I have noticed with some surprise that despite the deluge of analysis before and after the US election one finds nary a single dispassionate accounting of Donald Trump’s overall record as president.
This is the right time, because Trump’s history-making refusal to concede has set new standards both for being a sore loser (Trump may forever be the ultimate example) and for being reckless as a national leader.
That his farcical claims of fraud are widely believed among his voters is a sign of how much damage has been already done by Trump and his post-truth predecessors (from the relatively benign Ronald Reagan to increasingly absurd Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin).
Trump’s false claims of fraud will almost certainly fail to overturn an election that Joe Biden has apparently won by more than 5 million votes, a three percent margin and an Electoral College majority of 306–232. Courts in every relevant state are summarily throwing out the frivolous lawsuits.
The purpose of the current freak show in the White House is probably to delegitimize the Biden Administration, continue to stoke paranoia about deep state conspiracies, and thus build a useful narrative for a Republican party that will continue to be dominated by Trump and his political brand.
Given that Trumpist governance s likely over for now, it is possible to take a look at what all the noise was all about.
Trump cut taxes to corporations and the rich, and a little bit to the middle class as well. This led to howls from the Democrats and many economists, and was not popular at the time, because the US is already the most unequal developed nation in its distribution of assets and income. And yet, the Trump cuts were somewhat more modest than those enacted early on by George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and one could argue that the fiscal stimulus worked and the move turbocharged US stock markets, which basically are up 50% since his election. It’s not crazy to support it. On balance, as I argued here, Trump’s numbers suggest a reasonable but not great steward of the economy.
Trump did the usual Republican things well. Beyond cutting taxes he slashed regulations all over the place, which has stimulated some business but done grievous harm to the environment (greenhouse gases, clean air, endangered species — wherever you look you find scorched earth); he has steadfastly opposed gun control despite the regular-as-clockwork mass murders that result; he has tried with minimal success to undo the Affordable Care Act which Republicans hate even though this has meant trying to throw people off the rolls in the middle of a global pandemic; he has been appointing Federal judges like mad, and with Amy Coney Barrett has now added three conservative justices to the Supreme Court. That means pretty good chances that US states will be able to ban abortion, which has long been a Republican obsession. He also pulled the US out of the Paris accord on climate change because he is a skeptic in line with a Republican orthodoxy that seems to attach to business interests but has matured into a conspiracy theory. American majorities oppose all of this (as I showed in this article), and I do as well, but if you somehow do not, then you wanted four more years.
Trump started no new wars. He made a morally reprehensible mistake in abandoning the Kurds in Syria, and he’s done nothing to end the war in Yemen, but he showed a healthy hesitation to send soldiers into battle, especially in the Middle East. The US-led coalition managed to rout the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq mostly with airpower, and he is trying to wind down the interminable war in Afghanistan (the Taliban, as if aiming for ink in the Onion, has now endorsed him). He also approved the hits on Iran’s top bad-guy general Qassem Soleimani and Islamic State’s demonic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, neither of whom will be missed even by America’s most liberal (sadly, Trump sounded like an oaf at the Baghdadi announcement, which inspired a side-splitting video comparison to the more decorous Barack Obama announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden). Considering Trump’s apparent ignorance, impatience with intel, distrust of experts, impulsiveness, pridefulness, and questionable moral fiber, this record could have been significantly worse.
Trump moved the needle bigly on Israel. He moved the US Embassy to (West) Jerusalem, which put an end to the odd situation in which outsiders tell a country what its capital is. He recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which is one of those occupations that probably needs to stay, considering the state of things in Syria, which may never again be a country. Now he engineered peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan — which also compelled Israel to abandon damaging plans to annex bits of the West Bank (plans which Trump himself actually set in motion with initial hints he would accept it). All this has been criticized as blatant favoring of one side in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but I judge it less harshly: it is not necessarily bad to shake up the Palestinians in hopes of divesting them of certain kinds of mulishness that have impeded peace efforts. But it has also helped the the divisive and dangerous Benjamin Netanyahu, helping him hang on as prime minister during a bribery trial.
Trump has done plenty of “stupid shit.” Obama’s administration famously strived not to, and Trump seemed to want nothing as much as to be the anti-Obama — a goal he has achieved. Following up on his Paris accord stupidity, he pulled out of the world powers’ agreement with Iran, badly harming America’s reputation and freeing Iran to pursue a nuclear bomb that is now more likely, not less, to land upon our heads. He gave North Korea the free gift of cancelling military exercises with America’s ally in the south. That was part of a pattern of coddling dictators, the most prominent of which is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose boots have been licked so energetically that most Americans think he has dirt on the man in the White House. He slapped tariffs on China that Americans pay for, not Chinese — a basic fact he appears not to understand. He continues to blather on about Mexico paying for a border wall (but immigration is down, both from the south and due to overall asylum policy and a semi-“Muslim ban” that actually somehow has squeaked through the courts). And then comes his horrific mishandling of the coronavirus — that is stupid shit that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Trump is the most vile personality to ascend to power in a Western nation since 1933. Trump lies so often and so casually that it goes beyond mere untruth and political machination and looks more like a plot to drive the country crazy. There is no precedent to it in modern history. Add to that the cruel nicknames to rivals, the boasts about sexual assault (and the many allegations), the hush money to a porn star, the conspiracy theories, the profiteering off the presidency, the appeals to foreign governments for dirt he can use, the dog whistles to white supremacists (the amazing statement “stand down and stand by“), the loyalty tests, the obsession with who liked him and who treated him well, the constant need for credit, and the indifference to human life. There have been numerous efforts to psychoanalyze him and it’s not pretty: there is clearly a disorder, and it is clearly a disgrace.
Trump has made a Banana Republic of America. During the campaign he spread lies about postal ballot fraud while striving to undermine the US Postal Service as part of a transparent scheme to gum up the works with legal challenges to the record-breaking postal vote and gin up shenanigans in which perhaps states appoint electors regardless of the actual vote and the newly super-conservative Supreme Court somehow allows this to stand. This exact scenario is now playing out. Each day that passes makes it less likely he will succeed. But disorderly transition during COVID will probably cost thousands of lives, and working so hard to hobble an incoming administration is truly a crime against America. It is also contributing to a global loss of faith in democracy.
So here’s what we have: Other than with the pandemic, Trump’s policy record is (while horrifying to a liberal person) not as indisputably horrendous as it might have been; if you like Republican policies you have reason to be well pleased. In that sense he is surprisingly similar to other Republican presidents.
Where Trump becomes unique — where he achieves a form of greatness — is in the vileness of his persona and its corrosive effect on society. There is simply no way to explain him to our children. The example he sets almost literally could not be worse. In this way, along with the election-stealing business, he is a true danger to democracy.
It is that vileness that is now on stupefying display. And ,really, how many people doubt Trump would burn down the Capitol if that suited his purpose (“Lotta bad people there, maybe they did it themselves, that’s what people are saying”)?
I have wondered whether liberals would tolerate a Trump of their own: would they indeed embrace such a charlatan in exchange for, say, gun control and universal health care? I think it is a question of degree, and I would hope that if the degree of vileness were as extreme as with Trump, the answer would be no.
The Republicans are by large numbers saying yes. He won the second-highest number of votes in American history and it’s clear the party leadership believes the Trump scam is backed by many of their voters; an Economist/YouGov poll conducted in the days after the election showed an astounding 86% of Trump voters claiming Biden did not legitimately win.
And because the script for this horror movie is so good, the Republicans will need Trump voters very soon, in an unprecedented way: they must win the two Senate seats up for grabs in the Jan. 5 runoff in Georgia to retain control of the Senate. That would enable them to block Biden at almost every turn, as they would surely do.
Whatever happens, Trump will be rousing his rabble for some time to come, remains a potential Republican kingmaker, and may run again in 2024. So Republican leaders are keeping their mouths shut right now, however shameful they surely know this to be.
That’s understandable, but it is also evil.
It is evil because the United States needs a government that has credibility and enjoys legitimacy at the height of a pandemic that has already claimed about a quarter million American lives and requires difficult decisions to be made.
It is evil because the last thing the world needs is for America to present as a banana republic and for cynicism about democracy to further deepen.
It is evil because all Americans should be rooting for Biden the way the elder George Bush promised to root for Bill Clinton. The world needs Biden to be successful, not hobbled by a lack of transition, blocked by the Senate at every turn, and delegitimized through non-stop machinations.
And it is evil because while Trump’s little coup attempt will very likely fail it has a tiny chance of succeeding. And if Trump somehow stays in power by abusing the system to the breaking point, the United States will have an illegitimate government.
It used to be that a military coup or another civil war were fantastical notions that could only happen in movies (like “Seven Days in May”). But that was before the United States elected a person who brags about sexual assault, pays hush money to a porn star, says he could commit murder and not lose votes, mocks the handicapped, scoffs at COVID, flirts with White Supremacists and spreads lies, calumny and nonsense morning, noon and night.
Nothing is inconceivable anymore.