How Donald Trump will be remembered after four tumultuous years as president

WASHINGTON – Ronald Reagan set the standard for judging a president’s success when, as a candidate for the office in 1980, he famously asked Americans: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

It’s a test historians say Donald Trump has failed.

Trump, whose presidency ends Wednesday after four tumultuous years, leaves behind a nation severely wounded by an attempted insurrection, scarred by racial and political divisions that he inflamed, ravaged by a deadly coronavirus pandemic whose severity he initially downplayed, and crippled by doubts among many of its citizens about democratic principles like the rule of law, a fair electoral process and an uninhibited free press.

“I suspect he will go down as the worst president in American history,” said historian and author Ron Chernow, who has written biographies of George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Alexander Hamilton.

“I can’t imagine there’s anyone in America today, whether Republican or Democrat, whether they’re a Trump supporter or Trump opponent, who feels good about the state of the country after four years of Donald Trump,” Chernow said.

Trump leaves office as the only American president to be impeached twice – a record that many historians and political scholars say he earned by spreading lies about his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the November election and inciting a brazen mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the most egregious assault on the seat of democracy since the War of 1812.

Trump's defenders – and there are many, almost all of them Republicans – said recent events will indeed damage his reputation, but they pointed to long-term accomplishments that will also resonate beyond his term in office: tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks, confronting China over unfair trade practices, and record-breaking rises in the stock market.

Many pointed to Trump's legacy in federal law, which they said will be felt for decades to come. Trump appointed more than 200 judges, including three new members of the U.S. Supreme Court, solidifying the high court's conservative majority.

“President Trump’s political success in nominating judges to the federal judiciary has been historic," said Tory L. Lucas, a law professor at Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Virginia. "One would have to go back decades to find a comparable record on the number of confirmed federal judges in a single term."

Trump’s political legacy will be complex, but he’ll be remembered partly for exposing “the fragility of democracy,” said Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University.

“Americans have long seen American democracy as unbreakable, immune to the threats that have plagued democracies around the world,” said Freeman, author of a pre-Civil War history titled "The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War."

“American exceptionalism has blinded some of us to longstanding and very real gaps in our political foundation,” she said. “Trump gloried in them. … It’s an ugly legacy, but well-deserved."

Trump's response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic shrouds his entire record as president, said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump.”

As the COVID-19 virus spread, Trump claimed it would disappear “like a miracle” even though he acknowledged to journalist Bob Woodward that he knew it was more deadly than he acknowledged publicly. Trump refused to wear a face mask in public and even appeared to suggest injecting disinfectants as a possible cure.

The toll: More than 24 million Americans, including Trump and members of his family, have been infected by the virus. More than 401,000 have died.

"If a competent and honest president had been in office, many of them would still be alive,” Pitney said.

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President Donald Trump leaves office Wednesday after four tumultuous years in the White House

Unlikeliest of presidents

Donald John Trump was an unlikely candidate to become the 45th president of the United States.

His was the world of real estate and celebrities, not politics. A caustic New Yorker who made a fortune by developing hotels, casinos, golf courses and other real estate properties and through various other business dealings, Trump was a fixture in Manhattan’s social circles and in the screaming headlines of the city’s tabloids long before he decided to take a stab at politics.

When he finally ran for office, he did it in a typical Trumpian, over-the-top fashion, eschewing the slick campaign rollouts favored by other politicians. Trump kicked off his campaign for the presidency by riding down a golden escalator in Trump Tower and addressing a group of supporters in the lobby of the New York City skyscraper bearing his name.

As a candidate, Trump ran a populist-like campaign that was strong on style, short on substance and prone to stretch the truth to suit his political purposes. He was combative – with Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, the press, the protesters who frequently disrupted his rallies, and with anyone else who stood in his way. His supporters ate it up.

On Nov. 8, 2016, Trump defied the expectations of pollsters, pundits and even members of his own party by beating Clinton in the Electoral College but losing the popular vote to her by nearly 3 million votes.

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Donald Trump rides an escalator to a press event to announce his candidacy for the U.S. presidency at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 in New York City.

'Belligerent and partisan'

Controversy, much of it caused by Trump himself, followed him into the Oval Office and remained a part of his presidency right up the end.

Just one week after taking office, Trump issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigration to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries on the grounds of national security. The travel ban sparked nationwide protests.

Trump’s administration separated immigrant children from their parents and held them in cages after they crossed the southern border illegally. Trump himself cozied up to authoritarian leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin and feuded with U.S. allies like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron.

Even Trump’s fellow Republicans were incensed when he claimed there were “very fine people” on both sides after violent protests erupted between white nationalists and counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. When activists marched in the streets and demanded racial justice after the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky – Black Americans who died at the hands of police – Trump denounced the protesters as “thugs.”

When most people become president, “it transforms them,” Chernow said. “They feel the majesty and the gravity of the office, and it elevates their behavior. They have some sense of the national interest transcending their party or their politics.

"Donald Trump is a case where, during his presidency, he has only looked smaller and more belligerent and partisan as time has gone on. He has really governed as the president of the red states of America.”

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President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018.

'A wrecking ball with accomplishments'

Despite his abrasive style, Trump scored some remarkable achievements on his watch, his defenders say.

Trump leaves office the same way he entered: as “a political wrecking ball,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush.

“In between, he was a wrecking ball with accomplishments,” Fleischer wrote in a column for Fox News.

Fleischer cited drops in the U.S. poverty rate during Trump’s presidency, low unemployment rates for Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, and tax and deregulation policies that he said benefited blue-collar workers. “Unfortunately, the economic dislocation caused by the coronavirus wiped out many of the benefits on the jobs front that Trump had achieved,” Fleischer said.

Fleischer said Trump deserves credit for “resetting” relations with China and standing up to Beijing by using tariffs – “a tool no typical politicians would have used.”

Trump’s tax cuts and rollback of federal regulations “supercharged the American economy, enabling robust job gains and empowering Americans across all walks of life,” said Joel Griffith, a research fellow for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“Unfortunately, many on the left would like to roll back much of this progress,” Griffith said. “And they want to start by eliminating the legislative filibuster – the last line of defense against the far-left policy agenda of massive tax hikes, government-run health care and the Green New Deal that would cripple the economy, crush working Americans, and unravel the gains made in Trump’s pre-pandemic economy.”

Trump’s most enduring influence may be through his appointments to the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court.

Trump’s Supreme Court appointments are historic because they shifted the court’s ideological balance to a 6-3 advantage for conservatives and because the three new justices – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett – were only 49, 53, and 48 years old, respectively, when nominated, which means they could serve on the court for decades, said Lucas, the Liberty University law professor.

At this month's winter meeting of the Republican National Committee, members pointed out that Trump also brought new members into the party, including working-class people from industrial states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

"There is no doubt that he has redrawn the political map for our party and proved we can compete and win in nontraditionally Republican communities," party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said.

But critics say many of what conservatives view as Trump’s accomplishments will have negative consequences that will be felt for years.

"By cutting taxes without cutting spending, he bloated the federal debt – and that was even before the pandemic," Pitney said. "The regulatory actions will mean more pollution and workplace injuries. His damage will outweigh any good deeds."

President Donald Trump encourages protesters during a rally against the congressional confirmation of Joe Biden as president Jan. 6 in Washington.

'Betrayal’ and impeachment

Both of Trump’s impeachments were rooted in his deeply partisan antics.

The first involved charges he used the power of his office to pressure a foreign power to help discredit a political rival, Biden.

During a phone call, Trump urged Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of directors of a Ukrainian energy company. The Democratic-controlled House voted on Dec. 18, 2019, to impeach Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, but the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted him on both charges the following month.

Last week, just one year after his first impeachment, the House impeached Trump again.

This time, he was charged with inciting an insurrection by whipping up a pro-Trump crowd that proceeded to march on the Capitol as lawmakers were counting electoral votes from the November presidential election, which Trump lost to Biden. The angry mob broke into the building, forcing some lawmakers to flee for their safety and others to crouch under their desks in fear. Five people died in the riot, which disrupted the vote counting for several hours.

In the week before the attack, Trump claimed falsely that the election was rigged and threatened Republican state officials and lawmakers who refused his demands to void some of Biden’s electoral votes. He lied to supporters about what was possible in relation to overturning the election, inflaming the kind of fury on display during the break-in at the Capitol.

“There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House and one of 10 who broke ranks with her party and voted for Trump’s impeachment.

Trump’s trial in the Senate won’t be held until he leaves office. One possibility that lawmakers are exploring is banning him from ever running for federal office again.

No matter what happens, Trump and his supporters will likely continue to lie about the election, seeking to undermine both the Biden presidency and faith in the American political system, experts said.

"Donald Trump will be remembered as a 'calamitous failure' president," said Jennifer Mercieca, associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.

Trump "took a stable nation and turned it into crisis, then failed to solve the crises that occurred on his watch,” said Mercieca, author of “Demagogue for President: the Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”

Even with Trump out of office, the scars of his presidency will take a long time to heal, historians say.

“When someone becomes president of the United States, they are handed the most precious and fragile object in the world, which is the American democratic system,” Chernow said. “The most important thing is for them to preserve that and pass it along intact to their successor.

“Donald Trump, instead of preserving that precious legacy has really shattered it,” he said. “And it’s going to take a long time for us to repair that democratic system.”

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