Until Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016, I had never been dismayed by the outcome of any presidential election in the United States.
I had liked some winners more than others, but I had always been confident that America would be fine. Not this time: Trump’s erratic temperament, extreme rhetoric, buffoonish behavior and outsized ego seemed to bode trouble. Still, I wanted to hope for the best, thinking that perhaps he would at least try to live up to the responsibility and dignity of his office. That hope began to evaporate the day after his inauguration, when he started to bicker about crowd size.
Now that the Trump presidency has reached its finale, I can honestly say I had no idea it was going to be this bad.
I could not have predicted that it would end with a violent mob of Trump supporters, egged on by the president, rampaging through the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election that voted him out.
Or that Trump would get impeached twice.
Or that a chunk of the Republican base would embrace a cultish conspiracy theory known as QAnon, which holds that Trump is leading a secret war against a cabal of high-status pedophiles and murderers — and that two followers of this cult would get elected to Congress.
I did correctly predict on the eve of the election that, far from defeating political correctness, a Trump presidency would cause it to escalate by giving anti-political correctness a bad name, radicalizing many liberals, and making even moderates reluctant to attack the left.
Has the Trump administration achieved anything positive? One can cite individual policies, such as the reform of Title IX enforcement spearheaded by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to improve due process for college students accused of sexual misconduct. (It will be unfortunate if this gets reversed under President Joe Biden.) Some point to the good economy before the COVID-19 pandemic; but much of the credit goes to Obama-era gains, and the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic contributed to job losses.
Some foreign policy analysts, such as John Hannah and David Adesnik of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, credit the administration for major steps toward "contesting and constraining Chinese power," peace accords between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, and new U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Iran. But they also note that Trump’s cozy relationship with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enabled schemes by Erdogan cronies to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions. And, in Bloomberg News, Jerusalem Post correspondent Seth Frantzman notes that the administration’s hands-off approach in the Middle East gave the Islamic Republic free rein to attack Saudi oil infrastructure and arm militias in Iraq and other countries.
But in a way, it makes little sense to speak of Trump’s legacy as if he were a normal president. He leaves office disgraced, snubbed by his own vice president and Republican congressional leaders, facing a possible post-presidency conviction on an article of impeachment. His real legacy is millions of Americans who bought his "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen. The man whose road to the White House started with a smear campaign to delegitimize his predecessor tried to shred his successor’s legitimacy on his way out.
And let’s not forget that Trump got elected promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and getting Mexico to pay for it. He failed to do that. But one of his last acts as president was to pardon former henchman Steve Bannon for a scheme to defraud Trump supporters by raising money for the wall.
That just about sums it up.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.