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How Judd Legum accomplished what millions couldn’t

The famous story goes that in the 1970s, while teaching political science at the University of Louisville, Mitch McConnell made a chalkboard list of three requirements for success in politics: money, money and money. His critics therefore rejoiced when companies began pledging to withhold their money from Republicans who voted to overturn the presidential election. For example, when the news broke Jan. 11 that Verizon would stop contributions to all those Republicans who voted against certification of the election results, the anti-Trump Lincoln Project tweeted out a biting reference to Verizon’s cellphone ads. “Hey GOP,” they wrote. “Can you hear me now?”

A week later, the corporate declarations apparently achieved what Trump’s bloody Jan. 6 insurrection by itself had not; they scared McConnell into publicly denouncing Trump for inciting the Capitol mob. However brief and flickering this sliver of daylight between McConnell and Trump, the money message appeared to have gotten through.

If Republicans were listening, however, it wasn’t to the Lincoln Project. The Lincoln Project was only retweeting Judd Legum, whose newsletter Popular Information both reported the news and, in a sense, made it. Had Legum and his assistant Tesnim Zekeria not called up 144 companies and asked every one of them whether they intended to continue supporting seditionist legislators, the companies may have remained silent.

In the weeks following the insurrection, Legum’s reporting on corporate donations flooded the Twittersphere in a froth of ecstatic retweets. Finally, people with money and power were standing up and doing the right thing. The “have you no decency?” moment seemed at last to have arrived for Trump’s enablers. But nobody seemed aware of how the wave of corporate repudiations started, nor did the retweeters question how a newsletter with a staff of two had scooped the biggest media outlets on one of the biggest stories to follow the insurrection. I reached out by phone to Legum to find out.

“It does feel rewarding to see the work have impact,” Legum told me when I asked how he felt about single-handedly accomplishing what the Lincoln Project did not with a budget of millions. “For days, it’s just you and there’s a spreadsheet and I’m feeling guilty about making Tess work so many hours. And at first there are no responses. Finally, someone comes back and says, ‘We’re cutting off the seditionists.’ I do feel good for a moment or two, but my personality is always, ‘What’s next?’ There’s a certain kind of obsessiveness necessary to do the work that prevents you from enjoying it too much.”

Furthermore, Legum says, the work is far from over. Those who have gone on record against Trump’s subversions of democracy backslide with remarkable speed and consistency. After denouncing Trump on the Senate floor, McConnell voted to acquit him in the second impeachment trial and got right back to his life’s work of disenfranchising the majority of American voters. Legum followed him with the spotlight of Popular Information. On March 2, he reported on McConnell’s amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn a Ninth Circuit appellate ruling in order to let Arizona Republicans continue suppressing their opponents’ votes.

The appellate court had ruled against Arizona Republicans’ arbitrary changes in polling locations, meant specifically to suppress voting in communities of color. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court is expected to give McConnell the result he wants and overturn the appellate decision. McConnell denied Obama the constitutional right to seat a Supreme Court justice for precisely this reason, so the judiciary could protect Republican oligarchy against the will of the American majority. Evidently, to McConnell and Ted Cruz, a democratic vote is just the beginning of a negotiation, to be carried out in the courts.

Legum’s method of uncovering such iniquity is simple, tedious scrutiny; he pores over documents, makes thorough inquiries, and tracks the answers and the evasions he receives. He then reports the results in Popular Information. The newsletter’s name derives from a letter by founding father James Madison, who wrote in 1822, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” The newsletter’s motto is “News for people who give a damn.”

To avert the tragedy Madison refers to, people have to keep paying attention, but they also have to act on the information Legum provides. He leaves the activism to others and simply looks for stories where “consumers or the public in general can have an influence on some of this corporate behavior. I don’t usually say, ‘And here’s how you contact them,’ but people find a way. Within the companies [I report on], people see it and it gets read. If a lot of their employees get upset, that really drives change.” Now that people have gotten to know the newsletter, which currently has 147,000 subscribers, employees are not only acting on his information, but supplying it. After the stories on donations to the sedition caucus got national attention, Legum said, “I started to get a lot of tips.”

Civil rights groups and other advocates have also begun to seize on Legum’s reporting. On March 3, for instance, Popular Information reported that Coca-Cola and other large cap corporations donated money to Georgia legislators advancing new voting restrictions that preferentially target black voters. A day later, Legum reported that the Georgia NAACP and other groups had come together to buy ads “demanding that corporations headquartered in the state publicly oppose these bills and divest from politicians who are sponsoring them.” Soon after that, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce issued a statement opposing new voting restrictions, and Coca-Cola and Home Depot expressed agreement with the Chamber.

Will companies who retreat from toxic Republican behavior relapse into indifference and gamesmanship? It will depend on how much attention people sustain and what price they extract for corporate recidivism. Boycotts and protests can hurt a company’s brand, and while there may be no bottom line for moral courage, there is one for cash. Businesses do not want to be seen as participants in their customers’ oppression, especially when Republicans have extended their efforts at disenfranchisement to include not just people of color, but everybody who voted for Biden. Popular Information has shown that the model can work: If the American majority stays vigilant and active, they can exert influence over the corporate money flowing to politicians. And in politics, as Mitch McConnell instructs, money is everything.

Legum never thought he’d be a writer. Growing up in Maryland, he didn’t write for his school paper. He loved politics, which led him to law school at Georgetown and then to a job at the Center for American Progress, founded in 2003 by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta to counter the influence of right-wing think tanks. It was there Legum first discovered the political power of the written word.

“Communications was the emphasis from the beginning,” Legum told me, speaking of his days at the Center in the early 2000s. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, right-wing talking points dominated public discourse about U.S. national security. “At the time, the Iraq War was the big issue,” Legum said. “We talked about how few people were questioning the narrative. Democrats weren’t even questioning the war.” The narrative about Saddam’s nuclear arsenal turned out to have little basis in reality, but the consequences of the narrative were indisputably real: hundreds of thousands dead, including more Americans than died on 9/11. For Legum, it was an education in the power of narrative for good or ill. He went on to learn more about journalism as research director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“One of the things we would do was pitch stories. It gave me a good education as to how narratives are constructed, and weaknesses in journalism,” Legum said. He discovered that in the world of media, “the primary bias is not really liberal or conservative but it’s around narrative — creating a compelling arc.” Journalists’ hunger for compelling narrative, Legum found, sometimes compromised substance. A frivolous story may well have killed John Edwards’ run for president in the 2008 primary. “A huge story, probably the story that hurt his campaign more than anything, was that he got a very expensive haircut.”

While Legum’s job at the time was to help Hillary win the primary, he hoped to play that game with issues that really mattered. “Edwards had worked at a hedge fund and had been paid a lot of money to work there,” Legum said. “There was a housing crisis. We looked up how many foreclosures were being done by the hedge fund he was working for. It showed me you can dig and get something that’s important and substantive.”

He’s continued that approach with Popular Information. Instead of chasing after existing narrative arcs, or facile ones bound to generate buzz, Legum told me he tries to think, “What should we be talking about? I’m probing around looking for something that’s missing.” Then he makes that the story. “In all of my writing in 2015 and 2016, I was critiquing the media for not taking Trump seriously,” he said. “They were reporting that it was the beginning of the end for Trump for six months. Meanwhile, AT&T was donating to [white supremacist congressman] Steve King. That’s the larger lesson. You’ve got to take these extreme views seriously and don’t dismiss them because they’re outside the realm of what you think is possible. Before Jan. 6, people didn’t think it was possible.”

The Holocaust has ingrained exactly this lesson deep in contemporary Jewish thinking: Never discount the unthinkable, especially when it comes to racist and fascist extremism. After neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville in 2017 chanting “The Jews will not replace us!” with Donald Trump’s tacit consent, many Jews began to pay heightened attention to the troubling signs of racism and fascism in the Republican Party. The rise in antisemitic hate crimes like the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre the following year — the deadliest terror attack against Jews in American history — “really laid bare the fact that Donald Trump and the Republican Party he was leading had emboldened white supremacists and moved in a direction that was antithetical to our values,” says Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, a Jewish political and advocacy organization founded in response to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

Yet, about a quarter of American Jews voted for Trump in 2020, and it’s hard for many progressive Jews to understand how friends and relatives could be so naïve.

“I’m Jewish on both sides of my family,” Legum says. “We weren’t super-religious, but you know, we would have Passover. My cousin Roger was a conservative and everyone else was very liberal. Growing up, I didn’t even realize there were right-wing Jews, to be honest.”

Legum’s work looks beyond the Jewish electorate, but it may be a matter of time before progressive Jews adopt his strategy and apply his style of scrutiny to conservative Jewish backers of neo-Nazis. It’s not yet clear, of course, to what extent the Capitol insurrection eroded Jewish support for Trump with its grotesque images of Trump supporters waving Confederate flags, wearing neo-Nazi insignias, building a gallows, and assaulting and murdering police officers in order to overturn an election.

“If Jan. 6 didn’t wake them up,” Soifer says, “I don’t know what will.”

Legum makes a distinction between the Republican electorate and Republican politicians. Since the Jan. 6 insurrection, he observes, “Republican Party politicians are largely the same, but I think Republican voters are moderating somewhat. Biden’s agenda is pretty popular. But being a Trump Republican is still the ticket to winning a primary. So that’s why there’s a disconnect between where voters are and the politicians.”

Those extremist politicians will be expecting support from the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has shown few, if any, signs of moderating. If the distinct parallels between Trumpism and Nazism didn’t bother Republican Jews before Jan. 6, and if the obvious parallels between QAnon conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic myths like the blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion didn’t trouble them, there’s really no reason to expect them to come around now. And if they don’t, the majority of Jews cannot remain silent in their outrage and alarm at the danger to our country posed by Republicans’ embrace of extremist violence, autocracy and racism.

What if progressive Jews applied Legum’s brand of public shaming and activism to Lee Zeldin and the Republican Jewish Coalition? Zeldin is one of two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives and the only Jew to have voted with the sedition caucus to overturn the election after white supremacists overran the Capitol. The Republican Jewish Coalition raises millions of dollars each election cycle to maintain Republican control of Congress and in 2020 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the congressmen and senators who endorsed Trump’s lies and voted to overturn the election. The RJC has been extraordinarily weak about criticizing Trump or the seditionist lawmakers in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. By contrast, the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC immediately denounced Trump for inciting the insurrection.

Will the RJC support the sedition caucus again in 2022? Will the sleepers among us open their eyes? If American Jews of the left and right share a fierce devotion to Israel, only one side seems to care at the moment about the values Israel was created to defend — the preservation of ethnic minorities and their freedoms in an open democratic society where the sort of propaganda and autocracy that characterized Nazism are anathema. The RJC’s support of Republican sedition runs counter to Jews’ values and their self-interest. If Republican Jews don’t have the sense to feel ashamed of what they helped bring about in the Trump era, then the progressive majority of American Jews should have no hesitation about creating that shame for them. In other words, instead of arguing with Legum’s cousin Roger, make him uncomfortable with information and activism. That isn’t “cancel culture.” It’s morality, coupled with the realpolitik necessary to defend ourselves against a blind, amoral betrayer run amok in our own house.

“We have to remain vigilant,” Soifer says. “Even if Trump were to remain silent in Mar-a-Lago for the rest of his days, the genie is out of the bottle.”

Vigilance doesn’t mean playing defense. It’s the path to change. “It’s a process and corporations are testing the waters,” Legum says. “They were very used to the old status quo, which was giving to whomever they want with zero scrutiny. Creating a new reality where corporations understand they will be held accountable for their action will take time. And it will involve continued scrutiny over months and years. What I find most encouraging over the last four months is that even after four years of Trump and a year of a pandemic, there are still so many people in the United States willing to fight for change.”

Austin Ratner is a winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and in 2017 The New York Times Magazine selected his essay “Sidewalk Phantom” as one of its all-time best Lives columns.

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