He Wasn’t Worth It
Whatever lasting good comes from the #resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency is overshadowed by the litany of horrors he abetted, inflamed, and unleashed.
Today is the final full day of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.
That’s a strange sentence to have to write. Six years ago, I was reasonably sure that such a thing would never begin. A year ago, I was reasonably sure that the end would come in 2025. And as recently as two weeks ago, I was not reasonably sure that an almost-uniformly craven Republican Party could not find a way to make sure that it never ended.
Attempted coups are funny that way.
(Although, in fairness, when a sunken-faced puffy-eyed patrician in ill-fitting black clothing starts building a Space Force shortly after his rise to power, I suppose you can’t be entirely surprised when he tries to use the Senate to declare himself emperor. George did warn us.)
All the same, here it is, and here we are.
Tomorrow, after a laundry list of pardons that I will doubtlessly spend the rest of the day being annoyed over, Trump will slink away from an increasingly militarized Washington to Mar-a-Lago so that he doesn’t have to share the stage with the man who decisively defeated him. Tomorrow, Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. Would that we had never fallen asleep to begin with, but America’s long international nightmare is at least starting to recede, if not truly over.
And as tends to be custom at the end of terrible things, many feel the irresistible impulse to try and make sense of the senselessly nonsensical. To get out ahead of the inevitable whitewashing for future elementary school textbooks. To find a palatable answer to “it wasn’t all bad, was it?” All so that one day, we can all consign the Trump era to our uniquely American amnesia and remember him as just another president.
Perhaps when his corpse lies in state in the rotunda of the Capitol he incited his followers to storm, or possibly when a naval vessel is named after him and crewed by sailors sworn to defend the Constitution he fought so desperately to shred. Just another animatronic in Disney World, just another portrait in the Smithsonian, just another talking head in the alternate timeline where Futurama never got cancelled. Another number out of the 46 and counting.
The articles parsing the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Trump era have flown hot and heavy once it became clear to (almost) everyone that he lost the election. And in the wake of the Capitol attack, one of the refrains from Trump loyalists as they flee for the exits isn’t overwhelming disgust that their boss inspired an attempted coup that had democratically elected lawmakers fleeing for their lives; it’s lamenting that said persnickety little coup overshadowed his many accomplishments.
Regardless, I come neither to bury Trump nor to praise him, and I will leave it to the province of those wiser than me to determine what good should escape being interred with his bones, as the Bard writes. I only want to write about the one good thing almost everyone predicted about Trump’s presidency before it even began, the neatest encapsulation of which comes courtesy of The Atlantic’s David Frum. Frum closed out his piece on what he perceived to be the thirteen lasting accomplishments from Trump’s presidency thusly:
The United States has historically been characterized by lower levels of political participation than other advanced democracies. Trump fixed that! Throughout 2020, he made clear his determination to hold on to power unless repudiated by a massive popular margin. He had won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Plainly an even bigger margin would be required to force him out.
The anti-Trump majority of the electorate absorbed that message and acted on it… A president who sought to subvert U.S. democracy instead inspired unprecedented numbers of Americans to participate in that democracy, in order to save it from him. This was an achievement Donald Trump did not intend and surely did not want. But it was his achievement, even so.
Frum ends this point with an obvious qualification (emphasis mine) to justify its inclusion on the list — and it’s telling that it’s not the only entry on his list that is so qualified. But still, he’s right. The record setting number of votes cast to elect Joe Biden is partially attributable to the simple reality of population growth and the expansion of mail-in voting thanks to the pandemic — month ten! Give it up for month ten! But when the histories of the 2020 election are written, those 81 million votes will likely be found not to have been cast for Biden so much as they were cast against Trump.
And while Frum doesn’t frame this in partisan terms, Trump hasn’t been great for the Republican Party either, at least on the federal level. Yes, the Supreme Court and federal judiciary is likely locked to the right wing for at least a generation, which is more thanks to Mitch McConnell than Trump. But as for Trump himself, far from heralding a sea change of faux-populist Republican domination, he lost both chambers of Congress and the White House within a single term.
Comparing the Don to a supervillain might be old hat by now, but it’s one of the oldest tropes in the book, and Trump played it to a gaudy gold-leaf T: at the beginning there was darkness, and now there’s a flickering light. Considering where we were four years ago and where we very easily could’ve ended up now, I should be, if not happy, then at the very least content.
It isn’t just because with a shrunken House majority and a new Senate majority that still cannot afford a single defection, Congressional Democrats will be on a tightrope for at least the first two years of the Biden Administration. It isn’t just because Trump was as much a symptom of Republican politics as he was its disease, and because he left a playbook for a much more competent GOP operative to run it back in four years (forget Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, keep your eyes on Tom Cotton, please).
It’s because… well, come on. If you read the title of this piece, you already know what comes next.
It’s because he wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t worth any of it.
Lest We Forget the Horrors: A Catalog of Trump's Worst Cruelties, Collusions, Corruptions, and…
Early in President Trump's term, McSweeney's editors began to catalog the head-spinning number of misdeeds coming from…
The good folks at McSweeney’s have been cataloguing all of Trump’s misdeeds dating back almost a decade — and just to be clear, that’s still being very generous to him. But on this, the final day, it’s all the more important to balance that list against the impulse to rationalize his presidency.
To go back to Frum’s list as an example, let’s say that you wanted to give Trump credit for more countries establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel, and let’s set aside, just for a minute, that this hasn’t necessarily translated into anything close to a fair shake for Palestine.
The man who inspired a surge in Neo-Nazi recruitment and just inspired them to storm the Capitol after five years of winking and nodding is supposed to be a champion against anti-Semitism?
Or take criminal justice reform, which Trump and his allies could not stop crowing about during his outreach to African-American voters. The First Step Act does, while not even approximating the necessary panacea to racially-motivated mass incarceration, lives up to its name as a starting point.
But why should that mean anything when stacked against Trump’s stirring endorsement of police brutality throughout his presidency, or what can only be termed as a killing spree of federal executions at the end of it?
And for all that’s been made about how Trump’s ascendancy unleashed a wave of furious left-wing opposition, and how he inspired a new generation of leaders, activists, and voters who will hopefully never again get caught unawares when an authoritarian wannabe came calling, was it really worth the horrors he inspired to rouse them? Horrors that anyone who was listening would’ve known were coming?
Was it worth his mocking Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings?
Was it worth the systematic stripping of protections for transgender people?
Was it worth the ban on Muslim travel and immigration?
Was it worth the four years of not merely stalling on combatting climate change, but actively taking steps to make it worse?
Was it worth the lingering trauma of children being separated from their parents as a deterrent to immigration — which, I cannot stress enough, was not an official policy under the Obama adminstration?
Was it worth the cratering faith in the legitimacy of electoral democracy?
Was it worth pardoning unrepentant war criminals?
Was it worth the spike in hate crimes?
Was it worth the Capitol being breached?
Was it worth destroying faith in a free press?
I could go on, effectively, forever. The list of, as McSweeney’s puts it, Trump’s “cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes” runs into the thousands, and odds are more will come to light in the days and weeks to come. But this is more than enough.
To quote a late genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, getting a chance to do your best work after the fact is of icily cold comfort to the untold damage and suffering that’s already been done, especially when there’s no all-powerful McGuffin that can undo it with a literal snap of the fingers.
And to chalk that up as an accomplishment of the person ultimately responsible for that damage is a cruelty all its own, especially when he could have been stopped at any point, and especially when he was almost comically brazen about his destructive intentions from the moment he descended onto the political stage.
Maybe the 2022 midterms put Mitch McConnell back in control of his beloved Senate, and Kevin McCarthy becomes Speaker of the House. Maybe the Biden administration’s ambitions get stalled, either for a lack of ambition, of political capital, or of liberal justices on the Supreme Court. Maybe the GOP waltzes right back into the White House in four years, and we start this whole dance all over again.
But the next four years may well be a new dawn of opportunity and equality in America. After years of fretting that the Democrats don’t have a bench to match Republicans, the progressive leaders who shot to stardom in the last four years will shine for years to come. And despite positioning himself as a “transitional president” to merely stop the bleeding, there is an opportunity for President Joe Biden to leave a legacy that outstrips both of his predecessors.
I don’t know, and I don’t care, because on this final day it doesn’t matter.
Donald Trump was an atrocious president, and the world is irrevocably and irretrievably worse for his having been elected.
And whatever comes next will not have been worth what so many people around the world suffered and continue to suffer to get there.