Donald Trump gets no political obituary. He, and his legacy, aren't done
He polarized his country, changed it and has no plans to fade away
On that fateful day in June 2015 that he rode down a gilded escalator into the world of electoral politics, Donald Trump's critics saw a pastel-faced buffoon destined to melt away after an attention-seeking stint in the political sun.
How wrong they were.
Trump will never truly go away. A closer-than-expected election makes it only that much clearer that defeat is but a prelude to Trump's next act as a permanent fixture on the American political scene.
It's that Trump has already left an indelible mark on the nation he leads, revealing several truths about it in the process.
The elements of Trumpism
There have been countless newspaper columns, books and academic studies asking what drove Trumpism: Was it economics? Was it racism? A new nationalism? Nostalgia? The joy of an unpredictable carnival?
It was all of the above.
If several years of talking to his supporters has illustrated anything, it's that human beings can hold multiple overlapping feelings at once.
Take Chip Paquette, for instance.
Early on in the Trump phenomenon, at a 2016 primary rally in New Hampshire, the retired police officer chuckled at the candidate's antics, elbowing his seat neighbour as if at a comedy show. He howled with laughter when Trump referred to Sen. Ted Cruz as a "pussy."
In a conversation with a reporter later, he said he missed the good old days — back when a cop could punch a suspect, without controversy.
He questioned the wisdom of free trade and expressed a desire for more tariffs on imports: "We're losing jobs," he said.
Then, finally, he casually brought up something else he liked about Trump: "I like the idea of him banning the Muslims."
The Trump campaign's proposed Muslim ban evolved after he took office, becoming a travel ban on mostly Muslim countries. It underwent other iterations, amid legal disputes, and triggered protests from people disgusted that this campaign promise ever saw the light of day in a country with religious freedom stamped into its founding DNA.
Trump smashed enough norms that he'll be studied by future generations in political-science departments around the world.
He also revealed things about the modern-day U.S. — and some of those lessons hold implications far beyond American territory, touching every nation.
The first is that the U.S. will be a less-predictable partner.
Trump's policy legacy stretches far beyond U.S.
There's no guarantee agreements with one U.S. administration will survive a change in government. Trump's dramatic cancellation of foreign agreements makes past examples pale in comparison, such as George W. Bush shunning Bill Clinton's Kyoto climate accord.
Trump took it a step farther, announcing in the middle of a global pandemic that the U.S. would leave the World Health Organization. He stalled the World Trade Organization, questioned the point of NATO, abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and reversed a diplomatic thaw with Cuba.
"This egg can't be unscrambled," wrote Trump critic and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman last month in a New York Times column titled "Trump Killed the Pax Americana."
"No matter how good a global citizen America becomes in the next few years, everyone will remember that we're a country that elected someone like Donald Trump, and could do it again."
Trump turned the page on a chapter of American history written after the Second World War, in which a young superpower helped build new global institutions in the hope of creating a long-lasting peace.
It's unclear what the postscript to the postwar era would look like.
Trump did shift attention to a new geopolitical challenge: China. His administration struck a more aggressive posture, and accused China of breaking its promises to the West.
There's a huge audience for this message.
Passionate devotion equals continuing power
One Republican operative said whether or not he runs for president again, Trump's policies on China, trade and immigration will have a lingering effect.
"We don't know what Trump's role in the party is going to be going forward, [and] is he going to be keeping open the option of perhaps running again in 2024," said Matt Mackowiak, a party organizer and consultant.
"I do think he's changed the party in significant ways."
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Trump's message not only drew record turnout from working-class white Americans, but he also made inroads in his second race among groups that rarely vote Republican.
Trump performed better with Black men, Latino and Asian-American voters this year than he did four years ago.
To be clear, he still won only a small percentage of minority voters. But some were among his staunchest defenders.
Sylvia Menchaca, a Mexican restaurant owner near Phoenix, applauded Trump for putting his country first and wanting immigration limits.
She told CBC News she felt sorry for migrant children separated from parents at the border, but, she said, the country needed to get immigration under control.
"I love him," said Menchaca, who described herself as a religious woman. "Trump is similar to one of the kings in the Bible. Nobody in the Bible is perfect.… But some of them were blessed by God to run a country."
Nothing would ever rattle her support for him, she said.
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Trump sounded real — even when he was lying
One reason Trump engendered uncommon devotion was he didn't sound like a politician — he sounded real while other politicians relied on scripts and talking points.
Yet his telling-it-like-it-is effect was chronically undermined by one uncomfortable truth: He lied. He lied a lot.
This is different from most politicians who will often exaggerate, and frequently obfuscate, while generally avoiding flat-out lies.
Trump operated on another level.
When it came to spouting untruths, he pivoted from one to another with the same painless strokes reminiscent of his supporter, Bobby Orr, gliding across a hockey rink.
Half the country fumed; the other half brushed it off.
He left Americans split on an uncommon range of issues: COVID-19 mask-wearing; Black Lives Matter; voting by mail. They all became litmus tests of political loyalty.
You were with him or against him, right down to the end, when the polarizing question became whether or not you would support his attack on the accuracy of a U.S. election.
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These constant battles divided families, and it's no exaggeration to say he even had a polarizing effect on mating rituals. Trump fans, and people abhorred by Trump fans, split off into separate dating sites, with names such as Donald Daters and Trump Singles.
One Florida widow said people just simply want to know, before investing time in someone, whether their values are compatible, and she sees Trump support as a test of values.
She was no fan. She said Trump has stoked the country's divisions and made people angrier, and she didn't vote for him despite being a Republican.
"Politics used to be a part of your life, but it didn't consume your life," said Arlene Macellaro. "But now it seems like the thing to do in my Republican Party is to be angry."
People in her Florida retirement community tell stories you often hear in the U.S. these days — of old friendships suspended over differences on Trump.
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One final and perhaps most fundamental truth the Trump era exposed is that democracy may be more fragile than assumed — that the rules protecting it may exist primarily on paper but are, in the end, enforced by a civic spirit.
In a bitterly polarized era pitting the blue team versus the red team, old norms were occasionally discarded.
Trump called elections stolen, called for opponents' arrest, pardoned friends, used federal regulators to punish unfriendly media and ignored the constitutional rules for how to appoint cabinet members.
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Ask a foreign government to investigate Joe Biden? It's what got him impeached. And there were no real-time consequences.
He lost precisely one Republican in the impeachment vote: Mitt Romney, and for that act of alleged betrayal, the former Republican presidential nominee was quickly shunned by party grassroots members.
Trump became the first impeached president to lead his party into another election.
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He talks, Republicans follow
And had a few votes broken the other way in a few swing states, had he gotten better control over the coronavirus pandemic, he might have won.
Instead, he'll be gone from the White House in 11 weeks. It's unclear he'll ever concede he lost, or ever follow the tradition of extending grace to his successor.
His niece, a psychologist, author and now a critic of him, wrote a book suggesting he has a pathologically delicate ego and lives in terror of not being admired.
He enjoyed the granite-hard support of the conservative base.
It was illustrated by what happened last week when his son, Don Jr., issued a warning to Republicans: if they had any future aspirations to lead the party, they had better start fighting the election result.
A virtual stampede ensued.
The total lack of action from virtually all of the “2024 GOP hopefuls” is pretty amazing. <br><br>They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead. <br><br>Don’t worry <a href="https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@realDonaldTrump</a> will fight & they can watch as usual!—@DonaldJTrumpJr
Sen. Lindsey Graham went on Fox News and promised to donate $500,000 US to the president's legal fund for fighting the result.
No matter what the president does next, he'll remain a kingmaker in the Republican Party, and those party members will keep courting his support.
If, however, he chooses to run again in a primary four years from now, he'd probably beat them — barring some unforeseen twist, such as legal troubles in New York, his former home state.
So there are no political obituaries this weekend, not even for an election loser. Because you can't eulogize what's not dead.
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With files from Susan Ormiston and Paul Hunter