There are few people who come to mind like Donald Trump who have had so much claimed about them that the truth and lies regarding the man are possibly indistinguishable. Even weeks after his presidency ended, the United States was still enthralled with his role in the dramatic acts that spawned out of his final public rallying cry to challenge the election, despite the clear legal impossibility in that he very narrowly lost his re-election. Acquitted for the second time from the impeachment process, even though more members from his party want him to be finished with public service, the former president could remount a future political comeback surpassing all other presidential candidates before him. That is, of course, assuming the other legal questions about him are resolved before then. Even though Trump will continue to hold some power in the American political world for the foreseeable future, the question remains from his record whether he should enjoy retirement permanently or subject history to the Grover Cleveland treatment of another presidential term. Given the last year, and even before that, it is difficult to see why he should not just enjoy the life he had before entering the political arena.
From ‘Bomb-throwing’ Outsider to Status-quo Preserver
Trump’s unexpected victory four years ago was heralded as a triumph over status-quo politics by himself and others. Yet, examining his days in office demonstrates that his bomb-throwing capabilities quickly went from challenging the establishment to preserving the status-quo in many areas.
While he did rhetorically buck trends in discussing foreign policy decisions, Trump did little to change the apparatus and conventional wisdom that still guides the world down an uglier path. Claiming to be against and for stopping the forever wars, Trump did not successfully stop one on-going conflict. He allowed them to continue, despite his ability to executively decide that those conflicts were illegal, constitutionally, and internationally, instead deciding to complain about them periodically. While it is quite possibly beyond his ability to stop what he did not create, it is insulting to people’s intelligence to proclaim that he was the most peaceful president of late when he repeatedly allowed the United States to additionally get close to conflicts with Syria (which the U.S. bombed and now occupies part of), Venezuela (by encouraging coup-attempts), and Iran (via sanctioning and assassinating one of its generals), all using bogus reasoning. If any other country did not recognize the legitimate ruler of a nation, attempted coups against it, bombed it, and murdered a high-ranking government official in another country, it would be branded as a rogue nation and quickly be punished by the world. Yet, Trump allowed himself to get involved with conflict more than what any real reformer would have come close to. And as an aside, it is hardly a good thing that nuclear non-proliferation has suffered during Trump’s tenure either.
Domestically, it is equally difficult to identify major areas that improved from Trump’s time in office, barring the universally praised criminal justice reform legislation he signed. It would take too long to assess every detail individually, but it is clear from the state of many people’s lives from examining the economic aspect, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, that the United States is more fragile than ever. To be clear, this is not really the responsibility of a president to manage the economy. However, given key decisions of the Trump administration, it is appropriate to criticize these outcomes given Trump’s rhetoric and decisions regarding the economy. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 for example, while purportedly has benefits for every citizen, has by many estimates only conferred benefits to the wealthiest in society. Likewise, the regularly touted low unemployment rate, which dramatically rose because of the pandemic, does not account for overemployment and other factors of wellness that Trump could have focused on more during his term. In fact, while claiming to be a champion of deregulation that was stifling business, some of the deregulation changes have allowed companies to escape responsibility for environmental and health damages. Only last year did the Environmental Protection Agency weaken toxic material regulations that mean companies will not need to pay as much or be as careful when disposing of their pollution. It is quite naïve then to suggest that things have never been better when the life-expectancy rate is lagging other developed countries and the issue of healthcare continues to plague the people during a pandemic.
Personal Enrichment and Other Sins
One of Trump’s promises before becoming president was that he would not take his four-hundred-thousand-dollar salary, claiming in 2019 that he believed George Washington was the only other possible president to not enrich themselves while serving. While there were additionally two others, Trump’s claim of becoming president for purely patriotic and service-related reasons has and will continue to be under scrutiny given his undefined relationship to his former business life. This is because critics have found during his term that he did not sufficiently remove himself from his businesses, despite his word that he would do so, opening himself up to the possibility of impeachment for violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Ultimately no case of this nature succeeded. However, given the monied interests which sway the other chambers of government, this is perhaps not surprising given his opposition’s feckless impeachment attempts that did not bring into question Washington D.C.’s love of money.
This harkens back to the previous point, that candidate Trump was highly critical of status-quo politics damaging the country. While president however, he was fine with a country like Saudi Arabia, who he had railed against before, doing practically everything it wanted to do as a top ally. Was it the money they were funnelling through his hotel in D.C., under the guise of altruism for veterans? Or did he have a change of heart and really believe that they had no responsibility for 9/11, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, were not a flagrant violator of human rights in Yemen’s war or in religious freedom, or were not attempting to get the United States involved in a war against Iran over religious differences? Additionally, when it comes to the money issue, what about the fact that Trump bashed Biden’s family for taking foreign money, in what are attempts to make money off a political name, when his own son-in-law and daughter made millions from their businesses while serving as advisors to him?
If money in politics is not a sin enough to be critical of his presidency, then why did Trump always seem to side with the strong and supposedly ‘patriotic’ when the spirit of the law ought to have justice and compassion for the downtrodden? Here, the example of his involvement in pardoning an ex-Navy Seals Chief Eddie Gallagher, for gross misconduct of posing with a dead ISIS captive and which his unit accused him of killing with his knife, is perhaps the most disgusting example of any decision he made. Other questions that can be asked similarly are how can veterans be truly thanked for their service when the president does not even try to stop them from being sent overseas to wars that do not make anything better (and lead to disasters like the Gallagher debacle)? Why is it the police force in America are all heroes when it is known some, who should not be law enforcers, can get away with brutality and abuse without any meaningful consequences? How come the whistle-blowers who helped show the world the corruption of the previous governments were once praiseworthy, but when he is president they will not get their pardons though the war criminals and self-enrichers do?
The Future and the Mirror
Admittedly, as was written in the outset, there is much that can probably never be ascribed to Trump personally with total certainty. However, what is unfortunately the case, with many aspects of his presidency, is that his time was undoubtedly a disappointment by his own promises as a candidate. And especially to those who wished America would be something more than an increasingly dilapidated country, too unconcerned to address the contradictions and lack of values which now get closer every day to destroying it. A cultural concern with obtaining wealth and power, personified itself by the ex-president, is now obvious in that it is not a solution in of itself to making improvements in a society when human dignity becomes second fiddle to greed and pride. If Trump had taken the advice of Richard Nixon in his last speech as president, remarking “always remember others may hate you, but those you hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” the past four years may have been slightly more productive and less maddening. For all the complaining about media and political unfairness, Trump should have at least kneecapped the unreasonable power of big money and technology monopolies before he himself became victim to the whims of unelected mechanisms while still in control of the empire. This may be the most damning conclusion to this period in history that private information interests can now silence elected officials, of any standing and anywhere, on the basis that it goes against their desires, regardless of whatever good intentions are supposedly there in doing so.
If Trump decides to run for the presidency again, not that this piece should instil in anyone terrific confidence that any person, especially of this character, should oversee so much in one role, the words and example of fellow Republican president Calvin Coolidge may help. Coolidge mused that “perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.” Essentially, the president of few words meant that it is not necessary to go looking for battles where there is no purpose in them. Additionally, matters would generally be better without the executive getting involved in everything, although this does not mean hiding away nor not working diligently on important issues that concern the nation. Moreover, it would help if you could trust your advisors and have tested principles rather than seemingly being overridden by either bad advice or impulse, confusing everyone. The open dialogue with North Korea, for example, was the right thing to do. However, it is hard to give any credit when it began with what looked like a declaration of war from Twitter and effectively ended with John Bolton saying the Libyan model (of destroying a denuclearized country) is what ought to happen from the summits.
The great tragedy then of Trump’s presidency is not that it happened. Rather, that presently many of the important lessons that could be learned will probably be ignored as Trump’s personality seems to drive much of the discussion, praise, or condemnation, surrounding anything to do with him. The leader of the day, if this example does not prove it, can only be as good as the people they serve, thereby being a mirror to the populace. And, if it is not obvious where this piece is coming from, that this is a populace that needs something better than a “return to normalcy” which got America here in the first place.
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