How can we assess Trump’s presidency in U.S. history? It is considered as an initiation of decline or just an exception period that can be repaired? This is a crucial question to discuss nowadays and I’m not sure anyone knows for sure. Of course, almost half of the US voted for Trump, so from the perspective of those voters, Trump’s presidency is probably seen as not having such a dire meaning at all. But for those who were deeply troubled by the demagoguery, lies, instability, and profoundly unstatesmanlike aspects of the Trump era, the question is one of emphasis: do you focus on all the ways Trump seemed to threaten American civic life (e.g., sowing discord by claiming elections in 2020 were rigged and that he actually won) or do you focus on the fact that the American constitutional system led to this man being removed from office in a relatively peaceful and orderly fashion.
The American system was designed with the potential threat of demagoguery very much in mind. As realists, the American founders in the 18th century did not expect politicians would behave virtuously, but designed a system in which the checks and balances of constitutional government could contain the inevitable presence of factious elements in political life.
Of course, part of what is represented by “Trump” is not just the man himself but the almost cultlike devotion some of his followers have for him. In my mind, that kind of obsessional, almost unconditional adherence to leaders is itself a cause of concern and, from a certain perspective, not consistent with democratic norms of equality and the vigilant patrolling of leadership required by such equality.
At the very least, I think Trump’s presidency is symptomatic of the presence of serious frustration in the US with some of the issues we’re raising: economic inequality, America’s geopolitical stature, the quality of American democracy, confidence in the country’s capacity to successfully meet the challenges (environmental, security, financial) in the future. But this frustration, and the self-critique it represents, also can be a source of potency and future development. As you know, it many countries in the world, it is not allowable to criticize the state. America is not such a country. Hopefully, some of the frustration can be more productively channeled in the next chapter of America’s history.
One of the most recent tangible foreign events has been the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a long and complicated situation. Some see recent events simply as a military defeat for the US and thus as a sign that the US may not be able to reliably pursue its military objectives going forward. But it is not clear to me that this narrative will stick. For one thing, the public’s attention is often quite short; it remains to be seen if the Afghanistan story will stay prominent in the news and citizens’ minds, whether in the US or abroad. If the Trump era taught us anything, it is that public memory can be distressingly short.
Further, it is not 100% clear to me that defeat, in the pure sense of the word, is the right concept to describe what is happening in Afghanistan. For better or worse, part of the logic of the Afghanistan campaign, especially during its first 7-8 years under George W. Bush, was presented as a way to keep the domestic US safe: i.e., that it’s better to take the fight to terrorists where they are rather than endure attacks at home. Regardless of whether this is a sound military strategy or accurate assessment, the fact that the US did not, during the last 20 years, suffer another 9-11-like attack from foreign Islamist terrorists, will be invoked by some defenders of America’s war effort that it was not altogether a defeat in the final analysis. A parallel situation could be (but we would still need more information going forward to confirm) the Vietnam War, which some see as a US defeat but others see as part of an ultimately successful struggle against the USSR in the Cold War.