Our Best Stuff From a Week We Spent Knocking on Wood

Optimism on the pandemic front, and a busy week in Congress.

We spend a lot of time these days talking about a return to normalcy. We have reason to be cautiously optimistic (or maybe just outright optimistic, as Scott Lincicome details below) on the pandemic front: Cases are down, some school districts that have been remote all year are opening or inching toward it, and vaccines are on the rise. 

Those are all immensely welcome developments. But it occurred to me this week that it’s not the only normal that we can maybe start looking forward to. The news doesn’t seem to be slowing down much: The Biden administration launched airstrikes against this week directed at Iranian militias in Syria. Two of the new president’s Cabinet-level nominees—Neera Tanden and Xavier Beccera—faced scrutiny from Republicans and even a few Democrats. Congress is working toward passing the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, even though the Senate parliamentarian threw a wrench into the plan to sneak a $15 hourly minimum wage into the legislation. These are all important stories, and they have one thing in common: They have little or nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Yes, there was plenty of Trump-related news this week. The Supreme Court ordered that New York prosecutors could access his tax returns. And supporters displayed a golden statue of the former president, seemingly attired in a blazer and American-flag shorts (I wish I were making this up) at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Congress is just beginning its investigations into the events that the former president instigated at the Capitol on January 6, and conservatives will spend the next few years sorting out the future direction of the movement.

However, while I might be wrong, it feels like Trump’s influence over the news cycle—if not the Republican Party—is receding, at least slowly. However you might feel about him, that should be a welcome change. For the last five years, it was almost impossible for any story not to have some kind of Trump angle. He regularly called attention to himself, through his actions, his tweets, his calls into Twitter or Fox & Friends, and his polarizing nature rendered his opponents unable to do anything but oblige. 

Frankly, it was exhausting. When I started writing this newsletter, I would try to avoid writing about him too much. For one, we have plenty of people who are more qualified than me to do so. But also, it felt unhealthy to spend so much time on one person, even if he is the president.  I wanted to focus on topics that were important but sometimes ignored.  

And so maybe now we can inch forward toward normalcy in more than one way. With the former president spending less time in the news, that leaves us free to care about the things that really matter, like Eddie Murphy confirming that a legendary Dave Chappelle skit about a late-night pickup basketball game featuring Murphy, his brother Charlie, Prince, and others was “absolutely accurate.”

Now, here’s our best stuff from the last week.

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‘They Wasted Away Four Years of My Life’

In 2016, Wang Xiyue traveled to Iran to do research for his doctoral dissertation, a decision that changed his life. Days before he was supposed to leave, he ran afoul of Iranian authorities when a friend offered to help him gain access to historical documents available only to Iranian citizens. Long story short, he ended up in prison and was sentenced to 10 years for spying. Why might the Iranians have been so interested in Wang? Well, his arrest came not long after the U.S. had sent cash to Iran in exchange for hostages the same week that the Obama administration implemented its nuclear deal with Iran. Wang sat down with Dispatch contributor Danielle Pletka for a long and wide-ranging interview about his time in Iran. After 40 months, he was allowed to return to the U.S. in exchange for an Iranian scientist. He is back in the U.S. now, studying at Princeton. For obvious reasons, he is skeptical about the Biden administration’s plans for Iran: “It’s not like you give them a deal and they will abide by the deal and keep quiet. Iran has an offensive defense strategy. And the only way to deal with that is to counter its malicious behavior. You constrain it. And you contain it. You cannot do it by persuasion, appeasement.” 

It’s Time to Start Being Optimistic

Scott Lincicome has had quite enough pandemic pessimism, thank you very much. In an effort to lift the cloud that has hung over us for the past year, Lincicome uses his weekly Capitolism newsletter to look at the good news: Vaccines are up, cases are down, and Americans are itching to boost the economy.  “In the United States, which is using both mRNA vaccines, there are numerous state-level reports of COVID-19 cases plummeting in long-term care facilities, and nationwide hospitalizations have collapsed … trends that are both due, at least in part, to these amazing vaccines,l” he writes. While Joe Biden has said we might be on the other side of all this by December, Lincicome cites experts who suggest we could reach herd immunity by July, and some who think we could start back toward normalcy in April: “So you may want to start working on your swimsuit body now, just in case.”

Words as Weapons: How Activist Journalists are Changing the New York Times

How to explain what’s going on at the New York Times? It’s not easy, and it’s not good. In early February, the paper forced the resignation of Donald McNeil Jr., its star public health reporter who had been lauded for his pandemic coverage. His work wasn’t the reason. Back in 2019, he traveled to Peru on a Times-sponsored trip for high school students and in the context of a discussion about racist language, repeated a racial slur. But that wasn’t the end of it all. When a reporter from the Washington Free Beacon reached out to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a NYT reporter who led the 1619 Project, to ask about her own use of the slur on Twitter, she tweeted his phone number, subjecting him to harassment. Nancy Rommelmann interviewed the reporter, Aaron Sibarium, about his experiences. But she also spoke to current and former NYT staffers about the culture there. The newsroom has a powerful contingent of activist journalists who influence what appears in the paper: “Knowing less-liberal stories will be shot down, and those who suggest them possibly maligned, people become reluctant to pitch ideas; it’s just too risky. Those stories that do get through are sometimes steered toward a catch basin that assures they don’t get much seen.”

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Now for the best of the rest.

  • In Uphill (🔐), Haley praises the House for having serious, productive oversight hearings on the security breakdowns that exacerbated the storming of the Capitol on January 6.

  • In a midweek French Press(🔐), David French looks at the Equality Act and cautions those who support it that its restrictive language about religious liberty will lead to legal challenges. And “when the Equality Act conflicts with the Constitution, the Equality Act will fall.”

  • Democrats are pushing cable companies and streaming providers to drop Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax over “disseminating disinformation.” Walter Olson is here to explain why that’s a bad idea.

  • As conservatives try to forge a path forward in the wake of the Trump era, Jonah spends a minute or 15 on Bill Kristol’s suggestion that those on the right become, essentially “Red Dog” Democrats. It’s well worth your time. 

  • Welcome Ryan Brown to The Dispatch. This week he wrote about the Biden administration’s decision to reopen a Trump-era facility for unaccompanied minors at the border.

  • And the pods: Mitt Romney dropped by The Dispatch Podcast this week to talk about his minimum wage plan, and while he was around, Sarah asked him about the state of the GOP. On Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah talk with law prof William Baude about the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket,” a topic they describe as nerdy but that sounds pretty darn exciting. On The Remnant, Jonah invited Declan on to talk about his piece last week on the future of the GOP.