Analysis & Opinions

Donald Trump

| Dec. 11, 2018

The President is forging a legacy that may be as much about the resistance he engenders as the goals he pursues

By Molly Ball in TIME

Some Presidents have plans to change the world. They execute their strategies step by step and are judged by how far they get. Donald Trump came to the presidency by surprise and has attended to its responsibilities erratically. And yet, just as he rewrote the rules of politics in 2016 and remade the presidency in 2017, Trump left his mark on the planet this year.

He played a role in virtually every one of the year’s major trends, from the battle over social media’s influence to the populist wave sweeping Europe to the new direction of the U.S. Supreme Court. But his greatest impact hasn’t come through conventional actions: the articulation of a governing agenda, the management of international relationships, the championing of legislation. Instead, true to the unpredictability that thrilled so many voters and worried so many others, he has been a disrupter, stoking political divisions, breaking institutional norms and weakening the power of the federal government from within.

Trump’s moves have touched the lives of millions. By loosening the rules on everything from water safety to banking, he has changed the balance of power between businesses and consumers. Disavowing decades of U.S. strategy in Europe, the Middle East and northeast Asia, he has scrambled alliances and emboldened strongmen. He has upended American politics, darkening the tone of the public debate and spurring both parties to remake themselves in response to his provocations. Scholars have compared Trump to Andrew Jackson for his populist fervor and to Richard Nixon for his willingness to attack the justice system. But Trump is a singular figure. “He is in a category of his own,” says historian Michael Beschloss.

For all Trump’s influence there is a crowning irony: his ultimate impact may be determined as much by the resistance he engenders as by the goals he pursues. In some fights, expected checks have never materialized: Republicans have amplified his attacks on the American voting process, on the press, on immigrants and refugees. Yet elsewhere he has been rebuffed: domestic institutions from the courts to the Cabinet have resisted presidential overreach. In November, the people imposed a check on his power, ushering in a new era of divided government.

This year brought forth the consequences of Trump’s disruption. The deficit soared. The stock market trembled. The voters revolted. Special counsel Robert Mueller circled closer. Trump has tested the system and exposed its weaknesses, but also revealed its strength.

When visitors see President Trump in the Oval Office or at his desk aboard Air Force One, Trump likes to ask an aide to bring out what he calls “the dots.” It’s a three-page, bullet-pointed summary of what Trump considers to be his Administration’s greatest accomplishments. Trump touts “4 million jobs created since election” and more Americans employed than “ever recorded before in our history.” He boasts of ordering the creation of a military space force, canceling the “job killing Clean Power plan” and withdrawing from the “horrible, one-sided Iran Deal.”

The list is trademark Trump, equal parts exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. But it also highlights the nature of his impact. Presidents are traditionally judged chiefly by their laws and wars. In 2018, Trump’s accomplishments took place mostly in the absence of both.

Trump could not get Congress to fund his border wall or pass his restrictionist vision for immigration policy. Courts put on hold his attempt to rescind protections for Dreamers. But he pursued his divisive agenda through the Executive Branch. Enraged by the flow of undocumented immigrants over the southern border (which, by historical standards, is at a low ebb), he put in place a policy of separating migrant children from their parents in order to send a harsh message to potential border crossers. It was officially withdrawn after a public outcry in June, but hundreds of children may have been permanently traumatized or lost to deported relatives. Thousands now reside in detention camps, while thousands more wait in a squalid converted stadium in Tijuana for the chance to seek refuge in the U.S.

Until the recent market downturn, most U.S. economic indicators soared throughout the year. The tax cut the GOP passed in December 2017 fueled corporate profits. With the unemployment rate at historic lows, wages rose somewhat and businesses complained of a hiring crisis. Trump spurned fiscal conservatism, boosting spending toward a $1 trillion annual deficit and ballooning the national debt by $1.9 trillion. He also abandoned his populist economic promises, which included raising taxes on hedge-fund managers, providing universal health care, spending on public works and reining in prescription-­drug prices. The result: majorities of voters considered their economic situation satisfactory, but few believed the President’s policies benefited them personally.

Where Trump did follow through was on his promise to change America’s trade relationships. In 2018, he pursued a protectionist agenda with zeal. The tariffs started small last January, with duties on washing machines, then ramped up with steel and aluminum, then escalated into a broad range of levies affecting allies like Canada as much as economic foes like China. Agricultural exports were hit hard. The President’s policies punished corn and soybean farmers in the rural areas that had buoyed him politically and exacerbated an ongoing dairy crisis. Small businesses complained of rising costs. Trump touted his renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, in which Mexico and Canada agreed to new terms ostensibly better for U.S. industry. But the agreement was a minor modification of the much maligned 1994 deal and has yet to be ratified.

Trump and the GOP found new ways to attack and under­mine the Affordable Care Act. Regulators pared back the outreach programs intended to boost enrollment and help people find coverage, while expanding the industry’s ability to sell low-cost plans with fewer protections. The Administration declined to defend the requirement to cover people’s pre-existing health conditions against a multi­state lawsuit. It also paved the way for states to impose work requirements on Medicaid; five have already received federal approval to do so, and ­Arkansas has put a program in place. But these moves came at a political cost: Democrats embraced Obama­care’s rising popularity and campaigned to protect its most popular provisions. “The Affordable Care Act is still standing, in spite of efforts to undermine it,” says Larry Levitt of the Kaiser ­Family Foundation.

Health care was just one area in which regulators sought to accomplish what legislators could not. The ­Education Department abandoned Obama-era efforts to crack down on diploma mills. It also moved to replace college sexual-assault rules that even some liberals criticized for infringing on the rights of the accused. The Environmental Protection Agency rolled back pollution rules. The head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, founded as a clearinghouse for consumer complaints about financial services, halted its investigations of companies and collections of fines. The Department of Justice ceased overseeing troubled police departments around the country. Millions of lives were affected by these often unheralded regulatory changes.

Trump and his GOP congressional allies moved dozens of judicial nominations; approximately one-sixth of all federal appellate judges are now Trump appointees. Most dramatically, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, then stood behind him when it looked like the pick might be derailed by Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school. By cementing a 5-4 conservative majority on the court, Trump may have remade the American legal landscape for decades.

Trump’s most consequential moves may have come in his attacks on the U.S. justice system. In the spring, he reportedly ordered prosecutors to target Hillary ­Clinton for investigation, and in May he alleged the FBI had tried to infiltrate his presidential campaign for political purposes. He fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for insufficient ­fealty in the Mueller investigation. He has publicly and privately pressured law-enforcement officials, commented on cases under way, teased the prospect of pardons and opined on witnesses’ credibility, all actions that threaten the judicial system’s independence and integrity.

The first two weeks of March captured Trump’s disruptive approach to foreign policy. On March 8 he fulfilled a long-delayed promise to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. The same day, hearing that a delegation from South Korea was in the White House to meet with other officials, Trump summoned them to the Oval Office and stunned his aides by agreeing on the spot to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with the reclusive North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. On March 13 Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive whose cautious style he’d mocked. Two months later, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal.

As 2018 progressed, Trump dismissed advisers who had previously constrained him on trade and diplomacy. In doing so, he scrambled the economic relationships that had held together the post–Cold War international order. Critics say he has made America less essential and more isolated on the world stage. “I think this President has done enormous damage to the United States,” says ­Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and top State Department official under George W. Bush.

Trump’s June summit with Kim ended in warm handshakes and friendly rhetoric. But there was no formal agreement, and U.S. investigators say North Korea has continued to pursue its nuclear and missile programs. Kim was not the only dictator Trump cozied up to. In July, Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, talking without aides present for over two hours, then emerging to declare that Putin “was extremely strong and powerful in his denial” of meddling in the 2016 election. In November, Trump took the side of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who allegedly directed the murder and dismemberment of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The damage to America’s moral standing, Trump’s critics say, may be hard to repair. “We grew up in a totalitarian state, seeing America as a hope,” says Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition leader and former Energy Minister. “It represented a normal system, values, freedom. It is no longer.”

Trump’s actions have real effects beyond matters of image and reputation. In November, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the creation of a “true European army,” apparently in reaction to Trump’s criticism of NATO and friendliness with Russia. Countries that were close allies with the U.S. have begun to seek partnerships with China instead. Meanwhile, Beijing has made incursions into disputed territory in the South China Sea, conducting “training exercises” that U.S. officials say are a cover for military buildup. Trump “has created tremendous uncertainty, and that creates an opportunity for others to fill the void,” says John Glenn, policy director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “China, especially, has taken advantage.”

In a democracy, accountability rests with the people, which can be a dicey proposition: the people, after all, have a tendency to be inattentive, irrational and mercurial. But they also possess the ability to send a message through the ballot box that their leaders have to heed.

On Nov. 6, in the nation’s first major opportunity to register its verdict on the Trump era, the signal was unmistakable. After all the votes were counted, the Democratic Party’s congressional candidates had won the largest proportion of the vote, 53%, since the post-Watergate landslide of 1974. They gained 40 seats in the House of Representatives, seven governorships and hundreds of seats in state legislatures.

Democrats campaigned mainly on pocketbook issues, telling voters they’d protect Social Security and the Affordable Care Act. But it was clear that Trump was the axis on which the election turned. Two-thirds of midterm voters told exit pollers they’d cast their ballots to send a message about the President. Independent voters swung hard toward the Democrats, and college-­educated women were particularly determined to show their disapproval. Democrats won the states that put Trump in the White House—­Pennsylvania, Michigan, ­Wisconsin—and took over suburban districts from Orange County, California, to Charleston, Atlanta and Oklahoma City. It was the largest midterm election turnout in more than a century. While a typical midterm draws only about half as many voters as a presidential election, the number of ballots cast for Democrats in 2018 reached 92% of the total Hillary Clinton received when she won the popular vote in 2016.

The President galvanized his party as well. He sent troops to the border in a brazen political stunt weeks before the vote, barnstormed rural strongholds and rallied Republicans to the polls with a divisive closing message. Most Presidents struggle to rouse their bases when they’re not on the ballot, but Trump did, helping to limit GOP losses in parts of the country where he remains popular and powering his party to a two-seat gain in the ­Senate—a split decision that augurs even deeper political divides.

Trump’s pull on the GOP appears almost mesmeric. The party that once stood for free markets and moral values now stands for whatever Trump wants it to, whether it’s antagonism to federal law enforcement, enthusiasm for Russia’s authoritarian regime, the rejection of refugees or a belief in “deep state” conspiracy theories. This year’s Republican primaries unfolded as loyalty competitions, and the winning candidates were generally those who professed their enthusiasm for the President most effusively: Florida’s governor-elect beat a more experienced GOP contender with an ad that showed him teaching his infant daughter to read a Trump campaign sign. In the general election, Republican candidates largely abandoned talk of tax cuts and judicial appointments in favor of the President’s preferred themes of illegal immigration and “fake news.”

But as much as Trump inspired his supporters, he inspired everyone else even more. Before Trump came along, political organizers tied themselves in knots trying to get more women to run for office, usually to little avail. In 2018, thousands of women decided to seek election, explaining that they had been spurred off the sidelines by the President. First-time candidates from diverse backgrounds won Democratic primaries: former Republicans, former CIA operatives, former mixed-martial-arts fighters—all driven by what felt to them like a national political emergency­.

Millions more took political action on their behalf, protesting, canvassing, sending handwritten postcards to voters. The result is that a record 126 women will serve in the next Congress, nearly a quarter of the total—84% of them Democrats. The new face of the Democratic Party is the face of Trump’s opposition: women, young people and people of color.

This is the next generation of American politics, and it’s one Trump made. Democrats are already maneuvering for the 2020 presidential primaries, promising a roiling debate over the party’s direction. But above all, that battle will be a competition about who can beat Trump.

Two years into Trump’s term, it’s hard to gauge whether the result of his disruptions will be catastrophic or anticlimactic. In many cases Trump has spotlighted long-unaddressed problems. NATO countries have, in fact, under­funded the defense targets of the alliance. China has been cheating the U.S. on intellectual property for years and maintaining an advantage on trade. Global migration has put pressure on liberal democracies worldwide. Even Hillary Clinton recently said that European countries need to reform their immigration policies in response to resurgent right-wing parties.

American democracy can seem dysfunctional, with its gridlocked Congress and polarized public debate. But many ­institutions—the military, the justice system, the courts—have risen to resist Trump’s attacks. Trump has tested the nation, and some pillars of American democracy have proved up to the challenge, says presidential historian Timothy Naftali. “Trump is the first President to make undermining routinely our public institutions part of his brand,” he says. “Our judiciary is standing up to his Administration when it crosses a line. The Mueller investigation is going forward. Intimates of the President have been indicted. That wouldn’t be happening if our institutions were falling apart.”

For all the disruption, in other words, the American system is proving remarkably resilient. That too may be part of Trump’s legacy

 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Donald Trump.” , December 11, 2018.