Our Most Memorable Stuff From a Year We’ll Never Forget
Ringing in the new year with the best stories we brought you in the old.
|Rachael Larimore||Jan 2|| 52||76|
If you’re reading this, congratulations! It means we made it, and the final days of 2020 didn’t bring an extinction-level asteroid impact or zombie apocalypse. There weren’t even any aliens (that we know of).
In the news business, the last week of the year is usually dominated by best-of lists and reviews: the biggest stories of the year, the best films and TV shows, the best sporting events, the most influential people. Some insider info: These stories are easy to write ahead of time, which allows publications to look productive while staffers take time off. There’s been a smattering of that (and I’m going to indulge below), but 2020 being 2020, this hasn’t been a slow news week. On Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley announced that he would object to the counting of several states’ electoral votes on January 6. Various House Republicans have also vowed to object to the results, but Hawley’s gesture, as a senator, guarantees that an event that is usually a mere formality will be subject to drama and contention. We explain it all in the final Morning Dispatch of the year. And in his final French Press of 2020, David explained why this last-ditch effort to overturn the election is both frivolous and dangerous.
And the pandemic has about as much regard for calendars as it has had for state and national borders and other human constructs. Americans are dying in record numbers. Many of our hospitals are contending with full ICUs and burned-out physicians and nurses. We’re still fighting about lockdowns, in-person schooling, and masks. While the vaccines that are now rolling out promise hope for 2021, the rollout has been slow—for complicated reasons, as Declan pointed out in this article—and we aren’t done with the virus that upended our year in ways we could not have predicted in March.
Future historians will be able to make entire careers just from studying the past 12 months, but for now, I think we’ve all had quite enough, don’t you? This tweet by a friend says it all:
That said, 2020 was almost as rewarding as it was challenging for us at The Dispatch. We had a pretty clear mission when we started this adventure: We wanted to provide reporting and informed commentary from a conservative perspective, and we wanted to foster a strong sense of community with you, our readers. I’m going to say we went 2-for-2. Your support has allowed us to focus on our work, and it’s been a pleasure to engage with all of you.
I use this space to share our “best stuff” from the previous week. That’s obviously a subjective standard, and I’m a little loosey-goosey on the definition of best. But I have good reasons. Maybe we had a piece from a new contributor we’re excited about, or we published a good story about some policy wonkery on a day that was dominated by tweets or scandal, and it didn’t get the attention we hoped.
In a similar vein, today I’m going to share some of my favorite pieces from the last year. You may have your own favorites, but all of these represent good work that is in keeping with our mission: helpful explainers, solid reporting, information without hyperventilation. If I’ve left out something you think should have been included, don’t hesitate to mention it.
The Morning Dispatch is perhaps the best representation of our philosophy about news consumption. We want to give you what you need to know to start the day, with solid reporting on important topics. Some days, that is easier said than done. Especially when news breaks late, as happened a year ago tomorrow—when the U.S. took out Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, in Iraq. The crew tore up the newsletter and wrote through the night to provide an in-depth look at who Suleimani was, how many American deaths he’d been responsible for, and what the assassination meant for our relations with Iran. It’s a story with direct relevance to the news today.
In this piece from March, Alec Stapp of the Progressive Policy Institute did a deep, deep dive on the failures by the FDA and CDC that hampered our ability to ramp up widespread coronavirus testing. More than eight months later, it’s hard to reread this and not be angry. He details the lengthy and at times ridiculous process one virologist at the University of Washington had to go through to get a test approved, and how the FDA, by initially granting an emergency use authorization to only the CDC for testing, “put all its eggs in one basket.”
Before George Floyd, there was Ahmaud Arbery. The cases aren’t exact parallels—Floyd died in police custody, while Arbery was shot by a man who suspected him of criminal activity—but Arbery’s death highlighted similar issues surrounding black Americans and our criminal justice system. David French wrote this in May, and was among the first national commentators to call attention to the story, but the shooting took place in February. Why the gap? The local prosecutor had declined to press charges since Arbery’s assailants claimed they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest. David pointed out the many flaws with that argument.
It’s nearly impossible to pick just one G-File to include. Jonah weighed in on the left’s hypocrisy on gender politics vs. racial politics, MAGA culture and Trump’s appeal, the culture wars, and, um, Jeffrey Toobin. But in this newsletter from June, at the height of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death, he deftly tackled two thorny topics: violence and racism. He started by criticizing the assertion by the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones that “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.” He went to make an important point about systemic racism: “I have no problem conceding that America has a systemic racism problem, which is not the same thing as conceding America is systemically racist.”
Donald Trump’s surprising victory in 2016 launched a new genre of journalism, something a former colleague of mine derisively called the “Cleetus safari.” Journalists based in coastal cities ventured to the South and the Midwest in hopes of understanding the “real Americans” who voted for Trump. Too often these profiles were either condescending or boosterish, depending on the author’s own ideological biases. What happens if you just talk to Trump supporters without an agenda? That’s what Andrew did in this profile of the “Front Row Joes,” Trump superfans who traveled around the country attending as many of the president’s rallies as they could, at least before the pandemic hit.
What happens when a crazy conspiracy theory goes mainstream? One that holds there is a cabal of powerful people (including John Podesta and Hillary Clinton) running a child-sex trafficking ring, and only Donald Trump can save us? In this case, its adherents ran for Congress. In safe GOP districts. Which means they ended up on Capitol HIll. Back in June, Audrey Fahlberg introduced us to Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, two of the GOP’s QAnon-curious caucus, both of whom went on to win their races.
Welp, we tried. We knew that many states had modified laws to facilitate mail-in voting and early in-person voting to keep citizens safe while conducting an election during a pandemic. And we knew that President Trump was laying the groundwork to claim the election had been stolen via voter fraud by disparaging mail-in voting and telling his voters it made the process less secure. So, months in advance of Election Day, we called secretaries of state, county commissioners, and other officials whose job it is to carry out elections and asked what measures they were taking and how confident they felt about the election being safe and legitimate. As it turned out, the election WAS safe and legit—the most secure in our history, as some have noted—but that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from making false claims about votes being flipped and stolen. It’s worth going back to look at the hard work put in by local officials and rereading what they said about the process, before it became politicized in the post-election environment.
Even though the election was secure, and even though Attorney General Bill Barr himself said there was no evidence of widespread election fraud, that did not stop the Trump campaign and the president’s supporters from launching an unprecedented number of legal challenges in an attempt to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s electoral victory. When we look back on the 2020 election, we will probably recall the “Kraken” lawsuits filed by Sidney Powell. We might chuckle about Rudy Giuliani’s runny hair dye or the fact that the campaign couldn’t tell the difference between a luxury hotel and a landscaping company when booking a press conference. But what we should take away is how the message that the campaign was putting out about voter fraud and a stolen election didn’t align well with the lawsuits being filed. Many of the claims were about small numbers of ballots or minor problems with procedure. The affidavits that made the boldest claims did not stand up to scrutiny. And in the end, Trump was turned away by courts at multiple levels, often helmed by judges appointed by a Republican president or even by Trump himself.
Ok, I’m cheating here, because if you click on this link, you’ll see a whole bunch of articles. Over the summer and early fall, we reached out to various center-right policy experts to weigh in on what a Biden administration might look like. There’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, warning that Biden will be inclined to try to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal; Scott Lincicome predicting that Biden won’t be much better than Trump on trade and suggesting that we “expect some improvement, some stasis, and maybe even some deterioration”; Abby McCloskey on Biden’s policies for working families; Scott Winship on how he might tackle poverty; and more.
With everything else that happened this year, it’s easy to forget that the threat from Al-Qaeda and ISIS has not gone away. Especially when President Trump emphasized the need to end our “endless wars.” Tom Joscelyn is one of the foremost experts on the war on terror, and he cautioned repeatedly this year that we can’t let our guard down. “ No one should be foolish enough to assume that al-Qaeda, which was founded on an anti-American conspiracy theory, will suddenly lose interest in attacking the U.S. after forming one or more emirates.”