The Morning Jolt

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Ring Out the Old, Bring In the New

Standing on a balcony and ‘flight testing’ some confetti ahead of the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square amid the coronavirus pandemic, New York City, December 29, 2020 (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

This is the last Morning Jolt of 2020. I hope you’ve gotten through this flaming dumpster fire of a year okay. Let’s close it out by looking ahead and trying to get a sense of what to expect on the political, economic, and cultural fronts.

What Will 2021 Bring?

As noted yesterday, most predictions will be wrong, but people make them anyway, in part because living requires us to make assumptions about what tomorrow and the next day will bring.

I think President-elect Joe Biden and his administration will get stuck in the mud pretty fast. Biden was elected to not be Donald Trump, and he’ll manage that part of the job from the first minute. And maybe he’ll get some cooperation from Mitch McConnell here and there. Biden’s ability to get Democratic priorities enacted becomes stronger if Democrats win both Senate races in Georgia. Right now, I think the two races will split, as Georgians, exhausted after a seemingly endless season of attack ads dissecting four flawed candidates, hedge their bets. In almost any scenario, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin and Maine senator Susan Collins remain two of the most powerful people in Washington.

Beyond that . . . Biden is a 78-year-old longtime senator who was elected to get the pandemic under control, not to enact a sweeping revolution of the economy and society. There just isn’t a legislative majority for the full Biden agenda, and congressional Republicans know what they oppose. They just can’t easily unify behind another alternative agenda, particularly on health care. After the chaos, partisan rage, and post-election whiplash of the Trump and Obama eras, polite gridlock could be good for the country, forcing Congress to build bipartisan majorities to pass legislation, and recognizing that no matter how much one vehemently disagrees with the opposing party, they deserve convincing, too.

Does it feel like Kamala Harris has been kept under wraps since the election? Since the debates? Since the convention? I think her selection was the single biggest mistake of Biden’s campaign, and Time magazine’s attempt to credit her for Biden’s win is laughable. She’s still every inch the disingenuous, cloying, unconvincing, ham-fisted political animal who flamed out early in the primaries and showcased a disastrous inability to manage her own campaign. A lot of subpar Democratic politicians with bad instincts can be kept aloft by gushing, hagiographic press coverage — for Exhibit A, check out “Nancy Pelosi, Master Strategist.” As vice president, Harris will step on administration messages, needlessly antagonize and provoke the opposition, and frequently seem to forget that she’s vice president, not co-president. I think by the end of 2021, Harris’s status as a liability to the Biden administration will be another one of Washington’s obvious but unspeakable truths.

For a long while, I thought Donald Trump would enjoy his post-presidential life. Trump clearly doesn’t like getting long, boring briefings, has no patience for the details of policy, and cannot effectively schmooze legislators who don’t already agree with him. Trump likes being the biggest celebrity in the world, and leaving office frees up his schedule to do what he loves.

But Trump leaves office with enemies who smell blood in the water. The Manhattan district attorney’s office, New York State attorney general, and the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., are all investigating him, and he faces at least three personal lawsuits. As we’ve seen from Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood, plenty of aggressive attorneys are eager to work for the president — but there’s a separate question of just how good they are in a courtroom.

I suspect Twitter will attempt to shut down Trump’s account shortly after he leaves the presidency. The slapping of warning labels on all of his tweets that the election was stolen is a sign that they just don’t want him on the platform, and they’ll face enormous pressure to cut off the president from his audience in the name of “fighting disinformation.”

I’m not so sure Trump will end up creating “Trump TV.” Starting from scratch would be a lot of work, and if Trump were to formally join Newsmax or OAN, they would want to minimize his appearances on other networks and programs.

In Hunting Four Horsemen, I guessed at what the world would look like in the spring after the coronavirus pandemic ended and feared we would have a psychological hangover long after the virus had passed:

Some people still wore masks in public; many retained the mental habit of trying to stay six feet away from everyone. Among America’s young people, the habits of the Japanese “otaku”—shut-ins who were obsessed with their online lives and increasingly neglectful of their offline life—had spread widely. The opening anecdote of the essay was about a bicyclist hit by a car in a busy intersection in New York City— and the bystanders’ hesitation about running to check on him. Absenteeism at workplaces had jumped, even as more were supposed to be working from home. There were stories of people just disappearing—packing a bag and leaving spouses, children, and elderly parents behind. In the aftermath of a global near-death experience, millions—perhaps billions—were rethinking what they wanted out of life in the time they had left, and stumbling through, looking for answers. And nearly a year of deeply unnatural “social distancing” had left Americans and the rest of the world distrustful, wary, suspicious, and increasingly disconnected from one another.

“It’s as if Atarsa won,” Katrina murmured to herself. She skipped ahead to the end.

“The world has turned cold,” the essayist concluded. “And we’re all struggling to figure out how to reignite the flame.”

Thankfully, our near future may bring blue skies, not dark clouds, particularly on the economic front. There’s a lot of pent-up desire for connection and good times in people, and the coming year may bring a lot more parties, family gatherings, travel, vacations, conferences, and attendance at sporting events. As more people get vaccinated, the restaurants and bars that managed to survive this year will find the crowds returning. Maybe we really will get another “Roaring Twenties.”

The great irony is that Joe Biden could be a particularly popular president by the end of 2021 if he just gets everyone vaccinated, reopens the schools and businesses, and allows American life to get back to normal. We don’t need some complicated mess of Medicare for All, or defunding the police, or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or any of those other nutty leftist ideas. The fate of his presidency will rest on how well he can convince legislative Democrats that Twitter Democrats do not represent all Democrats. Biden’s win over Bernie Sanders and the Republican down-ticket wins of November were about as clear and thorough a rejection of socialism and woke-ism as the electorate could deliver. But a lot of elites will pretend they didn’t hear it.

But regarding the post-pandemic national mood, there’s something curious about the way Americans who lived through the 1918 influenza pandemic were reluctant to talk about it in the years afterward. The coronavirus pandemic may turn into one of those experiences we just want to get behind us and more or less choose to forget.

My fear is that the desire to forget will mean that we choose not to learn lessons from this horrible experience — lessons about our relationship with China, the illegal animal trade, the prevalence of wet markets in Asia, the safety precautions in labs working with contagious viruses. There is little sign that policymakers are learning much from their experiences with quarantines and other business restrictions. There’s little sign that public-health experts have learned from their experiences with telling “noble lies” that allegedly serve the greater good. I fear the “restorationist” foreign-policy thinkers in the Biden administration will win out over the “reformist” crowd. Confrontation with China is the harder path, at least in the short run. It’s much easier for our political and corporate leaders to close their eyes and pretend that Beijing is just an unpredictable, difficult friend who dabbles in running concentration camps.

One hard lesson of 2020 is that the institutions with the duties to inform the public adapted to the incentive structure of “clickbait” — “hot takes,” etc. — and somewhere along the line, forgot how to do their original jobs. When the pandemic was hitting, no one needed the New York Times declaration that “racist sentiment” was a concurrent outbreak; or CNN warning that “what’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the US” is “racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians.”

We needed straight talk, and we got an awful combination of theoretical lectures and talk-radio bellicosity. The great irony is that just informing people of what’s happening and what they need to know works — or at least it gets great traffic, as far as I can tell. I’d like to think 2021 will bring a dramatic rethinking at the tops of media institutions about what their mission is, and whether their coverage has a good signal-to-noise ratio. But as 2020 comes to a close, the outlook is “not great, Bob.

Whatever the political world holds, I hope 2021 brings you peace, prosperity, reassurance, and good cheer. After getting through this year, you’ve earned it.

ADDENDUM: Other stray predictions . . .

  • Stephen Breyer retires from the Supreme Court, setting up a relatively low-intensity confirmation battle to replace him.
  • Vladimir Putin continues deny rumors of serious health issues, but his public appearances grow less frequent, and the explanations for his sickly appearance grow less plausible.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.
  • Predicting the Jacksonville Jaguars will select Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft barely counts for anything, so my real prediction will be that the New York Jets will use the second overall pick in the draft to select Zach Wilson, quarterback, Brigham Young University.
  • Hollywood has a rebounding year — hard not to improve upon this year! — with Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel movies and streaming television series showing little sign of audience exhaustion. Movie theaters come back with a bang in summer.

Oh, and one last reminder: Until New Year’s Day, the kindle version of Between Two Scorpions is just $1.99 and Hunting Four Horsemen is just $3.99!

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