The start of 2021 has been characterized by a mix of cautious optimism and straight-up fear. We may finally be out of the woods with the Trump presidency — but he left behind a legacy of extremism that is unlikely to be eradicated soon, fully on display during the Capitol insurrection in the first week of the year. We may finally have the hope of multiple COVID vaccines — but many people are refusing to get vaccinated and the rollout has been chaotic, to say the least. President Joe Biden has issued some promising executive orders, including on ending private prison contracts — but systemic issues like income inequality and racial injustice are not going to disappear overnight.
So while many of our hearts were filled with hope as poet Amanda Gorman spoke during Biden’s Inauguration, we also know that after these inspiring moments comes a lot of hard work. Ahead, we outlined what’s on the horizon for 2021. These are all the moments to watch for that could define this year politically.
Trump will be back, in some way, shape, or form...
While he exited the White House on January 20 and has already established an “Office of the Former President” at Mar-A-Lago, it’s unlikely that the attention-hungry ex-president is just going to fade into the background. Instead, says Sarah Kendzior, author of Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, it’s likely that he’s just laying low for now in hopes of people forgetting that he incited a violent insurrection. Soon enough, though, he’ll likely force himself back in the spotlight somehow, probably on cable TV (despite being deplatformed on several social networks). “He probably will do something because he's a sociopathic narcissist; he needs attention,” Kendzior told Refinery29. “He can't stand to be ignored. … I’m waiting to see what the media does with Trump, because I think they need to echo what Twitter and other social media platforms did. Just do not give this guy a microphone.” Further down the road, Trump could very well run for president in 2024, too, if Congress doesn’t prevent it from happening.
...On the other hand, he and his family might also face some consequences.
An impeachment trial is coming up in the Senate to hold Trump responsible for the attacks on the Capitol, although Republicans don’t seem keen on participating in it. In New York, Attorney General Letitia James has promised to look into the Trump family’s financial dealings. Kendzior says it’s hard to predict what will happen, but that she’s hopeful justice will be served. “Trump spent his whole life dodging prosecution very successfully with the help of people like Michael Cohen,” she said. “They get blackmail on people and then they use it when they need it. Tish James is interesting in this respect because, to my knowledge, they don’t have anything on her. I hope Tish James is the woman who [does him in]. I definitely don't have a lot of hope in Congress, but, you know, we'll see.”
...And the longer Trump is in the spotlight, the more it will splinter the Republican Party.
Considering how popular Trump still is with Republican voters, if he remains the center of attention in the Republican Party, it could even further divide the party into “evil” and “extremely evil” camps, particularly because he hasn’t been shy about threatening Republicans who won’t go along with his attempts to discredit the 2020 election. A wing of the party has already clearly formed that bases its ideology entirely on Trump and his white supremacist supporters. Senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who encouraged the insurrection, as well as the lawmakers who reportedly helped the rioters learn their way around the Capitol, are part of it. No matter what, this will be a permanent stain on the party. “It’s a mafia state culture,” Kendzior said. “And that's what I'm afraid is Trump's true legacy. … There’s an autocratic desire of the GOP to be a one-party state, to be completely obstructionist, to be anti-democracy itself.”
...Which could help bring even more extremists to Congress.
There is definitely good news when it comes to the changes in Congress this year: Democrats control both chambers, and there are promising new progressives like Reps. Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones among the ranks. Women make up around a quarter of the 117th Congress, which is a record. But there are also members who should never have been sworn in, such as Madison Cawthorn, a Hitler-following conspiracy theorist; Lauren Boebert, a gun fanatic and QAnon sympathizer; and Marjorie Taylor Greene, another vocal advocate of the QAnon conspiracy theory whose resignation Democrats are already demanding. Greene has reportedly “liked” comments on Facebook that threatened violence against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said the “stage is being set” for the executions of Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama over the Iran Nuclear Deal. Last week, she faced more backlash after a video went viral on Twitter in which she is harassing David Hogg, a gun safety activist and survivor of the Parkland shooting in 2018. In 2022, every member of the U.S. House and one-third of the Senate are up for reelection. Voters should act accordingly, and remove these dangerous lawmakers. “I think that [Greene] needs to be thoroughly condemned and rejected for the harassment,” Kendzior said. “She is clearly a malicious actor, she's somebody who is cruel and has malicious intent and should not be in Congress.”
Speaking of Congress…
Democratic organizers worked hard to elect Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in last month’s runoff elections in Georgia, which means Democrats have majorities in the U.S. House and Senate (however slim), and the presidency. So, Democrats have a big mandate: Help President Biden enact much-needed COVID relief, alleviate the $1.7 trillion of collective student debt Americans hold, roll back Trump’s environmental regulations in order to help fight climate change, expand the Affordable Care Act — and hopefully make inroads on Medicare for All.
Biden recently announced his proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package, which would include $1,400 payments in addition to the $600 ones paid out at the beginning of this year, generous unemployment benefits, federally mandated paid leave at least through September, large subsidies for childcare costs, and over $400 billion to accelerate vaccine deployment. He has also recently proposed raising the minimum wage to $15, something progressives long fought for. Predictably, his proposal is already facing some resistance in Congress, so it remains to be seen just how robust — or watered-down — this aid package will be.
While Congress is deliberating, COVID continues to affect every aspect of our lives.
Whether financially, socially, or emotionally, the pandemic has taken a long-term toll on society. For one thing, almost 2.2 million women stopped working or looking for work between February and October of 2020, according to the National Women’s Law Center, and job losses have disproportionately affected Black and Latina women. Many have left the workforce because there was no one else to take care of their kids or older parents, and it could take years for many to return to work after lost wages and opportunities. Additionally, evictions are continuing: A survey by the Census Bureau shows that 35.3% of all Americans fear losing their homes in the coming months. And vaccines aren’t the panacea some initially thought they would be: Experts warn that vaccines alone will not end the pandemic, and at the speed people are getting vaccinated it could be months before life will go back to “normal,” whatever that means. We can certainly expect to continue wearing masks through 2021 and likely beyond.
Outside of Congress, scary things are happening in state legislatures...
While Democrats hold small majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, state legislatures are a different story, with Republicans expanding their reach in the 2020 election and now holding more majorities and “trifectas” (both legislative chambers and the governor) than Democrats do. This is already having an impact on trans rights, abortion rights, voting rights, and more. In Montana, for example, a Republican introduced anti-trans bills that would ban transgender students from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity and would ban doctors from providing gender-related treatment to transgender minors. Lawmakers in several states including Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri, have introduced at least 10 anti-trans healthcare bills.
When it comes to abortion rights, over 100 bills have been introduced in state legislatures in the past few weeks that curb or ban abortion access. Legislators in at least three states — Arizona, North Dakota, and Mississippi — introduced bills that would allow prosecutors to charge abortion providers with murder. In South Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature is fast-tracking a so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill that would effectively ban abortions at six weeks, which is before most people even know they’re pregnant. A proposed amendment to the bill would require any doctor who performs an abortion for a patient who reports that the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest to turn over the patient’s contact information to the local sheriff. Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano spoke up against the amendment: “Sheriffs should not be policing a woman’s body, religious beliefs, or personal health decisions.”
“I would caution people who think that politics is about to get boring, because that is exactly the opposite of our reality,” Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, director of state media campaigns for Planned Parenthood, told the 19th.
...Meanwhile, mayoral elections will be pivotal.
On November 2, several major cities will hold mayoral elections, including New York City, Atlanta, Seattle, and Minneapolis, all of which were rocked by racial justice protests last summer. These are likely to serve as a referendum on the performance of mayors like Minneapolis’ Jacob Frey, who was famously booed when he said he opposes defunding and abolishing the police. One of the most interesting races is in NYC, where Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been lambasted for his inaction on police violence, is unable to run again due to term limits: More than 35 people have thrown their hats into the ring, among them Maya Wiley, a former City Hall official and MSNBC contributor who used to work for de Blasio and has drawn sharp distinctions between herself and her former boss by criticizing him for not moving quickly to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death in 2014. Others include Brooklyn rapper and artist Paperboy Prince, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year, and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
The Trump presidency taught many of us that we can never keep our attention off what’s happening, and 2021 will be no different. We’ll need to stay educated and aware in order to hold public officials accountable. The winds of change are strong this year and we are indeed cautiously optimistic, given how much potential for progress there is — but there is still much work to be done.