Biden's Annus Horribilis
And the terrifying tenacity of Trump's cult
A year ago, as the vaccines began to arrive and as the nightmare of the Trump administration appeared to be over, I found myself unusually optimistic. In an end-of-year essay I admitted was written in part to cheer myself up, I looked forward to 2021: “No Trump; no quarantine; no viral fear; and the rites of Spring.”
We end 2021 in a rather, er, different place. A new variant of Covid seems likely to tear through the population in the coming weeks. The UK, slightly ahead of us in the Omicron wave, is experiencing a pandemic record for new cases — and that country’s population is one of the most vaccinated and boosted in the world. In America, where parts of the country have large populations of unvaccinated people, we are likely to see just as big a spike in cases, but with a risk of far more hospitalizations and deaths.
Right now, cases in America have soared 31 percent in just two weeks. More tellingly, hospitalizations are up 20 percent over the same period; and deaths up by 23 percent, at an average of around 1300 a day. That’s a rate bordering on 500,000 deaths a year. On top of 800,000 already dead.
If the Biden administration was elected in part on a platform to get control of the epidemic, its record has been depressingly mixed. After a strong start, vaccination rates have faltered. Key tools in curbing the power of the epidemic remain absent: it’s staggering how hard it is to find Covid test kits so people can get a grip on their own health, prevent transmission and jump on early treatment; and bizarre that the FDA still hasn’t approved the enormously effective Covid pill developed by Pfizer. In my view, tests should be ubiquitous and easy — as they are in Britain right now — and the Covid pill should be as available as Tamiflu.
The post-vax economic rebound everyone foresaw has materialized — with a very strong second quarter this year, and unemployment now at 4.2 percent. But the pace of growth slowed sharply in the third quarter; and, critically, run-away inflation is eating away at income gains for many working Americans. Some of this inflation is doubtless a function of the supply-chain issues caused by a global shutdown; but the odds of it sticking seem to be higher now than anyone was predicting recently.
That’s why interest rates are headed back up — just as the massive debt incurred by the federal government is compounding. In this climate, the idea that you can pass a big Covid stimulus, a huge infrastructure bill and a massive new spending bill with a 50-50 balance in the Senate seems, to put it mildly, overly-ambitious. And all along, Biden has shown himself unable to sell what he was proposing even to his own party, let alone the country. He even stepped on his sole bipartisan triumph. At the very moment he could have declared he’d done what Trump couldn’t on infrastructure — Trump’s core issue — Biden bungled it. I’ve never witnessed a president announce a breakthrough in a major bill and then, in the presser for it, swear he wouldn’t sign it any time soon.
The source of this drift, in my view, is that the administration made a huge miscalculation at the very beginning. They somehow interpreted a modest victory in the Electoral College, shocking losses in the House, and a fluke tie in the Senate as a remit for a big government revolution. And in their media cocoon, no one was going to tell them otherwise. Over-promising and under-delivering is bad politics. That may be one reason support for Biden among the young has plummeted 13 percent since the spring to below 50, and his support among Independents has cratered as well. He has the lowest ratings of any new president since polling began — apart from Trump.
We need also to be frank about Biden. He’s too old to be president, and most people sense this. He was elected because he was someone clearly not as toxic to the electorate as most of the other more radical Dems. But in office, this has been shown to be a chimera. There is nothing to distinguish him in policy from the far left.
His administration has embraced race and sex discrimination in every part of the federal government; he has endorsed the subordination of biological sex to gender identity in the law; his goal in immigration policy is to enable mass migration, not stop it. His administration routinely deploys the hideous acronyms of woke language — “equity,” “Latinx,” “BIPOC,” “LGBTQIA+” — and any return to plain English and common sense violates their commitment to “social justice.” Just watch Biden repeat the nonsense word “LatinX” in public. It’s pitiable.
Just yesterday it was reported that his administration will offer bonuses to Medicare doctors who “create and implement an anti-racism plan.” An “anti-racism plan” means doctors must now view “systemic racism” as a health issue, and deny any biological differences in health between human genetic sub-populations. This is ideology, not science. Biden views people as groups first, individuals second. That’s why he decided on the racial and gender identity of his vice-president and his top Supreme Court nominee before he even considered the individual pick.
The Democrats are a party fronted by an exhausted generation in their 70s and 80s — intimidated by an elite class of indoctrinated twenty-somethings. The idea that Biden can run again in 2024, when he would be 82, and be able to run the country even when he turns 86, is a non-starter. This is Andropov territory. The idea that Kamala Harris could succeed him and win is more preposterous yet. And this is a major problem.
A first-term administration with no credible candidate for a second term is the lamest of ducks. It quacks and flaps and flails and never gets off the ground. If the Dems lose the 2022 midterms in a landslide, as seems more than a little likely, the duck will have expired completely. In my view, the Democrats need to start looking frantically for a standard bearer who stands a chance in 2024. Biden doesn’t. Harris has lower approval ratings as veep than anyone in 30 years.
The Biden administration is weakest, it seems to me, on the issue of competence. This was one central reason people voted for him — to move past the improvised chaos of the previous four years. But in several key areas, incompetence seems more accurate a description. Inflation has emerged as a big issue, and Biden just keeps saying it isn’t happening, is the fault of greedy oil companies, or will soon go away. The chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal — however defensible — self-evidently caught the administration off-guard. The Southern border — where almost two million migrants tried to enter this past year — is a shit-show. The pandemic remains a wild card.
Which brings us, of course, to Trump and the party that is now his and his alone (look who’s paying his private legal fees). If some of us hoped that the 2020 election defeat would be the end of him, we were swiftly brought back to reality. And this is after the January 6 attack on democracy.
Anyone who had observed him in his first four years in power knew something like January 6 was inevitable. Trump cannot concede a loss without a psychic break. I didn’t know how the Trump nightmare would end, but I knew that armed violence, including gunfire, would be part of it. What I couldn’t know was that this would be caused by Trump attempting a chilling legal strategy of getting the GOP state legislatures to invalidate the election results in their states, and then by instigating a violent assault on the Capitol building to delay the certification of the votes.
In a functioning liberal democracy, Trump would be seen right now as a once-in-a-century kind of monster, his despicable assault on our democracy a turning point for the GOP in coming to its senses. He would be a pariah far beyond what Nixon was in 1974 — untouchable, toxic, despised, his grotesque and corrosive lies about the election are disqualifying on their face. He would not be able to appear in public without booing. But our liberal democracy is extinct after four years of Trump. It no longer exists. We are in a tribal war now, in which our democratic institutions are mere tools for the conduct of hostilities.
To my mind, this last year has in many ways revealed that the cult of Trump is deeper and stronger than even I imagined. Take the tweets from Trump’s inner circle that Liz Cheney made gloriously public this week. They show that all of Trump’s cronies understood the gravity of what Trump was trying to do on January 6; even Donald Trump Jr realized the immense danger of violating the peaceful transfer of power.
But they also prove that Trump so controls their minds and politics that in public, they refused to tell the truth and now pretend that nothing really happened at all. That’s real power: the power to get others to say things they know not to be true; the power to determine reality in the very minds of others.
Has any political leader in American history ever had that kind of power: the power to get Americans to despise their own democracy; the power to persuade people that black is white; the power to get them to trust in him rather than in any election process; the power, having lost an election, to dictate who gets to fight the next one? I can’t think of a precedent, can you?
For a vast swathe of the country, this deranged figure is more trusted than democracy itself. Against this kind of power, Biden is startlingly weak, unable to unite his own party, with every speech a hazy attempt to read a TelePrompter, and in off-the-cuff moments, either belligerent, weird or strangely absent.
I don’t want to leave you this Christmas with this grim an outlook. The truth is my gloom this year may be as misplaced as my hope a year ago. Like many Americans, I feel deeply alienated by our two ever-radicalizing parties, even as I think it’s indisputable that the Trump party is the greater imminent threat to the system as a whole. And that alienation — the sense that there is no one out there who seems able to lead us to a saner future — may be affecting my judgment.
There are some reasons for hope, if not optimism. Biden’s approval numbers appear to be stabilizing. The catastrophic consequences of the summer of violence in 2020 are beginning to be seen by Democrats themselves. From the former mayor of Philly to the current mayor of San Francisco to the new mayor of New York City, the insane bullshit — the SF mayor’s term — of defunding, demoralizing and delegitimizing the police is beginning to sink in. In the Trump party, Liz Cheney is showing the steel and passion and nerve that is worthy of a future president. Ron DeSantis is emerging as a viable alternative to Trump, if the spell can be broken. Youngkin proved that a successful, sane Republican is not an oxymoron.
There’s more. A combination of vaccines and treatments could help make the resilient virus much less lethal; supply-chain inflation could subside; growth could continue. A clear effort by Biden to prove he is not a captive of the left — on an issue like crime — could help him win back some claim on the public’s attention. (Why not go to NYC and embrace Eric Adams and the NYPD?) The Democrats could even get serious about a candidate for 2024 who is neither Harris nor Biden. Trump may finally be trapped by the rule of law, as evidence of his financial crimes mount. Omicron may not have as big an impact as now seems likely. Biden or Trump may not be around in three years’ time. I could go on. No doubt you’ll be haranguing me all of 2022 to see the brighter side.
All I can say is that at the end of 2021, there is a thin line between realism and despair. I’m trying to walk it. With your help, I hope to get things more right than wrong. But despair is neither an American virtue, nor a Christian one. And America never ceases to surprise us. So I’ll leave you with a simple message that the Christmas story is designed to teach.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my wide-ranging convo with Michael Shellenberger on how West Coast progressives are failing on homelessness, addiction, and crime; my defense of the Dish — anti-Trump, anti-woke, pro-liberalism — against the latest dissent over woke coverage; many readers discussing meth addiction; six notable quotes from the week illustrating the depravity of the Trump right and the fecklessness of the woke left; an Yglesias Award on inflation; nine Substack links we recommend; a window view of snowy California, and another one in Arizona that looks like an oil painting; a compilation of Creepy Ads from the year; an MHB mashup of Seinfeld and Succession; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge that gives off a Santa vibe. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
And Merry Christmas! Bodenner and I will be taking our annual holiday break, back in 2022.
Give The Gift Of Dish!
It’s that time of year again. Still have presents to buy? Want to introduce someone to the full Weekly Dish — all the reader dissents, all my extra posts, all the window views, all the window contests, all the Mental Health Breaks, all the weekly quotes, all the Hathos Alerts, all the article recommendations, and all the other various features, including the podcast? Click this fancy button:
You can schedule a gift sub — monthly or annual — to arrive at any time of any day, such as Christmas morning. No supply-chain issues! And by gifting someone the Dish, you’re also supporting the resilience of independent media.
One more gift option: my new collection of essays, “Out on a Limb.” It’s a kind of history of the last 32 years through the eyes of one writer. My full description of the book — containing 60 pieces of writing over 550 pages — is here. It’s dedicated to you, the Dish reader:
From the reviews:
“[These] essays don’t just communicate his thoughts, they communicate his heart. … For 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again. … Read Out on a Limb for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America’s most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” - David French, New York Times
“A thrilling intellectual romp through the last 30 years of political and cultural debate . . . [Sullivan] is a writer in the tradition of Samuel Johnson, bringing all available faculties — intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual — to bear in his work,” - American Conservative
“I hear echoes of arguments that Andrew Sullivan, and often Andrew Sullivan alone, was making thirty years ago in almost every conversation and argument I’ve had about gay marriage in the last ten years,” - Ross Douthat, New York Times
“The most important writer during the Trump era,” - Joe Scarborough
During my 27th appearance on Real Time, Bill and I discussed the essay collection and the highdeas that never made it in:
And just this week, from the NYT’s year-end review of books: “Andrew Sullivan’s stuff is astringent and humane and, crucially, unpredictable, and I read his ‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021’ in three or four sittings.”
Dissent Of The Week: Yawning Over The Woke Threat
Many anti-anti-woke readers are exasperated over my latest column, “The Woke: On The Wrong Side Of History.” A representative dissent:
My God, Andrew, will you give the “woke” thing a rest?! I’ve always read you because of the variety of issues you covered. Now it’s become a chore to constantly see my inbox full of “woke this and woke that.” You’ve simply lost all sense of proportion. While you occasionally acknowledge the way the nativists and religionists are tearing this country apart and leading us toward fascism, you’re constantly contributing to the idea that somehow the “woke” are the true threat. At best, they’re a gnat on the ass of problems created by the right that you simply don’t spend enough time on.
They are not. The indoctrination of adults and children into an ideology designed to destroy liberal democracy is a profound threat to the West as a whole. The replacement of individual rights with group rights is arsenic to a liberal political system. The propagation of racism as a virtue if it is directed at the right races is just as despicable. So is the excuse-making for violence and crime.
But the implication that I have ignored the threat from the Trump right is just wrong. Less than a month ago, for example, I devoted this newsletter to the “ever-radicalizing Republicans,” asking “How do we fight back against left extremism if the alternative is worse?” In September, I wrote about the “deepening menace of Trump.” A month before that, I wrote a column on “The Price of Tucker Carlson’s Soul.” In May, I devoted a column to how Trump is preventing a sane conservative future. In April, I emphasized the GOP’s turn against democracy. In January, I wrote about the “The Big Lie That Must Die.” And look above to check out today’s end-of-year post.
Likewise, since the Dishcast launched a year ago, we have hosted many fierce critics of the Trump threat, including Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Michael Wolff, Jon Rauch, David Frum, Olivia Nuzzi, and Sam Harris. And here, for the record, is my immediate, extemporaneous response to January 6:
Have I also warned about left illiberalism? Of course I have. In fact, I defy you to name another writer who is as tough on both sides but has never denied that the collapse on the right under Trump is worse. There are plenty of places for you to read about how all the problems are on the GOP side — the entire establishment media, and most of the Never Trump sites which are now woke-adjacent. There are also plenty of places for you to wallow in the warm bath of Trumpy truthiness. The Weekly Dish — anti-Trump, anti-woke, pro-liberalism — is not one of those places.
As always, as is tradition, keep the dissents coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
New On The Dishcast: Michael Shellenberger
I belatedly came to Shellenberger in my research on nuclear power’s potential to help cut carbon emissions. But his new book — on the terrible progressive governance in many American cities in recent years — is what gave me the idea to interview him. On homelessness, crime, addiction, and the fast-deterioration of our public spaces, San Fran-sicko, despite its trolly title, is empirical, tough-minded and, in my view, humane. But make up your own mind, in what was one of the more timely conversations I’ve had this year.
For two clips of the episode — on the reasons why progressives in California won’t build safe homeless shelters, and on the growing backlash against Democrats on crime and disorder — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link also takes you to readers discussing our recent episode with Sam Quinones — which overlapped with several themes Shellenberger and I discussed, such as meth addiction. And a few more readers sound off on the woke state of affairs in America in 2021. Below, a handful of readers look back at recent Dishcast episodes, starting with last week’s update on the pandemic:
From a listener of that episode:
After absorbing your discussion with David Wallace-Wells, I am despondent. I am a great believer in science and rationality and, for some time, have been strongly in favor of vaccine mandates. However, as this drags on, with no end in sight, I find a shift in my perspective. I am increasingly coming around to the anti-vaxxers position of personal choice.
Mind you, I do not doubt the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, but given that vaccination does not seem to prevent transmission of the virus and is useful mainly to prevent severe illness, then it really comes down to personal, not societal, risk. With vaccines widely available, anyone who chooses to remain unvaccinated should bear responsibility the full costs of any medical care they require to treat COVID-related illness.
With the continuing mandates, restrictions and lockdowns, we are punishing those of us who are vaccinated, in order to protect the reckless unvaccinated. If someone chooses to remain unvaccinated, and they get sick or die, then, callous as this sounds, it is no longer my problem. I am at a point where, like you, I think we should “let it rip.”
Another listener on another episode:
The interview you did with Sam Quinones performed a valuable public service. I don’t think we’ve ever had a drug crisis that literally threatened to hollow out the soul of the nation. But that’s what it’s doing.
I hate to give credence to anything Trump did, but he was right about controlling the Southern border. Seems to me that this is yet another fatal flaw in the arguments of open border advocates — like your previous guest Bryan Caplan — who seem oblivious to the risks outlined here by Quinones. This is another festering sore (like CRT) that will blow up in the face of the Democrats in 2022 and beyond if they don't take it seriously.
One more listener:
First off, look what appeared as “My Top Podcast” on my Spotify “2021 in Review”:
I listened to your recent episode with Michael O’Loughlin with great interest for several reasons. First, as a historian who is a practicing gay Catholic (ambiguity intended), I am deeply interested not only in the history itself of the AIDS crisis and Catholics’ varied responses to it, both institutionally and individually, but also in the way these past events get framed and received by Americans today. I’ve heard you make this point several times, but the historical ignorance among gays of my generation (millennials) really is a shame, for it leads to the kind of self-righteous activism that doesn’t know how to keep things in perspective.
When the pandemic started in March 2020, O’Loughlin’s “Plague” podcast was an early listen. It’s the kind of podcast you can’t really multitask with, since it’s full of those moments where you just have to sit down and fully listen. I was really pleased that in your Dishcast conversation, you and O’Loughlin discussed some of those figures and stories — some heartbreaking, some hopeful.
In The ‘Stacks
This week’s selection of Substack recommendations include subjects such as Pfizer’s new Covid pill, ancient plagues, antisemitics Zionists, and racial hoaxers. Two other examples:
Z.K. Paschal walks us through a relatable story by Langston Hughes — “a story about ‘nice’ bigotry, the bigotry of benign condescension.”
Godspeed, new Substack fellows!
You can also browse all the substacks that Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially posts from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
A very Christmas view. Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Meanwhile, a regular sleuth reflects on a year of windows:
“Work avoidance behavior” has a precise definition in our household. It’s not merely the avoidance of work; a good work avoidance behavior must have the look and feel of real work but not actually be real work. VFYW is an excellent example, because of all the research and problem-solving and clever tricks you have to use and the sense of achievement you feel at the end. Thanks for all the great puzzles!
And a huge thanks to “A. Dishhead,” the pseudonym of the brilliant sleuth who makes custom postcards for almost every VFYW location. Below are four examples of his amazing creativity from the year:
Merry Christmas! See you in the New Year.