Historians have commented that Donald Trump will go down in history for political reasons over policy, but National Public Radio host Steve Inskeep said that the president would be lucky to be remembered at all.
Writing for The New York Times on Sunday, the "Morning Edition" host explained that in addition to his day job, he has been "researching and writing books about 19th-century American history." He doesn't anticipate that Trump is going to make the cut into the annals of history, as most one-term presidents get ignored.
"One term is not long to influence a country so large and dynamic — and a president's failure to win a second term can be a sign that he didn't," wrote Inskeep. "If you are not from Indiana, you may not know my state produced Benjamin Harrison, a one-term president who was different from President William Henry Harrison, who died after one month in office. Few people visit the statue of James Buchanan in a lonely corner of a Washington park, and in my life I have met just one enthusiast for Chester A. Arthur."
The one-term presidents that do get attention are the ones who did something exceptional. John Adams, for example, was one of the few founding fathers of the United States. Former President Jimmy Carter has spent the past decades dedicated to public service for the homeless, the poor, and the sick. John F. Kennedy's legacy is more about his death than the years preceding it.
"Warren G. Harding for a corruption scandal, Herbert Hoover for economic calamity, Andrew Johnson for being impeached," recalled Inskeep. "We can't be sure what history will make of Mr. Trump, whose term featured scandal, impeachment and calamity, as well as a pandemic."
Trump still has control over a large movement of Americans who think that he should have, or did, win the election. So, his post-presidency could be filled with his interactions with those supporters.
A lasting legacy can be complicated, even for the best of presidents. Some go down in history because they did something spectacular, while others go down for their responses to it. Trump's favorite president, Andrew Jackson, served two terms, founded the old version of the Democratic Party, reinforced slavery, pursued populist economic policies, faced down a near-rebellion over states' rights," and continued the genocide of Native Americans by the forced march to Indian Territory.
None of the eight presidents who followed him had a second term. Inskeep described them as being far too overwhelmed by the bad legacy of Jackson.
"In the same way, Mr. Trump's place in history may be overshadowed by Mr. Obama's," he explained. "Elected in 2008, Mr. Obama seemed to personify America's growing diversity as a multiracial republic. His campaign motivated new voters, and he talked at first of transcending old political divisions. He said he wanted Americans to regain trust in institutions battered by 9/11, the war in Iraq and the financial crisis. He raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, signed the Affordable Care Act, tried to break an impasse over immigration and approved a nuclear agreement to ease a long-running conflict with Iran."
After Republicans blocked all attempts by Obama to govern in his final years, he began using the president's executive authority to move around them, something Trump also tried to do.
"The Obama presidency paved the way for Mr. Trump," Inskeep said. "He rose by relentlessly attacking Mr. Obama, promoting the racist conspiracy theory about his birthplace and falsely claiming that he favored open borders. Mr. Trump told voters in 2016 that he was their' last chance' to win before they were overwhelmed by immigration and globalism."
Trump has spent his entire term in office fighting the Obama years using executive orders, but few of them actually worked. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement has nearly started a war with the U.S., but other countries are upholding the deal. He's tried to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, but the rest of the globe took up the slack. His failure to handle the coronavirus crisis has ultimately helped a small reduction in the U.S. air pollution. The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced many companies to move to virtual offices even after the pandemic is over, which will mean another small long-term reduction.
"President Trump still has a legacy," wrote Inskeep. "He attracted a vast and loyal following. The tax cuts he approved could last for years, while the three conservative justices he appointed are likely to remain on the Supreme Court for decades. His obsessive use of social media made him unlike any president before him, as did his open disregard of barriers between his public duties and personal business. He spoke well of authoritarian rulers and accelerated the use of disinformation."
His public conflicts will be stories told in history classes or taught as failures for communications majors.
"It is easy to imagine a high school history book recounting the monthslong court fight over his effort to ban Muslims from entering the United States, followed by [a] discussion on religious freedom and the Constitution," closed Inskeep. "But in those same textbooks, President Trump may be a minor player in the larger story of a democracy grappling with demands for a more equal society — an era marked by the election of Mr. Obama, the first Black president."
Another way Trump's history hangs on the legacy of Obama is that he's about to be succeeded by Obama's vice president.