By Aristophanes and Hermes
Editor’s Note: Additional events have been added to the “Honorable Mentions” section at the end of this article.
2018 was a busy year, with many breaking news stories on a variety of issues. The American Unionist crew, as usual, reviewed the year’s most important events, developing a list of what we believe are the top 10 news stories of 2018.
As an outlet with a predominantly American audience, we’ve given a high priority to domestic stories in curating our list. However, we also considered several international stories with substantial worldwide significance.
Additionally, we’ve decided not to include many ongoing events that have commanded news coverage for several years, unless a significant enough development occurred in 2018. This precluded stories on the continuing Yemeni civil war and Venezuelan economic collapse, for example. It also influenced our ordering of events within the top 10 list, itself.
For comparison, our list of the top 10 news stories of 2017 is available here.
With that in mind, please enjoy our selections, and be sure to voice your support, critiques or general thoughts in the comments section at the end of the article.
10. Jair Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil
With rising movements in Europe, Eastern Asia and the Americas, right-wing populism is slowly sweeping the globe. The world’s fourth-largest democracy, it seems, is not immune to the phenomenon.
On October 28, far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidency by a resounding double-digit margin. This triggered a radical shift in the country’s political landscape. Over the last three years, Brazil has seen both left-wing and centrist presidents. With the election of Bolsonaro, the nation will see its most radical leader since it restored democratic elections in the 1980s.
Why is Bolsonaro so worrying? It comes down to his populist-tinged authoritarianism and disregard for established norms. Bolsonaro also espouses racist and homophobic views, displays an unhealthy love for military power and has questioned the validity of Brazilian electoral results.
The Independent, a British newspaper, compiled a list of Bolsonaro’s worst quotes. Here’s a sampling:
In a speech made last year, Mr Bolsonaro spoke about a black settlement in Brazil founded by the descendants of slaves. “They do nothing. They are not even good for procreation,” he said.
He has also reportedly referred to black activists as “animals” who should “go back to the zoo”.
In 2014 Mr Bolsonaro got into a heated exchange with congresswoman Maria do Rosario in the lower house of Congress.
“I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” he said, in response to remarks made by Ms Rosario claiming he had encouraged rape.
Mr Bolsonaro later said he was not a rapist, but if he were he would not rape do Rosario because she is “ugly” and “not his type”.
In an interview with Playboy magazine in 2011 Bolsonaro said that he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son … I would prefer my son to die in an accident than show up with a moustachioed man.”
Let’s just hope the “Trump of the tropics” is not as big of a story in 2019 as he was this year.
9. California wildfires
This year’s wildfire season in California was the deadliest on record, with more than 100 dead. Nearly 2 million acres of land was burnt, causing at least $3.5 billion in damage. Many people had to evacuate their homes with little advance notice.
Some wonder whether climate change is playing a role in increasing the severity of California’s wildfires. It seems likely; due to global warming, California is now warmer and drier than it has been in the past. That’s a deadly combination, which, unfortunately, will also make it much harder to prevent these disasters in the future.
8. United States government shutdowns
The United States government has shut down three times under President Donald Trump, with disagreements on immigration being at the center of two of them.
On January 20, 2018, exactly a year into the Trump presidency, the government saw its first shutdown in four and a half years. Democrats and Republicans could not agree on protections for “Dreamers,” or undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children, as part of a federal spending bill. The shutdown ended when both sides came to a compromise three days later.
The next month, after congressional leaders had already agreed to a two-year budget deal, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, decided to hold up a Senate vote over what he believed was an improper increase in government spending. This triggered a brief government shutdown, which lasted only five and a half hours.
What will likely become the most infamous government shutdown under the Trump administration is the one currently in place, which started December 22. Senate Democrats and Republicans came to a spending agreement similar to the one made earlier this year, but Trump has refused to sign any spending bill that does not include funding for a wall on the southern border.
In this process, Trump is making a last-ditch effort to fulfill one of his key campaign promises. When Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives in January, it will be virtually impossible to pass a spending bill with appropriations for a border wall.
The United States government suffered a combined total of three shutdowns during the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies — a span of more than 20 years. The first two years of the Trump presidency somehow saw the same number of shutdowns, even as Republicans held unified control of the White House and both houses of Congress.
7. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
On October 2, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, by assassins likely working for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — a frequent target of Khashoggi’s criticism in the Post.
Despite a near universal understanding that bin Salman ordered the killing, including a CIA report with evidence linking him to the assassination, President Trump demurred, refusing to rebuke the crown prince, an ally and business associate of the president.
Khashoggi became the first person to posthumously become Time magazine’s Person of the Year, a distinction he shared with several other journalists as part of the publication’s support for “The Guardians” in the “War on Truth.”
6. Trade war with China
Since the campaign, President Donald Trump has been a hardliner on free trade agreements. In 2017, he withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This October, he negotiated a successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, which is expected to be ratified in the near future.
The president is clearly no friend to international trade agreements. That didn’t change in 2018.
Perhaps the most consequential trade policy of the Trump administration has been an array of tariffs placed upon Chinese imports this year. In response, Beijing instituted retaliatory tariffs, notably hitting American agricultural producers — some of the president’s staunchest supporters, who regularly export their products into the Chinese marketplace — hard.
Nevertheless, Trump shows no sign of backing down; it seems the governments of the world’s two largest economies will, for now, remain belligerents. To ameliorate the financial hardship this poses on American farmers, the Trump administration has promised at least $12 billion in aid, although critics question how helpful these subsidies have been for what is a nearly $1 trillion industry.
The president claims to want fairer trade with China. It remains to be seen whether he can achieve this long-term goal via protectionist tactics in the short term.
5. Immigration crackdown at the southern border
As mentioned above, immigration was a catalyst in two of this year’s three government shutdowns. President Trump’s proposal for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was also an important issue in the 2018 midterm elections.
Lawmakers have not yet been able to decide what to do about the “Dreamers,” or children of undocumented immigrants, 700,000 of whom remain in the United States. This will remain a pressing concern going into 2019.
In October, a Central American caravan of no more than 7,300 migrants, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, began working its way northward. Trump, a hardliner on immigration, called the caravan an “invasion” that he would fight by sending thousands of troops to the southern border.
In advance of the midterm elections, many Republican candidates used the caravan to stoke racially-motivated fears in conservative voters. Immigration remains a divisive political issue for fans and foes of the president and his party.
4. North Korean nuclear summit
In 2017, it seemed relations between the United States and North Korea would continue to deteriorate during the presidency of Donald Trump. The past three American presidents had failed to denuclearize the warmongering country, and, for a while, Trump was only interested in insulting and demeaning the North Korean regime.
For much of 2017 and 2018, Trump and Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s authoritarian leader, were trading barbs and threatening the use of nuclear power to subdue the other side. Trump called the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man.” Kim replied by naming the president a “dotard.”
All the while, North Koreans were advancing their nuclear capabilities. In 2017, they reportedly developed the intercontinental ballistic missile technology necessary to deliver a nuclear warhead to the American mainland. American bases across the Pacific were placed on high alert. It was a truly terrifying time.
But then, in the summer of 2018, Trump and Kim agreed to a face-to-face meeting for the negotiation of peace terms. The two leaders met in Singapore, hashing out a basic denuclearization plan. This is what I wrote about the summit at the time:
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump met with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, in a historic summit months in the making.
The two leaders rendezvoused on neutral turf, meeting in a swanky Singapore hotel, whose grounds have, in the past few days, been swamped by reporters from across the globe. In front of the world, Trump and Kim shook hands, dedicating themselves to ensuring peace between two nations that, just last year, were at each other’s throats with threats of nuclear war.
It’s the first time an American president has ever met with a North Korean head of state since the onset of the Korean War — a conflict that, by the way, has never formally concluded.
In hindsight, it seems the summit will accomplish little in the long-term; North Korea is still advancing its nuclear technology at a rapid pace, which seems to go directly against the Trump administration’s interpretation of the summit agreement.
The Kim regime and the Trump administration seem to have different definitions of what “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula entails. Does it require the United States to withdraw its military presence from South Korea, an essential American ally in the region since the days of the Korean War? Or does it only require that North Korea discard its nuclear weapons?
The Trump administration has so far ignored the existence of this linguistic impasse. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the Singapore summit, little was actually accomplished. Trump, like his predecessors, seems content to merely punt on the growing North Korean threat.
But at least the summit gave the president a symbolic win, thereby temporarily satisfying his ego and providing the rest of us respite from fears of immediate nuclear war.
READ: Aristophanes argues Trump’s belligerent rhetoric is counterproductive to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula
3. Special counsel investigation
Robert S. Mueller was appointed as a special counsel in May 2017, following President Trump’s abrupt firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, who had been heading an investigation into whether foreign actors interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Mueller now heads that investigation, which is also examining whether the Trump campaign itself had a hand in swaying the election through questionable means and whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to stymie the investigation using his presidential authority.
In 2018, the special counsel’s investigation shifted into high gear. Already, Mueller’s team has brought charges against a handful of Trump campaign associates and has referred some aspects of the expansive investigation to other federal prosecutors. Most notably, prosecutors have secured convictions against Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Mike Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser.
Cohen has since pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations, which he testified were made at the behest of Trump, himself, as well as lying to Congress about Trump’s knowledge of a Moscow construction project. He was later sentenced to three years in prison.
Manafort pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy charges involving his previous work for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and his prior attempts to obstruct the special counsel investigation. His sentencing has been delayed until March 2019.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about communications he reportedly had with a Russian government official. Because of his recent cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation, prosecutors have suggested Flynn receive no jail time. His sentencing has also been delayed until 2019.
So what’s next for Mueller? At some point, he will presumably compile a full report on the investigation’s findings, which could be filed as soon as mid-February. This confidential report will be sent to the attorney general, who will then decide whether all or part of the document will be made public.
READ: Aristophanes argues Robert Mueller, not Donald Trump, is draining the swamp in Washington
2. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation
In one of the most contentious nominating processes in recent United States history, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to an open seat on the Supreme Court following the retirement of former Justice Anthony Kennedy.
After President Trump had selected Kavanaugh as his nominee, and when he still had yet to be confirmed by the Senate, three women accused the judge of sexual assault. The most credible and well known accusation came from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University. She testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, recounting the assault before senators of both parties in a nationally televised hearing.
Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, briefly halted the committee’s vote on the nominee, allowing the FBI to launch a brief investigation into the sexual assault claims. Days later, the committee advanced the nomination to the Senate floor, where Kavanaugh’s confirmation was approved on a mostly party-line vote.
Only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, decided to vote against Kavanaugh, while one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted in his favor.
READ: The American Unionist politics crew recounts the hearing, discussing its potential to affect the midterm election
Aristophanes argues the process was “starkly partisan,” making the case for an alternative method for selecting federal judges
Hermes says Tennessee’s Democratic nominee for Senator was on the wrong side of history in voicing his support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation
1. Democrats win the House of Representatives
American political power is a constant ebb and flow between the country’s two largest political parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s normal for a party in power to suffer losses during a midterm election year. This cycle has repeated for generations with only a few notable exceptions.
However, Trump, as a presidential candidate, seemed immune to many of the normal rules of politics. Although he suffered scandal after scandal, his polling numbers rarely dipped more than 5 or 6 points lower than that of his rival, Hillary Clinton. And then he won. Some wondered whether, as president, Trump’s seeming ability to defy political gravity would have lasting effects, boosting his Republican Party during the 2018 midterm elections.
We’re now on the other side of those elections, and, well, we can clearly say Trump’s electoral might is not as unassailable as many of his supporters might wish. He is a historically unpopular president. In hindsight, we shouldn’t be at all surprised his political opponents made enormous electoral gains at the local, state and federal levels.
The top line of the 2018 midterms is that the Democrats flipped the House of Representatives from Republican control, winning the speaker’s gavel for the first time since 2008. As a USA Today headline put it: Democrats won the House by the “largest margin since Watergate.” Democrats also flipped numerous state legislative seats and municipal offices across the country. In Senate elections, the Democrats lost a net total of two seats — not a terrible result considering the party faced one of the worst Senate maps in modern times.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi is on track to be the next speaker of the House, meaning she will get to assign Democratic members of Congress to chair powerful legislative committees. Some of those committees, such as the House Ways and Means Committee, House Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will provide needed checks on the executive branch’s power.
That could pose a problem for Trump, whose administration has been tarred by scandal in several major federal departments. It might also pose an issue for Trump in a more personal manner. The Democratic-controlled House, set to assume power in early January, will undoubtedly re-open investigations into whether foreign powers interfered in the 2016 presidential election — and whether the Trump campaign aided and abetted those efforts.
The Ways and Means Committee also has the power to subpoena Trump’s tax returns, documents he has refused to release to the public and which some believe may hold evidence of illicit or embarrassing dealings from the president’s past.
In the story of the Trump presidency, this is the most substantial turn of events so far.
READ: The American Unionist politics crew discusses the results of the 2018 midterm elections
Aristophanes analyzes Democrats’ chances in the 2020 Senate map
— South Korea hosts 2018 Winter Olympics
— Russia hosts 2018 FIFA World Cup
— Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush dies at the age of 94
— U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona dies at the age of 81
— Hawaii faces 38 minutes of pandemonium after false missile alert
— President Trump pulls all U.S. troops from Syria and decreases number in Afghanistan
— Big Tech companies testify before Congress and other world governments
— U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May calls off parliamentary vote on Brexit deal
— Yellow Vest protests rally far-right, far-left and anti-government forces in France
— U.S. government delivers dire report on climate change
— Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry of the British royal family ■