Historians face a daunting task when it comes time to assessing Donald Trump’s presidency, during which news often moved at breakneck pace, and the ramifications of his one-term presidency have yet to be determined.
Trump White House
CNN spoke with nine historians who largely agreed that Trump’s final year in office – mainly, his failure to properly respond to the pandemic and his incitement of a mob of rioters at the US Capitol – has done more to cement Trump’s legacy than the first three years of his presidency. In addition to his Covid-19 response and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Trump’s handling of his first impeachment Senate trial, racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans and his challenge to the 2020 election represents his time in office boiled down to a year, they said.
Trump has set himself apart for his style of communication, including freewheeling speeches and speaking off the cuff in an informal manner. He threw out personal insults, cursed publicly, and regularly repeated mistruths. He used Twitter to govern and issue directives, appeal directly to his supporters, and spread conspiracies. He amplified the cultural wars, stoked racial divisions, and emboldened right wing extremism.
He vilified judges and courts for rulings he disliked, railed against the “deep state” and worked to undermine US intelligence agencies, attacked his own Cabinet members, and waged war against the oversight of his own administration by firing agency watchdogs. A recent directive from Trump makes it easier to push out career officials from the federal government and replace them with loyal political appointees.
“The Trump legacy is an exhausted, divided, bruised country with strained institutions,” Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian for CNN, said.
Jeff Engel, a presidential historian and author of “Impeachment: An American History,” told CNN that he doesn’t “think that anything that President Trump did this year surprised anyone – either his supporters, or his detractors, or neutral critics.”
“What he managed to do over the first three years was to genuinely reveal who he was and everything the last year has just deepened the color palette for that portrait,” Engel said.
‘A great crisis’
The coronavirus pandemic, upending all facets of American life, has consumed not only contemporary analysis of Trump, but also has shaped how the 45th President will be perceived long term, Engel said. As of Sunday, Covid-19 had claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 Americans and infected more than 23 million in the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“If you had asked me before the pandemic, I probably would have talked a lot about the tax cuts, deregulation, even immigration,” Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN contributor, said. “The pandemic swept up the country and defined what was going on. And so by definition, everything he has done this year will be elevated beyond anything in the first three years.”
Such a health crisis would have challenged any American president, but Trump downplayed the pandemic as it spread, pushed unproven treatments, flouted health recommendations, maligned his government’s health experts and politicized mask-wearing. His government worked expeditiously to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in record time, which is being touted as a remarkable scientific achievement. But Operation Warp Speed has fallen behind meeting expectations in administering doses to Americans.
Historians told CNN that the vaccine accomplishment has to be weighed against Trump’s other decisions in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump, Engel said, had an opportunity to rise to the challenge and change the narrative of his presidency, and “one of the things every President needs in order to go down in history as a significant or great president is a great crisis.”
January 6 – a ‘defining’ day
Historians also told CNN that Trump’s legacy will be marred by his refusal to concede the 2020 presidential election and advancement of misinformation and distrust in the American electoral process. All that crescendoed to January 6 – in a violent mob of pro-Trump rioters who breached the US Capitol and demanded that Congress stop its certification of the 2020 election, which Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden.
“Those images will endure, have left profound damage on our democratic processes, and will define the Trump era,” said Laura Belmonte, a history professor and dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
Kathryn Brownell, an associate professor at Purdue University, told CNN that January 6 was a “culmination of the ways in which Trump, supported and enabled by many in the Republican Party and in conservative media, has flagrantly flouted laws and norms over the course of his presidency.”
The attack on the Capitol, Brownell said, “with the encouragement and direction of President Trump, was shocking and unprecedented. It revealed the extent to which America’s dark and violent history of white supremacy continues to threaten democracy today, just as it has for centuries – something that historians have repeatedly highlighted not just in the past week, but over the past five years.”
A week later, enraged by the January 6th events and threat to democracy and their lives, the US House voted to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection” – making Trump the first president in US history to be impeached twice.
Trump’s first impeachment – for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – in December 2019 and acquittal by the US Senate in February 2020 may be viewed as a “just something between commas in a long list of bizarre moments and breaking of norms,” Engel said.
Historians say that there’s any numbers of ways that Trump shattered norms of the American presidency and politics, but Belmonte is not convinced much of Trump’s legacy will be terribly enduring. She argued that Trump lacks a signature legislative achievement comparable to Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act or George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
Presidential historian H.W. Brands told CNN that it’s “too soon to tell” what Trump’s most lasting legacy will be but that “if Trump had won reelection, then his novelties might have become new standards.”
“Trump weakened the confidence of other countries in American leadership, but confidence can be restored. He challenged the legitimacy of elections, but the recent election took place, the votes were counted, and the winner is going to be the next president,” Brands told CNN in an email.
History scholar Lindsay Chervinsky, author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” told CNN that the turnover in Trump’s Cabinet has been “un-paralleled in American history” and is “perhaps one of the most unprecedented things about his presidency.”
Johns Hopkins University history professor Martha Jones and others told CNN that the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy that led to thousands of migrant children separated from their families, will certainly be revisited and have historians grappling with how it’s possible the policy was permitted. His targeting of legal immigration and birthright citizenship will also be memorable, Jones said.
Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told CNN that a definite lasting impact will be Trump’s reshaping of the federal judiciary and US Supreme Court, by appointing three justices and giving America’s highest bench a 6-3 conservative-liberal majority. And time will tell whether Trump’s most lasting legacy was “the diminution of American democracy,” she said.
Trump’s America at home and abroad
Trump’s supporters would likely tout his tax cuts, judicial appointments, hardline immigration policies, and economic and trade policies, historians said.
Trump backers may also point to his administration’s peace negotiations in the Middle East, his tough stance on China, and his withdrawal of American troops from overseas such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump has removed the US from several international organizations and abandoned multilateral treaties including the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization. He insulted the US’ closest allies, while he cozied up to and praised dictators.
Trump doesn’t leave behind a “Trump doctrine” and “hasn’t left a structure in place that could be pointed to later as this is the Trump contribution to America,” said Naftali, who argued that Trump’s “America First” will not survive his administration.
As the White House has declared the Trump doctrine to be that “terrorists lose and peace wins,” historians argue that Trump’s foreign policy approach has damaged the US’ global standing.
While some of the historians CNN interviewed say that President-elect Joe Biden may be able to repair some of that damage, others such as Chervinsky believe it will take the US “years and decades to try and restore trust” among its allies.
“The loss of trust both domestically and internationally for the United States, for our institutions and our elections will probably be the most significant legacy, because that kind of thing takes so many decades to get back,” Chervinsky said. “Our international standing has really suffered.”
An important part of Trump’s legacy, Zelizer said, is what he revealed about where the Republican Party was in 2020 and his exposure and aggravation of some of the most controversial and sometimes destructive elements of the GOP.
Zelizer and others told CNN that as historians weigh Trump’s legacy, they’ll return to the question of how Trump managed to retain solid support within the Republican Party and his base despite his behavior and actions.
“Every time he pushed the envelope on what would’ve been considered normal behavior, not only – he didn’t pay a price for that politically very often, and indeed that just seemed to make his supporters that more deeply entrenched,” Belmonte told CNN. “And that’s something I think that’s going to take years for historians to piece out. What was the reason that there is this incredibly powerful loyalty to this President, irrespective of what he does?”
Historians also believe that Trump’s legacy will be determined by the direction the Republican Party takes once Trump exits the political stage and how the GOP restructures itself.
Elections are one way that presidential reputations are defined, Naftali said, and the midterm elections in 2022 and the presidential primaries in the 2024 election could all be indicators of the Trump legacy.
The extent to which Trump will matter and remain a political influencer, Naftali told CNN, also depends on “how many young ambitious politicos in this country look to his brand of leadership as a way to gain power. And that’s a legacy that you can’t describe yet.”
Already, the potential field of Republican presidential candidates for 2024’s GOP primary is starting to shape up, with some hopefuls angling to inherit Trump’s voter base.
“Republicans are going to help define Trump’s legacy and I can’t predict how that will go,” Naftali said, adding that it depends on the “political success of people who are carrying the Trump banner.”