Around the middle of each January, I publish six forecasts for the year to come. Why the middle of the month and not the start? My experience is that a December or first-of-the-year forecast risks residual influence of the old — you are still at least partly immersed in the year coming to an end and less likely to be fully alert to important clues of what is about to unfold. And this year, the real start of something new is Inauguration Day, not New Year’s Day.
This is the ninth year of these forecasts. I base them on 15 common sense guidelines — I call them “rules” — that reflect how people have tended to behave over time. (Here are the first 14, from the Muddle-Along Rule to the Conspiracy Rule, and the 15th.)
For the better part of the last quarter-century, more than 40% of Americans have nurtured a love affair with Fox News. Fox is not the most-watched network — legacy players CBS, NBC, and ABC still attract larger audiences, and CNN occasionally wins prime time. Nor is it the only cable show serving the right — small broadcasters like Newsmax and OAN have stolen some market share. But Fox is still by far the biggest player in conservative media — and on all of cable — with a fervent, even fanatical viewership for whom it is the only trusted news source. And for the last seven weeks, Fox has shown its viewers a drumbeat of 774 reports casting doubt on President-elect Joe Biden’s election. According to a new poll, 78% of Republicans believe that Biden lost.
Trump Made My Worst-Case Predictions for 2020 Look Tame
The president’s savior complex was central to my annual list of geopolitical forecasts
Authorities are warning of a mass radicalization of conservatives and the far right, and after the January 6 attack on Congress, the threat it poses to public safety. Ahead of Biden’s inauguration, Twitter, Facebook, and a half-dozen other platforms have unplugged Trump and thousands of his acolytes, but no one has disconnected Fox. On the contrary, Fox has added an hour of opinion in prime time, and it is all but certain to continue to pump out reports buttressing Trump’s grievance-filled political views, which seem to strike a chord with the Fox audience. James Murdoch, the estranged youngest son of family patriarch Rupert Murdoch, is among those worried about what conservative media is airing. “The sacking of the Capitol is proof positive that what we thought was dangerous is indeed very, very much so,” the son told the Financial Times last week. “Those outlets that propagate lies to their audience have unleashed insidious and uncontrollable forces that will be with us for years.”
If one thing crystallized the extraordinary nature of our political chasm, it was the disclosure that the FBI has vetted National Guard troops assigned to the inauguration against the possibility that one or more could carry out an insider attack. The Pentagon did not spell out the precise threat, but it’s chilling that the risk of a “Sadat moment” — the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by his own troops during a public ceremony — is being taken seriously by authorities in the United States. The hermetic lockdown of the capital said everything.
Here are my forecasts:
1. There will be political violence in the states
For five years, the world has seen an intensified rise in populist, far-right militancy, including a 320% increase in attacks by such groups globally, mostly in Western countries. Heightened alertness by law enforcement and intelligence agencies will discourage militants from again attacking Washington, D.C., but the situation is different elsewhere in the country. Look for state capitals to come under renewed assault by homegrown, far-right groups in 2021, as many were last year. The prospect of ongoing violence has been flagged by numerous agencies and experts. Believe them.
To blame: Two decades of psychological conditioning by conspiracy and ratings-driven TV and radio shock jocks and computer algorithms doing the same on social media platforms. Now, the far right has a triumphant origin story from which to build a long recruitment drive. The assault on Congress “was a big, glorious achievement for them,” Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, told me. “They occupied the Capitol building, and police were unable to stop them. It’s a moment to remember, to be iconized.”
Which of the Rules of Geopolitics explains this forecast? The first is the True Believer Rule, which says that, even if conditions do not suggest a rebellion, the presence of a messianic leader or movement can whip events in an extreme direction. People drawn to become followers of savior figures often do so in adherence to the Injustice Rule, a dynamic that is triggered when a critical mass of individuals perceive a profound wrong to themselves, their family, and their future; only a change in the surrounding circumstances — such as an uprising — can make things right.
In this case, look for Trump, with a war chest exceeding $200 million, to continue claiming he is the rightful president and to demand even greater loyalty as a price of membership in his movement. And look for conservative media to amplify Trump’s message. Fox, with seven times the reach of any other conservative media, seeking to maintain its ratings and profit waterfall, will continue to be Trump’s leading megaphone.
Absent these two characters — Trump and Fox — I would not be predicting a year of terror. There would still be disaffected individuals, as there always are. But they would not have a leader nor an alternate reality of psychological bombardment over the airwaves.
2. Trump will take on a mythological stature
Trump’s approval rating has plunged, and his base has shrunk. Yet look for him to transform into a full-fledged totemic figure. You might ask, “Isn’t Trump already more or less the leader of a political cult?” Perhaps, but there is a nontrivial difference between the minimal constraint of public office and having no guardrails.
At the base of the Trump narrative are a deep sense of injustice and a need to be revered. Whether or not he truly believes he won re-election, he still feels he should remain president. This feeling is explained by the Staying in Power Rule, which describes the soul of officeholders around the world: Their main objective, above all others, is to hold onto their job.
The Big Personality Rule explains Trump’s ability to pull off this feat, even though it’s fueled by conspicuous sour grapes. He is a leader of such outsize persona that — like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — he can affect consequential events by his mere presence. As described above, his superpower is amplified because he commands the loyalty of True Believers.
Should we worry? In a new book titled Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, the British writer Edmund Fawcett argues that what we are watching is a mere battle of one elite conservative faction against another — the establishment and hard-right wings of the Republican Party. The latter preceded Trump as an entity but for four years has revolved around him, supported now by 89% of Republicans, according to an NBC poll. In an exchange of emails, Fawcett called Trump an “opportunist who adopted one strong strain of American conservatism.” Eventually, he said, Trump will vanish and the hard right will go on. As for the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other far-right militant groups that have gravitated to Trump, Fawcett said they are troubling but ultimately not “players in the game.” As long as Republicans repudiate bloodshed, political violence is not a wave of the future.
Fawcett is right but only to a point, especially in the context of a forecast about 2021: Law enforcement agencies have picked up consistent signals of a far-right threat to state capitals and federal buildings. Trump, a Big Personality whose style is the physical taunt and threat, did not pledge support for a peaceful transfer of power, and there hasn’t been one. The 25,000 National Guard troops in Washington, D.C. and more fanned across the country in locked-down state capitals are a picture of the world that Trump created. The notion that he will spend his post-presidential career quietly and peaceably goes against his record. While evolving from mere president to no-longer constrained totem, Trump is likely to remain a figure of inspiration to the militants.
3. There will be a continued attack on Big Tech
Prior to their major disagreement on whether to oust Biden before he took the oath of office, the two political parties were in accord on one major point: Big Tech needs to be reined in. Some 38 states and the Justice Department are suing Google for antitrust in three separate cases; the Federal Trade Commission and 40 states are suing to get Facebook to disgorge WhatsApp and Instagram; and, like the others, Apple is facing an antitrust suit in Europe, too. Meanwhile, in October, the House Subcommittee on Antitrust issued a massive broadside against the largest Big Tech companies, urging that they be broken up.
Evidence suggests that at least some of Big Tech is not exceedingly worried: In November, Amazon acquired Wondery — signaling a coming collision against Spotify over which behemoth will dominate podcasting — and opened an online pharmacy, broadening its assault on the health care industry. And just last week, Google completed a $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit.
But look for the double-barreled action against Google and Facebook to continue and for the fight to get very nasty. Action will come nowhere near to completion. But the battle will heat up considerably because, in both the United States and the European Union, regulators object to surveillance capitalism and are determined to rein in economic inequality, for which it is thought Big Tech is at least in part responsible. Look for the Biden administration to continue and intensify the aggressive prosecutions.
Wild card: An interesting facet of the antitrust offensive is that U.S. regulators are treating Google and Facebook, gargantuan by any measure, as the low-hanging fruit. Amazon, with its large and ever-growing economic reach, is the bigger target. Look for a case to be filed against the retail giant as early as this year.
The most important principle behind these positions is the Mountain Rule, which explains the norm-breaking behavior of very large entities like Big Tech companies, congressional committees, and the European Union. Think of it as a collision among giants: Big Tech wants to do what it wants to do, and the regulators insist they behave themselves. In Mountain battles, the winner is usually who is the true giant. Anyone familiar with the landmark 1911 takedown of Standard Oil knows the winner is not predestined. Look for a drawn-out hyper drama.
4. Covid-19 will extend into 2022
For a year, much of the world has awaited the arrival of a vaccine to rid humans of Covid-19 and return our lives to normal. And since Moderna and Pfizer announced their historically fast creation of two vaccines, it has been assumed that the nightmare would be over by mid-summer or at the latest fall 2021. Alas, that isn’t how it will go. Look for the pandemic to drag on into 2022.
Among the clues: The debacle of the initial vaccine rollout; the large parts of the Western world that have no intention of taking the vaccine (only 40% of French say they will do so, 62% of Italians, and 69% of Americans); the arrival of a virulent new strain of the virus; and unexpected new outbreaks, including in Ireland, which had among the world’s lowest infection rates and now has the highest.
One of the dynamics at play is the Rule of Miscalculation. One notion out there is that some people preordained that the world would see a new pandemic flu, including Lawrence Wright, who wrote a novel describing more or less what happened. Yes and no. We all know, for instance, that a gargantuan earthquake — “The Big One,” as it’s known — is going to shake California to its core… at some point. Saying a pandemic or an earthquake will come is one thing. Divining when is quite another, and if you haven’t said when a cataclysmic event will strike, you are more akin to a stopped clock: Twice a day, you are bound to be right.
In the case of Covid-19, its arrival and spread are still shrouded in mystery largely because the Chinese don’t appear to want the world to know exactly what happened. But suffice to say that a few weeks of bungling in China, and the same in the White House, made the difference between a contained outbreak and the debacle we now see. Against even the best advice, you take this or that decision, and it’s just wrong — you have miscalculated, and the world is the victim.
5. Netanyahu will revert to defiance
Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled prime minister of Israel, spent much of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office poking him in the eye. For the next four years, he palled around with President Donald Trump, whom he convinced to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That infuriated Palestinians as a strike against their own religious reverence for the city. Now, with Biden likely to revert to a more even-handed policy toward Netanyahu, look for the Israeli leader to revert to his pre-Trump defiance toward the United States. Last week, he illustrated what that will look like in the way he usually does: with a provocative announcement of 800 new housing units on the West Bank.
The main predictor for this volte-face is the Staying in Power Rule: On March 23, Netanyahu faces his fourth national election in just two years; the first three have been inconclusive, with near ties between him and Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party. Now, Netanyahu faces another tough battle, on top of his ongoing court trial for alleged corruption. A key part of his strategy will be a theatrical show that Israel won’t be pushed around by a nannying United States. One theater of display will be Iran — an attempt by Netanyahu to confound a certain Biden administration attempt to renew the 2015 anti-nuclear accord with Tehran.
6. There will be an economic bacchanalia
Here is where we get the year’s second track: Covid-19 was always going to create a grim economy to start the year. Unemployment is up, retail shops and restaurants are experiencing a continued bloodbath, and everyone except Amazon, tech, and grocery chains is suffering. But in the second half of 2021, increasing numbers of Americans will have been vaccinated, and, filled with pent-up energy, they will be looking to party. Construction crews, designers, and all manner of workers will be required to bring back the devastated hospitality industry. Once they are done, look for bars, restaurants, concert halls, and sports arenas to be overrun with customers. There is plenty of fuel on the sidelines for this spending — $1.6 trillion sitting in individual savings accounts, squirreled away during the pandemic, along with $2.1 trillion in cash held by businesses. Already, people are booking up cruises and other travel through 2023.
I discuss this coming entertainment binge at length here. The short of it is that, after existential crises through history, people have tended to let loose in grand displays of revelry. This happened after World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic in what we know as the Roaring ’20s.
The applicable guidepost is the Rule of Averages. Events swing to extremes, such as the unprecedented shutdowns and the reaction to them. Then they often veer sharply in generally the opposite direction before settling down somewhere in the middle. We are headed toward that 180-degree spin.