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2022: A Consequential Year in Review
The good, the bad, and the absurd
It was the best of times and the most absurd of times:
A war in Ukraine; a fight for democracy; the end of Roe; ketchup on the walls at Mar-a-Lago; fantastically awful candidates, and the mid-term Pratfall of the Deplorables.
It was the year of the Will Smith slap and prominent Russians falling out of windows; the death of the Queen; and Harry and Meghan’s Netflix series.
In 2022 we were inspired by Volodymyr Zelensky; but it was also the year of “Elon. Kanye. Trump.”
We nudged an asteroid and may have cracked the mystery of fusion; but it was also a year of supply chain snafus, inflation, wild deadly weather, chaos at the border, airline meltdowns, mass shootings, and the appalling incompetence of the good guys with the guns in Uvalde.
It was a bad year for authoritarians, from Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who was defeated for re-election. It was a good year, relatively speaking, for democracy. It was a year of consequences for seditionists and Alex Jones. But Steve Bannon still walks free.
It was a year of courage and pusillanimity, of Liz Cheney and Cassidy Hutchinson, but also Elise Stefanik, and Running Josh Hawley. Iran’s women rose up, even as Afghanistan descended into a new dark age for women’s rights.
The former president dined with Nazis, called for the termination of the Constitution so he could be restored to power, asked Putin for favors, and issued NFT trading cards of himself.
It was a year of performative cruelty and bitter tribalism, interrupted by surprising bursts of bipartisanship on guns, spending, gay marriage, and election reform.
In 2022, we saw statesmanship and heroism, but also flamboyant grifting, narcissism, and bigotry; a crypto meltdown; and a newly elected congressman whose entire life story is a lie.
And it was all perfectly on brand.
So herewith, the top stories and storylines of the year; the biggest winners and losers; the good, bad, and ugly of a surprisingly consequential year.
But, I’m afraid I have to start with the stories that could end up killing us all. Or saving the planet.
The potentially very bad.
In May 2022, the death toll from the covid pandemic passed a million deaths in the United States.
By then, however, America’s attention span had reached its expiration date.
Two years later, it was a rounding error.
The good news is that vaccines saved millions of lives. The bad news is that vaccine skepticism has been mainstreamed and spread dangerously. Via the Wapo: “Growing vaccine hesitancy fuels measles, chickenpox resurgence in U.S.”
It will likely get worse.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hopes to use hostility and doubts about vaccines to slingshot himself into the White House.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) petition for a grand jury investigation into COVID-19 vaccines, in which he decries the ongoing vaccine campaign as “propaganda” by the Biden administration, is drawing fierce criticism from health experts.
Physicians and public health experts say his request betrays decades of established procedure designed to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and only serves to stoke further immunization fears.
The next time a pandemic strikes — and there will be one — this sort of rank demagoguery could kill millions of us.
Bonus: This probably won’t kill us, but it could make us all dumber.
The potentially very, very good
There was no shortage of awesomeness in 2022.
NASA has announced that the spacecraft it slammed into an asteroid on 26 September succeeded in altering the space rock’s orbit around another asteroid — with better-than-expected results.
Someday, this could save the whole planet.
The news about fusion energy is nothing but good. It’s a reminder that America still leads in scientific innovation. It’s a glimpse of an abundant future, freed from one of mankind’s great burdens—expensive, polluting energy. It’s a corrective for the millions of young people around the globe who despair of being able to raise kids of their own for fear of climate catastrophe.
... Historians will record December 5, 2022 as a significant step on the road to clean, abundant, affordable energy. This is a time for gratitude and wonder, not for grinding axes.
The Biggest Stories of the Year
1. The top story? Not even close: The war in Ukraine.
Putin’s vast miscalculation and the Ukrainians’ heroic stand:
Reshaped the global chessboard
United Europe and the West
Re-established effective American leadership and revived NATO
Introduced the world to the inspirational leadership of Volodymyr Zelesnsky
Humiliated the world’s leading genocidal monster
Exposed the Useful Idiots of the pro-Putin GOP
2. The resilience of democracy
The threats remain real, but the news in 2022 was remarkably good.
Nearly every single candidate in battleground state races who denied or questioned the results of the 2020 election was defeated for positions that oversee, defend and certify elections — a resounding loss for a movement that would have had the power to overturn future contests.
How were the worst fears averted?
A precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate broke with its own voting history to reject openly extremist Republican candidates — at least partly out of concern for the health of the political system.
If only there was a name to describe these voters…
BONUS: In 2022 Congress also passed crucial changes to the Electoral Count Act, and SCOTUS appeared skeptical of adopting the most extreme versions of the “Independent State Legislature Theory”.
3. The January 6 Committee
The MVPs: Liz Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, and (bear with me) Kevin McCarthy.
Cheney was the hero we didn’t deserve but desperately needed; Pelosi made the gutsy call to empower her; but it was McCarthy, whose stumbling, bumbling political malpractice made the committee far more effective than anyone had imagined. If McCarthy had gone along with a bipartisan commission, or hadn’t pulled his GOP appointees, the committee would never have been able to present its seamless narrative. Robert Draper and Luke Broadwater write in the NYT:
The most consequential congressional committee in generations was immersed in high drama from beginning to end. It originated six months after a domestic siege of the Capitol. It devoted a year to seeking evidence from sources who were often reluctant or even hostile. It then presented that evidence in the form of captivating televised hearings that were watched by more than 10 million Americans at a time, leading up to the November 2022 midterms in which a clear majority cast their ballots against election denialism. And then the committee concluded its work by making history with its criminal referrals of a former president to the Department of Justice.
The committee had three over-arching goals: (1) to hold DJT and his confederates accountable for their sedition, (2) to prevent his return to power, and (3) to create an indelible historical record. It remains unclear whether the committee will achieve the first two goals (which were outside of its power), but — surprisingly — the J6 committee does seem to have changed the trajectory of both the mid-terms and Donald Trump’s political future.
And they created an 800 page record of a presidential coup that could provide the blueprint for Trump’s indictment.
4. The end of stare decisis
The stunning end of Roe inspired the pro-life movement to pivot to shoring up the social safety net of programs for children and families. Just kidding.
In deep-red America, a wave of performative and punitive legislation is sweeping the land. In the abortion context, bounty-hunting laws in Texas, Idaho, and Oklahoma turn citizens against each other, incentivizing lawsuits even by people who haven’t been harmed by abortion. The pro-life movement, once solidly against prosecuting women who obtain abortions, is now split by an “abolitionist” wing that would not only impose criminal penalties on mothers, it even calls into question legal protections for the life of the mother when a pregnancy is physically perilous.
The demise of Roe also played a critical role in transforming the Great Red Wave into a trickle.
Of longer term importance: the court signaled a startling lack of deference to what had been considered settled law. Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the logic of the Hobbs decision could also be used to overturn rulings guaranteeing the right to contraception, sexual privacy, and gay marriage.
In one of the most notable moments of 2022, Congress responded to Thomas’s threat by passing the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act, which provided statutory authority for same-sex and interracial marriages.
5. The fanciest political flame-out of the year
Lots of competition here, but we have a clear winner: She was the “most gifted politician” of the age, the Queen of MAGA, the “leading lady” of Trumpism, the “empress of Trollistan,” and Trump’s “most talented emulator.”
Win or lose, [Kari] Lake’s political trajectory seems set to stretch well beyond the November election. Her success so far has unlocked glittering possibilities, including book deals and prime-time pro-Trump TV slots. She may even be rewarded with a spot alongside Trump on the 2024 presidential ticket. Whatever happens, Kari Lake is here to stay.
She lost. Spectacularly.
Lake spent the last months of the year floundering through legal defeats, hysterical conspiracy theories, performative assholery, and looming political irrelevance.
To be sure, she may be here to stay. But most likely as a cautionary tale. and a punchline.
Sarah Palin (you’ve already forgotten she lost, didn’t you?)
6. A bad year for grifters, charlatans, narcissists, and bullies.
We have not seen the end of our Age of Grift, but bubbles of various kinds were popped. Writes Joanna Weiss in Politico Magazine:
Over the past decade or so, a mix of shameless self-aggrandizement and self-confident charm has served certain people extraordinarily well, turning them into venture-capital darlings, licensed-merchandise magnates, Forbes cover models, social media superstars, Oprah confessors, business-conference keynoters, new-money plutocrats and, in one case, president.
But, in 2022, we got sick of that. Elizabeth Holmes was convicted; Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested; Kanye West cancelled himself; Elon Musk got the “Glass Onion” treatment. And Donald Trump sits in brooding isolation, giving off strong “Yesterday’s Man” vibes.
It would be naïve to think that Elon and The Donald might not make comebacks. But two of the biggest stories of 2002 were (1) the dramatic self-defenestration of the world’s richest man; and (2) the transformation of the 45th president into a pathetic Norma Desmond-like character.
But let’s start with Elon. This is what I wrote back in November:
Seldom have we seen anyone despoil both his wallet and his reputation so completely and with such zeal.
In a single week, the World’s Richest Man, who launches rockets into space, electrifies cars, and was Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, exposed himself as… what’s the opposite of an idiot savant? A savant idiot? Shallow, petulant, erratic, endlessly needy, and basically absurd.
“I am Iron Man” became “I am Zoolander.”
It got worse. Musk descended into chronic shitposting and Tesla’s stock tanked. And by tanked, I mean, it is down by roughly 70% and headed for the “Worst Performance This Year of Any Major S&P 500 Company.”
How a big a loser is Elon Musk? I defer to Baratunde Thurston in Puck.
We should look at Elon in 2023 with the level of contempt we’ve reserved for Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos or Anna Delvey née Sorokin of Whatever-Scheme-She-Was-Pimping. I want us to feel disgust toward him the way we were encouraged to feel disgust toward the invented caricature of the Black “welfare queen” of the 1980s. Presidents should rant against him in the State of the Union. Regulators should pre-emptively harass billionaires on the mere suspicion they might pull an Elon. His name should become a verb synonymous with astronomical destruction of economic value and levels of self-ownership so deep they approach the quantum level.
But the worst? Elon got his movie: “Glass Onion Peels Back Myth of Genius Billionaires.
The murder mystery is ultimately solved by detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), when he realizes that the Musk character, tech billionaire “genius” Miles Bron (Edward Norton) “is a goddamn idiot. He uses words wrong, he lacks all social graces, and he has surrounded himself with impressive people and breathtaking art to obscure his own utter ordinariness.”
And then there is the biggest loser of the year: the Incredible Shrinking Former Guy, sulking in his Florida lair, bracing himself for what promises to be a genuinely shitty new year for him.
In her brilliant year-end profile, “Inside Donald Trump’s sad, lonely, thirsty, broken, basically pretend run for reelection,” Olivia Nuzzi portrays an aging, lonely drama queen, beset by legal threats.
[The] the former president, impeached and voted out of office and impeached again, amid multiple state and federal investigations, under threat of indictment and arrest, on the verge of a congressional-committee verdict that would recommend four criminal charges to the Feds over his incitement of a mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol and threatened to hang his vice-president in a failed attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results, announced his third presidential campaign.
Since then, he has barely set foot outside the perimeter of Mar-a-Lago. For 28 days, in fact, he has not left the state of Florida at all.
It turns out that Trump’s favorite movie is Sunset Boulevard, which he apparently watches obsessively.
[He] once showed it to Tim O’Brien, the biographer, who wrote that when Norma Desmond cried, “Those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again, so help me!,” Trump leaned over O’Brien’s shoulder and whispered, “Is this an incredible scene or what? Just incredible.”
A washed-up star locked away in a mansion from the 1920s, afraid of the world outside, afraid it will remind him that time has passed … Well, he does not like the way it sounds for Trump.
Happy New Year.