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Jeff Bloodworth is a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
President Donald Trump left the White House with a clear, early verdict on his presidency: a devastatingly low 29 percent approval rating. Plummeting popularity and the Jan. 6 insurrection freed the greater public, pundits and the press to excoriate the president as he left office. Though journalists often pen the first draft of history, their collective wisdom seldom endures.
Derided as a corrupt, out-of-his-depth bumpkin, Harry Truman’s approval ratings were mired at 32 percent when he left office. A generation later, historians reconsidered the conventional wisdom and turned Truman into a national folk hero. There is no reverse Newtonian iron law governing presidential reputations. What goes down does not inevitably go up; nevertheless, Trump’s historical legacy is anything but cemented.
But as a revisionist historian by trade, Trump’s historical prospects don’t appear bright to me. Saddled with the lowest average approval rating of any president in the history of modern polling, a global pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection that he stoked with his four-year-long rhetoric, he departed office with Nixonian levels of contempt. And while professional historians constantly reevaluate the legacy of administrations, Trump’s legacy will be remembered as an ideological turn in the American right, albeit a dangerous one.
In 2016, candidate Trump looked more like a Republican candidate of the past than many of his other running mates. His opposition to free trade, immigration and foreign interventionism were seeming conservative apostasies that he used to woo conservative primary voters. Scarcely conservative heresy, Trump’s themes were a return to the pre-New Deal, “Old Right” Republican ideals that lauded nativist, protectionist and non-interventionist policies before the Depression and Second World War.
But it was also the Depression and the Second World War that torpedoed conservatism’s long peace with statism and globalism — Republicans that followed including Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush all accepted federal financial safety nets and commitments to multilateral institutions.
But Trumpism was always more populist style than policy substance compared to recent past Republican presidents. Similar to his populist forebearer Andrew Jackson who was elected to the White House in 1839, the president’s enduring historical imprint will also be found in the wider culture. Referred to as “The Hero” by adoring throngs, Jackson inspired a cultural transformation that unseated elite standards in favor of rough-hewn, martial norms more fitting for a young, upstart nation. Scaring the bejesus out of the nation’s elites, Jackson’s presidency, which featured a Senate censure, today receives favor from presidential historians.
An unlikely Jacksonian disciple, Trump blazed a similar populist cultural path. His use of Twitter and new media skillfully bypassed gatekeeping elites. Inspiring his supporters to consume the facts they chose and create an individualized objective reality premised upon those “truths,” the president authored a decisive cultural turn. A populist revolt against Hollywood titans and Wall Street and K Street elites, the president made it chic and acceptable for large swaths of voters to unapologetically live and vote according to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”
While history shows us that populist upheavals against the gatekeepers is undoubtedly democratic and profoundly American, had that been the sum of Trump’s movement, historians would write a very different, nay heroic, narrative. Sadly, with no principle beyond self-enrichment and aggrandizement, Trump’s revolt knew no moral bounds.
The president’s enduring historical legacy will not be a yin-and-yang, double-edge sword. Yes, he inspired a populist backlash against elites and a conventional wisdom that merited reconsideration. But Trump’s movement was a nihilist revolt without moral content or democratic aim. A populist movement with rebellion as its sole terminus, Trumpism will forever be defined by the Jan. 6 insurrection.
In particular, Jacob Chansely, the QAnon shaman, will symbolize the moral blankness of the Trump presidency. Wearing horns, a fur coyote tail headdress and face paint, Chansley assaulted the “people’s house” and sought to overturn an election on the premise of a deranged conspiracy theory. Millions of Americans followed the president into this abyss. And now, an assault upon truth, democracy and his fellow Americans will be this president’s enduring legacy.