As Donald Trump’s presidency sputters to its much-anticipated conclusion, few people doubt that he’ll be remembered as the worst president in U.S. history — not least because he brought the country’s most destructive tendencies to the forefront and encouraged the most violent impulses of its right-wing extremist factions.
It is difficult to perform an autopsy on Trump’s presidency without first mentioning the ways in which he failed at conducting even the most basic duties of a U.S. president: to “preserve, protect, and defend” the U.S. Constitution and to protect the American people from harm. During his single term in office, he fell short of these tasks in myriad ways, including by using his position for personal profit, encouraging foreign powers to dig up dirt on his opponents, and letting a fatal virus run rampant across the United States and his own White House. He behaved, and is still behaving, in ways that are so extremely cruel that many of us have had to develop coping mechanisms to numb ourselves to the very reality that this is the leader of our nation. His corruption surpasses that of Richard Nixon, and his enabling of white supremacists can only be compared to that of Andrew Johnson. No wonder he was impeached more times than both of them, combined.
Even though it’s clear that the violent coup on the U.S. Capitol that Trump incited on January 6 was a miserable failure when it came to accomplishing the task at hand — to stop Joe Biden from becoming president — it still was successful at endangering members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence, and is responsible for the deaths of a police officer and several of Trump’s own supporters. Of course, Trump doesn’t care. His goal has always seemed to be causing chaos and advancing the fortunes of himself and his family, and so it’s no surprise that he is refusing to make anything like a concession or any of the regularly scheduled overtures to the President-elect and his administration. Instead, he’s basically departing the White House with his middle finger up and an ominous promise to never really leave the national stage; political science and history experts warn of a coming rise in domestic terrorism from his supporters, and a continued fall in confidence in democratic institutions among the American population. Sadly, that is far from Trump’s only legacy.
Back when he first ran and even his candidacy, let alone a win, seemed implausible, Trump’s campaign was defined by two violent, xenophobic moments, showing that his supporters always knew who he was and either enabled his white supremacy actively or by ignoring it. The first was perpetuating the racist birther theory that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not the U.S., which was gleefully perpetuated by the worst of right-wing fringes. The second was when he called Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists in his campaign launch speech, encouraging already-existent xenophobia among his followers and setting a tone for his administration’s ruthless immigration policy: The beginning of his presidency saw a prolonged court battle over the clearly unconstitutional Muslim travel ban. Then followed the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, the escalation of an already increasingly aggressive ICE deportation system, and horrific accounts of forced hysterectomies performed on migrant women.
All throughout, Trump made sure that he fulfilled his pledge of “draining the swamp,” only, to him, that actually meant getting rid of career public servants and enacting an extremist right-wing takeover of all of the country’s major institutions and taking an axe to civility, kindness, and progress. He hired Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a billionaire know-nothing whose mission it is to destroy public schools. He hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions to help him carry out the Muslim ban, then Attorney General William Barr to help him discredit Robert Mueller’s findings of obstruction. He hired Mike Pompeo, who has helped destroy the State Department — as well as long-standing relationships with major foreign allies. And who could forget the trifecta of Federalist Society-darling Supreme Court judges, seemingly designed in a lab to be stunningly out of step with the values of the American public — one of whom has been credibly accused of sexual assault? The handpicking of the anti-abortion, anti-voting rights Amy Coney Barrett was surely the icing on the cake.
And then, there was Trump’s grandest and most despicable failure, the reason we are sitting at home right now instead of living our lives — and the reason many of us now know someone who has died of a deadly virus and 11 million Americans are unemployed. Despite knowing that the coronavirus pandemic was coming and that it would be serious and deadly, Trump decided to ignore his advisors who pushed him to pursue aggressive measures to curb the spread of the virus. Instead, he fell lockstep with the saddest, most pathetic of his supporters, those who protested, often armed, in front of state capitols like that in Michigan in favor of lifting mask requirements and anti-lockdown measures. He tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” like a brainwashed right-winger who has read one too many Facebook posts, rather than the president of the United States (admittedly, in the last four years, those two things have been one and the same). He constantly used racist slurs like "the Chinese virus" to describe the illness. Ignoring the pleas of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the media, and reason itself, he continued to hold gigantic rallies to stroke his own ego, which in turn caused spikes in infections, and even killed Tea Party leader and avid Trump supporter Herman Cain. He let Americans die — and was himself hospitalized — while assuring us that the virus was no big deal and would be over soon. It’s worse than ever; the death count now stands at over 400,000 Americans.
Trump’s willingness to see his opposition suffer knew no bounds. He unleashed the military on thousands of protestors in American cities this summer who marched for the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence, spread dangerous conspiracy theories about the protests through his toxic Twitter account, and supported white supremacist killers like Kyle Rittenhouse. But equally, he seemed not to care about his own supporters’ lives, sending them into the deadly turbulence of the Capitol on January 6 in a desperate last-ditch effort to derail the counting of Electoral College results and stop democracy at work.
He has completely ignored, and actually willingly exacerbated, the global threat of climate change, an act of negligence that follows his pattern of cruelty, selfishness, and corporate cronyism.
Now, as he reportedly sits in the White House “bitter” and in a “foul mood” awaiting his ceremonial farewell tomorrow morning — which some staff are apparently trying to skip because they don’t want to be seen there — Trump’s legacy has been written, and it includes not one, but two impeachments, a historic incumbent loss, and a series of anti-democratic (and embarrassing) attempts to overturn the election. And now, there are over 20,000 National Guard troops in Washington, D.C., the largest military presence in an American city since the Civil War, to protect President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris from the domestic terrorists whom Trump himself has sent there.
In his goodbye speech this afternoon, Trump condemned political violence, but his Teleprompter-induced words belied his actions, and were at odds with recent events. Or, at least until he said, “We did what we came here to do.” It is important to remember that while history might see Trump as a failure, in his own eyes, he is a success: Violence is what he came here to do, and it is what he has accomplished, in countless, horrific ways. It’s why it’s hard to view his defeat as an uncomplicated victory; there’s still so much work to do, cleaning up the mess he's left behind.