1. Andrew Jackson
The biggest winner of 2016 has been dead for 171 years. Old Hickory’s legacy of American populism is one of the most powerful forces in national politics. When properly harnessed, it wins wars by facing down America’s enemies with unrelenting ruthlessness. Jacksonian populists are threat-motivated at home too, and in 2016 they carried Donald Trump to victory on the back of anger about immigration, economic competition with Mexico and China, and Islamism. The establishments of both major political parties were caught completely off-guard.
The establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians, but the most effective politicians are able to earn their support. President Reagan impressed Jacksonians by being tough on the Soviet Union. President Clinton was tough on crime and presided over a substantial decline in murders and robberies.
The last two American presidents have badly mismanaged their Jacksonian messaging. In President Bush’s case, the failure of coalition forces to find the weapons of mass destruction the administration presented as justifying the need for war undercut Bush’s Jacksonian support. Worse was the bait-and-switch rationale the administration offered in place of WMD: building democracy in Iraq. Jacksonians like democracy, but they generally don’t think this can or should be accomplished with US troops.
President Obama never did well with Jacksonians — nor did he show much sign of wanting to. His remark during the 2008 primary about Americans who “cling” to religion and guns betrayed a disgust with Jacksonian America that President Obama has done little to hide while in office. His indifferent response to terrorism and amnesty for illegal immigrants confirmed Jacksonian suspicions. Meanwhile, Democratic pronouncements about how the multicultural Obama political coalition was rendering white America politically impotent sounded to Jacksonians as nothing less than a declaration of war on them and on their values. In 2016, they retaliated by putting the rawest Jacksonian in the White House since Old Hickory himself.
2. Samuel Huntington
More than perhaps any other intellectual, the theories of this titan of political science (and American Interest founding board member) were supported by the electoral upheaval and geopolitical tumult of this extraordinary year. Huntington is most famous for arguing in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that the post-Cold War world would not be defined by the universalization of liberal values but by ethnic frictions within nations and civilizational clashes between them (the most volatile fault lines, he said, were between the West and Islam and the West and China). Even more prescient, at least as far as the United States is concerned, was Huntington’s 2004 book, Who Are We?, which described “nationalism versus cosmopolitanism” as the central dividing line in American politics, with immigration as its focal point.
Huntington identified two forms of cosmopolitanism—neoconservatism, popular on the right, which promised to bring America’s values to the world, and multiculturalism, popular on the left, which promised to bring the world’s values to America—both of which he attacked as destructive and unsustainable. The 2016 election campaign was one long demonstration of how right Huntington was, and how blind were his liberal and neoconservative critics who had no idea of the forces building in American politics. And though the standard bearer for America’s new right-wing nationalism would surely have alarmed him, Huntington, were he alive today, could legitimately say that he saw something like this coming.
One year ago, American shale firms were reeling from bargain oil prices. Output was down 360,000 barrels per day as companies were forced to close their least productive and most expensive wells, and production would continue to decline through August. But this fall wasn’t anomalous—producers around the world struggled to cope with prices less than half of what they were two years ago—and it wasn’t nearly as steep as many analysts predicted, thanks to the diligent work and clever innovations of shale companies that found a way to keep (most of) the crude flowing in a bearish market. U.S. frackers got a helping hand from OPEC this fall when the cartel agreed to cut output along with other petrostates to inflate prices. With oil back above $50 per barrel, shale production is kicking into a higher gear again, and American output has jumped more than 300,000 barrels per day since that August nadir. Shale producers are now ready to write another chapter of their extraordinary success story in 2017.
4. Benjamin Netanyahu
After winning re-election last year, Israel’s Prime Minister continued his winning streak in 2016 as he marginalized the Palestinian agenda, courted strange bedfellows across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, pushed Barack Obama offstage, and defied his critics. As the Palestinian issue faded from international attention in the face of more pressing crises, Netanyahu continued to create favorable facts on the ground and make shrewd diplomatic overtures that improved Israel’s international standing. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu’s policies, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he has been remarkably successful in pursuing them.
Consider the extent of Netanyahu’s diplomatic successes this year. With India, Netanyahu helped close a $3 billion weapons deal, another building block in a relationship that has been warming since Narendra Modi took office. In Egypt, Netanyahu proved his usefulness by cooperating in the fight against ISIS in the northern Sinai, as part of the strongest Israeli-Egyptian military cooperation since 1979. Taking advantage of a shared anxiety over Iran, Netanyahu has quietly increased behind-the-scenes cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers that officially have no diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. He has also deftly courted new allies in sub-Saharan Africa, pursued far-reaching trade talks with China and Japan and improved relations with Turkey.
As Europe has grown ever more hostile to Israel and the U.S. has withdrawn from the Middle East, Netanyahu has smartly diversified Israel’s foreign policy and sought new relationships wherever he may find them. As we wrote in September, Bibi has proven himself a much more capable realist than Barack, quietly forging relationships on the basis of pragmatic interests and a shared understanding of mutual threats while credibly backing up his red lines.
Of course, Netanyahu’s diplomacy has not changed the deep-seated international opposition to his Palestine policy; by abstaining on the recent UN vote on Israel, the United States officially joined the chorus of countries deriding his settlement policy. But that symbolic vote cannot mask the Palestinians’ political weaknesses, any more than it can erase Netanyahu’s remarkable strengthening of Israel’s position. And with Donald Trump entering the White House in January, Netanyahu can look forward to a much less fractious relationship with Washington over the next four years.
Triumphant abroad, Netanyahu still faces challenges at home, notably a criminal investigation based on charges of bribery and fraud. The feisty Prime Minister denies all wrongdoing, but the Psalmist still seems to have the last word: He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. (Ps. 121:4)
5. Peter Thiel
The idiosyncratic billionaire Silicon Valley investor got his start in politics as a college undergraduate when he founded the Stanford Review, a right-wing journal dedicated to waging a scorched-earth campaign against campus political correctness and multiculturalism. Almost three decades later—after speaking at the Republican National Convention and taking on an influential role on the Donald Trump transition team—Peter Thiel has won a direct line to a president who made his way into office by placing many of Thiel’s themes at the heart of a national populist campaign.
Thiel’s politics have always made him unpopular in liberal Silicon Valley, and his dogged Trump advocacy certainly did not improve his standing before November 9. Today, he is indispensable as never before—one of the only points of contact with the Trump Administration for an industry that fears and hates the President but is increasingly affected by federal government policy and would prefer not to antagonize him. And all this took place against the backdrop of another high-profile triumph that horrified swathes of the American tech and media elite: Thiel was revealed in the Spring to have been paying for a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker, the snarky, crusading social justice site that had outed him as a gay man several years ago.
As a cerebral undergraduate dedicated to fighting the identity left, Thiel was able to make a ruckus but scored few tangible victories. These days, titans of industry and important world leaders want to get on his good side.
6. Bashar al-Assad
Five years after President Obama first declared that “Assad must go,” Syria’s dictator shows no signs of heeding that call. The past year gave Assad little reason to reconsider, as he continued to brutally reconsolidate his regime’s hold over rebel-held territory, with the prominent help of Russia and Iran. The recapture of Syria’s largest urban opposition stronghold, Aleppo, was a fitting capstone to a year that saw Assad decisively turn the tide, as Russia emerged as the major power broker in the Middle East and the United States chased futile ceasefire agreements.
Assad enters 2017 with an improved position, not only on the battlefield but in the larger political talks that will ultimately determine his fate. The United States has for now been effectively sidelined in the Syria peace talks, leaving Russia, Turkey, and Iran to hash out a settlement that is likely to provide some leadership role for Assad in an eventual transition. In the meantime, Assad will move to consolidate his control over the remaining rebel-held patches in western Syria. President Obama and Ambassador Power weep crocodile tears over the fate of Aleppo, but 2016 was among other things the year in which Bashar al-Assad continued to prove that, despite the world’s outrage, he could not only get away with murder but emerge all the stronger for it.