Donald Trump was, to be sure, the culmination of political trends dating back half a century. But he was also a figure completely unprecedented in our political history; it is that unique figure that I take stock of here.
I begin by giving credit for his most positive achievement: Operation Warp Speed. This program to radically speed the development of a Coronavirus vaccine was successful in cutting the development time from years to months. What is perhaps most remarkable, given Trump’s track record of pressuring scientists and casting doubt on science, is that he refrained from interfering, mostly.
There are other areas that are not so positive, but at least show consistency. He expressed skepticism about our military involvements abroad, and vowing to bring the troops home. Against substantial resistance from the foreign policy Establishment, he has ordered troop withdrawals from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, and has initiated no new foreign military commitments. Whether this “America First” foreign and defense policy will make us more or less secure is very much subject to debate.
He also pledged to reduce government regulation of the economy and ecology, and he has followed through with that. The result is that big corporations are subject to much weaker environmental regulations, and are much freer to make big profits without the government looking over their shoulder. Many Republicans who deplore Trump’s boorishness, still support him because of policies like these.
Of course, he pledged a major tax cut, and that was his biggest legislative achievement. That it largely benefited the top one percent of taxpayers hasn’t stopped him from bragging about it.
Finally, Trump has had phenomenal success in building a solid base of a third or more of the electorate, who are loyal to the point of accepting every lie and threatening any Republican who does not. His tie with his base is mystical and deeply personal: it is classic charismatic leadership.
Taking a page from Trump’s rhetorical style, no other president has lied so much, lying even when he might have done better by telling the truth.
So much for credit where credit is due.
The bill of indictments is long.
Taking a page from Trump’s rhetorical style, no other president has lied so much, lying even when he might have done better by telling the truth. Over 20,000 documented lies in less than four years demolishes the previous record, probably held by Richard Nixon.
Trump does not know how to bring the country together or to be a leader for everyone. He only knows how to gain politically from dividing people and demonizing his opponents. We have seen this failure of leadership on race, climate, and the pandemic. Given multiple opportunities to acknowledge the justice of protests against racism in American society, he could never resist encouraging White Nationalists and White Supremacists instead.
Faced with a deep and broad scientific consensus on the real and urgent threat posed by human-induced climate change, Trump flatly denied it and pointedly pursued policies that worsen the problem.
Most egregiously, faced with the worst global pandemic in a century, Trump questioned the science, downplayed the risk, and refused to exercise the leadership that could have blunted the outbreak and prevented millions of cases and thousands of deaths. Never did he make any recommendations to Congress about what policies they should adopt. Never did he speak frankly to the American people about how serious it was, or how important it was to take elementary steps like wearing masks. Instead, he consistently displayed himself as not wearing a mask, thereby encouraging his followers to do likewise.
He was compulsively contrarian: try to tell him the truth, or what he must do, and he would invariably deny and defy.
Paradoxically for a president who was skeptical of foreign military engagement, his foreign policy was reckless. He seemed to relish undercutting traditional allies while developing warm relations with quasi-democratic autocrats like Putin, Modi, or Erdogan. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which was working, opening the way for the Iranians to restart uranium enrichment prerequisite to developing nuclear weapons. His summit diplomacy with North Korea left that country with a more advanced nuclear weapons program than it had before.
His hostility to Latin American immigrants was one of the most prominent features of his administration. The brutal separation of children from their parents, without keeping adequate records of the parents’ whereabouts, amounts to the sort of crime against humanity for which national leaders of other countries get put on trial in the International Criminal Court.
His approach to America’s democratic institutions can be characterized as “Fascism Lite.” He shared with the classic fascists like Mussolini and Hitler a contempt for rationality and scientific method, and for the sort of civil discourse and honest electoral competition that are essential to the practice of democracy. His demonization of anyone who opposed him is very consistent with classic fascism. His support for Republican policies of voter suppression (disguised as anti-fraud measures) is a uniquely American version of hostility to democracy in the guise of support for democracy. What he hasn’t been able to do, so far, is control the streets. The right wing militias are few and are better at talk and pugnacious display than actual fighting. There is no evidence that Trump could command the Armed Forces to support his staying in power.
The spectacle of Trump’s refusal to concede his loss to Joe Biden, even in the face of an almost complete losing streak in the courts, is a fitting end to a presidency characterized by unending lies. He continues to allege massive fraud, resorting to and amplifying the most tortuous Alt-Right conspiracy theories to convince many of his followers that the impending Biden presidency is illegitimate. He is intentionally undermining trust in the election process in service of his own blind ambition. Democracy, for him, is only when he wins.
His failed coup on January 6, when a pro-Trump mob seized the Capitol to in an unsuccessful bid to block the certification of Biden’s victory, has had the paradoxical effect of isolating him politically and effectively ending his campaign to reverse the election results. And Republicans seem largely to have rejected the violent assault on the Capitol, so the hard-right Trumpists will also be isolated and will prove to be a fraction of those who voted for Trump in 2020. Evidence for this comes from the first serious poll to come out since the violence: 8 percent of national adults, including 18 percent of Republicans, support the attack on the Capitol. That’s Trump’ remaining hard-core base: 8 percent.
He has always been addicted to superlatives about himself. So here goes. No president has ever lied so much. No president has been so openly corrupt. No president has been so unfriendly to democratic allies and so cozy with authoritarians. No president has ever failed so badly in providing leadership in the key crisis of his term (the coronavirus pandemic). No president has been so contemptuous of scientific knowledge. I could go on, but will just acknowledge the he is truly exceptional—and not in a good way.
He leaves us this political plight: for his opponents he is a traitor; for his supporters he is the savior.