The Real Political Heroes of Another Dumpster Fire Year

The Real Political Heroes of Another Dumpster Fire Year 1

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear badges. Some wear boots. Some wear neckties. Some wear pant suits. Some even wear tennis shoes. And in these troubling times, during the darkest time of the year, we need to celebrate the real-life heroes in and around American politics. This is my list for 2021:

The year began in dramatic and tragic fashion, with the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Capitol police officers proved themselves heroic, particularly Officer Eugene Goodman, who brilliantly diverted the mob away from the chamber where U.S. senators were holed up. “In short, he tricked them,” as Randolph Sturdivant of WUSA-TV put it, “willingly becoming the rabbit to their wolf pack, pulling them away from the chambers where armed officers were waiting, avoiding tragedy and saving lives. Lives which include their own.” As captured on another video, Goodman also led Sen. Mitt Romney (a hero from last year’s list) to safety. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if Goodman and his colleagues weren’t on the job that day.

Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman pays his respects to late colleague William Evans, who was killed in the line of duty during the attack outside the U.S. Capitol.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Despite what some may contend, Capitol rioters weren’t there for a picnic. They were chanting “Hang Mike Pence” because, despite enormous pressure (and after consulting with former Vice President Dan Quayle), the vice president determined his oath to support and defend the Constitution superseded his loyalty to Donald Trump. It’s easy to say that Pence could not have blocked the certification of Joe Biden, even if he had wanted to—that he did not have the legal authority to refuse to certify the election (and to send it back to the states)— but we can all be grateful we didn’t have to watch that play out. “It would have been chaos,” explains ABC News chief White House correspondent Jon Karl, author of the book Betrayal. “What would [Nancy] Pelosi have done? How does it end? How do you get out of that? Eventually it wouldn’t have stood but how? The Constitution’s not going to help you at that point. He’s basically stopping the last step in the certification of an election and that step is required for Biden to become president. So what if Pence just stopped it?

Pence is an imperfect hero who obsequiously enabled Trump for years. But under immense pressure from the president of the United States, who specifically used his perch to weaponize a mob against him, he rose to the occasion.

In this regard, Pence belongs in a similar category with Sen. Tom Cotton, a Trumpy Republican who, according to David Drucker’s In Trump’s Shadow, nonetheless “plotted [with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] to countermand Trump’s bid to overturn the election and neutralize interest in objecting to Biden’s victory that was developing in some quarters of the Republican conference.” Cotton did not risk personal injury (or death) the way Pence did, but he deserves credit for helping preserve democracy.

In the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, there seemed to be consensus—even among Republicans—that this was a serious event and that Trump was to blame. Sadly, many Republicans quickly changed their tune, finding ways to rationalize or downplay the significance of the day. Two Republicans who refused to do that were Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom remained committed to uncovering the truth while serving on the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Kinzinger has already announced that he will not seek re-election in 2022. And as retribution for her act of “betrayal” (that is to say, punishment for her political courage), Cheney finds herself in a Wyoming primary against a Trump-backed Republican challenger.

The Real Political Heroes of Another Dumpster Fire Year 2

Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger listen during a committee meeting on Capitol Hill before voting to recommend contempt of Congress charges for former Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark.

Drew Angerer/Getty

While attempting to purge Republicans like Cheney and Kinzinger, Trump and his minions are also attempting to rewrite history. As part of the effort to whitewash Jan. 6, Fox Nation (Fox News’ paid subscription service) recently aired a “Patriot Purge” documentary, suggesting that, as PolitiFact put it, “the siege may have been a trap orchestrated by the FBI.” Two Fox News contributors, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, the co-founders of the conservative website The Dispatch, responded heroically by resigning in protest. This was a major sacrifice, both in terms of exposure (although the duo hadn’t received as much air time of late) and their personal income. It’s rare to find anyone who has voluntarily walked away from a cable news contributorship.

Whether you want to fight right-wing propaganda, left-wing cancel culture mobs, or even Communist China, preserving the American way of life requires standing up to them, even if (especially if) it could hurt your wallet. Among those who deserve our praise this year for their willingness to put principle before profit is Christian evangelical leader Daniel Darling, who was fired from his job as spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters for the sin of promoting COVID-19 vaccines during media appearances.

It’s rare for individuals to put the interests of others above making tens—or even hundreds—of thousands of dollars. It’s even rarer for multinational corporations and international organizations to give up hundreds of millions (or more). For the first time in recent memory, someone showed some backbone in this area by standing up to China.

I’m speaking of Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). As you may recall, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai leveled charges of sexual assault against a Communist Party official (she retracted them this past week—almost surely under duress). Soon after, her social media posts disappeared, and so did she—save for a video call with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While the IOC carried China’s water, Simon, who harbored “serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” and the WTA suspended its tournaments in China and Hong Kong indefinitely. This was no small thing. According to The Guardian, “The price is significant. It has the potential to cost the WTA what is estimated to be more than $1bn in revenue. It also effectively upends years of investment in building relationships in the Asia-Pacific.”

Another hero when it calling out China is Enes Kanter Freedom, the Boston Celtics player who has repeatedly spoken out about the hypocrisy of Nike and the NBA for virtue-signaling social justice at home, while turning a blind eye to China’s human rights atrocities. Taking a shot at LeBron James in November, Kanter tweeted: “Money over Morals for the ‘King’ Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice They really do ‘shut up & dribble’ when Big Boss [China] says so Did you educate yourself about the slave labor that made your shoes or is that not part of your research?”

In addition to standing up to China, Kanter has been standing up to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of his native Turkey. In 2019, he detailed what doing so has meant for him and his family. And in 2021, Kanter became a U.S. citizen and then added “Freedom” to his name. “America taught me so much. Here, people should feel blessed,” he said. “You’ve got freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of press.”

While Kanter made it to the U.S. and is proving himself to be a valuable citizen, not everyone has been so lucky. Joe Biden’s presidency began to collapse this year after the withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a disaster. And the most shameful part of the saga may be his betrayal of tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked with U.S. forces.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, there are still about 60,000 interpreters and visa applicants in Afghanistan. “About 33,000 Afghans, including principal applicants and their families, have already cleared the more-onerous vetting requirements and could be eligible for immediate evacuation,” writes The Journal. One man who has heroically fought to get them out is Matt Zeller, co-founder of the group No One Left Behind. Zeller, whose life was saved in 2008 by his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, has devoted himself to helping rescue Afghans who helped us, as well as pushing the U.S. government to do the same.

The Real Political Heroes of Another Dumpster Fire Year 3

Matt Zeller with translator Janis Shenwari.

Guillaume Meyer/AFP via Getty

One of my favorite TV clips from 2021 involved Zeller’s blistering critique of a Joe Biden speech on MSNBC. “I feel like I watched a different speech than the rest of you guys,” he told MSNBC’s Brian Williams. But Zeller was far from being a right-wing hack or a one-trick pony. One of his other famous TV takedowns this year was aimed at Trump advisor Stephen Miller. “As far as I’m concerned, he personally is as complicit as the Taliban in these people’s deaths,” he said.

If Biden’s hope of becoming the next FDR or LBJ started to crumble in Afghanistan, the coup de grâce (at least in terms of 2021) came last week, when Sen. Joe Manchin went on Fox News Sunday to put Build Back Better out of its misery.

As a center-right columnist, deciding not to spend trillions (more) on progressive social spending (amid inflation) struck me as the right call. But throughout the year, Manchin and fellow senator Krysten Sinema earned my respect for enduring, and not caving to, immense pressure from their own tribe over a variety of issues, including their refusal to nuke the filibuster. For their apostasy, Manchin was swarmed in a parking garage by activists, and Sinema was followed into a bathroom (thankfully, they waited outside the stall). It wasn’t quite “Hang Mike Pence,” but they still had to face down a mob.

So there you have it. After a year of writing about those who made my “naughty” list, we end with the “nice” list.

A common thread involves standing up to one’s (perceived) tribe—at great cost. I tried to focus on heroes who had a political angle, but this is always a judgment call. So let me add a special thank you to the scientists who gave us a vaccine this year, not to mention the frontline workers who keep everything running.

In any event, I invite you to focus on the heroic, not the villainous, this Christmastime. Be grateful for the men and women who did the right thing this year to help this country stay together. And I thank you for reading my column and being an informed consumer of media. This is especially true if you disagree with my politics.

Here’s to the heroes.