Today is the last full day of the Trump presidency. It is easy to take his loss in November for granted, forgetting how likely his re-election seemed at the start of 2020 (and which the thinness of Biden’s wins in crucial states bears out). It is also easy to underestimate how much worse Trump’s presidency, as bad as it was, could have been.
I could start almost anywhere but I’ll begin with North Korea. At the start of Trump’s term, I thought the potential for the situation on the Korean peninsula to go in a horrible and possibly devastating direction was massive. But in a sense, I overestimated Trump and his ability to plow any course for a sustained period of time.
What happened with North Korea during Trump’s time in charge of the free world was farcical on many levels. By bending to Kim Young-un’s wishes on almost everything right up front, including giving the dictator a series of PR wins in return for absolutely nothing, we had a whole section of right-wing punditry bleating on about how Trump should be in line for a Nobel Peace Prize. This was a valuable episode in that it demonstrated the vacuity at the heart of a lot of this stuff; how so much of political discussion is just partisan point-scoring.
Then Trump declared he was “in love” with Kim Yong-un at a rally and his supporters cheered him on all the way. This was so far off the reservation, even the most previously slavish towards Trump neocons had to take at least a moment to catch their breath. Then, predictably to anyone who knows even the first thing about foreign policy, the North Korean dictatorship just kept on doing whatever the hell it wanted. People stopped claiming Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, for the North Korean fiasco at least.
And yet, things haven’t got particularly worse in that part of the world. They haven’t got better either, but that’s a different story. All right, Kim Jong-un is talking now about not only developing nuclear weapons but WMDs that can strike American targets. But that this hasn’t happened already does show one of Trump’s strengths as president – his behaviour was so unbelievably weird that instead of making world politics worse he froze a lot of it in aspic. If world affairs was a big party, Trump was like the guy who had been hired to MC events, only to show up drunk, take his trousers off and start giving a speech about his lurid sexual peccadillos, leaving the party guests unable to do anything else other than stand and silently gawk.
Russia could have made big advances on the world stage during Trump’s presidency, but it didn’t really happen. Chinese power is greater, but it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t have taken place anyhow, under any president. In fact, apart from the Middle East, where Trump seems to have done some good mostly by accident, his presidency is remarkable in how little of a footprint it will leave on history.
Another worry at the start of Trump’s term in 2017 was how much he would undermine America’s institutions. Yet he fought the institutions and the the institutions won. In the end, he tried going full-on autocrat by trying to overturn the election result that is due to kick him out of the White House tomorrow; it completely failed due to strength of the US legal system. It didn’t matter how many Republican Congressmen and Senators publicly backed Trump attempt to subvert democratic norms in America, the system was robust enough to handle it. His final attempt at what was as close to an outright attempt at revolution as he was willing to dare failed spectacularly on January 6th. He clearly wanted to game the system and was stopped at every turn.
In summary, Trump’s presidency was nowhere near as scary as I feared four years ago, partly because of a fault in Trump’s personality that stopped him from ever truly testing the systems in America and abroad, but also that what little he did try, the systems were ultimately resistant to. This is something we should take away from this episode in history as a huge positive. Having Trump in the White House should have caused more lasting damage to the west; it turns out our way of life and the rules it stands on is much more robust than some of us might have feared.