The Atlantic Politics Daily: What We Learned This Year

With all of the brain-frying news of 2019, here’s a taste of what we learned in this very chaotic year of politics. Plus, the most under-appreciated American right.

It’s Monday, December 23. In today’s newsletter: What we learned in the year that was. Plus, a most under-appreciated American right.


It’s a truism in the tumult of the Trump presidency that our collective sense of time has gone haywire. The House impeachment vote was two weeks ago. With all of the brain-frying news of 2019, here’s a taste of what we learned in this very chaotic year of politics.

1. Even the most ballyhooed presidential candidates don’t always get traction. Kamala Harris? Beto O’Rourke? Kirsten Gillibrand? A year ago, the triumvirate of charismatic, young-ish politicians seemed poised to make trouble in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. (One CNN headline from last November: Why Kamala Harris is the new Democratic frontrunner.)

That didn’t pan out. All three candidates dropped out over the course of the year, having failed to gain the type of traction boosting rivals like … a 37-year-old mayor of America’s 306th largest city. (Another thing we learned this year, I guess: How to pronounce the mayor’s last name.)

Read my colleague Edward-Isaac Dovere’s story on the meltdown of Harris’s campaign.

2. Democrats shouldn’t wait around for a white knight. Democrats eager to get Trump out of the White House had a lot to be disappointed about this year. Since Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel in 2017, Democrats seemed to engage in breathless speculation about what would be in his report.

Then this summer, the Mueller Report did come out, leading to a great deflation for them: While it didn’t “exonerate” Trump from any alleged wrongdoing, it also didn’t contain any specific, single smoking gun incident. Those Democrats dissatisfied with the report’s impact then wondered whether they might find a key witness among the procession of career diplomats who trekked to Capitol Hill to outline Trump’s alleged misdeeds on the Ukraine question. Not one of the testimonies changed GOP minds. And American voters remain split (though my colleague David Graham makes the argument that impeachment is actually incredibly popular).

3. Donald Trump is gonna Donald Trump. When Trump took office, some pundits were predicting a “pivot”—that moment when, finally, Trump would stop with the capricious tweets and start acting a bit more presidential (whatever that means now).

2019 basically put to bed any commentary about a pivot. As my colleague Peter Nicholas wrote, Trump’s behavior seems to only be getting worse, in part because he has no pressure valve to help with the stresses of the job, not golf, not meals out, not friends: “He has nobody around him. There’s nobody,” one person close to Trump told Peter.

And as Peter reported on Christmas Eve, Trump will probably happily settle for acquittal—and that’s that.

“A perfunctory trial and an end to this—that’s the preferred scenario,” said a White House official, who like others I talked with for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there aren’t people the president would like to hear from—like the whistle-blower and Hunter Biden. But if the choice is ours, it’s Let’s wrap it up.”

Read his full story.

We’ll be back tomorrow to close out the decade (!) with a few more reflections.

—Saahil Desai


America’s most under-appreciated right? The right to assembly, John Inazu argues.

In the past few months, protesters in Hong Kong have engaged in a citywide strike. In Lebanon, mass protests led to the prime minister’s resignation. In India, nationwide protests have defied government restrictions on public gatherings. Meanwhile, protesters in other parts of the world remain forcibly subdued—such as in Chinese “reeducation” camps and Saudi prisons. These examples, reflecting a range of lawful and unlawful assemblies, and the denial of assembly altogether, reveal the importance and the risks of the right to do so.

Read the rest.


Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an associate editor on our Politics team, and edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters. You can reply directly to this newsletter with questions or comments, or send a note to

Your support makes our journalism possible. Subscribe here.