2021: WTF Was That?
“2021 was the year of whiplash,” says Danielle. “Every time I turned my head, there was something else.” On this episode of democracy-ish, Wajahat Ali — Daily Beast columnist and author of the forthcoming book “Go Back to Where You Came From” — joins her to reflect on this rollercoaster ride of a year.
Far from “the return to normalcy” we hoped for, 2021 has been a wild year of poignant highs (like the COVID vaccines) and low lows (particularly on January 6).
As we approach the anniversary of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and an unforgettable Inauguration Day, Danielle and Waj ask what, if anything, has changed.
As they give thanks for the health and safety of their loved ones and steel themselves for the battles to come, they wonder: What can we reasonably expect or even hope for as we ring in 2022?
It’s bad enough that justice is elusive — or at least, achingly slow. Aside from a few virally photographed rioters at the January 6 insurrection, the vast majority of Trump acolytes, enablers and lackeys have not been held accountable for their crimes (or even misdemeanors).
But several high-profile members of the Trump administration have been, as Danielle notes, “rewarded for their complicity in the destruction of our democracy” with TV hosting jobs, pundit gigs, book deals, money and fame.
Alyssa Farah, the former director of strategic communications in the Trump White House, who “quit when it was opportunistic, is now all of a sudden a resistor” and a CNN political commentator, says Waj.
Miles Taylor, an ex-Department of Homeland Security official who made headlines as the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” is no longer posting from the shadows. He just landed a plum gig at CNN too. Chris Christie, who was booked on every network to promote his book — which only sold 2000 copies, Waj notes — was hired as a “political and legal contributor” at ABC News.
Meanwhile, tireless advocates for change like Danielle, Waj and their friend Elie Mystal are left shouting into the void of your podcast and Twitter feeds.
“Why do we all keep doing what we do?” Danielle asks.
“Because we’re masochists,” Waj replies. “Masochists who love who love pain and love our country.”
It hurts so good. Let’s pour some salt on those wounds, shall we?
Episode Highlights — The Empire Strikes Back
The ‘incestuous swamp’ was never drained
Back in 2018 and 2019, Waj tried to prepare us for the fact that Trumpers would “fail up.” He was roundly dismissed by those who said: No, this is too much. We’ll remember this forever — meaning that those in El Cheeto’s administration would be forever scarred by their tenure in the White House.
But Waj thought: I know this town. It’s an incestuous swamp.
“To quote George Carlin, ‘It’s a great big club, and you ain’t in it,’” he says. “These guys all have sex with each other, divorce each other, date each other, go to the same parties, drink the same champagne. They’re buddy-buddy. They look out for each other. It’s a revolving door. They’re all going to fail up in this town.”
And apparently, most of them have, “despite being on the wrong side of history,” Waj adds.
“And yet, it’s folks like us — I don’t want to toot our own horn — but we were right. We’ve been right. For five years, we’ve tried to be consistent, and our reward is: You crazy darkies. You reactionary, angry Blackies and Brownies: Shut up and calm down. Stop being hysterical.”
Why do we do what we do?
To answer Danielle’s question more succinctly, Waj says: I ain’t new to this game. I’ve been in it for a long time. I’m 41. I know how the game is played. I keep doing what I do because I love it. I care. I want to have control of my own voice.”
He wants to tell the truth, and he wants to uncover it if he doesn’t know it, or is wrong about it. And he wants to “deal with people who also care about the truth.”
When Waj was growing up, he remembers hearing the axiom: “There are only two things certain in life: Death and taxes,” he says. “Rich people outsource taxes to the Caymans, so now the only thing that’s certain is death.”
We’re all going to die, and when Waj does, he wants to know that he lived according to the values and ethics he holds dear, to feel proud of what he has done and to know he hasn’t “sold out” any of those beliefs for a payday.
“That’s why I do what I do,” he says.
No Great Resignation here
Every once in a while, Danielle threatens to quit — “to myself and to my listeners,” she says. “That I’m done … the last four or five years of the Trump administration just sent me over — the double standards, the consistent gaslighting.”
But she keeps going, “because for better or for worse, I believe in democracy,” she says.
“It sounds so silly to say when we’re watching it crumble around us, but I do. I believe in the power of the people to collectively have the will and the desire to forge a path of equity and justice.”
Danielle thinks of a quote attributed to Margaret Mead, who she is sure “we’ll discover is probably some type of underground racist, as they all were.”
In spite of that, here’s the quote:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
“I believe those things fundamentally to the core of my being,” Danielle says. “If I were in this for the money, for the fame, for the followers, I would have quit a long time ago.”
Democracy: We’ll lose it if we don’t use it
If Waj was only interested in riches and fame, he says he’d be a corporate attorney. And he says that as someone who is still a licensed attorney. If he went back to practicing law, he “might be rich — I don’t know,” he says. “But it’s definitely much more stable.”
Danielle could go back to working in PR or nonprofits, too. But her work now is the most aligned with her beliefs.
“I believe fundamentally that there are two things that shifted the course of our society: media and policy,” she says. “I have worked at the intersection of those places.”
Like Waj, she wants to look back at the end of her life and know she “did something that mattered,” she says. “Even if it didn’t matter to everybody. But it mattered to the people listening, who felt less alone and less crazy.”
Waj says that “on a macro level, I also do it for democracy, because democracy is flawed.”
We might hear this, and even know it: Democracy is imperfect. But he doesn’t think most of us will appreciate democracy until we lose it.
And if we “tap out,” we risk it all, he adds.
“If this country, God forbid, becomes a fascist country with a white Christian minority, then you’ll say, I wish I had cared.”
We can be heroes
Waj does the work he does not only because he worries about facism, but because everyone has a God-given “superhero talent.”
He thinks that “for whatever reason, once in a while, I can spin a good yarn. I can tell a good tale. And I feel like I can do the most good by writing and speaking.”
Waj isn’t self-aggrandizing here: “That’s what people have told me,” he adds. “I’m not that good at it. I’m pretty good at it, but I’m pretty terrible at everything else. So if I can use that to help — and also because I enjoy it — I can have some joy in my life. Why not?”
Another reason he pushes forward?
“I’m a parent, and I can’t afford to tap out, to be a spectator … and type snarky tweets from the sidelines. I just can’t. My kids will demand more of their father. That’s why I decided to get in the ring.”
The audacity of goats
Getting in the ring is something most of us don’t understand, Waj says.
“Once you’re in the media arena, especially in 2021 and now 2022 coming up, as a person of color, especially a woman of color, who goes against Trump and fascism and white supremacy — Danielle, inform the listeners about the kinds of lovely messages you get every day.”
“Lovely,” indeed: Danielle is branded as a racist, is the target of racial slurs and is told she’s stupid — but “that’s just the easy stuff,” she says.
“I think that even though you’re a man, you get way more vitriol,” she tells Waj. “Because you have the audacity to be Muslim and American at the same time.”
Waj thinks she might be right about that — “about the audacity, because the emails I get — which are so lovely, so encouraging, always good advice — say to go back to my country. And to go to go fuck a goat or a camel, which always pisses me off. Because I’m like, Why limit my options to goats or camels?”
Put another way, he looks at this kind of hate mail as saying: How dare you — son of immigrants, you Muslim, tell us what to think? How dare you speak up? How dare you have the audacity to criticize this government, even though you’re born and raised in this country?
What (and who) is the real threat?
The overall tone of the messages Waj receives is: You better know your place.
Every single day, he gets at least one that says, Go back to where you came from. That’s why it’s the title of his book.
“It’s so wild,” says Danielle. “Because we have chosen this. We could choose to not be as public; we could choose not to use our voices … But it’s amazing to me how the sheer presence of people like us is an agitating force — for those who want silence, who want to burn books, who feel the biggest threat is not the coronavirus or mass shootings at our children’s schools, but having them wear masks and learn about the actual founding of this country.”
The real threat, she adds, “is the truth — so if the truth is coming in a package that looks like ours, they absolutely don’t want it. Because in their minds, we should learn our place. And our place is in service to them. If we are doing anything outside of catering to and centering whiteness, then we don’t exist — and should not exist.”
Normalcy deferred (again)
Danielle “still cannot believe 2021 is coming to an end,” she says. “I have been on a wild ride, as everyone has, since the clock struck 2020 — in my personal life, in my professional life, on the globe.”
But she’s curious about which moments Waj thinks this year will be remembered for.
“Let me work backwards,” he says. “A major moment was just about two weeks ago when both of my children — ages seven and five — received their second COVID vaccine.”
That was a huge milestone not only because it means his entire family is better protected, but also because his daughter is immunosuppressed. She’s a stage-four cancer survivor who was diagnosed just before her third birthday.
“We spent eight months in chaos,” Waj recalls.
She was declared cancer-free in 2020 — and then one month later, the pandemic happened.
“We’ve been in lockdown for two years and eight months now,” he says. “So we were waiting desperately to see if maybe these vaccines would come out for kids.”
Waj says having his kids vaccinated “gives us a chance of security and normalcy we haven’t had for years. It was a watershed moment I don’t want to underestimate or ignore.”
The death-cult rattle goes on
2021 started with a bang. Both Danielle and Waj cite the violent insurrection of January 6 as an indelible moment.
Waj says he was not surprised. He had been predicting that Trump wouldn’t leave quietly, that he would spread a lie about fraud, be forced out and do “immense damage” in the process. In other words, “the [Trump supporters’] fever will not break,” he says. “They will further radicalize and weaponize as it becomes a death cult.”
“It’s wild to imagine we’re approaching the anniversary of an attempt to overthrow the government,” says Danielle.
“And still to this point, as of this taping, a handful of people are in prison, but none of the big names — not Giuliani, not Trump, not Eastman, not Bannon, not any of the donors, not the Murdochs. Just these low-level idiots who decided to take selfies in the halls of our democracy while they were also taking shits. For me, it starts there.”
Joy is more important than rage
Like Waj, Danielle calls out a very personal high point from 2021.
Her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery in 2020. “Thankfully, it was benign,” says Danielle. “And in 2021, we got the all clear that everything was good and life could resume.”
Her mother’s health crisis, the pandemic in general and the political upheaval of 2020 left Danielle with a new sense of clarity that continued throughout 2021.
“I realized what’s most important,” she says. “Not my consistent rage, because I’d like to live a long, healthy life. Joy is important. Health and wellness is important. My mental stability is important. And I’m going to dedicate time each and every day to that.”
There was a brief moment last summer when life seemed almost normal again, says Waj.
We got our vaccines, reconnected with friends and family … “and then something called Delta came and wiped us out,” he notes.
800,000 empty seats at the holiday table
If Americans had committed to working together collectively to help end the pandemic, we could have avoided the virus mutations, says Waj.
“If we were just careful as a community and looked out for each other and just socially distanced, wore masks and got the vaccines … But nope, we didn’t. Delta happened. Now there’s Omicron. I’m hoping that going into 2022, it’s a sober reminder to be vigilant.”
Danielle’s hope is that next year, “people will wake up and realize what is at stake. “That is my hope every election year. But I think that this one is different from the past because there are [more than] 800,000 Americans who are not here.”
And, she adds, after the “champagne has popped, and the balloons and the fireworks go off, more Americans will have died — needlessly so, because we have a vaccine and we have boosters.”
As people gather for the holiday season — “because of the vaccine, because of scientists, because of doctors and nurses,” there will be empty seats at the table, Danielle says.
That should give us pause and help us remember what’s really worth fighting for.
Let’s hope we don’t get to Act 3
Danielle fears that, as Waj noted earlier, we won’t know how bad things can get until they’re gone.
She worries that 2022 will bring just that: “We will lose the House and the Senate. Then everyone will turn around and be like, Oh my God. But this time, it’s not just gonna be another election. Because 2022 is the warm up to the ‘Big Steal.’ The ‘Big Lie’ was Act 1. The ‘Big Steal’ is Act 2.”
She doesn’t know what the third act is — “I don’t know if we get to a third act, to be honest,” she says. “The third act is just authoritarianism. But I remember when people used to tell me I was being hyperbolic — you know, Chicken Little: The sky is falling. And I’m like, Do you see it now? Do you see what we’ve been talking about?”
Since 2015, “when Trump descended down that staircase and Barack Obama needed to show his papers to show he was legitimately an American, we knew where this was headed,” Danielle argues. “So my hope for 2022 is that people recognize what matters: Our democracy, our lives.”
She cautions against resigning ourselves “to hoping and wishing that somebody else is going to do it for us, whether it be the President or the Vice President. Because we’re not doing it if we’re not locking arms, all of us, like The Avengers.”
‘Apathy is the antithesis of democracy’
Danielle knows that left unchecked, the right wing will “cheat and win.”
That’s because they’re doing it right now.
“Folks, I don’t want you to succumb to the gaslighting. I don’t want you to succumb to apathy. Because to me, apathy is the antithesis of democracy,” she says. “Democracy requires consistent and vigilant engagement and action.”
Apathy happens when we’re “expecting perfection in an imperfect world,” says Waj. “I feel like the apathy right now is like, Oh, both sides are the same. Oh, inflation. Oh, Joe Biden didn’t do this. Oh, Kamala Harris didn’t do that. I’m hoping enough people see that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.”
He thinks 2022 might be a test of our col