Six months on from the election that removed him from office, Donald Trump’s shadow remains, at home and abroad. Robert Patman assesses his lasting impact

Love or loath him, former president of the United States, Donald Trump, made a significant impact on his country and the world.

His four-year period in the White House was marked by bitter political divisions and extraordinary controversy but left little doubt that he has been a political leader who will be remembered for decades to come.

Trump’s Domestic Impact

President Trump’s policy record at home included a series of long-sought conservative initiatives such as the biggest corporate tax cuts ever recorded – which were supposed to ‘pay for themselves’ but massively increased the US deficit – the abolition of large numbers of environmental regulations, a sustained attempt to undo President Obama’s landmark law, the Affordable Care Act, and a radical reshaping of the federal judiciary.

During Trump’s tenure, common ground between the Republicans and Democrats was squeezed. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, about 73 percent of Americans believed Republicans and Democrats differed not just on policies, but also over basic facts.

Trump was the first president to make extensive use of Twitter to directly message Americans in real-time on a broad range of issues. In more than 26,000 tweets to his 88 million-plus followers, Trump sought to exert control over the political debate in America until his tweets proved so inflammatory after the 2020 presidential election that Twitter permanently banned him from its site.

Throughout his time in office, Trump showed little respect for the legitimacy of democratic institutions. He described certain sections of the US media as “fake news” or “enemies of the people”, questioned the role of the federal judiciary, and criticised the electoral process as flawed.

On January 6, 2021, following a rally in Washington D.C. in which President Trump insisted the election had been “stolen” and it was necessary “to fight like hell” to save America, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol in a violent attack against the US Congress. Five people died during the riot.

At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric contributed to a climate in which violence against people of colour escalated. In particular, the brutal videotaped murder of an African-American, George Floyd, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis was one of several police killings that prompted national and international protests in 2020.

Trump’s International Impact

In the international arena, the Trump administration’s nationalist emphasis on ‘America First’ and its sceptical approach to globalisation and multilateral institutions were major departures from previous administrations in the post-1945 period.

In the space of four years, President Trump imposed tough new immigration restrictions, withdrew America from many multilateral agreements, recognised Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel and forged close relations with that country, expressed support for the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for terror suspects, launched a tit-for-tat trade conflict with China, backed Brexit, and praised brutal dictators like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Mohammed Bin Salman.

Nevertheless, by the time Trump left office in early 2021, China was increasingly assertive in relation to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan and forward-leaning with its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Russia was interfering in the domestic politics of the EU and US.

Iran and Moscow had consolidated their support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria; a diminished Islamic State still retained a global terror capability; and far-right national populist politicians and movements became firmly embedded in mainstream political culture in states that had traditionally upheld the rules- based liberal international order.

It was also evident the Trump leadership disastrously mishandled the deadly threat of a global pandemic, Covid-19, which does not respect borders.

After claiming his administration had the virus “totally under control” when the US recoded its first confirmed case in January 2020, the pandemic’s death toll in the US had exceeded 400,000 when Trump left office in January 2021. That was the highest total for any country in the world and was greater than all of America’s battlefield casualties during the post-1945 period.

The Post-Trump Era

The consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency for America will take years to fully determine. The new Biden administration has promised a clean break with Trump’s “America First” policies at home and overseas. But undoing Trump’s legacy will take far more than President Biden declaring to the world “America is back.”

The experience of the Trump years has shaken the confidence of many of America’s closest allies and friends and led many of them to conclude they can no longer rely on the US in the way that they did in the past.

Those states will now want to be sure Biden’s new emphasis on multilateralism and the international rules-based order is underpinned by strong political support on Capitol Hill – something which looks unlikely – and that America is prepared to lead by example in a world where the most pressing problems, like climate change, can only be resolved through international cooperation.

Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago.

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