launch from earth on May 27 and soar to the International Space Station. The astronauts will fly in the Dragon capsule developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. (NASA encourages viewers to watch the launch online.) It’s the first manned flight for the California company—and perhaps the ultimate form of social distancing during an election year.

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