Calling It: Brian Rosenwald

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S1: Following program may contain language that is explicit and by explicit, I mean implicitly naughty words and.

S2: It’s Wednesday, October 21st, 2020, from Slate’s The Gist, I’m Mike Pesca. Day three of our calling it coverage of the coverage that could cover us in sludge. The ideas that Republicans could look strong on Election Day, regular snack foods and balloting could transmogrify from not so cute Meems in tow, not at all benign cultural myths.

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S1: We’ll be talking with an historian and monitor of right wing talking points today to know the arguments that might be coming down the pike. We need to be on guard and to be informed. And the informed part is what I would like to talk about right here. So in 2016, I was very taken with the polls and the prognostications based on the polls. I always tried to reflect the consensus of the best forecasts, a likely but not certainly Hillary Clinton win on the show. I would always say she has a two thirds to 75 percent chance of winning. I even liken those chances to a baseball team making a comeback down to in the fifth or down one in the seventh, whatever the appropriate baseball odds were. I don’t know if any of that context prepared you or me for Hillary Clinton actually losing. Now, I think it might be because let’s say the Rays beat the Dodgers. What would that mean? It would mean that the rays of the World Series champions. But when Trump beats Clinton or if Trump beats Biden, what that means is that Trump is the president of the United States. So the lack of preparation for the eventuality might have a lot to do with the difference between Mookie Betts being sad and a cleptocracy being given the green light. So this year, much less invested in what the polls say, oh, I seek out 538 or really it seeks me out. After you’ve signed up for a newsletter or subscribe to a podcast, there is no way not to know. But knowing that Biden has an 86, 47, seven or 88 percent chance of winning, which is like the home team down to runner on first and third bottom of the seventh, it’s really not that meaningful.

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S3: Part of it is that the polls are consistent. Part of it is that there is no difference practically in a single occurrence event being 87 percent right or 87 percent wrong. I mean, 87 percent can be the perfect spot on number that would tell you if this election will run 40000 times, Donald Trump would lose eighty seven percent of the times. But if you’re living in the 13 percent, then who knows or cares if the eighty seven percent was right? Here’s the big thing I’m looking at.

S4: It’s not polls which hint that the intention of voters, it’s state laws that definitively tell you about the accommodation of voters, state laws and how the vote is going in seven to 10 key states, or if you want to get granular in districts in Maine and Nebraska, too, in some of those states, the vote is close, but the vote is respected. Arizona could be a squeaker, but officials in Arizona, which have been doing mail in balloting for a long time, should actually be able to accurately determine the nature of the squeak itself. Pennsylvania, however, is close but cacophonous, same as North Carolina and Wisconsin. They could be very disorganized. There are court battles being fought regularly, and Republican state supreme courts are regularly ruling against easy voting. It is the news from these states that I’ve been monitoring more than polls which don’t change and don’t mean much. A poll could accurately tell you that Joe Biden is ahead by five. And then if Joe Biden’s vote is suppressed or thrown out by six, what does it matter? I was thinking of this analogy. Let’s say I was planning a destination wedding and I was very intent on knowing how the weather will be. It’s very important. Will it rain? Will it shine? I’m looking at charts. I’m looking at weather statistics. I want to know if I’m going to use the tent. But all along I’ve been ignoring the conditions away from the destination itself, the conditions in the far flung cities where the guests actually live. So I could be saying good news, everyone. The forecast is bright skies down here in paradise. Oh, yeah.

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S3: Well, you better check on the summer storm over Bucks County, Pennsylvania, or the hurricane threatening the East Coast to resources I have been checking with. Well, first, I’ve been reading the Lawfare project where they partnered with Stanford and the MIT Healthy Elections Project to produce a series on election integrity that kind of lays the groundwork that was written a couple months ago. And then every day I go to the elections project at GitHub and it tells me the votes in all the states and it offers some historical comparison and it breaks down by county, which I don’t need. But it’s good to know it’s all there now, of course. Let’s go back to our analogy. The weather could be bright at the destination and also in Cleveland, it’s just that the caterers went on strike or a rival nine piece orchestra gave our wedding band disinformation. That could happen. And that is why we should all stay tuned. Today in the spiel, I talk about the worst Republican surrogates, and I also single out one who is less worse than the others. Who is that one? Well, let’s just say we’ll close that bridge when we come to him. But first, Brian Rosenwald teaches politics and communication at University of Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Talk Radio’s America How an Industry Took Over a Political Party that Took Over the United States. And as someone who monitors right wing thought and talking points on the airwaves and online, Brian makes for a very useful resource.

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S5: He is here to tell you what you might be hearing on election night, things that seem compelling, things that are widespread, yet things that are not, you know, true. Brian Rosenwald up next.

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S3: So during our special segments that we’re calling, call it, we’ve been talking about the question, what if election night turns into election nights or a fortnight? But now we turn to what the exact arguments might be, as put forth by the forces of disinformation beyond refusing to honor election results if they don’t go his way. President Trump has been fairly scattered in making his case about why he won’t stick with the results. Something something million ballots and a river and a ditch in a West Virginia postal carrier selling ballots. Unclear how an entrepreneurial mail carrier in a state he will definitely win changes anything. So to give you a guide as to what may happen and what might be said on election night, I’m joined by Brian Rosenwald, who teaches politics and communication at University of Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Talk Radio’s America How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States. Thanks for joining me, Brian. It’s always great to be with you, Mike. So we’ve heard about the idea of the Red Mirage and the Red Mirage is kind of maybe, depending on how you look at it, scary or fanciful way of talking about the results on election night. If they hinge mostly on actual in-person voters, may tend to favor Republicans, red states, red voters because they vote in person. OK, that might happen. But what will Republicans say then to cement that as the real and true final result of the election?

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S6: Well, what they’re going to say, first of all, is they’re going to point to those numbers and say, look, we’re ahead and now they’re going to take two weeks and slowly they’re gaining and gaining and gaining. We saw it in twenty eighteen with Rick Scott in Florida where nothing untoward happened. In fact, Scott ended up winning. But as Broward County counted mail ballots and we all know about their history of counting these ballots come in, his lead is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. And he’s acting like there’s something awful and nefarious. There’s some plot that’s going on and they’re going to do this everywhere and they’re going to take advantage of that one story that somebody finds about a West Virginia postman or something else where there was like one instance of single vote fraud, like one ballot somewhere in America. And they’re going to say, look, this is all over. This is what they’re doing. They’re stealing votes, they’re making a results up. And they’re going to try to get people to think that there’s something wrong because we don’t have results, that anything that comes in after Election Day is somehow tainted, that that’s going to be the big argument.

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S3: So what are they doing now to show this? I mean, we’ve heard what Donald Trump has said, highlighting an instance of a ballot found in a river or a creek or a ditch keeps changing or a ballot thrown in a trash can. What else are the talking points or the examples that are being cited even right now?

S6: Well, I mean, one example was out of Scranton, one of the suburban or ring counties in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where from everything that anybody heard and has reported, it was essentially somebody made a mistake. They got like nine military ballots and they thought there were applications for absentee ballots, in which case the like, the envelopes weren’t meaningful and they threw them out by accident. And they caught this mistake and they reported it to the proper authorities. There’s no evidence that anything was was bad and anything bad happened. But, God, it’s gotten emphasized this story and other stories like it, where anything that could go wrong that they point to and they say, look, this is what’s happening, or they talk they’ve talked very much about extending receiving deadlines, which is to say the ballot is postmarked by Election Day. And we’ve got courts in some states have said, OK, if you’ve got it postmarked by Election Day, it should count if it gets there two or three days later. And so people on the right have painted that is something sinister, something dangerous, you know. Well, they’re letting people vote after Election Day when in reality, no, they’re letting people postmark things, i.e., you’ve taken it, you’ve dropped it off. The ballot is done before Election Day is over. But recognizing that if the mail is backed up, you know, you could mail a week before Election Day and it doesn’t get there by 5:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. on election night. So they’re using a lot of these talking points and they’re using American’s reliance on the idea that we’re going to have a result on election night, that this is something that traditionally we have a result and people are used to that. And so they’re going to try to take advantage of that.

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S7: If the election is close, does this all fall apart if even the result on the election night doesn’t show Republicans in a lead and fairly big lead at that?

S6: Yes, I think that if it’s a big Joe Biden win, this all falls apart. I also think it falls apart if Biden is winning. Texas or Florida at the end of election night, to me, those are the two key states, Texas, because they have less mail balloting, and so we’re more likely to get a complete or relatively complete count on election night. And it’s obviously a state that Trump has to win. So if he’s losing that on election night, it becomes really hard to say that somebody’s screwing him or that that the whole thing is fake. And Florida, because we know that Biden is likely to do better in whatever is counted after Election Day. So if he’s up at the end of election night, he’s almost certainly going to win Florida. And again, it’s a big state that leans Republican. And if he’s Bidens when winning in places like that, then we know he’s probably winning a lot of other places. It’s going to be a fairly big win and it becomes really hard to string this out and act like, you know, this has been stolen or this is not legitimate. Trump may still try because God knows he’s not deterred by reason or logic, but it’ll just mostly be him rage tweeting into the abyss, as opposed to there being a real concerted effort to say, well, there’s something bad going on here.

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S7: What if he makes the claims he makes and his people repeat those claims? And maybe friendly media also gives them voice. But what if the state officials in the states we’re talking about don’t play along? Can that be a bulwark?

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S6: Well, I think it is. I mean, I think we saw this in twenty eighteen. You had a lot of Republicans complaining the way Arizona is one of those states that’s mostly mail in ballots and has been for a while.

S8: And on election night in twenty eighteen, Martha McSally, who was the Republican candidate for Senate and she’s now an appointed senator on the ballot again, but she was ahead on election night and then she slowly started losing ground as they start counting. There’s only like eight counties in Arizona or something like that. And Maricopa County is Phoenix and it’s a massive county. And as they start counting mail ballots there, she started seeing her lead get cut and cut and cut and it progressively led to the Democrat winning. And as there, you have all these voices on the right screaming about something bad happening and they’re stealing it. The Republican governor, Doug Ducey, was saying, no, no, this is what we do. There’s nothing wrong with this. This is totally legitimate. And I think if it’s Republican elected officials, you could definitely, you know, they could kind of pop the bubble on this and calm things down. There’s no guarantee that they’ll do that. But for some of them, especially if it looks like Trump is going to lose big, then you start thinking about your own reputation, your own future. And it may not make sense to hit yourself to a conspiracy theory.

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S7: Yeah, 15 counties in Arizona, by the way, I always forget Heela, Santacruz, Graham, La Paz and Greenley, just for the record. So I watch some fox and listen to some talk radio. And I know you do too, or did for your book, but occasionally check in. Do you get the sense and they are doing to some degree an expansion of the president’s talking points? Oh, you can’t trust mail in ballots, but do you get the sense to some degree that this is, you know, programming for them within the next few weeks? But when push comes to shove and democracy might come to armed insurrection, they might pull back? I don’t know if all of them will. I don’t expect Mark Levin to. But, you know, maybe Glenn Beck will.

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S6: Well, I think that I would differentiate between talk radio and FOX. I think that Fox executives at least have a broader business to to worry about and at least have to try to pretend that they’ve got a news network. And one thing that they can do is they minimize the airtime for some of the opinion.

S8: People put more of their news, people on who, while they lean right and how they frame things and stuff, you know, are not going to spread wild conspiracy theories. You’re just not going to hear that from Bret there. So I think Fox might be a little bit different than, say, Ohan or Newsmax, the other conservative cable networks, but they don’t have.

S7: I know that social media can amplify those voices, but they don’t have the reach of Fox. But then again, Rush Limbaugh has for his show more listeners than Fox has on an average, our viewers.

S8: That’s absolutely right. And Rush Limbaugh is the big kind of wild card here. I think, you know, he he’s never been adverse to a good conspiracy theory. He often will pass it along very slyly. He’ll say, you know, I’ve read this in this, you know, site or someone sent me this. You know, it’s never I’m telling you this is a fact, because then when the media gets all upset, he has some degree of plausible deniability. Say, I never said that. And if you look, he never actually said that. He just shared some information. But, you know, he he certainly he said to a caller a few weeks ago who was talking about, you know, red states and blue states splitting off and needing some sort of plan B, he was like, no, there is no Plan B, we’re not going to lose. Don’t talk like that. I don’t want to hear that. So. He sort of all in on Trump, and you have to worry about people like Rush and Hannity, but again, these guys are not idiots. If it’s you know, we’ve had polls showing Biden up by double digits. If if Biden is over like 55 percent of the popular vote here, if this is a blowout, it becomes hard for even Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity to do this. And they’re probably not going to waste their credibility on that kind of scenario. But if it’s really close and a lot of places, yeah, they’re going to report every single newspaper instance of something that when you actually dig into it and unravel, it really wasn’t anything. So if it’s close, these voices are not particularly worried about is it factual? You know, could this scare people into doing bad things? They’re just they don’t care. As you said, Mark Levin is not known for being reasonable or rational.

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S4: So from your work as an observer, as an analyst of how far the different various factions on the right, because that’s when you study want to take the idea of doubt, I sense that there are some forces, you know, people who work in politics or sites like the Gateway Pundit or probably something like on CNN that don’t care and they take it forever. I wonder about certain aspects of talk radio. And then there are other right wing talk radio hosts who maybe are more showmen than let’s, you know, wave the bloody shirt. So the question comes down to, is the doubt for most of these forces, if you look at the conservative coalition who might try to force the issue, is the doubt for them a lever to achieve some political goal? Or is the doubt in itself the goal? They love the doubt. They want to nurse the doubt, its programming, its grievance, the opportunity to sell some more gold coins. What do you think?

S9: I think you’re 100 percent right in drawing these distinctions. I think that you’ve got a far right. You’ve got a crazy far right, you know, white supremacy groups and other such things who are trying to stoke civil war. They’re trying to stoke insurrection. These are the people who are absolutely insane, the racist. They are dangerous. We really ought to just classify them as terrorists. And you’ve got other people on the right and you’ve got conspiracy theory. People within the media, like Alex Jones, for example, who are often like their own sphere where he’s looking to sell survival. You know, the Alex Jones survival kit for seventy nine ninety nine or something. Yeah. Where three payments of seventy nine. Ninety nine. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. You got your vitamins and whatever in there where it’s all kind of a grift to some extent where they’re trying to make money. And then you’ve got the more mainstream conservative media, the stuff that, that goes back to Rush Limbaugh that I’ve written about extensively. And these are folks who they’re Republicans, they’re conservative. But the showmen, their number one goal is to get people to tune in so that they can charge, in Russia’s words, confiscatory advertising rates. So they like doubt and chaos, because if you don’t trust the mainstream media and you have doubt and chaos, you’ve got to tune in every day. And there’s a limit to how far they’ll go because, you know, if you’re a company, you don’t want to advertise on someone who seems insane because then you get a boycott against your company. So it’s worth remembering that these guys are at the end of the day, most of the more mainstream conservative media are running a business and they’re going to do whatever they think is good for business. And if that means at some point cutting Donald Trump off. Yeah. And then they might do that if that means sowing doubt and chaos, because it’s going to mean boffo ratings for two months, they might do that. But they also realize, you know, the best era for Rush Limbaugh was the Clinton presidency. So they also understand that having a foil in the White House is often a good thing. So, you know, I wouldn’t I wouldn’t group conservative media all together on this, especially over the last ten years. It’s fragmented more and more, and there is pressure on even the most mainstream guys to go further and further to the right and sound nuttier and nuttier because they got to they don’t want to get outflanked. I think John Boehner was the one who said in an interview after he retired as speaker, he said, you know, I used to talk to Rush all the time. And Hannity I used to play golf with them. I had good relationships. And then this Levin guy comes along and now they’ve gone nuts. And it being John Boehner, he used several profanities in explaining that. And there’s a guy should have a show. But you get this kind of thing where there is this pressure, you know, not to try to calm the waters. But there are some voices like, for example, Ben Shapiro, who’s maybe the biggest young voice in conservative media. Do I think that if it’s clear or reasonably clear that Trump has lost, it’s not going to sow doubt? He’s going to say, look, folks, I told you that the problem here was Donald Trump, the problems, our message problems, not the coalition. It was just him. We just need a new messenger. Let it go. We’ll get somebody better. And then you will you will have your voices that say they’re showing conspiracies and doubt, you know, the levene’s of the world. The one thing that I would add is that we had a Pew poll earlier in the month about covid-19, and it shows how much of an impact these guys have among Republicans or lean Republican people in this poll. The question was the U.S. has control the outbreak as much as it could have those who only go to Fox News or talk radio for their news. Ninety percent of them said the U.S. has controlled the outbreak as much as it could have. Nine percent said no. Those that listen to FOX and talk radio and other sources, 62 percent said that the U.S. had controlled the outbreak as much as it could have, 35 percent said no. And those Republicans, this is just Republicans are Republican leaners who consume no FOX News, no talk radio, only other sources. Only 46 percent of them said the U.S. had done as well as they could do. 53 percent said no. So so you see that this stuff has a big impact. If you’re stuck in this bubble of fox, of talk radio, of end of Newsmax, you are seeing things from a very different way. And so we should always be paying attention to if these guys go down this path of like, hey, this election is not legitimate. We have to care. We have to pay attention because there’s a lot of people who are taking it as the gospel.

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S7: Brian Rosenwald is a political and media historian. He teaches at Penn, where he’s a fellow.

S5: And his latest big book is Talk Radio’s America How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States. Brian, thanks so much. Mike, it’s always great talking with you because Friday will be debate analysis on the just tomorrow is our last day of the calling it series.

S10: And that’s when you’ll hear Dan Rather say, I think we should get ready for a whole different kind of what I would call voting day. We’re accustomed to calling the first Tuesday in November Election Day, indicating it’s going to be the end of the election thing with no winner within, you know, ten, maybe twenty four hours. It’s important to keep in mind this time it’s the climax of the voting period. This is going to be a different kind of what I call voting night.

S3: And now the spiel in the closing days of the campaign, Donald Trump has issued a traditional closing argument for an argument that makes him feel good. He is literally hopscotching the country so he could look out at the throngs of unmasked faces and just bask in their adoration. Don’t believe me. From an Arizona rally Monday.

S11: Thank you. Thank you.

S12: You know, there’s never been that chant before. Certainly we all like Ronald Reagan. I guess it’d be, but he never had that chant. We love you. Thank you. That we love you. You’re going to make me cry. Don’t do that. I don’t want to.

S3: Traditionally, here are a few categories of arguments one may make in a campaign’s waning days. Could emphasize accomplishments. You could warn about threats if not elected. You could urge supporters not to take things for granted. But hitting the hustings for the hugs. It’s a new tactic and one clearly that makes no sense. Trump is campaigning in a way that’s not strategic, but pathetic. And I don’t just mean that as a free floating insult. I mean that literally by the definition of the word pathos, the crowd is his intoxicant. So with a president unable to stick to a cogent riff, it falls to surrogates to make the case they won’t get as much attention, but at least they can be counted upon to deliver a more disciplined message. That is what’s so interesting about this campaign in this presidency. Not only are Trump’s own words not useful to the people, he has to try to convince his surrogates are much worse than that. I’ve never seen his campaign adviser, Jason Miller, utter a sentence that hasn’t been crafted in a way other than to give maximal offense to everyone who is not already firing Cole into the Trump train’s engine. Then there are his children. Don Jr. is best among them. He’s bellicose and defensive. However, Trump’s daughter should have more appeal to the working women she wants cater to as a clothing and accessory designer. But a bank has gone to ground. Yeah, so I said Trump’s daughter, who does have a second one, remember Tiffany? And she apparently is pro-gay. So they dispatched her to speak at a gay Republican for Trump rally in Florida. One thorny issue might be the president’s discriminatory policies against trans people serving in the military. His policy gutting Obama era health care protections for trans people, and even the administration’s recently issued decree turning away trans people from certain homeless shelters based on their appearance. So how is she to make inroads to the LGBTQ community?

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S13: Here’s how he supported gays, lesbians, the LGBTQ ay ay ay plus community.

S3: OK, by omitting the tea rhetorically exactly what her father seeks to do on a policy level, it’s a purposeful. I thought so, but then I listen to the rest of her speech. Her forensic skills might lead you to conclude it is not malevolence, it’s incompetence.

S13: So it’s honestly my my honor and my pride to be standing here speaking to all of you. Well, standing for that to come out of work and, you know, expressing the truth. And, you know, I do understand how it’s hard for people to really, truly say, oh, wait, Republicans aren’t like that. They don’t. You know, I get that the pain because it’s growing up. I grew up in California and now the Calabasas. OK, I know. I know the scene.

S3: Classless Lasse’s of Calabasas aside, the Trump campaign has a deficit of surrogates who can even try to make a case to anyone besides those already installed by his charm. The RNC chair Wrona McDaniel was on this week this week, where she was pressed by host George Stephanopoulos about the president’s quassey at best distancing from Q and on the Q stands for Quassey. Here’s what Wrona McDaniel said.

S14: You know, I knew you were going to ask me that question. I knew it because it’s something the voters are not even thinking about. It’s a fringe group. It’s not part of our party, the vice president said. I dismiss it out of hand. The president said, you know what, I don’t know anything about this group. But of course, you’re going to ask me about that because it has absolutely nothing to do with this election.

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S3: Kuhnen is not some ridiculously irrelevant nonstory in American politics. They’re ridiculous, to be sure. They’re based on lies, but sadly, they’re relevant. Kuhnen supporters have caused crime and mayhem out of their beliefs, numerous terrorist threats possessing bomb materials. There’s one murder charge that’s yet to be adjudicated. One guy derailed a train. Multiple kidnapping charges the FBI calls Kuhnen a potential domestic terror threat. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point describes Kuhnen as a novel challenge to public security. Plus, a majority of Trump supporters believe in their theories that A. Are involved in sex trafficking rings, 50 percent of all Republicans and Trump supporters said, yes, they believe that about Democrats. And there are, of course, several Kuhnen espousing Republican candidates on the ballots. So if some actual Democrats actually did believe that America should impose Sharia law, like Republicans sometimes accuse Democrats of believing and the Democratic nominee was vague and dismissive about jihadis, as vague as Trump is about Kuhnen, then a reporter or a host should ask the head of the DNC about that. And if Tom Perez was indignant, a reasonable person, a reasonable citizen voter should be troubled by that. So the same is true of Ron McDaniel and Kuhnen. I understand that the president puts his surrogates in a bad position, but being in a bad position is what qualified a lot of them to be his surrogates in the first place. Jason Miller was pretty much unemployable anywhere else, decent Republicans who could convince, let’s say, cross pressured voters. They refused to campaign for Trump and Tiffany Trump is I’m going to say she’s someone with five qualifications and they’re all the letters of her last name in that particular order. But there is one surrogate who does a halfway decent job. You might not like him, but this is the sort of reasonable thing a competent surrogate, even for an incompetent candidate would say.

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S15: So, you know, I think the president should be focusing folks on those things at his rallies and his debate on Thursday night, rather than talking about some of the other issues that have been brought up that I would call more grievance issues and those grievance issues. The people are motivated by those issues short. They’re already voting for the president. What we need to do is turn out some people who either won’t vote because they don’t like either candidate at the moment or are still somewhat undecided and persuadable.

S3: Yes, that was Chris Christie. Sometimes Rick Santorum musters something close to helpful to Trump on CNN. But usually Christie is the only one who spends any time not whispering back into the fever swamps. For instance, after Christie was diagnosed with covid and had a real health scare, checked himself into a hospital, he admitted he should have worn a mask. No other Trump surrogate would have dared to say that because the rest aren’t surrogates. They’re supplicants. They have nothing going on outside the man they use every TV appearance to pay fealty to. And when you’re crafting all of your messages entirely for that audience of one, you are necessarily leaving millions of potentially persuadable voters ignored.

S2: And that’s it for Today Show, Daniel Shrader produces the gist, he’d like to note that he’s not against the tools used in the fight against terrorism. In fact, when it comes to the United in strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism, he supports the USA Patriot Act. Margaret Kelly produces the gist. She’s not against the Justice Department’s investigative agency. She’s a big supporter of the FBI. Alicia Montgomery, executive producer of Slate podcasts, big fan of aeronautics. Got nothing against space, really. She’s a supporter of not the largest where next week we’ll speak with Squeaky Fromme about the time she took a shot at Gerald Ford. Sorry, your publicist didn’t say it was off limits room for Adepero.

S3: And thanks for listening.