james debate
james debate

Thursday 7 January 2021

Happy new year everyone! Before we dive into the 2021 Hot List (and boy, that's going to be a weird one this year) I would like to take a moment to mark this January's crucial event: the transfer of power from Donald Trump to America's 46th President, Joe Biden. Long-time readers will recall that this blog posted a similar article to mark the end of the end of the Obama presidency. A change in American leadership signifies the end of an era, not just for the country but for the world. It is my aim to use this moment to look back and provide a summary of record for the outgoing President, and to consider the type of legacy he will leave behind.

2020 2021 trump presidential legacy failure failed one single term president shame darkness embarrassment

Let me preface this post by addressing the elephant in the room. We have all seen the horrifying scenes transpiring in the US capital this week. Shameful, unthinkable images of armed insurrection. An attempted coup, plain and simple. Much of this article was written before this event and to be honest I have reservations about even making this post. Discussing the economic policy of the man who has incited a brazenly traitorous act seems almost laughable right now. But the truth is no one knows how a person will be remembered in history. Every aspect of his administration will be recorded and scrutinised, and all of it needs to be addressed and considered in forming the historical record of this dark period. So this will be a full evaluation of the presidency of Donald Trump, even though at this moment it seems pretty clear how he is likely to be primarily remembered in the history books.

The Donald Trump presidency is difficult to evaluate, simply because it has been so utterly dominated by scandal and corruption. From before he even took to the oath of office to his final day and likely even beyond, Trump has been a near constant presence in the news and usually for the wrong reasons. More than 1,000 Federal prosecutors formally issued a statement that Trump would have been indicted had he not been protected by presidential immunity, yet we've all kind of forgotten about that amid the deluge of crises that have since transpired. There has never been anything like this before, not even in the days of Nixon.

But all of this has been dwarfed by what we have seen in recent weeks and culminating in this this week's attack on Washington DC. Sights that no one could ever have imagined seeing in America. Armed insurrectionists occupying the US Capitol, an attempted coup incited by the President and several other Republican Party officials. For four years we have heard talk of "slippery slopes", conservatives laughing off the darkest accusations levelled against the President. Those silly games end now. This is the reality of this administration and will define the legacy that it leaves behind.

I'll come back to this later. It hardly seems relevant with everything that has happened, but I do want to spend some time evaluating Donald Trump's actual job performance over four years, though I admit any perception of his actions will inevitably be coloured by his shameful end. It is easily forgotten amid all the noise and drama, but Donald Trump has also really just been an ineffective President. By whatever metric you care to use, he has been an objectively bad President.

Low Popularity
A sensible place to begin in evaluating the Trump presidency is to look to how the public at large has been judging his job performance. At the time of writing, the poll aggregator Fivethirtyeight has his approval rating at 42.6%. This is a historically low approval rating for any President, let alone outgoing Presidents who usually see an approval bump in their final days. His disapproval rating is even worse at 53.2%, making Trump one of only a small number of Presidents to leave office with majority disapproval. These are historically poor numbers that, since the 1970s, have been topped only by George W. Bush. Bush aside, you have to go all the way back to Nixon for numbers this bad.

What makes these numbers even more damning is the fact that they represent a near high point of his presidency. For much of the Trump era, his approval rating has been hovering at or below 40%, dipping as low as the mid 30s following the Tuesday Night Massacre in which Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in order to, in Trump's own words, end "the Russia thing".

If Trump is unpopular among the American people, his perception among academics and presidential historians is even worse. The 2018 ASPA survey of historians ranked Donald Trump dead last, the worst President of all time. A Siena survey from the same year was almost as brutal, ranking Trump 42nd out of 44, above only the President who caused the Civil War and the President who still wanted black people to remain slaves after the Civil War. Given what we have seen in recent days and weeks, I expect the next surveys will be even less kind.

Economic Ruin
Perhaps the most damning indication of the job that Trump has done in office is the current dismal state of the American economy. Trump inherited a booming economy with record low unemployment in the midst of the longest period of economic growth in American history and plunged it into recession. Now growth has collapsed and unemployment is near 10%, a number which economists believe is likely even worse than it appears.

Trump's defenders like to obviate the President of any responsibility for this turmoil, arguing that it was all the pandemic's fault. Needless to say, this makes about as much sense as saying George W. Bush deserves no blame for the Great Recession because it was caused by the subprime mortgage crisis, or that James Buchanan deserves no blame for the Civil War since it was caused by a secessionist crisis. It's the President's job to manage crises, to enact policy that allows the economy to remain resilient in the face of sudden shocks. Above all, it is the President's job to plan a mitigation and recovery strategy in the event of a crisis that they can not prevent. 

This President did nothing to help prevent or mitigate the crisis and has done very little since to help us get out of it. It can be done, other world leaders managed to do it. Trump did not, because he does not and has never had any idea of how to build an economy. For four years his economic strategy was to ride Obama's coattails and take credit for his accomplishments. It should not surprise anyone that at the first sign of any turmoil, and in the absence of any kind of actual policy or strategy, his administration has utterly failed to manage the economy. His performance on the economy can be summed up simply: he will go down as the only President since World War II to oversee a net loss of jobs.

Policy & Legislation
I find it difficult to devote an entire section to President Trump's legislative accomplishments, because there are so few. The President's attempt to repeal Obamacare failed, his attempt to build a border wall with Mexico failed. He did manage to pass some tax reform legislation, but one that was limited in scope in order to meet the criteria for passage with just a 51 vote majority (and can thus be just as easily repealed or modified) and has been widely criticised for failing to achieve its goals as well as for its shoddy implementation.

Instead, Donald Trump's domestic policy has been hodge-podge of barely competent half-measures, marketing gimmicks, and insider-dealing cronyism. He couldn't repeal Obamacare, so he just slashed funding to healthcare services. He couldn't build his wall, so he conjured up a phoney national emergency so that he could use his executive powers to illegally divert funds away from real emergencies.

Elsewhere, his administration's most noted actions have ranged from the absurd to the downright appalling. This includes withdrawing the country from the historic Paris Climate Accord (something which thankfully can be reversed immediately when Biden takes office) to unilaterally (and illegally) ending the Iran nuclear treaty, an action that has taken a region from unprecedented stability and plunged it again to the verge of chaos, the end result of which will sadly likely be a nuclear Iran. Sadly it may be too late to repair the damage done here without making major concessions, if then.

Other notable policies have included a muslim ban, ending the ban on nuclear proliferation, ending the ban on female genital mutilation, withdrawal of support for Nato, family separation of immigrants (including the infamous baby cages), and of course trade war with China.  

But my personal favourite weird Trump policy has got to be the brazenly fake Moon mission he's had NASA perpetuate. Let's be clear about something. Anyone who knows me knows how much of a space geek I am. I would love for people to go back to the Moon. Trump's Moon mission simply isn't real. His plan was for man to be back on the moon within six years, conveniently the final year of his hypothetical second term. Six years, despite the fact that the technology currently does not exist for NASA to put people in space, let alone on the surface of the Moon, let alone bring them back. Six years to invent such technology, test it (which usually takes several years alone), test it with human occupants (also takes years) and plan the actual mission. Yeah, it was never real, it's an election gimmick and an embarrassment for NASA to have gone along with this charade.

But above all else there is Trump's abject mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in human and healthcare terms. He dismissed the virus as a hoax, even when he knew it was real and deadly. He was slow to implement any kind of strategy and failed to provide the necessary life saving equipment. He spent months refusing to even wear a mask and has explicitly instructed his followers not to take these simple, life-saving measures. Instead he has told people to ignore the virus and continue attending his events in-person, something which alone has probably contributed to thousands of cases (and several confirmed deaths). His entire response to the virus has seemingly been governed by what he felt would benefit his electoral prospects, rather than what would save lives, and that is probably the most vile and shameful aspect of his presidency. It is true that this pandemic has hit the entire world hard, but few nations have been so overrun by it as America. We have seen a historic and unfathomable loss of American life over the past twelve months, hundreds of thousands dead, more than have been killed in any American war. Many of those Americans did not need to die, and would not have died under a different President. 

You have to dig pretty deep to find good things that Donald Trump has done as President, but incredibly they do exist. For all his bluster about the second amendment and Democrats taking people's guns away, he did actually pass some fairly notable gun control, allowing the Department of Justice to ban bump stocks. In signing the First Step Act, he has also taken a small but hopefully significant first step towards genuine and much needed prison reform in America. Lastly the renegotiation of NAFTA, while mostly stupid and for show, did actually contain one very good provision: establishing collective bargaining rights in Mexico. Not only will this create better worker conditions in Mexico, but it should disincentivise American businesses from looking south for cheap labor. Credit where it is due.

Finally, no discussion of Trump's policy agenda can be complete without mentioning the courts. Donald Trump has managed to confirm a huge number of judges to the lower courts, owning to consistent Senate control and the removal of the filibuster from judicial appointments. More significantly, he has named three Supreme Court Justices, potentially shaping the court for years to come. I actually think people make more of this than they ought to for a few reasons. Firstly, with two conservative justices in their 70s, the current makeup of the court isn't likely to last very long. Second, while the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg obviously marks a significant shift rightward, the replacement of Scalia and Kennedy (who has often been wrongly praised as a moderate) with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh is arguably a pretty notable shift to the left. Thirdly, and most importantly, the courts really aren't as political as people tend to fear. The litany of Trump's failed post-election litigation proves that. For the time being, the judiciary is one of the few branches of Government that appears to be carrying out its function properly and with integrity, and even in the deeply corrupt Trump era that has mostly held true.

Scandals & Corruption
As we have already discussed, for whatever else has happened, the Trump presidency is one that has been most characterised by scandal, corruption, and carnage. And these are scandals that go way, way beyond the usual expectation of political scandal. 

It begins before Trump even takes office, with several members of the Trump campaign (and allegedly even the candidate himself) colluding with the Russian Government and abetting the hacking of the opposition candidate. Trump himself, according to evidence considered credible by US intelligence services and even prominent members of Trump's own party, may even have been directly under the, potentially treasonous, influence of the Russian President (and whatever the truth, he sure has acted accordingly!). It continues into Trump's presidency, where Trump fires the FBI director, again in his own words, to end "the Russia thing". That act prompted the creation of a Special Counsel investigation into the attack on the 2016 election, an investigation that resulted in more than 200 criminal indictments against some 40 people, including several high ranking members of the Trump campaign. That same report outlined as many as ten separate instances where Donald Trump appeared to have committed potentially criminal obstruction of justice.

It says everything that this is somehow considered one of the lesser scandals of this President. The President would later be named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the illegal campaign payment of Stormy Daniels, the target of multiple fraud and financial crime investigations, and of course, be impeached for abuse of power with respect to the coercion of a foreign nation to interfere in American elections, becoming only the third President ever to be impeached and the first ever to have a member of his own party vote to convict. Even as I write this article an entirely new scandal is blowing up in relation to recordings of the President instructing state Governors to manufacture fake votes in order to help him win re-election.

It's madness, pure and simple. We have never had anything like this before in American politics. We have never had a leader who so routinely, so consistently, so brazenly and openly engaged in such corrupt, likely criminal, conduct. The scandals themselves are astonishing enough, but we must now prepare ourselves for the very real probability that a former American President will be indicted after he leaves office. Remember that statement from the Federal prosecutors asserting that Trump should be indicted? That took place after the Stormy Daniels revelations and didn't even take into account all the other incidents. At this point, there are very few legal analysis who would deny that the President could be charged with a crime, instead the question must be the extent to which the new administration wants to hold him accountable, or just move on. That is an incredible, surreal position for nation to be.

An Attack on Democracy
But at the end of the day, none of that is an existential threat to the nation. Worst case scenario, Trump is a corrupt, petty crook and he goes to jail for it. The world moves on. What is an existential threat to the nation is Donald Trump's all-out assault on democracy and the rule of law.

This is a President who openly states that members of his party should be immune from prosecution. He has backed those words by issuing commutations and pardons to his associates like candy, particularly those whose criminal conduct relates directly to his own alleged criminality, like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.

Perhaps the single most defining feature of this administration has been the complete and total weaponisation of every facet of Government into becoming a political tool of the party. The Department of Justice has repeatedly been seen to function as the Republican Party's political fixer. Even totally apolitical organisations such as NASA and the IRS have been twisted to benefit the President politically, be it NASA's fake Moon mission, or replacing the IRS officials with sycophants chosen to protect the President from investigation. It was always assumed that Trump's Supreme Court picks were chosen to service him personally, and during the election that supposition became an open fact with the President openly stating on numerous occasions that he expected the court to overturn the results of the election in his favour, something that mercifully did not ultimately happen.

This, of course, brings us to the election itself. Trump lost. He lost by a large margin in terms of both the popular vote and the electoral college. It was a clear and decisive defeat, among the largest in recent decades. This was not a close election in any sense of the word. Despite his clear defeat, Donald Trump has spent the last two months claiming that he really won and that the election was subject to fraud. He has claimed this with absolutely zero evidence. Less than zero evidence in fact, he has claimed as evidence entirely normal and expected voting patterns. He has claimed this despite the fact that he lost numerous red states where his own party was in charge of counting the votes, people who would have had no reason to rig the election for Joe Biden. He has claimed this in spite of numerous recounts, investigations and attempted litigation, all of which have concluded that there was no fraud. He has filed dozens of lawsuits, all of which have failed in the courts. Trump lost this election, and to be blunt anyone who still clings to these nonsense conspiracy theories is living in a fantasy land. The people voted, Trump lost.

It is easy to become de-sensitised to all this nonsense after four years, but it is worth taking a step back to appreciate the gravity of this moment. The sitting President of the United States is actively attempting to suspend democracy and overrule the results of an election. Let's not mince words, this is a coup d'├ętat. If this was happening in any other country in the world we would be up in arms and demanding intervention and justice.

But as appalling and corrupt as this is, it is not at all surprising. Trump's tenuous relationship with reality is well known. His entire presidency has essentially be an audacious experiment in alternate reality. What is more concerning is the extent to which his party has been willing to endorse and participate in these actions. Republican politicians refused to acknowledge the results of the election for weeks. Some still don't. A number of sitting Republican congressmen and senators are preparing to attempt one more time to overturn the results of the election by abusing the rules of what is supposed to be a simple symbolic counting of the votes.

This is absolutely terrifying. This is no longer just one corrupt and wacky President acting out. This is a major political party that has ostensibly made the suspension of democracy an official party policy. Something of this nature happening in a country like America would have been absolutely unthinkable a few years ago. What precedent does this set going forward? Is every politician who loses a race going to claim fraud and attempt to overturn democracy in the courts? If the losing party controls Congress is it just going to vote to reject the results and name its own winner? These ideas sound outlandish, but it is literally happening as we speak. 

So when armed insurrectionists violently stormed the Capitol this week and attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Government, we should not be surprised. We should be angry. Angry at every single one of these Republicans who have incited and brought us to this moment. Ruthless sociopaths who have put their grandiose ambitions for power ahead of the ideals of American democracy, ahead even of the lives of the American people. None of them should ever be permitted to operate in US politics again and there must be consequences for all of them.

So how will the administration of Donald Trump be primarily remembered by history? A petty crook? A mad king? Will it be his mismanagement of the pandemic that is most closely identified with his administration? Perhaps the sheer absurdity of scandal and corruption will simply overshadow every other aspect of these four years. Only time will tell. But regardless of how we remember the man himself, the much graver impact of his time in office is likely to be his normalisation of autocratic tendencies and its influence on the Republican Party mainstream.

If I can offer one vital take away message from this whole sordid mess, one moment of clarity from this confusing trauma, it would be that we as a country, and voters everywhere, learn from this the dangers of remaining disengaged from the political process. For all the crimes of the Trump regime and the Republican Party, it should not be lost on us that the only reason any of this was able to happen is because of our own apathy. We have all some how created this mindset that politics is something to be tuned out, something that doesn't matter. When we hear talk of crimes or corruption in our elected leaders, we simply disregard it as yet more noise from Washington. Our indifference has allowed our democracy to be co-opted by the cynical and corrupt, and if we don't finally wake up to our situation we may never get it back.

This is a dark and shameful moment in American history, one that may permanently stain the American conscience and taint our self-image as a force for good in the world. We all need to come to terms with the fact that this nation has come to such a situation, where a sizeable chunk of the voters and an entire major political party is seemingly ready to throw democracy away. Whatever happens now, America has to ask itself some difficult questions and decide what kind of nation it wants to be going forward. This, ultimately, will be the legacy of Donald Trump.

Images of carnage at the US Capitol will follow these people for the rest of their lives. So too will images of the Charlottesville rioters, immigrant children in cages, and the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans from this pandemic. They will leave an indelible mark of shame not only on Trump and his officials, but on the Republican Party members who have enabled him every step of the way, and yes, on the voters who have and continue to support this man in spite of everything that we have seen. It is a mark of shame that the rest of us have a duty to never forget.

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