The Yearly Sift 2020: Themes of the Year

The Primary Theme of 2020: Survival

2020 was a year of too much news. Frequently in the Monday morning teasers, I’d complain that there was too much to cover; I could barely find space to mention important developments that ordinarily would be the most important things happening in a week.

But how could they make it to the top of the stack when we were impeaching the president, or choosing who would run against him, or wondering if we could trust the polls saying he would lose, or preparing for his predictable outside-the-law attempt to hang onto power even though he did lose? Sometimes even those stories couldn’t make it to the top, because day after day, thousands of Americans were dying of a plague, most the rest of us were huddled in our homes trying to figure out how not to catch it, and as a result, the economy was collapsing.

The news in re-runs

It was all terribly serious, and yet somehow it was also just more of the same, week after week. In the April 27 teaser I complained:

[N]ews keeps going into reruns: more people are dead, Trump said something stupid, yada yada yada. It would be easy to put out the same weekly summary week after week, just updating the links to the current instances of the continuing narratives.

Looking back, it is striking how early the patterns emerged. On March 9 I commented on the administration’s lack of interest in stopping the carnage:

Complicating matters, our President shows more concern about the short-term effect on his popularity than about the lives of the people he leads.

And this observation came on April 13:

Trump’s announcements are meant to sound good in the moment, not to stand up to a month of scrutiny. So it’s practically cheating that NPR took a one-month-later look at the promises made when Trump declared a national emergency. He followed through on a few things, but most of the promises are still hanging. Remember all the big retail chains that were going to offer drive-through testing? And test-yourself-at-home kits? And the Google website that was going to coordinate everything?

The eventual course of the election campaign (and its aftermath) was already clear by May 18:

The impatient spoiled child you see trying to make the virus go away by shutting his eyes and holding his breath until he turns blue — that’s the only Trump there is. He doesn’t turn into Lex Luthor or Victor von Doom as soon as the subject changes to his re-election. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about weird things happening later on, when he finally realizes that the electorate is going to vote (or already has voted) to throw him out. We have to be ready for the poorly planned tantrum he’ll throw then. But his screw-ups in the meantime are real screw-ups; they aren’t steps leading up to some final fiendish maneuver.

Eventually I realized that the two stories were really one big theme, which was survival: Would we, as individuals, survive the pandemic? Would our personal sanity survive it? And would American democracy survive Trump’s attempt to subvert it? When that thought came to me, and I started becoming confident that survival was in the cards both for me and for my country, I asked Jennifer Sheridan over at Democracy Tees to make me a “Democracy & I Survived 2020” t-shirt. (You can get one too. I don’t get any kickback from your order, but the ACLU does.)

Democracy‘s survival

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that democracy was at risk this year. Trump was impeached because he abused his power to cheat in the campaign, threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine unless it manufactured an investigation to justify Trump’s claims of wrongdoing against Biden.

The Senate’s acquittal of Trump along party lines (but for Mitt Romney), and its party-line refusal (but for Romney and Susan Collins) to investigate the charges, gave Trump a blank check to continue abusing power for political gain, which he did. Witnesses who told the truth to Congress were removed from their positions. Attorney General Barr stymied all attempts to investigate Trump for corruption, and interfered with the prosecutions of Trump conspirators Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, both of whom Trump eventually pardoned. A phony investigation-of-the-investigators sent a message to the FBI to stay away from Trump and his allies, lest they find themselves in the crosshairs. As the election approached, Trump made a long series of false claims about mail-in voting, in preparation for claiming the election was invalid. He even sabotaged the Post Office to keep ballots from arriving on time.

The extent of his disdain for democracy became even more apparent after the election, when he has falsely claimed victory, falsely sown doubt about the vote-counting process, pressured election officials at all levels to keep him in power in spite of the voters, tried to get the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures to install him for a second term, floated the idea of declaring martial law, and encouraged (or at least has not discouraged) threats of violence against officials who insist on doing their jobs with integrity rather than giving him what he wants. Whether violence will result from his invitation for his supporters to descend on Washington as Congress counts the electoral votes on January 6 is still an open question.

Imagine if these efforts to disregard his defeat had actually worked — as they might have if Biden had won by a smaller margin. All future elections would be in doubt. Political speculation wouldn’t stop at whether the incumbent would lose, but would also have to consider whether he would allow himself to lose. Voters would no longer wield the power to remove a president from office; instead, we could only request that the president please leave.

In this context, it’s worth recalling the final featured post of 2019, “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline“, which puts Trump’s assault on the election in a larger context: For years, Republicans have been drifting away from democracy and embracing tricks for staying in power despite getting fewer votes than their opponents. In the most recent election cycles before 2020, Democrats got more votes than Republicans for the presidency, the House, and the Senate — but they only gained control of the House. (Republican control of the presidency and the Senate has also given them control of the Supreme Court.) Gerrymandering has made Republican majorities in some state legislatures (including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump tried to get the legislature to appoint his electors rather than the ones the voters chose) all but impervious to the public’s will.

That post also noted the GOP’s increasing tolerance for authoritarian measures, like Trump funding his wall by using emergency powers in defiance of Congress’ power of the purse. His unleashing masked federal police on Portland was still in the future, but would fit right in. “The Decade of Democracy’s Decline” warned:

It’s a mistake to brush off what Trump clearly says he wants to do. … What Trump tells us every day in his tweets and at his rallies is that people who oppose him should be punished. Hillary should be in jail; Adam Schiff should be handled the way they do in Guatemala; Rep. Omar should be sent back where she came from; the [Ukraine phone call] whistleblower and his sources are “spies” who should be subject to the death penalty.

2020 posts raising some of the same themes were “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“, “Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy“, and “What Makes Trump an Autocrat?“.

Survival with Sanity

Almost as important as staying alive and healthy during 2020 was staying sane. Trump was doing his best to make us crazy, and sometimes speculation from his opponents also raised unnecessary panic. The trickiest thing about being a citizen this year was maintaining the appropriate level of anxiety: alert and ready to act, but neither shivering in fear nor running around like a headless chicken.

Trump’s acquittal by the Senate was a moment that lent itself to panic, so I wrote “Let’s Talk Each Other Down“.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

… [T]ry to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK. … If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

I reprised those themes in September’s “Staying Sane in Anxious Time (without being useless)“, where I warned of the twin mistakes we could make in the election’s home stretch: burying our heads in the sand, or getting stuck in a high state of anxiety all the way to the election. My advice was to figure out what you were going to do about the election and then go do it. But when you weren’t in the middle of action, try to put the whole situation out of your mind. I also encouraged you not to enlarge Trump into a supervillain mastermind in May’s “Trump Has No Endgame“. In August, I evaluated disaster scenarios in “The Election: Worry or Don’t Worry?“. I think this quote holds up well:

Here’s something I have great faith in: If the joint session of Congress on January 6 recognizes that Joe Biden has received the majority of electoral votes, he will become president at noon on January 20 and the government will obey his orders. Where Donald Trump is at the time, and whatever he is claiming or tweeting, will be of no consequence. If Trump’s tweets bring a bunch of right-wing militiamen into the streets with their AR-15s, they can cause a lot of bloodshed, but they can’t keep Trump in office. They are no match for the Army, whose Commander-in-Chief will be Joe Biden. So if Trump wants to stay on as president, he has to screw the process up sooner; by January 6, it’s all in the bag, and probably it’s all in the bag by December 14.

My election-eve commentary was confident but apprehensive:

Since Democrats have promoted early voting and voting-by-mail more than Republicans — in part because they take the pandemic seriously and Republicans do not — most likely the election-night totals will favor Trump, who will then try to declare victory and prevent further vote-counting.

I don’t expect that strategy to work, because Biden’s ultimate margin will be too big, and neither election officials nor judges are as corrupt as the GOP’s plan requires.

Post-election, I recognized the psychological adjustment I still need to make in “Can I Get Over Donald Trump?

Surviving Covid

For the most part I covered the pandemic in the weekly summaries, tracking case numbers and deaths, rebutting Trump’s false claims, commenting on the strains of staying home, and so on.

Occasionally, I devoted a featured post to taking apart the details of something, like pointing out that “Trump’s Guidelines Aren’t What He Says They Are“. The actual administration guidelines for reopening a state’s economy (that came out in April) were fairly sensible, but didn’t match the President’s rhetoric at all. As I noted in the April 20 teaser:

If you want to be catty about this (and I guess I do) the guidelines are for people who read, and the rhetoric is for people who watch Fox News.

I also collected good information to try to separate it from the bad information, as in “Things We’re Finding Out About the Pandemic“. And I talked about the pandemic/economy interaction in “Economies Aren’t Built to Stop and Restart” and “What’s Up With the Stock Market?

Secondary Theme: Democratic Identity

The year’s most popular posts all had something to do with Democratic identity. In the Trump Era, it has been easy to be against Trump, and during the Democratic primaries it was easy to focus on the differences between candidates and miss the similarities. But I think we all had a yearning to be for something, and to enunciate just what that was. That accounted for “Ten Principles that Unify Democrats (and most of the country)” being the new post with the most hits this year (6.6K), and also for the second-most-popular “The Underlying Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives” (5.9K).

I think part of what made these posts appealing was the combination of positivity, generality, and down-to-earthness. Democratic candidates tend to get lost in their detailed proposals and not get around to simple principles like “If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a job that pays a decent wage.” and “If you get sick, you should get the care you need, and your family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it.”

Statements like that are meaningless without some detailed plan to implement them. But at the same time, people need to understand what your fourteen-point-plan is trying to accomplish.

Identity issues were also key to the popularity of “In the Land of No We Can’t” and my attempt to understand the other side in “Opening Thoughts about the Trump Voter“.

As I look forward to the post-Trump era, I think we’re going to need to do a lot more of this kind of thinking, both about who we are and who the people on the other side are.

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  • Roger  On December 28, 2020 at 12:18 pm

    BRAVO! I’m impressed (and a little depressed, but what can you do?)

  • Josh  On December 28, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    “Since Democrats have promoted early voting and voting-by-mail more than Republicans — in part because they take the pandemic seriously and Republicans do not — most likely the election-night totals will favor Trump, who will then try to declare victory and prevent further vote-counting.

    I don’t expect that strategy to work, because Biden’s ultimate margin will be too big, and neither election officials nor judges are as corrupt as the GOP’s plan requires.”

    This aged pretty well.

    • weeklysift  On December 31, 2020 at 10:56 am

      At the time, there were people who thought I was being naive about the level of corruption.

  • ADeweyan  On December 28, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    I registered the domain name the day after the 2016 election. My plan was to post a satirical site after the end of his time in office.

    But now since so many people DIDN’T survive his presidency my plan would be in poor taste, so I’m not sure what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll forward the name to this post!

  • Michel S.  On December 29, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    > It was all terribly serious, and yet somehow it was also just more of the same
    I think you strike a nice balance in covering Trump’s avalanche of shenanigans. Whenever I want to see a complete list I would head over to The Weekly List, and… wow that’s a firehose.


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