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Merkel’s party picks another centrist as its leader — and maybe Germany’s future chancellor

CDU Holds Digital Party Congress To Elect New Leader
North Rhine-Westphalia’s State Premier Armin Laschet and newly appointed leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) (L) is congratulated by CDU politician Friedrich Merz following his election at a digital party congress to elect a new leader on January 16, 2021 in Berlin. | Photo by Christian Marquar – Pool/Getty Images

Armin Laschet wins the CDU leadership contest.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has decided to keep its centrist course.

On Saturday, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elected Armin Laschet, the premier of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as the new chair of the party.

Laschet is very much seen as the centrist successor to Merkel, who stepped down as party leader in December 2018 and has said she will not stand for reelection as chancellor. Laschet could be the one to replace her as chancellor, too, when Germany holds elections in September.

“He’s definitely seen as the continuity candidate,” Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said of Laschet, adding that he comes with “bonafide executive experience” as the leader of Germany’s most populous state.

Laschet defeated Friedrich Merz, a much more conservative figure, in a runoff election, 521 to 466, during a party conference that was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Merz is a hardliner who would certainly pull the CDU rightward in an attempt to pull some voters back from Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD. (Another candidate, Norbert Röttgen, a former environment minister, was eliminated in the first round of voting.)

The CDU election offers some — but not much — clarity to Germany’s political future in an uncertain time for both Germany and the world.

Laschet has a very good chance of standing as CDU’s candidate for chancellor in the fall federal elections, but a lot will depend on how the next few months play out, including with upcoming regional elections that will serve as Laschet’s first leadership test. And he will also be closely watched for how he steers his party through the current surge in Covid-19 and the vaccination campaign.

Merkel’s exit has been long-planned, but it is happening in a particularly tumultuous time: Amid the pandemic, a global economic crisis, and political upheavals in allied nations —from the aftermath of Brexit to the future of American democracy. Laschet may be the “continuity candidate,” but with this Saturday’s leadership elections, the reality that Germany’s political future won’t include Merkel is starting to set in.

Laschet is the CDU’s new leader. But a lot can happen before the federal elections.

Merkel has served as leader of the CDU for nearly two decades; she came to power as Germany’s chancellor in 2005. She is, as Vox has previously written, a “boringly stable leader.” In more than a decade in power, Merkel helped make Germany a powerful force within the European Union and effectively managed one of the continent’s strongest economies. With the rise of Donald Trump, Merkel’s staunch defense of democratic values made her the de facto “leader of the free world.”

Her biggest challenge came around 2015, when Merkel welcomed about 1 million refugees from Syria and the Middle East to Germany. She faced backlash against this policy, including from the right flank of her own party.

As her party began to struggle in elections, Merkel stepped down as leader of the CDU in 2018, saying that though she would remain in power as chancellor she would not seek reelection in 2021. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the defense minister and Merkel ally, won a close leadership contest in 2018 to succeed her as CDU leader. Kramp-Karrenbauer — sometimes called “mini Merkel” — was also seen as Merkel’s preferred choice to carry out her centrist and stable leadership.

But Kramp-Karrenbauer struggled as leader of the party, and following a controversial regional election where a branch of the CDU partnered with the far-right AfD, Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned in February 2020.

That, of course, happened right before the outbreak of the coronavirus, forcing postponements of the CDU leadership contest. Finally, this weekend, the party agreed to host a digital vote, where Laschet emerged victorious.

Laschet very much leaned into the idea that he would follow Merkel’s path, and that, as a moderate, he was better positioned to head the party and the country.

“We’ll only win if we remain strong in the center of society,” Laschet said in his leadership pitch. “We must ensure that this center continues to have faith in us.”

Laschet also specifically mentioned the attack on the US Capitol, framing it as an example of broken trust and polarization, and arguing for stability and centrism as its counterweight.

Laschet’s CDU win means he is very likely to stand as the CDU’s candidate for chancellor when Germany holds federal elections in 2021. But his candidacy is not yet assured, and there are a few other figures in the party who may still emerge as the frontrunners.

The first challenge comes from the CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CDU/CSU jointly put up a candidate for chancellor, and Bavaria’s CSU premier Markus Söder has emerged as a possible contender for the post. No CSU leader has ever successfully won the chancellorship, but Söder is quite popular within the party. Though he broke with Merkel on her “open-door” immigration policies, he strongly backed her up during the government’s coronavirus response, and many saw him, too, as a steady leader during the pandemic.

Health Minister Jens Spahn is another possible candidate. His profile also rose during the coronavirus, as Germany was seen as a world leader in controlling the pandemic in the first wave of the crisis. But his star has dimmed a bit since, and he’s now facing some backlash for Germany’s current struggles with the pandemic.

Germany is currently dealing with a surge in Covid-19 cases. After keeping Covid-19 mortality low for most of the pandemic, the country is, since mid-December, exceeding the US in deaths per capita. Germany, along with other EU countries, has also struggled with its vaccine rollout.

How Germany comes out of this current crisis will be a test of both Merkel and any of the potential leaders vying to replace her. Merkel’s popularity rose during the Covid-19 crisis. Her approval rating is around 70 percent, largely because of her technocratic leadership and her direct, but emotional, appeals to Germans on the need for sacrifice. That could all change if Germany bungles the next phase of the pandemic or the vaccination campaign. And that could rub off on any member of her party who wants to replace her as chancellor.

Overall, CDU leadership contest showed a desire to stick close to Merkel’s centrist formula, at home and likely abroad, too. When it comes to Germany’s role in the world, David-Wilp said that Laschet would likely mirror Merkel, as a realist who values the transatlantic relationship and Germany’s leadership within the European Union. “Those will be traditional foreign policy pillars that he will carry on,” she said.

The CDU is still Germany’s dominant party, with the pro-environmental Greens trailing behind. Support for Germany’s far-right AfD has also flagged because of the coronavirus and political infighting.

But a lot can change between now and elections in September. The CDU contest was a long-delayed reminder that, after 16 years, the Merkel era is ending. The question that’s forming now is what that will look like — and how different it might be.

Alex Azar’s resignation letter paints a misleading picture of Trump’s coronavirus response

HHS Secretary Azar Speaks At Vaccination Kickoff At GW University Hospital
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at George Washington University Hospital on December 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images

The HHS secretary warns Trump against inciting more violence but obscures the reality of his own legacy.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar this week warned President Donald Trump that, despite what he described as achievements by HHS under his watch, Trump’s “actions and rhetoric following the election … threaten to tarnish these and other historic legacies of this administration.”

“The attacks on the Capitol were an assault on our democracy,” Azar said in a letter released this week ahead of his departure from the government on January 20. “I implore you to continue to condemn unequivocally any form of violence … and continue to support unreservedly the peaceful and orderly transition of power.”

Despite its rebuke of Trump, however, Azar’s letter of resignation, effective at noon on Inauguration Day, is more of a formality than anything. Two Trump cabinet secretaries resigned in protest earlier in January following the deadly attack on the US Capitol, but Azar was not among them.

In December, President-elect Joe Biden nominated California attorney general Xavier Becerra to replace Azar as HHS secretary in the Biden administration.

Political appointees usually submit resignation letters well before a new administration takes power, but until recently, according to the New York Times, Trump had been reluctant to request them as he continued to wage a doomed crusade against American democracy in a futile attempt to stay in office.

Last week, however, the Trump administration conceded to reality and requested those letters from the 4,000 or so political appointees currently serving in governmentincluding Azar.

In addition to using his letter as a warning to Trump — who this week was impeached for a second time for inciting insurrection — Azar also rattled off a list of accomplishments in his approximately three-year tenure with HHS (Azar is the second HHS secretary of the Trump administration).

A diverse collection of initiatives — drug pricing, the opioid crisis, and rural health care disparities, to name a few — get a mention, but the Trump administration’s failed coronavirus response receives top billing in the letter.

“While we mourn every lost life,” Azar wrote of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 392,000 people in the US, “Our early, aggressive, and comprehensive efforts saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans lives.”

In reality, much of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response — from its earliest days to the present day, when the country is reporting an average of 231,675 cases per day — has been flailing and incompetent, and even the US vaccine rollout has devolved into something of a disaster, with early vaccination numbers badly lagging administration targets and even some doses of the vaccine being discarded unnecessarily.

Nevertheless, Azar lauded Operation Warp Speed — the Trump administration’s vaccine push — in his letter, which he claims “achieved in nine months what many doubted would be possible in a year and a half or more.”

That’s not entirely untrue: As Vox’s Umair Irfan explained in December, developing a vaccine as quickly as the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines were created is, in fact, an “unmatched scientific feat.”

But again, the part of the vaccine effort meant to be directly handled by the Trump administration — namely, the distribution of the vaccine created by scientists in the private sector — has been full of costly mistakes.

Even as recently as this week, as the US approaches the one-year anniversary of the first known Covid-19 case in the country, there have been fumbles. Though Azar told states earlier this week that the administration would begin releasing vaccine doses previously held in reserve for a second shot, it turns out there aren’t any to release.

According to a Washington Post scoop Friday, the Trump administration had already begun shipping those doses late last year, leaving the vaccine stockpile largely depleted.

The miscommunication will likely have consequences at a state level. According to Oregon health director Patrick Allen in a letter to Azar, the lack of additional doses “puts our plans to expand eligibility at grave risk. Those plans were made on the basis of reliance on your statement about ‘releasing the entire supply’ you have in reserve. If this information [about the depleted vaccine reserve] is accurate, we will be unable to begin vaccinating our vulnerable seniors on Jan. 23, as planned.”

Biden has an ambitious plan to fix the US Covid-19 response

The incoming Biden administration, however, has pledged to fix the US coronavirus response and accelerate the pace of vaccinations, with a target of 100 million vaccine doses administered within the first 100 days in office.

“This will be one of the most challenging operational efforts we’ve ever undertaken as a nation,” Biden said Thursday of the US vaccine effort. “We’ll have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated, to create more places for them to get vaccinated, to mobilize more medical teams to get shots in peoples’ arms.”

Rather than inheriting Operation Warp Speed, according to incoming Biden press secretary Jen Psaki, the new administration will create its own vaccine program, with former Chicago health commissioner Bechara Choucair spearheading the effort as vaccine coordinator.

According to Vox’s German Lopez, the federal government will also take a more prominent role in administering vaccines under the Biden administration, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Guard units both helping to set up new vaccine clinics.

Additionally, the Biden plan, the most detailed form of which yet was released on Friday, calls for expanded vaccine eligibility, more rigorous use of the Defense Production Act to accelerate vaccine production, more public health workers, and an education campaign promoting vaccination.

Those initiatives will likely also be backed by a major infusion of funding: Biden announced a $1.9 trillion stimulus package plan this week, including — should Congress approve it — $400 billion for the US coronavirus response.

As Lopez writes, it’s a promising start:

Biden’s plan hits many of the marks that I’ve heard from experts over the past few weeks as I’ve asked them about what’s going wrong with America’s vaccine rollout.

First, the plan has clear goals to address what supply chain experts call the “last mile” — the path vaccines take from storage to injection in patients — by making sure there’s enough staff, infrastructure, and planning to actually put shots in arms. Second, it takes steps to ensure that supply chain problems are fixed proactively, with careful monitoring and use of federal powers when needed to address bottlenecks. Last, but just as crucially, there’s a public education campaign to ensure that Americans actually want to get vaccinated when it’s their turn.

Still, implementation won’t be easy, and there’s need for haste: The US reported more than 4,000 deaths in a single day for the first time ever earlier this month and continues to report well over 200,000 new cases per day on average.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warned this week that a recently discovered more transmissible strain of Covid-19 is spreading quickly in the US and could lead to even more catastrophic numbers of cases and deaths in the near future. Rapid vaccination is seen as the best way to limit the threat posed by this new strain and to reduce the number of new cases overall.

“We’re about to be in the worst of it,” CDC Director Robert Redfield warned Friday in an NPR interview. “And I think if you’d listened to my comments in August and September, I told people that I really thought that the, December, January and February were going to be the roughest time this nation’s ever, ever experienced from a public health point of view.”

Why the MyPillow guy was at the White House, explained as best we can

Mike Lindell on the phone peeking out from behind a pillar.
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell waits outside the West Wing of the White House on January 15, 2021. | Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Bedding CEO Mike Lindell isn’t ready to quit Trump just yet.

The MyPillow guy has some thoughts about invoking martial law.

On Friday, Mike Lindell, the CEO of bedding company MyPillow (you’ve probably seen the commercials) and an avid Donald Trump backer, went to the White House to talk to the president about some conspiracy theories. He reportedly presented Trump and his team with six pages of notes with unfounded claims that China and other countries stole the election from him along with a litany of other strange theories.

Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford captured some images of Lindell and his papers, which appeared to suggest the president was considering invoking the Insurrection Act, a law that lets the president deploy military and National Guard troops to the streets and the use of “martial law if necessary.”

Lindell told the New York Times after the meeting that the notes were given to him by a lawyer he wouldn’t identify. He told Times reporter Maggie Haberman that it’s someone he’s been working with to prove Trump really won the election and that some of the information was tied to reports Trump couldn’t see otherwise because he’s been banned from Twitter.

But it seems the White House wasn’t picking up what Lindell was putting down: He got only a few minutes with the president and was otherwise given the runaround. He told the Daily Beast that Trump asked for him to be taken to a different room to show his findings to “the lawyers ” but that after a couple of hours of waiting “the lawyers” were disinterested in his claims. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to Trump. “Maybe [Trump] got busy, I don’t know,” he told the Daily Beast.

Most of corporate America has abandoned Trump in the wake of the Capitol riots on January 6 that left five people dead — riots incited, in part, by the president’s own rhetoric casting doubt on the 2020 presidential election and his encouragement that his supporters fight back. But Mike Lindell is not giving up on Trump. Unfortunately for Mike, it seems Trump might be giving up on him, or, at least on Friday, the president’s team wasn’t in the mood for his antics.

Lindell’s presence in the White House on Friday also says something about Trump’s final days in office: Many of his aides and advisers have abandoned him, and it’s a lot of his die-hard supporters — ones who aren’t exactly bringing their A-game — who are left.

Who the MyPillow guy even is

Lindell is the founder and CEO of MyPillow, a company that, as the name suggests, makes and sells pillows. His shtick is that he guarantees it will be “The Most Comfortable Pillow You’ll Ever Own.” The company also makes other products — sheets, blankets, towels, dog beds, etc.

But Lindell is into more than pillows. He is also very into Donald Trump.

He has become a fixture in Trumpland — he co-chaired Trump’s reelection campaign in Minnesota, gave Trump ad advice, and, since November, has funded some of the weirder election challenges brought about by lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood. The protesters who stormed the Capitol were Trump supporters, but Lindell has been among those insisting that they were secretly “antifa” activists posing as MAGA devotees. Over the summer, he also claimed to have found a cure for Covid-19 — a cure that was potentially toxic and is not safe to ingest.

Meredith Haggerty at the Goods has an explainer on Lindell and his path from drug addiction to businessman to a Christian, as he recounts in his self-published memoir, What Are the Odds? It also lays out how he found Donald Trump (it involves a premonition) and why the Trump-Lindell combo makes sense:

His relationship with Trump makes sense for Lindell — if ever a man was going to increase his platform it would be by aligning himself with a kindred spirit pitchman, a man with whom he shares a checkered past and evangelical overtures. In this way, it makes sense for Trump as well; Lindell has the religious bona fides.

By his own writing, Lindell, who is 59, only became interested in politics in 2015. Trumpism is the main animating political philosophy in his life; Trump is the be-all and end-all of his interest in politics, which is not uncommon among the president’s staunchest supporters.

Trump has reportedly urged Lindell to run for Minnesota governor.

Why Mike Lindell was at the White House

Many of the election conspiracies floated about the election are confusing, including the ones Lindell brought to the White House this week.

The Daily Beast gets into many of the details of Lindell’s documents, which suggested that China and other countries engaged in hacking operations to hand Joe Biden the presidency. He claims they’re “all over the internet,” but also big tech companies are keeping them hidden. He also showed the president an article from a conspiracy theory website about China and the election that somehow also has to do with Russian cybersecurity CEO Eugene Kaspersky, Chinese telecom Huawei, and Amazon, among others.

The images of Lindell’s papers also appear to have a suggestion that Kash Patel, the chief of staff to the Defense Department, be made acting director of the CIA. That would mean Patel, a Trump loyalist, would replace CIA Director Gina Haspel, who Trump has reportedly wanted to fire off and on.

Trump apparently gave Lindell a few minutes and then sort of offloaded him onto others in the White House. According to the Times, two of the people he was offloaded to — national security adviser Robert O’Brien and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — were among those Lindell’s documents suggested firing.

Lindell told Haberman that the papers he was photographed holding that say “martial law” didn’t say “martial law.” He appears to have become quite frustrated with the ordeal. The Times reported that Lindell got “loud” while having to wait in the lobby of the West Wing and was a little mean to Cipollone’s assistant.

“They tried to deny it, saying, ‘We don’t think it’s relevant,’ and I said, ‘Don’t try to discredit it,’” Lindell told the Daily Beast. “They said they would ‘look into it and get back to you.’ And I told them I just want them to know the truth. … How horrible is it that we are about to have an illegitimate president? People on the left and right should want to know the truth.”

Of all the ways to spend your final days in the White House, this is certainly one of them

Maybe Mike Lindell is an okay guy. Or at the very least, he’s good at selling pillows. But he’s not exactly the top political mind in America, and he’s who Trump is left with in the end.

Trump still has plenty of support within the Republican Party, but it’s quite a bit below what it used to be, at least for now. Inciting a violent riot and being impeached two times has not been great for the Trump brand, political, business, or otherwise. But Trump did have a point when he joked that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and keep support — guys like Mike Lindell aren’t going anywhere. Even if, as appears to have been the case on Friday, Trump isn’t in the mood to entertain them much.

Lindell is an avatar for Trump’s most diehard supporters, the people who prioritize him over pretty much anything else, at least in politics. Like a lot of those supporters, he believes — or at least he says he believes — a litany of internet-fueled conspiracies about the election and the political landscape. Take a look at his Twitter feed, and you’ll see it’s filled with pro-Trump propaganda and content that’s been flagged by the website as dubious.

How long will Lindell and people like him stick around with Trump? It looks like they’re in it for the long haul — whether Trump is always into it or not.

The word “Orwellian” has lost all meaning

A protester holds a sign reading “Orwell was right” as they demonstrate at Republique Square of Lille in protest of the French government’s proposed global security law bill on November 28, 2020, in Lille, France.  | Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

How the right made the word “Orwellian” an empty cliché.

It’s possible Donald Trump’s greatest talent is driving people to buy copies of 1984.

When Trump took office in 2017, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic went up by 9,500 percent. And in the wake of January’s Capitol riot, as Senator Josh Hawley decried his book cancellation as “Orwellian” and Donald Trump Jr. responded to his father’s ban from Twitter with the lament that “We are living Orwell’s 1984,” 1984 once again flew up Amazon’s bestseller list, briefly sitting at No. 1.

Last time 1984 returned to the bestseller list, it was because terrified liberals feared the Trump administration would drive us straight into the dystopian horrors of 1984, in which Big Brother is always watching, forcing his subjects to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 if he says it does. This time, it appears to be because outraged conservatives fear that private corporations have begun to censor public speech. But either way, it’s Orwell’s time to shine again.

And so “Orwellian” has become the word of the moment. In fact, it has become the kind of lazy, hackneyed, cliché word of the moment that Orwell himself despised.

Orwell despised a lot of words. He wrote a whole essay on them in 1946. Titled “Politics and the English Language,” the essay takes aim at all of Orwell’s pet hatreds: excessive use of Latinate instead of Anglo-Saxon words; unwarranted use of the passive voice; mixed metaphors; clichés; and the phrase “not un-,” as in “it is not unlikely that Trump will seek office in 2024 if not barred from doing so.” (Redundant, fumes Orwell. Just say, “It’s likely.”)

But what Orwell is particularly angry about is imprecise language, and language that conceals rather than clarifies. Which, for him, includes most political language. “Political language,” he writes, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

For this reason, Orwell argues, politicians are particularly given to lazy, sloppy rhetoric, filled with meaningless buzzwords and clichés. Political language, he says, muffles the sense of what is being communicated, which is so often indefensible, with an overlay of righteous justification. And as a result, those who get caught up in this style of speech — both its speakers and its listeners — find their ability to think caught and shaped by their impoverished language. They are no longer able to recognize a lie as a lie and a murder as a murder because the language in which they speak is so vague as to allow them to consider a lie an alternative fact and a murder a tragic yet unavoidable accident.

That’s why in 1984, one of Big Brother’s chief directives is to keep simplifying the English language into Newspeak, in which anything really positive is doubleplusgood and anything really bad is doubleplusungood. All of the nuances and richness of English are stripped away; the bare and skeletal language that remains renders complex thought impossible. And so the citizens of the dystopian society of Oceana are left blankly following after Big Brother, believing in the lies that he tells them because they no longer have the language to recognize the truth. It’s the argument of “Politics and the English Language” taken to its fullest conclusion.

When Josh Hawley and Trump Jr. use the term “Orwellian,” they are indulging in precisely the kind of lazy and dishonest obfuscation Orwell railed against. They are taking the haze of imprecise associations that have accumulated around the word — bad, dystopian, someone somewhere overreaching probably? — and trying to attach them to such urgent issues for human rights as a politician losing his book contract after a scandal and the most powerful man in the world getting kicked off a social media platform. They are, to put it in terms of which Orwell would approve, lying. They are pretending that very reasonable actions from private corporations are the same as the government kidnapping citizens and shoving their faces into cages full of rats to brainwash them. And they are trying to convince their followers to pretend the same thing, until the pretense becomes real and everyone agrees to believe the lie.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell writes in “Politics and the English Language.” “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

The real aims of Hawley and Trump Jr. — and any number of other conservative figures flinging around the “Orwellian” label in the wake of the storming of the Capitol — are to salvage their reputations after abetting an assault on democratic institutions. Their declared aims are to save democracy. To hide the size of the gap between the two, they have turned, instinctively, to an idiom that is now exhausted.

The word “Orwellian” doesn’t mean anything anymore. Orwell himself told us what to do with it in that case: Stop using it.

The warning signs before the Capitol riot

No one should have been surprised.

Law enforcement agencies have said they had “no intelligence” indicating that a group of Trump supporters would overpower police and break into the US Capitol building on January 6, 2021. But journalists and researchers who study the online far right say that’s not true. In fact, the groups at the heart of the riot had been planning it for days, in plain sight, on social media.

In this video, Logan Jaffe of ProPublica and Robert Evans of Bellingcat describe the warning signs they observed weeks, months, and even years before a mob of Trump supporters broke into the Capitol.


ProPublica: Members of Several Well-Known Hate Groups Identified at Capitol Riot

ProPublica: Capitol Rioters Planned for Weeks in Plain Sight. The Police Weren’t Ready.

Bellingcat: How the Insurgent and MAGA Right are Being Welded Together on the Streets of Washington D.C.

Vox: Police bias explains the Capitol riot

Vox: Where things stand with the investigation into Capitol security failings