Four Years in the
How will the world remember President Trump?
Donald Trump stunned the political world in 2016 when he became the first person without government or military experience ever to be elected president of the United States. His four-year tenure in the White House revealed extraordinary fissures in American society but left little doubt that he is a figure unlike any other in the nation’s history. He won the 2016 election after a campaign that defied norms and commanded public attention from the moment it began. His approach to governing was equally unconventional. As the Trump era has ended now, here is an overview of Trump’s policies in the international as well as national landscape of the United States.
1. America’s global image
America’s global image declined significantly under Trump, who repeatedly insulted key US allies while cozying up to dictators. The former president’s tendency to push important allies away and isolate the US, including by pulling out of landmark international agreements like the Paris climate accord, had a palpable impact. People across the world expressed negative views on Trump. Pew Research Center in January 2020 released a survey of 32 countries that showed a median of 64% said they do not have confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs, and just 29% expressed confidence in the president. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic also left the US embarrassed on the world stage, and created a void in global leadership that China has rushed to fill.
2. Isolationist Foreign Policy
President Donald Trump laid out his vision for an “America First” foreign policy during his inaugural speech on the steps of the US Capitol on January 20, 2017. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First,” he vowed. Four years later, critics say Trump leaves a scattershot legacy that despite some breakthroughs, has left international organisations weakened and the US increasingly isolated from its closest allies.
Trump’s White House legitimised the economic principle of mors tua vita mea (your death, my life), an isolationist and protectionist outlook taking the form of import tariffs, trade wars and an “us against them” mentality. The old neoliberal tactic of tax cuts for the rich made a comeback. So too did the never-proven “trickle-down” effect whereby if the rich can invest, do business and produce more easily, sooner or later the less-advantaged will also reap the benefits.
Trump’s White House legitimised the idea that international UN bodies can essentially be boycotted if they don’t accept the American way of doing things. This happened with UNESCO, with the finalization of a rupture whose seeds were planted in the Obama years, albeit for different reasons. It happened with the World Health Organisation, accused of spreading lies about the coronavirus, in an attempt to cover up Washington’s own political and administrative failures in managing the pandemic. It happened with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These were all attempts to destroy multilateralism: political thought and action driven by egotism and arrogance.
Of all the Trump’s foreign policy failures, his China policy is probably the most significant. Sino-American relations are actually much worse now than when he took office. Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) early on in January 2017 created a power vacuum in Asia that Beijing has been more than happy to fill. This has generated uncertainty about the role of the US as a guarantor of the security of its allies.
The so-called trade war with China has caused much damage to the US economy. US exports to China have been falling steadily since 2017 and manufacturing jobs have not returned to the US. Meanwhile, Beijing has increased its military activities in the South China Sea, launched multiple cyber-attacks and violently repressed nearly a million Uighurs in Xinjiang province.
3. Climate Change
During his campaign in 2016, Trump had already announced his scepticism of climate change. After he took office in 2017, his administration made decision after decision that slowed or deprioritized climate action. It rolled back policies that helped mitigate warming, relaxed regulations for climate polluters, approved the Keystone XL pipeline, left the Paris Agreement, and more.
In early 2017, for example, Trump told the EPA to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era policy that aimed to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That plan would have avoided about 70 million tons of emissions by this year and over 400 million tons by 2030.
Instead, the EPA replaced the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which set no national emissions goals, allowing states to decide how to regulate emissions from power plants. The agency estimated that its rule would have resulted in only 11 million tons less CO2 in the atmosphere by 2030—about a year’s worth of Rhode Island’s emissions, based on 2017 numbers.
Similarly, the administration weakened vehicle fuel efficiency standards, finalizing rules with new, less ambitious goals in March 2020. The changes wouldn’t have large impacts in the immediate future but would slow down the transition to more efficient cars and trucks. So would the administration’s withdrawal of a waiver allowing California to set stricter vehicle emission standards—an action that is still being challenged in court.
The administration also changed rules about how much methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas, could be emitted as a byproduct of oil and gas drilling and from landfills. EPA estimates that its new rules, finalized in 2020, will result in an extra 850,000 tons of methane added to the atmosphere by 2030, though some experts think this is an underestimate. Methane is a much more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide in the short-term, meaning its impacts could have a strong influence in the near future.
Trump’s most lasting impact on the United States will be the reshaping of the federal judiciary. During his four years in office, Trump installed three Supreme Court justices and 226 judges overall to the federal bench — all for-lifetime appointments. In just four years, Trump appointed 54 judges on the 13 US circuit courts. To put this in perspective, former President Barack Obama appointed 55 circuit judges in his two terms in the White House.
Three justices, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, appointed by President Trump to the US Supreme Court for life are all 55 or younger. They will keep the US Supreme Court in a conservative majority for a long time. All these conservative judges will reshape American law over the course of their terms and beyond, and the impact of that change could determine the future direction of the nation’s values. How will this affect a woman’s right to an abortion? How will this affect the Affordable Care Act? All of these issues will come to the fore again in the future and conservatives will have a chance to put more weight on the table.
So, we can say that even though Trump was not reelected in 2020, his presidency will continue to have an influence on the direction of the US because of the sheer number of conservative federal judges he has installed.
2. Polarized Society
In the past four years, one word has cropped up way more frequently than ever before: extreme. The US may have been divided before Trump took office, and it could even be said that Trump’s victory was a result of that division; yet, his four years in the White House have brought America to an unprecedented level of ripping.
First, the political identity has never been such a sensitive topic full of mania and hatred. A study conducted at Pew Research Center in late-2020 shows that both Trump and Biden supporters say if the other wins, it would result in lasting harm to the country.
And the partisan rupture has now made Trump the first president in American history to be impeached twice.
Second, identities in terms of gender, race, education, income and other were all thrown into the gladiator arena, where different views were at each other’s throat.
Trump’s election was followed by protests from gender equality advocates. The #MeToo movement, equal pay for women’s soccer, and the hearing of US Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh has inflamed the debate even further.
Black Lives Matter groups also staged protests around the country after the police killed multiple African Americans. Half a million American people in nearly 550 places in the United States demanded justice and racial equality.
The flames are everywhere. In the past four years, there have gradually been little accepted premises and the art of compromise in public discourse.
Trump’s recently banned Twitter account, once full of exclamation marks, has no doubt done its part.
A more distressed fact might be that a torn America may not be healed any time soon, though the Biden administration has promised a united America.
After all, even after Biden has won with the most votes ever cast for a presidential election in American history, Trump supporters still tried to overturn the result by attacking the US Capitol.
3. Economy and Trade
The country’s economic boom is Trump’s proudest legacy. With the economic stimulus from his tax and regulatory reforms, the US unemployment rate was at its lowest in 50 years, wages for lowest-paid workers were rising nearly 5 percent a year, and the stock market was buoyant.
But, in 2020, the pandemic hit markets hard. The unemployment rate reached a record high of 14.7 percent in April at the peak of the economic shutdown.
Meanwhile, as he promised to put America first, shortly after taking office, Trump decided to withdraw the United States from a multilateral trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
He also called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the “worst trade deal ever made” and renegotiated it as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Apart from other Trump’s trade conflicts with the world, his confrontational trade negotiations with China have caused repeated friction.
As a lifelong businessman, Trump’s logic is stark: win at all costs.
But when that logic is applied to international politics, the loss of friends and enduring grudges may very likely make Washington less respectable than it once was.
“To make America respected around the world again” has then become the primary vision of President-elect Biden as in his victory speech.
Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic will likely go down as one of the biggest disasters in US history as it has put the US in a state of turmoil that should not have been so terrible. The Trump administration has spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the events the other side of the world and has thus missed prime time to defend the United States from the virus. By the time the government took action, the virus had already spread through American communities, and the tensions between the federal and state governments were not alleviated in time. A slow promotion of masks and social distancing, a lax strategy to lock down cities; the failure of these critical steps to contain the spread of the virus has left the US facing more than 23 million infections and more than 500,000 deaths.
Despite this, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus and contradicted top public-health experts, flouting recommendations from advisors on his own White House coronavirus task force.
Trump refused to accept responsibility for his failed response to the pandemic and blamed China instead.
The writer is a member of staff.