“At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?” ― Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic
1. Our Long National Nightmare Is Over
History judges Gerald Ford kindly. Ford did not have any great accomplishments as president, but he did two important things:
He did not attempt to prop up Richard Nixon as the president’s administration failed.
Upon ascending to the presidency, he was forthright with America and tried to heal the breach caused by his predecessor.
To the extent that President Ford is remembered in the specific for anything, it’s this.
History is a harsh judge because it winnows mercilessly. There is just so much of it that even an individual as consequential as a U.S. president gets, at most, one or two lines.
George W. Bush: 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
Bill Clinton: Impeachment.
George H.W. Bush: First Iraq war.
Ronald Reagan: Bringing down the Soviet Union.
Jimmy Carter: Malaise.
Nixon: China and impeachment.
Lyndon Johnson: Vietnam and the Great Society.
JFK: Cuban missile crisis and his assassination.
These judgments aren’t always fair, in the strict sense. Jimmy Carter never said the word “malaise” in the speech for which he is most remembered. Bill Clinton had lots of other things happen during his two terms—from economic expansion to conflicts in the Balkans. The Berlin Wall fell after Reagan left office. But they’re fair in the cosmic sense because as history continually whittles away at your legacy, it dispenses with both trivialities and technicalities and focuses on bedrock truth.
Reagan’s policies did contribute in very large part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech was about malaise, which was the defining characteristic of that period in American history.
The further back you go, the more ruthlessly reductive history is. There are plenty of American presidents who are so historically inconsequential that they don’t even get one line.
So how will Donald Trump’s presidency be remembered by history? We already know the answer.
He oversaw a disastrous response to a global pandemic, because of which more than 400,000 Americans died on his watch.
That’s it. That’s his legacy. And if he gets a second line in the history books it will be this:
He incited an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol which led to a second impeachment.
Anyone who tells you that Trump will be remembered for the economic expansion of the first three years of his term is a fool. History has nothing to say about the economic performance during Clinton’s eight years. The Reagan economic boom is only a footnote to his tenure. Look: Barack Obama gets almost no recognition for the economy of his final seven years and that took place the day before yesterday.
Ditto Trump’s Supreme Court picks. Here are some of the more notable SCOTUS justices of the last half-century:
Unless you do law for a living, I doubt you can tell me who put them on the Court. Dwight Eisenhower put four justices on the Court. Not only can most people not name any of them, but that bit of trivia isn’t even a footnote on Eisenhower’s historical entry.
So make no mistake: Donald Trump’s legacy is already etched in history. And his legacy is death and destruction.
That is all he will be remembered for. Everyone trying to feed you happy talk today about his “accomplishments”—The great Trump economy! So many judges!—is simply trying to alibi themselves or their clique.
On Wednesday night we’ll be hosting an Inauguration livestream for Bulwark+ members to look ahead into the Biden era. I’ll be there! If you’re not already a member, please join us.
2. What If He’s Not Finished?
All of that said, there is one way in which Trump could alter his legacy and become a more consequential historical figure.
He could destroy the Republican party and/or create a new third party.
There are two pathways to this.
Trump leaves the Republican party and starts his own third party.
Trump consolidates his hold on the GOP even further, leading some rump of Republicans to quit and start something new.
If Trump remains a political force, then it is possible that his legacy could be a wholesale reordering of our political party system.
My own view is that this is unlikely. Rather, I suspect Trump will remain a political force—and will consolidate his hold on the Republican party, in the near and medium term—but that there will be no splintering. The Republican party will simply evolve more toward his image: A cult of personality with only opportunistic policy preferences, notable primarily for its openness to authoritarianism.
3. The Most Dangerous Pardon
If you missed it, you should read Charlie’s newsletter from this morning about the coming flood of pardons.
I’m sure there will be plenty of scandal for us to talk about tomorrow on this front, but there’s one name I want you to watch for: Robert Bales.
Bales is an Army staff sergeant who was convicted of massacring Afghan civilians in 2012. The accounts of what he did are horrific:
Bales committed his crimes with clear mind and conscience. . . . [A]mong [his victims was] a grandmother, shot while protecting her grandchildren; a grandfather, shot while his granddaughter clutched at his leg in fear; another grandmother, whose skull was literally stomped in by Bales; a family of nine whom Bales put into a room, murdered, then lit on fire; a toddler, whom Bales shot not just at close range, but by placing his pistol in contact with her head and then pulling the trigger.
If this man is pardoned it would be a moral stain on America. And it would also endanger every American currently serving in Afghanistan.
I would like to think that Donald Trump’s psychosis is not so deep that it would lead him to pardon a monster like Robert Bales.
But as I said yesterday, assuming that what we would like to happen will happen is dangerous.