Having failed in his effort to thwart the voters’ will and hold on to power, Donald J. Trump will leave the White House under the cloud of a second impeachment and facing the humiliation of a trial in the Senate for inciting an insurrection. But the Trump administration didn’t just end badly; it was a disaster from the start.
The question of whether Trump has been the worst president in American history can be debated, but he clearly was one of the worst. He deserves that infamous description not primarily because of poor policy decisions — though there were plenty of those — but because of his defects of character and temperament.
Yes, there have been presidents with personal failings who nevertheless exercised strong leadership and respected democratic institutions. But from the time Trump took office he displayed a constellation of flaws — narcissism, mendacity, an exaggerated view of his own ability and a chilling lack of empathy — that infected his presidency and divided the nation.
Trump began his administration with a lie about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and the fabrications kept coming. His presidency ends with Trump clinging to the fiction that the election that ousted him was “rigged” — the same fantasy that impelled his crazed followers to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a siege that led to five deaths.
In 2017 this newspaper published a series of editorials under the title “Our Dishonest President,” in which we drew a connection between Trump’s contempt for the truth and other alarming features of his presidency, including his attacks on the news media (“fake news”) and his undermining of vital institutions, such as the federal judiciary and the electoral process.
In the last editorial in that series, we said that Trump was “reckless and unmanageable, a danger to the Constitution, a threat to our democratic institutions.” That was an accurate indictment of Trump in 2017, and it sadly proved prophetic about the way he has behaved since.
Take the outrageous abuse of power that led to Trump’s first impeachment: his attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine, a nation desperately dependent on U.S. security aid, to interfere in the U.S. election by investigating Joe Biden. That episode exposed Trump’s inability to distinguish his own interests from those of the nation, a blind spot that also has figured in his refusal to admit that he lost the 2020 election and in his contempt for Congress, the intelligence community and career diplomats.
Another character defect — lack of empathy — was evident in Trump’s casual bigotry toward immigrants and people of color. That attitude was reflected in a series of disastrous policies. They range from a ban on travel to the United States primarily directed at predominantly Muslim countries to the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border to the attempt to exclude immigrants lacking documentation from the census count used to apportion seats in Congress.
Trump portrayed himself as a champion of Black Americans, bizarrely boasting that he had done more for them than any president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. Some of his policies — such as his support for modest criminal justice initiatives, tax incentives for investment in economically distressed areas and funding for historically black colleges and universities — may have benefited some Black Americans. But they are utterly overshadowed by other words and acts, including his claim that Black Lives Matter was a symbol of hate and his racially freighted claim that a Biden victory would harm “suburban housewives” by destroying their neighborhoods with fair-housing policies.
You could argue that Trump is merely continuing the politics of racial dog-whistling that have animated some Republican candidates since at least Richard M. Nixon. It was that, but it also reflected how cruel and insensitive Trump’s words and deeds could be.
The most damaging outcome of Trump’s narcissism was his sabotaging of efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump can legitimately take credit for his administration’s commitment to developing vaccines at “warp speed.” But he undermined the larger effort to contain the virus by minimizing its dangers, questioning the value of testing, promoting questionable treatments and mocking the wearing of masks. Long before he exhorted his followers to “fight like hell” at the U.S. Capitol, he urged opponents of COVID-19 safety measures to “liberate” their states and, in a foreshadowing of his friendly comments about the mob at the U.S. Capitol, expressed sympathy for armed demonstrators who occupied the Michigan Statehouse.
Even those who believe that Trump promised a positive new direction for the Republican Party — opposition to “endless wars” and free trade and support for government investment at home, budget deficits be damned — must recognize that he undermined his own agenda with his erratic behavior, inattention to detail and ego-driven insistence on settling personal scores.
The president’s defenders can argue that none of these failings prevented the Trump administration from achieving successes in domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, there were accomplishments.
Although Trump was wrong to boast that he presided over “the greatest economy in the history of America,” unemployment did decline significantly during his administration before soaring in the COVID-19 pandemic. With the cooperation of the Republican-controlled Senate, he placed three conservative justices on the Supreme Court and appointed more than 200 judges to lower federal courts.
Abroad, the administration successfully encouraged Israel and several Arab nations to normalize relations and rightly engaged the Taliban in negotiations designed to bring U.S. forces home from Afghanistan. But the president’s overconfidence in his own abilities led him to think that flattering Kim Jong Un was the way to make progress on controlling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. And his repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement, seemingly motivated more by a desire to overturn an Obama administration achievement than by a desire to prevent Iran more effectively from developing nuclear weapons, was a strategic failure that alienated U.S. allies.
Trump’s legacy will be defined primarily not by his occasional achievements — or even by his policy errors — but by the way this deeply flawed man debased his office, stoked divisions and brought a democracy to the brink of self-destruction, all for the greater glory of Donald J. Trump.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.