A year of dubious characters and dark drama: Salon's best News & Politics stories of 2021

Maybe you think you just dreamed Mike Lindell and Lauren Boebert: You didn't. And they were the fun parts of 2021

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor
Published December 29, 2021 6:00AM (EST)
Updated December 5, 2022 10:32AM (EST)
Ron DeSantis, Lauren Boebert and Mike Lindell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ron DeSantis, Lauren Boebert and Mike Lindell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

CORRECTION: The entry in this article with the heading "DeSantis signs bill mandating survey of the 'political opinions' of students and faculty at state-funded colleges" has been revised since its original publication. It now more accurately reflects the language of the bill in question, which does not require the "registration" of individual opinions.

This long, long year began with high hopes that it would be better than the tumultuous election year of 2020, which also saw a summer of hopeful but traumatic protests and the onset of the most significant global pandemic in a century. We awaited the arrival of a new president, believing — oh, so innocently! It hurts to remember — that politics might become "normal" again. The idea that American life could be boring in 2021 was seen as a positive, am I right?

Well, so much for that. Was this year exhausting, soul-draining, mind-boggling and sometimes terrifying? I'd check all those boxes. But boring? Not so much. Five days into the year, Democrats won an unexpected double victory in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, giving them a tenuous congressional majority after the puzzling and disappointing election results of November 2020. But you may recall what happened the day after that, on the 6th of January, when a joint session of Congress was to certify the electoral votes and declare Joe Biden the next president. It was a formality! Sometimes the opposition party squawks about it — as Democrats had done in 2001 and 2005 — but the business gets done and the country moves on. That's just how it is!

OK, so much for that too. It seems unnecessary to point out that that day — and its as-yet-unfinished aftermath — was the biggest news story of the year. And then things really got weird. We began to realize, gradually and uncertainly, that the Philip K. Dick alternate-universe dream state of the Trump years wasn't done with us yet. It was like Neo realizing that what he takes to be the real world is still inside the Matrix — or, more to the point, it was like when the characters in a "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequel realize they're still asleep and there's no escape from the guy with the long spiky fingers. 

Whether all the stuff that happened in 2021 really happened is perhaps a question for cosmologists and philosophers to dwell on in the years ahead (assuming there are any). What I can tell you is that the biggest stories in Salon's News & Politics vertical in 2021 focused on an extraordinary array of dubious characters, most of them newly arrived on the national scene, or at least new to the national spotlight. The good news is that most of our widely-read stories didn't focus directly on that guy who finally evacuated the White House last Jan. 20. But they certainly reflected his radioactive glow.

To cite the obvious examples, in 2020 Mike Lindell was still a guy who sold pillows on cable TV; Lauren Boebert was an internet conspiracy theorist, viewed as a joke even within the already-delusional Republican Party; and Joe Manchin was an obscure senator from an obscure state, arguably the last living specimen of the genus "conservative Democrat," an important power bloc in Washington as recently as my 1970s childhood. I'm willing to bet you've heard more about those three people in the last year than in your entire life up till then (and quite possibly a lot more than you wanted to).

But that's not our starting point! Let's take these in chronological order. 

Sen. Tom Cotton campaigned on his "experience as an Army Ranger" — but he didn't have any

Barely two weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Salon investigative reporter Roger Sollenberger (since departed, and we miss him!) performed something of a demolition job on the reputation of Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who had positioned himself as a potential 2024 candidate and Trump heir by literally calling for the military to put down the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 — with lethal force, if necessary. Roger simply noticed a fact that was already in the public record, but had been politely ignored: Cotton had built his political career on his military record, and specifically on the oft-repeated claim that he had served as "a U.S. Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan." Which simply wasn't true: Cotton had attended Ranger school, which allowed him to put a nifty little pin on his uniform, but "was never part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the elite unit that plans and conducts joint special military operations as part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command." The Cotton '24 campaign seems to have stalled out since then.

The entire Trump campaign was a scam — and it is not over

Our only really big Donald Trump story of the year — you remember him! — was a commentary by long-running Salon columnist Heather Digby Parton, based on a New York Times report revealing exactly how much of a shameless, unscrupulous grift the 2020 Trump campaign had been. As Heather observed, the campaign seemed to run on the same principles as "Trump University," the multi-level seminar scam that wound up costing its notoriously cheap namesake a $25 million settlement: 

[T]he campaign and its online fundraising platform WinRed hustled its most loyal supporters out of tens of millions of dollars with deceptive donation links on their emails and websites. It's unknown to this day how many people unknowingly signed up for weekly recurring donations and "money bombs" (agreements to donate a lump sum on a future date), but there were so many requests for refunds that at one point, 1-3% of all credit card complaints in the U.S. were about WinRed charges. … The sheer number of refunds to Trump donors amounted to a huge no-interest (and profitable for WinRed) loan to the campaign … [and] Trump's post-election "Stop the Steal" fundraising at least partially went to pay off those "loans" from the campaign, making the whole scheme very Ponzi-esque.

Godless grifters: How the New Atheists merged with the far right

It's always gratifying, as an editor, when you publish a story you know is important but you suspect very few people will read — and you're totally wrong. That happened in June, when Salon contributor Phil Torres, an academic philosopher who writes for us a few times a year, made his decisive rift with the "New Atheism" movement associated with intellectual luminaries like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Phil was once a true unbeliever, you might say, and wrote that when New Atheism emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as a counterweight to fundamentalism of all sorts, it appeared to offer moral clarity, it emphasized intellectual honesty and it embraced scientific truths about the nature and workings of reality. It gave me immense hope to know that in a world overflowing with irrationality, there were clear-thinking individuals with sizable public platforms willing to stand up for what's right and true — to stand up for sanity in the face of stupidity.

His conclusion 15 or so years later was very different: 

What a grift that was! Many of the most prominent New Atheists turned out to be nothing more than self-aggrandizing, dogmatic, irascible, censorious, morally compromised people who, at every opportunity, have propped up the powerful over the powerless, the privileged over the marginalized.

Joe Manchin's "highly suspicious" reversal on voting bill follows donation from corporate lobby

Only days later, the gentleman from West Virginia made his first prominent appearance of 2021 in our digital pages. That came with Igor Derysh's report on the striking connection between Joe Manchin's flip-flop on the For the People Act — the voting-rights package passed by the House — and the sudden inflow of political donations to Manchin from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill. This was long before we understood what a central role Manchin would play in torpedoing Joe Biden's presidency and rendering the Democratic majority useless, but the writing was on the wall. 

As Igor wrote, Manchin was literally a co-sponsor of For the People when it was first proposed during the Trump presidency, but for reasons he has never adequately explained, changed his mind when it came to the prospect of actually passing the bill. Manchin's op-ed announcing his opposition "echoed the Chamber's talking points" and came shortly after the pro-business lobby "which has launched an expensive lobbying effort against the bill, resumed donations to Manchin's campaign for the first time since 2012. Reuters described this flow of corporate dollars as a 'reward' for Manchin's opposition to numerous Biden administration's initiatives, as well as his stalwart support for the filibuster, which has almost certainly doomed the For the People Act."

DeSantis signs bill mandating survey of the "political opinions" of students and faculty at state-funded colleges 

With Tom Cotton consigned to political oblivion and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri too deeply implicated (if that's even possible) in the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis became the leading alterna-Trump in Republican politics. (Whether DeSantis' master will allow him to run for president all on his own remains to be seen.) Salon's Brett Bachman was among the first journalists to notice perhaps the weirdest trick of DeSantis' troll-like governorship: a state-mandated survey of the "political opinions and viewpoints" of students and faculty at Florida's public universities. 

As Brett wrote at the time, this appears to be "part of a long-running, nationwide right-wing push to promote 'intellectual diversity' on campuses" and appears to reflect Florida state Senate President Wilton Simpson's accusation that the Sunshine State's public universities were "socialism factories," an odd claim about institutions far better known for football than for Marxist study groups. In his patented fashion, DeSantis offered no specific explanation for why such a survey was necessary and tried to sound vaguely reasonable, saying only that he knew "a lot of parents" who were concerned "about their children being 'indoctrinated' on campus."

Why did Lauren Boebert lead a late-night Capitol tour three weeks before Jan. 6?

Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo spent much of the year trying to untangle the puzzling personal, professional and political stories of Rep. Lauren Boebert, the newly-elected Colorado Republican with a passion for guns and a number of connections to QAnon, the MAGA movement and the conspiratorial far right. But of all Zach's essays in Boebert-ology, nothing went deeper than the intriguing tale of a late-night U.S. Capitol tour she took with several family members on Dec. 12, 2020 — which was the same day as the big "Stop the Steal" pro-Trump rally in Washington, and roughly three weeks before she was sworn in as a member of Congress.

That last part is what makes this tour an unsolved mystery: 

There are several unanswered questions about this visit, which appears to have violated normal Capitol protocol in various ways. It's not clear who authorized it, since Boebert was not yet a member of Congress and had no official standing in D.C. It's perhaps even stranger that it occurred on a Saturday night, when the Capitol complex is closed. … It's true that Boebert was a member-elect at the time, but that's an important distinction: She certainly was not a sworn member of Congress and had no office, no staff and no official status in the Capitol complex. It's even more puzzling that this tour took place on Saturday night. The guidelines for member-led Capitol tours state they are only available on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The only conclusion to draw here — which we did not make in the context of a carefully reported news story — is that someone in the Trump administration (like, a very well-placed someone) gave one incoming member of Congress special access to the U.S. Capitol after hours. We still have questions! And they will never be answered.

Rudy Giuliani ridiculed after clip of him shaving in airport restaurant goes viral

Sometimes in journalism, you just have to give the people what they want. And sometimes what they want is a viral video of Rudy Giuliani, the former LifeLock spokesperson and mastermind of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference, shaving in a restaurant at JFK airport. As Salon's Jon Skolnik reported in August, the eating-while-shaving clip — amplified in mockery by comedian Michael Rapaport — was viewed more than a million times on Twitter within about three days. 

Mike Lindell's meltdown begins: He recently sold a MyPillow plane to fund Dominion lawsuit

Zach Petrizzo's other principal beat of 2021, as no regular reader of Salon can possibly have missed, was his on-again, off-again bromance with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, the man who has brought restful sleep to millions and who spent much of the year vowing he would somehow bring Donald Trump back to the White House. I haven't tried to count the number of stories Zach wrote about Lindell; it feels like one of those hypothetical numbers mathematicians theorize about but cannot precisely calculate. 

Lindell's various deadlines for "reinstating" Trump to the presidency — a thing that cannot in fact be done, we shall remind you — have all come and gone with the goal nowhere in sight. But the acme or nadir of Lindell news came when Zach and Jon Skolnik worked together on a report that the pillow guy had been forced to sell one of his private planes to raise money to defend himself against the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.

Leading up to Lindell's August "cyber symposium" in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was intended to prove his extravagant claims about the 2020 election (but clearly did not do so) the plane registered to MyPillow was used in a number of Lindell's schemes, including his alleged efforts to transport and conceal Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines at various locations across the country. (No such machines materialized at his Sioux Falls event, despite many promises that they would.) … Asked whether he had sold an airplane to raise money, Lindell called one Salon reporter "flying pond scum" and "slime." 

(I don't actually know whether that was Jon or Zach.)

Black flag: Understanding the Trumpists' latest threatening symbol

Sometimes in journalism you try to answer the questions everyone is asking — and sometimes you answer the questions no one has even thought to ask. Such as: What's the deal with the MAGA people and the all-black U.S. flags, which are barely recognizable as flags at all and are exceptionally unlikely to be linked to Black Lives Matter (at least in any positive way). Salon senior writer Chauncey DeVega, always attentive to the symbology of the scariest corners of the far right, was on the case in October:

​​Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, "socialist liberals," Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be "enemies" of "real America."

Salon could find no historical evidence for the MAGA World claim that black flags were used by the Confederates in the Civil War to signify "no quarter" against Union soldiers, but it appears that Trump followers, the "patriot" movement and other neofascist types believe it. Which isn't great.

Democrats hit the panic button. Is it too little too late for Joe Biden?

A few days after that story ran, columnist Amanda Marcotte captured the mood shift so many of Salon's readers were experiencing as the nation moved into fall: The pandemic wasn't over (and we didn't even know about omicron yet), Biden's agenda was going nowhere, the 2022 midterms were looking bleak and the Republican campaign to undermine or overthrow democracy was gaining speed. In other words, "normal" and "boring" were not happening — and not likely to, anytime soon:

President Joe Biden's economic agenda is stuck in the mud, supported by 96% of Democrats in the Senate yet blocked by two senators whose massive egos and lobbyist addictions are causing them to turn against the party. Biden failed to enact vaccine mandates early enough or broadly enough so now millions of Fox News-addled Americans still are resisting vaccines, prolonging the pandemic and contributing to the national sense of despair. On top of that, Donald Trump has faced no real consequences for his attempted coup while the various criminal apparatchiks he surrounds himself with are also walking around happy and free. So efforts to stop the next coup are moribund, hitting the wall of Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who love that lobbyist-pleasing filibuster more than they love democracy. … No wonder voters are so depressed. A party that refuses to listen to voters is frustrating, but so is a party that hears them but still can't do anything about it. Either way, it may not feel to many worth the effort to even vote. 

I'm sorry to leave you on a bummer as we head into another year, the traditional season of renewed hope. But the premise of our business, which isn't always pleasant, is to tell the truth as we understand it, not to tell people what we think they want to hear. You can't create change or create a more hopeful future without facing reality — and political reality right now, in the United States of America, is kind of harsh. Find love and joy where you can, cherish your moments with friends and family as we turn the page to the New Year. Gather what strength you can. We're going to need it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Best Of 2021 Commentary Donald Trump Joe Manchin Lauren Boebert Mike Lindell Ron Desantis Rudy Giuliani