Trump's presidential legacy is even worse than it looks

Trump's presidential legacy is even worse than it looks
President Donald J. Trump concludes his remarks at the 450th mile of the new border wall Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, near the Texas Mexico border. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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When President Donald Trump delivered his bleak inauguration speech on Jan. 20, 2017, one declarative line clearly was immediately the most memorable: "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Though the country was far from perfect at the end of President Barack Obama's eight years in office, the "American carnage" coinage was overwrought. But as he wiles away his last hours in the White House, his hopes for his own two-term presidency cut short, "American carnage" is all too apt a description of the legacy Trump is leaving behind.

And while the mainstream consensus is forming around the conclusion that Trump's presidency was largely a failure, many of its worst features are forgotten or underappreciated. It is, in many ways, worse than it looks.

The pinnacle of the disastrous tenure was, of course, the coronavirus crisis. For the first few years of the presidency, some of Trump's critics occasionally remarked that, as grotesque and unfit as Trump appeared for his job, there hadn't yet been the nation-wide calamity they had anticipated. But crises inevitably hit countries and test presidents, and the coronavirus proved Trump's harshest critics right. In fact, some of use had even voiced concern about exactly this turn of events long ago:

On Trump's last full day in office, Johns Hopkins University reported that deaths from the coronavirus have passed the 400,000 threshold. But when the outbreak first came to U.S. shores, Trump assured the American public there was little to worry about — and he took credit for the optimistic scenario he was painting.

"When you have 15 people [infected with the coronavirus], and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done," Trump said on Feb. 27, 2020.

Less noticed at the time was that Trump — who had been president for three years at that point — also expressed shock at the idea that tens of thousands of people die from the flu each year.

"The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me," he said. "Over the last 10 years, we've lost 360,000. These are people that have died from the flu — from what we call the flu."

He's never once acknowledged that the hundreds of thousands of deaths from the coronavirus could be attributed to the job he's done, even though he was quick to claim credit when he thought the numbers would be small. Now, the coronavirus has killed 40,000 more people in a year than his estimate of flu deaths over a decade. The death toll will keep rising for some time to come. And even these figures are probably underestimates, which will likely be revised upwards when analysts examine the data in retrospect.

Some defenders of the president bristle when coronavirus deaths are attributed to him. But that's the way presidential legacies work. You get credit for the things you do and don't do, and what happens on your watch. Some of the problems in the U.S. pandemic response, such as the devastating delays in testing and the initially misleading guidance against face masks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weren't directly Trump's fault. But he appointed the officials overseeing the health agencies responsible for these failures. And even more to the point, instead of correcting for these failures after they occurred, he exacerbated them by spreading falsehoods, disinformation, and conspiracy theories about the virus. He attacked those who tried to do good and honest public health work.

It is true that many other countries performed poorly in response to the coronavirus, such as the United Kingdom and Brazil. But there's a strong argument that the United States has performed worse than any other country, especially considering its inherent advantages of wealth and institutions.

Even this argument, though, underrates Trump's failure and the stain on his legacy. Some countries performed extremely well in the face of the pandemic, such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and there's no reason not to measure Trump against this standard. And the United States had an asset no one else had: the CDC, the world's leading public health agency. But instead of leveraging its talent to address the pandemic, the CDC has, under Trump's leadership, fallen from grace and become a global embarrassment. And before the pandemic even began, the Trump White House shut down the pandemic-focused office within the National Security Council.

It's impossible to say for sure, but had the CDC and the pandemic office in the NSC been operating at full capacity and with the force of the presidency behind them, the entire global course of the pandemic may have been different. There were early signs of trouble in China at the beginning of 2020, but U.S. officials were prevented from getting on the ground and fully assessing the situation. Could Trump have made it happen if he had tried? No one knows — but whether it's because he was distracted by his impeachment, trying to make nice with President Xi Jinping over trade disputes, or just completely disengaged from the problem, Trump wasn't interested in putting pressure on China. In a tweet on Jan. 27, Trump said only that he "offered" to send "help." Reuters reported that over the previous two years, the Trump administration had cut more than two-thirds of the CDC staff that was stationed in China.

We'll never know if a more vigorous effort to prevent a pandemic could have stopped the coronavirus in its tracks ahead of time. But we do know Trump didn't even try, and his actions plausibly made the outbreak more likely to happen and more severe than was necessary. These facts only compound the more widely known wrongdoing Trump committed by downplaying the pandemic, spreading bogus cures, and attacking the public health measures that could have saved lives.

And the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus has been made worse by all these failures. Somehow, Trump managed to convince much of the public and the press that he only should be judged on the performance of the economy prior to the pandemic. But that's not how the presidency works. Since Trump's actions made the pandemic worse, and the pandemic wrecked the economy, the president himself was a source of the economic downturn. One of the best ways a president can help the economy thrive is by running the federal government to protect the country against severe shocks. That's where Trump failed, and he doesn't make up for that by cheering on the stock market or pointing to job growth prior to the crisis that was largely just a continuation of trends that preceded his administration.

Trump was also missing in action during much of the debate around the CARES Act and related legislation that helped keep the economy from truly cratering when the virus first hit. Congress deserves most of the credit for that work, and Trump, luckily, didn't get in the way.

But we've only begun to fully understand all the damage that's been done. Recent reports have confirmed that 2020 saw a large increase in murders in the United States, likely because of the pandemic and related unrest. When Trump first took office, he repeatedly lied and said that the "murder rate in the United States is the highest it's been in 45 years." This wasn't even close to being true. Now, though, there really has been a significant increase, and it happened on his watch. (Most murders, of course, aren't directly under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but the likely tie to the COVID crisis, and Trump's own long-term focus on the issue, certainly make the increase a part of his legacy.)

At many points during his 2016 campaign and presidency, Trump also cited his commitment to fighting against the opioid abuse epidemic. But this, too, has been another dismal failure, as the pandemic has only fueled a new surge of deaths linked to the opioid crisis.

Other disturbing features of Trump's legacy have been widely covered, but have drifted into the background over time. His administration neglected Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which is estimated to have killed around 3,000 people. In a moment that presaged his dangerous denialism about COVID, Trump dismissed the scale of the tragedy and boasted his administration's emergency management. And his cruel immigration policies immiserated countless people unnecessarily, including the thousands of family members that were intentionally separated from each other under the traumatizing zero-tolerance policy, meant to deter refugees and migrants. Some of the children torn from their parents still haven't been reunited.

Finally, the damage Trump has done to U.S. civic institutions is long-lasting and impossible to calculate. He has probably irreparably destroyed faith in American elections among a large portion of the electorate. The insurrection he incited at the U.S. Capitol was the result of a years-long disinformation campaign, singularly focused on shielding himself from the personal shame of electoral losses. The Republican Party had long fanned the fires of anti-Semitism, racism, and conspiracy and wielded the flames against the media and the Democrats. But Trump took the fanaticism to a new level, sparking a true domestic terrorist attack, which will only further break down bonds of trust in society. Now, Joe Biden is preparing to take power with the National Guard being called an occupying army in Washington, D.C. And there's no telling when and if they'll be more Trump-inspired attacks, how deadly they might be, and what knock-on effects they'll have.

There are many other failures in the Trump presidency — including the botched handling of relations with North Korea, Russia, China, Ukraine, and Iran — too many, in fact, to count. But as has so often been the case in Trump's life, the closer one looks, the worse the situation appears. It's quite likely the assessments of Trump's legacy will grow increasingly grim over time.

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