Capitol Insurrection, Trump Impeachment
While the presidential election took place in November 2020, then-US President Donald Trump continued to contest the results into 2021, holding a “Stop the Steal” rally outside the White House on January 6. After the rally, thousands of Trump’s supporters marched to the US Capitol Building, where a joint session of Congress was meeting to certify the results of the election, as they are required to do by the US Constitution.
The crowd included many people from far-right ideologies, including neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups and militias. A notable section of the crowd were believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is locked in a secret battle with a globe-ruling cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophile Democrats and is destined to return to power.
It remains unclear exactly what transpired, but with too few US Capitol Police officers to hold back Trump’s supporters and several officers who seemingly collaborated with the rioters, they quickly stormed into the Capitol building and sent federal lawmakers fleeing to safety.
A subsequent police investigation has revealed that some of the rioters sought to capture lawmakers and either take them as hostages or execute them, with chants echoing outside the building of “Hang Pence!” and a large gallows being erected on the building’s Western Terrace.
With the arrival of National Guard troops, USCP re-established control over the building and forced the rioters out. Five people died in the attack, including a USCP officer and a 36-year-old rioter named Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by a USCP officer outside the House chamber while attempting to bash through a door. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing in her death.
In the aftermath, Washington, DC, was garrisoned by more than 25,000 troops and much of the central federal district was cordoned off with barricades. Joe Biden was sworn in as president two weeks later on January 20 under unprecedented heavy guard, and Congress voted to impeach Trump on charges of inciting the insurrection, making him the only US president to be impeached twice. However, he was acquitted in a Senate trial in early February by a minority of senators, many of whom saw an impeachment of Trump out of office as politically motivated.
Trump has maintained his claims that Democrats stole the election from him via massive voter fraud, with a sizable part of the Republican Party eventually agreeing with him.
Biden, Harris Inaugurations
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into office on January 20 under the watchful eye of 25,000 US troops. Both had served in the US Senate, but Biden had also spent eight years as vice president under Barack Obama.
Both inaugurations were historic: at 78 years old, Biden entered office as the oldest president in US history. He is also the first president from the state of Delaware and the second to be a Roman Catholic. Harris, sworn in at age 56, is the first female vice president and first vice president to be African-American or South Asian. In addition, her spouse, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, is the first man to hold the position and the first Jewish spouse of a vice president.
Biden’s election victory was hotly contested by Trump, who claimed universal mail-in ballots used by many US states to allow people to vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic had been exploited by Democrats to generate fraudulent results. Trump refused most handover cooperation with Biden’s incoming administration during the period between the November vote and January inauguration, with the climax coming on January 6, when Trump supporters attempted to overturn the results by storming the US Capitol Building.
Upon assuming office, Biden issued a slew of executive orders reversing some of Trump’s most hated policies, including restoring rights for transgender Americans, ending construction of the US-Mexico border wall and other immigration-related orders, and returning the US to the 2015 Paris climate deal.
The year 2021 was replete with disasters scientists said were exacerbated by the effects of climate change. These included unusual winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires, all of which set records for their ferocity.
Winter Storm Uri swept across the continent’s interior in mid-February, bringing below-zero temperatures and snow as far south as Monterrey, Mexico. An estimated 210 people died in Texas as the state’s fragile, privatized infrastructure buckled under snow and ice, and most homes lacked the kind of heating and insulation necessary to survive such extreme cold.
However, Uri’s devastation continued as the storm moved east and north, sparking tornadoes across the South and ultimately knocking out power for 10 million people.
While the south and east were getting pummeled with rain and snow, the west coast was experiencing what meteorologists termed an “exceptional drought,” preparing the ground for wildfires over the summer that consumed huge swaths of California, Oregon, and Arizona forest and grassland. A heat wave in June and July produced scorching temperatures that only made the problem worse. The smoke sent so much ash into the sky that it affected air quality on the Atlantic coast. By November, more than 6.5 million acres of land had burned across the US. Three people died from the wildfires in 2021, but the heat wave claimed at least 116 lives.
In late August, Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast as a category 4 hurricane, having rapidly intensified in the ultra-warm waters immediately off the coast. The storm’s 150 mph winds left a swath of destruction that was only outdone by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which flooded New Orleans. Ida’s path north and east saw it weaken before unexpectedly re-intensifying as it entered the northeast, causing catastrophic flooding and tornadoes in New Jersey and New York, where a month’s worth of rain fell in a single evening. The storm killed 95 people in the US.
A series of 69 late-season tornadoes spawned from a line of powerful storms that passed across the Ozarks and Mississippi River valley on December 10, catching residents off-guard with both their longevity and intensity. One twister, dubbed the “Quad-State Tornado,” is believed to have cut a path 250 miles long - the longest of any such storm - and zipped along it at 55 miles per hour. At least 90 people have been confirmed killed by the tornadoes, including six in an Amazon warehouse and eight in a candle factory.
Derek Chauvin Trial
The largest mass uprising in US history during the summer of 2020 was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the hands of a city police officer named Derek Chauvin. In March 2021, Chauvin was put on trial for murdering Floyd during a May 25, 2020, police stop, during which Chauvin handcuffed Floyd and pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck, suffocating him.
Large protests demanded Chauvin’s conviction and police constructed defensive barricades around the courthouse and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz activated the state’s National Guard in anticipation of more violent demonstrations if the jury acquitted him.
Chauvin was given 22.5 years behind bars for second-degree murder, the first time a white officer was convicted for killing a Black person in Minnesota. The decision was hailed internationally, including by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
During the trial, a separate incident involving a Minneapolis police officer occurred, when officer Kimberly Potter shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. Potter’s trial on manslaughter charges came to an end on December 23, with the jury finding her guilty on both counts.
Surfside Condominium Collapse
Early on the morning of June 24, long-term degradation of the concrete structural supports in the parking garage of the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Florida, a Miami suburb, gave way.
Roughly half of the L-shaped structure collapsed, its 12 concrete floors “pancaking” on top of one another, leaving few pockets in which residents could survive. The crash killed 98 people.
The rescue operation prompted a widespread outpouring of community support, with everyone from the Miami Heat professional basketball team to an Israeli Defense Forces search and rescue team coming to help. However, a plan to demolish the still-standing second half of the building aroused fury when authorities refused to allow residents who’d evacuated in the aftermath of the collapse to retrieve their pets prior to the demolition.
In the aftermath, an investigation determined that maintenance on the structure’s concrete supports had long been neglected, suffering degradation due to water damage that could have been corrected years earlier and saved the building from collapse. It was the third-deadliest structural engineering failure in US history.
Governor Cuomo Resigns
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dodged accusations of sexual misconduct for months before a damning report released by the state’s attorney general in early August revealed the extent of his misconduct, forcing him to resign from office.
New York Attorney General Leticia James’ report cataloged accusations of unwanted groping, kissing, and sexual comments against Cuomo by 11 women during his time in office. The first to bring accusations, former aide Lindsey Boylan, was forced to quit after Cuomo kissed her after a meeting, and when she raised her accusations in December 2020, Cuomo reportedly attempted to smear her by getting colleagues to sign an open letter accusing her of political motives, although the letter was ultimately never released.
Cuomo resigned on August 24, handing the state’s top office over to Kathy Hochul, who became the Empire State’s first female governor. Misdemeanor “sex crime” charges were brought against Cuomo in an Albany court in October.
Andrew Cuomo’s brother, CNN host Chris Cuomo, was fired by the network in early December after James published a dossier
of files from the investigation into the governor, which revealed the journalist had used his connections to investigate his brother’s accusers and helped to craft his public relations campaign over the accusations.
Withdrawal From Afghanistan War
When the Trump administration reached a deal with the Taliban* in February 2020 to withdraw from Afghanistan, it only applied to US troops, not to their Afghan government allies. Fighting between them continued, and after the May 1, 2021 withdrawal deadline came and went, the Islamist militant group launched a new offensive to retake the country, despite US troops still being in the country.
Biden unilaterally extended the withdrawal date until September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda* terrorist attacks that had prompted the US to invade Afghanistan in October 2001, then pulled it back to August 31. However, what had been intended to be an orderly removal of military equipment, troops, and Afghan collaborators turned into a chaotic, deadly evacuation when the Afghan government unexpectedly folded in early August.
When the Taliban reached the outskirts of the capital of Kabul on August 15, it was anticipated that the group would negotiate the city’s surrender. Instead, the government of President Ashraf Ghani fled, leaving the city open to the militant group, which captured it without firing a shot.
Afghan civilians who had not yet left the country, including thousands of collaborators who feared Taliban reprisal, mobbed the airport where US troops were preparing to fly their remaining equipment out. Shocking scenes showed air transports packed with hundreds of refugees, and desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of aircraft as they took off, only to plummet to their deaths.
In the two weeks that followed, the US military not only had to organize an enormous air train to evacuate 79,000 civilians, but also cooperate with the Taliban in providing security for the crowds. Nonetheless, a Daesh-Khorasan attack on August 26 killed at least 183 people outside the airport, including 170 Afghan civilians waiting for a chance to fly out, and 13 US service members providing security.
The pullout ended a 20-year-long war, but ironically the US-backed government didn’t even survive until then, and the government the US overthrew in the 2001 invasion had returned to power.
The Facebook Files Leaked
Beginning in September 2021, a product manager in the Facebook civic integrity department named Frances Haugen began passing the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Wall Street Journal newspaper tens of thousands of internal documents. The dossier revealed that Facebook had systematically prioritized profits over the safety of its users, tolerating a wide variety of practices found to be harmful in different ways.
Among the things Haugen’s whistleblowing revealed were the company’s indifference to how Instagram, a photo-sharing social media site owned by the Facebook corporation (which has since renamed itself to Meta), negatively affected the mental health of female teenage users; that it tolerated a wide array of hate speech directed against minority groups around the globe, but especially in India and Ethiopia; and refused to take action against the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory and related claims about the 2020 election being fraudulent, as then-President Trump had claimed.
However, the files Haugen revealed were just the beginning: soon, other whistleblowers from the company came forward, as well, and unrelated investigations by ProPublica and other outlets revealed that, for example, Facebook had lied when it said it can’t read messages sent by users on its WhatsApp messaging platform.
Together, the revelations helped revive longstanding allegations that Facebook and other internet giants should not enjoy special protections from regulation, as Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act provides.
Abortion Fight Goes to Supreme Court
In late 2021, the US Supreme Court heard two important cases with the potential to decide the future of abortion rights, prompting outcry and protests from the left.
The first, Whole Woman’s Health vs. Jackson, was argued in November and concerned a Texas law passed in April that banned abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, when a so-called “fetal heartbeat” was detectable. The law banned an estimated 85% of abortions, according to health advocates, because six weeks is often too early for women to know if they’re pregnant yet. Moreover, the law provided a unique way of punishing abortions designed to circumvent federal courts overturning the law: it asks third-party plaintiffs to sue abortion providers and those who “aid and abet” the abortion for damages.
The high court upheld the law’s constitutionality, but allowed abortion providers to return to a lower court and seek injunction against a group of state medical licensing officials, although not the state judges and clerks they had also tried to sue.
The second case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was argued in December and carries much more political weight. The case concerned a 15-week abortion ban passed by Mississippi in 2018, but the state asked the Supreme Court to not just consider the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case that Mississippi is accused of violating, but Roe v. Wade itself. That 1973 ruling established the basis for abortion rights in the United States, laying out a framework for its regulation that barred limitations on access before the 15th week of pregnancy.
The high court’s decisive six-justice conservative majority has left liberals fearful the court may attempt to overturn its past decision in the Roe case, which prompted mass demonstrations in Washington, DC, and an attempt to pass a bill that would codify Roe’s principles into US law. While the bill easily passed the Democratic-majority US House of Representatives, it has stalled in the evenly-split Senate, where Republicans can use the filibuster rule to block it from ever getting a floor vote.
Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ Rights Fights
The mass uprisings against anti-Black racism and police terror that swept the US in the summer of 2020 helped bring about a historic reckoning in the country as activists called attention to the many ways in which racism and white supremacy remain entrenched in the political system, culture, and education. At the same time, greater acceptance for LGBTQ people was producing a similar reckoning with how sexuality and gender identity is taught in schools.
While few of the school curricula including critical examinations of US history to which conservatives objected were actually based on the late-20th century philosophy of critical race theory (CRT), the term quickly became a byword for a new willingness to talk about race and racism in US history and society, especially in educational spheres. Beginning with Texas, conservatives began attempting to ban CRT from schools, both at stormy public meetings and in the legislature.
In particular, proponents called attention to the lasting legacy of the enslavement of Black Americans, which was formally abolished after hundreds of years in 1865, albeit at the end of a catastrophic civil war caused by the attempted secession by the Confederate States of America, which was comprised of southern US states where slavery served as the basis of the plantation economy.
Conservatives were outraged by movements to remove monuments to Confederate generals and to rename highways and civic institutions named after them, claiming CRT to be an attack on the country's very foundations. Other targets included figures like President Andrew Jackson, who waged genocidal wars against Native American nations and who was honored with an equestrian statue across the street from the White House, and Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who discovered the New World for Europeans in 1492 and oversaw the enslavement of indigenous tribes on Hispaniola.
A similar fight erupted concerning school curricula about sexuality and gender identity, particularly accommodations for transgender students that respected their gender self-identification. Supporters of the measures argued they were defending the rights of girls and women from people they argued were “biologically male,” and thus physically superior and prone to violence, while opponents argued that gender isn’t defined by biology and dismissed arguments about male superiority as based on outdated patriarchal tropes. Dozens of bills were introduced or passed in 2021 that sought to ban trans girls from competing on girls’ sports teams or using women’s public restrooms, and Texas’ anti-CRT law included limits on the education of students about LGBTQ topics, as well.
*The Taliban is an organisation under UN sanctions for terrorist activities