Will history's judgement of Trump differ from the pundits? - opinion

Historians do not focus on the 'People Magazine' aspect of a presidency, but on policy and action.

US President Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return to Washington from Camp David, US, November 29, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
US President Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return to Washington from Camp David, US, November 29, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS)
It appears that Donald Trump’s long shot attempt at overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election is just about played out. While the issue of the integrity of the process is not likely to go away, and could become an enduring meme of domestic US politics, it will not likely change the outcome of the election.
As they say, now Trump’s presidency is about to belong to the ages.
Astute observers of US presidential history cannot have failed to notice that there is often a profound disconnect between the regard and esteem that a president is accorded while in office, and the assessment of him decades later by historians.
This should not be a big surprise. Pundits – those regarding a president in real time – are often focused on optics, stylistics, even aesthetics. Policies are viewed through the prism of how they might impact certain interest groups, or other politicians.
Foreign policy is notoriously short term oriented, focusing on the impact to alliances, or the exacerbation of tensions with adversaries.
Historians of course have the benefit of hindsight. And, also, of a certain forgetfulness. Issues that loomed large in the moment seem irrelevant or at least of far less significance over time.
Historians do not focus on the People Magazine aspect of a presidency. Their focus is on the policies that a president adopted, specifics actions he took (or did not take), and how those actions or non-actions impacted America’s geo-political, economic and social/societal welfare after he left office.
In other words, what lasting effect did he make on the nation and the world? They will look at whether a president enhanced or weakened American power and competitiveness abroad, and how he affected American society.
Some of these impacts and implications take decades to unfold and to be appreciated. But it is they that will ultimately characterize a presidency.
In the lifetimes of many of us, we have seen dramatic reversions from the presidency as it was experienced, to the presidency as it became to be regarded by historians. Harry Truman, wildly unpopular when he left office, is today regarded as one of America’s great presidents. By contrast, John Kennedy, who in death stood at the gates of immortality, is today widely regarded as an ineffective and non-transformational president.
This brings us to Donald Trump. No president in living memory has evinced such a strong visceral reaction: sneering contempt from elites and heartfelt affection from regular working people, the “deplorables” of flyover country. The non-stop denigration of mainstream media and much of social media became its own self-fulfilling prophecy: Trump was reprehensible because he was Orange Man Bad: crass, crude, racist, and thoroughly not presidential.
None of this will mean much 40 years from now, just as president Andrew Jackson’s rough backwoods manner, so appalling to the founding Federalists, means nothing to us.
What is likely to be viewed as important by historians is how President Trump used the power of his office to enhance or to imperil US interests. Let me suggest that some of Trump’s achievements are very likely to command a highly favorable reception from historians.
While there has been much condemnation of Trump as a xenophobic isolationist who spurned several global treaties and organizations, historians are likely to see him as someone who sought to reinvigorate American power without abdicating from global leadership.
Trump was the first post-war president who conceived American leadership as meaning that America did not have to underwrite the activities of everyone else, including countries more than capable of providing more of their own resources.
This worldview was very closely tied to his unique understanding of the state of American society: a growing divide separating the haves and the have-nots. While elites had benefited enormously from globalization and technological innovation, enormous numbers of Americans were marginalized. The negative impact was not only economic but also psychological, a loss of purpose of meaning, of place in the world.
Trump’s efforts to reinvigorate the American working class cut across all racial and ethnic boundaries, reducing Black unemployment to a historically low level.
But it is in the area of foreign policy that historians are likely to be kindest to Trump. Trump was able to employ soft and hard power to assert American global leadership, even while being careful to entangle America in new conflicts or to double down on existing ones.
Most notable perhaps, the orchestration of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, was a masterful use of soft power, providing incentives for each side to step up over a divide to find mutually beneficial common ground.
In doing so, Trump turned the whole course of Middle East politics on its ear, blowing up the failed assumption that peace in the region could only come through an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Finally, historians are very likely to see in Trump the triumph of the audacious amateur. Here was a non-politician, not polished or jaded in the ways of Washington, who shook up both parties’ establishments, and proved that effective leadership did not require a lifetime of previous public service.
It is of course possible that historians will seize on other aspects of Trump’s presidency to formulate their assessment of his effectiveness. My enumerated factors, however, are likely to stand the test of the moment, and to resonate far into the future.
It will be a relief to not have Trump “to kick around anymore,” most especially to the man himself. I think he can return to his private life confident that he will be judged quite favorably by a voice that has not yet had its say, the voice of history.
The writer is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu, Israel's largest grassroots Zionist movement, and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. His views are his own.