We know this much already: There will be an election next year. People will spend money, eat food, watch (and play) sports, use phone apps and play video games, and countries around the world will engage in diplomacy — and conflict. The details of all those things, as always, will be what make the year interesting. To get a jump on the future, we asked Washington Post beat reporters and columnists to think about the big stories, themes and questions that we’ll look back on this time next December. Here is Outlook’s fourth Year in Preview.
New big streaming services will mean new big hits (and new big bills)
The last few months of 2019 were filled with streaming news. Buckets of it. From the nonstop marketing of Jennifer Aniston in Apple TV Plus’s “The Morning Show” to that ubiquitous Baby Yoda from Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian,” it seemed like the spigot might never turn off.
And it won’t, not anytime soon. This will be a year of new digital programming — and new services to deliver it.
Just two weeks into 2020, Comcast will unveil more details about Peacock, its new service with content from across NBC Universal properties, set to launch several months later. The spring will also bring HBO Max, the prestige-branded service with all manner of TV shows and movies from the WarnerMedia empire. Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, both of which launched in November, will add more content throughout the year, too — as will Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
Viewers will have an ever-wider choice of fresh programming. Want new seasons of fan favorites “Search Party” and “The Boondocks”? They’ll be on HBO Max. It’s the final episodes of “BoJack Horseman” you crave? Where else but Netflix. Looking for “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” to give you a fix between Marvel movies? Disney Plus has you covered.
Finding out when new episodes premiere, let alone whether they’re worth watching, will be a task far more complicated than your Twitter feed can keep up with.
All these services know they need to offer some reliable hits to complement the new stuff. That means many popular sitcoms are migrating from Netflix. “The Office” is headed to Peacock; “Friends” to HBO Max.
And it will all be expensive. Turns out spending sacks of cash on new shows and movies — Netflix alone is expected to shell out in excess of $15 billion in 2020 — isn’t easy without ad revenue. Services have to charge, whether that’s the $5 a month for Apple TV Plus or the $15 for HBO Max. For consumers, that means piling on to a monthly entertainment bill or making tough choices about what to forgo.
But don’t get too despondent. If some of the recent sitcoms you seek are too unwieldy or costly to find on streaming services, there’s a suddenly appealing option: traditional television. Many shows, after all, will continue to air in syndication.
Britain will leave Europe. And then the negotiations will continue.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fresh off an election victory, has vowed to “get Brexit done.” Brexit will probably not be “done” in 2020, but it will — finally — get started.
In January, 3 1/2 years after voting narrowly in favor of Brexit, Britain will officially split from the European Union. Expect a big party and fireworks, but don’t expect a big rupture in relations between London and Brussels. The status quo will largely continue as the country enters an 11-month transition period, during which Britain will attempt to negotiate a trade deal with the E.U., its largest trading partner, as well as come to agreements on issues including security and law enforcement. Analysts think this is a crazy tight timetable, especially if Johnson wants to diverge substantially from E.U. rules. If a deal isn’t completed by the end of the year, it’s possible Johnson could break his pledge and seek to extend the transition period. Alternatively, Britain could crash out of the E.U. without a trade pact, reviving anxieties about an abrupt, chaotic and economically damaging “no-deal” Brexit.
One reason it’s tricky to predict how Johnson will tack in the upcoming negotiations — Does Britain stay closely aligned with the E.U.? Or does it tilt toward less regulation, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher? — is that the prime minister is hard to pin down politically.
But he could be tempted to keep Britain more in lockstep with the E.U., not least because his whopping majority means he won’t be beholden to Euroskeptics in his party anymore. Plus, closer alignment could help with his political problems in Scotland and Northern Ireland: As the reality of Brexit sinks in, nationalist movements could gain momentum outside England, and a closer relationship with the E.U. could help head off those threats.
You will soon taste meat grown in a lab, not on a farm
Plant-based meat was so 2019. Big Beef st(e)aked out territory, demanding legislation that put this interloper on the defensive, mostly in anticipation of what will surely be the food world’s biggest game changer in the year to come: Cell-cultured meat, poultry and seafood products derived from muscle tissue grown in a lab with cells harvested from a living animal.
It is unclear which U.S. company will be first to market — chicken and duck from Memphis Meats in Berkeley, Calif., with investors such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Tyson Foods; Wagyu beef or chicken nuggets from Just (formerly Hampton Creek), whose investors include Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund; or bluefin tuna from Finless Foods — but Barclays analysts say “alt meat” could in the next decade capture 10 percent of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry.
Much of it hinges on rates of adoption. The numbers of vegans and vegetarians aren’t growing much. These new products are geared toward omnivores and “flexitarians,” but as with genetically modified organisms more than a decade ago, some consumers distrust food that has been tinkered with in a laboratory.
As it happens, that will also be an issue with another trend this coming year: grocery store foods that are gene-edited with CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Romaine and white potatoes that don’t brown or bruise, and a gene-edited farmed tilapia that grows quickly, are among the foods improved via tiny DNA snips, essentially accelerating the selection of desirable traits that Gregor Mendel achieved via crossbreeding his peas. Whether consumers will embrace these new foods is unknown. For now, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed overseeing gene-edited animals as drugs, something the meat industry thinks will disadvantage American producers.
Putin will press his advantage in the Middle East
If Russian President Vladimir Putin suspects that President Trump has been irretrievably weakened or distracted — and especially if he thinks Trump will be replaced by a more mainstream alternative — expect him to redouble his efforts to secure a deeper Russian role in the Middle East while he still has a chance.
Russia has been on a roll in the region, with a winning military intervention in Syria; a strengthening of diplomatic and commercial ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel; a mercenary involvement in Libya; and a toe in the waters of the western Mediterranean through joint naval exercises with Algeria. But Moscow’s gains have come through craft, stealth and a large measure of luck, rather than through major-power prowess, and the challenge will be to sustain and build on those achievements.
Potential pitfalls abound. Putin has forged a generally useful working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he may have to start fresh in a post-Netanyahu era, depending on Israel’s third round of elections in March. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been receptive to Russian dealmaking, but neither is a client state of Moscow by any measure. And the real key to Russia’s Middle Eastern success almost certainly depends on its longtime ally Iran, now shaken by violent protests.
In Syria, the Russian military effort has come with little cost and less pain. The real fighting on the ground on behalf of the government of Bashar al-Assad has been carried out by Iran and its Hezbollah allies. But anti-Hezbollah unrest in Lebanon, anti-Iran unrest in Iraq and upheaval on the streets of Iran itself could significantly alter the calculation.
If Iran stumbles, would Putin be forced to bail out Assad, at the risk of getting ensnared in Syria and sparking disquiet at home? Could he continue to avoid a confrontation with Turkey? Would the Saudis be as friendly with Moscow if they thought Iran was distracted by its own troubles? Will the mood shift unpredictably in Washington?
In 2019, Russia demonstrated its agility in the Middle East. The real test may still lie ahead.
Washington will try to lock down Silicon Valley
Very few things unite President Trump and the Democrats vying to take his place in the White House, but both are readying for battle against Big Tech.
Amazon, Facebook, Google and their Silicon Valley peers could face the first major consequences in the coming year from investigations by state and federal regulators into whether they undermine privacy, mishandle sensitive online content, damage elections or quash competition.
Amazon is in the crosshairs for the tactics it’s used to dominate e-commerce, Facebook for the way it gobbles up users’ data (and its corporate rivals) and Google for its dominance of the online ad business. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Attorney General William P. Barr has said the Justice Department plans to wrap up its wide-ranging look at search, social media and online shopping in 2020. That could result in calls for new regulations and potentially punishments — the most extreme being an attempt to break up one or more companies.
The House Judiciary Committee spent 2019 demanding internal documents from Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. In 2020, it’s expected to issue a report on whether the industry has, in effect, subverted federal antitrust protections. And if Trump loses the White House, the pressure will mount: Democratic contenders, especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), have promised to unwind some of the mergers that helped the giants become so big in the first place, such as Facebook’s purchases of the photo-sharing app Instagram and the messaging platform WhatsApp.
Internet companies spent $55 million over the first nine months of this year to lobby Washington, and they’ll throw more political weight around as the threat grows. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hinted about a fierce counteroffensive in a talk with employees last summer. “At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight,” he said. That fight is about to intensify.
It’s finally safe to believe here in the District of Champions
Whatever awaits the rest of the country, not to mention “official Washington,” in 2020, our little sports town occupies a fundamentally different space than it did just 20 months ago. Then, the default setting was dread. The expectation was not just for a loss, but a loss that would come in the most excruciating manner imaginable. How will I be kicked in the stomach today?
Now? This is new territory, with pain replaced by possibility. Think about how the following sentences would have sounded in, say, December 2017: “The Capitals are good. Really good. They might be the best team in hockey. They could definitely win the Stanley Cup.” “The Nationals should be good. Really good. One more offseason move, and they could be favored for a division championship. If things break right, maybe they could win the World Series.”
Two years ago, that would have seemed outlandish and preposterous. Now, it sounds reasonable. Because it actually happened.
While basketball’s Wizards might not be where hockey’s Capitals and baseball’s Nationals are at the moment — expecting to contend — the environment is such that their rebuilding project seems less laborious and more fun. A slow simmer of anger about another losing season is replaced by the joy of finding hope for the future. Plus, the Mystics won the WNBA title in 2019. We know winning basketball here!
It must be noted that the football team exists in a different reality, separate from the rest. It’s as if the expectations for Washington sports have been turned around — with the football team left behind. What awaits that outfit in 2020 — a new coach, for sure, and perhaps even new leadership above him — will be monitored closely. But the fans who have fled the football team have other places to land.
There’s no way to tell what will happen with Washington sports in the year ahead. What we know, though, is that the reality has finally met the expectations, and that completely alters what we believe is possible.
A fragile boom keeps going and going
Although risks remain, the U.S. economy appears unlikely to fall into a recession in 2020. Another year of decent growth will probably make it easier for even more Americans to find jobs — and boost President Trump’s chances of reelection. And the trade wars that dominated economic discussion in 2019 seem to be over, at least for now.
Growth is expected to be 1.8 percent next year, according to a closely watched survey of economists. That’s far from the boom that Trump promised and slower than this year’s pace of about 2.2 percent and last year’s rate of 2.9 percent — but the president and the Federal Reserve may have it in their power to nudge the figure upward.
Trump just reached trade agreements with China, Canada and Mexico. The deals are more modest than what he vowed he could achieve, but they signal that he is hitting pause on his trade battles, a welcome relief for Wall Street investors and many business leaders. Although consumers continue to spend at a healthy clip, companies had dramatically scaled back purchases this year because of the trade uncertainty. If Trump keeps the peace on trade, business spending could resume.
Economists and investors also expect the Fed to lower rates at least once more in 2020, providing another boost. Three rate cuts by the Fed in 2019 were a major reason the stock market hit record highs and recession fears abated.
Although unemployment is at a 50-year low, the position of the middle class remains precarious. Jobs that pay middle-income wages are increasingly going away, replaced by positions paying over $100,000 or under $30,000. That socially destabilizing phenomenon will be a focus of the presidential race.
Economists, meanwhile, are also keeping a vigilant eye on robots — because firms typically accelerate the automation of jobs done by temporary and low-skilled workers in the months leading up to a significant downturn.
But the general expectation is that the longest expansion in U.S. history, which began in mid-2009, will last at least one more year.
No one will stay canceled for good
We’ve had a full year of hand-wringing over “cancel culture,” particularly as it relates to comedians. Shane Gillis, for example, hired and then fired by “Saturday Night Live” for racist language on podcasts, was denounced on social media by celebrities — and also defended by famous comedians.
But 2020 may be the year when we learn that no one is canceled forever.
The controversies will continue, yes. The society-wide reckoning with sexual harassment and assault won’t abate. There will be more denounced jokes; comedy, more than most art forms, ages terribly. Norms and tastes rapidly evolve. More performers will come under fire for past or recent statements, jokes, offstage behavior or allegations of sexual misconduct.
“Getting canceled,” though, means suffering professional and personal consequences, not being permanently silenced.
Look at Aziz Ansari, who was embroiled in controversy in 2018 after Babe.net published an anonymous accusation of sexual impropriety (Ansari said that the interaction “by all indications was completely consensual”). He retreated from the limelight for a while, but then he returned to stand-up, doing small shows to work out material before hitting the road to perform in packed theaters. He even addressed the allegation in an acclaimed Netflix special.
Louis C.K., who admitted to sexual misconduct after the New York Times published allegations from five women, lost his manager, publicist and all of the cultural cachet he had built up in his career. But he had a massive email list pre-scandal, and he can still promote himself to his diehard fans, the ones most likely to have remained as subscribers. C.K. is still performing, and as he announced to his list, he has several club and theater gigs in the United States and abroad in 2020.
Corporate entities putting together TV shows and movies will remain skittish about backing performers accused of problematic behavior, or ones criticized for offensive material. But there will still be audiences willing to watch.
Protests won’t stop. Neither will government crackdowns.
The motives of the millions who took to the streets in Santiago, La Paz, Algiers and Basra were as varied as their geography. But the demonstrators were united in what has become an epochal display of global discontent, an explosion of popular unrest that capped a decade of angst and anger. When they weren’t clamoring for greater freedoms and democracy, protesters were marching against corruption, inequality and state brutality. In their wake, presidents fled, prime ministers resigned and governments fell.
And the movements that flared in 2019 aren’t about to peter out.
Across Latin America, a creaking social contract seems on the verge of collapse: In Chile, widely viewed as one of South America’s most stable societies, weeks of protests against austerity measures compelled the center-right president to shuffle his cabinet and announce reforms. But protesters remain on the streets, demanding a wholesale remaking of the socioeconomic order. Demonstrators in Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina and Haiti echoed the call for economic justice. An uprising in Bolivia chased out a long-ruling leftist president, while autocrats in Venezuela and Nicaragua cling to power despite popular challenges. More polarization, paralysis and violence may follow.
That’s all the more on view in the Arab world, where a stunning wave of protests unseated leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. But an entrenched and often corrupt old guard is desperately trying to stay in control. In Iraq, security forces and pro-Iran militias have killed about 500 people and are preparing for a deeper crackdown.
Iran hasn’t been spared, either. In November, authorities cut off Internet access and killed potentially hundreds to quash protests that erupted after a rise in fuel prices. As Iran’s theocratic regime enters its fifth decade, a tanking economy and widespread public anger over political elites’ mismanagement and corruption only add to the sense of a brewing existential crisis.
In Hong Kong, a sustained pro-democracy movement remains grimly determined, defying the authoritarian leadership in Beijing and its local proxies. China has no intention of acceding to protesters’ demands, though, and 2020 could mark a bloody tipping point for Asia’s financial capital.
President Trump, known more for his coziness with autocrats than commitment to democracy struggles abroad, has been conspicuously silent about most of these displays of people power. But only in a few instances — Hong Kong’s American-flag-waving youth come to mind — are any of these movements explicitly calling for U.S. support. The immediacy of social media still allows us to bear witness and hold repressive governments to account. There will be plenty to watch in the year to come.
The White House
President Trump knows you don’t like him. He doesn’t care.
President Trump has begun admitting what polls have shown for three years: Many, many people hate him. And he’s okay with that.
“You don’t like me. You have no choice but to vote for me,” he told Wall Street bankers last month. “You’re … not nice people at all, but you have to vote for me,” he said to a room of Jewish supporters in December. “You have no choice … you’re not going to vote for the wealth tax!”
It is a rare admission from a politician. But it’s key to a campaign strategy built around an awareness that Trump’s favorability — even before he was impeached by the House — is near record lows and that he won’t stop tweeting, offering bombast and insults, saying things that aren’t true, or making polarizing decisions. So Trump’s advisers are leaning in.
“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy,” said the narrator in a $1 million-plus ad that ran during the World Series, highlighting some of the president’s accomplishments while admitting that voters might not like him. “But sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”
The idea is to talk more about his record and less about his personality — while slashing and burning Democratic opponents. At a briefing with reporters in mid-December, campaign manager Brad Parscale and senior adviser Jared Kushner showed data from 2016 indicating that people who said they disapproved of Trump still voted for him. They said many people don’t want to publicly admit that they back Trump, but they ultimately will. Their targets are primarily suburban women and independents.
Essentially, Trump’s bet is: If your paycheck is better, and we can make you hate the other candidate, you will vote for the president, even if you find him detestable.
The campaign expects to send surrogates who are less bombastic, such as Ivanka Trump, into areas where suburban women might be persuaded to vote for him.
Officials point to statistics that cut in the president’s favor. For example, a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 57 percent of voters nationally say they are better off than before Trump’s presidency. He regularly scores high marks on the economy, which has continued to improve.
That same poll, though, found Trump losing to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. And his approval ratings are mired below 50 percent.
But to Trump’s team, that’s no reason for panic: On Election Day in 2016, 61 percent of the country rated Trump unfavorably. Now he’s running for a second term.
The newest celebrities will play video games
With $152 billion in revenue expected in 2019, gaming has become the dominant entertainment medium of the past decade. And if gaming is this century’s rock-and-roll, its biggest personalities are becoming a new class of rock stars.
These celebrities are much closer to the irreverence of rock and rap icons than any of the Hollywood guard: They’re younger, have little interest in social filters and are mostly unimpressed by the lingering sheen of 20th-century stardom. But they’re still causing “utter destruction” in hotel rooms across the world, like the famous troublemakers who came before them.
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the most visible such star recently, has been at the forefront, with an unprecedented exclusive contract with Microsoft’s Mixer streaming platform. Others have followed suit, signing lucrative (and secretive) contracts. PewDiePie, arguably the most powerful person on the Internet, hit two milestones in 2019: becoming the first YouTuber to accumulate 100 million subscribers and marrying his longtime girlfriend, Marzia, in a royal wedding for the meme generation. And Dr. Disrespect, who brings the pomp and panache of pro wrestling to Twitch, just signed a TV deal, another first for a pro gamer.
Besides building careers as gamers, they also share brushes with controversy — which may have been inevitable, given the challenges of communicating to an always-online, always-posting, always-angry audience. Celebrities have had to watch what they say for generations. But gamers grew up with social media, which often rewards the loudest in the room, no matter what.
All signs point to a messy integration between the populist media darlings of Gen Z and the existing power structure for politically correct pop. Ready or not, this clash of cultures is looming — and Player One is determined to win the game at any cost.
The Supreme Court
Impeachment will land squarely on the chief justice
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist added the famous Gilbert-and-Sullivan-inspired gold stripes to his black robe long before he wielded the gavel at President Bill Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial in 1999.
But he did borrow from the operetta “Iolanthe” in describing his role at the trial: “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well,” he told a television interviewer two years later.
Now on deck: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The man who made judge-as-umpire his credo during his confirmation hearing would be only the third chief justice to preside at a presidential impeachment trial. It would also be the first trial of any kind where the lawyer turned appellate judge has been in charge.
Roberts was a law clerk to Rehnquist and shares with his predecessor the goal — perhaps only aspirational, probably unobtainable — of convincing the public that he and his fellow justices are impartial to outcomes and immune to partisan influence and bias.
Although the Supreme Court itself has no formal role in President Trump’s impeachment, Trump has, perhaps wishfully, imagined that it might. He tweeted this month: “Shouldn’t even be allowed. Can we go to Supreme Court to stop?” Trump has also asked the court to protect his financial records from prosecutors and members of Congress, separate from impeachment; the justices will review that question in the spring.
But it is the chief justice, usually just one of nine, who by constitutional design plays the lone judicial role in presidential impeachment.
Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a student of history and the Constitution. Rehnquist wrote a book on impeachment; those who’ve studied the Clinton trial say he was reluctant to make broad rulings that could be overruled by a simple majority of senators. He left it to lawmakers to work out details over motions and witnesses. Roberts, who has chided Trump for suggesting that judges’ views are more political bias than studied reasoning, will be looking to preserve his own reputation in a process that by design is more political than legal.
The billionaires are coming
Call it influence inflation: Back when Bill Clinton was president, $100,000 was enough to get a political donor invited to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom. These days, top political benefactors dole out $100 million or more to elect favored candidates. The amount of money spent on presidential campaigns by independent groups rose from almost $129 million in 2008 to nearly $670 million in 2016, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. And essential functions like collecting and analyzing voter data, voter registration drives and spending on political ads are increasingly funded by America’s 607 billionaires, outside the direct control of politicians or parties. (One of the richest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post, and in the 2018 cycle, donated $10.1 million to a super PAC supporting military veterans running for office, as well as $52,400 to five other federal PACs and campaigns, according to public records.)
Next year will set new records, reaffirming the second coming of a gilded age for political money. What Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West calls the “wealthification” of American politics is changing the players as well as the game. Two Democratic billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, are self-funding presidential campaigns to dethrone the billionaire president, Donald Trump (and to replace his Cabinet, the wealthiest in modern history, including billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos). A co-chair of the Republican National Committee, Thomas Hicks Jr., is the son of one of the country’s wealthiest families, as is the party’s finance chairman, Todd Ricketts, while Linda McMahon, a former head of the Small Business Administration whose husband is a billionaire, chairs the top pro-Trump super PAC.
Polls have shown for years that strong majorities of voters think there is too much money in politics. But that hasn’t changed the bottom line: The exceedingly wealthy increasingly fund the political world. You just vote in it.