One episode in long-term process
Vladimir Putin cannot be blamed for America’s worst president ever. Daniel Lazare assesses the four turbulent years
With Donald Trump barely out the door, professional historians are already delivering their verdict on his four years in office. Their conclusion: he is the worst US president ever - worse even than James Buchanan, the Pennsylvania Democrat who failed to lift a finger, as one slave state after another left the Union in 1860-61 and joined the Confederacy.
“I suspect the tour guides at Buchanan’s National Historic Landmark homeplace, Wheatland, in Pennsylvania, are already celebrating,” Joseph J Ellis, who has written bestsellers about George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Their man, they must fondly hope, will never be last again.”
The comparison is apt, given that Buchanan brought the United States to the edge of one civil war, while Trump has brought it to the verge of another. But it is also revealing about what such judgments mean. While Buchanan presided over an unprecedented constitutional crisis, in no sense can he be regarded as politically causative other than in the most immediate sense of the term. Yes, he took matters to extremes by openly siding with the southern ‘slavocracy’ and looking the other way, as his secretary of war transferred weapons and supplies to would-be secessionists. But otherwise his role was passive. He presided over a crisis that had been brewing for decades before he arrived on the scene.
The same goes for Trump. According to the Democrats, he is solely responsible for the disasters that occurred on his watch, because he colluded with Russia, spewed out lies and racism, cosied up to dictators, and sent a rampaging mob onto Capitol Hill. But that is self-serving nonsense, since, like Buchanan, Trump represented the culmination of events that were years in the making as well.
After all, 2016 was not the first time Trump ran for president. He did so in 2000, but pulled out after polling in just the single digits. He threw his hat into the ring again in 2011 after taking out full-page newspaper ads in support of the Republicans’ ridiculous ‘Birthergate’ scandal, but ended up slumping in his chair when Obama made one joke after another at his expense at the White House Correspondents Dinner in April.1 The general verdict: Trump was a walking punch line, whose political prospects were nil.
Yet 2016 proved to be the opposite. Barrelling past a string of Republican nonentities such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush, Trump secured the Republican nomination in March. Then, after letting loose with a series of crude political statements that the press was sure would sink his boat for good, he confounded the experts by winning the White House in November.
What was different? It certainly was not Trump, whose act after 30-plus years of talk-show appearances, movie cameos and the hit reality-TV show, The apprentice, had not changed a bit. Rather, it was the political context. America, quite simply, was another country when Trump formally launched his campaign in mid-2015. Economic growth had slowed to an average of just 2.3% in the years following the financial meltdown of 2007-09, while inequality continued to accelerate, with the top one percent’s share of national wealth rising 12% from 2010 to 2015. Labour participation rates sank steadily, while life expectancy declined for three years in a row, beginning in 2014 - an unprecedented development for an economically advanced country that was not in a state of war.
But it was not just the economy that was in distress - politics were too. After 20 years of gridlock on Capitol Hill, voters were eager for someone to cut through the posturing and the cant. A second wave of terrorism - the Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015, the Bataclan theatre attack in November, and then a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in early December - rattled nerves and left officials looking helpless and incompetent. Operatives or supporters of Islamic State were responsible for both Bataclan and San Bernardino, yet Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes had assured Americans just a year earlier that IS did not pose a threat, because its “primary focus is consolidating territory in the Middle East” rather than “launch[ing] attacks against the west and the US homeland”.2 In October 2014, Joe Biden told a Harvard audience that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf allies were supplying IS and al Qa’eda, yet there was nothing the US could do to make them stop - and indeed Obama subsequently ordered him to telephone the royal family in Riyadh and apologise for letting the cat out of the bag.
In the face of such foolishness, Trump’s call for a Muslim ban “until we can figure out what’s going on” drew blood. The fact that Obama supporters were aghast at his crudity and racism made it even more effective, since their political politesse had only made matters worse. A growing refugee crisis in Europe - itself the by-product of US-backed ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East - added to the paranoia. Americans tend to be xenophobic under the best of circumstances. With 40% of the population never stepping foot outside the country - and 11% never stepping foot outside their state3 - the rest of the world from a US perspective consists either of weak-kneed Europeans, Latin American narcotraficantes or howling mobs in the Middle East. So, with IS supporters shooting up co-workers inside ‘Fortress America’, voters figured that the time had come to raise the drawbridge and send in a strong man to take matters in hand.
Trump thus went from strength to strength. As comforting as it might be to hold him and people like Nigel Farage and Viktor Orbán solely responsible for the rightwing populism that surged in the mid-2010s, it was an all-too-predictable response to years of political and economic malaise. Where fascism in the 1920s and 30s arose in response to working class militancy, the populist upsurge of the 2010s was the opposite: a political rebellion at a time when the left had been all but expunged. It was an anti-elitist revolt at a time when the only revolt that neoliberalism permitted was in a generally rightwing direction.
The rest was predictable as well. Instead of blaming the Electoral College - an antique constitutional provision that allowed Trump to slip into the Oval office despite trailing by two percent in the popular vote - Democrats blamed Vladimir Putin, American imperialism’s all-purpose bête noire. Instead of combating xenophobia, they thus added to it. They responded the same way to the mountains of lies that Trump issued on a near-daily basis. Instead of exposing his falsehoods, they produced the big lie of Russian collusion - a conspiracy tale so thoroughly fact-free that even the most feverish JFK assassination buff would blush with embarrassment. As one lie led to another, and another, Washington was soon lost in a sea of confusion.
Trump no more caused the breakdown than a surfer causes the wave that carries him to shore. Instead, he rode it for all it was worth, matching Democratic craziness with craziness of his own until reaching the reductio ad absurdum. “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election, I really do,” he told Fox News in July. “I’m not going to just say yes - I’m not going to say no - and I didn’t last time either,” he added, when asked if he would abide by the election results in November. January 6 was the inevitable upshot - the worst constitutional rupture since the Civil War and one that has left Americans shaken and stunned.
If Trump was solely responsible, however, that should be the end of it. But, needless to say, it is not. While only 14% of Republicans - and 9% of Americans overall - say they supported the January 6 attempted takeover, 64% of Republicans still believe Trump was the legitimate winner, while 48% say that other Republican leaders did not go far enough in helping him to challenge the results. At 87%, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is essentially unchanged from pre-election levels.4
The political alignment has therefore barely budged. Americans are as divided as ever, with tens of millions of people convinced that the elections are a con job, designed to rob them of their rightful victory. Far-right groups are meanwhile surging, with the neo-fascist Proud Boys claiming that membership has more than doubled since January 6 from 16,000 to 34,000. To be sure, groups like the Proud Boys, Boogaloo and Three Percenters are ragtag outfits by comparison with the fascist organisations of the 1930s, with their elaborate party structures and all-embracing propaganda machines. Nonetheless, it is clear that tens of thousands of ultra-rightists now enjoy parading about with assault weapons and brawling with Black Lives Matter supporters and Antifa militants in the streets. So the problem will not go away, as the violence escalates and the ultra-right continues to expand.
Trump may be departing the scene, but Trumpism lingers on and will undoubtedly grow more menacing, as it mutates and expands. Democrats will grow more menacing as well, as they respond with a security clampdown that will inevitably be used against the left.
Donald Trump put on a good show, and he no doubt has much more to offer. But his spectacular climb to power is merely one episode in a long-term process of decay.
‘Airstrikes in Iraq: what you need to know’, White House, August 11 2014: obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2014/08/11/airstrikes-iraq-what-you-need-know.↩︎
today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/01/13/what-americans-make-capitol-attack-poll; cnbc.com/2021/01/17/trump-retains-support-from-republicans-after-capitol-attack-nbc-poll.html; pewresearch.org/politics/2021/01/15/biden-begins-presidency-with-positive-ratings-trump-departs-with-lowest-ever-job-mark.↩︎