I am giving Trump a grade of C Minus for the year. Lest anyone think I’m being too lenient, please know that I’m so disappointed with him that I really want to give him an F. But this shouldn’t be about raw emotion, which is why historians recommend waiting 20 years before a president leaves office to evaluate him, not 20 days. This, then, is just an “in the moment” opinion, which will be adjusted over time by historical perspective.
I’ve spent Trump’s entire presidency defending him against false or misleading accusations, as exemplified in my book Trumped-Up Charges! I would defend any president (I’ve already started with Biden and he’s just beginning), but in Trump’s case, the abuse by a malpracticing media was over-the-top. Nonetheless, I will not excuse behavior entirely within his control. The mistakes Trump made during his last two months as president were worse than the previous 46 combined, and the final two weeks were worst of all.
First and foremost, I am outraged that Trump didn’t attend Biden’s inauguration. I am an anti-establishmentarian at heart, but not when it comes to disrespecting the Presidents Club. Kate Andersen Brower wrote a poignant book last spring titled Team of Five: the Presidents Club in the Age of Trump. In last year’s annual report card, I gave Trump an A Minus (TNH, Feb. 15, 2020), based on remarkably high marks in the all-important peace and prosperity categories, but held back on giving him a full A because of his lack of reaching out to his predecessors. As I wrote then, “he should consult with all former presidents far more often, and in public. Presidents become a special breed. Of all living people, only Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump know exactly what that job is like, and the five of them should meet often; the onus is on Trump to mend and strengthen those relationships.” Not only did Trump fail to do that again, in 2020 – if ever there was a moment for it, given the staggering pandemic – but he handed the American presidency the ultimate slap in the face on January 20 by leaving town and not honoring our magnificent peaceful transfer of power ceremony with his presence. Nonetheless, as I watched the inauguration, embarrassed as an American and longtime supporter by Trump’s conspicuous absence, I recalled how instrumental he was in the development of a COVID vaccine far ahead of expectations. I then asked myself: what’s more important, symbolic pageantry or a possible solution to the most stubbornly destructive problem of our time?
Just as Trump’s Twitter rudeness can’t possibly nullify a record-setting economy, the near-obliteration of jihadist terrorist groups, and a laser beam focus on arguably the three most important long-term issues – media malpractice, political overcorrectness, and the transnational trespass of PHIs (Persons Here Illegally) – his failure to attend inauguration can’t possibly overshadow his tireless effort to accelerate vaccine development, not to mention his early ban of incoming travel from China last year, which Biden, in a colossal error of judgment, called a ‘racist’ decision.
Add to that Trump’s role in three new Middle East peace deals. Jimmy Carter had one, and the press made it seem like the moon landing; no president had any since. Trump’s alertness and rigor in filling federal courts with originalist judges has effectively reversed the trend of judicial activism. Also, I don’t blame Trump for “inciting an insurrection” at the Capitol, and I think this post-presidency impeachment is preposterous. Why, then, such a low grade of C Minus? Two main reasons: his overall handling of COVID, and his behavior following the election.
Although no one foresaw COVID, no country eradicated it, and no policy (masks everywhere, masks nowhere, or in between) has seemed to be decidedly superior, Trump did not sufficiently reassure the country – the way great presidents, like Lincoln, (Franklin) Roosevelt, and Reagan did – that we were going to be Ok. Trump’s political opponents and their media messenger boys exploited COVID as a golden opportunity to undo Trump’s accomplishments, blaming him at every turn, as if any other country in the world – where Trump is not the leader – has been able to lick the problem. Nonetheless, Trump never overcame that onslaught to emerge as the Reassurer-in-Chief that America needed.
Mostly, though, Trump’s low 2020 grade is due to his post-election behavior. Trump could have used his bully pulpit to emphasize election irregularities and gubernatorial fiats – of which there were plenty and must not be ignored – but that’s a far cry from his insistence that the election was “rigged” and there was “widespread fraud.” There’s no such credible evidence and it makes him seem like a sore loser desperately trying to cling to his presidency. Even worse was Trump’s bullying Mike Pence to unilaterally reject the Electoral College votes, which would be a gross bastardization of our Constitution.
I don’t blame Trump for the actions of violent nutcases who itch for a revolution at any moment, but he didn’t do enough before and immediately after the Capitol invasion to emphatically condemn violence.
Worse yet, Trump’s “fraud” claims arguably made the difference in the Georgia runoff Senate races, ceding that vital congressional chamber to the Democrats. Contrary to what the haters purport, Trump did many great things as president. But he blew it in 2020, particularly at the end, tarnishing his legacy (it’s now up to him to restore it), and handing the Democrats control of the presidency and all of Congress. Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s (43) press secretary, so aptly said years ago that Trump is like a football team that advances the ball but then loses much of the gained yardage by committing penalties. Over his first three years, Trump’s yardage was net positive, despite the penalties; but in 2020, he lost yardage overall. Trump’s legacy is left to history to determine. That’s why it will be more illuminative to revisit this topic in 20 years, though surely we’ll do so plenty of times in between.