Democracy Needs Heroes | Crooked Media
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February 12, 2021
Positively Dreadful
Democracy Needs Heroes

In This Episode

This week on Rubicon, Brian Beutler looks beyond Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial to the broader question of what post-Trump accountability should look like across the federal government. He asks author, historian, and culture critic Ruth Ben-Ghiat about the common tactics modern authoritarian leaders use (and have used for the past century), how other countries have tried (and often failed) to stop them, and whether the early steps President Biden and his majorities in Congress have taken suggest they will do what needs to be done to stop resurgent authoritarianism in the U.S.




Clip of Rep. Joe Neguse: Presidents can’t inflame insurrection in their final weeks and then walk away like nothing happened.


Clip of Rep. Jamie Raskin: A new January exception in our precious, beloved constitution that prior generations have died for and fought for so that corrupt presidents have several weeks to get away with whatever it is they want to do.


Brian Beutler: The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump will confront senators with at least one question, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The first question: is President Trump guilty of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, or not? The second question: if and only if he’s convicted, should he be disqualified from holding public office in the future. We’ve been conditioned for good reason to believe that Republicans will never allow Trump to face consequences for his actions when they can protect him. And since they have the power to acquit him—remember, conviction by the Senate requires two thirds of voting senators to agree—we shouldn’t hold our breath expecting them to do the right thing.


[Female Speaker] The votes may not be there to convict the former president. And, you know, if you look at the numbers and do the math, it seems likely the president could be acquitted.


Brian Beutler: But what if they did? Would that be the end of the story? Should it be? It would certainly amount to punishment for Trump pertaining to his central role in the insurrection, and it would solve the existential risk that he might seek the presidency again. It would also be a symbolic rebuke of Trump’s style of violent, anti-democratic politics. But would it be an adequate amount of accountability? The Trump presidency culminated in the insurrection, but it wasn’t defined by it. Trump presided over historic, far reaching corruption, much of which remains hidden from the public. We know he committed at least a few crimes and let’s be honest, he probably committed many more. He degraded the rule of law and completed the fusion of the Republican Party with a vast right wing propaganda apparatus, leaving us one election away from a revival of mass deception and an authoritarian takeover. Trump may be acquitted for inciting insurrection, but even if he’s convicted, we’ll still confront profound questions about what true complete accountability would look like. In his first days in office, President Biden has rooted out some prominent Trump loyalists who tried to embed themselves in the federal government, a practice known as burrowing in. The Democratic House passed this article of impeachment, of course, and have taken an oversight interest in a few scandals, Trump’s coronaviruses response and his business negotiations with a right wing social media company. But as we race towards a verdict in this trial, all Democrats will have to address the question of what to do about all that other stuff. My guest this week is Ruth Ben-Ghiat. She’s a professor at New York University who specializes in fascism, authoritarian leaders, propaganda, threats to democracy around the world and how to counter them. We’ll discuss what true justice for the Trump era would look like, what kinds of accountability are available to us in the real world, and what America has to look forward to if we don’t make use of them. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.


Brian Beutler: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, great to have you on.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Thanks for having me.


Brian Beutler: So we’ll talk about the impeachment trial and what comes afterward in a minute. But I want to start by imagining that the insurrection never happened. Everything else did. The whole Trump presidency, his refusal to concede, claiming that he was robbed, trying to overturn the election – just that he didn’t convene a mob and encourage it to sack the capital. I feel like that was the world we thought we were going to enter until the insurrection actually occurred. That Trump would still be on Twitter. He’d be out of power, but kind of menacing all of us on social media. And I think the insurrection kind of swamped our memory of the fact that accountability was a big topic even before all of this. So imagine back to January 5th or thereabouts. What were you thinking then about how Democrats, Congress, the Biden administration, other entities should reckon with the Trump years?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: One of the problems with individuals like Trump and in Berlusconi was a president who didn’t wreck democracy, but there’s the whole strongman tradition, is that just as their messaging, their propaganda is overwhelming, you know, 100 tweets a day sometimes, so is the magnitude of their crimes. And so it’s, you know how Bannon said, you know, you, you flood the zone with shit. Excuse my language, it’s his language. But you also flood the zone with crime. And the crimes can be small things seemingly, like a Hatch Act, which becomes small violations in perspective with the huge things that happened. So it can be very difficult to know where to start and which crimes to pick.


Brian Beutler: This is a classic page taken from the dictator’s playbook. Overwhelm the country with chaos, scandals, grifts, and trials. Kick up lots of dust and seize power before it settles. Even if you fail, you’ve created such a tangled mess that no one has the energy to hold you accountable. Ruth made it her mission to study that playbook and the tactics shared between strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Pinochet and Trump. She found the most startling similarities between Trump and former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Berlusconi was a master of television, of media. He was the first to normalize extremism. He brought the far right into government. And as was, turning government into a mechanism of self-defense. He had dozens of corruption trials for charges of fraud, bribery and more. He was the master of plausible deniability. So there was many commonalities with organized crime, corruption, far right, Putin worship, very suspect relationship with Putin. And he used to, you know, make himself the mouthpiece of Putin’s policies to the EU. So very, very similar.


Brian Beutler: Berlusconi held power a few times between 1994 and 2013.


[Clip] Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has run the gantlet and has come out on top.


[Clip] As Silvio Berlusconi arrived to tender his resignation, boos and whistles would tell him Italy has had enough.


[Clip] Europe thought it had finished with him, yet Silvio Berlusconi is back on the campaign trail.


Brian Beutler: Despite embarrassing sex scandals and mounting corruption allegations, the people kept voting him back in. Can you fathom Trump and his spawn yo-yoing in and out of the White House over the next 20 years? So I needed to know what went wrong in Italy. Berlusconi’s main opposition was known as the center left party. What did they miscalculate?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: The center left didn’t pass any corruption, reform, and citizens got very angry. And so that’s a lesson for us. The center left was sick of Berlusconi dominating the news, and so they wanted to turn the page. They were sick of focusing on him. And you can imagine this fixation you feel with Trump and more Trump, Berlusconi, more Mr. Berlusconi. But this was a mistake not to pass any anti-corruption, not to prosecute, not to do anything, because Berlusconi came back in less than two years later and then he was more corrupt than ever and there was no hope of any accountability. And even when he was forced out again by the eurozone crisis, he was forced to resign, he was prohibited—then prosecution started and he was prohibited from running for office for five years. But his party and his personality cult endured. So much so that two years later, in 2013 elections, Forza Italia lost by less than one percent despite sex scandals with underage women, huge corruption. He was like the Teflon guy, just like Trump. So that’s an example where the opposition did not make a very strong stand and it endured and he didn’t— and the party resisted.


Brian Beutler: What indications, if any, have you seen in these early days of the new government that Democrats intend to prioritize that kind of accountability and make the judgment calls that you’re suggesting that they should between, you know, the big deal crimes and the smaller ones?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen from the Biden administration. Its messaging has privileged a kind of tone of decency, a kind of lowering the temperature. And even the visual messaging with the graphics that they’ve released that are kind of old time looking about stimulus checks, that’s very, very important to convey a sense of that the government cares about you because corruption is when you turn public office into a mechanism of private enrichment and as such, you are bilking, defrauding the public in an ethical sense, in a practice sense. So also they’ve moved to remove Trump era appointees, for example, judicial ones. And this is often done but it has a special meaning now because Trump succeeded in politicizing justice so much.


Brian Beutler: So, I take your point about this presentation of, you know, good guys are back, ethical government is back. The government is going to work for you. At the same time, Biden’s had this, I think, sort of politically understandable desire to rise above that. And he’s remained kind of arm’s length about the impeachment process. And, what do you what do you make of that as a, as a pro-democracy strategy? I understand the political logic of wanting to stay out of the mud, but when the stakes are that the opposing party is trying to convince half the country that the incoming president is illegitimate, does it make some sense for someone in that, in Biden’s position to say, no, we need it, we need actually clear the air about this now?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yes, it does make sense. And I think that in the time leading up to the inauguration, especially also early, earlier, it made sense for a more low key approach. But now it’s time to really stand up for democracy, stand up for, because January 6 is the logical outcome of everything that Trump was doing because he made, what happens with corruption and is that these kinds of leaders make people feel that violence is the only answer and they’re also rewarded for lawlessness. And everything that Trump did, actually, since he refused to recognize the election, not only draws from all eras of authoritarian history, from military coups to election manipulation to early fascism, which was January 6th, it it also it sends it sends a message to others who could normalize this kind of behavior. And the GOP is, this is something that it’s a hard truth for and a scary truth for Americans to accept, but the GOP is a far right party. It is a party with a profoundly authoritarian political culture now.  And comparative study politics studies have come out that show that it does not line up anymore with conservative parties. It lines up with far right parties. So what do we do? It’s an emergency. We only have these two huge parties, very different than other countries, and one of them is no longer interested in democratic culture with a small D. The other thing, the reason it’s very important to proceed is that I’ve noticed great concern that there’s what I would call an organized politics of forgetting. An attempt to kind of cast a fog over our eyes and pretend that the violence didn’t really happen. The GOP has a concerted effort to make people minimize and forget about the violence and to infect the politicians like AOC who spoke out about it. They were trying to discredit her story. And it’s very interesting to me that former Vice President Pence, who had people trying to hang him, has not spoken about that trauma. You’re not allowed to hear about it in a sense, because, of course, this will implicate Trump more. So this is the time for the Biden administration to make a very strong statement about how it views things. There could be truth and reconciliation commissions at the local level. I think there has to be a commission on government ethics, just as there has to be a commission on extremism in institutions, and of course, the military has to do its own accounting. So we need the Biden administration has to make a lot of strong statements in the next weeks after the trial concludes for morale of people and to set the country on a different course.


Brian Beutler: So the trial is ongoing as we record this. We think it’s unlikely that two thirds of voting senators will decide to convict him. But let’s say they do. On the one hand, the conviction and disqualification would pertain only to this culminating post-election event. On the other hand, it would be a seismic political and historical event. Would it be reasonable for the administration, Congress and others to sort of dial back a bit in the wake of something that momentous and say this is enough to discourage future presidential lawbreaking and sedition?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: The stakes are too high. We know there are many, many people now who from Trump supporters and other GOP supporters to, most scarily, many elected officials who believe, they not only feel that violence as embodied in January 6 was justified, that any means of staying in power is justified. So it’s very important to send that message. Now, what’s interesting, though, in history is there’s a phenomenon called elite defection, and I kept waiting for it to happen, but I didn’t really think it would. And this is when people think that the leader is on the way out. Important people, even sometimes who supported the leader from the very beginning, they jumped ship. They especially they stop, they distance himself from his improprieties, from his loyalty, and they strike out on their own. And it’s very amazing to me that this didn’t happen more in the GOP, because Trump lost the election. But it shows what a tight hold he has on the party. And if he were convicted, sometimes it takes a few people and then it becomes a flood, if he were convicted, those who voted to convict him would set the tone for the new party. Because at stake is the future of the Republican Party and parties in history that back these people don’t generally do well. They end up de-professionalized and discredited. So I think if a conviction happened, it would cause a, it would be the salvation of the GOP actually.


Brian Beutler: Is there like a recent’ish historical example of a of an authoritarian party having this kind of unraveling in its late days and the elements within the party that kind of brought about the unraveling take over as the newer, more ethical, more pro Democratic guard?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, it’s very rare for somebody to be voted out, and we did. I want to send a message of a happy message because I’m always talking about gloom and doom, that we did something very unusual because what was going on was a process of authoritarian capture very clearly. And the more time goes on, the more people, well, things will come out and people will see that. And we interrupted that by voting Trump out in the middle of a pandemic, no less. So nobody can take that away from us what we did. But it’s very rare. And so, and so the analogies are not perfect. They’re more like situations of dictatorship. But for example, in Chile, Pinochet, the dictator, was voted out and eventually hundreds and hundreds of officers and generals, I think over a thousand in the end, were prosecuted for human rights violations and other things and corruption. And the army lost—this was the main institution rather than a party in this case— the army lost its luster. It lost its prestige, but it took prosecutions to do that. Pinochet never went to jail, because very few of these people go to jail. But everybody around them goes to jail, including in my book Strongmen, I have a whole thing about personal lawyers of people who go to jail. It’s never good to be a personal lawyer of a strong man.


Brian Beutler: Hear that Rudy?  After the break, we look beyond Trump and explore what should be done about the many Little Trumps who are still in his orbit vying for power when we return.


[ad break]


Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is author and historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who wrote the book Strongmen, about the common tactics authoritarians used to take power and how they can be stopped. Right now, congressional Democrats are trying to convince Republicans to convict Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, and bar him from holding further public office. But what about all the corruption that happened before January 6th? Should we turn over all of those stones while the nation is in the midst of so many other crises?


Brian Beutler: You mentioned Berlusconi, I have him in my notes. In the early days of the Trump presidency, liberals here were wrestling with how to resist authoritarianism because it wasn’t a muscle I think most people had flexed here. And a popular line of thinking arose out of Italy, where some practitioners compared Trump to Berlusconi and counseled Americans to oppose Trump with normal, boring politics. Right? Don’t follow him down, the outrage rabbit holes, like whatever Trump’s analogy to the bunga bunga parties is, don’t pay attention to that stuff. Focus on helping people with policy. And a big part of me thinks that Democratic leaders in Congress over the four years over-interpreted that lesson. But to what extent does it apply now? Was it wise counsel? If it was, how should the governing party now think about striking a balance between succeeding on its own terms as a governing party, and exposing the failures and scandals of the last administration?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And there does have to be a balance. In one sense, you know, again, so there’s the fear that Trump would be a martyr. There’s also the fear that Democrats would look vindictive. But right wing media is showing that people like Nancy Pelosi and et cetera as vindictive anyway. Those storylines are already set. That said, we’re in a very unprecedented situation because we’ve had three crises overlapping: the political crisis but also we have mass death occurring all around us from the coronavirus and its mismanagement, and we have an economic crisis with widespread homelessness, people had to default on their mortgages, et cetera. So I don’t mind the forward looking, can-do non rhetorical let’s get things done attitude that is forward facing. Because people need hope. One of the saddest things about having not just Trump, but the problem is that little Trumps populate the system. It’s not just the leader. It’s someone like they used to call them little Mussolinis and little Hitlers. You have people like Mike Pompeo who become liberated by the lawlessness, by the thrill. Or Lindsey Graham or William Barr — they come into their own when there’s somebody who tells them there’s no limits. Which Mike Pompeo called swagger. So people are demoralized by this. And a kind of business-forward looking approach gives very much needed hope because living under corrupt politicians who scorn you is, makes people feel very hopeless.


Brian Beutler: So let’s talk about the balance in a different way or a different kind of balance between accountability defined relative to Trump and his administration and a little Trumps, versus accountability for the fact that his party is rapidly radicalizing against democracy. If we’re weighing these as a choice, is it more important to exact a price for bad deeds that have already happened, or to retrofit the democracy in a forward-looking sense so that popular majorities can rule? And maybe the thing that that gets in the way of the, you know, the people coming in Trump’s wake is that they just can’t win.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I don’t think it’s either or. It’s about priorities. I think that if we’re not going to do it at a national level, I think making people pay a price at the professional level is important. There are bar associations, there are policemen’s associations. Because people, you know, they may not care about a passing headline, even if it’s in The Washington Post or insults on Twitter. But they do care about how they live their life at the local level, at their churches.


Brian Beutler: Many conservatives would like you to believe this is the evil force of—


[clip of Sean Hannity] Cancel culture. In the case of Josh Holley, lost a book deal.


[clip of Jeanine Pirro] Since when are people telling us we can’t say X, Y or Z, or if you say it, you’ll be canceled and that means that you’ll be socially ostracized. You couldn’t even lose your job.


Brian Beutler: But Ruth thinks this kind of social censure is an important step to making sure Trump or someone like him can’t roar back to power like Berlusconi did.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: So, it’s not really shaming, it’s showing respect for accountability to have some kind of censure. And that’s very important because if you don’t have an accounting of past practices, history shows that people will do the same thing and more. When, when Berlusconi nothing much happened in those, in 2006 when he was voted out, that crucial window. When he came back in 2008, he was absolutely even more arrogant than ever. And all the things he had done, pleasing Putin, he had a very, he was Putin’s lackey. All of the things you did, all the illegal things in every way were hugely souped up because he felt invincible.


Brian Beutler: I tend to think of accountability measures as falling into a few different buckets. Right? There’s criminal process for anyone who broke the law. There is exposure and truth and hopefully that that leads to some sort of social censure for the people who did wrong, as its own bucket. And then there’s the sort of mechanical how do you change the rules of democracy to make it harder for people like that to win? As much as I’d like to max out on all of those, fill all those buckets all the way, for I realize that life doesn’t always work out so conveniently. So if, like, what’s the most important as far as preventing this from kind of happening again with the out party coming back in more arrogant than ever?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Well, some of the criminal process is is going to be, with Trump particularly, is handled by New York, for example. It’s not the federal government’s affair. So some of that, I think they all go together, to be honest. Because, for example, when you talk about changing the rules of democracy, one thing that’s very clear is we need higher forms of vetting for presidential candidates, but also for civil service. You know, the Trump administration changed the things about how appointees were made to make it easier for those with unsavory backgrounds to come into government, which is exactly what authoritarians do. They need more people who are already compromised and don’t care about ethics. That’s the whole point of it. So, you know, so this is why I also think there have to be commissions or internal things inside the military and law enforcement investigations of extremism and corruption, because this, this is something that ends it. See, this connects, these are changes in the rules of democracy, perhaps having different standards for who’s in government service. But if you if you are found wanting because you’re found to be part of a neo-Nazi group, then you do get into the social censure part. So it’s all connected. I don’t think we can just prioritize one.


Brian Beutler: To their credit, Democrats aren’t prioritizing one over the other. In Congress, they’ve introduced flagship legislation called the For the People Act, which would both democratize the anti-democratic aspects of our elections and campaign finance systems, and impose new, stricter ethics requirements on Congress, the Supreme Court and the president, including the disclosure of presidential tax returns.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: I think if we just take one of those things: the disclosure of financial records. This is not only important because it will uncover conflicts of interest, including with foreign governments, because it’s not just Trump. It was like Wilbur Ross. He failed to mention that he had a stake in a company owned by Putin’s son-in-law and on and on and on. It takes seriously the kind of restoring dignity to government and responsibility, because the bedrock principles of anti-corruption are transparency as well as accountability. Transparency is very important. So transparency is about showing respect for the people you are governing, it’s a form of humility. So there are also moral values involved in each of these proposals that also test the character of somebody. And we’ve seen how important character is, because what Trump succeeded in doing, he set up a governance structure which is called an inner sanctum, which encourages crime-ing where, and all of them do this, the hiring in the firing, the instability, the dysfunction. All authoritarians have the same structures, even those who seemed kind of like Pinochet with his uniform, he constantly reshuffled his government. And the purpose of that is you have to, as you get more and more corrupt, you have to up the loyalty quotient. And they all have family members in government. And I have a paragraph in my book about sons-in-law who are always in there because they’re convenient vessels of crime. So his whole governance structure was based on secrecy with this inner circle, and lack of transparency.


Brian Beutler: I think last time we did this as a country was after Nixon. Congress passed a slew of post-Watergate reforms. What should the experience of the Trump presidency impel Congress to do beyond what we’ve already discussed? And how can the reforms have any effect if a president embraces lawbreaking and his party endeavors to insulate him from consequences? As much as these reforms seem like they’re important, if you can just ignore them and then use the impunity of politics, of having a whole political party behind you, what force can they have?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, that’s a very difficult question, because the rulers who succeed in having this kind of power are people who usually come to office already having lived for a long time in the zone of the gray zone between the legal and illegal. Many, like Trump and Berlusconi and Putin were all under investigation when they came into office with long histories and different ways of crime-ing and lying and being expert liars. Putin for professional reasons. So when criminals are in power, it’s very, very difficult to, they’re going to neutralize anything to do with transparency and they’re going to undo everything that was done before. A lot of what Trump did was actually undoing things. So when someone like that is in power, it’s very hard. But I think that the Biden administration is new, and they have a pandemic on their hands, an economic crisis, so I think what they’ve done so far and what they propose sounds just right.


Brian Beutler: And and what do they risk if they get it wrong?


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: You know, one of the things that Trump and GOP partners was trying to do in the last, soon as they realized they were probably going to lose, was to sabotage the incoming Biden administration. To make it impossible through further accelerated mismanagement of coronavirus and the econ—and no economic relief, et cetera, et cetera, to make sure that the Biden administration would be overwhelmed. And that’s actually a playbook that has been used in right wing authoritarianism before, where you discredit and try and depict the leader as illegitimate. But you also stack the deck to make him, you set him up to fail, basically. And this is where I’m worried about what extremists, meaning now the GOP and militia, will do to make these next years so turbulent that there will be an increased demand for, quote: “Law and order government.” That’s a kind of big picture thing. Which is why these bureaucratic reforms need to be highlighted and prioritized as much as possible. The other thing I would say that’s an antidote to all this: It’s really easy to focus on the glamor of the villains. And Trump knew how to monopolize the media. Twitter is gone now, but we need to incentivize anti-corruption behavior. We need to glamorize democracy advocates. We need to look back at those who struggled under difficult circumstances, who had their moments in the media perhaps when they were whistleblowers, people who worked to protect democracy while Trump was trying to undo it.


[clip] This is America here, right matters. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman has a single ideology, and it is patriotism and service to the United States.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And I think that Americans need to see these people. They need to read about them.


[clip] Fiona Hill is the most competent witness I’ve ever seen before this committee. She brought up poise, expertize and command of the facts and an absolute lack of tolerance for the, charitably put: childish behavior and ridiculous conspiracy theories that have been spewing from the Republican members on the dais.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: And anti-corruption can be a very mundane business and bureaucrats can seem boring but it’s absolutely crucial to the health of democracy to have role models.


[clip of Van Jones, CNN] Stacey Abrams lost two years ago and made herself stronger. Donald Trump lost two months ago and made himself weaker. That is the story.


Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Highlight the work that people were doing often behind the scenes during the last four years to make sure things weren’t worse. That’s really important. I think I say in my book, Democracy needs heroes. Liberal democracy. We’ve taken it for granted. I also think that faith is going to be very important and the Biden administration is in a good position to emphasize faith.


Brian Beutler: I think that that is a very hopeful and productive place to end the conversation, actually. I’m happy to happy to leave it there.


Brian Beutler: Listener Aaron writes in: thus far, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been adamant that they do not support, “killing the filibuster”. While I think their position is wrong and I hope they reconsider, my question is about what Senate rules reform short of outright killing the filibuster could be proposed that would function to weaken the filibuster’s obstructive effectiveness, and or create more space for action in the Senate? Is it possible that such reforms could be characterized in such a way that more conservative Democratic senators could support them while still claiming they didn’t “kill the filibuster”?


Brian Beutler: This is a keen observation. Nearly everything opponents of filibuster abolition have said has been in response to questions about just that: outright abolition. But the filibuster can be reformed to preserve some level of minority power without leaving it impossible for majorities to govern. There are a bunch of ways to do this, but most are devised around establishing something called the “talking filibuster” like the kind we learned about from Mr. Smith. For instance, if a bill has more than 50 votes but less than 60, the Senate could set a new precedent that requires objecting senators to hold the floor and maintain a quorum to delay a final vote, but ultimately allow a bare majority to pass it once the objectors have been worn out. And with a new rule like this, opponents of abolishing the filibuster can honestly say they didn’t kill it, they just reformed it.


Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.