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Trump legacy: A more divided America, an unsettled world

By Reuters | January 20th 2021
Pro-Trump protesters clash with police at a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington on January 6, 2021. [Reuters]

When President Donald Trump delivered his inaugural speech on January 20, 2017, he promised an end to “American carnage,” a bleak and dysfunctional nation he had promised that he alone could fix.

Closing out his presidency exactly four years later, Trump leaves behind an even more polarised America, where thousands are dying daily from the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is badly damaged and political violence has surged.

Trump didn’t create the bitter differences that have come to define American life. Still, he seized upon many of them as tools to build his power base, promising to uplift rural America and the broader working class he said had been neglected by the Washington establishment.

When thousands of his angry followers – the vast majority of them white - marched on Capitol Hill on January 6, they rallied behind Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. The rioting that ensued left a police officer and four other people dead, dozens wounded and a nation shaken.

A major part of his legacy when he departs the White House today is likely to be Americans more politically and culturally estranged from each other than they were when he took office.

At the heart of that divide, Trump’s opponents say, is race. Early in his tenure, he initially resisted denouncing white nationalists after a deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, fuelling perceptions that he sympathised with their cause.

Police killings

His harsh rhetoric often worsened racial crises that flared over police killings of Black people on his watch.

“Sadly, he is the natural outcome of the history of divide and conquer,” in American race relations, said Rev William Barber, a prominent civil rights activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty, anti-racism movement that Martin Luther King helped organise in the 1960s. “The thing is, he just pushed it all the way.”

Trump has denied any racist animus. His staunch supporters argue that he served as a corrective to prior administrations of both parties that let down the poor, the working class and rural regions that have struggled in recent decades. That base of support remains large - another likely legacy of the Trump era.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump occupy the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. [Reuters]

Alex Bruesewitz, an organiser for Stop the Steal, a pro-Trump group protesting the election results, said the president retains his appeal to working-class voters.

“They felt like they were the forgotten men and women. And the president said, ‘You are forgotten no longer’,” Bruesewitz said.

Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden, and his encouragement of his supporters to descend on the Capitol, mean his term is ending amid a swirl of untruths that millions of Republicans have taken to heart, creating a serious challenge for the new administration to win their trust.

The disorderly transfer of presidential power comes against the backdrop of the spread of a pandemic that Trump downplayed, and financial hardships from the deep recession spurred by it.

Keeping the country on edge, and prompting security lockdowns in Washington and state capitals, is concern that the pro-Trump mob’s siege of the Capitol on January 6 could embolden far-right extremists to further violence.

“There has never been a presidency in modern times when America’s dysfunction has been so fully on display,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. White House spokesman Judd Deere rejected the notion that Trump’s legacy lay in tatters.

Path recovery

In a written statement to Reuters, Deere cited a list of what he considered Trump’s economic accomplishments, such as getting the country on the path to recovery and deregulatory moves, which have included loosened restrictions on auto emissions and oil drilling. He also argued that the president secured the border with Mexico, rebuilt US military strength, brought some troops home and helped orchestrate development of a coronavirus vaccine in a matter of months.

“He leaves office having made America safer, stronger, more secure,” Deere said.

A supporter of US President Donald Trump is detained by Los Angeles Police during a pro-Trump demonstration in Los Angeles, California, on January 6, 2021. [Reuters]

He declined, in the statement, to address racism accusations against the president.

Trump did, in fact, deliver on a number of priorities for his Republican Party.

In partnership with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he overhauled the US judiciary, giving it a more conservative bent with the appointment of three Supreme Court justices and the fast-tracking of more than 200 federal judges.

Trump pushed through massive tax cuts for corporations. The economy expanded faster than it had under predecessor Barack Obama, and unemployment reached record lows.

But the solid economy, which he hoped would be his biggest re-election selling point, was swept away in a wave of coronavirus-driven shutdowns that plunged the US into the worst downturn in nearly a century as joblessness soared. The national debt, which had ballooned during his term, grew even more in his final year.

Critics condemned

Trump catered to his base by cracking down on illegal immigration, but critics condemned his approach as too harsh. Biden plans to reverse much of it, including a travel ban on a handful of Muslim-majority nations. Erecting a barrier along the US-Mexico border was a signature pledge of his 2016 campaign. Less than half of the 1,000 miles he promised was built, much of it where existing barriers stood – and Mexico never paid for it as Trump had vowed.

Abroad, Trump often invoked his “America First” agenda. He dismantled or disrupted multilateral pacts, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, which committed nearly every nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and the Iran nuclear deal, which eased sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Indulged autocrats

His administration eroded bedrock alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, antagonised traditional partners and indulged autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But Trump has been credited by Republicans as well as many Democrats for a tougher stance on China. He slapped tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports, sanctioned top officials over a crackdown in Hong Kong and imposed penalties on Chinese telecommunications companies. His administration faced some criticism, however, for provoking a trade war with Beijing and reverting to Cold War-style rhetoric.

Trump has also won praise for brokering historic accords to normalise relations between Israel and four once-hostile Arab neighbours. And he reduced US forces in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, though he failed to completely extract America from “endless wars” as he promised in his 2016 campaign.

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