Reviewing Trump's presidency.

A comprehensive look at President Donald J. Trump.
Isaac Saul Jan 22, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can subscribe by clicking here.

Today’s read: 22 minutes.

A first look at the presidency of Donald Trump.

Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Intro.

Encapsulating Donald Trump in a single newsletter is impossible.

Critics of his presidency loathe to admit it, but he was — for better or for worse — one of the most consequential presidents in American history. He was also historic: the wealthiest president ever, the first president to be impeached twice, perhaps the most “outsider” president of all time, one of the oldest presidents ever, and — by party differences in approval ratings alone — the most divisive president in modern U.S. history.

There are many things we could focus on when discussing Trump’s ascendence to the White House: why he was elected, what he was elected to do, what his election means about America, what it meant for America, how it changed the world, and why so many millions of Americans supported someone loathed by so many people who represent America’s most important institutions (hint: part of the answer is in the question).

We could also talk a lot about his campaign: the tactics he used to invigorate non-voters, the rallies, the Access Hollywood tape, the paying off adult actresses, the Russia investigation. But most of this is dated news now, though we reference it in the pages to come if for no other reason than to contextualize parts of his time in office.

Instead, today we’re going to look simply at the accomplishments and failures of Trump’s presidency — what he promised to do against what he actually did, the state he leaves the country in, and how his actions may change the future of politics and the Republican Party in particular.


Promises made, promises kept?

For all the noise, Trump ran on a few key campaign promises: he was going to build a wall (and make Mexico pay for it), make immigration harder, bring our troops home, repeal and replace Obamacare, cut taxes, renegotiate trade deals, and appoint conservative judges. When discussing his presidency, it seems worthwhile to start with these major issues.

To address these promises, I’m going to employ a “promise meter” — on a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being the highest rating for a promise kept (promise was completely fulfilled), and 1 being the lowest (promise was not fulfilled in any way). I am not trying to evaluate whether these are good or effective policies, but instead whether Trump accomplished what he said he would.

The border wall: Trump’s wall, of course, was the signature promise of his campaign. It wasn’t just about a physical barrier on the border, but a symbol that America was going to “secure the border” and keep out anyone or anything that was a threat to Americans’ safety or even an American job.

Throughout the campaign, Trump was specific about two things: he’d build about 1,000 miles of wall and he’d make Mexico pay for it. The way Mexico would pay for it morphed over time (from direct payments, to taxes, to tariffs), but it’s mostly irrelevant since Mexico never really paid for the wall in any way. American taxpayers have footed the entire bill.

All told, the Trump administration built just about 400 miles of wall along the border — but only 16 miles of it constituted a new barrier. The rest, by the Trump administration’s own admission, was reinforcing or repairing barriers or fencing that already existed, though in some places it had become so decrepit that it was as good as building a new wall.

Initially, whether because of the wall or family separation or Trump’s general posture toward immigrants, illegal crossings on the border dropped dramatically, reaching their lowest levels in about 50 years. But by 2019, they were back at the highest levels they had been in a decade. Then, in 2020, they dropped again precipitously — in large part, experts say, due to COVID-19.

In the end, the border wall manifested in places along our southwestern border and it had decidedly mixed results in preventing illegal crossings. It was not paid for by Mexico, and even if you include all the rebuilt sections as part of 1,000 miles of new border wall, it’s still only about 40% complete. Given that he had to divert funding from the military to construct the wall because he faced such serious opposition from his own party and Democrats, it’s in some ways impressive he built as much as he did. Generously, at 40% completion, it seems fair to give Trump a 4 out of 10, with a point deduction for not getting Mexico to pay for it.

Promise meter: 3 out of 10.

Immigration: We’ve discussed this quite a bit in Tangle, but the Trump administration has been relentlessly focused on reducing legal immigration, too. The president suspended immigration from many volatile regions in the world, and some may argue followed through on a “Muslim ban” by stopping immigration from Syria, Libya and several other Muslim majority countries.

But while so much of the focus was understandably on border walls and Muslim bans, nursing babies being pulled from their mothers and children in cages on the border, a lot of people missed another side of this story. As The Washington Post put it, “Trump didn’t build his wall with steel, he built it out of paper.” For all the claims that the Trump administration was hectic, unfocused or inexperienced, it was remarkably good at reducing legal immigration. We will admit half the number of legal immigrants this fiscal year as we did in 2016, and we’ll see the lowest levels of legal immigration in America since 1987 — when the U.S. population was “about a quarter smaller, substantially younger and less in need of working-age immigrants than it is today,” according to The Washington Post.

Not only that, but these aren’t the kinds of executive orders that can simply be undone. Immigration experts agree that the number of new immigrants in America will be reduced for the coming years. Before Trump took office, the overall number of legal immigrants was growing while the overall number of illegal immigrants was shrinking. Since he took office, we have entered a new phase where the legal immigrations have been halved and the rate of new undocumented immigrants has, in the end, basically stayed the same.

If Trump’s supporters believe we needed to significantly reduce immigrants in the U.S., and elected Trump to act on those promises, they got what they voted for.

Promise meter: 8 out of 10.

Bringing our troops home: Key to Trump’s outsider status was a pair of promises he made that many other Republicans didn’t: bringing our troops home from endless wars abroad while also beefing up the military.

Again, Trump faced serious opposition to this stated goal, even from the people working inside his administration. And while troop levels in Afghanistan are the lowest they’ve been in years, on the whole, the numbers show Trump did not really come close to accomplishing his goals. Not only did he promise to reduce troop levels, he at times promised to bring them to zero in various parts of the world.

When Trump entered office, we had just over 200,000 troops overseas. Today, that number is just under 200,000, according to Department of Defense data. That’s because, while Trump often had high-profile withdrawals in a place like Syria, he was frequently moving those troops to a nearby place like the Persian Gulf or deploying new troops altogether.

He deserves a lot of credit for not starting any new interventions, something unique to most presidents, but he never did fulfill this promise, despite his efforts.

Promise meter: 3 out of 10.

Repeal and replace Obamacare: This one is a lot simpler. Trump came close to repealing the law in his first year in office, but the now-famous John McCain thumbs down vote on the floor of the Senate killed his effort to repeal Obamacare. When Democrats cleaned up in the midterms, any hopes of taking the law down vanished. Trump has repeatedly and unambiguously promised to come forward with a new “better and cheaper” Republican health care plan to replace Obamacare, and that also has never materialized — despite his making the promise over and over again.

On the whole, this is perhaps the greatest policy failure of his presidency.

Promise meter: 1 out of 10.

Cutting taxes and regulations: This one is simple, too, albeit with a touch of nuance. Trump’s signature legislative achievement was the 2017 tax bill, which reduced taxes for most Americans (the nuance being in how many of those reductions will expire, and for whom) and ushered in a new era of lower tax rates for corporations and the wealthy.

While some have argued the tax cut was about a quarter of the size Trump promised, it was still a major overhaul that was met cheerfully by many of his supporters. The overall popularity of the bill has waned, though, and it’s now one of the least popular pieces of major legislation passed in recent memory. Which makes evaluating this promise more difficult.

In the end, Trump promised to cut corporate tax rates and cut taxes for middle-income Americans — and that’s what he did. Though it seems the wealthiest Americans and corporations got a far better end of the deal. He gets knocked a couple of points for falling short of the stated rates and because the bill mostly favored the wealthy, and became deeply unpopular, but he mostly did what he said he would.

Promise meter: 8 out of 10.

Renegotiating trade deals: This one is hard to parse. On the surface, Trump did most of what he said he would: he renegotiated NAFTA and pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership all while taking an aggressive stance with China.

Then he signed us into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which was basically an updated version of NAFTA. There were quite a few criticisms of the USMCA, including from me, that its changes to NAFTA were minor. But there absolutely were some big, impactful changes to hiring in pockets of the country after the law was implemented. It changed the rules of origin in the auto industry (increasing percentages of components and the number of cars that are made in higher-wage factories), gave us access to Canada’s dairy markets, and upgraded intellectual property regulations from NAFTA.

For most of Trump’s supporters, this was a promise kept right on the nose. He loses a point thanks to reasonable criticism about the USMCA’s failure to address enough of the issues in NAFTA.

Promise meter: 9 out of 10.

Appointing conservative judges: While the tax bill may be Trump’s legislative achievement, nothing is more consequential than what he did in America’s courtrooms. Trump completely overhauled the judiciary, handing out 226 lifetime appointments, and ensuring a bulwark against the left for decades to come. That is well over half the number of judges in only four years that Obama (320), Bush (322) or Clinton (367) appointed in eight years. And it includes an astounding three Supreme Court justices and 54 appellate judges, who are the most powerful in the country. For many conservatives, even those who did not support the president, this record was worth the headache.

Promise meter: 10 out of 10.


The others.

In case you somehow missed the last four years, Trump really likes to talk. And amidst all that talking, he has made quite a few promises. Some of them are so unserious that they have almost come off as cheeky, and it’s tough to tell whether we should be taking them literally or aspirationally (as some Trump allies have said: “take him seriously, don’t take him literally”). Regardless, Politifact put together a really great resource for the last few presidents that is a round-up of the promises made vs. kept.

This is not really as subjective as it sounds, and after spending some time on the page I feel pretty comfortable with where they landed. Mostly, they focused on things that had a clear outcome, and the full accounting is that Trump broke about 52% of the promises he made. FiveThirtyEight’s promise tracker claims presidents, on average, break about a third of their promises. By that measure, Trump is not scoring very well, but comparing two datasets and methods is probably unwise.

Trump kept some promises that were key to his appeal: he pushed the FDA to approve more drugs, put together a plan that decimated ISIS, refused the $400,000 presidential salary and ended catch and release on the border.

He also broke quite a few promises that hampered him throughout his presidency: he never raised the federal minimum wage to $10, never got Apple to start manufacturing more in the U.S., took lots of vacations and played much more golf than President Obama did, hasn’t brought down drug prices, didn’t stop funding to sanctuary cities, failed to negotiate the release of prisoners in Iran, and didn’t scrap the Clean Power Plan.

Trump has also contradicted himself on a number of promises and statements. He’s promised to both expand and reduce H1-B visas. He promised to use Twitter with restraint and then celebrated his use of Twitter as a way to bypass the media. He also promised to label China a currency manipulator and then questioned why he would ever do such a thing.


COVID-19 & the economy.

Opinions vary amongst Trump’s supporters about how he handled COVID-19, with many of his strongest allies asserting that he did an admirable job against an unrivaled opponent. But the consensus — especially amongst experts like epidemiologists and government and health officials at the state level, but also among global observers, most Americans and indeed many of Trump’s own supporters — is that he completely bungled his COVID-19 response.

While comparing infections or deaths to other countries is tricky (we all have different tests and different ways to track morbidity), the data we do have tell a damning story. More than 400,000 Americans have died from, with, or because of COVID-19, and we’ve had over 24 million cases. It’s not just because we’re a large, heavily populated country: even when adjusting infections, deaths and serious cases per capita, we still do worse than all but a handful of countries. Trump himself contracted the virus after months of modeling the exact opposite behavior health experts had begged him to, and COVID-19 has spread widely amongst members of his administration and elected Republicans as a whole for the same reason.

He has, compared to other world leaders, shown little of the restraint, candor or precise language that was necessary to prepare the country for fighting off the virus, despite privately conceding he understood how serious it was in his interviews with journalist Bob Woodward. When the pandemic was raging, he promised it would go away. At various times, he suggested absurd ideas about how to slow the virus down, what cures might work and when we might escape its grip. When he ultimately contracted it himself and received the best care in the world to treat it, he insisted the rest of the world stop living in fear — even as other officials, like Chris Christie, came out of their experiences apologizing that they had not modeled better behavior and emphasizing the seriousness of COVID-19.

No discussion about Trump’s COVID-19 efforts is complete without talking about the vaccine effort. Operation Warp Speed was, by nearly any measure, an astounding success. Vaccine development exceeded everyone’s expectations, and the efficacy of the vaccines now being approved here and globally has brought new hope to the world. Trump deserves credit, and has gotten it in Tangle, for pressuring the FDA to push these vaccines out, for funding the vaccine efforts of companies like Moderna, and for doing everything he could to cut the red tape and usher in the safe production of a vaccine. He was also right about the timeline of effective vaccines being produced, despite the fact his predictions were mocked by just about everyone.

However, a vaccine existing is not the same as a vaccine distributed and administered. As I’ve said all along, part of the equation here is how the vaccine rollout went, and it seems obvious to me that the government’s role is far more important in getting vaccines out to its citizens than it is in the scientific research and development of said vaccine.

On this measure, the Trump administration has a spotty record at best. No vaccine rollout of this scope would be without its quirks and failures; it is easy to remember the difficult rollout of Obamacare, which was years in the making with the full force of the federal government behind it. But the Trump administration fell well short of its stated goals, leaving many states in a cycle of confusion and fury about shorted deliveries and lack of help administering the vaccine. Some doses were even thrown out after going bad. Just as Biden enters office, the pace of the vaccine distribution seems to be hitting its stride, but it’s impossible to know how much damage the slow start did.

There’s also a fairly simple case to make that, once the election rolled around, Trump abdicated his duty on COVID-19: he stopped talking about it, stopped holding regular briefings, and left the coronavirus task force out in the wind. Members of his administration conceded they were not going to control the virus and couldn’t. They basically gave up. Vice President Pence, who led the coronavirus task force, deserves criticism for this too, but it is the Trump administration as a whole that failed.

Again: it’s worth stating for the record that this virus has stymied many world leaders. Generally speaking, the countries that have had the most success beating COVID-19 are far smaller, more spread out, and submit to greater government control than we do. Other world leaders that are often framed as competent by the American left — including nearly every European leader — have seen their economies crippled and the virus spread in the nations they lead.

To put it simply: the Trump administration was not alone in its failure against COVID-19, but it failed harder than many of its peers.

Finally, I believe it is worth talking about COVID-19 as it relates to the Trump economy.

President Trump inherited a stable, strong and slowly growing economy, something Obama did not get in 2009, and something Joe Biden won’t get now. And he made the most of that economy. Pre-COVID, it really is true that the Trump economy was better than Obama’s. Here are some compelling points to make that case, courtesy of Bloomberg’s Karl W. Smith:

  • The unemployment rate dropped from 9.9% to 4.7% during Obama’s tenure, and Trump rode that down another 1.2% all the way to 3.5% in 2019, despite officials at the federal reserve insisting Trump was inheriting an economy at full employment.
  • Not only did the unemployment rate continue to fall, but the percentage of Americans aged 25 to 54 either employed or looking for a job saw its first sustained rise since the late 1980s.
  • In 2016, real median household income was $62,898, just $257 above its level in 1999. Over the next three years it grew almost $6,000, to $68,703.
  • Smith chalks that success up to the fact Trump did not adopt traditional left-wing, right-wing or hands off economic approaches. He went all in: “The key to that number is the breadth of Trump’s expansionary agenda. Republican presidents have typically focused on tax cuts, particularly for businesses, with the idea that they will encourage an increase in investment and wages. Democrats have tended to seek spending increases, often with the hope that they will stimulate the overall economy and increase job growth. Presidents of both parties have traditionally left interest-rate policy to the Fed.”
  • All the while, the stock market saw unprecedented gains and nearly anyone who had diverse portfolio holdings at the beginning of the Trump administration saw their wealth grow.

Now, much of this positive growth, expansion and historic unemployment was undone when COVID-19 hit. But it’s worth acknowledging this success, as COVID-19 arriving — and the economic toll it took — seemed nearly impossible to avoid after the first few months being mishandled. Almost every option Trump had left to contain and control the virus required decimating the economy. The issue — and the point of his response failure — is that we neither controlled the virus nor preserved the economy.


Policing & race.

Another central tenet of the Trump presidency was a stated goal to “restore law and order.” Trump found critical support amongst America’s police, border patrol and other law enforcement by stating his unambiguous support for them.

That pro-police, pro-law enforcement posture was also tied closely to race relations in the United States during Trump’s tenure. 2020 was a chaotic and difficult year, and one of the defining events of it — and thus a defining event of the Trump presidency — was the series of protests over excessive use of force that broke out across the country in the wake of several Black Americans being killed by police or former police.

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery are just three of dozens of names now etched into the consciousness of Americans, and in the wake of their deaths we witnessed some of the greatest civil unrest since the 1960s. In cities across America, marches, protests, and riots broke out. From Portland, Oregon, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to New York City and Washington D.C.

Trump’s response to those protests is, for much of the country, another defining moment of his presidency. Other presidents may have moved toward a posture of reconciliation; indeed, many politicians did their best to appease protesters or insisted on giving them “space” to express their anger.

Trump responded with force.

That decision became one of the most divisive moments of his presidency. He deployed federal law enforcement to several cities, stood staunchly in support of the police, and defended the armed counterprotesters who often met and assaulted activists, protesters or rioters in the streets. Perhaps most infamously, his Twitter account was, for weeks, full of nonstop promises to beat back protesters, with provocative proclamations like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Throughout the summer of protests, Trump called on local officials and police to act with force. He declared cities like New York, Portland and Seattle “anarchist cities” in an effort to cost them federal funding. He insisted politicians across the country defend their cities aggressively, and his rhetoric only seemed to inflame the protesters further. Rioting, looting and destruction that hit areas like Kenosha or New York City gave Trump more cause to call for an aggressive, forceful response — and he found plenty of support amongst mainstream conservatives and vicious opposition amongst mainstream liberals.

In response, the left seemed to push further — with many progressives calling to defund police departments, dramatically overhaul the American policing system and do a better job of holding police accountable for misconduct.

In the midst of the protests, the Democratic-controlled House passed a sweeping police reform bill, which was met with opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate then released its own bill, and each plan included language for more data collection on police use of force, more training for law enforcement in de-escalation and more incentives for law enforcement to wear and use body cameras.

Ultimately, though, no sweeping reform ever passed the Senate. Instead, Trump signed an executive order, this one aimed at tracking misconduct amongst officers, including incentives for departments to improve their practices, and suggesting that police receive more funding. Before signing the order, he met with some of the families of people who had died in altercations with police.

“Your loved ones will not have died in vain,” he said. “We are one nation, we grieve together and we heal together.”

The executive order was panned by Democrats and reform activists as too little too late, and Trump leaves office with this issue largely unresolved. President Biden will face serious pressure from the left to pass a comprehensive police reform package, starting with picking up the bill that was rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate.


The Republican party.

To me, few people summed up the Trump presidency’s impact on the GOP better than Julius Krein. Krein describes a “populism deferred,” writing that “throughout the Trump presidency, Republicans kept at least one foot firmly within the boundaries of conservative orthodoxy, even as parts of the administration and some in Congress began tentatively exploring the ‘populist’ directions outlined in the 2016 campaign. Any attempt to evaluate Trump’s economic legacy must begin by separating these opposing strands.”

Krein sums up Trump’s policy record like this:

Trump’s conventional conservative economic policies (e.g., tax cuts, Obamacare repeal) were unpopular failures; his more ‘populist’ overtures—while certainly leaving room for improvement—fared better. Many of those policies achieved broad, cross-partisan appeal and could, in the long run, prove to be enduring successes.

If the polarization and sensationalism around Trump’s persona fade with time, his policy record will probably be found to compare reasonably well against those of the other post–Cold War presidents. At the very least, even accounting for a shaky response to COVID-19, Trump avoided the multiple catastrophes of the George W. Bush administration.

By ushering in a new era of stated populism, activating a host of new voters, bringing in more Hispanic and non-white support than previous Republican candidates, and being one of the greatest opponents of establishment Republicans, Trump sharply divided elected Republicans. While he seems to have won over the GOP base, sitting Republican politicians are now deeply split about what parts of Trumpism to leave behind and what parts to embrace.

One part they might meditate on is his ability to connect with his base. As my cousin noted to me over dinner the other night, one of Trump’s great gifts is that he lends a good ear. He was not an ideological president, but he was extremely good at listening to America. He toured the country and heard the complaints, pain, anger and ambitions of many Americans, and then he repeated those things back to them on the campaign trail. He simply espoused the views and perspectives he heard — and millions of American voters loved him for it, finding a voice in his candidacy.

It didn’t matter if it was a belief that immigrants were stealing jobs or that D.C. was screwing them or that their neighborhoods were becoming unsafe, Trump knew how to say back to Americans what he was hearing from them. He was, in many ways, more a mirror than a leader of those in the country who supported him.

Perhaps most unfortunate about this paradigm is the conspiratorial nature of millions of Americans that also dominated so much of Trump’s version of right-wing politics. Trump did not introduce conspiracies to America, and they are surely not exclusive to any political party, but he amplified and mainstreamed them, often with the ease of a tweet.

He was, after all, central to the birtherism lie, accepted support from QAnon adherents, and seems to be convinced of the conspiracy theory that the election was stolen from him. During his term, several pro-Trump down ballot Republicans — from Rep. Marjorie Greene to Rep. Lauren Boebert — have now been elected despite espousing views so radical they would be unimaginable in mainstream politics just a few years ago.

Many on the left would also center Trump’s legacy around the cruelty of his policies and worldview. Adam Serwer is famous for coining the expression “the cruelty is the point” as a way to identify the roots of nearly every Trump decision. Here is an excerpt from his 2018 piece in The Atlantic, which is one of the most widely-shared evaluations of Trump’s presidency:

The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track. This week alone, the news broke that the Trump administration was seeking to ethnically cleanse more than 193,000 American children of immigrants whose temporary protected status had been revoked by the administration, that the Department of Homeland Security had lied about creating a database of children that would make it possible to unite them with the families the Trump administration had arbitrarily destroyed, that the White House was considering a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students, and that it would deny visas to the same-sex partners of foreign officials. At a rally in Mississippi, a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has said that Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump has nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her when she was a teenager. “Lock her up!” they shouted.

Why do I mention this idea of cruelty here? Because many political scientists also identify this image of Trump as the reason many women, particularly suburban white women, have fled Trump or turned out to vote against him. Key to Trump’s legacy is not just ushering in new voters, expanding the Republican base and winning more support amongst minorities, Muslims or men than anyone thought possible — it’s also that he has invigorated the opposition, ramped up turnout on the left to record numbers, turned many centrist and conservative voters against Republicans, and led to another massive gender divide in the 2020 election.

The editors of the conservative magazine Spectator U.S. made an argument that many others have made, too: that not much has truly changed at all:

Still, for all the sound and fury of the Trump presidency, the country is in many ways identical to how it was before he famously descended that shiny escalator in 2015. His policies will be hastily jettisoned, replaced by those of the second Obama term or some slightly more woke variations. The Republican party remains hopelessly divided on principles, personalities and basic priorities, just as it was five years ago. America is still trapped in the steadily escalating psychosis of culture wars — riven over race and gender. And all that is set against a background montage of superpower decline and middle-class decay. Thanks to the vengefulness of Democrats and the ugly manner in which he left office, Trump probably won’t get a presidential library or even a highway in his honor.

Even if you’re going to take the position that not much has changed, though, selling the successes of the Trump administration to a conservative-minded American is not hard. He brokered peace deals in the Middle East, seriously depleted ISIS, freed American hostages, passed the First Step Act, created a conservative judicial bulwark, undertook massive deregulation, took steps to fight abortion, oversaw a dominant economy for much of his presidency, and carried himself with a certain brand of American pride that resonated on the right.

Now, Republicans are left trying to figure out which parts of his legacy they want to embrace and carry on and which parts they need to leave behind to get back to winning elections.


The end.

How different would this edition be if the last two months had not unfolded as they have? It’s hard to say, but the reality is they did.

As I wrote the day following the Capitol riots, I’ll have a hard time ever putting anything about his legacy above that. To me, Trump’s legacy will always be tied to the divisions he left us with, the refusal to concede the election, and the weeks and months falsely alleging the election was stolen. All of which culminated in the riots at the Capitol and Trump skipping Biden’s inauguration.

This is what I wrote the day after a mob stormed our nation’s Capitol building:

So this is how it ends.

With Republicans divided, powerless, and hiding inside a bunker in the Capitol building. With Washington D.C. on lockdown. With improvised explosive devices hidden across the nation’s capital. With Trump’s most ardent supporters hanging a noose outside the Capitol building. With an Air Force veteran dead, a bullet through her chest, fired by a Capitol police officer inside the Capitol building. With Mitt Romney being accosted in airports for refusing to support the president’s lies, with Trump’s mob of supporters clashing with police, smashing news cameras, and hanging Trump flags in the House chamber.

It ends with an Arizona GOP chairwoman insisting the moment be seized to steal an election. With the president turning on his own vice president, telling millions he is betraying him and then refusing to allow Pence’s chief of staff into the White House. With violence in the streets, with a more divided nation than when he entered office, with tens of millions of people on unemployment, a pandemic that has cost almost 400,000 lives still raging, with nearly 4,000 people dead yesterday alone, with sitting Republicans calling for Trump to be removed from office, and with the president locked out of his Twitter account.

My take.

I still find myself gobsmacked by it all. There’s so much about President Trump that has been difficult to wrap my head around.

Perhaps most obviously is the fact that a rich, billionaire, New York Playboy became the voice of “forgotten” rural Americans. In 2020, rural voters broke for Trump at about a 2 to 1 ratio over Biden. If, near the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, you had told me that rural Americans were going to rally around a political figure who hammered the D.C. establishment for hollowing out sparsely populated areas across America, selling their jobs overseas and leaving them in the wreckage of joblessness, drug use and desperation, I would have absolutely believed you. I just would have expected that politician to be one of their own — or an established figure like Sen. Bernie Sanders.

That it was Trump, a metropolitan elite, Democratic-donating, wealth-inheriting, real estate mogul from television was always beyond my comprehension.

At the same time, many Americans continue to broad-brush Trump supporters as rural, white men. This, too, is a misconception. In fact, voters in rural America accounted for fewer than 20 percent of all votes cast for Trump in 2020. Our country is now dominated by the cities and the suburbs, and Trump picked up plenty of support there. Pundits are continuing to grapple with the fact that 2020 Trump did better amongst Hispanics, Black voters and Muslims than he did in 2016. In fact, after four years of watching him as president, Trump did better with every single demographic except white men.

Early on in the Trump 2016 campaign, I — like many others — did not take him seriously. He was a clownish, xenophobic, unserious candidate. And I expected him to drop out or get crushed by the Republican machine at any moment. Even then, though, there were moments where I saw the “magic” of Trump. My earliest and most distinct realization that he was different was not when he warned of rapists coming from Mexico or called for Muslims to be banned from the U.S. — as horrifying as those moments were, American politicians have a long and sordid history of espousing racist or xenophobic crap. It was not novel.

Instead, that moment came when Trump was in a Republican primary debate, and after answering a question a series of boos came from the audience. Trump, pointing to the audience members booing him, looked at the camera and at his competition and then told the television audience how the sausage was made: he said the boos they were hearing were from political donors who paid a high-dollar price to get a ticket and were only there to buy the support of the candidates on the stage.

It was a remarkable moment. It was Bernie Sanders-esque, a giant middle-finger to the establishment, this kind of out-of-bounds, don’t-talk-about-that comment. And this time, it came from someone who had truly never spent a day in office. I loved it, even if I didn’t like him. In that moment I realized he was truly playing with nothing to lose, and it dawned on me that he was the most potent candidate on stage. There was simply nobody like him: unfiltered, ill-informed, shameless, entertaining, angry, funny and willing to say whatever he wanted to make a point or “counterpunch,” as he put it.

In the debates against Hillary, this absurdity was on full display. Here he was standing toe-to-toe with one of the most qualified, well-versed and intelligent politicians on the planet. She ran circles around him on policy while he mispronounced the names of world leaders. And it just didn’t matter. She was a corrupt Clinton, and he was Donald Trump, willing to say things to her face that millions of bent Americans had long wished they could. It didn’t matter what he said, it just mattered how he said it — and as long as he played in the key of “politicians have been screwing over America” there were enough people nodding their heads for him to win.

Trump is a bloviating, lying, smarmy, absent-of-any-ideology political incompetent. And the sad reality he revealed to us is that many of his colleagues are too. They jumped on and off his train as quickly as he tweeted, and dozens have sullied themselves simply by trying to emulate him, hitch their wagons to his star, or slander him with over-the-top lies and obsessive attacks.

He shot from the hip and ran the most important job in the world as if it was another reality TV show, and somehow — against all odds, even miraculously — there were times when it just seemed to work.

I don’t have an answer for how, and it’ll be years before most of us do, but as this newsletter makes plain there are plenty of arguments to bolster Trump’s accomplishments. Of course, many of the most dire predictions about his presidency didn’t come true: the stock market didn’t crash when he was elected, he didn’t indiscriminately nuke world leaders who insulted him, he didn’t start any new wars, or try to jail journalists and political opponents.

In the end, though, he did do what most of his critics (including me) worried and feared he’d do. He left the country, by nearly all traditional measures, in ruins. We’re more divided than we were when he entered office, we’re sicker, we’re poorer, we’re less employed, we’re viewed more harshly by our allies and by our fellow citizens, we trust every institution less, our courts have been further politicized, our health insurance is more expensive and fewer people have it, corrupt politicians have gotten get-out-of-jail-free cards, and his term ended with a furious refusal to accept the simple reality of what was so plain to me: that he had lost the election decisively.

It’s increasingly difficult to judge the Trump presidency favorably. History can be a funny thing, and it’s always hard to see clearly when you’re standing inside it, but my sense is this will be remembered as one of the most consequential, darkest and disappointing presidencies of our lifetimes.

Perhaps COVID-19 is to blame. Perhaps Trump’s handling of COVID-19 is to blame. Perhaps we were destined to end up here under this leader regardless, or maybe Trump would have won in a landslide and we’d be rallying around a healthy economy had coronavirus never touched down here. I don’t know. What I do know is that nearly every president in all of American history has faced at least one great crisis — and how effectively they respond is often what defines their time in office. From my vantage point, where we are now is not better than where we were four years ago. Period.

And yet, despite all this, despite the anger and pain and division and hardship of this moment, despite the fact voters rejected Trump in a decisive election — a healthy 56% of U.S. voters polled in September said their families were better off today than they were four years ago, while in December, 55% said the U.S. is worse off now than it was four years ago. All while Trump lost an election by more than seven million votes.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the complexity, contradiction and confounding nature of Trump and his presidency more than those data points alone.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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