The Top 5 Achievements of the Trump Presidency
It may seem the Trump years were an unmitigated travesty, but that's not quite right.
Some may think this listing of Donald Trump’s five biggest achievements as president is tongue-in-cheek, but it isn’t. The sole virtue of a failed presidency is that it brings with it certain silver linings a competent president would be paradoxically incapable of bestowing on the nation he or she leads. While the unexpected advances of Trump’s presidency are exponentially overshadowed by the destructiveness of his four-year reign, they can’t be erased. So while conventional wisdom holds—rightly so—that Donald Trump will be known for many generations to come as America’s worst-ever leader, it’s important that we locate and consider the few kernels of utility we can rescue from the detritus of the Trump era. Here are the five most significant ones:
Achievement #1: Trump Confirmed That the GOP Believes in Nothing
Not deficit reduction, not “family values,” not rule of law, not law-and-order, not the value of military service, not parliamentary procedure, not opposition to coastal elites, not personal accountability, not American democracy, not federalism, not earnestly worshipping a higher power, not “the value of hard work,” not combatting autocracy at home and abroad, not projecting strength in the face of our most ardent adversaries, not preserving national security, not the moral uprightness of speaking the truth, not marital fidelity, not admiring success over the mere appearance of success, not social conservatism, not respecting tradition, not respect for the authorities, not stringent oversight of the federal exercise of power, not the value of a human life, indeed not any of the things that for decades the Republican Party self-righteously peacocked about the country proclaiming it believed in and would fight anyone to the death to protect.
In the end, we discovered that one of the nation’s two major parties stands for nothing but the perpetuation of its own power and avarice—and if that perpetuation requires treachery against America, so be it. If it requires voting for an adulterer who hates evangelicals and for most of his life self-identified as a social liberal and a Democrat, so be it. If it means voting for a career criminal who feels only contempt for law enforcement, so be it. If it means voting for a draft-dodger who thinks U.S. soldiers are “losers and suckers,” so be it. If it means treating a failed businessman as a successful one and a profligate spender of taxpayer monies as a deficit hawk, so be it. If it means spending years celebrating a liar who lies to you ten times daily on average, so be it.
The Republican Party is going to try to “go back to normal” now. It will moan about deficits, smirk about the supposed loose morals of progressives, cluck its tongue about lawlessness, talk once more about the value of tradition rather than “shaking things up.” Everything the party said and did between 2015 and 2020, and everything its voters said and did, will be presumed to never have happened at all. And if you say otherwise, prepare to be gaslit by a cadre of cultists many tens of millions strong and entirely unwilling to own who and what they are and what they in fact believe in, which is, once again, absolutely nothing.
The Trump presidency revealed—if we didn’t know it already—that the Republican Party is an entity with no principles, agenda, or moral center. The first would-be neo-fascist dictator who happened along their path became their Dear Leader, to the point that the party decided not to even have a platform anymore.
Yes, that really happened. And the rest of America must never—ever—forget it.
Achievement #2: We Now Know Which of Us Will Do Anything to Satisfy Their Own Rage and Spite
The comedian Marc Maron was the first person I heard make this observation, and the way he put it was this: we know who everybody is now. If you want to know how a person would act if the United States were to come under attack by fascist invaders—if all that keeps our democracy afloat were suddenly and harrowingly put into question—now you know. All you have to do is look at what people did over the last four years.
Did they turn away from politics altogether? Did they cast snark at the earnest concerns of their countrymen and women? Did they seek profit or self-amusement by casting the growing darkness still further, into corners it hadn’t yet reached? Did they joke at and make light of disaster? Did they enable or coddle or encourage or applaud or justify or make common cause with the nation’s would-be destroyers? Did they reveal their prejudices? Their unshakeable animus for millions of fellow Americans? Did they betray a petty obsession with revenge over imagined slights, declaring that the punishment for being asked to—for instance—not call a person with a learning disability “retarded” must be nothing less than the toppling of our very democracy? Did they value the fight against “political correctness” over the survival of America?
Trump offered his country some revelations about itself that likely would have been impossible to access had the country not been under imminent threat from him for such an extended duration. The point here isn’t that we should suddenly hate or fear or mistrust those who live around us but who we don’t know well—as most of us already exhibit a healthy caution around strangers, and have no illusions about this nation’s intermittent celebration of bigotry, cynicism, and venality—but that what we better understand now is what we always suspected: that we ourselves can bring our way of life to its knees if we’re not vigilant about the relationships and sentiments we foster.
And yes, there are undoubtedly those among our acquaintances who, until now, had not shown us what they really are, and for inducing them to do so via a “long con” over which he continues to feel no shame whatsoever, Donald Trump has done us a favor. But what matters now is what we do with this new knowledge we’ve gained—how we use it to think even harder about how we assess who deserves to be our friend, our ally, our compatriot. Values, first principles, and the presence of abiding moral and ethical codes actually matter. And if properly inquired after, they cannot be faked. If any of us had forgotten that, it’s been violently recalled to us, now.
Achievement #3: The Republican Party May Be About to Collapse Because of Donald Trump
During the 2016 primaries, Trump publicly threatened to bolt the Republican Party if it didn’t nominate him—indeed not just bolt, but run as an independent in an effort to punish the GOP for not elevating him above all other Republicans nationwide. Why this incredible pronouncement wasn’t seen as disqualifying for not just the Republican nomination but Trump’s continued membership in the Republican Party is unclear, but it was the first of hundreds of such fatal errors on the part of political scions like Mitch McConnell. They let a monster intent on devouring the GOP in the front door.
Now Trump says that he’s considering starting a “Patriot Party” to punish Washington Republicans for daring to question his conduct in inciting an insurrection against the United States. Even those House and Senate Republicans who sought to overturn a democratic election on Trump’s behalf now face his ire for not having done so enthusiastically enough; House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is one such now out-of-favor boot-licker. If Trump makes good on his threat to develop a third party, polling suggests up to 80% of current Republicans could become “Patriots,” instead.
It’s exactly what the Republican Party deserves for four years of political hedonism—an orgy of amorality and lawlessness that ended with thousands of domestic terrorists attacking the seat of American government on live television for hours. If the GOP has now devolved into a chaotic dance of militiamen, white supremacists, internet trolls, conspiracy theorists, end-times evangelicals, “Western chauvinists,” corrupt lobbyists and other “swamp monsters,” Trump cultists, far-right grifters, fake-news purveyors, the domestic allies of anti-American foreign autocrats, “Boogaloo Bois,” anti-vaxxers, armed vigilantes, birthers, preppers, 9/11 truthers, insurrectionists, secessionists, neo-fascists, con men and whatever Lindsey Graham is, so be it. America is better off if this version of the Republican Party expires—and I say that as someone who believes that a healthy democracy must always have a loyal opposition.
The problem with this edition of the GOP is that it’s no longer loyal to our democracy, nor any more satisfied with lawful, peaceful, respectful, earnest, good-faith opposition. It’s a party of moral arsonists with cheap American flag pins hanging from their lapels.
Achievement #4: Any American Who Was Paying Attention Just Took a Four-Year Civics Course
Voter participation in the 2020 general election was sky-high, and that’s no accident. Nor was the sudden uptick in ratings for news programs. Nor was the awakening of a new generation of activists. Any American who was conscious from 2015 onward learned things about our Constitution—including the Impeachment Clause, the Emoluments Clause, the pardon power, and much more—that might otherwise, minus Donald Trump, have remained undiscovered.
I don’t say this facetiously: Donald Trump forced scores of millions of Americans to grow up as citizens. We paid attention to traditions we had never before much considered because suddenly they were gone; we beheld anew certain values we once snickered at as too credulous by half because their absence had left us undefended against a bevy of seemingly unstoppable threats. We reconsidered what it means to be an American—relearned to not just say we are small-d “democrats” but to reacquaint ourselves with the sacrifices that democracy demands of us. We found it in ourselves, or some of us did, to stay engaged with the currents of history at a time when we wanted nothing more to get lost in the latest technological wizardry, dance craze, app, meme, or digital-age fad. We relearned the value of international alliances and key international institutions at the very moment we discovered we could lose them virtually overnight if we left our long-distance commitments untended and devalued.
Will it stick? Will we remember what we’ve learned, and remain mindful of all we nearly lost? It’s too soon to say. But Donald Trump at least forced upon us a form of self-awareness it is now in our power to retain. Here’s hoping we choose to do so.
Achievement #5: American Journalism Evolved—If Stubbornly, Petulantly, Belatedly, and Imperfectly
Being declared an “enemy of the people” by America’s president tends to wake you up. That’s certainly what happened with the nation’s journalistic corps—full-time and part-time, corporate and independent, print and digital—over the course of Trump’s presidency. An era of news coverage that began with ubiquitous (rather than merely scattered) “bothsideism,” the rampant use of euphemisms for “lying,” and a studied neutrality that in fact merely coddled objectively nefarious conduct eventually evolved into a slightly more responsible media landscape. Formerly relatively detached anchors like Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper became bracingly candid truth-seekers willing to call out perfidy unabashedly. Ardently inquisitive curatorial journalists like Rachel Maddow and John Oliver had their day. Independent digital journalists—admittedly, dogged by pettifogging major-media also-rans livid at the attention given to digital upstarts—found emerging genres of journalism in which they particularly excelled. Daily consumers of the news became media literate to a degree that might have been impossible prior to a national discussion of what “fake news” really is and where it’s found.
I don’t mean to suggest that media underwent some sort of political conversion, nor would I celebrate it if that had in fact been what occurred. Even as we recognize the rise in genres of journalism other than hard-news reportage, we must celebrate the core values of such reportage: objectivity, accuracy, transparency, and honesty. But we can also acknowledge that reality itself has become so fractured in the digital age that these principles must be seen again with fresh eyes. Few can doubt, now, that objectivity is sometimes honored more by calling a lie a lie rather than a misstatement. Just so, accuracy in reporting may require a curation of many far-flung sources, rather than reliance on the corporate work-product of a single media “brand.”
Acknowledging all of this honors the journalistic ethos rather than degrading it. In short, Donald Trump sought to be the living embodiment of the internet—toxic, ever-present, inescapable, chaotic, alluring, provocative, transformative—and protecting the “village green,” our civic discourse, and our media institutions (if not always their methodologies) at times meant re-envisioning what we expect from journalists and journalism in a national emergency.
Did media always rise to the occasion? Of course not. Will there be some back-sliding? Certainly. But the very fact that media was called to rise to a historic occasion—and the very evolution of certain institutions and figures in media that now makes “back-sliding” even a possibility—is a noteworthy accomplishment of the Donald Trump era.
I’m one of those Trump biographers who earnestly struggles to find any component of the former president’s domestic and international “agenda” (such as there was one, and such as what there was was coherent) that can be denominated a “success.” Any non-transient successes America achieved during the course of the Trump presidency appear to be accidental—a response to the president’s destructiveness rather than a deliberate byproduct of it. In a few instances, success can be located only as a silver lining in otherwise ruinous policies; certain NATO countries may have increased their contributions to the maintenance of that organization, for instance, but was it worth threatening the future of America’s most important alliance, and permanently degrading some of our most abiding and generative international relationships, to achieve that bureaucratic end?
It’s for this reason that, to find the unmitigated successes of the Trump presidency, we must look to phenomena the president in no way intended and indeed did his level best to prevent. Yet when we consider these, we do find something to be thankful for, after all, in these four harrowing years of failure, institutional contamination, and ruin.