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Sensemaker: Changeover day

Wednesday 20 January 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • On the eve of their inauguration, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prayed for the 400,000 Americans who have died from Covid. 
  • Trump issued 143 federal pardons and commutations including one for his former advisor Steve Bannon, who faced charges of misusing donors’ money.
  • Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder, made his first public appearance since a dressing down from Chinese officials in October.

Changeover day

It happens every week in ski resorts; a bit more seldom in DC. An early start. A change of sheets. Regrets, excitement, and that strange sense of time slowing while also marching on.

The Trump experiment is over. The study of its after-effects begins – on America’s image and self-image, culture, alliances, taxation, debt and politics. One thing time doesn’t do is turn back on itself, so one thing that won’t happen under any of these headings is a return to the status quo ante.

What will happen? There’ll be a battle for the soul of the Republican party and some people will try to come together, but even they’ll soon tire of clichés. One thing we do know: America’s first woman vice president will end 232 years of exclusively male presidential pairings and almost certainly establish herself as a candidate for president.

Some headlines from Biden’s to-do list are below*, but, first, a last look around Trumpland:

From the Capitol: the people who stormed it “were fed lies”, Mitch McConnell said, ratcheting up the chances that he’ll vote to convict in any Senate impeachment trial. He used the passive mode and didn’t specify the liars, so still has wriggle room. It still seems unlikely that 16 others from his party will join him, but he did pledge a safe and successful transfer of power.

From Stanford: the historian Niall Ferguson said the election result has been widely misinterpreted. “The American people collectively voted for the centre ground. They picked in Joe Biden Mr Centre Ground, and… many voters who did not vote for Donald Trump still voted for Republican candidates down ballot.” Hence no blue wave. 

From Twitter: the NYT, in full paper-of-record mode, has collected all Trump’s Twitter insults together in one place, going back to the start of his campaign. The list is staggeringly long. Hurt feelings and geopolitical blowback apart, it’s also pretty funny. (On Covid guru Anthony Fauci: “Bad arm!” “Threw out perhaps the worst pitch in the history of baseball!”) You can sort it chronologically and alphabetically but not by category. Even so, it’s clear from individual entries that the media did its job in terms of irking the hell out of him.

From Taiwan: in the country that owes Trump most in terms of US support against Chinese aggression, the Taipei Times ran a story on a call between his UN ambassador, Kelly Craft, and President Tsai Ing-wen.

Craft: “The US stands with Taiwan and always will, as friends and partners, standing shoulder to shoulder as pillars of democracy.”

Tsai: “The people of Taiwan have been inspired by your action. They actually like you a lot.”

If I were Trump, I’d take that.

*Meanwhile Biden has said that in his first 100 days in office, and in many cases on day one, he will:

  • re-sign the Paris climate agreement
  • rejoin the World Health Organization
  • reverse the ban on travel from certain mainly-Muslim countries
  • extend moratoria on tenant evictions and student loan payments
  • impose a nationwide mask mandate on federal property and out-of-state travel
  • freeze new construction of the US-Mexico border wall
  • reverse policies against transgender Americans, including a ban on military service
  • vaccinate 100 million people with the help of thousands of new community vaccination centres
  • push for a $1.9 trillion stimulus package
  • create a taskforce to reunite children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border
  • reauthorise the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme
  • and ban new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Putin’s palace
Why did Alexei Navalny go back to Russia? Well, now we have an answer. He wanted to be there before his anti-corruption team launched a 113-minute video on a palace allegedly built for Putin allegedly at a cost of more than $1.3 billion on a forested headland looking south over the Black Sea. Why did he want to be in Russia rather than safe elsewhere? So as not to look afraid. Two colleagues of his who don’t look remotely afraid appear in the video floating close to the palace in a cheap inflatable, about to launch a drone that brings back extraordinary footage of a vast complex that hasn’t yet been used and has in fact had to be extensively rebuilt, they say, because of mildew. This is a must-watch, not least as a glimpse of Team Navalny’s droll and gutsy style. Four million people have hit play so far.  

(Property porn highlights: underground ice hockey rink, “pole-dancing room”, church, 80-metre bridge to guest-house, tunnel to the beach.)


New things technology, science, engineering

Oumuamua “was alien”
Tortoise wasn’t born yet when Avi Loeb, the Harvard astrophysicist, first suggested that an otherwise inexplicable object seen passing close to Earth at 200,000 mph in 2017 was the handiwork of an alien civilisation. So we have under-reported this story, but, at the risk of further enraging serious scientists already upset by Loeb’s theory, there is now a chance to remedy our omission by noting that he has a book out on it. He’s doubling down. His process is one of elimination: the object known as 1I/2017 U1 or Oumuamua (Hawaiian for “scout”) can’t be a comet because it has no tail, probably isn’t an asteroid because they tend to move one fifth as fast, and would have been highly unlikely to come so close to Earth unless directed to. It’s probably nonsense, but it’s groovy nonsense. The New Yorker has a review.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cumbria coal
The UK government has decided not to overrule Cumbria County Council’s decision to allow a new coal mine to be dug in Cumbria, despite a plea from the Climate Change Committee to phase out all coal use by 2035 and despite the fact that Britain will host COP 26 later this year up the road in Glasgow. What gives? Robert Jenrick, the frequently compromised communities secretary, says it should be a local decision. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, says the mine will produce coking coal that’s essential for steelmaking and would otherwise have to be imported. Trudy Harrison, the local MP, is also Boris Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary. So the mine’s backers, whose head office is 350 miles south in leafy Haywards Heath, appear to have got their ducks in a row. The ducks should be embarrassed, and instead of caving to inertia the UK should be leading efforts to commercialise hydrogen alternatives to coke in steelmaking.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Vaccine supply glitch?
Pfizer is temporarily reducing Covid vaccine production at its Belgian plant in order to scale it up “significantly” by the end of next month. That has meant a decline in daily vaccination (£) numbers in the UK since they peaked at 324,000 last Friday, as the daily death toll reached a new record of 1,610 yesterday and the government’s self-imposed deadline of mid-February for 14 million jabs draws nearer. The AstraZeneca vaccine could still fill the breach, and even if the deadline is not met there’s still a strong case for ambitious targets. The real risk is that global production bottlenecks lead mean health services have no answer to infection spikes all over the world. Google “vaccine supply glitch” and answers ping back from Texas, Alberta, Oklahoma and Maharashtra, and that’s just on page one.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Big Indian win
Even if you don’t follow cricket, you have to find out what’s behind a tweet that claims “test cricket is intellectually, morally, aesthetically, spiritually, emotionally, dramatically, artistically, physically, mentally, historically, consistently, decisively, dumbfoundingly, globally, unapologetically, unquestionably superior to every other game yet invented”. Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, was excited by India’s remarkable win over Australia yesterday at a Brisbane ground where Australia hadn’t lost since 1988. The hero of the hour(s) was Rishabh Pant (89 not out, as part of a 329-run chase). The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was less carried away than Rajan, but still “overjoyed”.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs Getty Images, Navalny.com, M. Kornmesser/European Southern Observatory/NASA