We’ll have all of American history—and may it be eternal—to come to a clear understanding of the presidency of Donald Trump.
That is impossible now. His partisans are unable to see his faults, or find it embarrassingly easy to excuse away his faults, or are determined to locate his failings in the implacable hostility that met him at every turn. His critics are unable to see any value in his presidency because they simply loathe him too much and are too shell-shocked and outraged by the events of January 6 to be able to see one centimeter beyond that loathing.
Many have viewed the Trump presidency, even before its outset, as a criminal operation deserving of extirpation in any way possible. Others add to that set of emotions a profound detestation of the general ideological tenor of his administration—for many of them, the only good conservative judge is one who has just issued what they consider an unexpectedly liberal opinion, and the only good Middle East deal is one that makes Israel at least somewhat unhappy.
We are a mere two weeks removed from the storming of the Capitol, an unprecedented event that led to a just impeachment. Whether the riot was the inevitable culmination of his presidency or the end result of a quixotic and ridiculous effort to avoid and somehow reverse the judgment of the American electorate against him, the fact remains that Trump was president for four years and did many things over those four years that exist apart from him. That is what policy is, in fact. Policy, to steal a formulation from Barack Obama, is the word we use for the actions we take together as a nation. Trump’s was a uniquely personalized presidency, but even he made policy, and the policy goes on even despite his rejection by the body politic. (And yes, he was rejected. If you still believe the election was stolen, you are either deluded, stupid, easily gulled, driven by rage, or stark raving insane, and feel free to cancel your subscription right now.)
Some of those actions are immediately reversible—the executive orders he put into place—and many of them will be reversed sometime in the next week by the new president. Others, however, are more enduring—the judges he appointed most prominently, but also legislation like his tax cuts. New regulations that function as “deregulation” cannot be easily rescinded, though they are far easier to do away with than legislation, which must be superseded by new legislation.
Even administrations that appeared to be total failures at their end—the Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush presidencies in particular, both of which were far more decisively rejected by the electorate than Trump’s was—have legacies that live long after them, and which are often unexpected. Carter deregulated the airlines and ushered in a new era of democratized travel. George Bush the Elder signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, renewed Civil Rights Act, and appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, where he serves still (and David Souter, who doesn’t).
The Trump line, delivered in his farewell address on YouTube and in his extemporaneous remarks at Andrews, is that everything was great and then the virus hit and ruined it all. That argument will be made by his partisans from now until forever. But aside from the fact that it’s debatable, it’s really not important. All kinds of unexpected things happen. There are no counterfactuals in real life. All that will remain of the Trump presidency are the policies he enacted, the words he said, and the things he did. The question is whether the policies he enacted will speak well of him over time and how they will mitigate or overtake his ugly words and his incitements. Liberals and those whose political lives have been overtaken by anti-Trump feeling will move heaven and earth to see that it doesn’t happen, of course. And a one-term presidency ending in ignominy doesn’t bode well for history’s favorable judgment. But history is long.