So Long, Citizen Trump
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Departing the White House aboard Marine One on Wednesday, Donald Trump flew over an uneasy capital sewn tight by armed troops and razor wire. The seat of the federal government was a crime scene awash in a pandemic, and Trump was fleeing to Joint Base Andrews for a last ride aboard the presidential jet to his Palm Beach country club.
As he stood on the tarmac near Air Force One amid a small crowd of aides and loyalists, a military band and several hundred fewer Army cannons than he probably wanted, the first president in modern history to skip his successor’s inauguration promised there would be a second act.
“What we've done has been amazing by any standard,” he allowed. “We will be back in some form.”
Perhaps. But Trump is now a private citizen and no longer has access to the nuclear codes or the national psyche. A profoundly lonely man who spent months neglecting his duties while fomenting an insurrection now faces a future beset with financial and legal perils. His psychological shortcomings leave him indifferent about his legacy, but it should still concern the rest of us.
The four signature policy achievements of Trump’s presidency were a massive tax cut that largely benefitted the most affluent Americans and major corporations, a more conservative federal judiciary, a wave of environmental deregulation, and a more pugnacious approach to China. The tax cut didn’t provide the economic boost its advocates claimed, and there was much less to the White House’s deregulation boasts than met the eye. U.S. diplomatic and trade stances toward China are likely to remain hardened in substance even if they become more sophisticated in form. Reshaping the court was an epic and long-lasting accomplishment.
Only the fisticuffs with China required a Trump presidency to be fully realized. Any Republican in the Oval Office, working with former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a Republican House of Representatives, would have been able to get a tax cut, a smattering of deregulation and a conservative court. Trump’s ineptitude helped undermine the same team’s attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He largely stayed out of the way (while golfing, tweeting, sleeping and ranting) on the other policy wins, except China.
The trade-off for empowering Trump to get this little set of touchdowns? Mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant loss of life, economic devastation and social unrest. A shameful crackdown on immigrants that tore families apart and turned the U.S. border with Mexico into a militarized zone. The weaponization of racism and bigotry alongside the enfranchisement of white nationalism. Rampant, unchecked financial conflicts of interest. Public corruption and disregard for the rule of law. A cast of White House characters reminiscent of Bond villains. Environmental degradation. Civic fissures and street violence. Yawning income inequality. Reputational loss overseas. Incessant propaganda. The Capitol under siege and democracy in play. Two impeachments.
Trump’s eleventh-hour pardons also illustrated how tragicomic his administration was. He pardoned his former adviser and campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who had been charged with stealing money from Trump supporters who thought they were funding a border wall. Another pardon was granted because Trump took the advice of three oddballs who inhabit his personal funhouse — the “Diamond and Silk” duo and Paula White, a televangelist. This is the same Trump who also ignored pandemic advice from the eminent infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci.
All of this wreckage was telegraphed long before Trump became president. As my colleague Jonathan Bernstein noted: “Believe politicians when they tell you who they will be in office.” The only surprises were how easily Trump corrupted the people, institutions, and processes surrounding him. His legacy, on balance, is abhorrent. Some presidents dream about the libraries that house their legacies. Trump doesn’t even read.
Some of Trump’s children and in-laws may have designs on revivifying the family name by pursuing public office, while not recognizing that their father’s unique charisma hasn’t transferred to them. They also may be unprepared and ill-equipped — intellectually and emotionally — for life on the campaign trail. Still, there is talk that Ivanka Trump might try to primary Senator Marco Rubio in Florida, that Lara Trump will seek a Senate seat in North Carolina, and that Donald Trump Jr., the family fire-breather most like his father, will find some elected office somewhere.
Even if Trumpism doesn’t march on with Trump’s kids, it will remain with us for some time. The Frank Sinatra standard, “My Way,” boomed from speakers as Air Force One departed for Florida on Wednesday. It was hilarious to hear Trump’s presidency end with a paean to guys who march to their own drummers, sans regrets. But I’m not in Trump’s base.
Trump’s hardcore base — maybe 25 to 30 million of the 74 million people who voted for him — like the “My Way” ideal of him. They’re loyal to the macho gunslinger who pretends to upend institutions and norms on their behalf, even if he fails to bring back their jobs, pads the wallets of the most affluent among them, and makes it easier for white people to rampage. That magnetism, built on lies, is what gives the president’s legacy some traction.
But recall that after Al Capone decamped to Florida, plagued by illness and unwound by prison, he found himself unable to look after his minions in Chicago, and eventually descended into history and myth. Trump, who has always favored walking and talking like a gangster, too, might find Florida less hospitable than he expected. Jousting for control of his party from a distance may leave him at a disadvantage. He’s been forced off social media and shunned by many leading Republicans and the business community, and he awaits the outcome of an impeachment trial. He might start a media company, or he might not. He might have a political future, or he might not.
What’s indisputable is that Trump and his enablers shredded a number of quaint notions about racial and economic equality and progress in the U.S. They also weakened the foundations of democracy and tore us apart from one another. So we have work to do. Fortunately, voters chose the dedicated public servant to be president, and sent the dangerous bully packing.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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