NR’s Biggest Stories of 2021
An unavoidably incomplete compendium
Dear Weekend Jolter,
This is a risky endeavor, to compile a listicle of colleagues’ best, most influential, and/or most widely read work. Many excellent articles inevitably get omitted, feelings are bruised, professional relationships are frayed, debts are called in for spotted bar tabs, threats are issued by letter, mysterious accidents befall relatives of the website’s managing editor, and no police reports are filed for fear of reprisal.
Still, this is a risk I’ll have to assume. The high-school yearbook editor’s burden of deciding the Senior Superlatives is not for the faint-hearted, and neither is this.
Without further prattle from me, the Weekend Jolt will ditch the customary format at year’s end to present this incomplete, but still impressive (we think), list of the biggest NR stories of 2021. It makes for great reading while nursing the repercussions of three too many French 75s:
The Rebekah Jones Affair
That’s “affair” as in controversy. The former Florida official courted it, with her wild fabrications about a Covid-data conspiracy, and Charles C. W. Cooke exposed it, with his epic exposé for the magazine back in May. But a taste:
Jones’s central claim is nothing less dramatic than that she has uncovered a massive conspiracy in the third most populous state in the nation, and that, having done so, she has been ruthlessly persecuted by the governor and his “Gestapo.” Specifically, Jones claims that, while she was working at the FDOH last year, she was instructed by her superiors to alter the “raw” data so that Florida’s COVID response would look better, and that, having refused, she was fired. Were this charge true, it would reflect one of the most breathtaking political scandals in all of American history.
But it’s not true. Indeed, it’s nonsense from start to finish. Jones isn’t a martyr; she’s a myth-peddler. She isn’t a scientist; she’s a fabulist. She’s not a whistleblower; she’s a good old-fashioned confidence trickster. And, like any confidence trickster, she understands her marks better than they understand themselves.
Eastman vs. Eastman
John McCormack conducted two phone interviews with Trump legal adviser John Eastman, discussing his memos outlining dubious strategies to boost Trump during the electoral-vote tally (turned riot) at the Capitol nearly one year ago. Significantly, in these interviews Eastman cast doubt on memo passages suggesting that Mike Pence had the ultimate authority to determine the validity of electoral votes:
The two-page memo written by Eastman proposed that Pence reject certified Electoral College votes and then either declare Trump the winner or invalidate enough votes to send the election to the House of Representatives, where Republicans controlled a majority of delegations. That memo was first published in September in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book Peril.
The issue here is that Eastman says the Eastman memo does not accurately represent Eastman’s own views or legal advice to Pence or Trump, claiming that the two-page version published in Peril was preliminary and a final version presented various scenarios intended for internal discussion. . . .
The two-page memo published in Peril was drafted on Christmas Eve, and a final six-page memo was drafted on January 3, says Eastman. “They were internal discussion memos for the legal team. I had been asked to put together a memo of all the available scenarios that had been floated,” Eastman says. “I was asked to kind of outline how each of those scenarios would work and then orally present my views on whether I thought they were valid or not, so that’s what those memos did.” . . .
Eastman says he disagrees with some major points in the two-page memo. That version says that Trump would be reelected if Pence invalidated enough electoral votes to send the election to the House of Representatives: “Republicans currently control 26 of the state delegations, the bare majority needed to win that vote. President Trump is reelected there as well.”
Eastman’s final six-page memo says Trump would be reelected by the House “IF the Republicans in the State Delegations stand firm.” But Eastman says he told Trump at the January 4 meeting in the White House: “Look, I don’t think they would hold firm on this.” . . .
“So anybody who thinks that that’s a viable strategy is crazy,” Eastman tells National Review.
When it comes to the legal argument that the vice president is the only person with authority to count the electoral votes, Eastman says: “This is where I disagree. I don’t think that’s true.”
So Long, California
Something about David Bahnsen’s examination of “The Great California Exodus” — of why so many people are leaving the Golden State — struck a nerve. It was one of NR’s most widely read stories of the year. Insights like this likely helped explain the misgivings former and soon-to-be-former residents were having:
There is no one factor that has provoked the exodus. In fact, nearly every person I have ever talked to who has left the state was willing to swallow one of the major disadvantages of life there. Perhaps they didn’t like the heavy tax burden but were willing to bear it in exchange for the various advantages that life there gave them. The inexorable increase in cost of living was a bear but acceptable up to a point. The regulatory burdens were unwarranted but tolerable if one could just manage to do whatever it was one aspired to do.
No, what caused and continues to cause the exodus out of California is not tax burden, or regulation, or cost of living, or housing prices. Rather, it is the burden, and regulation, and cost of living, and housing prices, and more.
Sometimes the “bad guys” aren’t actually the bad guys. Ryan Mills did a great job illustrating this in the context of the pandemic-prompted eviction moratorium here and here, interviewing small-time landlords getting crushed by the edict. An excerpt from one of the pieces:
One of Raj Sookram’s tenants stopped paying rent in December. Another man hasn’t paid him a cent in 20 months. He now owes Sookram over $20,000.
One woman stopped paying this spring, Sookram said, then demanded that he fix her hot water heater when it blew. That ended with city officials threatening Sookram with daily fines.
In all, Sookram said, about half of the tenants living in his 13 Rochester, N.Y., rental properties are behind on rent. Sookram said he’s struggling to pay his bills and taxes. He’s had to take out loans and work side handyman gigs to provide for his wife and three kids.
As the coronavirus pandemic drags on — and as the federal government continues to extend its legally dubious eviction moratorium — more and more people are “jumping on the bandwagon, like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to pay you,’” Sookram said.
There have been many “told ya so” moments in the Biden presidency, but Dan McLaughlin attempted to capture many of them in a single piece, “Joe Biden Is Who We Said He Was”:
What is slowly dawning on people is that Biden’s critics were right about him all along. . . .
Biden’s handling of Afghanistan has exposed all of that. Presidents can remain aloof from Capitol Hill. They can send out underlings to handle public-health guidance, lawsuits, or new regulations. But foreign crises demand active, personal leadership. That has gone badly. Everyone who said for decades that Biden was a lightweight ill-equipped to handle a major crisis has been vindicated.
The country has fallen rapidly into chaos, ruining the work of two decades of American soldiers in ways that cannot easily be repaired. Bagram Airfield was inexplicably abandoned to the Taliban without even informing the Afghan army commander. More than 10,000 Americans were caught behind the lines, and Biden’s national-security team had no plan to get them out. Biden had even eliminated a State Department program for evacuating Americans in danger overseas. Billions of dollars in weaponry we provided to the Afghan army fell into Taliban hands, to use or to barter to other enemies who can better deploy it. At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, General Hank Taylor admitted that he could not answer whether the United States was “taking any other sort of steps to prevent aircraft or other military equipment from falling into the hands of the Taliban.” . . .
It is long past time for people to notice who Joe Biden always was, and who he has become in his dotage. He is a hollow man, incapable of managing a picnic, let alone a war. His credibility, always unearned, is shot. His only real skill is his quick tongue, and it has deserted him. Even his onetime virtues — his old-timey patriotism, his faith in institutions, his empathy for others — are easily discarded as the old man reverts to his base instincts when cornered. Biden must hobble through the remainder of his presidency, if only because the alternative is Kamala Harris, his imprudent choice — or threat — of an heir. But nobody should, any longer, pretend that Joe Biden is fit to lead this nation.
Garland’s Messed-Up Memo
One of the big political stories of the year was the battle over critical race theory in the schools. Amid this heated debate, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo directing the FBI to collaborate with other agencies to probe violent threats against school officials aroused suspicion. So Caroline Downey dug into it. She found that the school-board association letter that had sought such an investigation cited a number of parent incidents that do not actually qualify as threats of physical violence:
Out of 24 incidents cited by the NSBA, 16 consisted of tense verbal exchanges between parents and school-board members that did not escalate to threats of physical violence. In many of these cases, the aggravated parents disrupted school-board meetings by angrily objecting to their districts’ mandatory masking policies and/or embrace of critical-race-theory curricula.
In other cases, parents picketed outside school-board meetings, wielding signs and chanting politically charged slogans. In some instances, the angry parents shouted over school-board members or exceeded their allotted speaking time during the meeting’s public-comment period. In some of these incidents, the police intervened to eject parents who refused to wear masks or were being otherwise unruly. In none of these cases was a threat of physical violence issued.
What ‘Equity’ Means, Really
Christopher Caldwell’s cover story, “The Inequality of ‘Equity,’” was and is a must-read on the flaws inherent in what is becoming the guiding policy principle of our day:
If you wanted to be blunt about it, you might call equity a no-excuses imperative to eliminate all collective racial inequalities. There are many such inequalities in our system, and blacks are on the unenviable side of most of them. They possess the fewest financial assets, fare the worst in school, have the hardest time finding work, live the shortest lives, commit the most violent crime, and spend the most time in jail. Equity’s proponents, most of them progressive Democrats, say their aim is to ensure that all races share equally in economic growth and get a fair shake in the justice system. Republicans say that Democrats are abandoning equality of opportunity for equality of result.
Put that way, “equity” sounds like a new name for something that Americans have been arguing about for two or three generations now. Affirmative action, after all, tips the playing field of opportunity in minorities’ favor. “Diversity” is all about managing results. Feminists’ equal-pay-for-equal-work campaigns might be considered a harbinger of these equity debates.
But in two ways the equity movement is radically new.
First is in the categorical simplicity of its diagnosis. It views all inequality across groups as illegitimate on its face — as evidence of white racism, in fact.
Second is in its tools. Equity doesn’t concern itself with more-traditional understandings of inequality — differences, say, between bosses and laborers. It is about equality for blacks, as laid out in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for the various groups, from immigrants to transgender people, that have come under the act’s protection in the decades since. The power of civil-rights law to punish employers and schools, to investigate those suspected of noncompliance, and even to silence detractors has been steadily strengthened by bureaucratic fiat and litigation. Race-conscious rather than race-blind, open to almost any kind of remedial discrimination, equity has brought us to a crossroads. Either our civil-rights laws are being overstretched to the point where they are growing intolerable to much of the country (though people remain frightened of saying so) or they are in the process of becoming the supreme law of the land, overriding even the Constitution. . . .
Perhaps equity is best thought of as diversity or affirmative action taken to its logical conclusion. We can expect it to function in ways similar to affirmative action, steadily entrenching itself as those who administer it forget the goals they began with. At that point, a temporary program turns into a permanent one, and a new goal enters: no longer to undo racism but to duck the arduous work that would have to be done if the problem turns out to be more complicated than that.
How Border Security Happened
Even before the migrant surge along the U.S.–Mexico border really intensified, Rich Lowry was out there warning about the damage that would be done by Biden’s unwinding of Trump’s border policies. He authored a deep dive on the matter all the way back in March:
Counter to the image of the administration taking a blunderbuss approach to everything related to immigration, the push at the border was a thoughtful, creative, and well-coordinated effort across government agencies and between sovereign countries.
It is worth revisiting because understanding how it came about and the reasons that it made such a difference underlines the mistakes that Biden is making now, no matter how much his officials and allies want to deny it and shift blame. . . .
The administration watched the border, which Trump had insisted he would secure, dissolve into a crisis with seemingly no end in sight. That’s when everyone serious about the border realized, if they hadn’t already, that “there were fundamental changes that had to be made in thinking, even within certain parts of the administration, about how to do things at the border,” in the words of the former DOJ official.
There was a belief that DHS under Kirstjen Nielsen, even though it had done some good work, lacked the requisite urgency and creativity in dealing with the new surge. Nielsen was pushed out, and a change in leadership began at DHS that coincided with a new approach.
Every practice was examined and every legal authority reviewed to see how to put the system on a more rational basis. An official familiar with the issue says that the administration was “looking at all of the various laws that are on the books and saying, ‘Look, we’ve only been giving out the sort of benefits and not using all aspects of the law. Why don’t we just fully utilize all of the law, and it will get us what we need?’”
Changes large and small added up to a new, multi-pronged approach that made a difference.
A Terrifying Covid Truth
One more from Charles. Back in August, he penned a piece whose thesis has held up given the Covid surge lately in northern states. With the stats to back it up, he argued that the spread of coronavirus strongly indicates that our myriad and complex Covid policies have little impact on Covid death rates:
It is much easier to believe that, if we put the people you like in charge of everything and make them say the right words on TV, the worst pandemic in a century will bend to their will than it is to accept that human beings are alarmingly susceptible to chaos.
The uncomfortable truth is that, beyond developing, encouraging, and providing inoculation, there’s not much that any government can do to guarantee success — and, even when it does what it can, a lot of people are going to resist for reasons bad and good.
Of course, there’s much, much more. But it’s time to truncate before this newsletter becomes far too unwieldy. More links of the year’s highlights follow — and, for those feeling nostalgic, the site has been featuring plenty of look-backs and best-ofs all week, from Brian Allen and Kyle Smith and others. Peruse freely:
Bing West: Who Will Trust Us after Afghanistan?
Manyin Li: What China Really Wants: A New World Order
Ramesh Ponnuru: Fighting for Life
H. R. McMaster: Preserving the Warrior Ethos
Editorial: The Wuhan Lab Cover-Up
Andrew McCarthy: The Lab-Leak Theory: Evidence Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Jim Geraghty: The Wuhan Lab-Leak Hypothesis Goes Mainstream
Jim Geraghty: Something Is Wrong with the President
Charles C. W. Cooke: The Democrats Have a Kamala Harris Problem
Michael Brendan Dougherty: The Fall of Saint Anthony Fauci
Michael Brendan Dougherty: Gone Too Far
Nate Hochman: The Tragedy of Portland
Ben Sasse: Worse Than Saigon
Kyle Smith: Cackling Kamala
Kevin Williamson: The ORC Invasion
Kevin Williamson: The Mask Is an Outward Sign of Inward Things
Daniel Tenreiro: Universities Are Complicit in Ballooning Student Debt
Jason Lee Steorts: Xinjiang before the Genocide
David Harsanyi: How Jen Psaki Plays the Press
Brian Allen: The Story Behind Marble Masterpieces in Rome
Joel Kotkin: Joe Biden, Nowhere Man
Andrew Roberts: The Baseless Attempt to Cancel Winston Churchill
We’re going to have to leave it there. Happy New Year, everyone.