The presidency of Donald J Trump ended as it began, with dysfunction and narcissistic self-preoccupation. Trump’s presidency is a stain that will not wash. His four years in office have been defined by divisiveness, lies, corruption, and abject failure. Trump will live in infamy for his insurrection, his handling of COVID-19, and his exacerbation of climate change.
It was not only that Trump defied all the norms of the executive branch, it is that he systematically tried to dismantle the institutions he was charged to oversee. He may not be remembered for the misogyny in the Access Hollywood admission, the racism he exhibited in Charlottesville, or tax cuts that contributed to wealth inequality, but he will be remembered for being the only president to ever pose a clear and present danger to the republic.
Before we welcome the new commander-and-chief we must take stock of Trump’s legacy. We do this for posterity and in pursuit of a more perfect union. We do this because accountability sets a precedent and works as a cautionary tale and as a deterrent for other would-be demagogues who seek political power.
Trump is not a populist, in fact, he is the most unpopular president in U.S. history. He is the only president whose popularity rating never climbed above 50 percent and he is one of only 11 incumbent presidents who failed to win reelection. He lost the 2016 election by 3 million votes and in 2020 he lost by almost 8 million votes. Trump has been abandoned by almost everyone except the most strident members of his base. Even the core of traditional Republican support has parted ways with Trump, this includes veterans, conservatives, and corporate America.
Trump is a disgrace and not just because he refused to participate in the peaceful transition of power. This is about a narcissist who tried to rig the election, then made false allegations about electoral fraud. This is about a psychopath who attempted to stage a coup and incited a deadly insurrection. As explained in Vanity Fair, “The stink of his family is nearly impossible to get off. How do you associate yourself with the worst, most toxic people in U.S. history?”
Lies, conspiracies, disinformation and division
Trump is known for his epic mendacity (according to the Washington Post he had lied more than 20,000 times as of the middle of last year). He has the ignominious distinction of being the world’s leading purveyor of disinformation. He started his political career by repeating the baseless conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the US and he ended his one-term presidency with the falsehood that he lost the election due to voter fraud. As president, Trump’s lying started on inauguration day and persisted throughout his presidency. It started with the lie that it did not rain at his inauguration ceremony, and a week later he lied about the crowd size at that event. When he was caught lying he would just double down and lie some more.
He lied about big things but he also lied about small things like being Michigan’s Man of the Year. He lied about his political opponents sometimes to dangerous effect, like when he said Rep. Ilhan Omar supports al Qaeda and she received death threats and had to have a security detail assigned to her. He lied about payoffs to porn stars, he lied about providing health care to people with preexisting conditions. He often lied for no apparent reason other than a profound character flaw that appeared to prevent him from being able to distinguish fact from fiction.
He took credit for things he did not do like Veterans Choice, which was signed into law under the Obama administration in 2014. In a colossal reinvention of reality, he even took credit for “clean air and clean water”. The savage irony is that the regulations that contributed to cleaner air and water are the same regulations he worked tirelessly to dismantle. He even took credit for emissions reduction that declined early in his presidency due to Obama-era policies. The truth is greenhouse gas emissions began increasing again once Trump’s policies took hold. One of his most absurd lies was his suggestion that “windmills” cause cancer.
Over time his lying seemed to get increasingly dangerous culminating in lies about the coronavirus and the election of 2020. He wrongly persisted in his claim that he won the election “by a landslide”, and Democratic challenger Joe Biden stole it from him, a lie that he maintained even as he skulked out of the White House.
Trump leaves behind a country that is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. His overt racism was evident in Charlottesville where he called neo-Nazis “very fine people” and when he called the Black Lives Matter protestors “domestic terrorists“. His racism was also woven into his immigration policies including the Moslem ban, separating families at the border, and putting innocent children in cages. History will reveal that he was an unrepentant racist to the end. On Martin Luther King Day, just two days before he was kicked out of office he once again weaponized race by issuing a report that minimizes slavery and insults the civil rights movement.
He has emboldened White nationalism and stoked fears of white America’s waning privilege. He has exploited and expanded the rift between rural and urban areas such that these two demographics no longer share a common cultural language or even a common version of the truth. Perhaps most egregiously, Trump has introduced a far more dangerous anti-democracy element into their narrative. He has whipped them into a frenzy that culminated in one of the saddest days in American history.
Incitement, insurrection and impeachment
On January 6th, Trump called for an insurrection that saw the looting of the citadel of democracy. On this day five people died including a police officer who had his skull bashed in by the rampaging mob. This group of domestic terrorists wanted to capture and assassinate elected officials who were doing their constitutional duty overseeing the counting of electoral college votes. Americans have faced many threats in the history of the republic but not since the civil war have they faced such a threat from within and never has such a threat come from the president.
On December 18, 2019, Trump was impeached for the first time by the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Trump’s insurrection call was the basis for the second impeachment. This article of impeachment describes Trump as “a threat to national security, democracy, and the Constitution” and states he, “acted in a manner grossly incompatible with self-governance and the rule of law”. It took two centuries for the U.S. to have its first impeachment, in the span of less than a year Trump was impeached twice. He is just the third president to be impeached and the only one ever to be impeached twice.
COVID denial and failed response
Trump’s lies and failure to manage COVID-19 will go down as the worst preventable disaster in US history. Trump’s final year in office has largely been defined by his administration’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic. First, he denied the virus as a Democratic hit job, then he downplayed its severity and falsely claimed it was “under control” and was “disappearing”. He resisted advocating basic actions like mask wearing and social distancing that ultimately contributed to the U.S. having the highest number of COVID infections and more deaths than any other country in the world. There are currently 18 million Americans infected with the virus and more than 400,000 dead. The US has only 4 percent of the global population yet it has almost one-quarter of the world’s coronavirus cases and almost 20 percent of the deaths. These numbers substantiate the claim that Trump is guilty of negligent homicide.
The situation went from bad to worse as Trump neared the end of his term. He abandoned his post as the death toll mounted. Governors pleaded for the vaccine they were promised and they railed against the lack of a national plan to distribute it. In Los Angeles County one in three people have been infected by the virus and the death toll is so high that they had to suspend air quality rules to allow for the cremation of the backlog of dead bodies. Many share the sentiments of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz who called the president’s vaccine distribution efforts “a catastrophe”. To add insult to injury, in the waning days of the administration, as Trump ignored the virus he managed to find time to meet with My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell who allegedly briefed Trump on the declaration of martial law.
Anti-science, Anti-climate, Anti-environment, anti-wildlife, and anti-nature
The Trump administration was the most anti-science, anti-climate, and anti-environment executive branch in U.S. history. Trump staffed his departments with fossil fuel industry insiders and lobbyists who worked for polluting industries. His administration systematically dismantled environmental regulations and programs. The impact of these actions cannot be overstated. Due to the long-term implications, his deregulatory agenda may prove to be the most enduring aspect of his nefarious legacy.
Trump has been virulently anti-science from his first day in office. He fired climate scientists and tried to bury his own government’s climate assessment. He used government agencies like the EPA under Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler to kill rather than enforce environmental protections. Even Trump appointees on the Science and Advisory Board resisted efforts to change the EPA. The board explained their opposition saying, they do not support giving the EPA administrator a “license to politicize the scientific evaluation required” that would “result in the exclusion of much of the scientific literature from consideration.”
Trump has weakened or removed over 125 rules and policies that protect Americans. He abandoned the Paris climate accord, scrapped the clean power plan and killed vehicle fuel efficiency standards. He has made America’s air and water more polluted. As we run out of time to deal with the overarching global threat of climate change, he made the situation worse. The greenhouse gases he pumped into the atmosphere will remain long after he is gone. A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan research organization, reveals his climate rollbacks will add an additional 1.8 billion metric tons of GHGs into the atmosphere by 2035.
Trump says he ignored emissions reductions in favor of economic growth, arguing that climate and other environmental regulations were harming job creation. However, his administration ignored the math supporting climate action and economists see little evidence that his deregulatory orgy has benefited the economy or created jobs. Trump’s tax cuts have contributed to wealth inequality and his failure to manage the pandemic has left the economy in shambles.
At the urging of mining interests and the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration declared war on nature. They opposed wildlife protections and ultimately gutted the Endangered Species Act. Trump’s trail of carnage followed him even as he was on his way out. As a parting shot, he pushed through a raft of anti-environment actions that endanger species and infringe on Indigenous sites. After opening at least 10 million acres of public land to resource extraction one of the Trump administration’s last official actions was the approval of oil concessions in the Arctic Refuge. This is but one example of the many ways that Trump salted the earth as part of a scorched earth policy whose sole intent was to advance the interests of big polluters in a way that would make life more difficult for his successor.
Corrupt failed leadership
During his presidency Trump weaponized the White House and used government agencies and departments for purely partisan political gain. Trump is known to have forced government employees to deny the truth as he did in the sharpie-gate scandal in which he lied about meteorological data and then forced government scientists to agree with him.
Those who disagreed with Trump were silenced or fired. As of December 15, the turnover rate among senior-ranking advisers was 91 percent according to the Brookings Institution. Thirty-nine percent of these departures have been in jobs that have turned over twice or more since Trump took office. In addition, there have been 16 Cabinet departures since Trump in the last four years. According to Brookings, he had the highest turnover rate of any presidency in recent history and the most cabinet departures. His 4 White House press secretaries and seven communication directors were also the most in any four-year presidential term.
Trump ruled by decree even though his party controlled both legislative chambers until the 2018 midterms. As of December 11, the federal register reflects that there were 520 presidential documents signed by Trump (executive orders, presidential memorandums, determinations, and notices). This is more than twice the number of his predecessor who Trump criticized for relying on executive powers.
Trump’s corruption is now legendary eclipsing even lawmakers in the GOP. Trump’s pardons are a good illustration of his corrupt intent. Almost everyone he pardoned had connections to the White House or were connected to his political base. He showed “clemency” to former associates who lied to the FBI to protect him, He pardoned people found guilty of corruption and fraud; this includes Steve Bannon and his son-in-law’s father who pleaded guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions and lying to the Federal Election Commission. He pardoned Blackwater security guards who were convicted of murdering Iraqi children and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who tried to sell a Senate seat in his state (recent reporting from the New York Times suggests that Trump may have tried to sell pardons).
Republicans and the coming war against the monster they created
Republicans are divided, while many have stood firm with Trump some others have publicly decried the president’s malfeasance. A total of 147 Congressional Republicans objected to the results of free and fair elections, however, Senator Mitch McConnell and others appear ready to jettison Trump from the GOP. Independent of whether some Republicans claim to have reappraised their relationship with the former president Republican lawmakers will be remembered for ignoring or covering up Trump’s misdeeds for almost four years. We should also remember that Trump was not born in a vacuum. He is the logical extension of the Republican’s anti-democratic obstructionism and long-standing reliance on division and hate.
Trump has welcomed White nationalism and QAnon into the party and now the GOP has to grapple with the policy ambitions of neo-Nazi militias and conspiracy groups. There is no hope of reconciling such views with ideological conservatives. Republicans have nurtured a monster and now he is devouring them from the inside.
Political historians will likely say that the Trump presidency hastened the implosion of an ideologically vacuous party. “Fifty years from now when people read about [this era] they are not going to say there were two parties that were small-d democratic,” said Susan Stokes, a political scientist who directs the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago. “They are going to say that this [Republican party] is a political party that was captured by autocrats, by not-democratic people.”
Legacy of failure
It is not as though the Trump administration has not enjoyed any success. They stacked the judiciary with three Supreme Court justices and appointed a total of 220 conservative federal judges. They established Space Force as the 6th branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. They made laudable changes to the federal prison system however, they are more likely to be remembered for having executed more prisoners than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Trump did succeed in deluding millions of Americans and he has groomed a new breed of domestic terrorists which coalesced in the murderous mob that stormed Capitol Hill. As Robert Reich has said, Americans’ acceptance of Trump’s behavior will be his vilest legacy. It is hard to ignore that even before his most recent antics, Trump has made almost everything worse.
The most recent polls suggest Trump’s actions are finally catching up to him. In a 2020 Pew poll of 32 countries, only 29 percent of people around the world said that they have confidence in Trump’s ability to lead. In a 2021 Pew poll, exactly the same number of Americans said they share this view. More than two-thirds of Americans said they do not want Trump to be a national figure after January 20.
Trump’s legacy is that of failure. He failed to deliver on several key promises including getting Mexico to pay for his wall and a new health care deal. Trump also has a number of foreign policy failures (Iran, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea). He turned on his allies and weakened decades-old strategic alliances. He all but abandoned NATO and left the Kurds hanging while he embraced murderous dictators and turned a blind eye when Russian strongman Vladimir Putin put a price on the heads of American service men and women.
By the end of his term, Trump had abandoned all pretense of governance as he was consumed by holding on to power. These deceit-laden efforts failed in a spectacular fashion. He convincingly lost the national election and his fraud allegations were dismissed by the courts. This culminated in a historic shift, in which he and the GOP were rejected in Georgia’s runoffs giving the Democrats control over the Senate. His coup attempt was unsuccessful, and his call for an insurrection was a catastrophe. Rather than maintaining his hold on to power, Trump and the GOP’s assaults on democracy have revealed the republic’s amazing resiliency. While they may have hoped to spark a civil war, this evilest ambition also appears to have failed.
Rather than attend Biden’s inauguration Trump threw himself a departure ceremony, but in a sign of the times, very few accepted the invitation to see him off. Trump will then go to Mar-A-Lago, however, but even there locals are resisting his decision to take up residence. This also assumes that Trump will not be taking up residence in a federal penitentiary in the coming years. After he leaves office he will be subject to indictment and prosecution for a raft of crimes including his insurrection and coup attempt (he also faces legal jeopardy for obstruction of justice, tax evasion, and sexual assault). Trump could also be held liable for his child separation policy, lying to Congress, Hatch Act violations and of course civil liability related to the insurrection. As Michael Cohen said, attorney generals and district attorneys are “very well prepared. They are locked and loaded with a very specific task: to bring justice to the crimes they have been investigating and that they know are legitimate.”
Instead of destroying the system, Trump and his Republican enablers exposed weaknesses that will result in revolutionary changes in voting rights and executive authority. Even more broadly the malfeasance of the Trump presidency has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact major reforms on critical issues like climate, racism, and inequality. Trump may yet make America great again as his failed presidency may auger a paradigm change.