2017: Looking back on a year that made no sense at all

Remember the Mooch? Remember how he turned up at the White House - shiny aviator sunglasses, shiny hair, shiny suit - and took over as spokesman from Sean Spicer? (Does anyone even remember poor old Spicy? Or do they just get an image of Melissa McCarthy in a giant suit?)

Anyway, Anthony Scaramucci, a man with no experience in either politics or communications, began his duties as one of the most prominent political communicators on Earth on July 25, though his official start date was not to have been until August 15. Having perhaps had time to unpack his office, he then placed an unbidden call to a leading political journalist and unleashed a rant so foul and incoherent that even US President Donald Trump blanched. He was sacked on July 31, a fortnight before he began. (The reporter he called, Ryan Lizza, has since been sacked too, for "improper sexual conduct". It's been a long year.)

Today the Mooch is back in Manhattan, cashed up with Goldman Sachs loot, working on a book about his time in government. Seriously.

I bring up Scaramucci not because he held an important role in public affairs over the past year - he was wind passed in a hurricane - but because his was an emblematic one. Scaramucci was as shameless as he was unqualified, as incompetent as he was profane. He appeared out of nowhere for no apparent reason and he made no sense at all. He left in his wake only vague sense of discomfort and dismay and the echoes of his boasting.

He was 2017 in human form.

Much of the ugliness of the year just passed had its roots in 2016 or before, and much of the bad behaviour we will always associate with 2017 was revealed rather than executed this year.

It was a year of ugly behaviour not only conducted in public life, but endorsed by the prevailing political culture. Standards of personal propriety and professional pride were relaxed, if not quietly ushered out the side door and plugged in the back of the head. At times it got very weird, and this brings us back to Spicer.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer answers questions during his first briefing in the White House.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer answers questions during his first briefing in the White House. Photo: New York Times

The day after Donald Trump was inaugurated on Friday, January 20, Spicer called his first White House press briefing, two days earlier than planned. Spicer was furious. He accused the press of deliberately underestimating the size of the inaugural crowd - about a third the size of Obama's first inauguration - in its reporting the previous day in order to "lessen the enthusiasm" for the President. This had been "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe", and he accused the media of reporting false crowd estimates.

That this was obviously untrue to anyone who attended the event, or watched it on TV, or compared photographs of the event to previous inaugurations, or considered the crowd estimates of local police and public transport officials did not matter.

During the Trump administration truth would no longer be tethered to any mooring in reality, it would be a declaration of political intent and tribalism. A few days later Spicer's colleague Kellyanne Conway confirmed this when she defended Spicer during a live interview, saying he had not been lying, simply offering "alternative facts".

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on January 20 in Washington.

Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on January 20 in Washington. Photo: AP

Lacking the White House's keen sense of the post-modern absurd, much of the press corps set about keeping a tally of Trump's lies. According to The New York Times by mid-December he had told 103 "lies or falsehoods" compared with 18 during the same period for Barack Obama. The Washington Post was far testier, measuring 1628 false or misleading statements in the year to mid-November.

The 'Pharma Bro'

Clearly the tone of the Trump administration had been set the previous year as he campaigned. One man particularly well-adapted to the new ways was Martin Shkreli. Known in the US as the Pharma Bro, Shkreli became a public figure in 2015 when his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, purchased the rights to a crucial HIV drug, Daraprim, and jacked up the price by 5000 per cent from $US13.50 to $US750 per tablet. Shkreli spent some of his new wealth buying unreleased recordings by bands including the Wu-Tang Clan. As Trump closed in on victory last year, Shkreli announced via Twitter he would celebrate Trump's win by releasing the unpublished copyrighted music for free.

Martin Shkreli became known in the US as the Pharma Bro.

Martin Shkreli became known in the US as the Pharma Bro. Photo: Bloomberg

His comeuppance finally came in June 2017, when he faced a trial for securities fraud. For days the court struggled to lock in a jury because, it turned out, so many people hated him.

Harpers Magazine published excerpts of the selection process:

Juror No. 1: I'm aware of the defendant and I hate him ... I think he's a greedy little man.
Juror No.52: When I walked in here today I looked at him, and in my head, that's a snake - not knowing who he was. I just walked in and looked right at him and that's a snake."
Juror No.28: Is he stupid or greedy? I can't understand.
Juror No.144: I don't think I can [be open-minded] because he kind of looks like a dick.
Juror No.77: You'd have to convince me he was innocent rather than guilty.
Juror No.125: I already sense the man is guilty.
Juror No.59: It's my attitude toward his entire demeanour, what he has done to people.
The court: All right. We are going to excuse you, sir.
Juror No.59: And he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.

Shkreli was eventually convicted and released on bail pending sentencing, which was revoked when he offered, via Facebook, $5000 to anyone who could bring him a strand of Hillary Clinton's hair. He is now in jail.

Celebrities and politics collide

There were moments this year when pop culture collided with news in ways that would have previously been unimaginable.

During the US election campaign, Julian Assange's special loathing for Clinton became clear with his own public statements, as did apparent ties between WikiLeaks and Russia and Trump. Nigel Farage, the right-wing Brexit campaigner, paraded around Trump's nomination convention in Cleveland as a VIP guest, only to beat a path straight to Assange's spider-hole in the Ecuadorian Embassy the moment he returned to Britain.

The Trump adviser Roger Stone, who maintains close ties to both his own Russian contacts and the Trump campaign, was able to foreshadow anti-Hillary document drops from WikiLeaks, documents which appeared to come from Russian hacking of Democratic Party computer files. Minutes after The Washington Post released video tape of Trump boasting how he liked to "grab" women "by the pussy", Assange was at work releasing documents damaging to the Clinton campaign.

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Photo: AP

But it took Pamela Anderson's appearance to give an already weird story the full 2017 treatment.

Rumours of a romance between Assange and Anderson bubbled around early in the year, and in April Anderson published a poem on her blog about their special relationship. In an exhaustive profile of Assange published in August, a writer for The New Yorker describes how one of his interviews with Assange in the embassy was interrupted at length by a visit from Anderson. He listened through the door as Assange lectured her.

"Hours go by, and I take a lot of notes," she later told the interviewer of their conversations.

By then the barriers between political and celebrity culture in the US that had been eroding for years had finally collapsed and the following month Anderson's former husband, the country-rap star Kid Rock, made his first speech in support of a potential bid for a Michigan Senate seat.

He noted that "God has blessed me and made my pockets fat", but argued that "a redistribution of wealth seems more like [the Democratic Party's] plan, and I don't believe that you should say, 'Sacrifice, do things by the book, and then have to take care of some deadbeat milking the system, lazy ass motherf---ing man.'"

Crunching the numbers, few political analysts were willing to rule Mr Rock out as a viable candidate and a couple of Republican political action committees said they would support him.

Last month he said the whole thing had been a stunt, as though that makes any difference these days.

Race relations

By August some of the only stable themes of the year were clear. Trump was the most unpopular new president in modern history, having failed to either wedge the Democrats with the infrastructure spending bill or reward Republican loyalty by destroying Obamacare as promised.

But he had maintained the support of his nationalistic base, including the majority of Republican voters. He kept the faith of the former even when a gathering of far right-wing activists groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, descended into violent mayhem, leading to the murder of Heather Heyer, a protester against the rallying racists.

A white supremacist gives a Nazi salute in Charlottesville.

A white supremacist gives a Nazi salute in Charlottesville. Photo: New York Times

In normal circumstances the political playbook here was clear. A president would unequivocally condemn the group that had been filmed chanting "Sieg Heil" and "blood and soil" and offer the nation's condolences to Heyer's grieving family. Instead in the hours after her death on Saturday, August 12, Trump found an equivalence between the groups of protesters, declaring: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

This language was reported to have originated with Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart boss who had harnessed the political power of nationalism and hitched it to Trump's wagon early in the presidential campaign. Trump stood by his comments days later, telling reporters: "You also had some very fine people on both sides." And in a peculiarly 2017 twist he went on to plug a local vineyard that he owned. "I know a lot about Charlottesville," he said. "It's a great place that has been badly hurt over the last couple days. I own one of the largest wineries in the United States. It is in Charlottesville."

The virtue of wealth

Trump's administration has been good to people who own lots of things, a point his chief consiglieres have not been shy about celebrating. Even before the GOP passed a tax bill with specific goodies for the owners of private jets and billionaires seeking to hand off their wealth to heirs unmolested by the state. Through the year Trump's treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, diligently signalled how seriously the administration took the virtue of wealth.

US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton hold a sheet of $1 dollar notes bearing Mnuchin's name.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton hold a sheet of $1 notes bearing Mnuchin's name. Photo: Bloomberg

Mnuchin had come up through Goldman Sachs, but during the great financial crisis of 2008 he had beat a path of his own, foreclosing on 36,000 over-leveraged property owners who had borrowed from his California-based residential lender IndyMac. By the time Trump appointed him to cabinet to help him "drain the swamp" of Wall Street and DC corruption, Mnuchin had amassed a fortune of $US300 million. Nevertheless, he has been notably parsimonious in office, spending $25,000 of public money per hour on private jet flights to Paris for his honeymoon in June, and on a trip to Kentucky with his new wife, Louise Linton, to view a total eclipse of the sun in September.

Through it all the Democratic Party waited on the sidelines as though expecting that Trump's support among the party that elected him would collapse of its own volition. It never did. The depth of the partisanship that facilitated Trump's takeover of the Republican Party was rendered clear for all to see during Roy Moore's Senate race in Alabama. After Trump appointed Jeff Sessions to be US Attorney-General, a Senate seat had opened up in one of the most Republican states in the Union. Moore, the state attorney-general, wanted it badly, and Bannon, who has since quit his official role in the White House, wanted him to have it.

Moore was a Christian hardliner, the sort of man who was made for Bannon's project of blowing up the establishment. He had twice been removed from office - once because he refused to remove a tablet of the Ten Commandments he had installed in his court house, once for refusing to acknowledge the Supreme Court's recognition of gay marriage.

During his Senate campaign it was revealed that Moore had also once been banned from visiting a local mall due to his habit of accosting and propositioning teenage girls. As he ran for office, nine women came forward with allegations about his behaviour.

Despite all this, Trump - who faces sexual harassment and/or assault allegations from 19 women - stood by Moore, as did the Republican Party and evangelical Christian groups.

Moore suffered a narrow defeat earlier this month and continues to dispute the result.

Upending the social order

A look at Alabama's exit polls confirms something significant about this dark, odd year. Trump's first serious electoral loss was inflicted by women, two-thirds of whom voted against Moore. This made sense. In January it had been the vast rallies of women around America - and the world - against Trump the day after his inauguration that had prompted Spicer's tantrum at the White House.

And since October it has been women who have upended the standing social order with revelations of sexual harassment. It began with a story in The New York Times about the relentless abuse of women by the most powerful man in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein, but since then the #metoo movement, or variants of it, have spread around the world, serving as both an assertion of basic human rights and a kind of proxy war against Trumpism.

The sexual harrassment allegations involving movie mogul Harvey Weinstein supercharged the MeToo movement.

The sexual harassment allegations involving movie mogul Harvey Weinstein supercharged the MeToo movement. Photo: AP

Through October, November and December the revelations kept coming. It wasn't just the extent of the behaviour that was being revealed that shocked, but the kinds of behaviour. Weinstein grabbed and groped, harassed and terrorised. He stands accused of rape. But the journalist Lauren Sivan also reports that after she refused Weinstein's advances he blocked her exit from a deserted restaurant and masturbated into a potted plant in front of her. This method of abuse is apparently not unique to Weinstein either. The comedian Louis CK has confessed to similar behaviour in his abuse of women. The po-faced business magazine Forbes was reduced to running an article entitled "Why Would High-Powered Men Masturbate in Front of Women".

By the end of the year just keeping abreast of the news seemed to inflict a kind of psychic tachycardia. On November 29 the online magazine Slate published a blog post entitled, "Today Has Been Harrowing, but at Least It's Friday".

The piece, which was published on a Wednesday, simply listed some of the day's breaking stories. The star anchor of NBC's Today show, Matt Lauer, and the beloved NPR variety host, Garrison Keillor, had been sacked for sexual misconduct; Trump had promoted via Twitter a false video being spread by a British neo-Nazi group; North Korea had revealed it had a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to most of the continental United States; a former Bosnian-Croat general convicted of war crimes had killed himself by drinking poison before cameras during a court appearance in The Hague; and the organiser of the Charlottesville rally had announced he would mark the anniversary of Heather Heyer's murder with another far-right rally.

So we have that to look forward to.

This story 2017: Looking back on a year that made no sense at all first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.