Feb 9, 2022

The Olympics begin.

The Olympics begin.

Plus, a question about Trump and fascism.


Today's read: 11 minutes.

We're covering the Olympics. Plus, a reader question about Trump and fascism.

File:Putin attended the opening ceremony of 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics (2).jpg
Photo: Wikicommons / Presidential Executive Office of Russia

New podcast.

Every day, we publish readings over our newsletter on our podcast page. But about once a week, we also publish new interviews with interesting people in the political space. This week, I sat down with Brad Polumbo, the co-founder of a new conservative news website called BASED Politics. Brad and his team set up a non-profit news organization with a transparent ethics page and are aiming to add a more libertarian, ideological media outlet to the conservative news space. We had what I thought was a fascinating conversation about why he started this, how he wants to see conservatives course-correct, and what his plans are to win over younger Americans on right-wing values. You can listen by clicking here.


Quick hits.

  1. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leaders are drafting legislation that would ban members of Congress from trading stocks. (The ban)
  2. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized the Republican National Committee for censuring Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. (The criticism)
  3. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) has accused the Capitol Police of running an undercover investigation in his office. The Capitol Police have denied the charge, saying they took a photo of his office when they noticed the door was ajar, per policy. (The accusations)
  4. The Justice Department says it seized more than $3.6 billion of Bitcoin that was stolen during a 2016 hack. (The seizure)
  5. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul will announce an end to the state’s indoor mask and proof of vaccination mandates for businesses. (The decision)

Today's topic.

The Olympics. The 2022 Winter Olympics began in Beijing, China, last week with opening ceremonies on Friday. In early December, we covered Biden's announcement of a diplomatic boycott — meaning the U.S. won't be sending the president or any other official U.S. government delegation. The move is designed as a protest against China's ongoing human rights abuses, and is a notable snub given the Chinese government’s hopes to use the Olympics to enhance its public standing. But the boycott by officials did not affect the ability of any U.S. athletes to participate in the games.

Around the time of the U.S. boycott, the Women's Tennis Association also suspended all tournaments in China, citing the treatment of Peng Shuai, a tennis player who had accused China's former vice premier of sexual assault and was not seen publicly for weeks afterward (Shuai has since recanted her claims, though many question whether she was forced into that public stance).

After the U.S. announced its boycott, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Lithuania, Denmark, and Estonia followed suit. While more Americans say they approve (46%) than disapprove (22%) of the boycott, another 45% say they have heard "nothing at all" about it. Since the Olympics began, viewership has been anemic, on-track to be the lowest-rated winter Olympics in American television history.

As the Olympics approached and no other action had been taken, commentary about what the U.S. should do and how athletes should approach the Olympics has been widespread.

While this hasn't been a particularly divisive story here in the U.S., it's one Tangle has been covering since we first interviewed Minky Worden, the Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, about efforts to get countries to boycott the Olympics. I don't see any reason to create tension where there isn't much, so below we're just going to share an assortment of opinions about the games so far. We'll try to highlight the central arguments in bold.


The opinions.

Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic and professional soccer player, said the world is sliding toward authoritarianism, and so are the Olympics. "What a difference two decades makes," he wrote. "With the 2022 Beijing Olympics underway, no one is making grand promises about the Games jumpstarting democracy in China. Beyond a diplomatic boycott by the U.S. and some allies, and demands for a full boycott that didn’t gain much traction, no major protests are expected, at least not within China itself. Of course, the IOC isn’t alone in being unwilling to take on China. In the years between the two Beijing Olympics, China has become significantly more authoritarian, repressive and powerful. Countries and corporations have financial incentives not to make too much noise.

"But the difference between Beijing 2008 and Beijing 2022 says something else about the modern-day Olympics," he added. "For decades, the Games have been a venue for progressive activism, both against the political practices of the host country and against the IOC. The IOC has long been critiqued as a cabal of elites who have failed to address the cost overruns, environmental damage, forced eviction and police militarization that frequently accompany the Olympics. Instead of responding to the calls for reform, the IOC has in recent years become less responsive, less democratic and more opaque — making more decisions behind closed doors, closing ranks around an unusually powerful leader, fending off allegations that its members engaged in bribery and corruption, and — most recently — turning a blind eye to political repression."

Human rights activist Chen Guangcheng said the Chinese Communist Party is on a "campaign to whitewash its image" and said no democracies should participate in the games. "Plastering over the ever-growing list of human-rights abuses—including the takeover of Hong Kong, the internment of Muslims in Xinjiang, the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai, the Covid coverup and threats to democratic Taiwan—the party wields denial, obfuscation and cash," he wrote. "The latest campaign pushes the absurd claim that China enjoys democratic government at home while deriding as undemocratic the world’s real democracies.

"The Chinese people have never had a free election; the occasional village elections, trotted out for the West to see, are a farce, and the National People’s Congress is made up entirely of the party’s handpicked officials. The subject of democracy has been banned from kindergarten to university classrooms since 2013... The Chinese people live under a lockdown of information. But even Americans are caught in an information vacuum. Foreign journalists in China face intense pressure to speak carefully about the country, and U.S. media outlets often take the regime at its word."

Elana Meyers Taylor, a U.S. Olympic bobsledder, rejected the many criticisms about the games. "Imagine what it feels like to be told that you shouldn’t compete in an event for which you’ve trained for years. Or what it feels like to have your supporters’ generosity attacked. Or to wonder if anyone will be watching when you’re competing," Meyers said. "I understand the concerns about human rights and free expression in China, but I’d offer that the best way I can send a message about that is by competing in the Olympic Games. I’m a mother to a special needs child – a child whose very right to life could have been at risk if he had been born in other countries. To go to Beijing and compete – as an American, a woman, a person of color and as a special needs parent – says more than any boycott could.

"I understand people want us and our backers to speak out about the host city decision. But sponsors and athletes didn’t choose Beijing. Neither of us play a role in who hosts the Games; neither of us are the right objects for anger on that subject. I understand that some feel sponsors have a special responsibility. But these critics miss what sponsors actually do for American athletes," she wrote. "For my family and many others, sponsor support isn’t a bonus or a nice-to-have – it’s a need-to-have. One example: In 2020, sponsor support enabled me to take time to have a child. If you’re a competitive athlete, not competing means not earning prize money – there’s no 'paid parental leave' on the bobsled circuit. Because we saved some of our sponsor funds from the last Olympics, I was able to give birth to my son and take time to recover."

In The New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell asked if the U.S. could be doing more. "Victor Cha, senior vice president and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees that a boycott that extends to competitors 'makes no sense.' At the same time, he believes the diplomatic boycott depoliticizes the Games by preventing government officials from airing their criticisms within China... Collectively, the top 13 corporate Olympic sponsors have contracts with the I.O.C. that add up to more than $1 billion. Activists have pressured these companies to withdraw their support, but so far, none have done so, and only four — Omega, Intel, Airbnb and Procter & Gamble — have responded to requests from The Times for comment.

"In the absence of more robust action from the Olympics’ primary stakeholders, many viewers have been left feeling conflicted about the question of their own complicity."

In The National Review, Jim Geragthy asked if we can watch the Olympics in good conscience. "American athletes’ staying home won’t free one Uyghur or one Hong Kong democracy activist or make a future invasion of Taiwan any less likely. And it’s not American athletes’ fault that the International Olympic Committee chose Beijing — which just hosted the summer games in 2008! — over any cities in non-authoritarian countries. And yet . . . there’s that sinking feeling that if Americans act as if there’s nothing unusual or troubling about these winter games, we will be acquiescing to a lie and accomplices in a great crime.

"Should we watch these games? If we refuse to watch, are we punishing American athletes who are blameless? If we do watch, are we unintentionally consenting to genocide?"

Fareed Zakaria said it's worth comparing this year's Olympics to 2008, the last time China hosted. "Remember the 2008 Beijing Games? China was dazzling the world with its economic prowess and technological sophistication, determined to impress with its soft power. Praise filled the headlines in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States. 'A perfect 10 in Beijing tonight,' opined the Sydney Morning Herald of the Opening Ceremonies. London’s Evening Standard described the event as 'the beginning of China’s new era of greatness, witnessed — and implicitly approved — by much of the leadership of the planet.' And indeed, there was George W. Bush, the first American president to attend an Olympics in a foreign country, telling the press that the Beijing Games 'exceeded my expectations.'

"Those same countries — the United States, Britain and Australia — have all announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games over human rights concerns," Zakaria said. "No major Western head of state is attending. The star of the show will be China’s ever-closer ally and satrap Vladimir Putin. The event itself is taking place without the usual screaming crowds and Olympic cheers. Traveling to China is nearly impossible due to the pandemic, and the government is barring most ordinary people from attending — all of which means that the stadiums and other venues are essentially TV studios, beaming out sports that are being played in front of near-empty arenas."


My take.

Honestly, my position on this has changed over the last few months. When I first interviewed Minky Worden and first wrote about these upcoming games, I was adamant that the U.S. should do more. An athlete boycott felt like a reasonable suggestion, even though I didn't outright support it. I was happy to see the diplomatic boycott, at the very least, because I didn't want to see Biden and other major state leaders chumming it up with President Xi on the global stage.

The opinion piece from Elana Meyers Taylor did move me, though. She made strong points about the commitment from the athletes and the importance of sponsors — noting that they don't just help the host countries, but they also make it possible for Olympic athletes to compete and survive. As she wrote, the organization at the top of the blame pyramid is the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which chooses where to host the games and has now handed the public relations goldmine of the Olympics to China twice in 12 years.

Given Taylor's arguments, what I have been more keenly interested in is how U.S. athletes act. And so far, that has left me wanting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the eyebrow raising step of discouraging athletes from protesting at the opening ceremonies, saying it wasn't worth the risk from a ruthless Chinese government. “I would say to our athletes: You’re there to compete,” she said. “Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government, because they are ruthless.”

Officials, apparently, have warned athletes that they are subject to Chinese law when in Beijing — which means they could be imprisoned for months or years if they speak out about its crimes. The Biden administration, however, broke with Pelosi. “All athletes have the right to freely express themselves, and that is the case in Beijing at the Olympics. It is the case anywhere. They will make those choices as individuals,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “It’s the responsibility of China to live up to its own obligations to maintain a safe environment for all athletes at these Games. The world will be watching. But we leave it up to individuals. We certainly support the right to peaceful protest.”

This, to me, is a much better response. It is probably foolish to think a boycott by athletes would have done anything but punish the athletes. Taylor's argument about the need for sponsors to support the athletes also resonates. And if we're in agreement that a diplomatic boycott like the one the U.S. committed to is the bare minimum, despite doing little besides angering Chinese officials, it leaves the athletes who are there to stand up or us to use the power of our dollar. I certainly want them to stand up, and I certainly want Americans to do their part in tuning out the Olympics.

But the risk is real for the athletes on the ground. I really don't know how China would react. Would they really punish or even imprison U.S. athletes for, say, speaking out about Uyghurs on the podium? With the whole world watching? I have a hard time imagining it, but the only way the protest would work — and the athletes would be insulated — is if it made big enough waves that the whole world really was watching. I haven't sat down for a minute of the Olympics yet, and I'm a sports junkie. The TV ratings reflect the disinterest here in the states and globally, which is bad for both China and the sponsors but also bad for any athletes who want to risk their hides on a protest.

If you go for it and nobody notices except the Chinese government, you're in big trouble.

As I wrote in December, the best outcome in all of this would have been pulling the games from Beijing a year ago. But the IOC didn't do that, so Biden did what he could with a bad hand and the rest of us are left with the moral quandary of how to treat the games knowing everything we know.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


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Your questions, answered.

Q: I am a registered Republican. However, I’m becoming increasingly more concerned that the Trump followers are going to inadvertently usher in a fascist government. I’m seeing rising racist sentiments as well as book burnings and bannings across the country. Is this a legitimate concern or am I worried over nothing?

— Anonymous, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Frankly, I think it is absurd. The invocation of fascism is one of those things that makes me exceedingly annoyed and frustrated — it's the kind of political language and sensationalism that makes me distrustful of the media and reminds me how historically illiterate some of our political commentators are (or how willing they are to distort history to make a splashy point).

To be clear: I don't blame you. And I am also, obviously, deeply concerned about censorship and government bans on the left and the right. There have been hundreds of headlines and shows and podcasts about how Trump is a fascist and that fascism is coming. Even worse, there are the endless comparisons between Trump and Hitler.

Trump's worldview is the complete opposite of fascists from history like Hitler. Merriam-Webster’s definition of fascism is useful: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Hitler and Trump both promised to restore the past greatness of their nations and both framed the world in terms of a chaotic anarchy — the idea of law and order was necessary to keep humans civilized. They both lied and spread propaganda. But all of this is true of all sorts of non-fascist world leaders.

Hitler believed that total state control was the way to restore order. He believed self-interest was deleterious and that individuals in society needed to be bonded by a common worldview and belief system and history, hence the need to exterminate inferior people like the Jews. The state’s job was not to provide a thriving economy and facilitate freedom, it was to help the German race dominate.

Trump's worldview is, quite literally, the total opposite: Self-interest and individual liberty are how people thrive both personally and as part of the larger state. Who is more overtly self-interested than Trump? He is the model of that archetype, and has been since long before he took office. The unabashed capitalist and businessman. The state’s job, in Trump’s eyes, is to allow the economy to prosper and facilitate freedom. He does not want a “centralized autocratic government” with “severe economic and social regimentation,” he wanted to tear those things down. That's Trumpism.

This is why so many historians criticize the comparisons (at least the ones who haven't been swept up in partisan anti-Trump fever). The central ideologies are totally different. That’s not to say there aren’t fascists who support Trump and want an ethnostate — they exist, of course. But I don’t think that is the future of the Republican party. In fact, I think the obsession over who is a fascist is actually dangerous because it both distracts us from what is really dangerous about Trumpism and leaves us asking for more state power and censorship to stop it — the very way actual fascism is created. So yes, there are plenty of reasons to worry. Some fundamental things about Trumpism — the inclination to silence dissent, attack the press, speak in starkly divisive terms about the country, insist elections were stolen — are a threat to liberal democracy. But I don't think you have to worry about a former president somehow ushering in fascism.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

The dam is breaking on Covid-19 mandates. Yesterday, we wrote about how Americans were divided on the path forward with Covid-19. But politicians seem to be making up their minds: Leaders in blue states across the country are announcing an end to various measures, including indoor mask mandates and mask mandates at school. While Covid-19 deaths are still at their peak in this wave, infections are falling rapidly and a growing body of evidence suggests vaccines and natural immunity combined will protect people from serious infections in the future. Restrictions in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, California, Connecticut, Delaware and even Boston seem to be on their way out. The New York Times has the story.


Numbers.

  • 2,874. The number of athletes participating in the Olympics.
  • 91. The number of nations represented at the Olympics.
  • 224. The number of U.S. athletes at the Olympics, the most of any country.
  • $4 billion. The estimated budget of the entire Winter Olympics.
  • 1. The number of gold medals won by the U.S. so far.


Have a nice day.

European scientists say they have made a major breakthrough on their quest to develop nuclear fusion, the energy process that powers the stars. The UK-based JET lab says it smashed its own world record for how much energy it can extract by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen. "If nuclear fusion can be successfully recreated on Earth it holds out the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy," the BBC reports. "Operating the power plants of the future based on fusion would produce no greenhouse gasses and only very small amounts of short-lived radioactive waste."


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