By Stephen Adewale
The epic conflicts created by the last administration of the United States, under Donald Trump’s leadership, seem like perfect material for future classes in History. It is easy to imagine world-history books recounting the US attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States, accompanied by US decisions to withdraw from a large number of foreign organizations and international agreements and other efforts to generate diplomatic uncertainty.
From top to bottom, the foreign policy of the country became a personality cult. Gathered not around a collection of universal values, but around one man’s opinions and vagaries. Under Trump’s watchful eyes, American Foreign Policy became welcoming to authoritarian rulers and expedited the use and spread of misinformation. The tenure of Trump already has a fitting bookend, but the world has seen, felt, and will remember his acts for a long time.
The world would always remember how Donald Trump left the White House in a dramatic form. While some ex-presidents are remembered for their good farewell address, Trump would be remembered for his farewell riot. He would be remembered for the way he summoned an angry crowd to the Capitol using his damnable Twitter account. He would be remembered for stoking them to believe that his loyal vice president, Mike Pence, had the power and the will to reverse the election results. And that when the VP decided to side with the constitution, there stood Donald Trump, inciting the crowd to march on the Capitol to stop Pence from carrying out his constitutional responsibilities.
Inevitably, some citizens heeded the call, flew to Washington, cheered on the call of their president to fight, and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to attack Congress and the United States Vice President. The world looked on in horror as the outrage elected officials were forced to cover their heads and flee to safety. It was Trump’s riot, and characteristically, having steered things up, we all watched as Trump retired to the safety of self-bubble to let others deal with the consequences. The photographs of officers with weapons drawn, defending the hallowed chamber of democracy against a hungry rioter will be seared into the memory of every citizen of the world for generations to come.
Trump changed American and world politics in numerous ways. Trump was, of course, not the first politician to use propaganda instead of substance. But the lack of any attempt to cloak this rhetoric or same guise as ‘policy’ was remarkable. The great lesson learned from the Trump era by politicians of all stripes is that you may have all the world’s policy proposals, but it does not matter if you cannot transmit a sufficiently resonant message to a sufficiently wide stream of citizens.
Mexico, of course, would never pay for the border wall, but what a triumphant concept to understand. What a straightforward articulation of a collection of ideals that are cultural, ethnic, economic and political! The hollowness of the Trump age often allowed him to obscure before our eyes the simple facts of things happening. His employees argued that it was not what we all thought when Trump ordered the travel ban in early 2017, a thinly veiled effort to cover his much-touted campaign proposal for a “Muslim ban” in something like respectability.
“That’s not a ban on travel. It’s not a Muslim ban,” Sean Spicer, then-White House press secretary, told reporters. “The seven countries singled out were all Muslim-majority, and Trump said during the campaign: “Donald J. Trump is pushing for a complete and utter shutdown of Muslims entering the United States before the leaders of our government can find out what the hell is happening.” Spicer said that Trump had just called it a “ban,” because that’s what the press had called it. There followed circular claims about the essence of truth, just one battle in the American four-year war of semantics.
The technique of retrofitting evidence to one’s desired narrative was mastered by Trump. Partisans had made studious attempts before the Trump age to draw their cases into at least a simulacrum of truth. Trump didn’t bother much about that, and as it turned out, the majority of the Republican voters saw nothing wrong with it.
The rest of the country got agitated but became used to his new political laws. When the faces of Congressional Republicans were pushed down into a steaming bowl of reality, evidence, and expert testimony during the 2019 impeachment trial of Trump, Republicans still screamed against the mechanism and attempted to give benign reasons for the actions of Donald Trump.
Judging by the loss of the presidency, Trump’s optimism-despite-the-dire-facts policy obviously ran around as the world was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis ought to force his government to make tough decisions and fulfill its most important obligation to protect the public. But all broke, instead. It’s impossible for one to spin its way out of a pandemic.
As COVID-19 struck, the opposite impulses of Trump’s GOP showed their utter impotence. Trump and his party succumbed to their default impulses of challenging “the establishment” as health professionals worked to find best practices in the midst of a pandemic; Trump’s talent has always been in the PR department, recognizing the seductive power of thumbing your nose at authority. The simple act of wearing a mask was shown by growing scientific evidence to be a way to help contain the pandemic, but Trump and other Republicans called it an impingement on democracy.
In search of scapegoats for the much delayed and disorderly response of his administration to the pandemic, the US, the largest donor, announced a suspension of support to the World Health Organization with funding of over $400 million a year. While America has every right to withdraw from its major strategic commitments, this comes at the risk of a reduction in global power. Trump only intensified this weakening in his relentless attempt to demonstrate American strength. On the world stage, Trump’s approach towards the WHO was seen as yet another step in the accelerated abdication of US global leadership.
Donald Trump scrapped or disrupted multilateral pacts, overhauled tax and immigration structures, and with the support of Senate Republicans, reshaped the judiciary, saying he understood best what ailed America, a country he mostly ruled by executive order. The acts of Trump can be reversed over time in many ways, but his legacy will remain in the federal courts where, for decades, his conservative lifetime appointees will affect every aspect of American life.
Acting in agreement with the Republican-controlled Senate, with judicial appointees tilting to the right, Trump could have the longest-lasting effect on the federal courts. Trump has confirmed three Supreme Court justices in less than four years, a feat last accomplished by President Richard Nixon, who appointed four in his first four years. The Supreme Court of the United States currently has a strong conservative majority of 6-3. Trump, appointed 53 judges to federal courts of appeal, and also appointed around a fifth of judges from the district court, the lowest level on the federal judicial ladder.
This demand to demonstrate American strength, to win, and to be seen to win, has had another impact time and again. Trump came to power, pledging an end to Washington’s naïveté, which he believed was enriching the rest of the world to the detriment of America. He vowed to be a major dealmaker. His record, however, is one of broken, not made, arrangements. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, allowed nuclear-arms-control arrangements to expire, and pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in addition to unpicking the Iranian nuclear deal. He torpedoed bargains and alienated allies even over issues on which Trump could have enjoyed large international agreements, such as nuclear disarmament and Chinese aggression, to name but two.
By challenging the NATO alliance, alienating European allies, and indulging autocrats, Donald Trump revised several fundamental tenets of America’s post-World War II foreign policy. His contempt for multilateralism sparked a series of withdrawals (including the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations) from agreements and deliberations where the United States had played a leading role. The relationship with China deteriorated to levels not seen in decades, raising fears of a new Cold War, especially after Beijing was accused by Washington of concealing the world’s coronavirus threat.
On his 2016 campaign pledge to relocate the U.S embassy in Israel to divided Jerusalem, Trump delivered. His administration also helped negotiate landmark agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan (late in his term) to normalize relations, which were praised by even Trump’s critics. There was less traction with his hard line on Iran. The “maximum pressure” policy of the administration put sanctions on everything from oil revenue to minerals and Iran’s central bank but failed to push Tehran to change its actions or bring it back to the nuclear deal talks that Trump abandoned in 2018. Tensions begin to intensify instead.
Trump partly delivered on a campaign pledge to bring troops home from “endless wars,” particularly in Afghanistan, where numbers are falling to the tiniest of thousands. But his relationship with the military top brass soured as the advice of the generals ran counter to his desires, including his request for an abrupt Syrian pullout. And he made little progress in persuading Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal, amid Trump’s historic engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Donald Trump had toughened and justified the comprehensive foreign isolation of the United States by the end of his four years. For example, in August 2020, the Trump administration called for an extension of sanctions against Iran for breaching the terms of the nuclear agreement from which Trump himself had withdrawn. All but one of the other members of the United Nations Security Council voted against the motion or abstained.
“America First” ended up as “America alone”.
The world will spend the next few years, along with the rest of America, trying to make sense of the last four years. In American democracy and American institutions, Trump changed our understanding of what was possible. For decades, the consequences of Trump’s presidency will echo across the world. Trump did not start the notion that partisanship or bigotry is a decent political tactic, but he elevated both. He showed profound inadequacies and deficiencies in the consumption of politics by Americans, and he seemed to make everyone think about it in the world. Whether history would look favorably on Donald Trump now that he has left office is impossible to say, but what is clear is that history will not be able to stop looking.
Bio: Stephen Adewale is a fellow of the American Council of Learned Society and currently serves as the Director of Africa Dialogue Mission, Nigeria