Editorial | Good riddance, Donald Trump
The transfer of power in the United States, from one president to the other, is a big deal, not only for Americans, but the world.
But few in American history, except, perhaps, for Abraham Lincoln’s succession of James Buchanan in 1861, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt of Herbert Hoover in 1933, will likely be as consequential as today’s replacement of Donald Trump by Joe Biden as America’s leader.
Lincoln ended slavery and his victory in America’s bloody civil war saved the union. Roosevelt’s New Deal dragged the United States out of the Great Depression and his leadership of the United States in the Second World War set it on a course to the global dominance of the next 75 years.
Mr Biden’s defeat of Mr Trump might just have saved the United States from a descent into illiberalism and strongman government, if not full authoritarianism. The world, at the same time, may have escaped a long stretch of fractious instability and a return to 19th and early 20th century Greater Power politics.
We, to be clear, do not imbue Joe Biden with innate idealism. Neither do we assume that he will forfeit US interests and overturn all of Mr Trump’s foreign policy initiatives. But his support for multilateralism, borne out by his history as a senator and his two terms as Barack Obama’s vice-president, suggests that he will recommit America to a rules-based global order, which would be of value to small, vulnerable countries like Jamaica. Moreover, after four years of Mr Trump’s mercurial, norms-busting presidency, a return to relative predictability in Washington would be welcome.
STILL THE WORLD’S SOLE GENUINE SUPERPOWER
These observations about this period of America’s history and Mr Trump’s deleterious impact on global polity are framed against America’s outsized influence in the world. The rise of China notwithstanding, the United States is still the world’s sole genuine superpower. It is the world’s biggest economy and has its most powerful and technologically advanced military.
Additionally, America is culturally dominant, which, allied with people’s pre-Trump sense of its unbending commitment to democracy and human rights at home, allowed the United States to supplement its economic and military might with soft power abroad. A presumption of the United States as a moral force for good.
The Trump presidency upended these idealistic notions. He eschewed Truman’s post-war multilateralism as the guiding principle of international relations. In its place, Donald Trump espoused ‘America First’, which, at its core, implies an assertion of American muscle, economic and otherwise, in support of what Washington counts as its interests. On very few things could there be a commonality of goals and concerted global action.
It was this philosophy that underpinned Mr Trump’s myriad wars; his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal; the blocking of judges being appointed to the World Trade Organization’s appeals tribunal; and, among other actions, America’s walkout of the World Health Organization.
At home, with exceedingly loyal and politically weaponised base, Mr Trump cynically embraced an ideology of white ethnocentric class grievance and expropriated the Republican party, whose acquiescent leadership accommodated new interpretations of the power of the presidency that stressed institutional guard rails. That base seemed unconcerned about Mr Trump’s managerial incompetence, evidenced by his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic that has, so far, killed nearly 400,000 Americans.
TRUMP HAS PROVIDED A TEMPLATE
Moreover, Mr Trump placed America’s democracy in danger. Having lost the election, he claimed fraud and sought to overturn the results, encouraging his supporters to storm the US Capitol where Mr Biden’s victory was being confirmed – action for which he was, for the second time, impeached by the House of Representatives.
Mr Trump, in his retreat from the White House, has adopted a scorched-earth approach, taking last-minute actions to undermine the legacy of his predecessor and to make it more difficult for Mr Biden to govern.
For the insurrection he fomented, Mr Trump ought to be convicted by the Senate and barred from ever holding public office again, a position that is supported, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, by 59 per cent of Americans. Barring him from future office wouldn’t be vindictive, or be merely about punishing Mr Trump. It is about reclaiming the institutions that are the bedrock of the republic.
Donald Trump has provided a template. If the Americans fail to fix the battered edifices, including cleansing them of the remnants and odour of Trumpism, the next authoritarian might just succeed. And the world can do without Donald Trump.