Good Riddance

Anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968

There may have been worse years in U.S. history than this just-concluded one — 1968 comes readily to mind, marked by two political assassinations, a worsening quagmire in Vietnam, racial strife and urban rioting, and student demonstrations. Also, the years 1861 to 1865 — when Americans killed Americans in a fratricidal war — cannot be ignored (and a great president was assassinated in the last year of that war).

Still, 2018 had many terrors. What follows is an idiosyncratic view of the year’s top stories — most of which help 2018 earn the title annus horribilis. Thrown in are a few tentative predictions for the coming year and the occasional bright spot that may help renew our faith in America and humankind.

A California forest aflame in 2018

While there has been no attempt to rank these stories, the continuing, escalating catastrophe of man-made climate change has to be the most significant event of 2018. Record-setting temperatures around the world, extreme storms, severe droughts leading to disastrous forest fires, and continued melting of the polar ice caps yielding rising seas, all of these have become the new normal. President Donald Trump’s climate agenda — if he even thinks deeply enough about this problem to have an agenda — only makes the problem worse. His administration is chock full of corporate lobbyists who have influenced federal policy to make it easier for energy companies to pollute. Trump has pulled America out of the Paris climate accord — a weak attempt at reversing human agency in climate change, but perhaps humankind’s last, best hope — and he has refused to recognize the warnings of multiple U.S. governmental and international agencies.

Perhaps the president’s deteriorating legal position explains his inability to focus on environmental problems. Numerous legal investigations into Trump’s campaign, family, administration, business practices, and foundation have consumed his presidency, leaving us with the image of a president holed up in the White House, tweeting insults and lies as the figurative noose around his neck tightens. The public only has hints of the depth of the information special counsel Robert Mueller has amassed, but what has become available through court filings and indictments suggest a level of corruption never before seen in American history (and, yes, I have not forgotten Watergate and Teapot Dome). Mueller’s probe is only one of many that threaten Trump. The coming year will witness continued investigations by the U.S. attorneys in the southern district of New York and the states of New York (looking into Trump’s soon-to-be-defunct foundation) and New Jersey (probing hiring practices at one of Trump’s golf courses).

Some of the newly elected Democratic women in the House

Add to that list multiple congressional investigations, the result of Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives in the November elections — one of the happier stories of 2018. Several congressional committees will subpoena the Trump administration for documents and testimony. Reports indicate the administration is unprepared for the looming legal challenges while the president remains convinced he can outsmart all his adversaries. Democrats may be tempted to begin impeachment proceedings, though that is not likely before more substantial information from the Mueller probe becomes available and Republicans begin deserting the president. Impeachment must have at least a veneer of bipartisanship to prevent significant numbers of Americans from believing Trump was a victim of a conspiracy foisted by coastal elites. There have been signs — over the Syria withdrawal and the government’s response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi —  that Republicans are beginning to waver in their support of the president. The response of Republicans in the Senate to the government shutdown when Congress reconvenes this week will be an early hint of the party’s attitude toward the president.

A related political story was the undermining of democracy by Republicans, who in 2018 continued their attempts to strip Democratic-leaning voters of the right to vote. The year also saw Republicans in several states — notably Wisconsin and Michigan — try to change the rules of governance to limit the power of incoming Democratic administrations. Republicans’ unwillingness to support unlimited access to the ballot by all eligible voters and post-electoral power grabs are reminiscent of banana republics, not the world’s leading democracy.

A young boy in the custody of U.S. officials at the border

Republican attempts to alter the political playing field stem, in part, from a recognition of the vast demographic changes occurring in 21st-century America. The continued browning of the population not only spurs anti-democratic Republican political actions but also influences the party’s xenophobic response to immigration. Trump won the presidency by appealing to anti-immigrant fears, and he continues to try to deflect his many problems by stoking those animosities. The result is unfortunate: Lack of a comprehensive immigration policy, the continued reluctance to end the twilight existence of Dreamers, the grotesque policy of family separation at the border, and the deaths of two children in American custody. Add to this sorry list the president’s unnecessary shutdown of the federal government over funding of a wall to keep immigrants out, occasioned by his need to satisfy the most extreme members of his political base.

The missteps of the Trump administration extend to foreign as well as domestic affairs. Mention only need be made of the sudden pull out of American forces from Syria on the specious grounds that ISIS has been defeated and the nightmarish acceptance of Saudi excuses for responsibility in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In July, Trump humiliated himself by accepting the word of Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding electoral meddling over that of American intelligence officials, and Trump declared his “love” for Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s brutal dictator. The coddling of autocrats continues into the New Year with the traveling of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to attend the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incoming president of Brazil who has expressed admiration for Trump and his style of politics. 

An anti-gun rally at the Florida State Capitol led by Parkland students

Some tragedies led to at least a modicum of good news. Students in Parkland, Florida, responded to the horrific massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by mobilizing in the fight to end gun violence. The brave youth of Parkland spurred a nationwide movement that not only altered the debate over gun control, but also encouraged increasing numbers of young people to become politically involved.  

That piece of encouraging news does not diminish happiness that 2018 is finally gone. Today, is the first day of the New Year, and things may get worse before they get better. But, there is reason for hope: The president is cornered, Republicans may desert him, and 2020 is only a year away. 

Posted January 1, 2019

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