Donald Trump looms large now, but maybe not forever

Few presidents who served four years or less find an enduring place in the popular imagination
Last Updated 28 November 2020, 02:46 IST

President Trump’s critics have warned that history will look unkindly on the president’s decision to make false attacks on the integrity of the election instead of accepting defeat. This forecast, while understandable, may be wrong. History rarely looks on one-term presidents at all.

For years I’ve had the chance to view Trump in the light of his predecessors, covering his administration as a journalist while also writing history. This made it natural to try assessing him from a distance, as I have done with 19th-century leaders, and as future historians will peer at him. Someday the clamor of his tenure will fade, leaving behind a few essential facts, the first of which is his single term.

Few presidents who served four years or less find an enduring place in the popular imagination. One term is not long to influence a country so large and dynamic — and a president’s failure to win a second term can be a sign that he didn’t. If you are not from Indiana, you may not know my state produced Benjamin Harrison, a one-term president who was different from President William Henry Harrison, who died after one month in office. Few people visit the statue of James Buchanan in a lonely corner of a Washington park, and in my life I have met just one enthusiast for Chester A. Arthur.

One-term presidents who escape obscurity often did something beyond the presidency — like John Adams, one of the nation’s founders, or Jimmy Carter, whose much-admired post-presidency has lasted 10 times as long as his term. Others are known for their failures while in office: Warren G. Harding for a corruption scandal, Herbert Hoover for economic calamity, Andrew Johnson for being impeached.

We can’t be sure what history will make of Trump, whose term featured scandal, impeachment and calamity, as well as a pandemic. His story may not be over; he remains at the head of a powerful movement, and reportedly talks of running in 2024. But to judge by information available today, he has a relatively narrow role in the American story: as the reaction to a game-changing president — Barack Obama.

Something like this is true of many presidents. A relative handful enact lasting change, while others respond to them. The ones who left a mark include Andrew Jackson, Trump’s favourite, who served two terms, from 1829 to 1837. Jackson founded the Democratic Party, reinforced slavery, pursued populist economic policies, and faced down a near-rebellion over states’ rights. When he exceeded his power to achieve his goals, critics called him King Andrew.

Jackson was followed by eight presidents who served in his shadow, two of whom died in office and none of whom went on to a second term. History does not linger long on most of them; they were subordinate characters, mostly shaped by Jackson’s agenda — either advancing or resisting it.

In the same way, we can place Trump in the context of Barack Obama. Elected in 2008, Obama seemed to personify America’s growing diversity as a multiracial republic. His campaign motivated new voters, and he talked at first of transcending old political divisions. He said he wanted Americans to regain trust in institutions battered by 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the financial crisis. He signed the Affordable Care Act, tried to break an impasse over immigration, and approved a nuclear agreement to ease a long-running conflict with Iran.

He also did not manage to transcend the old divisions. Facing unrelenting opposition from Republicans in Congress, he enraged them by using executive authority to govern around them. Numerous Republicans claimed Obama was acting like a king.

The Obama presidency paved the way for Trump. He rose by relentlessly attacking Obama, promoting the racist conspiracy theory about his birthplace and falsely claiming that he favored open borders. He told voters in 2016 that he was their “last chance” to win before they were overwhelmed by immigrants and globalism.

It is astonishing to recall how much Trump devoted his term to re-fighting the battles of the Obama years. Using executive authority as Obama had, he rolled back housing and environmental regulations, reversed transgender rights in the military, and branded antiracism programs as racist.

But on many issues he only partly succeeded. He withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, but other nations did their best to maintain it. He abandoned Obama’s strategy toward China, but he struggled to make his own strategy work. He damaged the Affordable Care Act but never managed to repeal it, even when his party controlled Congress.

It was revealing that he publicly supported the most popular benefits of the health insurance law that he said he despised, such as protections for pre-existing conditions. His predecessor defined what health insurance should cover, and Trump accepted the definition.

Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, but his successor plans to rejoin it. Trump ended Obama’s program giving legal status to some immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, but the Supreme Court restored it, finding Trump’s action “arbitrary and capricious.” Though Trump took other actions to limit immigration, the most permanent symbol of his policy may be an unfinished wall in the desert. He neither erased all of President Obama’s accomplishments nor completed his own.

President Trump still has a legacy. He attracted a vast and loyal following. The three Supreme Court justices he appointed are likely to remain on the bench for decades. His obsessive use of social media made him unlike any president before him, as did his open disregard of barriers between his public duties and personal business.

He spoke well of authoritarian rulers, and used similar styles of disinformation. And the epic conflicts he generated seem like perfect material for future history texts. It is easy to imagine a high school history book recounting the monthslong court fight over his effort to ban Muslims from entering the United States, followed by discussion questions on religious freedom and the Constitution.

But as he leaves office, President Trump remains only one character in a story much larger than him, in which he is overshadowed by the two-term president he so often opposed. If Trump’s own record did not demonstrate this, it will be clear on Jan. 20, when his single term in office ends, and Obama’s former vice president will replace him.

Steve Inskeep is a co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition and Up First, and the author of “Jacksonland” and “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.”

(Published 28 November 2020, 02:46 IST)

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