If there is any mercy in this world, this is the last time I will ever have to write about Donald Trump. I consider myself an objective analyst, and Trump makes it almost impossible to discuss him in an analytical way. Still, as the Trump era ends, I think it is important to reflect on the last four years and to try to evaluate him in context.
Looking strictly at policy, I would probably consider Trump a typically disappointing president, perhaps in the lower half of the disappointing presidents of my lifetime.
He certainly had some successes. Justice Gorsuch was a brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, and while Justice Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were less inspired, both are solid originalists and will come down on the right side of cases more often than not. With a few conspicuous and sometime hysterical exceptions, his lower court picks have also been solid.
And, before the pandemic hit, the economy was doing well – unemployment down, the stock market booming, wages rising. There is room to debate the degree to which Trump’s policies are responsible (he inherited an economy rebounding from the recession), but I think it is fair to say that tax cuts, deregulation, and the president’s relentless boosterism was an important factor. On the other hand, he too often championed crony capitalism and big spending, while ignoring the threat of a growing national debt. Even before the multiple bailouts attributable to the pandemic, Trump was presiding over trillion-dollar deficits. He steadfastly remains opposed to any serious reform of the entitlement programs that are threatening to bankrupt this country.
As with fiscal policy, Trump’s record on defense and foreign policy issues has been a mediocre mixed bag. He helped midwife some important peace deals between Israel and its neighbors, and he gave rhetorical support to the idea of finally ending our “endless wars,” promising to bring troops home from places like Afghanistan and Syria. But we ended up with more troops in the Middle East than before he took office, and he continued the Obama and Bush policies of bombing and indiscriminate drone strikes. Undoing the Iran Deal made the world less safe, and his back and forth diplomacy toward North Korea led nowhere. Until the very end, he saw Russia as some sort of quasi-ally. And far too often he coddled dictators and authoritarian rulers. Human rights didn’t just take a back seat to other interests, they didn’t seem to be part of the conversation at all. Climate change remained unaddressed.
ll be the first to admit that my positions on these issues – in favor of unilateral free-trade and nearly open borders – is the minority view. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the free movement of goods and people is both sound economics and a fundamental human right. But even if one were to agree with Trump on these issues, he achieved surprisingly little. He built less than 80 miles of new border wall in areas that didn’t have a wall before. His trade war with China cost American consumers, farmers, and businesses billions of dollars, and still resulted in a net loss of manufacturing jobs. He picked trade fights with our friends like Canada, Europe, and South Korea that accomplished little, but alienated allies, and actually strengthened China’s role in the world. His rewrite of NAFTA amounted mostly to tinkering that made trade slightly less free.
Trump’s response to the COVID pandemic, as measured by policy rather than his rhetoric, has not been as bad as sometimes portrayed by his opponents or the media. He was very slow to recognize the magnitude of the problem, but in fairness so were many of his critics. Operation Warp Speed achieved a scientific miracle. Yet leadership in a crisis matters, and here Trump was AWOL. Failing to set an example for things like social distancing and wearing a mask was bad enough, but he allowed those things to become political issues which made it much worse. There are reasonable debates about the effectiveness of broad shutdowns, but Trump didn’t debate them, he simply abdicated responsibility. He seemed to act as though COVID was an afront to him personally rather than a threat to the American people. There is no way he can escape at least partial responsibility for the virus’s catastrophic death toll.
For most presidents I would stop there. But policy was not the whole of the Trump presidency – it was not even the most important part. There was also the petty feuds, bizarre tweets, and continuous stream of untruths. While pettiness and dishonesty are hardly unique to this president, Trump seemed determined to take those qualities to, dare we say, “Trumpian” levels. The same is true of his all too frequent attacks on our democratic institutions, particularly the free press.
But most importantly, there is no way to evaluate the Trump presidency without considering the ways in which he gave aid and comfort to racists, misogynists, Islamophobes, and anti-immigration zealots. This is not just one factor balanced against others. Trump’s casual affinity for racism and other prejudices was a fundamental affront to the American ideal. There is no way that people of color, women, the transgendered, gays, immigrants, and other minorities can feel like they are full participants in the American project while they are under attack from the highest office in the land. It is a stain, not easily erased, and it threatens both the unity of this country, and the hard-won progress that we had made.
And finally, there was his conduct since losing the election. There is no need for me to go into the details of his refusal to concede, his peddling of bizarre conspiracy theories, and finally his incitement of an insurrection designed to overturn the Democratic process. This country was divided before he was elected, but Trump manipulated those divisions for his own benefit. In doing so, he did profound damage to this country. That behavior alone should consign Trump to the trash bin of history.
I expect to have more than my share of disagreements and disappointments with President Biden. You will undoubtedly get to read about many of them here. But I for one look forward to a return to normal disappointment — rather than despair.