Because most presidents leave the White House graciously, there is time and space to appraise their legacy. The chaos of Donald Trump’s exit has crowded out such reflection. Ensuring a handover to Joe Biden without incident next week is enough work to busy the nation.
The judgment should not be postponed indefinitely. This has been a presidency of vast consequence, and mostly for the wrong reasons. Mr Trump hands on a US that is less together at home and less credible abroad than at any point since the nadir of the Vietnam war.
The domestic and the international are hard to separate. The flattery of strongmen over liberal allies, the brute protectionism, the scorning of climate change accords and multilateral bodies: these foreign policies have left the west without a leader. But then so has the turmoil inside the US. What makes a great power is more than its aggregate tonnage of armaments. It must also have a stable and attractive society. Thus are allies won without duress, and the state freed from constant firefighting at home.
Mr Trump did not invent America’s social fractures, least of all the racial ones that are as old as the republic. But no recent president has done more to widen them. The mob that stormed the Capitol at his incitement was not just all-white, it contained Confederate flags and Nazi slogans. Underneath the rioters’ specific (and nonsensical) grievance with the presidential election was an inchoate sense of racial dispossession.
The speed with which whites are losing their majority status in the US can be overstated, but it is a profound change. Even a well-meaning president would struggle to neutralise anxieties about it. What this one has done is stoke them for his own ends. He did it by equivocating over the deadly Charlottesville march in 2017. He did it with extreme words and deeds about Latin American immigration. Weeks before the election, he told the far-right Proud Boys to “stand by”.
This is not a dog whistle. It is just a whistle. The moral case against such explicit divisiveness hardly needs stating. What is odd is that Republicans cannot even see the geopolitical one. America’s internal schisms are not lost on Moscow or Beijing. Each riot, each racial crisis, serves their view of the west as brittle, and democracy as a formula for chaos. Throw in his botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and Mr Trump has given China propaganda win after propaganda win. If he is a nationalist, he is a bad one.
To see his presidency as a wasted opportunity is to assume that he ever had the skill or character to govern well. Two impeachments and the pandemic fiasco suggest otherwise. What is true, however, is that he detected real faults in the status quo of 2016. America’s deindustrialised towns had been left to rust for decades. Globalisation had millions of unacknowledged losers. Their material plight was compounded by cultural condescension.
All the more sad, then, that he did so little for them. He cut taxes for high-earners instead, and burnt regulations for business. The infrastructure splurge never came. Having pledged to undermine Obamacare and replace it with something better, he only did the first. Had he governed as the economic populist he once posed as, he might have won that second term.
The lingering worry is that he came close anyway. As Mr Biden prepares for his dire inheritance, the US has a huge minority of citizens who swear by his predecessor, even now. Do not mistake the exit of a rogue president for the end of America’s troubles.