Claire Booth Luce, the famous 20th century politician and playwright, loved to lecture many presidents she knew – from Herbert Hoover to Ronald Reagan – that history would remember them in one sentence.
“The story doesn’t have time for more than one sentence, and it’s always a sentence with an active verb,” she said. Then she will illustrate: “Lincoln, he freed the slaves and saved the union”, before calling them out: “What will he do? your phrase be? “
Either way, it takes a generation or more for historians to sort out a presidency with any degree of objectivity. The distance of the years – as passions recede, presidential records are declassified and evaluated, and a perspective is offered – allows more reasoned and detached judgment to take hold.
Harry Truman, now widely regarded as one of America’s Top 10 Presidents, left office with a paltry 32% public approval rating. Likewise, Lyndon Johnson’s legacy was shrouded in the failure of the Vietnam War before history shed light on his gigantic national achievements, including the fruition of historic civil rights legislation. And Reagan, a year after stepping down from the presidency, was lumped in the bottom quintile of all U.S. presidents in a decennial poll of historians before soaring in future rankings. Having said that, that doesn’t look good for the 45th President.
Trump would like to be remembered for his management of the economy, including instituting a massive tax cut for the country’s wealthiest businesses and citizens, and lifting regulations that had held back many businesses. Or by the number of conservative justices he has appointed to the bench, including, by pure chance, three Supreme Court justices. Or, in his words, the fact that America is once again respected in the world. He would like to be remembered for advancing prison reform and negotiating new relations between Israel and several Arab nations.
But while Trump has become a master at controlling the narrative in his day, history takes its own course.
Especially in superficial evaluations, presidents are measured by the most important aspects of their tenure, those which correspond to the main problems and concerns of their time. Presidents facing major crises, for example, are invariably judged on how well they have met the challenge of resolving them.
The character also comes into play. How was the disposition of a president reflected in his leadership at this pivotal time? Franklin Roosevelt, for example, gets high marks not only for designing innovative solutions to combat the ailments of the Great Depression, but also for his bubbling spirit of rallying together a ravaged nation. None of this bodes well for Donald J. Trump.
Given the patterns in history, it is likely that Trump will be remembered primarily for the central crises of his administration. The first is the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst health calamity to befall the country in more than a century. While Trump cannot be blamed for creating the pandemic, he will be held responsible for allowing it to spread unchecked without a coherent plan in place as he played it down for fear it would dampen a roaring economy. , ignoring the science and insisting that the virus would magically disappear.
How many of the more than 400,000 Americans who perished from COVID-19 during Trump’s surveillance would have been spared had he accepted responsibility and implemented policies and procedures for its mitigation? It was above all his colossal mismanagement of the pandemic that led to Trump’s defeat against Joe Biden by more than 7 million votes.
But more than that, Trump will be remembered for his administration’s other crisis, one of his own actions: baselessly challenging the integrity of a presidential election that led to the seditious siege of Capitol Hill on January 6. in chief sparked a crowd to topple the federal government as lawmakers gathered to certify the election in a bid to overthrow the will of the people and, conversely, “take back our country”, resulting in the deaths of five people, including a policeman who was clubbed to death with a fire extinguisher. The coup attempt is a black mark that even Teflon Trump cannot dodge.
Both tragedies reflect the deficient character of the former president. Separator by nature, Trump came to the presidency as an angry insurgent, and that is how he ruled. Sowing the seeds of doubt, discord and ultimately destruction, he trampled on democratic norms; took revenge and spat vitriol in most of his 34,000 Tweets; and told 30,573 lies, according to the Washington Post. In many ways, Trump seemed downright anti-American.
Most notably, after lightly berating the Nazis and racists who clashed violently with other protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017, he insisted that there were “some very good people. on both sides, ”and a year later at a summit in Helsinki, appeared to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin above his own intelligence agencies on accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But still, who could have imagined what would happen on January 6, 2021?
When addressing the nation in his inaugural address after taking the oath, Trump, enacting an “America First” policy, pledged “this American carnage stops here and stops now” . But Trump failed throughout his presidency to put America first, reliably placing himself first, unable to live up to the majesty of the office he occupied. And it’s this month’s carnage on Capitol Hill, delivered at his own instigation, that he’ll be most associated with.
Whether or not he is convicted by the Senate in his impeachment trial next month, Trump, now tainted with being the only president to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives, will almost certainly be doomed by the verdict of the story about it.
However, despite all of Trump’s pernicious machinations, our fragile system of government has withstood the will of one man. More Americans than in the history of our country voted last November, more than 60 courts have rejected Trump’s baseless allegations of electoral fraud, election officials have refused to give in to pressure from Trump to reject election results elections and, just after the failed coup, amidst smashed windows and battered doors, lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill to certify the election. When Joe Biden took over as the 46th president last week, three words stood out above all else in his inaugural address: “Democracy prevailed.”
What could Trump say in the story? Trump, he divided the nation and fought democracy – and democracy won.
Mark Updegrove is a presidential historian, contributor to ABC News, and author of four books, including “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George HW Bush and George W. Bush” and “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Chairman”.