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Assessing Trump’s legacy: Will the good outweigh the bad, or vice versa?

The Trump administration’s balance sheet will be long and fiercely debated. To his enemies, Donald Trump has been a corrosive imposter who, by rank demagogy and pandering to baser instincts, scooped up the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and, inexplicably (except to those who cling to the fraud of Russian interference in his favor in 2016), was elected president by gaming the Electoral College system. 

All of his accomplishments are denied, diminished or attributed to his predecessor. Judgment of him is not of his actual performance but of his alleged turpitude of character, racist and misogynistic attitudes, boorishness, boastfulness and churlish, soul-devouring megalomania. 

The basis for the allegations of racial and sexist biases is a series of bowdlerized extracts from his often sloppily formulated apercus. What he said about the deadly riot in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 was that it began between reasonable people who wished to retain or remove the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee; from this arose the malignant canard that he was an apologist for neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. The other principal canon of the xenophobia and bigotry charges, especially Islamophobia, was his rather reckless explanation for temporarily restricting entry in the U.S. from terrorism-plagued or -supporting countries. The charge of misogyny is not and cannot be substantiated but is implicitly connected to his garishly publicized bachelorhood and marriage breakdowns. All of this was rather declasse, but no more so than the peccadilloes of Bill Clinton or John F. Kennedy. 

Trump is effectively charged with a profound animosity toward everyone except straight white males. (But not all of them; Jews, beware.) This is bunk and has nothing to do with his performance as president. But it is the prism through which those who dislike him for other reasons portray him not only as a vulgarian, but as a lurching monster from the dark lagoon of self-destroying prejudices.

One of the more puzzling social exercises of the past several years has been to indulge the fulminations of Trump-haters in social discourse, and then neutrally to ask about some of his more notable achievements, such as drastically reducing illegal immigration or producing a full-employment economy with sharply declining levels of poverty and violent crime. What almost always follows is a fictionalized three-hanky tearjerker about cages on the southern U.S. border — which the Obama administration introduced, and which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) compared to Auschwitz — and the separation of alleged families of illegal migrants. 

Yet, these and the other principal arguments in favor of Trump’s administration — comparative success in the Middle East; the elimination of ISIS; raising awareness of the China challenge; reducing taxes and regulations; renegotiating trade treaties; rationally protecting the environment while withdrawing from the self-punitive insanity of the Paris Climate Accord, etc. — can’t really be contested. Without trying to jam too much history into a short column, Trump characteristically exaggerates when he claims to have had the most successful term of any U.S. president — but, in policy terms, he probably has, except for Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (although James Polk deserves an honorable mention).

Any serious assessment of Trump’s presidency must take these accomplishments into account, even if some of them are reversed by his successor. But similarly, Trump’s defenders cannot ignore the extent to which his frequently ungracious, unnecessarily provocative, gratuitously insulting remarks diminished the dignity of the presidency, which requires the maintenance of that office’s inherent dignity. Trump’s haters cannot validly ignore the outgoing president’s achievements, and Trump’s supporters cannot honestly overlook his apparently deliberate polarization of the country.

Both Trump and his enemies are responsible for the toxicity of today’s American political atmosphere. He certainly did not incite an insurrection or violence in Washington on Jan. 6, and the impeachment of him for that offense is perhaps the most fatuous legislative initiative in American history, given that it aims to remove someone whose term of office will have expired by imputing to him — without any probative evidence or due process whatever — conduct of which he was not guilty. But the president also is obliged to display moral leadership, including a reasonably judicious use of his unparalleled potential influence on public opinion, and Trump frequently failed that test. 

The key historical question will be which side was the initial aggressor and which was more responsible for the coruscation of national political antagonism that exploded on Jan. 6. In practice, the Trump-haters refuse to concede that Trump had a real grievance over the Trump-Russia collusion allegations even though it is now public knowledge that FBI officials at the time opened and leaked what they spuriously called an intelligence investigation of Trump which they knew was based on an infamous dossier commissioned by the Clinton campaign and improperly filed affidavits requesting surveillance of the Trump transition team.

As for the last acts of the Trump presidency, those who believe that he had a legitimate grievance about the counting of votes in five or six swing states — and that the Supreme Court abdicated when it should have heard the case made for that argument by the attorney general of Texas, supported by 18 other states — will feel that Trump’s remarks to an estimated 300,000 or so followers on Jan. 6 in Washington were justifiable. Those who dismiss his concerns about the election as unfounded will consider his remarks irresponsible or worse. Trump-haters will regard him as a “Russian asset” and a chronic bigot, just as FDR-haters claim he was complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor and was a communist.

When cant and emotionalism subside, Trump should be regarded as an effective, capable president — and as an astonishing political phenomenon — but also as one whose bellicose indiscretions and lack of judgment keep him below the category of unusually talented presidents, where he might otherwise reside. 

Of course, his political life may not be over yet, and part of his record may still be unwritten. 

Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.

Tags Bill Clinton Capitol attack Donald Trump Donald Trump Nancy Pelosi Trump haters trump-russia dossier

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