The fallout from last week’s storming of Congress by a pro-Trump mob of misfits and criminals has made the controversy over the infamous 2016 Access Hollywood tape look like a cakewalk. In the week since the worst political violence in Washington, D.C. since the British burned the White House and the Capitol Building in 1814, three cabinet secretaries have resigned in disgust over Donald Trump’s response to the melee. The White House is now stocked with dead-enders and hangers-on. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies, including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, senator Lindsey Graham and former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, have either denounced the president or turned their backs on him. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, is no longer speaking with Trump. Meanwhile, national security officials are clenching their jaws and hoping their boss doesn’t do anything outlandish in the last eight days of his tenure.
And what of Donald Trump’s legacy? That, too, may have just evaporated like a puddle on a bright, hot, sunny day. Trump’s entire four years in Washington have been overshadowed by that shameful day on 6 January 2021, when his supporters were breaking windows, forcing trapped lawmakers to don gas masks, and chanting for vice president Mike Pence’s lynching. Whereas Ronald Reagan was known for ushering America out of the malaise of the 1970s and Bill Clinton was remembered for a booming national economy, Donald Trump will leave office next week as a wannabe monarch who preyed on the country’s political divisions and defended his most fringe supporters regardless of their unspeakable behaviour.
Asked what Trump will be most remembered for, GOP congressman Fred Upton pointed to the mess in the Capitol Building. 'This', he told the New York Times, 'is his legacy, not the tax cuts, not the judges. Today'. A senior Trump administration official gave New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi a more detailed answer:
'The legacy of the Trump administration is going to be that the president sparked an insurrection and people died because he tried his best to not abide by the Constitution and the tradition of a peaceful transition of power that’s been the norm since our founding. Nothing else is even going to be a side note.'
There will always be those, like Corey Lewandowski and Rudy Giuliani, who believe Trump was America’s great president since Abraham Lincoln. But the people who hold these views are either intense Trump partisans or (like Giuliani) have Trump to thank for making them relevant in the national conversation again. More fair-minded Republicans have come around to realising that last week’s Trump-inspired insurrection against the American Republic wiped out whatever achievements the president could claim as his own.
Passing tax cut legislation, installing a network of conservative judges throughout the U.S. judicial system, working to unwind America’s perpetual war in Afghanistan and presiding over a roaring stock market all of a sudden don’t compare to the chaos that swept through the legislative branch on 6 January. That Trump continues to peddle myths of election fraud and remains wholly incapable of admitting any fault for a domestic insurgency against the U.S. government means his entire presidency will likely be thought of as one, big, black mark in American history.
Americans are usually kind to former presidents. Take George W. Bush. When the two-term Republican vacated the Oval Office, he had a 34 per cent approval rating, the worst since Richard Nixon in 1974. His administration was panned as an eight-year stretch of mistakes, from invading a country that had little to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and getting stuck in that country as U.S. troops were tied down with a vicious insurgency) to embarrassing the U.S. on the world stage as American citizens in New Orleans were living under bridges after Hurricane Katrina. Despite these mishaps, Bush’s public image has soared to levels he could only dream of when he was in the White House.
The same goes with Bush’s father, the elder George Bush, who lost re-election to Bill Clinton in 1992 after a meandering recession. He was derided at the time as out-of-touch, elitist, and detached from the American public. But his overall tenure was assessed in a far more positive light in the later years of his life as new facts were uncovered, new documents were declassified and new biographies were written about him. He is now remembered as one of the greatest gentleman of the office and a man who transitioned the United States into the post-Cold War era.
Will the same image rehabilitation happen to Donald Trump? Nothing is impossible. But after the events of the last week, it’s increasingly unlikely political historians will remember him for anything other than scandal, bad morals, and even worse behaviour.