Jul 27, 2020

99 days until the election.

99 days until the election.

Plus, a question about the QAnon conspiracy theory.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that’s dedicated to helping you understand the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can try it for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

It’s a little longer than usual, but lots of interesting stuff to cover: the state of the 2020 race, a question about the QAnon conspiracy theory and some wild numbers. Tangle social media manager Magdalena Bokowa, an experienced journalist and photographer, attended the Portland protests this weekend with a press pass and took this photo from the front lines:

Photo: Magdalena Bokowa

Biden’s plan.

On Friday, paying Tangle subscribers received a full transcript of an interview I did with Jared Bernstein, the former Chief Economic Adviser to Joe Biden who is informally advising the campaign now. If Biden wins, Bernstein is likely to be a part of a Joe Biden administration. I asked him about how the government can spend so much money, what Biden would be doing differently than Trump and what Biden’s plans are if he wins. Biden has been secretive about his campaign’s economic team and this was a candid glimpse inside. You can subscribe and read the interview by clicking here.

Reader feedback.

On Thursday, I wrote that Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) apologized to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) after a tense exchange where Yoho reportedly called her a “f—ing b—” as he walked away. Yoho said on the House floor: “I rise today to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York.” But several readers wrote in to say they reject describing what Yoho did as an apology, noting that he refused to admit to the language he used and tried to justify his behavior in television appearances.

“This is small, but Yoho didn’t actually apologize to AOC,” Samantha from Los Angeles, California, wrote. “He apologized about the interaction, which he mischaracterized, but never said her name or took responsibility for what he said. He denied it, and used his wife and daughters as a shield in the process. Any woman will tell ya, that ain’t an apology.”

Quick hits

  1. After days of disagreement between the White House and Senate Republicans, the two parties say they are ready to propose another coronavirus relief bill. It’s expected to cost $1 trillion, will have another round of $1,200 payments to the same group of Americans as last time and will give $100 billion in aid to schools and universities for coronavirus measures to reopen. Republicans say the enhanced unemployment benefit will be reduced from $600 a week to “replace roughly 70% of a worker’s former wages.” There will be no additional state aid. The bill is expected to be hotly contested by House Democrats.
  2. American intelligence officials released a public warning on Friday that China was “expanding its influence effort” and Russia and Iran were trying to interfere in the 2020 election. Democrats said the threat was far more urgent than what the intelligence officials described. One official, William Evanina, is the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. He said Russia continues to “spread disinformation in the U.S. that is designed to undermine confidence in our democratic process,” and said Iran is contributing to election interference by “recirculating anti-U.S. content.”
  3. The Washington Post has settled a lawsuit with a Kentucky teenager who said their coverage of his encounter with a Native American activist was defamatory. Nicholas Sandmann, the high school student, became a national controversy when he was filmed standing face to face with Nathan Phillips while donning a red Make America Great Again hat. Coverage of the encounter cast Sandmann, 16, as obstructing the path and taunting Phillips. But consequential witness testimony and video footage portrayed a different event. Sandmann contested his account was not properly recorded. He has now sued six news outlets for their coverage of the incident. The Post is the second to settle after CNN settled last week. Terms of the settlement have remained secret, and neither news organization admitted wrongdoing in their settlements.
  4. Violence continued into Sunday night near a federal courthouse in Portland, and two people were arrested after gunfire was exchanged. Protesters have flocked to the courthouse for two months straight in Portland, but violence between the protesters and police has been relatively rare. That’s changed in recent days, with tensions rising after President Trump deployed federal law enforcement into Portland to push the protesters out.
  5. President Trump debuted a new advertisement against Joe Biden that is causing an uproar across the country. In it, an elderly woman is at home alone when someone begins breaking into her house. She tries to call 911, but the line is busy. During the encounter, a voiceover of Fox News’s Sean Hannity describes Biden as fully supporting the defunding of police. As she waits on the phone, the house robber breaks in and throws the elderly woman to the floor. “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” the screen reads. Editor’s note: Joe Biden has not endorsed defunding the police. In fact, he’s explicitly rejected it. You can watch the ad here.

What D.C. is talking about.

The 2020 election. We’re now 99 days from the election, which is November 3rd, 2020. For context, that means the election is about as far away now as we are from April 20th — which marked one month into the coronavirus national lockdown. But a winner on November 3rd or 4th is no guarantee. Because of absentee and mail-in ballots, and based on the length of time it has taken for primary races to conclude, there’s a decent chance it will be days before a winner is announced in 2020.

Joe Biden’s lead in the polls has continued to grow. Last week, a new Quinnipiac poll showed Biden with a 51-38 lead in national polls. Over the weekend, a new CNN poll was released showing Biden ahead in Florida, a state Republicans haven’t won a presidential election without winning in 98 years.

In the meantime, the state of the country is dire. The coronavirus pandemic is still spreading across the U.S. with record-high new cases in some states and over 1,000 new deaths per day for four consecutive days this week. More than 30 million Americans are taking unemployment. In major cities across the country, violence has spiked in the early months of summer.

After simmering for the better part of a month, civil unrest in Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles jumped again this weekend following the deployment of federal law enforcement to a few cities across the U.S. Now, 80% of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction, including a majority of Republicans, according to a new Associated Press poll.

But there’s still a lot of time. Joe Biden hasn’t even named his running mate yet. There have been zero presidential debates, and there will likely be three this year. The Trump campaign insists it’s only just getting started on its advertising blitz against Biden, and the final months of an election are often what drive voters.

What the left is saying.

They’re wishing the election was today. Last week, the highly regarded Cook Political Report flipped Florida from “toss-up” to “leans Democratic.” Joe Biden is up by 13 points in one Florida poll. Trump led Hillary by 3 points there in a mid-July poll from 2016, and there’s no way Trump is winning the election without Florida.

20 other races for House seats were shifted to Democrats in the Cook Political Report, something Dave Wasserman — Cook’s House editor — said he couldn’t recall ever happening before. And now Trump sees the writing on the wall.

In The New York Times, Charles Blow wrote that Trump is a “political chameleon” and will do whatever it takes to survive. In 2016, Blow noted, Trump “posed with taco bowls on Cinco De Mayo and wrote on Twitter: ‘I love Hispanics!’” after being criticized for describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. He ended up winning over 25% of the Hispanic vote.

“After mocking people for wearing masks, refusing to publicly wear one himself and holding rallies and gatherings where social distancing was not required, President Trump has shifted his tone,” Blow wrote for The New York Times. “Apparently, the reality of his dire straits has begun to pierce his inner circle of perpetual affirmation. There is a reality lurking that can’t be lied away. If the election were held today, he wouldn’t win.”

Some on the left are still concerned, though. 2016 was supposed to be a Hillary Clinton rout, and everyone knows how that ended. Biden’s strength in the polls is largely a reflection of the fact that all the attention is on Trump. If and when Biden moves to front and center, some on the left are concerned he’ll be a highlight reel of campaign ads for the president.

“Can Biden keep it together?” Laura Washington asked in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Throughout the fierce Democratic nominating campaign, there was a steady undercurrent of questions about his age, stamina and intellectual capacity… Trump and his team will attack every Biden mistake, no matter how minuscule, to sow doubts about Biden’s ability to govern. Those misgivings could chip away at confidence in Biden, especially among the independent and swing voters who will decide a close election.”

What the right is saying.

It’s a good mix of optimism and fear. They’re not particularly enthusiastic about the polls — but nobody is panicking (publicly) quite yet. Joe Biden is still not being talked about, which means the national sentiment is more an indictment on Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. Polls reflect this. Biden’s approval rating hasn’t moved much while Trump’s has fallen. That’s not a great spot to be in — but it leaves open opportunities to change things, too.

In the meantime, Biden keeps dipping the press. He turned down a request from Fox News’s Chris Wallace just one week after the president sat with him for a 40-minute, untethered interview. He’s sparingly on television, and his online events have thus far been insulated with supporters. It’s gotten so obvious that in late-June, POLITICO ran a fawning headline about how Democrats have warmed up to “Biden’s bunker strategy.”

But that won’t last.

Three debates are already scheduled and the next 99 days will force Biden into the public’s view. Whenever that comes, he’ll have to win voters on coronavirus, the economy, race relations, immigration and health care. Despite all the doomsday polls, Republicans remain incredibly loyal to and enthusiastic for Trump. A recent Axios analysis of 17 weeks of polling sussed out this simple reality: Republicans do what the president says. From mask-wearing to nicknaming, Trump speaks and the party follows. This is true of most presidents and parties in power, and it’s no different for Trump.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t frustration. Republican strategists have largely blamed the last week of infighting on a new reality: that many elected Republicans are now game-planning for a post-Trump world.

“The Republicans have figured out that Trump is not going to bulls--- his way out of this crisis and he’s not going to be able to change the subject,” Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist, told NBC News. “Not only is he going to lose by hundreds of electoral votes, they’re going to lose, they will lose seats in the House, they could possibly lose the Senate.”

As a result, Tyler argues, Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) — one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress — are more willing to buck Trump publicly, push back on his criticisms of health experts and hope voters can distinguish between her and Trump come November. But the response to Cheney was telling, too: a band of Trump loyalists bashed her publicly and called for her to be removed from her leadership position. Tyler speculated those Trump loyalists are banking on a Trump victory and expecting to be rewarded post-November.

“Ideology is running square into the reality of the political crisis,” Tyler said. “We’re stuck in a deep recession that’s not coming back before November. The virus is not going away by November. The economy is not coming back by November.”

My take.

In 2016, leading up to the election, a new video was released of Donald Trump. Dubbed the “Access Hollywood” tape, the hot mic, candid moment caught Trump describing his attempt and failure to “move on” a married woman. “I did try and f— her,” he said, then elaborating on his tactics. “I just start kissing them. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the p—y.”

The tape was like a nuclear bomb going off on an election. Every headline on every news website covered it. It was on every TV channel. Trump was cooked — the election was over, there was no way he’d survive.

Then, hours later, WikiLeaks released a batch of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign. The emails showed intra-campaign communications where staffers discussed friendly reporters they could pitch stories to. They contained a 12-page memo where a longtime aide to Bill Clinton discussed using his consulting firm to raise money for the Clinton Global Initiative — and line Clinton’s pockets. One email showed John Podesta, the campaign manager, criticizing Hillary’s “terrible instincts,” a major revelation and escalation of the infighting on Clinton’s team.

Then, before the end of the night, the Obama administration formally accused Russia of hacking the DNC emails.

This all happened in one single day that was one month — 31 days —before the election. We were still weeks away from FBI Director James Comey announcing the reopening of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s other emails, the ones from her time in the State Department. That announcement is something many Clinton staffers still blame for her loss.

In other words: this is far from over, and we have no idea what is coming. What is clear, though, is that if the election were held today Trump would lose — and perhaps in historic fashion. His approval rating on the handling of coronavirus is awful, with 68% of Americans disapproving. A vaccine is still months away, if not years, and the virus is still spreading. The economy is likely to stay the same or get worse between now and November. On race relations and policing, public opinion is swaying away from the president and toward the left.

Still, though, it’s hard to count Trump out. He doesn’t need public support to win, he just needs victories in a handful of swing states that matter. All of them are still on the table for his taking. State polling in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania all showed Trump losing in 2016, and those polls were wrong. They could be off again — by just enough that voter enthusiasm or rejected ballots or a third-party candidate could hand Trump victories.

I think the election, right now, is more decided than people think (the left is traumatized by 2016). But I think there’s far more room for things to change than people think, too. Joe Biden’s public performances in the primary left my mouth agape quite a few times — and not because he was a beautiful orator. The forthcoming debates will be the most-watched in U.S. history. That public scrutiny could crush a candidate trying to convince people he has the capacity to turn so many crises around. And there’s plenty of time for Biden to detonate his own campaign.

Your questions, answered.

Asking a question is easy. All you have to do to reach me is reply to this email and write in. I answer a reader question in almost every newsletter. Give it a try!

Q: Can you explain the QAnon conspiracy theory and why it’s being talked about on Fox News? It genuinely seems nuts and I can’t figure out if there’s some kind of thread of truth in it or not. But it’s also just hard to understand.

— Tim, San Diego, CA

Tangle: I actually answered a similar question from David in Pittsburgh back in January, but Tangle has grown so much since then — and the QAnon conspiracy has also become more popular along the way. So I think this is worth revisiting. This weekend also took things to a whole new level when Eric Trump seemingly endorsed the conspiracy theory on Fox News, while host Jesse Watters gave a tacit defense of QAnon conspiracies.

Here is what I wrote in January, which still holds today: The crux of the QAnon conspiracy theory is that a global cabal of elites, embedded in the Democratic party, Hollywood, intelligence agencies and global leadership positions across the planet are responsible for every bad thing that happens. But there is a particular and prominent focus on the sexual exploitation of children. QAnon believers think that high-profile liberal politicians and many of your favorite actors and actresses are running a giant, complex, insidious child sex ring that spans the globe. They’re also all Satanists (especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama).

As the conspiracy theory goes, the military courted President Trump to run for office and destroy this cabal and he is sitting on thousands of sealed indictments that will be released at some point during his presidency. Many QAnon believers think Trump will have Obama, Clinton and others executed at Guantanamo Bay before he leaves office, all for their horrid crimes against children.

The focus of the conspiracy, and the meat of it, is an anonymous online personality known as “Q.” For years, Q has been making “predictions” about forthcoming events in the political world, and also connecting the dots between things Trump says and what he or she claims are signals to the Q believers. The conspiracy is called QAnon because Q is anonymous. My favorite example of one such signal that Q claimed Trump was giving the QAnon movement was when the president did a hand motion during a speech that Q claimed was Trump “drawing a Q” in the air as a secret signal.

There are a few good ways to spot QAnon conspiracy theorists. One is they often respond to things that have become part of their conspiracy by saying “Q sent me.” Another is the hashtag #WWG1WGA, which stands for "WHERE WE GO ONE WE GO ALL.”

There are some fantastic reporters who cover conspiracy theories and the internet dystopia space, like NBC’s Ben Collins, and many of them have been reporting on QAnon for years. Perhaps the most famous QAnon contribution to society was the “PizzaGate” conspiracy, which posited that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a popular Washington D.C. pizza parlor. The conspiracy got so out of control that one man drove from North Carolina to Washington D.C., entered the pizza place and discharged his weapon into the ceiling while demanding answers from the owner.

Of course, no such ring was ever uncovered and after that man’s arrest the pizza conspiracy largely dissipated. But its non-existence did not dissuade Q’s followers. Now, many of them act as their own independent Q “researchers,” following the anonymous poster’s theories and then doing their own “digging.” Or, in other words, connecting a bunch of non-existent dots via Wikipedia and YouTube.

In the interest of thorough reporting, I’ve actually delved into this conspiracy theory myself. A few months ago, I took screenshots of several QAnon predictions from “The Kate Awakening,” a prominent online account with over 150,000 followers. Then I set a reminder to check her predictions 2-3 months later and see if they had panned out, doing my best to keep an open mind.

Among Kate Awakening’s claims were that “mass arrests” were coming in early April, which is why Trump restricted travel due to COVID-19. She specified that “POTUS said everything with CV [coronavirus] will be over in April.” She said the public would be informed in April that COVID-19 was made up and used as cover for Trump to arrest all the pedophiles. She also explained that Trump would be airborne on Air Force One (the president’s plane) when the arrests happened. And she insisted that Trump and Jeff Sessions were actually on the same side and pretending to be angry at each other.

In other words: nothing she said came (or was) true. None of it was remotely close to being true. No arrests happened, COVID-19 isn’t over, the public was informed of nothing, 140,000 Americans have died of coronavirus and Jeff Sessions lost his Alabama senate race in embarrassing fashion — thanks largely to Trump repeatedly endorsing his opponent and phone banking against Sessions.

When I posted these updates on her predictions, The Kate Awakening blocked me. Her hundreds of thousands of followers continue to share her predictions as I type this.

Of course, none of Q’s predictions have come true either. Trump and his administration have not done anything remarkable at all in the fight against pedophilia or sex trafficking, though they are battling it with the same vigor any administration would. There have been no mass arrests, no Democrats rounded up for sex trafficking, no secrets uncovered, no Satanism unveiled.

What’s frightening, though, is what QAnon has done since Trump took office. The group’s leaders and Twittervalengelists have stirred up enough hate, fear, suspicion and conspiracy to lead to two murders, two child abductions, one terrorist incident, one incident of church vandalism and one incident of restaurant arson, among other things. That’s why, last week, a group of QAnon Twitter accounts were banned from the platform — which only elevated the conspiracy’s profile.

Then, of course, Fox News decided to frame the QAnon bans as restrictions of free speech from liberals in San Francisco. I write critically about Fox News (and CNN and MSNBC) a lot, and it’s no secret I think the network contributes to the horrible state of partisan affairs in our country right now. They specialize in fear and misleading news segments. But what they did this weekend was another level of irresponsible. They gave QAnon some sympathetic coverage.

Jesse Watters acknowledged that “Q can do some crazy stuff” but then claimed “they’ve also uncovered a lot of great stuff when it comes to Epstein and when it comes to the deep state.” Note: they have not. Q’s followers have used real reporting from real journalists on Epstein and other alleged child sex traffickers to create alternative realities where Democratic politicians were in control of those sex rings.

Then Watters asked Eric Trump if this was “election interference” by Twitter.

Trump responded by saying that Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell and Jerrold Nadler (three elected Democratic Congressman) also “do some crazy things,” seemingly drawing a comparison between elected Democrats and QAnon. It’s tough to overstate how insane and significant this exchange was, but its damage will be impossible to calculate.

Not only is a mainstream conservative television network watched by millions of people trying to legitimize an internet conspiracy cult that thinks Democrats and Hollywood are running a huge child sex ring, they’re bringing on the president’s son to roll around in that crap. The QAnon folks, predictably, went wild over this — understanding their worldview and name recognition just received a shot of steroids. Watters later backtracked with a statement online, but has not addressed it on television — where most of his viewers consume his content.

"While discussing the double standard of Big Tech censorship, I mentioned the conspiracy group QAnon, which I don’t support or believe in,” he said in a statement. “My comments should not be mistaken for giving credence to this fringe platform."

All of this, I’ll add, is why banning groups like QAnon from platforms like Twitter is so dangerous and counterproductive. Not only did it have the opposite of the intended effect of reducing their platform’s credibility, it gave them a tale of victimization to tell themselves and the world that will fall on many receptive ears.

So, who is QAnon? It’s a group of gullible, angry people who have attached themselves to an anonymous person called Q who makes repeated, inaccurate and absurd claims about Trump being a gift from above, come to destroy a pedophile ring that spans every left-leaning corner of the world. The movement has become so popular that there are around a dozen Republicans now running for (and some winning) elections across the country while endorsing QAnon. I’m not sure where this goes from here, but it’s not pretty — and it was a grave mistake for Fox News to platform the movement further.

A story that matters.

President Donald Trump is right that children appear to be less at risk of contracting coronavirus and suffering from any serious illness related to it. Now, an epidemiologist from the British government’s pandemic advisory committee says there is not a single recorded case worldwide of a teacher getting coronavirus from a student. But the success of Europe, New Zealand, Australia in keeping schools safe is largely attributed to three things: 1) The virus is under control in those countries, with daily deaths in the single digits. 2) There are social safety nets providing universal health care and robust funding for public schools to adapt to a new kind of learning. 3) Teachers’ unions have been actively involved in reopening plans. None of those three things exist in most American states right now. That’s left epidemiologists (and Tangle) flummoxed about what to do when it comes to reopening schools. Click.


  • 40 million. The number of Americans whose student loan debt forgiveness will expire in September unless Congress extends it.
  • 33%. The percentage of museums who are not confident they would be able to survive 16 months without additional financial relief.
  • 15.1 million. The number of social media interactions for Joe Biden in the week ending on July 19, measured on Facebook and 300,000 influential Twitter accounts.
  • 89.7 million. The number of social media interactions for Donald Trump in the week ending on July 19, measured on Facebook and 300,000 influential Twitter accounts.
  • 74%. The percentage of Americans who believe most other Americans are behaving in ways that are making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.
  • 44%. The percentage of Americans who have visited friends or relatives in the last week.
  • 48%. The percentage of Americans who approve of the way their city or local government is handling the Coronavirus outbreak, the highest approval of any institution polled.
  • 15%. The percentage of Americans who approve of the way leaders in Congress are handling the Coronavirus outbreak, the lowest approval of any institution polled.

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Have a nice day.

Like many Americans, Shetara Sims is down on her luck these days. The single mom lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic and was down to her last $7 when she was grocery shopping. On her way out of the store, Sims says she found a dollar bill in the parking lot. She used it to buy a lottery ticket and won $100. But instead of stashing the money away, Sims’ daughter suggested donating it to a local Kansas City Police officer’s family after he was wounded in the line of duty. Shetara wanted to say thanks because the KCPD had taken care of her family in 2012 after her oldest daughter was murdered. She made the donation anonymously but explained to someone at the station why she was giving over the money. Members of the KCPD were so moved they tracked her down, then started a GoFundMe for her and her surviving daughter. As of this writing, it’s raised over $147,000 — or 1,470 times the original $100 she won. Click.

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