January will be one of the worst months in American history

The final days of the Trump era will be marked by anguish and unfathomable death. Steel yourselves now for rock bottom.

Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ended 55 days ago. The inauguration happens in 23 days.

The Topline

We took Christmas Day off writing this newsletter- and for those of you who observe it, we hope it was peaceful and safe.

Unfortunately, in the intervening days since our last update, American politics were neither. The President of the United States engaged in a pathetic, pointless power play over the coronavirus relief bill that only served to underline the chaos of the past four years. “Getting a cranky, stubborn President Trump to belatedly sign the COVID relief bill, after unemployment benefits had already lapsed, was like being a hostage negotiator, or defusing a bomb,” wrote Axios. The simile evokes the other major news of the past few days: a white male suicide bomber blew up an RV in Nashville, taking out key communications infrastructure- an event the President has yet to remark upon, apart from a standard White House release. And yet for all the sturm und drang of the final days of 2020, it’s time to prepare for the likelihood that January 2021 will be one of the worst months in American history.

Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic is raging across the country, and the record number of new cases since Thanksgiving is about to produce tens of thousands of additional hospitalizations, pushing health systems beyond the limit and likely driving daily death counts well beyond where they are today. Consider just a few data points:

  • Hospitalizations, now at record highs, will likely explode. Last night the Covid Tracking Project reported a record number of hospitalized Americans, at 118,720, despite a number of states not reporting new figures due to the holiday. If that number seems enormous, consider that California’s model suggests that the state, which just crested 20,000 current hospitalizations, may itself reach 100,000 in January.

Imagine- nearly double the American death toll of the Vietnam War- across its nine years- in a single month. A quarter the number of all American losses in the roughly four years it fought in World War II- in a single month. In the face of this mounting disaster, the President is golfing in Florida. The Vice President and Head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force is vacationing in Vail, Colorado. The nation is effectively without leadership as we approach the event horizon of a black hole of death and anguish more acute than anything we’ve seen for generations.

“We need to prepare ourselves, to steel our spines,” Biden said last week. Indeed, the Biden administration will take office in the midst of some of this country’s darkest days. He appears to recognize it is indeed the equivalent of a wartime challenge. “You will see him invoking the Defense Production Act,” Dr. Celine Gounder, a member of the President-elect’s COVID-19 advisory board, said today during an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box. “The idea there is to make sure the personal protective equipment, the test capacity and the raw materials for the vaccines are produced in adequate supply.”

Despite this impending, compounding horror, President Trump is not satisfied that he has done enough damage. So, in a further bid to overturn the election, he is calling for mass protests in Washington DC on January 6th, the day that both houses of Congress gather to formally count the electoral college vote taken on December 14th in what should be a pro forma event presided over by the Vice President.

“Trump’s last-ditch campaign will almost certainly fail in Congress,” writes David Ignatius in The Washington Post. “The greater danger is on the streets, where pro-Trump forces are already threatening chaos.” The scenario that still worries some is that the President could invoke his powers under the Insurrection Act to further his anti-democratic campaign. And so there is a nonzero chance that the President may end the month of January, having abrogated his responsibility and unwilling to use the great powers vested in his office to save American lives, instead using those powers to attempt to cling to power.

Happy New Year, indeed. And yet we can find solace in the reality that the month ahead should mark a turning point. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before things turn around. For those of us who escape this pandemic and this Presidency with our health intact, we owe it to those who did not to hold the United States government to account. This was a whole of government failure- led by the President, sure, but also abetted by a Congress that refused to hold him to account. “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” said Mother Jones. In the darkest days of January, there will be a lot of need for prayers. But by February, we must take up the fight and make certain nothing like this ever happens again.

Driving the Conversation

The Plague Year: The mistakes and the struggles behind America’s coronavirus tragedy. Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker.

Trump, by his words and his example, became not a leader but a saboteur. He subverted his health agencies by installing political operatives who meddled with the science and suppressed the truth. His crowded, unmasked political rallies were reckless acts of effrontery. In his Tulsa speech, he said that he’d asked his health officials to “slow the testing down”—impeding data collection just to make his Administration look better. When the inevitable happened, and he contracted the disease, he almost certainly spread it. Every guest at the Barrett reception tested negative for the virus before entering. Trump may well have been the superspreader at the Rose Garden event. The President could have tried to bring the country together. In the press conference where he said that he wouldn’t wear a mask, he praised the efforts of the Democratic governors of New York and New Jersey; he expressed sympathy for Michiganders, who were “getting hit very, very hard.” He announced federal efforts to aid New York City. “America is engaged in a historic battle to safeguard the lives of our citizens,” he said. “Our greatest weapon is the discipline and determination of every citizen to stay at home and stay healthy.” The man who said those words might have been the President the country needed. But he was not that man.

After a year of pandemic and protest, and a big election, America is as divided as ever. Dan Balz, The Washington Post.

The 2020 campaign was a victory for Biden and a defeat for Trump, but for the two political parties and the ideas they espouse, it was neither. Instead, it marked a continuation of a long struggle for power that has been fought out for more than a decade without clear resolution. The broad repudiation of the president that many Democrats hoped for and anticipated did not materialize. The results underscored the persistence of divisions that preceded Trump and that now seem destined to endure when he is out of office, unless Biden, ever an optimist about the state of the country and his own political talents, can somehow coax America to a different place.

My Emergency Room Is Full of Patients No Vaccine Can Help: Even with a speedy rollout, many Americans will die of the coronavirus before they can get vaccinated. Craig Spencer, The Atlantic.

Getting the country immunized is an important long-term goal and crucial for ending the pandemic, but in the months to come, Americans need to double down on simple, proven measures. That will take the stress off of hospitals and providers, and ultimately spare families all across the country the pain of saying goodbye to a loved one over a grainy FaceTime video. The COVID-19 vaccines are unprecedented feats of science, but some of the most powerful tools for defeating the pandemic have been right in front of us all along.

GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger: Trump, allies’ ‘grifting scam’ Electoral College challenge could lead to violence. Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times.

On CNN Sunday, Kinzinger told host Dana Bash, “This is a scam, though, I mean, you know, to explain to people that somehow Congress can overthrow the certified results of every state, that we can change an election outcome when there was not a single court case that had any legs.” Rather, some members of Congress, the president and what Kinzinger sarcastically calls “thought leaders” on Twitter are “raising money on this scam…” “It is a scam; it is going to disappoint the people that believe this election was stolen, that think this is an opportunity to change it,” he said.

Build back better? One department’s turmoil shows Biden’s challenge ahead. Liz Crampton and Ryan McCrimmon, Politico.

At the USDA, President Donald Trump’s appointees hollowed two research agencies after uprooting scientists responsible for studying threats facing the food system, including climate change — an effort they said at the time was about saving taxpayer dollars and decentralizing work in Washington. Employees and advocates say a central piece of Biden’s agriculture agenda will rest on repairing the department overall to restore its focus on the environment, nutrition, food safety and more. But doing so will require rebuilding a piece of the federal bureaucracy that experienced a wholesale restructuring under Trump, one that could take years of effort.

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Appointments

Today the Biden transition announced appointees to the White House Office of Digital Strategy:

  • Brendan Cohen, Platform Manager

  • Rob Flaherty, Director of Digital Strategy

  • Maha Ghandour, Digital Partnerships Manager

  • Jonathan Hebert, Video Director

  • Jaime Lopez, Director of Platforms

  • Carahna Magwood, Creative Director

  • Abbey Pitzer, Designer

  • Olivia Raisner, Traveling Content Director

  • Rebecca Rinkevich, Deputy Director Of Digital Strategy

  • Aisha Shah, Partnerships Manager

  • Christian Tom, Deputy Director Of Digital Strategy

  • Cameron Trimble, Director of Digital Engagement

A Moment of Levity


American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the issues and ideas that will define the Presidential transition period from Nov. 3, 2020, through — we’re all but sure now — Jan. 21, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin HendrixGreg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Have questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.