This is the last Morning Jolt of 2017! I hope your year was full of joy and success, and that any frustrations, setbacks, and any tragedies were bearable. If not, at least 2017 is almost in the books, and 2018 promises a fresh start for all of us.
The Three Martini Lunch End-of-the-Year Awards
As mentioned earlier this week, Greg Corombus and I end our podcast’s year by handing out awards based upon the categories of the old McLaughlin Group. A selection of some of our choices in the traditional categories:
Most underrated political figure: I went with Virginia’s governor-elect Ralph Northam. Boring, vanilla, cookie-cutter, a complete nonentity as lieutenant governor for the past four years, and none of that mattered! He won, he won big, and no matter how that last disputed House of Delegates race turns out, he will have a closely-divided state legislature, which no one expected. He could end up being not just the most liberal Virginia governor in a generation, he could be the Virginia governor who enacts the most actions on the left’s agenda.
Greg selected EPA administrator Scott Pruitt — who’s also the subject of a detailed profile by Kevin Williamson in the most recent issue of National Review.
My choice for most overrated political figure was former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who enacted the so-called Muslim ban without coordinating DHS, TSA, or any other government agency that needs to actually enforce it; the first version got drop-kicked by the courts within two days. Subsequent, more carefully written versions have managed to survive scrutiny from the courts, indicating that a version of this policy could have been Constitutionally sound if Bannon and those around him had written it with a wiser eye towards the legal challenges it would face. Bannon went on to undermine the president by declaring there is no military option to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program. Bannon was apparently the one who urged President Trump to say “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Finally Bannon pushed Roy Moore, and before that, Paul Nehlen.
Trump would be in a much stronger position right now if he had not listened to Bannon on any of these issues.
Greg selected House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — who redeemed themselves some with passage of sweeping tax reform in December, but who saw frustrating defeats and setbacks through much of the year in what was supposed to be a golden era of Republican governance.
I found selecting the top rising political star of 2017 surprisingly difficult. In an off-year election cycle, fewer fresh faces rise to national prominence. But I noticed that a lot of the Republicans who have either overtly or subtly rebelled against Trump in this past year made clear that they did not intend to stick around in office long, such as Tennessee senator Bob Corker and Arizona senator Jeff Flake, and we know about John McCain’s health issues. This means that if there’s going to be a lasting traditionally conservative counterweight to Trumpist populism in the Republican Party, it’s probably going to come from someone like Nebraska senator Ben Sasse.
We come up with our picks separately and reveal them while recording the podcast, and Greg had one of those “dang, why didn’t I think of that” choices: South Carolina senator Tim Scott.
There were quite a few strong contenders for most underreported story. Ultimately I decided . . . “Hey, did anybody notice the Islamic State is gone?” Greg selected the violent attacks on Republican lawmakers — the attempted mass shooting at the baseball field, the woman running Rep. David Kustoff off the road, and the attack on Sen. Rand Paul.
For the best story of the year, Greg selected one that has a lot of Republicans cheering: President Trump nominated a lot of good judges and the Senate gets a decent amount of them confirmed. Everyone knows about Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, but the Senate also confirmed 12 appeals court judges in Trump’s first year, a modern record, as well as six district court judges and three judges to the U.S Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
My nomination for the year’s best story was the United States economy. CNNMoney declares that 2017 was “the year of the red-hot job market.” In November, unemployment stayed at 4.1 percent, the lowest since December 2000. GDP growth is looking healthy, business spending on equipment is accelerating, the labor force participation rate is inching back up again. Consumer confidence is at a 17-year high. Goldman Sachs declares the overall global economy “as good as it gets.” And of course, there’s the stock markets. As ABC News summarized it, “Wall Street has taken stock investors on a mostly smooth, record-shattering ride in 2017. The major stock indexes are closing in on double-digit gains for the year.”
Savor the good times, America.
Did The Last Jedi End an Era of the ‘Old Rules’ of Star Wars?
One of the things I enjoyed about The Last Jedi was how it upended all the previously known unwritten “rules” of Star Wars. For once, Poe can’t save the day by jumping in an X-Wing fighter and blowing something up. Luke doesn’t really come out of retirement, Rey can’t persuade Kylo Ren to turn towards the light, and Finn and Rose get caught when they try to infiltrate the enemy ship in disguise. (Think about it, they use a wastepaper basket as a disguise for BB-8, and we see him accidentally bumping into Stormtroopers. It’s a ludicrously risky plan, but because the audience saw other unlikely implausible disguises and bluffs in previous movies, we think their con is going to work!)
(A completely fair gripe: it seems odd that blowing up Starkiller Base did almost nothing to slow down the advance of the First Order. When The Empire Strikes Back begins, we know that some time – a year? Several years? – have passed since the end of A New Hope, and thus it’s a little more believable that despite that key victory, the tide has gradually turned and the Rebel forces are hiding and the Empire is hunting them. In The Last Jedi, how much time has passed since the end of The Force Awakens? A day? A week? For Rey and Luke, no time at all has passed; we return to the same moment of offering the lightsaber.
Another key criticism or concern I’m coming around to conceding: blowing up the pre-established “rules” of Star Wars raises some giant questions of what kinds of stories Star Wars is going to tell from here on out. I mentioned in my Rogue One review that if you played the 1980s-era Star Wars Roleplaying Game, you knew there were certain rules for a Star Wars adventure. One key point was that while you could write some fascinating stories about moral dilemmas, exploring “What is right and wrong?” . . . that wasn’t really what Star Wars stories were about. In Star Wars, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and anybody who’s initially unaligned doesn’t stay that way for long: think Boba Fett or Lando Calrissian.
But The Last Jedi hints that the galaxy has a lot of morally-neutral and/or apathetic characters just off screen. The weary cynicism of Benicio Del Toro’s character, along with the fact that no one responds to Leia’s distress signal, suggests that perhaps the rest of the galaxy doesn’t really like the Resistance and doesn’t mind the First Order that much. We’ve seen very little of civilian life in the new trilogy. Jakku has some scavengers and junk traders eking out an existence, Maz Kanata ran a castle-like pub where everybody knew your name, and the disappointing casino-world of Canto Bight shows a lot of wealthy folks making fortunes selling arms to both sides.
And if most of the galaxy’s citizens don’t care if they’re ruled by the (presumably good and democratic) New Republic or the (seemingly brutal and despotic) First Order . . . how hard should the Resistance try to save them?
In past Star Wars movies, we more-or-less knew that our heroic protagonists would never die. Wise old mentors might, but even they would come back as translucent ghosts for some expository dialogue or to offer approving smiles upon a final victory. Any protagonist character could fly through an asteroid field or take on a fleet of enemy fighters or dozens of Stormtroopers and come out with nothing more serious than a flesh wound. The droids could be repaired, severed hands replaced, and even lengthy stretches of being frozen in carbonite leave nothing more than temporary vision loss. There’s a reason kids go crazy for Star Wars: it’s a ton of exciting action and feeling of risk with the comforting sense, deep down, that the heroes will triumph and the story will have a happy ending.
Writer-director Rian Johnson aimed to shake all of that up and take away part of that sense of comfort and make the story more dramatic and tense. He didn’t go as far as Game of Thrones, where any likeable protagonist can die at any moment, but the good guys don’t have as easy a time in this movie. There isn’t a critical flaw in the enemy’s giant doomsday weapon. Now the battles have noticeable casualties on the rebel side, and not even splitting the enemy’s flagship and killing their supreme leader guarantees an overall battlefield victory. It seems Episode Nine is going to have to take place several years later; the Resistance needs time to rebuild itself, and maybe that kid in the stables will have some key role.
Will future Star Wars movies go back to the old George Lucas and J.J. Abrams “classic” rules? Or do they stick to Johnson’s tougher, “more realistic” rules?
ADDENDA: As 2017 draws to a close, I would be wise to remind you of the good work of the National Review Institute.
We encourage you to consider NRI as a recipient for your generosity. If for no other reason than this: Its powerful array of fellows make NRI America’s premier conservative journalism think tank. The collective wisdom and influence of these fellows — each one a writer of great talent and persuasiveness — are key to the defense of the principles you cherish and hope to see propagated, now and for future generations. With your selfless support, we will continue to carry out this mission, which has been especially entrusted to us by Institute founder William F. Buckley Jr. As you consider this, we recommend you read Kevin Williamson’s excellent piece making the case why your help truly matters. Please make your generous, tax-deductible end-of-year contribution to National Review Institute here.
I’ll see you in 2018.