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Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.

By Marc Fisher and Sari Horwitz
Mueller and Trump: Born to wealth, raised to lead. Then, sharply different choices.
The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on Robert Mueller's nomination to be director of the FBI in 2001. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ray Lustig

They are the sons of wealth, brought up in families accustomed to power. They were raised to show and demand respect, and they were raised to lead.

They rose to positions of enormous authority, the president of the United States and the special counsel chosen to investigate him. They dress more formally than most of those around them; both sport meticulously coiffed hair. They have won unusual loyalty from those who believe in them. They attended elite all-male private schools, were accomplished high school athletes and went on to Ivy League colleges. As young men, each was deeply affected by the death of a man he admired greatly.

Yet Robert Swan Mueller III and Donald John Trump, born 22 months apart in New York City, also can seem to come from different planets. One is courtly and crisp, the other blustery and brash. One turned away from the path to greater wealth while the other spent half a century exploring every possible avenue to add to his assets.

At pivotal points in their lives, they made sharply divergent choices - as students, as draft-age men facing the dilemma of the Vietnam War, as ambitious alpha males deciding where to focus their energies.

Now, as they move toward an almost inevitable confrontation that could end in anything from deeper political discord to a fatal blow to this presidency, Trump, 71, and Mueller, 73, are behaving much as they have throughout their lives: As the president fumes about a "witch hunt" and takes his frustrations to his supporters, the special counsel remains publicly mute, speaking through inquiries and indictments.

The months flip by and the showdown looms: Mueller and Trump, the war hero and the draft avoider, two men who rise early and live mainly at the office, two men who find relief on the golf course. They circle each other, speaking different languages. Their aides talk in fits and starts about whether and when the two will meet, but it remains unclear whether that will happen. So they continue on their missions, one loudly, the other in silence. Neither knows how this will end.

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Mueller was born to a social rank that barely exists anymore, a cosseted WASP elite of northeastern families who sent their sons to New England prep schools built with generations of inherited wealth.

Mueller's father was an executive at DuPont, part of a family firmly planted in the country's plutocracy. Mueller, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., and the Philadelphia Main Line, was sent to St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, where the Astor, Vanderbilt and Mellon families educated their boys. At the Episcopal school, Mueller became captain of the soccer, hockey and lacrosse teams. He played hockey with his classmate John F. Kerry, a future secretary of state and one of three St. Paul's alumni who would run for president.

Mueller epitomized the tradition of "the muscular Christian" at the top prep schools, the archetype of the strong boy who embodies "values of kindness, respect and integrity," said Maxwell King, 73, a classmate at St. Paul's. "Bob was a very strong figure in our class. . . . He was thought of as somebody you could count on to be thoughtful about everybody on the team and to have very high standards."

King, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who runs the Pittsburgh Foundation, said Mueller "had a good sense of humor, but he wasn't smartass at all. He was serious, but in a way that everybody liked him and liked being around him."

Mueller was, from early on, a role model. As a group of boys gathered one day at The Tuck, a snack shop at St. Paul's, a student made a derogatory comment about someone who wasn't there. "Bob said he didn't want to hear that," King said. "I mean, we all said disparaging things about each other face to face. But saying something about someone who wasn't there was something that Bob was uncomfortable with and he let it be known and just walked out."

At Princeton, which his father also had attended, Mueller was accepted into one of the most socially exclusive eating clubs, where he often was seen before dinner playing bridge by the sitting room fireplace. Mueller had planned to go to medical school, but as a classmate who studied with him recalled, organic chemistry got the better of him. Mueller pronounced himself defeated by the subject; he realized he would not be a doctor.

Just a few weeks after he finished Princeton with a degree in politics in 1966, Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps, a rare choice for an Ivy League graduate at a time when many young men were casting about for ways to avoid the draft. Mueller, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has often said he was inspired to join the Marines by his lacrosse teammate David Hackett, who had graduated from Princeton a year earlier and gone off to fight in Vietnam.

"As we were graduating, we . . . faced the decision of how to respond to the war in Vietnam," Mueller said in a speech last year. "And a number of [Hackett's] friends and teammates joined the Marine Corps because of him, as did I." In April 1967, as he led his platoon in evacuating fallen Marines from a battleground, Hackett was shot in the back of the head by a North Vietnamese sniper. Mueller to this day speaks of Hackett's death as a turning point, as the event that pushed him to a career of public service.

Before beginning his military training, and while recovering from a knee injury, Mueller studied international relations at New York University. Then he started Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Va., where he excelled, although he did get a D in delegation. Mueller followed that, according to military records, by going through the Army's grueling Ranger School and Airborne School - unusual training for a Marine, signaling that he was going places.

By November 1968, he was leading a rifle platoon in the jungles of Vietnam.

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Like Mueller, Trump was raised in rare comfort. The Trumps had a family chef and chauffeur, but they never considered themselves part of the country's ruling class. Theirs was immigrant stock, from Germany and Scotland, hardy entrepreneurs who tackled the new land with a blitz of new businesses - restaurants, hotels and, finally, real estate.

The president's father, Fred Trump, made his fortune himself, building middle-class housing for the union workers and civil servants of New York's outer boroughs. Even after he'd established himself as one of the city's biggest builders, Fred Trump still toiled in the trenches, taking young Donald along on weekends when they went door to door at Trump Village in Brooklyn, collecting rent.

Donald Trump grew up in a 23-room manse in Queens, a faux Southern plantation house with a Cadillac limousine in the driveway. He attended private school from kindergarten on; his focus in school, Trump told The Washington Post in 2016, was "creating mischief, because, for some reason, I liked to stir things up and I liked to test people. . . . It wasn't malicious so much as it was aggressive."

In second grade, he said, he punched his music teacher in the face. He got into trouble often. Before eighth grade started, his father sent him to military school.

At New York Military Academy, where the rules were so strictly enforced that a desperate cadet was said to have leaped into the Hudson River in an attempted escape, Trump thrived. Although he ate in a mess hall instead of being served steaks by the family cook, and although he slept in a barracks rather than his own room in a mansion, he for the first time took pride in his grades. He won medals for neatness and order. He also won notice from fellow cadets for touting his father's wealth and boasting to friends that "I'm going to be famous one day."

Trump competed to become a cadet leader and enjoyed wielding authority. As a junior supply sergeant in E Company, he ordered that a cadet be struck on the backside as punishment for breaking formation. Another time, while inspecting dorm rooms, Trump saw cadet Ted Levine's unmade bed and blew up, ripping off the sheets and tossing them on the floor, Levine said. Levine threw a combat boot at Trump and hit him with a broomstick. Trump, infuriated, grabbed Levine and tried to push him out a second-story window, Levine said.

Promoted to captain of A Company, Trump won respect from some of the other boys, who said they never wanted to disappoint him. Trump introduced them to a world of fun, setting up a tanning salon in his dorm room, bringing beautiful women to campus, and leading the baseball team to victory.

But other cadets said Trump tried to break boys who didn't bend to his will. During Trump's senior year, when one of his sergeants shoved a new cadet against a wall for not standing at attention quickly enough, Trump was relieved of his duty in the barracks, said Lee Ains, the student who was shoved.

Trump denied being demoted, saying he was actually moved up. "You don't get elevated if you partake in hazing," he told The Post in 2016. He was put in charge of a drill team that would perform in New York City's Columbus Day Parade.

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Mutter's Ridge was a killing ground, a craggy hellscape in Quang Tri province where the Marines had been fighting for years, setting up and abandoning bases as they tried over and over to assert control of one of the main routes the North Vietnamese used to infiltrate the South.

Year after year, the ridge, hard by the demilitarized zone that separated North from South, was the scene of fierce assaults, fleeting victories and fiery retreats.

On Dec. 11, 1968, Mueller led a platoon of Marines into an eight-hour battle around an extensive complex of North Vietnamese army bunkers. The enemy hit Mueller's men with a "heavy volume of small arms, automatic weapons, and grenade launcher fire," according to a Marine Corps account.

As his platoon suffered heavy casualties, "Second Lieutenant Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counterfire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them," the account said.

Mueller set up a defensive perimeter and "with complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous fire area," as the Marines put it. Mueller led a team across the smoldering terrain and into a North Vietnamese-controlled area to recover a mortally wounded Marine. For that, he earned a Bronze Star medal with "V" distinction for combat valor. He was promoted to first lieutenant.

Four months later, the Viet Cong attacked a squad of about a dozen Marines from Mueller's platoon. Responding to the ambush, Mueller led the rest of his men to assist the Marines under assault. They pushed ahead against heavy fire, and Mueller was shot in the thigh.

"Although seriously wounded during the fire fight, he resolutely maintained his position and, ably directing the fire of his platoon, was instrumental in defeating the North Vietnamese Army force," said the citation on the medal Mueller received.

His year in Vietnam was a turning point, friends said. "He never speaks to that horror and what he did," said Thomas B. Wilner, a longtime friend and Washington lawyer.

A lifelong friend said that after Vietnam, Mueller "went from being this affable, good guy, good athlete" to having the "backbone and the steel that he has today." But Mueller doesn't talk about those harrowing months in the jungle. "That is not his style. He doesn't brag about himself."

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The country felt as though it was coming apart at the seams. At the University of Pennsylvania, where Trump had transferred after two years at Fordham University in the Bronx, protests against the Vietnam War grew larger and more insistent. There were sit-ins, candlelight vigils, demonstrations against university contracts with the military, a metastasizing culture of conflict as a new generation pushed back against war, segregation, dress codes and curfews.

Trump took part in none of that. Nor did he pay much attention to his coursework, fellow students said. He was already spending nearly as much time working for his father's real estate business in New York as he was on campus in Philadelphia. He said he spent many of his off-hours while at school scouring the neighborhood for apartments to buy so he could rent them to students.

Trump never burned a draft card, but never enlisted either. He benefited from five draft deferments between 1964 and 1968 - four for being a college student and one for a medical disqualification.

Trump has said he had bone spurs in his foot. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he could not recall which foot had the spurs. Later, his campaign said he had them in both heels. At another point, a campaign statement said that in 1969, Trump was fit for service and "had his draft number been selected, he would have proudly served." His draft lottery number was 356 out of 366 - high enough that he almost certainly would have been spared from mandatory service.

Mueller spent the first two decades of his legal career putting bad guys behind bars. He worked as a prosecutor in San Francisco and Boston. And in Washington, he headed the Justice Department's criminal division as an assistant attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, supervising high-profile cases such as the prosecution of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega and the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

But by 1995, he was ensconced in the $400,000-a-year luxury of a white-collar litigation job in the Washington office of a Boston law firm, Hale and Dorr. It was not a happy time.

"He hated it," said Wilner, his longtime friend. "He couldn't stand selling his services to defend people he thought might be guilty. . . . There was no hesitation for Bob in leaving a lucrative job to . . . do what he thought was helping make the world a better place."

So one day, Mueller called the District of Columbia's local prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr., and asked for a job, not handling the office's big national cases, but working the line, prosecuting homicides on the streets of D.C. He wanted no title, no supervisory position. He told Holder that he was shaken by all the killings in Washington, then the nation's murder capital, and that he just wanted to try homicide cases.

"I was taken aback," Holder recalled. He reminded Mueller that coming to work at the "Triple Nickel" - as the prosecutors' office at 555 Fourth Street NW was called - would mean a pay cut of more than 75 percent, a big step down in stature and a daunting job. The District, plagued with a crack cocaine epidemic and about 400 homicides a year, was a nightmare for prosecutors, who faced huge caseloads and witnesses who were too scared to talk.

Mueller said he knew what he was getting into. Holder hired him, but insisted on giving him a title - senior litigation counsel - and eventually made him head of the homicide section. Day to day, though, Mueller was "just a line guy," Holder said. "He would be in those parts of Washington that were most affected by the violence. . . . He would be interviewing people at crime scenes, going to people's homes to build cases, working with street cops."

He got a kick out of answering his phone, "Mueller, Homicide."

"I love everything about investigations," Mueller said years later in an interview with UVA Lawyer, the magazine of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he earned his law degree. "I love the forensics. I love the fingerprints and the bullet casings and all the rest."

He led the prosecution of high-profile cases including the grisly murders in 1997 of three workers in a Starbucks coffee shop in Georgetown. D.C. police were not thrilled about the idea, but Mueller brought in a star FBI agent to work on the investigation. Three years after the killings, a D.C. man was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"If it wasn't for [Mueller], that case would never have been solved," said former longtime homicide detective James Trainum, who worked with Mueller on the case. "With his quiet demeanor, he just kind of waded in and diplomatically parted the waters."

Through the decades, Mueller has often said that what matters even more than the content of one's work is "how we do it," as he put it in a commencement address in 2013. "You are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed persuasive, but if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer, and once lost, a good reputation can never be regained."

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Trump was determined to push beyond his father's realm in New York's outer boroughs and make it big in Manhattan. He had neither time nor patience for climbing the ladder rung by rung. He believed in big, bold leaps, even if that meant breaking with tradition or rules.

"The key to the way I promote is bravado," he wrote in his best-selling book "Trump: The Art of the Deal." "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts."

It was Trump's older brother, Fred Jr., who was originally supposed to take over the family business. But Freddy, mild-mannered and, in Donald's view, not tough enough to make it, struggled to live up to his father's demands. Freddy left the family company to become an airline pilot, but he began drinking excessively. In 1981, at age 43, he died of a heart attack following years of alcoholism. Donald had adored his brother, and now he resolved never to drink alcohol and always to remember a lesson he drew from Freddy's failure: "To keep my guard up one hundred percent. . . . Life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can't let people make a sucker out of you."

In contrast to his brother, Donald was determined to do whatever it took to "be a killer," as his father had repeatedly insisted. While working on his first hotel project in 1976, Trump persuaded a New York Times reporter to profile him as "a major New York builder," even though he had never built a thing and had no financing.

He touted his ties to power. In the mid-1970s, seeking to buy New York's World Trade Center, Trump had lunch with Peter Goldmark, the head of New York's Port Authority, which owned the twin towers. "You wouldn't last in your job very long if Governor [Hugh] Carey decided you weren't doing the right thing," Trump said, according to Goldmark. "You should know I have a lot of weight in Albany."

Goldmark said he ended the discussion after that. Trump denied Goldmark's account, saying, "I really don't talk that way."

Trump's knack for drawing attention sometimes embarrassed or persuaded the powers that were to cede to his demands. When city politicians who opposed granting Trump a tax incentive called a news conference outside the shuttered Commodore hotel, Trump showed up and threatened to abandon the project if the city didn't give him tax relief.

Trump had prepared for the event by directing his workers to replace the clean boards that covered the once-grand building's windows with dirty scrap wood, accentuating the decrepit state of the midtown eyesore. The dramatic flourish had the desired effect. Trump got the exemption. He beat the system.

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After Mueller did a stint as U.S. attorney in San Francisco, President George W. Bush nominated him to direct the FBI. He was sworn in on Sept. 4, 2001, one week before the planes hit the twin towers.

For the next 12 years, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, Mueller led the FBI through one of the most difficult periods in its history. The bureau shifted from a domestic law enforcement agency largely focused on criminal threats to a global intelligence organization reoriented to fight terrorism.

Although more terrorist attacks were feared, Mueller was intent on protecting civil liberties, according to those who worked with him. "He didn't allow FBI agents in the post 9/11 era to engage in interrogation techniques that he thought were inconsistent with American law and tradition," said Holder, who, as President Barack Obama's attorney general, was his boss once again.

Mueller worked around the clock, traveling from his Georgetown home to FBI headquarters in a black SUV that arrived shortly after 6 a.m. for morning security briefings, heading back late at night. He wore a traditional J. Edgar Hoover-era G-Man uniform: dark suit, red or blue tie and white shirt - always white.

"He won't wear a blue shirt," Wilner said. "He is so straight, he always wears a white shirt. He's a pain in the ass in many ways because he is so straight. . . . He's conscious that he's a public figure and he doesn't want anything to compromise his integrity. Even a blue shirt."

Around the building, some privately dubbed him "Bobby Three Sticks," a reference to both the Roman numeral at the end of his name and the three-finger Boy Scout salute. No one dared use the nickname in his presence, former Justice Department officials said.

Mueller usually avoided the limelight. He frustrated his speechwriters by crossing out every "I" in speeches they wrote for him. It wasn't about him, he told them: "It's about the organization."

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Mueller burrowed into the bureaucracy and won allies by eschewing publicity. Trump charged into one industry after another, from casino gambling to steaks to for-profit education and finally to politics. The only through line in his career was his own celebrity - the power and allure of his name.

In nearly every possible way, from their family relations to their political involvement, the two men have presented themselves in opposite ways.

Three months after he was graduated from college, Mueller married his girlfriend, Ann Standish, whose ancestors had come to the United States on the Mayflower. The couple, who met at a party when they were 17, have two daughters. One of them has spina bifida, and at one point, Mueller took a job in the U.S. attorney's office in Boston in part to be near the treatment she needed.

Mueller has asked reporters not to discuss his family life; Trump for decades regularly sought coverage of his love life by gossip columnists and talked about his dates and bedroom activities with radio host Howard Stern.

Trump has five children by three wives, each of them newcomers to New York City, two from Central Europe and one from a small town in Georgia. None was born to privilege. Like his father before him, Trump was distant from his children when they were very young, but grew close to them once they were mature enough to learn the family business and join him on his daily rounds.

Mueller is a lifelong Republican who has worked for administrations of both parties; Trump was raised in a Republican home by a father who spent many weekends visiting the Democratic clubs of Brooklyn, building relationships with the politicians who might help him get his projects built.

For four decades, Trump toyed with the idea of entering politics. He changed his party registration seven times between 1999 and 2012 - he was a Democrat twice, a Republican three times, and an independent. In 2000, he briefly ran for president under the Reform Party banner. Once, when asked in a TV interview why he was a Republican, he said, "I have no idea."

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In the Rose Garden on June 21, 2013, Obama announced that James Comey would replace Mueller as FBI director. "Like the Marine that he's always been, Bob never took his eyes off his mission," Obama said. "It's a tribute to Bob's trademark humility that most Americans probably wouldn't recognize him on the street, but all of us are better because of his service."

Four years later, last May, the new president invited Mueller back to the White House. President Trump had abruptly fired Comey and now, at the suggestion of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Mueller was coming in to talk about his former job. On his way into the Oval Office, Mueller met then-chief strategist Steve Bannon, a former Navy officer, and teased him for letting his daughter go to West Point.

Mueller and Trump spoke for about 30 minutes, according to a person familiar with the interview. It was a friendly conversation, but seemed almost pro forma because Mueller made it clear from the start that he was unlikely to take the job he had held for 12 years.

Trump liked Mueller, according to the person. "He thought he was smart and tough," a type Trump admires more than almost any other.

The question became moot within days, as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as the special counsel to investigate whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

Trump heard the news and asked one of his aides, "Wasn't that guy just in here interviewing for the FBI?"

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The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe, Josh Dawsey and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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Video: The Post's Sari Horwitz and Marc Fisher compare the events of special counsel Robert Mueller's life to how he's portrayed in pop culture.(Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

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'I don't know how you got this way:' a young neo-Nazi reveals himself to his family

By Terrence McCoy
'I don't know how you got this way:' a young neo-Nazi reveals himself to his family
Kam Musser spends a lot of time on his computer at home outside Columbus, Ohio, watching videos of white nationalist rallies. Despite his mother's and grandmother's disapproval, he continues to tout his neo-Nazi views. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson.

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ohio - The mother and son were sitting in the living room, arguing about Ellen DeGeneres again.

"She definitely helps push the degeneracy. Didn't she have that cross-dressing little boy on?" Kam Musser, 21, said of one of her recent guests. "That little boy in makeup."

"He's a makeup artist," said his mother, Kirsten, 48, correcting him. "What's wrong with that? . . . He does a beautiful job."

"I don't think putting makeup on little boys is very kosher."

"He's not hurting anybody or himself."

"OK," he said, rolling his eyes. "He does what he does; I do what I do."

What Kam was doing, and what he wasn't, had come to dominate so much in their lives. He was two years out of high school now, and he didn't have a job, or a car, or a place of his own, or much money beyond what his mother gave him - nothing at all to occupy his time except a computer that had carried him to the most extreme parts of the internet, and to beliefs that no one in his family could understand. In the year since the 2016 presidential election, Kam had gone from supporting white supremacists, to joining a neo-Nazi group, to shouting "white lives matter" at a rally, to standing beside Richard Spencer outside the White House, to increasingly tense conversations with his mother and grandmother, both of whom were beginning to fear that what they had once thought was just a phase was quickly becoming his life.

How did this happen?

Where did these ideas come from?

Could he still be saved?

These are questions being asked here and across America, as many among the growing number of young white supremacists - raised in an era scarred by recession, upturned by social change and governed by the first African American president - reveal themselves to their families.

In Fargo, North Dakota, the realization ruptured one family: "Peter Tefft, my son, is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer," his father said in a public letter after his son joined a white nationalist rally.

In Wenonah, New Jersey, another father uncomfortably accommodates what he abhors: "People expect me to condemn my son," Bob Stankard said. "But my son is my son."

In Greenland, New Hampshire, another family doesn't yet know the truth: "I tell [my parents] I'm a feminist, and I run a fake Instagram to throw them off," said an 18-year-old white nationalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I'm living a double life."

And in this suburb, just outside Columbus, there was this: one more discussion coming to a frustratingly abrupt conclusion between a mother and son who felt as though they didn't know how to talk to each other anymore.

"I just think they're pushing all the trannies and stuff," Kam said of "Ellen."

"They're not pushing it, though!" Kirsten said.

"You just went to a bar with a bunch of drag queens. You have an opinion bias right now," he said. "You're going to say Hitler was a cross-dresser next."

"He was gay is what I heard."

"OK," he said, laughing sarcastically. "All the lies about World War II."

"And he was a horrible painter, too."

"He wasn't a horrible painter. I like his stuff," Kam said. "Where do you get your information from?"

"High school."

"You were getting shoved all that propaganda down your throat. . . . They got to reach you young. Got to shove it down your throat right away so you buy it. I don't believe the whole entire narrative of the Holocaust," he said, referring to Nazi Germany's murder of 6 million Jews during World War II.

Looking irritated, Kirsten stood up and walked into the kitchen - past the message she'd written for Kam on the refrigerator, saying, "When you chose the behavior, you chose the consequences" - but he kept on talking.

"A lot of it was most definitely fabricated by the Soviets," he said. "That's my personal belief."

She came back to the living room. He looked at her. He sighed.

"I don't talk about this to all the normies," he continued.

"I'm a normie," she replied and then stood up and left again.

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They live in the most suburban of American neighborhoods - wide roads, lines of trees, two-story houses in every direction - and inside one of those houses, on the second floor, is the room where Kam sometimes retreats after these arguments. It was where he was sitting one late morning when Kirsten came in, saw him unshowered and in sweats and a sleeveless T-shirt, and wearily said, "Kam, have you let the dogs out?"

He said he had.

"OK, love you."

"Love you, too," said Kam, who shared his story on the condition that The Washington Post withhold his family members' last name, which is different from his, as well as the name of the suburb where they live. And then his mother was off to her job as a businessman's personal assistant, and he was alone again, with so much time it felt suffocating, so he hit a button on his keyboard and woke his computer. It sat on a desk strewn with pamphlets bearing titles such as "The Truth Behind the Jewish Talmud," a lighter emblazoned with a swastika, a business card that read, "It's not illegal to be White . . . yet" and cited a website glorifying the Nazi regime,and a stack of books: "The American Militant Nationalist Manifesto," "Trump: The Art of the Deal" and "Fatherland," a novel set in a world where Germany had won World War II.

He got on Facebook and scrolled. Here came and went a picture showing scowling white nationalists in black. Next up was a post from a group called "White People Vs. Black People." Then a post saying, "Name something blacks invented." Later an image of an 18-year-old blond Frenchwoman he called his girlfriend. Kam had never met her, but she had been telling him she wanted to move in with him, and he hoped it was true.

The scrolling stopped. The only sound in the house was the hum of his computer and the flick of the swastika lighter he held in one hand. With the other, he reached for his phone to check his messages. A white nationalist friend who'd told him he'd like to meet up still hadn't called. Back to Facebook, back to scrolling.

There were so many things he thought he could be doing. He had a bench press in the garage that he wanted to use more, to get in the kind of shape his group wanted its members to be in. There was the application to Columbus State Community College, the one his mother and grandmother told him to get on with, but he didn't know what he wanted to be, or how he'd get to campus, 12 miles away. Or should he look for a job? He'd hardly worked in months, since biking to his moving job became too difficult. Afterward, he applied to a few places within walking distance, except for fast food restaurants. But the CVS didn't get back to him. Neither did the Beer Barrel Pizza & Grill. He had two interviews at the Speedway, but nothing came of them, and he was left wondering whether they'd found his Facebook page.

He had never thought what he posted was particularly incendiary. They were just his opinions, like how it was wrong that the country was becoming less white every day, and the "double standards" he saw benefiting minorities, and all the lies about the American Dream. How the life he thought should be his - with a car, a job, a wife, a house - was somewhere out there, and he instead was here, the son of an alcoholic father who died of cirrhosis of the liver. The confidant of a mother who, left struggling for money, had married a man he felt had ridiculed and neglected him. The student who a friend recalled as an "outsider," so disconnected that he didn't sit for a senior photo. The isolated young man who, increasingly convinced that Barack Obama favored African Americans over whites, consumed thread after thread on Stormfront, an online forum filled with white supremacists, growing more radical as peers scorned him, calling him a racist and a Nazi, and he scorned them back.

"If you believe white privilege is a thing we're not friends," he wrote in January 2016 on Facebook.

Then: "I don't care what your relation to me is, if you believe the BLM movement is anything but a sham, unfriend me," he wrote of Black Lives Matter in July 2016. "You are now my enemy."

Then: "I find it hilarious 'friends' that turned their back on me would ask me for help," he wrote in March 2017. "The f-- nerve."

Around that time, he dispatched another message. This one he wrote to a group he had heard of on Facebook. The Traditionalist Worker Party championed a whites-only ethno-state, ruled by Nazi Party edict and headed by men who believe in traditional gender roles. Kam had already been in another white nationalist group, but he liked this one better because it seemed to advocate more for disaffected whites, and because he felt like one, too.

On the other end of his message was a recruiter for the group, which over several years had gone from a few dozen members to more than 1,200 nationally, reflecting growth in neo-Nazi groups nationally - from 99 to 121 in 2017 - according to a report published this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of the new recruits are young white men like Kam, men who feel "humiliated," said Matthew Parrott, co-founder of the Traditionalist Workers Party. "It's all relative to what your community expects of you, and what your family expects of you, and what you expect of yourself," he said. " . . . And they're sitting at their mom's house with everyone laughing at them, and it's a toxic thing."

Kam, sitting in his mom's house months later, a dues-paying member now, a rally-goer, part of the "fellowship," continued clicking through his Facebook timeline, as morning turned to afternoon and another white nationalist podcast came on.

"Nearly 40,000 illegals," the podcast said.

"I'm dreaming of a whiteface Christmas," the timeline said.

"This is bad," the podcast said.

"F-- K1KES," the timeline said.

"This has got to stop, man," the podcast said. "This has got to f-- stop stop."

"Jewish f-- puppet," the timeline said.

Kam's mom knocked. She stood at the doorway for a moment. But it wasn't the Nazi paraphernalia or the 9mm handgun in a Traditionalist Worker Party holster beside Kam's bed that seemed to grab her attention.

"Where did you get that monitor?" was all she asked.

"I've had this monitor," he said.

"Oh, never mind, you can see I hardly ever come in here," she said, closing the door behind her.

---

Why couldn't she talk to him? Why was this so hard? Why couldn't she just say that Nazism had no place in her home, that either he stops this, or he goes? She hadn't even been able to bring herself to research the Traditionalist Worker Party, too scared of what she might discover about her son, who felt more distant every day.

So it was easier to ignore it, to focus on things still in her control. Get the bills paid, the laundry done, the fridge stocked. And do as she was doing now, after arriving home from work - opening a Busch Light, starting a cigarette and turning on "Ellen," resigning herself to this being just one more thing in her life that hadn't gone according to plan. Her first husband had loved her, but alcohol more, so she left him. Her second try had been more than a decade of marital warfare, the first half as an unhappy couple, and the latter as divorcing combatants. By the time the lawyers were done, Kam's younger sister no longer wanted to talk to her, and still didn't to this day.

Through it all, there had been Kam. The happiest she'd ever been was the time between marriage one and two, when it was just him and her, and the only thing she wanted in this world was to make him feel safe. A little overweight and introverted, but sensitive with family, he had always seemed vulnerable to her. And with everything he would ultimately go through - his dad's death, the divorces, the moves her love life put them through - she could never bring herself to come down hard on him. Hadn't he dealt with enough already? Even when he did poorly in school, or showed no ambition whatsoever, or couldn't hold a job, she went easy on him, and even now, she felt as though she was still mothering him.

"Did you eat?" she asked him. "Did you pack a sandwich or something?"

"No, I haven't eaten today," he said, not looking up from his phone, thumbs a whir.

She looked at him for a moment longer - at his short beard, sharp features, all the pudginess gone - and then went back to watching television.

It was soon after the election that she noticed more changes in him. He had always been fascinated by World War II, researching military arcana and collecting memorabilia. He displayed vintage flags in the basement, including the Third Reich's, and uniforms, including an SS soldier's, which he wore sitting in front of the house on Halloween, German shepherd at his feet, giving candy to children. But in the months after the election, the obsession started to seem less harmless. There were anti-Semitic posts on his Facebook wall. He spent more time in his room, late into the night, podcasts going. He started saying things that scared her. One night, he went on and on about the Jewish cast of "Saturday Night Live," until she told him to go to bed. Another day, he started "barking his agenda" at a family lunch, and she wondered where this had come from. One of his childhood friends was African American, and so is her best friend, whom he calls "Aunt Tammy." Another aunt is Jewish. He had always known racial diversity growing up near Columbus.

She finished watching "Ellen," and then came the news.

The lead story featured developments in a high-profile criminal case in which an African American man was alleged to have kidnapped, raped and killed a white Ohio State University student. The defense was accusing the prosecution of "racial bias," the newsman said. It wouldn't be considering the death penalty if "his victim had been a black girl."

"They're saying he wouldn't be sentenced to death if it was a black girl," Kirsten said.

"The lawyers are trying to say it wouldn't be appropriate?" Kam said.

"Because it would be different if it was a black girl."

He chuckled in apparent disbelief.

She stared at him, now feeling disbelief herself.

"Do you not get it?" she asked, and he didn't say anything.

Who was he becoming? What was this group doing to him? Was it a cult?

She couldn't put it off any longer. She had to know. She reached for her phone. She plugged in the name that for so long she had tried to ignore.

"Traditionalist Worker Party."

Said Wikipedia: ". . . neo-Nazi, white nationalist group . . ."

Said the Southern Poverty Law Center: ". . . advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world's problems."

Said a party tenet: "Citizenship in the ethno-state must therefore be limited to White persons, and White persons alone."

She shook her head, sighed, looked at her son, put down the phone.

"It makes my stomach hurt," she said.

"What?" he asked. "The reading?"

"The description," she said.

She felt a sadness come over her, and a sense of shame, that her son was so dedicated to a cause she not only found repugnant, and was certain would never yield anything, but seemed so distant from who he was. She knew him, and there wasn't hatred there. The words on the screen - that wasn't her Kam. This had to be a phase. It just had to be.

---

But increasingly, family members were finding that difficult to believe. Like the day, weeks later, he headed for the door with his backpack festooned with white pride pins. He told Kirsten he was off to Knoxville, where some of "our guys" were planning to protest a feminist rally. Or the time, after his return, after "My Borders My Choice" had been painted at a Knoxville university, he was sitting downstairs and said things were picking up.

"A TWP business is in the works," he said. "They're starting a . . . warehouse in Tennessee, and it's got a free room if I came and worked with them."

"What do you mean free room and board?" Kirsten asked. "A commune?"

"Something like that," he said.

She nodded slowly, trying to absorb what he was saying. He was going to live and work with neo-Nazis? But she didn't press him, and then it was hours later, and Kam's phone was ringing, with someone who did want to press him.

It was his grandmother Bobbie, and she said they had to talk.

For months, Bobbie had stayed quiet, which hadn't come easily. She was quiet when he told her in December that he wanted to throw a white nationalist barbecue on her property, a sweep of woods a 45-minute drive from Columbus. And then again, a week later, when a few men arrived with him, wearing black. She had wanted so badly to confront them, to ask what they were doing with her grandson, but instead she said nothing at all, sensing it wasn't the right time to say what she wanted. That she believed in an America where people could think whatever they wanted. That she had an open mind and knew what it was to adopt controversial positions - first as a League of Women Voters activist, then as an outspoken government critic - but that this seemed different.

It was now weeks later, and she was ready to tell him just how different. There had to be some kind of intervention, she had been thinking. What Kam was doing had gone far enough, so she called him and asked whether he could get lunch.

The next day, she pulled into a parking lot near the house where he lived with Kirsten and tried to gather herself. She thought of her daughter. She didn't know why Kirsten wasn't harder on him. "Kirs the fierce" - that's what she used to call her - and she wondered where that had gone, just as she wondered so many other things. She wondered whether Kirsten's strained relationship with her daughter had made her fearful of endangering what she had with Kam. She wondered why it had come down to her, the grandma, to talk with him. But most of all, she wondered what words she should use.

"I should have a plan," she thought aloud. She looked at her hands. She knew she had to be careful. She didn't want to risk losing him. But she needed an answer to a question she didn't think anyone in the family had asked.

Where had these beliefs come from? How did a boy with his background, raised by people who held such progressive values, end up with these views?

Feeling ready, she pulled out of the parking lot. She drove down the wide streets, past all the two-story homes, and their mailboxes and neat yards and driveways, and pulled up to her daughter's house. She got out, went inside without knocking and saw the blinds were drawn.

"Kamden?" she said into the darkness.

---

She had become so accustomed to seeing him in the camouflage cargo pants, boots and sleeveless T-shirts with Nordic symbols that Bobbie was surprised to find him dressed in a handsome sweater, jeans and new-looking tennis shoes. "My boy," she said, hugging him. "I love that sweater. Is that cashmere?"

She told him that she'd made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, and together they went to her car, then to a table near the entrance, then the menus were in their hands, and here they finally were, ready to talk, but she didn't know where to begin. She put on her glasses, took them off. She asked him to text Kirsten to join them. She watched him for a moment, said, "So . . ." and picked up her menu again. "I'm going to see what I want to eat, then we can talk."

The restaurant was so loud, with music playing, and televisions going, and other people carrying on, that the first words that came out of Bobbie were almost impossible to hear.

"I wonder," she soon said. "Your dad was a liberal, and your mom is a liberal, and your grandpa is definitely a liberal. . . . I'm trying to think how this all got started."

"It's just the type of society that's going on right now," Kam said.

"Did you discover it over the internet?"

"I guess you could say that," he said. "I wasn't approached by anybody."

"And what made you . . ." Bobbie started, trailing off, stumbling. "Do you disagree with anything, the precepts you told me about?" she said, referencing Traditionalist Worker Party doctrine.

"I can't think of anything specific," he said.

"But don't you have something else that you want to do?" she asked.

"Right now, no," he said.

"I guess I just wanted more for you," she continued, pressing him on it now, getting into everything she'd wanted to say, her fears for his safety and future, the repercussions he wasn't considering, even though she could tell he was becoming uncomfortable. "If your circumstances were different, if you had some money, if you had a car and could do whatever you wanted to do, what would you do?"

"It probably wouldn't be too different," he said shortly. Then he pushed back his chair and stood. Bobbie watched as he tugged at the sweater that made him look like the young man she wanted to see, the one who could still have all the successes she wished for him. He took it off, folded it neatly and sat back down. Under the sweater was a white nationalist T-shirt, and now its words were exposed to Bobbie and to anyone who bothered to look.

"Local Solutions To The Globalist Problem," it said, listing his group's web address.

She stared at it.

"Oh, Kamden, Kamden," she said. "My boy. I don't know. I thought you'd go off and do something wonderful."

Then she had a thought.

"Your Aunt Tammy is black," she said.

"I don't hate black people," he said.

"But you don't want to live with them?"

"No."

"I mean," was all she could say. "I mean."

"It's not a subject I'd like to talk about right now."

"In America, we cross cultures, and we always have," she said.

"That doesn't mean we have to flood the country with so many different races that we all mold into a brown plate of - " he said without finishing the sentence. "When all of these races come together to express their own unique culture, then nobody gets to have anything expressed anymore because all of their cultures are destroyed in this process, and then you're left with a cultural mutt that doesn't know where to go in life, that hates themselves and hates everything around them."

There were 11 seconds of silence.

"Whites are being bred out," he said.

"I don't see all of that," she said.

He hit the table. It shook.

"You don't have to see it!" he said. "You just have to look at the . . . statistics!"

She could feel him slipping away. He was shaking his head.

"Honey," she said. "I just don't get it. You have all these people in your family who are so liberal and so compassionate. I don't know how you got this way."

He didn't respond to that, just stared at his food.

"If I told you I would never talk to you again unless you leave this group, what would you say?"

"I would leave the group," he said. "But I wouldn't change how I feel."

She felt some relief in having that, at least, and reached out and touched his arm. "I'm exhausted," she said. "I'm truly exhausted. This whole thing."

"I understand your frustration," he answered, and there was nothing left to say, so they finished their meals, looking up to see Kirsten arrive, smiling and fresh off work.

"Hi!" she said. "Did you guys have lunch?"

Bobbie paid the bill, Kam put his sweater back on and everyone got up to leave. They drove to the house, and the family got out: the son who had made his choice between extremism and putting his family at ease. The mother who couldn't bring herself to confront what she feared in him. The grandmother who had wanted to know whether this really was him, and now had her answer.

They went inside. Bobbie said she had some things to do and left. Kirsten said she had to go to the grocery store. Kam had nowhere to go at all, so he went upstairs, closing the door to his room behind him. He was still there when Kirsten returned a little later. Normally he would come out and help her bring everything in, but this afternoon, he didn't. His room stayed dark. She carried the food and beer inside herself.

Opening one, she sat down the couch. There still wasn't a sound from upstairs. So she took a sip, picked up the remote, turned on the television, and flipped it to something that would make her feel good.

"Here she is now," the announcer on the television said, as the crowd cheered, "Ellen DeGeneres! "

Women in Latin music are poised for a breakthrough - is their industry ready for them?

By Julyssa Lopez
Women in Latin music are poised for a breakthrough - is their industry ready for them?
Singer-songwriter Karol G. MUST CREDIT: Sebastian Quintero

Colombian singer Karol G is a rare force in Latin urban music. While the 27-year-old is as sleek and glossy as a beauty queen, she wields an unapologetic toughness that comes out when she's sparring against reggaeton's most ruthless male artists.

But 10 years ago, Karol G was just Carolina Giraldo, a newcomer earnestly peddling reggaeton and R&B mix tapes from one radio station to the next in her native Medellin. The reactions she received were a depressing combination of confusion, disdain and lewd propositions that would have discouraged a more fainthearted artist.

"There were no opportunities," she said. "Zero. The door was closed. They wouldn't even listen to my music because they would say the genre I was doing was for men."

But tenacity is something Karol G has in endless supply. She didn't give up on urban music and now, after years of hearing no, the Spanish-speaking music industry is catching up to her. Last year, her debut album, "Unstoppable," made it to No. 2 on Billboard's Top Latin Albums chart, and "Ahora Me Llama," her collaboration with trap wunderkind Bad Bunny, cracked Spotify's Global 200. In January, she inched toward a worldwide smash when Major Lazer tapped her for a remix of "En La Cara."

Karol G is one of many women making ripples in the Latin industry, particularly in the urban space. Dominican artist Natti Natasha reached No. 6 on the Hot Latin charts with "Criminal," her duo with reggaeton star Ozuna; Mexican-American singer Becky G peaked at No. 3 with her Bad Bunny-assisted hit "Mayores"; and Brazilian superstar Anitta nabbed a No. 14 spot thanks to "Downtown" with J Balvin.

A handful of well-performing singles may seem unremarkable, especially when so many have been collaborations with male artists. But it's very notable considering how rarely Latina artists have affected the charts in recent years.

In 2015, a staggering 22 weeks passed without a single female artist appearing on the Hot Latin Songs charts, and a Billboard review showed that only two women reached the No. 1 spot between 2012 and 2016. During the same period, just seven women (compared with 33 men) reached the top of the Top Latin Albums chart. The women who did thrive tended to be legacy acts such as Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Paulina Rubio, who have been in the business for decades.

And when it comes to Latin music awards, the numbers are just as bad. The feminist advocacy group Ruidosa recently analyzed the 2017 Latin Grammys, Latin Billboards and Premios 40 Principales and found that of 117 total winners, only 14 were women.

The Latin music industry - which usually refers to Spanish-language music made and sold in the United States and Latin America - is a notoriously patriarchal machine, exacerbated by widespread machismo entrenched in many Latin cultures. And although some of the most important Latin music icons have been women - Chavela Vargas, Celia Cruz and Mercedes Sosa, just to name a few - the industry has been a particularly unfriendly arena for emerging female artists.

Latin music's gender gap became painfully conspicuous last year, when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" overtook the global music landscape. Male artists such as J Balvin, Maluma and Bad Bunny were touted as the torchbearers who would throttle Latin music forward. Women were hardly considered in the conversation.

But 2018 could mark a long-awaited change. The end of 2017 showed that despite its male-dominated roots, Latin urban music is rife with women eager to add their voices to trap, rap and reggaeton. A breakthrough year for women in Latin music would be well timed, as the calls for more female representation are amplified throughout the music industry.

Although some women have shared experiences of abuse and harassment, a full #MeToo reckoning hasn't quite taken over Latin music. Still, an empowered energy has been trickling into the market. Latina artists are seizing the need for gender inclusivity and fighting harder not just to be seen, but also to spark complex and pointed conversations around diversity and nuance in the industry.

"In America, there's a Nicki Minaj, there's a Katy Perry, there's an Ariana Grande, there's a Taylor Swift, and they each represent something different," Karol G said. "That doesn't happen in the Latin industry. There are so many men and you can count the women on your fingers, and it's not because we're not here. There's tons of talent."

---

Conversations around gender inclusivity in Latin music have been unspooling for years - slowly, no doubt, but now there's buy-in from major music services. Rocío Guerrero, Spotify's head of global cultures and content, has unofficially heralded 2018 as the year of Latinas, and her team plans to highlight female artists by adding more voices to their playlists, which include "Mujeronas" and "Latin Divas," and inviting female acts on their recently launched podcast, "¡Viva Latino!"

Additionally, domestic chart-toppers such as singer Camila Cabello (an American who was born in Cuba) and Cardi B, the "Bodak Yellow" rapper who is of Dominican and Trinidadian heritage, have made massive splashes in the U.S. market. Although they are signed to major American labels, both have experimented with songs en español. Their mere mainstream presence helps raise the profile of Latin culture and sounds, and their breakthroughs bode well for Spanish-speaking artists trying to knock down barriers of their own.

"I think Latina artists are going to prove they can stay this year - they're not a one-hit wonder or only a feature for someone else's song. They're going to stick around," Guerrero said.

Diana Rodriguez is an industry veteran who made history when she became the first woman to head a U.S. Latin label as the vice president of Capitol Latin in 2010. She says that change can start at the top and emphasizes the importance of women in A&R, supervisor and music production roles.

Today, Rodriguez runs her own firm and manages several artists who offer a fresh take on Latina musicians. There's the brassy tattooed guitarist Mon Laferte and Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez, the commanding lead singer of the band La Santa Cecilia, whose songs exalt immigrant communities. Rodriguez has observed that young fans starved for new role models in music connect to these women intimately, especially on social media.

"The girls standing out don't represent your standard mold," Rodriguez said. "People are relating to the girl with the tattoos who got her heart broken and the girl who is not afraid to wear a tutu and talk about immigration."

Still, more diversity continues to be a demand all around. Latino identity is pluralistic and complex, encompassing nearly 33 countries, multiple races and cultural conditions. More women are defying the stereotypes around Latina artists, but the physical image portrayed in the Spanish-speaking entertainment industry remains woefully homogenous. Latinas on TV or on magazine covers tend to be light-skinned celebrities who adhere to limited standards of beauty.

Dana Danelys De Los Santos, an Afro-Dominican singer who goes by Amara La Negra, raised this issue when she appeared on VH1's "Love & Hip Hop Miami." After a producer insinuated that Santos's Afro hairstyle wasn't "elegant," her retort was both ferocious and heartbreaking: "Not all Latinas look like J. Lo or Sofia Vergara or Shakira, so where are the women that look like myself?"

"Celia Cruz was one of the few artists that made it worldwide as an Afro-Latina. After that, I'll sit and wait for you to tell me what other Afro-Latinas have made it worldwide," she said. "I don't think it's fair because it's not that we're not talented - the standards are just different for us."

Santos has become a fierce advocate and symbol for the Afro-Latino community, initiating a conversation that could inspire generations of underrepresented girls to enter the scene. Leila Cobo, Billboard's executive director of content and programming for Latin music, says this is the unmistakable power of having women in the spotlight.

"When it starts to work for one person, you have other people who come and say, 'This could work for me, too,' " Cobo said. "We're going to see a whole bunch more we haven't seen yet."

---

In other genres, artists say they have seen attitudes shifting among their male counterparts. Becky G, whose real name is Rebbeca Gomez, started as a YouTube sensation when she was barely 14 years old.

After a few years of releasing pop in English, she turned to the Spanish-speaking urban market, a space that has long been mired in misogyny. But after years of backlash, reggaeton rappers have cleaned up their act to appeal to radio listeners, which has, at least marginally, created a cultural consciousness around the treatment of women in urban music. (Puerto Rican reggaeton star Don Omar even called out Latin trap for being too explicit.) When Gomez started working with male rappers, she says she found a surprisingly welcoming group that, post-"Despacito," wanted to collaborate and root for Latino success.

"I'm friends with Balvin and Maluma, and when I'm hanging out with Bad Bunny, I'm not looked down upon," she said. "The industry already does that - there's this double standard where guys can and girls can't. But to see artists support each other, male or female, is a big step."

This sense of camaraderie is still not regularly reflected in the music itself, where the sexualization of women remains impossible to ignore, especially in songs where female artists feature with men. Becky G had to reckon with fans alarmed by her risqué image in the video for "Mayores" while Karol G faced criticism because Bad Bunny's explicit verses in "Ahora Me Llama" seemed to be a brutal contradiction to her empowering message.

For Karol G, the song was about representing a woman's perspective and standing toe to toe with a man - something rarely done in Latin urban music, apart from the masterful efforts of the inimitable Puerto Rican reggaeton icon Ivy Queen.

"I wanted to make a trap song where a guy was talking about the men's viewpoint, and I could raise up the women and talk about theirs," Karol G said. "You hear me, despite what he's saying, telling him that I'm a free woman, I have my own squad and I'm moving up."

But artists such as Danay Suárez say there won't be a true shift in the industry until women push for new narratives in music. Suárez has worked quietly in her native Havana for 10 years, writing socially conscious rap that reflects personal stories about life in Cuba. She was an underground sensation until her album "Palabras Manuales" helped her score four Latin Grammy nominations in 2017, kindling hope that women creating political and polemical work - like the perennially beloved Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez and the up-and-coming Mexican emcee Niña Dioz - could achieve more commercial attention.

"Everyone expects certain things from a young artist - nudity, more sensual songs, more sexuality - and I think what's missing sometimes, that I try to show, is music that goes into your emotions and your spirit, and goes against what people are used to," she said.

One tactic artists have used to change the script: joining forces with other women. Niña Dioz partnered with Polaris Music Prize-winning musician Lido Pimienta and Tijuana-born singer Ceci Bastida for "Tambalea," a song that discusses Mexico's "femicidios" (massacres of women) and the experiences of queer women.

Becky G, who teamed up with Karol G and the singers Leslie Grace and Lali for a recent remix, has dreams of large-scale, girl-power collaborations ("A 'Lady Marmalade' or something like that would be so cool," she says.)

Karol G, who extols the talents of such contemporaries as Natti Natasha, Farina and Becky G, says that a stronger sisterhood is a sign of changing times.

"The music is evolving, the mentalities are evolving," she said. "Machistas are out of style."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The GOP tax reform used to be extremely unpopular. Not anymore.

By marc a. thiessen
The GOP tax reform used to be extremely unpopular. Not anymore.

WASHINGTON -- When the Republican-controlled Congress first approved its tax bill in December, most Democrats believed it would be a political loser for the GOP. Indeed, a New York Times poll found that just 37 percent of Americans approved of the plan. “To pass a bill of tax cuts and have it be so unpopular with the American people is an amazing achievement for the Republicans -- it’s never been done before,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., crowed.

He’s not crowing any more. In January support had risen to 46 percent, and this week it reached a 51 percent majority. Meanwhile, disapproval has dropped from 57 percent in December to 45 percent today. That is a swing of 26 points.

Why the change? Because taxes are personal. The tax bill is extremely complicated, and when it was passed, many Americans were confused about how it would affect them. A December poll found that only 17 percent believed they would pay less in taxes, while 32 percent thought they would pay more. In fact, about 80 percent of taxpayers will receive a tax cut this year averaging about $2,100, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. For the middle class, an even larger share benefit: More than 90 percent of taxpayers in the middle income quintile will receive a tax cut.

It is taking time for voters to figure this out. In 2001, when President George W. Bush passed his across-the-board tax cuts, his message was simple: Every American who pays taxes will get a tax cut. But in 2017, Republicans overhauled more of the entire tax code. They cut tax rates and doubled the standard deduction but also eliminated many traditional deductions for those who itemize. As a result, a lot of taxpayers didn’t know whether they would end up winners or losers.

Now, more Americans are starting to discover that they are winners. Millions are starting to receive their Trump tax cuts as employers lower their tax withholdings, leaving more money in their paychecks. And the bill will become more popular as more people learn the good news. Even now, only one-third of Americans think they will see an income tax cut. Many voters are going to be pleasantly surprised when they discover their taxes are being reduced thanks to President Trump and Republican lawmakers. And that does not take into account the bonuses and raises that many Americans are receiving from their employers because of the corporate tax cuts -- or the wage increases they will get from the economic growth that tax reform unleashes in the months and years ahead.

When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed these tax saving as “crumbs,” she came off as an elitist. A couple of thousand dollars a year may be crumbs to a San Francisco multimillionaire, but to most hard-working Americans that is real money. Indeed, Pelosi is getting slammed by her fellow Democrats for her out-of-touch response. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., warned that “language is important” and “we cannot be seen as patricians,” while Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., a member of the House Democratic leadership, said, “I think for people making $40,000 a year, any increase in their take-home is significant for them.”

Democrats are in a bind because they voted against that increase in take-home pay. The growing public support for tax reform is especially a problem for the five vulnerable Senate Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won by double digits. All of them will have a hard time explaining why they sided with the “resistance” and opposed giving their constituents a tax cut.

The success is already bolstering GOP candidates. In North Dakota, a state Trump won by 36 points, the success of the tax bill has drawn Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp a strong challenger in Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. Just last month, Cramer had announced that he was not going to run. Why did he change his mind? The Post reports that one reason was Cramer’s belief that Heitkamp’s vote against the tax bill was “fatal” for her.

Expect to see a lot of other GOP challengers -- and purple-state voters -- come to the same conclusion.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

America is not immune from forces of democratic decay

By fareed zakaria
America is not immune from forces of democratic decay

NEW YORK -- A few weeks ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the 10th edition of its Democracy Index, a comprehensive ranking of nations that looks at 60 measures in five categories, ranging from electoral process to civil liberties. For the second consecutive year, the United States failed to make the top bracket of “full democracy” and was grouped in the second one, “flawed democracy.”

It would be easy to focus on the state of American democracy under President Trump, but the more worrying aspect is that America’s slide is part of a global trend. In this year’s report, scores dropped for more than half the world’s countries. What Stanford professor Larry Diamond described 10 years ago as a “democratic recession” shows no sign of ending. The nature of this recession is perhaps best seen by looking at the state of the free press worldwide.

Take Kenya, until very recently considered a hopeful story of democratic progress. Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta instructed the country’s main television stations not to cover an opposition event, and when they refused, he took them off the air. The government then ignored a court order that the stations be allowed to resume broadcasting.

Kenya’s violations of press freedom are trivial compared with those of Turkey, which is now the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Let me underscore that fact. The government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other country is democratically elected. It used to target the media in ways that at least had the veneer of the rule of law, such as issuing a massive tax fine against a critical organization. But that changed after the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016. One year later, a UN report found that at least 177 news outlets had simply been shut down.

It might be possible to brush these stories aside as the inevitable backtracking of developing societies. But what then to make of the turn of events in Hungary and Poland, two countries that wholeheartedly embraced democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union? In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration has used a series of clever tactics to muzzle the free press. The government has effectively taken over public broadcasting, exerting pressure on outlets and installing party loyalists in key positions. It has showered friendly media with advertising money and drastically cut advertising spending in critical platforms. After Orban’s government starves, harasses and intimidates independent media, friendly oligarchs buy out the media companies, thus ensuring favorable coverage. Many of these same tactics are now being employed in Poland, which has been a poster child for its stellar political and economic reforms since the fall of communism.

Even in long-established democracies like Israel and India, we are witnessing systematic efforts to shrink the space and power of independent media that is critical of the government. In Israel, the criminal allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which he denies, include his dealings with press barons to ensure favorable coverage. In addition, Netanyahu’s efforts to keep public broadcasting weak have earned him condemnation even from right-wing politicians. In India, Narendra Modi’s government has launched a highly questionable fraud and money laundering case against NDTV, a powerful and persistent critic of some of its policies. Recently, a journalist who exposed an embarrassing vulnerability in a government database was referred to the police rather than hailed as a whistleblower.

More than 20 years ago, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, I warned that the distinctive problem facing the world was “illiberal democracy” -- elected governments that systematically abused their power and restricted freedoms and liberties. I subsequently worried that America could head down this path. Most people dismissed the danger because American democracy, they said, was robust, with strong institutions that could weather any storm. Press freedom, after all, is guaranteed under the First Amendment. But consider Poland and Hungary, which not only have strong institutions of their own but also exist within the embrace of rule-based European Union institutions that have explicit constitutional protections for freedom of the press.

In just one year in office, Donald Trump has already done damage. Besides denigrating critical media outlets and lauding friendly ones, he has threatened to strengthen libel laws, strip network licenses and tax the owner of a particular newspaper. His administration has blocked the merger of a news organization he considers biased, while facilitating the merger of an organization with more favorable coverage.

“An institution,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Institutions are collections of rules and norms agreed upon by human beings. If leaders attack, denigrate and abuse them, they will be weakened, and this, in turn, will weaken the character and quality of democracy. The American system is stronger than most, but it is not immune to these forces of democratic decay.

Fareed Zakaria’s email address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Syria desperately needs a pathway to stability

By david ignatius
Syria desperately needs a pathway to stability

MUNICH -- The abiding image from last weekend’s security conference here was of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu theatrically brandishing a piece of an Iranian drone shot down over Israel a week before -- and starkly warning Tehran: “Do not test Israel’s resolve.”

Are Israel and Iran heading toward war, in their new jockeying for influence amid the rubble of Syria? Probably not, but a delicate game of brinkmanship has certainly begun. Policymakers in Washington, Jerusalem, Moscow and Tehran are struggling to define and communicate the rules.

The Israel-Iran confrontation is the most dangerous new factor in Syria, which has become a gruesome cockpit once again after some months of relative quiet. The Syrian regime is now trying to crush resistance in Ghouta, east of Damascus, where rebels once had support from the CIA but are now struggling on their own. The bloodbath there has been horrific, and the U.N. Security Council on Thursday debated a resolution for a 30-day cease-fire. Russia resisted, evidently wanting to complete the bloody campaign.

This grim new phase of the Syrian conflict is a replay of the siege of Aleppo -- with the added new danger of a regional war between Israel and Iran. It’s this latter problem that most concerns U.S. and Israeli officials, especially after the shootdown of an Israeli F-16 during a retaliatory strike after the Iranian drone incident.

A senior Trump administration official this week summarized the deterrence strategy against Iranian forces in Syria: Israel must maintain its freedom of action to strike Iranian threats anywhere in Syria; the U.S. and Russia should expand the buffer zone in southwest Syria where Iranian-backed forces aren’t allowed to operate. That exclusion zone is now about 10 kilometers; the U.S. wants to widen it to 20.

But this simple formula doesn’t address the larger questions that are lurking in the new Israel-Iran standoff. Should Israel work more closely with Russia to decrease Iranian influence? (And does Moscow have the power to deliver?) Should America use its military presence in eastern Syrian to check Iranian forces?

There’s also a controversial new twist that’s being discussed quietly by some U.S. and Israeli officials. If it’s unrealistic to expect that U.S. military forces and their Syrian Kurdish allies will indefinitely occupy Syrian territory east of the Euphrates, then should the U.S. begin working to gradually restore the authority of the Syrian government to that part of the country?

“Return of the state, not return of the regime” is how some officials are describing this approach. There’s an important caveat: This strategy cannot mean restoration of power for President Bashar Assad, whose massacres of his people won’t be forgiven by millions of Syrians. Assad’s toxic role was dramatized by this week’s slaughter in Ghouta.

Experts in Washington, Moscow and Tel Aviv are weighing whether there might be an eventual deal between America’s key ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces,” and a reformed Syrian army and state. That Kurdish-government alliance might be a better bulwark against Iranian influence than an unsustainable American occupation; it could also be the backbone of a reformed Syria.

To check Iranian influence in Syria, the U.S. needs a coherent strategy whose pieces fit together. The U.S. has leverage but appears unsure how to use it, which tempts rivals such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. “The most expensive option in the Middle East is doing ‘nothing.’ This simply imposes greater costs on future policymakers,” argues Norman Roule, a former chief of Iranian operations at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He recently became an adviser to United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group.

Iran, meanwhile, is replicating in Syria the disciplined, ideological power base it developed in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Roule argues that the Iranians thrive on three factors to project power: internal political chaos, a beleaguered Shiite minority, and a logistical pipeline to Tehran. All three are present in Syria, Roule argues.

A case study of how Iran builds this proxy power is a militia called the “National Ideological Resistance in Syria,” often dubbed a “Syrian Hezbollah.” It’s relatively small, mobile and intensely motivated. According to Syrian analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, it has fought in Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo and has established affiliates in northeast and southwest Syria.

The Syria shooting gallery, and the jostling of foreign proxy forces there, reminds me ominously of Lebanon before the Israeli wars of 1982 and 2006. America, Russia and the regional powers need to chart a pathway toward stability or this catastrophe will get worse.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

New budget holds hidden tax benefits

By kenneth r. harney
New budget holds hidden tax benefits

WASHINGTON -- Call it buried tax treasure for homeowners: Deep inside the behemoth 654-page bipartisan budget bill recently signed into law by President Trump are little-noticed extensions of key tax-code benefits that expired in 2016, but now can be used for upcoming 2017 tax filings.

Potentially the most popular is aimed at millions of buyers and owners who pay mortgage-insurance premiums on conventional, FHA and VA loans. Roughly 4.1 million owners took write-offs averaging more than $1,500 during 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Mortgage-insurance industry officials predict that at least that many will be able to qualify for the benefit on their 2017 tax returns -- provided they learn the deduction has been revived for the year.

Mortgage insurance is designed to cover a portion or all of a lender’s risk of loss in the event of default on home loans where borrowers make less than a 20 percent down payment. The coverage is especially commonplace -- and important -- on mortgages made to first-time purchasers and to households with moderate or lower incomes. Fees are either folded into borrowers’ monthly payments or paid in a lump sum up front.

Congress first authorized tax deductions for mortgage-insurance premiums more than a decade ago, but legal authority for the write-offs lapsed at the end of 2016. The new budget bill provides for a retroactive extension for premiums paid during 2017, but it’s silent about future deductions, including for 2018.

To qualify for the benefit, borrowers must pass a couple of tests: The home securing the insured mortgage must have been their principal residence during the year rather than a second home or investment property. And their adjusted gross income must have totaled less than $100,000. Deductible amounts phase down to zero for taxpayers with incomes up to $110,000.

Another popular tax-code provision brought back to life retroactively for 2017 filings: Elimination of tax liability on mortgage debt forgiven by lenders in connection with short sales, foreclosures and loan modifications. Without this special exception to the law, financially distressed homeowners would otherwise be subject to the tax code’s traditional, harsh treatment of canceled debt: Any amounts forgiven are taxed as ordinary income, at regular marginal rates -- essentially hitting owners with prodigious tax bills at the very time they are least able to pay, following a foreclosure or short sale. If, for example, a lender wrote off $100,000 as part of a short-sale arrangement, the IRS could demand income taxes on that $100,000, despite the fact that the sellers had lost all their equity and were in bad financial shape already.

Originally passed by Congress during the housing crisis of the last decade, the special exception benefited thousands of owners who struggled with job losses, medical bills and other financial challenges during the Great Recession and the years following. Though foreclosures and short sales have declined steadily during the post-recession recovery, they are still a significant presence in the real estate market. According to ATTOM Data Solutions, lenders started the foreclosure process on nearly 384,000 properties during 2017. The amounts canceled by lenders often range into the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars; some exceed $1 million.

Though Congress renewed the special housing exception to the debt-forgiveness rule multiple times, it expired at the end of 2016. But under the new budget-bill agreement extension, homeowners who had mortgage debt canceled by their lender during 2017 may be eligible for tax relief. IRS guidelines for the program are spelled out in the agency’s Publication 4681. Maximum eligible amounts of mortgage debt canceled range up to $2 million ($1 million if you’re married filing separately).

Other potentially useful expired tax benefits that were revived retroactively for 2017 under the budget agreement involve energy-conserving improvements made to your home. The new extension allows you to get a tax credit of 10 percent of what you spent on certain improvements such as insulation, energy-efficient windows and doors and roofs. The cost of installing the improvements cannot be included in the calculation of the credit amount.

You may also be eligible for a credit for high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, water heaters and stoves that burn biomass fuel. Note that there are limits on the total credit you can claim. To qualify, you’ll need to have installed your “qualified improvements” in your principal residence -- no second homes allowed -- no later than Dec. 31, 2017.

Ken Harney’s email address is Harneycolumn@gmail.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump and the GOP won’t act on gun control. So we must.

By eugene robinson
Trump and the GOP won’t act on gun control. So we must.

WASHINGTON -- They won’t do anything meaningful about guns until you force them to with your votes.

This time, following the Parkland massacre, does feel different from all the other times. But I fear the outcome will always be the same -- thoughts, prayers, furrowed brows and no real action -- until the Republicans who control Congress and so many state legislatures start losing elections because of their obstinacy on gun control.

They need to fear you and me more than they fear the National Rifle Association.

No amount of moral suasion will work. The slaughter of 20 first-graders in Newtown, the murder of 58 innocent country music fans in Las Vegas, the near-fatal shooting of one of their own, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. -- no atrocity has been senseless or vile enough to shame the GOP into doing something to keep military-style assault weapons out of killers’ hands. Why should the deadly rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School be the tipping point?

Optimists might point to two wild-card factors we’ve never seen before: the fierce eloquence of the young Parkland survivors and the inconstancy of President Trump.

The students’ activism began immediately, nullifying the customary first move in the GOP-NRA playbook, which is to solemnly pronounce that it is “too soon” after an act of unspeakable horror to even mention the instruments of that horror. Anyone who tries to open a debate on gun control is accused of politicizing tragedy.

“This is not the time,” Republicans say, fully intending to make sure that the time never comes.

In Parkland, though, the voices quickly calling for action on guns were those of students who hours earlier had seen their classmates mowed down by a troubled young man with an AR-15 -- students who could easily have been victims themselves. No one could question their right to speak.

And they did not mince words. The issue, they made clear, was the gun.

A 19-year-old known to acquaintances and authorities as disturbed and potentially violent had been able to buy a powerful weapon designed to rip human bodies to shreds on the battlefield. Practically anyone can walk into a gun shop and buy such a weapon. As long as we make such instruments of mass destruction so available, what on earth do we expect?

Republicans would like to change the subject to mental health or background checks, but the students from Parkland have unique standing to keep the focus on guns, where it belongs. Opponents of sensible gun control are so unnerved that they have made shameful efforts to discredit these young activists -- a slimy campaign of lies and innuendo that fortunately has backfired.

The kids are staying on message. The NRA’s little helpers can only bleat and squeal. Yes, this face-off is different. And yes, it’s encouraging.

And then there’s Trump. He took an absolutist guns-for-everybody position on the Second Amendment during the campaign, and stuck with it even after the Las Vegas mass shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history. But before he entered politics, he was no diehard opponent of gun control. He could not help but be affected by his meeting Wednesday with gun violence survivors. And despite what he told them, if you strapped him to a lie detector I’d bet you’d discover -- before the exhausted machine gave out -- that he doesn’t (BEG ITAL)really(END ITAL) think arming homeroom teachers is a solution.

Trump has talked about tougher background checks and promises to ban accessories, such as bump stocks, that can make semiautomatic weapons fire like machine guns. According to news reports, he has been muttering about the need to do more. He surely wants nothing more than to be lionized as a great president, and Republicans in Congress are afraid to cross him. He could pull a Nixon-to-China and demand passage of a tough new ban on assault weapons.

But he won’t. He has neither the good sense nor the courage. The president and his party are not going to act, so we must.

The easy part is counteracting the gun lobby’s financial clout; if they want to, gun control advocates surely can match the NRA dollar for dollar in House and Senate races. The hard part is matching the gun nuts in sustained passion. Gun control is a more important issue for opponents than it is for advocates.

When we begin to insist that our elected officials support life-saving gun control measures, and throw them out of office if they don’t, we’ll get a ban on the mass shooter’s weapon of choice. We just have to care. And vote.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Why won’t pro-lifers act against our deadly gun culture?

By dana milbank
Why won’t pro-lifers act against our deadly gun culture?

WASHINGTON -- Let us hear no more lectures from Clarence Thomas on the sanctity of human life.

The Supreme Court justice, with timing that could be charitably described as clumsy, issued his latest paean to gun rights Tuesday, as the child victims of last week’s school shooting were still being buried.

Reacting to his colleagues’ refusal to hear a case challenging California’s waiting period for gun purchases, he complained that justices would hear similar challenges to abortion, speech or privacy. “The Court would take these cases because abortion, speech, and the Fourth Amendment are three of its favored rights,” Thomas wrote. “The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan.”

Not for the first time, Thomas has it backward. Abortions are restricted far more than guns (and abortions are declining, while gun deaths are rising). Even speech is limited if it endangers life. Why shouldn’t there be reasonable restrictions on guns, too?

But Thomas has a bigger problem: claiming to be “pro-life” while his advocacy of unlimited gun rights expands a culture of death. The gun-control movement has been reluctant to use such words, lest it be seen as aping the anti-abortion movement. But the theme is apt, and it points to the hypocrisy of those who profess to be pro-life but are also pro-gun without exception, those who denounce the termination of a pregnancy but not the termination of innocent life outside the womb.

Even though 92 percent of abortions take place in the first trimester, the pro-life movement takes particular aim at late-term abortion. So let’s think of the Parkland victims in those terms:

Nicholas Dworet, who aspired to swim in the 2020 Olympics, was killed in the 72nd trimester of his life, a month shy of his 18th birthday.

Carmen Schentrup, a 2018 National Merit Scholarship finalist, was killed at the end of her 68th trimester of her life and buried the day before her 17th birthday.

Peter Wang, who had not yet reached his 64th trimester, was buried in his Junior ROTC uniform and was accepted posthumously at West Point.

They had a right to life. So did the 12 other kids and two faculty members who died.

Pro-life groups are largely silent about this, while others on the right have slandered the Parkland survivors, who in their grief have cried out for gun control, by claiming they are itinerant actors. Some explicitly tie the shooting to abortion. On the conservative website Newsmax, Dan Perkins wrote: “How is it that we have a society that on the one hand can become enraged at a school shooting, but have no compassion for the 27 babies killed by abortion each day [in Florida]?”

The theme has been prominent this week in conservative social media, prompting a writer for the religion website Patheos, G. Shane Morris, to argue, thoughtfully: “It is not legitimate, in the aftermath of the carnage at Stoneman Douglas High School, to yell, ‘Yeah, but what about abortion?!’” Morris argued: “If we truly are pro-life, we should be willing to ... talk about what needs to be done to stop a uniquely horrifying form of bloodshed that’s wracked this nation again and again in recent months and years.”

For many pro-lifers, opposition to abortion is deeply held morality. But it is no stretch to say that those who accept the routine mass murder of innocents are not truly pro-life.

Many on the right bristle at the idea that gun control will limit gun deaths, so let’s set that aside. What else would stop horrors of the sort that occurred at Parkland? More school security? Better mental-health intervention? As Politico reported, President Trump’s budget, released two days before the shooting, proposed a $25 million cut in funds for school safety activities, and elimination of a $400 million grant program for bullying prevention, mental-health assistance and the like. The budget also proposed deep cuts to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Trump has made some noises about gun control in recent days, though it remains to be seen whether that is the usual pro-gun rope-a-dope after such tragedies. He has also responded to Parkland with the language of the pro-life movement, urging a culture “that embraces the dignity of life.”

“Dignity of Life.” “Culture of life.” “Sanctity of life.” “Protecting life.” Those fighting against gun violence should own such language, seizing it from those who call themselves pro-life but refuse to act against America’s culture of death by firearms.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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