Donald Trump is the sort of character more common in classical literature than in contemporary politics: A tragic figure whose prodigious strengths presage his downfall.
Trump is undeniably larger than life. His huge personality and unique style were always certain to polarize. The very brashness, confidence, instinct and ego that let him accomplish more than any president in recent memory seem destined to render his remarkable achievements unsustainable.
Most American politicians who galvanize movements merely pave the way for others to follow. Barry Goldwater failed so that Ronald Reagan could succeed; George McGovern did the same for Barack Obama. No one paved the way for Donald Trump.
Trump built his name, his following and his fortune far outside the political realm. He turned his surname into the world’s most valuable personal brand, equated with a unique combination of boldness, luxury and modernity. He mastered two disparate industries—real estate and entertainment—and dabbled in many others before shifting his focus to politics.
When he finally made that leap in 2015, he did so as the most outside of outsiders. Never before had anyone possessing neither prior elected office nor military command experience moved directly from the private sector to the presidency. Candidate Trump competed with Democrats and Republicans alike—and crushed his competition. He entered office promising to achieve some truly great things, delivering to America victories that many had declared unobtainable.
Once in office, his policy instincts proved uncanny. At one level, it was often easy to recognize where bipartisan “expertise” had failed, and turn instead to straightforward common sense. At a deeper level, it took remarkable strength and confidence to exercise common sense against withering opposition from America’s entire establishment.
Trump’s unique combination of instinct, strength, common sense and unbridled ego turned his first three years in office into an era of peace and prosperity. His combination of tax cuts and regulatory reform brought growth distributed throughout the entire economy. He replaced the dated NAFTA with the USMCA and convinced the Mexican government to move against the vast waves of illegal immigrants pouring into and through its country. He started no new wars, and lost far fewer service members than any of his recent predecessors.
To the world at large, Trump shattered many of the taboos that had kept Israel from integrating into its region, to the benefit of Arabs and Israelis alike. His sanctions crippled the brutal, terror-supporting Iranian regime. He strengthened anti-Islamist Muslim leaders in their moderation and modernization efforts. He crushed ISIS’s territorial caliphate. He motivated NATO allies to increase their contributions to our collective defense. He stood strong against China and Russia.
Trump also supported groups that had grown accustomed to neglect and contempt. His commitment to religious freedom allowed practicing Christians and Jews to breathe freely for the first time in years. He championed LGBT and women’s rights in countries that still see them as deviants or chattel. He promoted the jobs, investments, school choice, safe streets and acculturation that our impoverished minority and immigrant communities so desperately need—and that progressive leaders cruelly withhold.
These are only some of Trump’s grand achievements. But they also highlight the tragedy of his term. The critical task that he left untouched. The singular failure that will haunt America’s future. Donald Trump did little to drain the swamp.
Trump’s solo successes blinded him to the Washington adage “personnel is policy.” A handful of stellar appointments notwithstanding—Mike Pompeo, Richard Grenell, Betsy DeVos and some federal judges come immediately to mind—his record on personnel was dismal. He retained far too many careerists who elevate bureaucracy over country, Obama loyalists working to undermine his policies and establishment Republicans committed to reining him in rather than promoting his agenda. He did not empower, promote or organize those who shared his vision.
Though Trump recognized and challenged the institutions arrayed against him, he did little to reform them. Scant surprise that when he needed them to adjudicate his claims about the election, few American institutions—public or private—would even let him present his case. He leaves office with every one of America’s institutions showing either contempt or indifference towards him and his millions of supporters.
Donald Trump famously promised to “Make America Great Again.” He delivered that greatness, but it is already dissipating. He thought he could restore America alone. He never created the movement America so desperately needs—a movement capable of delivering a truly durable American restoration. Meanwhile, on his watch, his progressive foes have become better organized, emboldened, embedded and far more vindictive than ever.
In true Shakespearean form, Donald Trump leaves the stage as a dark winter descends upon an America more divided than it’s been in generations.