Trump, in the Rearview Mirror

So here’s the thing: a groundhog isn’t a weatherman. Even in the extraordinarily unlikely event that a groundhog correctly predicted the end of winter ten years in a row, you don’t want to bet the farm he’s going to be right the next time. There’s still no rhyme or reason to what he’s doing; next year’s prediction is still just a crapshoot.

Which brings me to Donald Trump, duly elected forty-fifth president of the United States. If there were ever an argument that Trump should be president, that he was the right man at the right time, his behavior after he lost his re-election bid refuted it. Annihilated it, if we’re going to be honest. You can debate whether his urging the Georgia Secretary of State to find the specific number of votes to change the result of that state’s election was criminal; you cannot debate that it was gross and reprehensible. Likewise, you can debate whether his speech at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 meets the legal definition of “incitement of insurrection,” or even “incitement to riot”; you cannot debate that it was petulant and reckless. Nor–and here is the most damning point–was either incident out of character. Republicans were irresponsible to select Trump from a long slate of conventionally dull but accomplished party regulars presented to them in 2016; he should not have been nominated, nor should he have been elected, notwithstanding that his opponent four years ago had a track record of poor judgment and public failures unmatched in American history since Custer.

Trump’s presidency should not have happened.

But it did happen. The opinion, the likelihood, the observation that he was unfit to be president, that he was intellectually, morally, and temperamentally wrong for the job, does not negate the brute fact that he was duly elected, as much as his political and personal adversaries (congruent sets at this point) may wish it so. Scores of thousands of Trump supporters worked hard in 2016 on behalf of their candidate; scores of millions cast votes for him. To gloss over that is to miss a critical element in any rational assessment of the last four years. We must not conflate the altogether reasonable proposition “Trump should not be president,” with the far more radical proposition “Trump cannot be president.” The former is a statement about Trump himself. The latter, implicit in the language of illegitimacy that swirled even as the final votes were tallied in 2016, and in the actions of rogue (to be kind) FBI agents who tried to abort his presidency before it began, is not a statement about Trump but about the franchise, about who gets to decide who is president. Four years ago, a sufficient number of voters pulled a lever or punched a card or touched a screen to make Donald J. Trump president. Thus, whatever those of us who did not vote for him may think, the groundhog got to tell us which way the wind was blowing…and what we should do about it.

The observation that Trump was intellectually, morally, and temperamentally unfit to be president needs elaboration, of course; I do not intend it as an insult. Honestly, I know few people fit to be president on all three counts. It’s trite, but nevertheless true, to note that the American president is the most powerful person on earth. Fitness for such a position is rare. You can be intellectually unfit for the presidency without being stupid, and Trump is decidedly not stupid. He has an instinctive cunning and a bullshit-detector that surely serve him well in many aspects of his life, but he also manifestly doesn’t know enough about US and world history, geopolitics, and the Constitution to process the information coming across his desk, and he never seemed interested in learning on the job. Examples of Trump’s ignorance are plentiful; I’m sure you can come up with your own list. Consider, however, that in April 2020, after more than three full years on the job, he still believed that he could order states to lift lockdowns on businesses during the pandemic: “The president of the United States calls the shots. They can’t do anything without the approval of the president of the United States.”

So, too, you can be morally unfit to be president and still be well-intentioned. There is no reason to believe—I can hear the howls of his adversaries as I write this—that Trump is an evil man. Narcissistic, to be sure. Petty. Vindictive. Adolescent. Check, check, and check. But there is no reason to doubt that he came to the White House intending to do right by the American people. Clearly, however, he had no qualms about lying publicly, repeatedly, and shamelessly, slandering his rivals, and leveraging the office of the presidency to further his own political ambitions…and, arguably, attempting to enrich himself and his family.

You can also be temperamentally unfit to be president without being inept. Trump is at his core a gambler. That’s been true his entire adult life. Some of his gambles have paid off, and he basks in their success; some have blown up in his face, and he slinks away—often, with a kite string of lawsuits trailing him. Before he ever ran for office, he’d led a long, interesting, and eventful life. But he did not lead the sort of life which cultivates the equanimity appropriate for the presidency. He responds to criticism with insult, to insult with schoolyard taunt. He is decisive, to be sure, in the way that gamblers must be, but utterly bereft of prudence and circumspection. That blundering attempt to strong-arm Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on January 2 of this year would be inexcusable in itself; consider, then, its eerie similarities to Trump’s notorious July 25, 2019 phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky–the call that earned Trump his first impeachment. The guy can’t help himself. Try to imagine Trump as class president of your high school. Or president of your condo board. Or of the local chapter of the Rotary Club. It’s a bad fit, isn’t it? He’s got the wrong temperament.

Past presidents have been intellectually, morally, or temperamentally unfit. Trump, alone, hit the trifecta.

Paradoxically, however, indeed miraculously, Trump bull-in-a-china-shopped his way to the most effective, consequential one term presidency of the last hundred years. Yes, he did. Here is a partial list of his accomplishments:

*He expanded the military’s rules of engagement in the Middle East and ground the Islamic State’s would-be “caliphate” into the Arabian dust, cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor’s premature withdrawal of American forces and tentative efforts to set things right; following the precedent of Obama and Bush II, he also splattered a grab bag of high ranking jihadists along the way.

*He moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The US had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for generations; we hadn’t officially moved the embassy however because Palestinians envisioned the city as the capital of their future state—a state that would rise from the ashes of the Jewish homeland. That’s what’s called a pipe dream. Trump decided no longer to cater to it. Guatemala followed the US lead and moved its embassy, and a half dozen other countries are currently weighing the decision. Reality matters. Embassies belong in capital cities. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Israel isn’t going away.

*Not coincidentally, Trump’s administration brokered the normalization of relations between Israel and four Muslim majority nations—Bahrain, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco—or twice as many as had recognized Israel’s right to exist since its creation in 1948.

*His administration re-negotiated trade deals with China, Canada, and Mexico more favorable to the US than previous ones.

*He pressured European allies into paying more into NATO.

*Prior to the pandemic, his administration oversaw a robust economy that featured both a record-high stock market and the lowest unemployment rates ever recorded for black and Hispanic Americans.

*Once the pandemic struck, his administration conceived and launched Operation Warp Speed, spurring the development, production, and mass distribution of two safe, astonishingly effective vaccines in under a year—less than a quarter of the time as the previous record for a viral vaccine. More vaccines are now on their way.

Note, too, that I’m including on the list of Trump accomplishments only those which even his (sane) adversaries will regard as unambiguous goods. I’ve left off his more politicized initiatives like stocking the judiciary with conservative judges, loosening regulations for new and existing businesses, drawing down troop deployments overseas, pulling out of the dubious (to be kind) Iran-nuclear deal and toothless (to be precise) Paris Climate Accords, stemming the flow of illegal immigrants across the southern border, reworking longstanding federal sentencing guidelines, and issuing mass commutations, resulting in the early release of (disproportionately minority) prisoners across the country. If another one-term president in the last century can match that record, I’d like to hear about him.

Trump managed all of that, yet also managed to disgrace the presidency virtually every day of his administration. I reiterate: The Trump presidency shouldn’t have happened. We should be grateful that we’re on the other side of it, and astounded that he managed to achieve many good things. The bottom line, however, is that you don’t hire a groundhog to be your weatherman.