Delivering the love
Delivering the love
Philippe Gélie

MARTINSBURG — Lory, Maggie and the rest of their gang of septuagenarians weren't all that interested in politics, at least not to the point of openly campaigning for someone. But that was before Donald Trump and his wild run for the presidency in 2016. Ardent supporters of the Republican candidate, these grandmothers in Martinsburg, West Virginia began meeting regularly to discuss national affairs over coffee and muffins, and always with the White House chief's complete works in easy reach.

A year after their champion's serendipitous victory, the group is still gathering, this time to gush about Trump's recent Asia tour. Lory, a retired bookkeeper, reads an excerpt from the president's speech: "When we treat our citizens with the respect they deserve, other countries treat America with the respect that our country so richly deserves. During our travels, this is exactly what the world saw: a strong, proud, and confident America."

"I agree 100%," she then says. "Our president has given our country its standing and its pride back. We shouldn't continually shut up if we want to maintain America's leadership."

Sipping from Make America Great Again mugs, the group perks up even more when asked about the commander-in-chief's virtues.

"He says things the way they are," Maggie says.

"He respects us," Priscilla adds.

"And he's disrupting the establishment!" says Lory.

Nothing seems to dent their enthusiasm. The failure to repeal Obamacare? "It's not his fault, it's the Congress," says one. The out-of-control tweets? "He needs to talk directly to the people because the media distorts everything," another says. What about the controversies? "Those who attack him haven't accepted his election. He has to defend himself."

Until last year, these Martinsburg matrons steered clear of electoral politics. That changed with a trip to Johnstown, in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, where they attended one of Trump's election rallies. Getting there and back wasn't easy — Johnston is more than two hours away by car — but it was well worth the effort, the women explain.

"It was amazing. He brought the house down," Lory says. "He told us: The government has betrayed you for too long. I'm going to reopen the coal mines and bring the factories back." Did she believe these beautiful promises? "I know that he'll try at least. But it would take a lot to revive old industries," she admits. "It's not his fault if this landlocked state has missed the train of progress decades ago."

Poverty and addiction

The train, precisely, continues to play a large role in the city's identity. Martinsburg is a railway hub that became a front line during the American Civil War. Even today, railroad crossings on country roads are often closed for long periods of time because of long convoys of coal. The state's production fell by half, from 158 million tons in 2008 to 80 million in 2016, but there has been a surge since the beginning of the year.

Can Trump's deregulation and rising Chinese demand stem the decline? John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of West Virginia, is hoping that things at least stabilize. "We're not waiting for new regulatory constraints that would drive up coal prices," he says.

But Martinsburg needs more than just hope. From the peeling paint on its houses to the empty downtown storefronts, the city oozes poverty and neglect. Textile mills that generated the region's wealth have been rusting for decades. Interwoven — once upon a time the world's largest producer of men's socks — used to be Martinsburg's top employer. More than 3,000 people worked for the company before operations came to an end in the mid 1970s.

Street scene, Martinsburg, West Virginia — Photo: Doug Kerr

Nowadays there's a Macy's distribution center and the new Procter & Gamble plant, but they struggle to find local qualified workers able to pass the addiction tests. With 94 overdose deaths in 2016, Berkeley County has become the epicenter of the opioid crisis. The same can be said for West Virginia as a whole. Statewide, the crisis claimed nearly 900 victims last year, out of a total population of 1.8 million.

Tim Muggit lives in a ramshackle house on a small family farm along the road to Shepherdstown. He knows exactly what opioid affliction entails. His son Johnnie, who's theoretically in rehab after two overdoses that almost killed him, looks like the many ghosts wandering around Martinsburg. He arrives unannounced in search of a bed and a meal, but doesn't offer to help his father with any of the farm work. Flanked by two ferocious dogs, rifle close at hand, Tim sees only one reason to be optimistic: Trump.

"This country has gone soft," he says. "You can't say anything to anyone anymore. Everything is politically incorrect. The real world isn't like that. It's hard. Fortunately, the president has woken us up."

"This is the first time there's someone in the White House who really represents people like me," adds Tim, who's in his 50s. A New York billionaire? "It doesn't matter where he comes from," the farmer says. "He could have continued to be a successful businessman, but he hasn't forgotten this part of America, unlike all politicians for the past 40 years."

Like the old ladies of Martinsburg, Tim Muggit doesn't really care that much if Trump keeps his promises. Mostly he wants to be rid of "the disaster of Obamacare" — even as his son is being treated on public funds through Medicaid. He's also in favor of tax cuts, though he's already exempted because of his low income. But what counts above all is that Trump "represents me against the establishment."

Downloads from God

There's plenty of anger to go around in these deprived areas. "The difficulties are everywhere, but they are more visible in smaller communities like ours," says Todd Funkhouser, president of the Berkeley County Historical Society. "People are too busy putting food on the table to worry about the rest."

West Virginia stagnates at the bottom of national rankings for household income (at 75% of the national average) and employment rate (barely 53%). "People don't even bother looking for a job anymore," says John Deskins. "In some counties, the reliance on federal subsidies is absolutely shocking." Martinsburg is less isolated and is therefore doing better than other areas in the state. Even so, Funkhouser explains, "many people have to work far away from here."

In this context, the controversies shaking up Washington matter little. What the national media denounces as "propaganda" is accepted at face value.

"Trump works hard for us and the country has never done so well," says Lory. When I point out that he spends most weekends on his golf courses in Florida or New Jersey, she says she "didn't notice."

What about Russia and the election hampering allegations? "Nonsense spread by the hysterical media," Maggie says. And the special prosecutor? The overlapping congressional investigations? "Believe me, I know who I voted for and everyone around me voted for President Trump," she adds. "He didn't steal our votes."

On this solid Republican ground, skeptics are rare and the disillusioned rarer still. Jason Herman, who heads a small construction company, has some reservations about "the style of the President... he doesn't always express himself as you'd expected at this level." But he approves of Trump's policies: his challenges to regulatory excesses, his push for lower taxes, and for greater controls on borders and immigration.

"We used to care more about what people abroad would think than about the opinion of Americans," Jason laments. Thinking about what Hillary Clinton's victory would have been like, he says he's "ready to vote for Trump again tomorrow, without any hesitation. Who else is there?"

This enthusiasm, impervious to the president's missteps or subterfuge, sometimes seems to have more to do with worship than militancy. "No matter how demonstrably false his pronouncements are, they become, by definition, truth for his followers," Reza Aslan, author of God: a Human History, recently wrote in in the Los Angeles Times. "The cult leader is generally believed to possess special knowledge... Trump has been spectacularly successful at getting his supporters to believe his blandishments rather than their own eyes."

Last summer, an evangelical pastor from neighboring Ohio, Frank Amedia proclaimed that Trump "receives downloads from God," a sentiment Tim Muggit — who says there's no joking around when it comes to the Bible — seems to agree with. In this area, he explains, Obama was seen as "the antichrist." Trump, in contrast, is "the savior."

In West Virginia, the golden age Donald Trump promised hasn't materialized yet. No matter. More than hope for change, what unites the President and his "people" is the nostalgia for a prosperous and peaceful white America, where hierarchies were respected. "When I see these athletes who are paid millions of dollars and disrespect the national anthem, I'm glad the president has the balls to denounce them," Lory says.

She's talking specifically about players in the NFL, short for the National Football League. Around here people have other name for the league: "N***ers For Life," they say in hushed voices.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics


French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.


Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.


• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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