How important is any one human being? In War and Peace, Tolstoy discusses the significance of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Corsican artilleryman-turned-emperor might have brought all of Europe to its knees, but to Tolstoy the great man was a mere cork bobbing on the ocean of history.
So it is with Donald Trump as he exits the American political stage, five and a half messy, sordid years after his arrival. The Trump era may be the most memorable period of American history since the 1960s. Certainly, he has inspired more newspaper column inches than any man in living memory. But how important was the man himself?
This might at first seem an asinine question. The evidence for this president’s special place in American and even world history seems compelling. Even out of power, Trump may command far more attention than his successor. CNN, once a general news channel, might as well have become a wholly Trump-focused network in recent years. Every rally the president held, from Reading to Reno, drew a massive crowd. The prospect of Trump leaving office was so upsetting to his followers that some of them plundered the Capitol, died and even killed on his behalf. Whoever died or killed for the sake of Mitt Romney?
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.
All political careers in end in failure, said Enoch Powell. More than any candidate in decades, Trump in 2016 ran on a pledge to reverse the decay in Washington DC. On the economy, on immigration and on America’s role in the world, he espoused a powerful populist message that carried him all the way to an implausible electoral victory, despite his profound and highly visible defects of character.
But for Trump, a reality-TV man at heart, the medium always was the message. The performance was the substance. Every day of his presidency was a new episode of The Donald Trump Show, and he wanted to win each episode more than anything else. That meant thousands of hours fixated on cable news and Twitter feuds, and jetting across the country to deliver repetitive speeches to adoring crowds.
When it came to the difficult, less rewarding, off-camera work of government, Trump was often disengaged, happy to delegate to his son-in-law or to Cabinet officials whose work he only seemed to notice when a Fox News segment made him aware of their doings.
A more committed leader, handed the White House and Congress in 2016, might have implemented a sweeping agenda. But for Trump, blunt executive orders were preferable to the headaches of policymaking or, worse, actually drafting and passing new legislation. As president, he used executive orders to impose travel bans, combat tech censorship, create a national statue garden and even dictate what architectural styles may be used for federal buildings. Many of these executive orders were excellent ideas. But the very nature of their implementation means they will be easy for a Biden administration to eradicate.
The Biden administration will delete much of Trump’s legacy as easily as Trump appeared to delete President Obama’s. Just two years from now, the only surviving relic of Trump’s policy agenda may be his 2017 tax cut, a rare instance of a hard-to-repeal law instead of an easily negated signature on a scrap of paper. Naturally, it’s the one Trump reform that would have been passed by absolutely any Republican president.
For those still loyal to the idea of President Trump, if not the reality, The Donald’s ignominious departure is not all doom and gloom. The forces of history are such that, while President Trump could not carry his movement to victory, his incompetence was not remotely enough to destroy it. Donald Trump did not even create what is so often called Trumpism. Instead, he merely harnessed political forces that already existed. They were generated by sentiments that had been growing for years: frustration at the weakness of the America’s two major political parties, desperation over the visible decay of the American heartland, a backlash against ever-more-assertive progressive cultural hegemony and, above all, a burning hatred of America’s governing class and its pretensions.
After four years of Trump, those sentiments are more powerful than ever. Now, with the president gone, his followers might choose a less noisy, more formidable champion.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.