Americas

Americans in dire straits: Top stories of 2020 in US

Top 10 stories of America's surreal 2020

Andy Roesgen   | 29.12.2020
Americans in dire straits: Top stories of 2020 in US

CHICAGO

In December 2019, Americans had no reason to think 2020 would be radically different than the year that was just wrapping up.

Yes, a bruising Congressional fight was brewing in Washington over whether to impeach President Donald Trump (he was) and remove him from office (he wasn't).

But simply trudging off to work or school on weekdays, catching dinner and a movie at night, or heading out to a nightclub or a sporting event on weekends were still a given.

But by the time it was all over, only in the bizarre, often depressing, sometimes shocking, occasionally uplifting year that wound up being 2020 could the historic impeachment of the president wind up feeling like an afterthought.

In fact, during the campaign for president, the impeachment -- considered a rare, grim mark on an American presidency -- was barely mentioned.

That's because Trump -- and the nation -- faced something far more devastating to its health and to Trump's presidency in...

1. The COVID-19 Crisis

The mysterious, flu-like virus that was infecting Chinese residents by late 2019 was like a slow-moving, ever-growing rumble for Americans. In January came the first documented human-to-human transmission of the virus in the US: an American woman visiting her father in China flew back home to Chicago and gave the virus to her husband. Both recovered, but alarm bells went off. The US began evacuating Americans from cruise ships, which became coronavirus hot-spots. US financial markets were spooked and started taking sharp dives in February.

But early on, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who would become the nation's respected voice on COVID-19, urged calm. In February, he told USA Today the danger of the virus in the US was "just minuscule" and said there was "no reason" to wear a mask in public.

All that quickly changed; the virus started roaring through Seattle and San Francisco and New York City.

By mid-March, a surreal pall was quickly growing over America. Over the course of about 48 hours, all professional and collegiate sports shut down, with one basketball game at Madison Square Garden called off mid-game and the arena evacuated.

By April, the virus developed into a full-fledged national crisis. Hospital systems, particularly in New York, were overwhelmed; exhausted doctors and nurses would leave their shifts and walk past refrigerated trucks that held the over-flow dead.

With little guidance from the Trump administration, state and city governments began mandating lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus and take the pressure off hospitals. Americans started hoarding grocery store essentials and adjusting to life, school, and work from home through virtual meeting apps.

As the number of new cases started trending lower by late spring, lockdowns were eased, and many Americans made an uneasy trade-off: wear masks and stay socially distant in exchange for re-opening businesses.

But a second coronavirus surge starting in late June put that to the test; large, maskless gatherings became a problem. An outbreak of about 85 cases in Michigan was traced to a single night at a crowded college bar.

To be sure, plenty of communities and entire states refused to lockdown at all and even resisted basic virus protocols in the name of "freedom.” But those states, notably the Dakotas, Texas, and Florida, paid a heavy price in the second and third waves.

And it was the third wave that proved the most disastrous by December: at times, over 3,000 people would die per day, and total lockdowns, or partial lockdowns, were brought back in several states. From the start of the pandemic to mid-December, the virus was blamed for over 315,000 American deaths, although by year's end, some cities were seeing noticeable declines in daily new infections.

It was a health crisis not seen since the so-called "Spanish Flu" of 1918. But unlike that pandemic, this one quickly devolved along partisan lines and led to...

2. COVID-19 Denial

From the beginning, the Trump administration's stance was clear: downplay the virus, despite its obvious seriousness, criticize lockdowns and get the economy moving again.

Critics assailed Trump for inaction by his administration, and things Trump said would forever stain his pandemic leadership. Early on, he referred to the pandemic as a "hoax" and said the number of coronavirus cases would be "down to zero" by April. When a reporter asked him what he would say to Americans who were increasingly fearful of the virus' economic impact, Trump replied, "I'd say you're a terrible reporter."

Trump continuously pushed a purported treatment for the coronavirus, hydroxychloroquine, even though its effectiveness was debunked by numerous health professionals.

Once it became clear that mask-wearing did, indeed, slow the spread of the virus and was recommended by Trump's own coronavirus task force, Trump made it clear he wouldn't wear one. He continually downplayed and mocked mask-wearing as "politically correct" and at one point suggested that people who wore masks were being "anti-Trump" and that mask-wearing was unhealthy.

In one of his daily televised briefings on the virus in April, Trump stood at the White House podium and suggested that ultraviolet rays or ingesting bleach could get rid of the virus. It was a remark that outraged health experts and flabbergasted Americans. Trump stopped appearing at the daily briefings after that.

Eventually, Trump resumed holding large, tightly-packed, mostly maskless campaign rallies, exactly the opposite of his task force recommendations.

And his supporters fell in line: most didn't wear masks or practice social distancing. Asked time and again at Trump rallies why they didn't do either, they replied that COVID numbers were "inflated" or "cooked" to make Trump look bad and that the virus wasn't as bad as they'd been led to believe. As one woman told me at a Trump rally in Oklahoma, she wasn't afraid of "the good Lord called me home," and she died from the virus.

Another Trump supporter, Rachel, told me at a cold October Trump rally in Wisconsin that she was a registered nurse.

"I'm not worried about a virus. It doesn't last in the [cold] air like this. I know the science behind it."

She added that this was her third or fourth Trump rally.

"He speaks the truth and, as they say, I'd walk on broken glass [to see him]."

But it was impossible to downplay...

3. The COVID Economic Downturn

The US economy marched into January 2020 on a roll: unemployment was at its lowest in 50 years, 3.5%, and the stock market saw its pre-pandemic peak by early February.

But the "COVID crash" sent stocks tumbling in a depression-like fall, bottoming out in late March. Stocks recovered by the end of the year, suggesting that investors were riding out the crisis far better than the working class.

The unemployment rate reached a high of 14.7% in April, with travel and leisure industries especially hard hit. Millions of Americans suddenly had trouble paying bills, rents and mortgages.

Americans lined up in cars, seemingly for miles, to receive donated food. A study by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that an estimated 8 million Americans fell into poverty between June and the end of the year.

The CARES Act was negotiated by Congress and signed by President Trump in late March. It provided $2 trillion in relief for businesses and individual Americans. But plenty of "temporarily" closed businesses never re-opened.

Once lockdowns started lifting in the late spring, the economy picked up, and in November, the unemployment rate had dipped back into single digits. But the third surge of the coronavirus by late November -- and more lockdowns -- provided another economic punch. In December, Congress passed another stimulus package similar to the CARES Act, only smaller, at about $900 billion.

In the spring, critics of President Trump argued that the key to getting the economy back on track was following health protocols and a more cautious re-opening of businesses. But the Trump administration believed it was better to throw the economic doors wide open and rely on...

4. The Race for the Vaccine

The Trump administration's "Operation Warp Speed," a public-private partnership, was announced in mid-May.

The goal: develop a vaccine and get it approved faster than had ever been done in history.

Early on, most health experts guessed it wouldn't be until the spring of 2021 that a vaccine would be developed, leaving Americans settling into the dispiriting notion of living at least a year, and possibly longer, in lockdowns and fear.

But working off research that had already begun in the early 2000s to combat the SARS virus, scientists at Pfizer and Moderna made unprecedented progress, and with each passing month, they announced hopeful developments.

On Friday, Dec. 11, America's Food and Drug Administration signed off on the effectiveness of the vaccine developed by Pfizer, although British regulators approved the vaccine for use days earlier.

Trump's allies and even some critics gave his administration begrudging credit for Operation Warp Speed, but by summer, Trump, and the nation, faced another crisis from...

5. The Death of George Floyd

On Memorial Day, May 25th, a convenience store clerk in South Minneapolis called the police to accuse a customer, George Floyd, of trying to pay with a counterfeit $20 bill. Multiple surveillance cameras captured what appeared to be a routine interaction between Floyd and the four responding officers until one of them, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Caught on a cellphone video, Floyd cried "I can't breathe" and "mama" as he lost consciousness and died.

His death triggered worldwide outrage and protests, starting in Minneapolis. Days of sometimes violent protests there left whole city blocks, mostly in the poor, minority neighborhood where Floyd was killed, badly damaged or destroyed. Police used tear gas for days to break up protesting, but there were also many more peaceful protests.

Much of the demonstrations were driven by Black Lives Matter, a loose-knit group that had formed six years earlier after the police killing of another unarmed Black man, in Missouri.

Floyd's funeral in Houston drew news coverage from around the world. And for the first time, after years of high-profile police killings of Black men, his was the death that triggered a nation-wide reckoning on race and led to concrete reforms in police departments around the country. All four officers involved in Floyd's death were charged, including a second-degree murder charge for Chauvin.

Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton remarked that as often as he had seen civil rights movements over the years, this one felt different and more hopeful for one big reason: the vast majority of demonstrators in Minneapolis and around the nation were white.

But it didn't end in Minneapolis. Police shootings of unarmed Black men in Atlanta and Kenosha, Wisconsin and the killing of an innocent Black woman in Kentucky, Breonna Taylor, in a botched police raid touched off a summer of more protests and, at times, more destruction, which led to... 

6. The Rise of Right-Wing Extremist Groups

For a not-insignificant number of Americans on the right, Black Lives Matter and other various left-wing groups lumped together under the banner of "Antifa," were frightening trouble-makers, not peaceful protesters.

Heavily armed right-wing groups, including the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the overtly racist, violent Proud Boys, started showing up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and at anti-lockdown protests.

At times, they were egged on by President Trump.

In a tweet, Trump urged his supporters to "liberate Michigan" from the state lockdown ordered by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In April, angry, shouting Trump supporters, some armed with assault rifles, walked into Michigan's Capitol, aiming to do just that.

There was no violence, but seeds were sown:

In October, at least two men at that April rally were among the 14 militia members charged with conspiring to storm the capitol and kidnap and kill Governor Whitmer.

In a campaign debate in October, when asked specifically about the Proud Boys, Trump didn't condemn them; he told the group to "Stand back and stand by," which many interpreted as an endorsement. The group now wears shirts emblazoned with that slogan.

And in August, after a night of anti-police rioting in Kenosha, a collection of right-wing armed men calling themselves "patriots" answered a call on social media to protect property there. One of them, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, drove to Kenosha from neighboring Illinois. He wound up shooting two demonstrators dead and injuring a third. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense and his trial is pending, but it further divided a nation increasingly horrified by the violence and destruction on all sides.

And it played a role in...

7. The Presidential Campaign

President Trump portrayed himself as a "law and order" president in the face of national unrest. He visited Kenosha after the rioting in August and met with law enforcement but not once uttered the name of the Black man whose shooting by police touched off the rioting: Jacob Blake.

By contrast, Joe Biden, Trump’s rival in the 2020 presidential race, visited Kenosha a couple of days later and met with Blake's family and with local civil rights leaders.

In another surreal split-screen of the two Americas, Biden conducted small, mask-mandated, socially-distanced campaign rallies, sometimes in parking lots with supporters in cars. He promised he would "listen to the scientists" on COVID.

By contrast, Trump gave up all pretense of following recommended health protocols. His large, tightly-packed, mostly maskless rallies were labeled "super spreader" events by critics.

And it caught up with him; Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis in the fall kept him off the campaign trail for a while and added more fuel to the criticism that he didn't take the pandemic seriously.

Even Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager in 2016 and part of 2020, said after the election that Trump's virus response and his lack of empathy for its victims hurt his re-election bid.

But Trump's supporters remained undaunted on the campaign trail.

When I asked Biden supporters if they were nervous about the appearance of Trump's large rallies compared with Biden's far more tame rallies, the answer was "yes," even though they felt Biden was doing the right thing.

But Trump supporters had no such qualms. Even with coronavirus numbers reaching all-time highs by October, Trump supporters weren't nervous at all about the appearance of large rallies that ignored health protocols; to them, and the right-wing media they consumed, there was simply no virus to worry about.

And they were uniformly confident about Trump's chances in...

8. The Presidential Election

To allay coronavirus fears over voting in person, many states expanded mail-in balloting for the presidential election.

Trump railed against it for months before the election, claiming it would lead to voter fraud, although curiously, he slammed it specifically in states with Democratic governors, not in Republican-led states.

In some states, election officials were not allowed to start counting mail-ballots until election day itself, which meant votes would still be counted for days afterward.

So after vote-counting early on election night, Nov. 3, showed Trump leading in some swing states, Trump held a victory party at the White House in the early hours of Nov. 4.

But as more votes were counted, particularly in large cities with large minority populations where Biden was favored, the vote totals started to turn in Biden's favor.

Three days after election day, Trump claimed that he was winning the "legal votes."

But outside the convention center in Philadelphia, where votes in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania were still being counted, a growing group of Biden supporters set up camp with a DJ and a seemingly all-day, all-night dance rave. They sensed a win was coming.

Across the street, separated by police, Trump supporters waved large American flags and carried signs that read "Stop the Steal," although no evidence of a "steal" existed.

By Saturday afternoon, Nov. 7, an updated vote count in Pennsylvania, Biden's home state, put his lead out of reach for Trump in that state, which also put Biden's lead in the overall electoral college out of reach. News organizations called the race for Biden, and Biden supporters -- and Trump critics -- started pouring into the streets around the nation. In Philadelphia, a crowd swelled outside historic City Hall; a DJ set up shop and an impromptu rave party broke out that lasted into the evening.

Nearby, outside the convention center where votes were still being counted, a dwindling group of glum Trump supporters continued to demonstrate for at least a couple of days.

I asked them what they were going to do now.

"Cause mayhem!" one angrily said. "The same thing the left has been doing for four years!"

Another Trump supporter standing nearby said, "Everywhere Joe Biden goes, we'll show up and say, 'Not our president'."

Biden led Trump by over seven million nation-wide votes, but somehow, the resignation and acceptance that usually follows an election loss never happened for Trump and his supporters or his allies in Congress. In fact, quite the opposite.

They carried on an unprecedented...

9. Election Denial

From the moment the race was unofficially called for Biden, Trump claimed the election was "rigged" and his legal team fanned out, filing lawsuits and demanding recounts in swing states.

But around 50 lawsuits by Trump's team were either shot down in courts or withdrawn, and many judges, including Republican judges and some appointed by Trump himself, ridiculed the logic behind them.

At times, Trump's lawyers appeared comical, particularly in a flop-sweat-drenched, evidence-free press conference in which they laid blame on everyone from Cuba to China to a dead Venezuelan dictator and claimed voting machines somehow switched votes from Trump to Biden. To date, they have not presented any evidence to back up claims of widespread voter fraud.

The head of the government's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency called the election "the most secure in history." He was then fired by Trump.

And Trump's US Attorney General, William Barr, as loyal an ally as the president ever had in his administration, said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the election. He resigned days later.

Several vote re-counts in swing states re-affirmed Biden's win; Biden scored a decisive win in the Electoral College based on those results; and the US Supreme Court, considered the nation's final legal arbiter, and which includes three Trump-appointed judges, turned down multiple legal challenges, paving the way for Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration.

After election day, Trump largely stayed tucked away in the White House, out of public view, a vast change from his love of the limelight. But he and his campaign continued a relentless push on social media to get his supporters to contribute money in an effort to "defend the election,” which raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump barely commented on the stunning rise in COVID-19 deaths or even on...

10. The Vaccine Roll-Out

On a cold, gray, snowy Sunday morning in the southwest Michigan town of Portage, big delivery trucks started rolling out of Pfizer's largest distribution hub in the world, loaded with the vaccine and packed with dry ice to keep it at minus-70 degrees Celsius.

For America, hit harder by the virus than any other country, this was the dawn of new hope.

The next day, Dec. 14, a nurse in New York got the very first vaccine shot, followed by health care workers around the country and nursing home residents.

Later in the week, another vaccine, from Moderna, was also approved, and unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it didn't require a minus-70 degree storing temperature, only a standard freezing temperature. And it made America the only nation with two different vaccines.

In all, Operation Warp Speed was hoping to distribute 80 million vaccine doses by the end of 2020, and, with luck, return America to some sense of normalcy by mid-2021. But it's... 

Not So Smooth Sailing Ahead

Late in the year, government officials were still sorting through the damage caused by a massive cybersecurity hack on government agencies and some large private companies. Russia was widely believed to be the culprit, and with very little response by Trump himself, it will likely fall to the incoming Biden administration on how to respond.

And Trump is promising a "wild" protest in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, when Congress officially certifies Biden's victory. ​​​​​​​

Trump -- and 2020 -- aren't going away without a fight.

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