Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce may be America's sweethearts, said David Corn in Mother Jones, but they're also threats to the national security of "MAGA-land." For those blissfully unaware of the far-right's current "fever dream," Fox News hosts and Trumpist influencers have been promoting for weeks the truly "bonkers" conspiracy theory that the very public romance between the pop superstar and Kansas City Chiefs tight end is "a Pentagon psyop." A sprawling cabal of "deep-state globalists" — encompassing the White House, George Soros, and the National Football League — supposedly engineered the Chiefs' Super Bowl run to lend "more oomph" to the power couple's "presumed 2024 endorsement of President Biden." This "is not the first lunatic idea to have gotten traction on the Right," said Rich Lowry in Politico. But it might be the most "stupid and perverse." What could better embody the "traditional" American values conservatives say they support than a burly football star hooking up with a girly former country singer? And then there's the electoral insanity of attacking Swift, the most popular musician on the planet, who needs the NFL to "promote her much as John Lennon needed Yoko Ono to make him popular."
"Dumb and strange is par for the course with MAGA," said David French in The New York Times. Since Donald Trump launched his political career on the "birther" theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, his MAGA movement has lurched from one "deeply weird" conspiracy theory to the next. That Kelce is a pitchman for Pfizer's Covid vaccine and Swift endorsed Joe Biden in 2020 gives the couple an "infernal combination of affiliations," making them a natural target of MAGA paranoia. Conservatives do resent Swift's politics and her potential to drive legions of Swifties to the polls, said Amanda Marcotte in Salon. But "mostly the Right is mad" at this happily unmarried 34-year-old billionaire for shattering the myth that women end up "ugly and unloved" if they put career before family.
What really has "MAGA heads exploding," said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, is the intrusion of Swift's juggernaut into football. The angry young men who are Trump's loudest supporters consider football "their sport — macho, regimented, nationalistic, violent," a last redoubt of Real America in a culture otherwise lost to the gender-fluid horrors of liberalism. To these "MAGA bros," even "a 10-second cutaway shot" of Swift cheering Kelce on from a stadium box feels like an unbearable invasion of their safe space. Not to mention a betrayal, said Jeet Heer in The Nation. The tall, blond, country-singing Swift was once an idolized "Aryan goddess" to the racist far right. Then she pivoted to pop, endorsed Biden, and "Hell hath no fury like a Nazi spurned."
We on the Right need to "get a grip," said Adam Carrington in the Washington Examiner. Since the days of Dr. Strangelove, the Left has mocked conservatives as paranoid lunatics in "tinfoil hats." With so much real-life "depravity and corruption on the Left" to expose this election year, why are we validating that "old caricature" and alienating moderates with this nutty conspiracy theory? Because some Republicans "overlearned the lesson" of Trump's 2016 victory, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Having watched the destabilizing Trump succeed where "safe and moderate" nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney failed, they decided to embrace "abnormality" at every turn. This extends, it seems, to reviling a couple so likable, attractive, and downright wholesome in presentation that in simpler times there might have been whispers they were part of a right-wing plot to promote "conservative Americana."
Sharing similar beliefs
"Groups on each side of the political divide are held together less by common affections than by a common sense of threat, an experience of collective oppression. Today's communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails, the venal elites are out to get us; we find solidarity and meaning in resisting their oppression together. There is a right-wing version (Donald Trump's 'I am your retribution') and a left-wing version (the intersectional community of oppressed groups), but what they share is an us-versus-them Manichaeism. Whatever your perspective, everything appears to be going downhill."
Every year, thousands of children are placed in behavioral treatment centers and camps where allegations of abuse are rife.
What is the 'troubled teen' industry? It's a loose network of reform schools, treatment centers, religious academies, and wilderness therapy camps across the U.S. that purport to treat young people struggling with behavioral problems, addiction, or mental health issues. Operated by private companies, nonprofits, and faith groups, the programs charge an average of $6,316 a month — sometimes paid by desperate parents, sometimes by state care systems — and advertise their ability to break kids out of destructive cycles through therapy, tough love, and radical changes in environment. About 100,000 teenagers are estimated to go through such programs annually, and reports of abuse abound. Former patients and ex-employees say many providers are more focused on profit than care, and that therapy often consists of verbal and physical abuse, forced labor, food and sleep deprivation, and humiliation. By one estimate, 86 children died in troubled-teen programs from 2000 to 2015. Hotel heiress Paris Hilton, who says she was abused at a Utah boarding facility in the late 1990s, is now lobbying Congress to clamp down on the multibillion-dollar industry. "They stole my childhood," Hilton said, "and they're continuing to steal the childhood of so many other innocent children."
What happens inside the facilities? Teens' experiences vary significantly, and many report positive outcomes. But Hilton likens Provo Canyon School, where she was sent at age 17 for rebellious behavior, to "a torture camp." During her 11 months there, she says, she was subjected to repeated late-night cervical exams by nonmedical staff, made to consume sedatives, assaulted, and forced to shower in front of male guards. Provo Canyon was bought in 2000 by Universal Health Services, one of the nation's largest hospital providers, which says it can't comment on what happened under previous ownership. But news investigations have detailed alleged abuse at other youth UHS facilities. Austin Skidmore, a 19-year-old with autism, suffocated on his vomit after being tackled and restrained by staff at a UHS center in Georgia in 2016. A medical examiner labeled his death a homicide. A year later, a 16-year-old girl at the same facility said her arm was broken when a male employee slammed her to the ground; her family said it was the sixth time she had been injured at the facility. UHS said patient privacy regulations bar it from commenting on specific cases, but that it works with law enforcement and takes corrective action when "isolated and rare negative events" occur.
Do the programs work? UHS reports that about 80 percent of its adolescent inpatients show improvements on clinical outcome measures. But grading such programs is tricky, because children enter facilities for a wide array of problems and because there is a lack of independent research. Heather Mooney spent two years at a therapeutic boarding school in the late '90s after playing truant and running away from home. She thinks the experience helped her complete high school and succeed in college, but notes that many of her boarding-school friends have since died of overdoses and suicide. A former patient named Jaxtyn told The New York Times that he saw both sides of the industry. He said he was held in isolation and sedated at a UHS facility in Utah; UHS said it does not use solitary confinement or drugs as a form of discipline. But at a facility in Texas, he said,he received compassionate treatment that helped him address his mental health issues. "They're there for the patient," Jaxtyn said. "They're there for the child."
Are these programs regulated? Not at the federal level, where legislation to reform the industry has repeatedly failed. Congress did launch an investigation into the sector in 2007. But it concluded that the scale of the industry's problems was impossible to gauge because of inconsistent state regulations and a lack of data — there is not even a reliable count of how many facilities are operating nationwide. Outrage over abuses has led some states to crack down on behavioral treatment centers. In 2021, Utah passed a law limiting seclusion and restraint and increasing funding for abuse investigations. California requires residential facilities to operate as nonprofits, and has removed foster children sent to out-of-state facilities. Oregon did the same following news reports of a 9-year-old girl sent to a Montana institution run by national provider Acadia Healthcare. When Oregon officials visited the girl six months later, they found her unwashed and wearing a dirty, too-large scrub shirt and paper booties. Acadia subsequently closed the facility because of "overall business and operational considerations," not because of alleged mistreatment.
Will Congress take action? Hilton's advocacy prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act last year. That bill would authorize a federal study to discover exactly how many kids are being held in residential facilities for behavioral problems and create a working group to develop best practices and prioritize safe and effective outpatient services. But some self-described survivors worry that such legislation will only legitimize the industry, offering a veneer of respectability with little enforcement. "It's like trying to put a Band-Aid on an arterial bleed," said Liz Ianelli, who says she was raped by a cook at a therapeutic boarding school in the 1990s, and then bound in a blanket and left in a boiler room for days as punishment for "lying" about it. "This is a devastating, harmful industry."
Into the wild Wilderness therapy exploded in popularity in the 1990s with the promise that the healing power of nature — combined with grueling outdoor activities — can help struggling teenagers learn accountability and self-empowerment. Some parents say such programs saved their children from destructive paths, as do a large number of past participants. But many others say they were scarred by their experiences. Rowan Bissette, sent to a Utah camp at 16 for self-harm and suicide attempts, said she often passed out during hikes in the desert heat. To cope with the stress, she began self-harming again — a staff member responded by holding her in a restraint. Ciara Fanlo, who spent 12 weeks in a Colorado program at age 17, said she became sick after drinking water from cow ponds, and was ordered to carry around her vomit in a plastic bag for five days. The illness meant she didn't have a bowel movement for days, so Fanlo was then forced to drink laxatives until she soiled herself. "The intentions of these programs can be well-meaning," said Fanlo. But "what these programs fail to realize is that it is not necessary to break a person's will to redirect it."
Only in America
Residents of Atkinson, New Hampshire, have expressed concerns about the opening of The Diaper Spa, a wellness center for adults who enjoy wearing diapers. Spa owner Colleen Ann Murphy — whose facility offers virtual "playdates" for $200 an hour, or a $1,500 all-day pampering "for the little one inside you" — says she understands "people tend to fear anything that they fail to comprehend." Still, Murphy said, she's "optimistic that with time," her neighbors' "concerns will dissipate."
A remarkable run of good economic news could be a game changer for President Biden in the November election, said Jim Tankersley in The New York Times. For much of his term, Biden has struggled to sell the nation "on the positive signs in the economy under his watch." Reports of low unemployment and a scorching jobs market were drowned out by forecasts of an imminent recession and voters fuming about the highest inflation rate in four decades. But "the narrative appears to be changing." Inflation is falling toward historically normal levels — and finally being outpaced by wage growth. The economy grew 3.1 percent last year, "defying expectations." Stocks are hitting record highs, and the Labor Department reported last week that a whopping 353,000 jobs were added in January, the highest monthly gain in a year. All this should give Biden a meaningful boost in the polls.
Biden's problem is that many Americans' views of the economy — and him — "remain bleak," said Ariel Edwards-Levy in CNN.com. In a new CNN poll, 48 percent of voters said the U.S. is still in a downturn, and 55 percent said Biden's policies have worsened economic conditions. An NBC News poll found that likely GOP nominee Donald Trump has a 22-point edge over Biden on whom voters trust to manage the economy. That's because most Americans understand the inflationary crisis was fueled by Biden's profligate government spending, said J.T. Young in the Washington Examiner. As a result, surging prices swallowed most of workers' wage gains, while high interest rates raised payments on their mortgages and credit-card balances. Inflation may have come down from its 2022 high of 9 percent, but "you don't get credit for fixing a problem you created."
Our "political polarization" is now so extreme that MAGA world will never believe the economy is doing well no matter how much evidence piles up, said Jackie Calmes in the Los Angeles Times. But "demoralized Democrats" and swing voters "can be swayed," and it's up to Biden to "persuade the persuadables" that the economy is thriving. How he goes about that matters, said Stanley B. Greenberg in The American Prospect. Ordinary Americans "exhausted" by inflation do have reason to be disgruntled when a bag of groceries costs 20 percent more than it did pre-pandemic. To acknowledge that reality and offer solutions — like hiking taxes on companies' huge profits — instead of donning "rose-colored glasses" will put Biden "in a much better position" in November.
It wasn't all bad
After at least a week trapped in a shipping container, a brown-furred dog was rescued at a Texas port. The container was filled with junked cars, and the dog, now named Connie the Container Dog, probably got stuck inside one of the vehicles. Four U.S. Coast Guard inspectors were randomly checking the shipping units when they heard Connie's scratching and barking in a 25-foot elevated container. If they hadn't found her, Connie would have had no food or water for another week before the container made it to its final destination. Currently, she's at a rescue agency, waiting for a family to adopt her. "We know with all this, she's going to go to a good home," said Ryan McMahon, one of the inspectors.
Jeffrey Wright made sure he wasn't near a TV when this year's Academy Award nominees were announced, said Lanre Bakare in The Guardian (U.K.). Once nicknamed "Hollywood's Mr. Dependable" for his solid supporting performances in films such as Casino Royale and in TV's Westworld, the actor worried he'd smash the nearest screen if he didn't get his first-ever Oscar nod, for his lead role in American Fiction. Ultimately, no screens were broken — he was nominated in the Best Actor category. "I was frustrated," says Wright, 58. "I'm not frustrated now." He's passionate about American Fiction in part because the story — about an erudite African-American novelist who jokingly writes a stereotype-filled book on ghetto violence, only to see it become a best-seller — resonates with his own concerns about Black pop culture. "If you look at the music industry now, it's the most simplistic and banal and silly types of narratives that our kids are hearing." Every generation grouses about young people's music, but Wright sees a unique "toxicity" at play. "There's violence, misogyny, self-orientation, materialism that is so intense now. There's also an absence of originality." He notes the backlash that rapper and actor André 3000 experienced after he released an album of flute music. "God, how beautiful of him," Wright says. "He got to put out what he felt within. That's what it's all about."
We'll be back tomorrow with a cultural review of the week, featuring Netflix's new limited series and a reflection on Carl Weathers' lasting impact. In the meantime, you can find more from the print edition in our apps or click here for more information about receiving The Week magazine.
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