Looking back at the year in politics, the dominant theme was the nadir of President Donald Trump’s political career. The question that has accompanied the president’s political fortunes is closely related: Did American democracy hit its nadir?
At the beginning of the year, Trump became only the third president to be impeached, but his acquittal in the Senate left him claiming vindication. Politically, he was correct, and his supporters only came to resent the Democrats more and buy into the false idea that the president had done nothing wrong. Morally, and before history, I suspect the verdict will be more negative.
By the time the Senate voted to acquit the president on Feb. 5, however, a different threat to his presidency — and to the nation — had emerged: COVID-19. If you had designed something to exploit all of Trump’s weaknesses, this is what you would have devised. His disdain for expertise and bureaucracy made him suspicious of the very people he needed to rely on to formulate an effective policy response.
For all his brilliance at marshaling resentments in the zeitgeist for political ends, the president’s ignorance of history meant that he failed to recognize one of history’s most elementary lessons: Crisis are indispensable for the making of greatness, provided the political leader rises to the occasion. Trump’s inability to apply sustained attention to a problem (as opposed to a conspiracy theory), combined with his allergy to bad news, led him to articulate platitudes that were demonstrably false when the country needed to brace for the pending ordeal. He embraced crackpot ideas, retweeted nonsense, held press conferences last spring filled with cringe-worthy moments, such as his suggestion that ingesting disinfectants might cure a person of the virus, all rooted in a psychological, not a political, need to deliver what he thought was good news.
Other nations with more conscientious political leaders adopted more stringent policies, yet even their greater effectiveness has not prevented these countries from having to reenact more stringent policies this winter. But no other country has ejected an incumbent president or prime minister, as we Americans did. Apart from all of his other failings, it was the president’s lack of empathy ultimately that most doomed his reelection effort. It is shocking to contemplate the fact that had there been no coronavirus, Trump might have won a second term.
At the beginning of 2020, I looked to the year now just finishing, and wrote:
There is one irony to Trump’s divisiveness that shows how little we humans grasp our circumstances. For years, Democrats have pledged to energize more voters and get them to the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, have tried to make it harder for people to vote. But it is Trump who has energized the electorate even as he has divided it, and we can look for a record turnout in November. I hope he loses, but I also hope he loses big. What scares me more than him winning a second term is the prospect of him losing narrowly, and how he might react. That could be the constitutional crisis of 2020, not the impeachment that kicks off the new year.
I was correct about the record turnout. What I had not foreseen was that even though the election was not particularly close, Trump would still try and ignite a constitutional crisis in order to overturn the result. Trump, the putative coup plotter, has demonstrated a contempt for democracy that outstripped even his previous animus towards democratic norms.
There was no essential connection between the president’s casual bigotry and the outburst of anti-racism protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd this summer. Indeed, his opportunistic response to the protests did not sit well with those swingiest of swing voters, white suburban women. Again, the president’s lack of empathy crippled his response to Floyd’s murder, the videotaped gruesomeness of which profoundly scarred the national psyche.
The Black Lives Matter movement organized some of the largest and most widespread protests in history. The movement, however, had failed to morph into something more consequential by year’s end, something that achieves real changes in public policy. Protests only get you so far. Slogans that are catchy but inaccurate and immature, like “defund the police,” need to be set aside. Black Americans, so long and so comprehensively subjected to the countless indignities of racism, deserve real change, such as policies to confront discrimination in housing, create social capital in distressed neighborhoods — in both urban and rural areas — and to raise wages for working-class employees.
The third political development of note was the improbable rise of Joe Biden to the highest office in the land. In a culture that is addicted to youth, in which “new” has long outstripped “best” for marketing purposes, for Biden, the third time was the charm. His uneven debate performance led to poor showings in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, as well as the New Hampshire primary.
But, as the reality of the coronavirus sunk in, executive experience began to matter more to voters, the other candidates all suffered from their own political disabilities, self-inflicted or otherwise, and in the South Carolina primary, the last Daley-esque political machine swung to Biden and he almost ran the table three days later on Super Tuesday. There was no looking back.
Biden proved to be the perfect foil for Trump in the general election. His essential decency contrasted with the incumbent’s indecency. Biden famously oozes empathy. His long experience in Washington, a liability in normal times, strengthened his case with people tired of Trumpian incompetence.
In one regard, and an important one, Biden was not unlike Trump: Neither of them possess the overly polished speaking style that voters have grown suspicious of. For Trump, his authenticity comes through most powerfully when he exhibits his sense of grievance. For Biden, his unpolished, halting speaking style was omnipresent and, in its different way, conveyed that air of authenticity that voters demand.
One of the real political winners of the year were the hundreds of thousands of registrars of voters and other civic officials who managed to conduct an election in the middle of a pandemic. Despite what Laura Ingraham might have told you on Fox News, this election, like most U.S. elections, was largely free from incident. There was no demonstrable voter fraud, only a delay in counting mail-in ballots in those states that still had pre-COVID rules about not counting absentee ballots until the polls closed.
As we collectively limp into the new year, it is hard to assess what lasting damage has been done to American democracy by Mr. Trump, whether Mr. Biden will be able to heal those wounds, and how the now-mutating virus will continue to afflict our economy and our politics. How these hardships will intertwine with the pressing issues of racial injustice also remains to be seen.
It is by now banal to note that 2020 was a year unlike any other. Besides, all years are different one from another. History is the one thing that does not repeat itself. To me, 2020 yielded one truly intriguing question, whether history will consider COVID-19 or Trump the greater curse.
Green Party in turmoil, leader resists calls to step down
Canada‘s Green Party was increasingly mired in an internal dispute over its position on Israel on Tuesday, and a news report said the bloc would hold a vote next month on whether to oust its leader, Annamie Paul, who was elected just eight months ago.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp (CBC) reported that the Greens had triggered a process that could remove Paul, the first black person to head a mainstream Canadian party, beginning with a vote next month.
A Green Party spokesperson declined to comment on the report, but said the party’s “federal council” would meet later on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Paul, 48, rejected calls from the Quebec wing of the party for her to resign after a member of parliament left the Greens due to the Israel controversy.
“I believe that I have been given a strong mandate. I believe that I have been given the instructions to work on behalf of Canadians for a green recovery,” Paul said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Paul herself is not a member of parliament. The Greens – who champion the environment and the fight against climate change – had only three legislators in the 338-seat House of Commons and one, Jenica Atwin, abandoned the party last week to join the governing Liberals.
Atwin has said that her exit was in large part due to a dispute over the party’s stance on Israel. Atwin on Twitter has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, while a senior adviser to Paul, Noah Zatzman, has posted on Facebook that some unspecified Green members of parliament are anti-Semitic.
The party’s executive committee voted last week not to renew Zatzman’s contract, local media reported. Paul converted to Judaism some two decades ago after she married a Jewish man.
While the Greens are the smallest faction in parliament, they perform well in British Colombia and hold two seats there. The current turmoil may favor their rivals ahead of a national election that senior Liberals say could be just a few months away.
The Greens would win about 6.7% of the vote nationally if a vote were held now, according to an average of recent polls aggregated by the CBC.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Julie Gordon; editing by Jonathan Oatis)
Hope, anger and defiance greet birth of Israel’s new government
Following are reactions to the new government in Israel, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER
“We’ll be back, soon.”
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
“On behalf of the American people, I congratulate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and all the members of the new Israeli cabinet. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations.”
NABIL ABU RUDEINEH, SPOKESMAN FOR PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS
“This is an internal Israeli affair. Our position has always been clear, what we want is a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.”
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER VIA TWITTER
“On behalf of the UK, I offer my congratulations to
@naftalibennett and @yairlapid on forming a new government in Israel. As we emerge from COVID-19, this is an exciting time for the UK and Israel to continue working together to advance peace and prosperity for all.”
TOR WENNESLAND, U.N. MIDDLE EAST PEACE ENVOY VIA TWITTER
“I look forward to working with the Government to advance the ultimate goal of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
CHARLES MICHEL, EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to Prime Minister @naftalibennett and to Alternate PM & MFA @yairlapid for the swearing in of the new Israeli government. Looking forward to strengthen the partnership for common prosperity and towards lasting regional peace & stability.”
FAWZI BARHOUM, HAMAS SPOKESMAN
“Regardless of the shape of the government in Israel, it will not alter the way we look at the Zionist entity. It is an occupation and a colonial entity, which we should resist by force to get our rights back.”
BENNY GANTZ, ISRAELI DEFENCE MINISTER
“With all due respect, Israel is not a widower. Israel’s security was never dependent on one man. And it will never be dependent on one man.”
CHUCK SCHUMER, U.S. SENATE MAJORITY LEADER
“So, there’s a new Administration in Israel. And we are hopeful that we can now begin serious negotiations for a two-state solution. I am urging the Biden Administration to do all it can to bring the parties together and help achieve a two-state solution where each side can live side by side in peace.”
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA
“Congratulations on the formation of a new Israeli government, Prime Minister @NaftaliBennett and Alternate Prime Minister @YairLapid. Together, let’s explore ways to further strengthen the relationship between Canada and Israel.”
MANSOUR ABBAS, ARAB MEMBER OF NEW ISRAELI GOVERNMENT
“We are aware that this step has a lot of risks and hardships that we cannot deny, but the opportunity for us is also big: to change the equation and the balance of power in the Knesset and in the upcoming government.”
DAPHNA KILION, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“I think it’s very exciting for Israel to have a new beginning and I’m hopeful that the new government will take them in the right direction.”
EREZ GOLDMAN, ISRAELI IN JERUSALEM
“It’s a sad day today, it’s not a legitimate government. It’s pretty sad that almost 86 (out of 120 seats) in the parliament, the Knesset, belong to the right-wing and they sold their soul and ideology and their beliefs to the extreme left-wing just for one purpose – hatred of Netanyahu and to become a prime minister.”
SEBASTIAN KURZ, CHANCELLOR OF AUSTRIA, VIA TWITTER
“Congratulations to PM @naftalibennett and alternate PM @yairlapid for forming a government. I look forward to working with you. Austria is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and will continue to stand by Israel’s side.”
(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker)
Boris Johnson hails Biden as ‘a big breath of fresh air’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday as “a big breath of fresh air”, and praised his determination to work with allies on important global issues ranging from climate change and COVID-19 to security.
Johnson did not draw an explicit parallel between Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump after talks with the Democratic president in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay on the eve of a summit of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies.
But his comments made clear Biden had taken a much more multilateral approach to talks than Trump, whose vision of the world at times shocked, angered and bewildered many of Washington’s European allies.
“It’s a big breath of fresh air,” Johnson said of a meeting that lasted about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It was a long, long, good session. We covered a huge range of subjects,” he said. “It’s new, it’s interesting and we’re working very hard together.”
The two leaders appeared relaxed as they admired the view across the Atlantic alongside their wives, with Jill Biden wearing a jacket embroidered with the word “LOVE”.
“It’s a beautiful beginning,” she said.
Though Johnson said the talks were “great”, Biden brought grave concerns about a row between Britain and the European Union which he said could threaten peace in the British region of Northern Ireland, which following Britain’s departure from the EU is on the United Kingdom’s frontier with the bloc as it borders EU member state Ireland.
The two leaders did not have a joint briefing after the meeting: Johnson spoke to British media while Biden made a speech about a U.S. plan to donate half a billion vaccines to poorer countries.
Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, was keen to prevent difficult negotiations between Brussels and London undermining a 1998 U.S.-brokered peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Britain that Biden had a “rock-solid belief” in the peace deal and that any steps that imperilled the accord would not be welcomed.
Yael Lempert, the top U.S. diplomat in Britain, issued London with a demarche – a formal diplomatic reprimand – for “inflaming” tensions, the Times newspaper reported.
Johnson sought to play down the differences with Washington.
“There’s complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions, and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement,” said Johnson, one of the leaders of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU.
Asked if Biden had made his alarm about the situation in Northern Ireland very clear, he said: “No he didn’t.
“America, the United States, Washington, the UK, plus the European Union have one thing we absolutely all want to do,” Johnson said. “And that is to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and make sure we keep the balance of the peace process going. That is absolutely common ground.”
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the “Troubles” – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant “loyalist” paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
Britain’s exit from the EU has strained the peace in Northern Ireland. The 27-nation bloc wants to protect its markets but a border in the Irish Sea cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Although Britain formally left the EU in 2020, the two sides are still trading threats over the Brexit deal after London unilaterally delayed the implementation of the Northern Irish clauses of the deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said he and Biden agreed that both Britain and the EU “had a responsibility to work together and to find pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade” between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Padraic Halpin, John Chalmers; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)
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