The Legacy of a Would-Be Dictator
Twitterless, Donald Trump will soon disappear. It will then be for the fullness of history to judge his term, but it is certain the summation will be it was four years of lies and barely constitutional actions that have forever dented America’s democracy. Lies and actions by Democrats and the media, of course.
Trump’s term began with the Dem’s lie he was not legitimately elected. Though it was all swept away when Trump challenged the results in 2020, in 2016 the Democratic Party and MSM were embroiled in a whole of society effort to stop the Electoral College from declaring Trump the winner. (Disbelievers, Google “faithless electors 2016” and note the fever over the technically meaningless popular vote.) Another push was made to prevent Trump from taking office under the Emoluments clause. The actors described their own efforts as patriotic, life saving.
The media told us with certainty the stock market would never recover. We’d be at war with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, maybe China. NATO would collapse. Putin would run the U.S. via blackmailing Trump because Trump had been a Russian agent since the 1980s. Trump judges would dismantle the rule of law, end same sex marriage, and make abortions illegal. White nationalists would control our cities. Everyone in Puerto Rico was doomed.
None of that happened. It was all made up. Every bit of it fiction.
Depending on your political stance, some “bad” things did happen. But they were stopped by courts (Trump’s plan to end DACA, his own election challenges), prevented by Congress (Trump’s plan to ease sanctions on Russia), undermined by the Deep State (Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria), throttled by the press (Trump’s continuation of the Obama child-separation policy), or corrected by civil servants (coronavirus misinformation).
Far from any authoritarian, when his executive orders were declared unconstitutional, Trump revised them to fit judicial requirements, as with the “Muslim ban.” Behind the chorus of whining from CNN and NPR, no one was jailed for criticizing Trump, let alone killed (Obama still solidly holds the record for the use of the Espionage Act to stifle sources and journalists). By failing to understand how to work the levers of government, nearly everything Trump did was by executive decree and can be turned around on day one by Joe Biden the same way. Trump’s supposed fascistic acts were purely performative.
Yet despite his repeated failings as a would-be dictator, false apocalyptic spiraling was applied to everything Trump touched. The Kavanaugh kid who was a slug in high school decades ago became a gang rapist whose purpose was to overturn Roe while helping Hitler stay in power. A new standard was invented on the fly by the same people who worried about the rule of law, so instead of “innocent until proven guilty” it became “credible accusation,” adjudicated by online mobs. A narrative based on no facts whatsoever was created that somewhere in Trump’s taxes, undiscovered by the IRS all these years, was a 1099 form “Misc Espionage Work, Russia.”
Russiagate was the peak. Democrats paid someone from British intelligence to make up bad things about Trump. American intelligence then used what they knew was a work of fiction as an excuse to spy for real dirt on Americans in the Trump campaign, lying to the FISA court along the way. It was an outrageous Constitutional violation and a direct act of interference by the intel community in a democratic election, as if this was Honduras or Guatemala. When even that illegal spying turned up nothing, the whole thing was spoon-fed to the MSM, who ran the table with three years of outright falsehoods.
But COVID! The Democratic Party, et al., created one of the most successful information operations in history, convincing a large number of Americans they must fear for their lives and they must blame Donald Trump. The success here dwarfed the failure of Russiagate, though was equally untethered to facts.
COVID was a global event. U.S. deaths (91 per 100,000 people) for example, are lower than in Belgium (158), Italy (107), Spain (102), Britain (97), and Argentina (92), none of which were presided over by Donald Trump. It seemed hard to point a finger based on those numbers, so the finger was pointed at lies about desperate mask shortages, ventilator shortages, hospital shortages, racism, and Republican-run superspreader events. The vaccine which was going to take years to develop instead took months. We never needed the Navy hospital ships. We never needed the hospital tent facilities set up in Central Park. We never needed the mass graves. We never ran out of ventilators.
The irony is that if anything in the last four years might have opened the door to a more authoritarian president it could have been COVID. Trump, had he really had authoritarianism in mind, could have federalized the National Guard to secure hospitals (or whatever fiction the public would have accepted, and in March of last year they would have accepted pretty much anything). He could have created some sort of body to decide nationally who could work and who could not. He could have demanded censorship to “prevent panic.” It was all on the table, and Trump did none of it. Not exactly Kim Jong Un-level material.
What the media wanted so badly to be the capstone event of the last four years, the Charge of the Rednecks against the Capitol Building, was not. A mob out of control at worst, with the usual weak performance by the Kapital Kops, amounted to nothing. America awoke the next morning to find it was not Judgment Day, merely morning. No tanks on the White House lawn. Not even a cop car burned. It would be the Democrats, citing security, who would later quarter troops in the halls of government.
The Capitol riots were goonish, embarrassing, but in the end about as historical meaningful as a floor brawl in the Taiwanese legislature. For it to be a coup, insurrection, etc., it would have needed a path toward accomplishing a change of government. There never was any. Joe Biden was always going to be president. All the mob accomplished was a meaningless few hours’ delay in that happening. Trump’s actions vacillated between bizarre and shameful, his tone pathetic, but it was almost all just meaningless words no one will remember; nothing stuck and he’s gone. No civil war. Hardly Weimar material. As the fat kid in Jojo Rabbit said, “Not a good time for Nazis.”
So what did happen? Trump is the first president since WWII not to start a new war. U.S. military fatalities during the Obama term were 1,912. Trump’s number to date is only 123. ISIS is gone. He was the first president in some 20 years to conduct active diplomacy with North Korea. For the first time in a quarter-century, Arab nations normalized relations with Israel, the Abraham Accords. Actually quite a bit of diplomacy from a guy popularly credited with destroying it. Record stock market highs. Trump appointed 227 conservative judges, more than a quarter of the total, including three to the Supreme Court.
Some things did change under Trump. The media gave up any pretense of objectivity, and the majority of Americans welcomed it. They came to imagine tearing down some old statues or seeing a gay couple in a Target ad were real social progress. Public shaming by a mob–canceling–became a fine way to deal with thought crimes. Humiliation and name calling took the place of commentary. Terms of Service replaced the 1A. Corporate censorship of people and ideas is firmly now the norm.
Those left of center developed striking political amnesia. After decades of complaining about police brutality, they wanted more of it when directed at conservatives at the Capitol. They want censorship, against Trump, against ideas they disagree with, against whatever “hate speech” is defined as today. They want corporate speech police. They want a president who has voted for and helped run wars for the last ten years. They demand a new War on Terror, directed at fellow citizens they deem “domestic terrorists.”
They believed accusations of mental illness against a sitting president by doctors who never met him, a tried Soviet and Maoist tactic. Nancy Pelosi was still invoking this days before Biden’s inauguration, screeching first for resignation, the 25th, scoring her second impeachment (no time for a third?), burning at the stake—something!—a bit of pointless political vengeance blithely supported by far too many Americans who tried to pile on with equally shallow last minute anti-Trump gestures.
Those ideas, the rejection of democratic ideals seasoned with cheap revenge, won and are now the new normal. The Trump era did indeed change America.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.