Political ambition and the craving for a legacy are much of what drives politics in general and leadership politics specifically. Politics has the unique advantage of being able to play with the passions of large groups of citizens, and it can have lingering effects. For most politicians, however, one’s influence is often more shaped by events than by any intentions. This has been especially true in America, where luminaries like Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy had their future reputations secured by assassination and war – events beyond the ability to control.
Little of this, however, held true for Donald Trump. Now in his final days in power, Trump’s term will be remembered more for his outsized personality than anything else. The only exception might be the COVID-19 pandemic, yet even that transpired as something of an aside for the Trump administration – a distraction that would inevitably cut into any reputation he had for able leadership in the public domain. His ultimate accomplishment will be the fact he convinced some 80 million people to support him in his run for a second term. Even in his November electoral defeat, he received more votes than any Republican in history. In the world of complex modern politics, it is a massive achievement.
But that won’t be his legacy. Only a week ago, commentators were saying that he might be the worst president in American history. Now there is no doubt. The endless footage of riots in and around the Capitol building put a sudden end to what had become a political and democratic tragedy.
That all this was occurring while a pandemic raged through the country, receiving scant attention from the occupant of the Oval Office, is a failure of major proportions. That millions had lost their health coverage in the Trump era was of little significance to him. And his endless fascination with Wall Street over Main Street while millions of citizens were without work was a kind of political blindness that was beginning to shake the country.
The issue here is not to lay out a litany of failures but to note, instead, just how uninterested the President was with the overall state of the country. He enjoyed focusing on the hundreds of conservative judges he had appointed, including three to the Supreme Court. The fact that the stock market continued to surge despite COVID seemed to convince him that he was a genius in economics. But the joblessness, growing poverty, decline of cities, historic losses for small and medium-sized businesses, and the overcrowding of public health systems couldn’t hold his attention.
By the time the election was over in November, there were still numerous opportunities for him to remain a key player in the economic and political firmament. Even his constant claims that he had been robbed of his second term, farcical as they were, couldn’t undermine his powerful role in the Republican Party.
But even that he couldn’t manage. In a few hours, on a Wednesday afternoon last week, his legacy was cemented in history because of the violence his leadership had inspired. All the opinions in favour of, or opposed to, Trump at this moment didn’t matter, for America had seen enough brutality and had little stomach for the images of takeover at the Capitol. Yes, there has been an endless stream of violence in American history, much of it race related and frequently one-sided. The greatest scar the country has had to endure was a Civil War fought over slavery. But the violence Donald Trump subtly condoned, even engineered, for years in his attempt to win over the disaffected in the country was proving too much – especially following his election loss. A country that just wanted to see him leave, suddenly wanted him to be held accountable.
Legacies of violence, especially at such a high level, can reshape the future and the public will that infuses it. They are different than mere partisan battling. And the lasting effect of images of American fighting American in savage exchange can alter the outcomes of a nation in ways formerly thought unthinkable.
And they have a massive influence on a leader’s legacy. Trump’s four years, already highly controversial, have now ended in a fashion destined to denigrate his name and diminish any influence in the future. A legacy is defined as “something long-lasting from an event or process.” In Donald Trump’s case it was both – a process of four years of a mild kind of dystopia that was, in the end, eclipsed by one event that sealed his fate. Conservatives are neither idiots nor fools, despite the actions of some of their more extreme elements. The Trump-instigated riots of last week have proved too much for the sound conservative mind and have run counter to loyalty to the country.
So, yes, Donald Trump’s legacy will endure, but not necessarily only in the negative. From this moment in history might well come a collective desire to heal, to reach across party lines, to connect with neglected allies, and to finally address the racial injustices that have plagued America from its beginning. These, too, could become the unanticipated legacy of Donald Trump. The irony is that those divisions he has stoked only make that national restitution far more difficult.