When it comes to writing the story of the legacy of President Donald J Trump, the 45th President of the United States, there are two different tales to tell.
The one that existed before the pandemic began and the one we’ve seen since.
Even his post-Covid-19 legacy can be further divided into his approach and behaviour before and after Election Day. We saw a leader floundering in the face of a global pandemic the like of which has not been seen in modern times, seeing his previous economic achievements stripped away, and then one that challenged the outcome of a democratic election through more than 60 legal actions, eventually encouraging supporters to march on the Capitol, resulting in his second impeachment for inciting an insurrection.
The “American Carnage” he pledged to end on this day four years ago, is now in some ways what he is leaving behind.
Before the pandemic struck, irrespective of whether President Donald Trump’s personal style was palatable to voters (and even to many of his most ardent supporters it was not), he could be described as a successful politician.
Although he threw out the playbook during his campaign and throughout his presidency, he delivered on many of his election promises. He reformed the tax code, although it benefits the wealthy more than the less well-off; he rolled back many environmental regulations; he pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and the Iranian Nuclear Deal; he ended NAFTA, replacing it with the USMCA.
In the spirit of America First, he reduced American’s relationship with international organisations – the United Nations, NATO and most recently the WHO. All promises made to voters on the election trail. All promises delivered on.
His most defining positive achievement from a Republican, or conservative, point of view was his appointment to the US Supreme Court of three justices, changing the balance of power in this powerful institution.
Not only that, he appointed well over 200 federal judges in lower courts. He appointed almost as many judges to federal appeals courts in four years (54) as President Obama did in eight years (55), successfully flipping the balance in several courts from a majority of Democratic nominees to a majority of Republican ones.
With the help of Senate Republicans, he has reshaped the federal judiciary in a way that will have an impact for decades as these appointments typically have lifetime tenure. The value of this to the Republican party, to those who have conservative ideals, cannot be understated.
The Republican party
It is too early to tell what much of Donald Trump’s legacy will be. Given the way the US political system is set up, much of what he did with Executive Orders, reversing Obama policies, can now be reversed by Biden Executive Orders. But the lasting impact may be on the Republican party. Before Donald Trump, the threatened schism in the Grand Ole Party centred on the Tea Party, a conservative grouping that was garnering much support from the traditional base and was threatening the old power guard. Donald Trump capitalised on that and sought to be an everyman to every man, garnering support from some of the most fervent like Sarah Palin and Mick Mulvaney.
The Republican party now has some soul-searching to do. It recorded its biggest ever presidential vote, and won Congressional seats from Democrats in places like Miami, but lost Senate seats in Georgia. It also managed to lose control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate under Donald Trump. Does it hold onto Trumpism as a core value to keep that support, or seek to be something different?
Candidates who will wish to challenge for the White House in 2024 are well into their own soul-searching at this point. Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence has chosen to distance himself from the president just recently – from not agreeing to Trump’s request to refuse to certify the Electoral College results, to attending Joe Biden’s inauguration when the president will not.
Mike Pompeo however, the outgoing Secretary of State, is supporting the president to the bitter end, hoping to be the heir to the Trump throne in 2024.
The party itself needs to decide if it is the Party of Trump, or the Party of Eisenhower. The most powerful Republican in Congress, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell having enabled much of Donald Trump’s agenda rounded on the president yesterday, placing the blame for the violence at the Capitol firmly at Donald Trump’s feet.
“The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people”, he said.
Writing in The Atlantic recently, Ben Saase, the Republican Senator from Nebraska put it like this: “When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them”.
President Trump’s approach to dealing with the pandemic will be judged harshly. His early downplaying of the severity of the virus, undermining of science and experts, and politicising the public health advice (particularly around mask wearing) has arguably worsened the impact of Covid-19 in the US.
However, when surveyed, it is not considered a major issue of concern by Republican voters. When they look around the world, particularly Europe, they see many other countries struggling to cope with the virus, with soaring case numbers and large numbers of deaths.
President Trump has presided over a time when more than 400,000 Americans have died with Covid-19, a disproportionate number of them are from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities. A cruel statistic. The heartbreaking reality of this virus.
However, it is too early to tell how much of that is down expressly to President Trump’s pandemic policies and slow response time, or attributable to the systemic inequality that exists in America – the poverty, the generationally disadvantaged communities and the cost of and access to healthcare.
Unquestionably President Trump could have done more to help those people, but he did not create the problem.
What happens under President Biden will shape the level of blame that will ultimately be laid at the feet of President Trump. However the problems of economic and racial inequality in the US existed before he came to power – and led largely to his electoral success in the first place – and are still there as he leaves. It will be up to Joe Biden now to try to heal and rebalance those deep divides.
Donald Trump changed politics and how elections are run forever. He embraced social media, recognising how it allowed him to engage directly with his voters, to paint his version of himself and his accomplishments.
This model has been copied by politicians the world over, who use tweets to give installments on the work they are doing, to issue instant responses to news stories or to slam their rivals’ policies.
They use Instagram to post videos of themselves doing the things they think will resonate with voters – emptying the dishwasher, baking bread, playing with pets. This is now the norm not something unusual, as it was in the early days of Donald Trump when his early morning tweets became the alarm clock of US political reporters (this former one included).
His ownership of the Republican primary debates in 2015 and 2016 by browbeating his rivals, giving them nicknames and ultimately boycotting a debate and holding his own event instead led to his elevation and questions how that party will pick its nominee in the future.
This upending of US political traditions carried through to the 2020 cycle when he decided to skip one of the presidential debates. Given what we saw in those debates – one shouting affair, one cancelled, and one successful exchange – may give pause to whether they happen again in the next cycle.
Donald Trump’s treatment of journalists and media organisations was different too. Much has, and will, be written about the relationship. A country that had enjoyed a free media, suddenly had its leader labelling journalists as “the enemy of the people” and encouraging supporters at his rallies to verbally abuse the members of the media present.
But despite that, he was more accessible to the media than many of his predecessors – regularly inviting the press pool into The Oval Office while he signed documents or held phone calls, to stopping for multiple questions on his way from the White House to the Marine One helicopter, he ends his term keeping the media at more than arms’ length.
When Barack Obama left office, he held a lengthy press conference with the Washington press corps, where we were given ample opportunity to quiz him on his administration. He travelled to Chicago and held a farewell rally.
Donald Trump issued a video filmed in the Rose Garden, which the White House indicated had been pre-recorded on Monday. He leaves today not from the inauguration on Capitol Hill, having handed power over to his successor, but from the White House holding his own farewell event at Joint Base Andrews with a 21-gun salute and an invited crowd to see him off.
‘No new wars’
“I am especially proud to be the first president in decades who has started no new wars”, said Donald Trump in that farewell video last night. He is correct in that. However as he leaves office, there are more American troops in Washington DC than there are in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The capital city is almost unrecognisable with the level of security personnel, barricades and closed streets. A large number of those security measures would be in place anyway for the inauguration, but not this many, and they would not have erected as early as they were.
Nevertheless there will be plenty of military families glad about the actions taken by the Commander-in-Chief earlier in his presidency. And although the president leaves office without the support of much of the military leadership, that is not reflected among rank and file members.
Or at least that was the case on election day. It is hard to measure what impact the events of January 6th and the aftermath have had on the nearly 75 million people who voted for President Trump in November.
America’s place in the world
There is the impact that the Donald Trump presidency has had domestically, but there is also the ripple effect of what much of what he has overseen will have on America’s place in the world.
With the withdrawal from international agreements and stepping back from international organisations, America’s word is not once what it was considered to be. Given it’s size and station, other nations will continue to strike deals with US, while not entirely sure if the US will hold it’s part of any agreement.
Certain allied nations like those in Europe, Japan and Australia will continue to support the US and will put certain weight in the fact that President Joe Biden is at the helm, a man they suspect will conduct himself mostly, but not entirely, in the same vein of Barack Obama.
But the fact is that Biden is only going to be president for the next four years and then either he, Kamala Harris or whomever the Democratic nominee is, will have to face the American public.
Based on the record numbers who voted for President Trump, the outcome of the 2024 election cannot be guaranteed. Can America’s place in the world, it’s place in the international order, and its reputation be restored in that time?
While rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal, refunding the WHO and re-engaging with NATO can be done relatively easy, and something President-elect Biden has indicated he will do rapidly – on day one in the case of the Paris Climate Accord – reputational damage is harder to restore.
In addition, the State Department was scaled back under President Trump and his Secretaries of State.
Missing institutional knowledge, and the information collected by skilled field operatives and foreign service personnel is harder to replace quickly. In addition, the deliberate step back from the international order has had consequences.
As Richard Fontaine, the president of the Centre for a New American Security and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, recently pointed out in the New York Times Iran is closer to the building a nuclear bomb and North Korea has more nuclear weapons than it did at the beginning of the Trump administration.
As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently tweeted “it will be a long time” before the US “can credibly advocate for the rule of law” overseas.
Notwithstanding all that President Donald Trump has done, and not done, in the last four years he will most likely be remembered for the lasting impact of the pandemic, and the post-election events, challenging the democratic institutions of the US, culminating in the shocking scenes of the storming of the US Capitol two weeks ago that resulted in this president becoming the only holder of that office to be impeached twice.
It is too early to write his political epitaph. His chapter in history is not over yet. He still faces a trial in the Senate. New York prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into various financial dealings.
Donald Trump will loom large at some point early in Joe Biden’s presidency, and, as he said himself in his farewell video “I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning”.