During the presidential debate on September 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Joe Biden bluntly told Donald Trump “You’re the worst president America has ever had.” This is a difficult judgement to either affirm or deny. Given the broad sweep of American history, there have been many presidents who have been bad in different ways. Twelve presidents owned enslaved people, something that Trump at his worst is not guilty of. Other presidents enabled either slavery or American apartheid.
Still, in terms of actually making America worse, rather than simply replicating its bad features, Trump has had few equals. If he’s not the worst president ever, he’s among the worst, joining the dismal rank that includes James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.
Many political obituaries for the Trump administration are tallying the extent of his failure. Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker offers what is now the standard indictment: “He leaves behind a city and a country reeling from four hundred thousand Americans dead, as of Tuesday, from a pandemic whose gravity he downplayed and denied; an economic crisis; and an internal political rift so great that it invites comparisons to the Civil War.”
With the emergence of new variants of Covid that spread more quickly, Trump’s legacy looks even worse. According to health care expert Dr. Tom Frieden, “A horrifying new projection shows that COVID-19 will reduce US life expectancy by 1.1 years, with reductions for Black and Latinx populations 3 to 4 times that, reversing more than 10 years of progress closing the Black-White gap in life expectancy.”
In almost every way, Trump offers merely negative lessons. He’s a model for how not to govern. One hopes and expects that Biden will not replicate Trump’s nepotism, his appointment of corrupt and incompetent officials, his disdain for expertise, his obstruction of justice, his praise of dictators, his use of the office of presidency for personal enrichment and political retribution, his granting of pardons to cronies who are shielding him from investigation, his racism, his lies, his incitement of violence and insurrection, and the thousand other faults Trump displayed day after day for four years.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the ways in which Trump also offers some surprising positive lessons. Any full analysis of the Trump era has to also come to terms with the fact that this man, uniquely unpopular according to all measures of public opinion, won the presidency once—and nearly won it again.
To be sure, Trump enjoyed an Electoral College advantage. But that doesn’t explain the improvement in standing he enjoyed from 2016 to 2020, despite the horrid economy and his disastrous Covid response. In 2016, Trump received 62,984,828 votes or 46.1 per cent of the total. In 2020, Trump received 74,223,254 votes or 46.9 per cent of the total. In other words, there were at least 11 million Americans who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 who did in 2020. Thankfully, the number of Americans who voted for the Democratic candidate increased by an even larger amount of 15 million. But in electoral college terms, both elections were startlingly close. A difference of only 44,000 votes in three states (Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin) would have re-elected Donald Trump.
The painful reality is that despite Trump’s innumerable terrible acts, there was a significant number of Americans who were willing to give him a second chance. The question is why.
The most plausible explanation is the economy, where Trump bucked the misguided mainstream consensus that had long held that 4 percent unemployment was the lowest that could be achieved without triggering inflation. Trump successfully bullied the Federal Reserve to adopt a loose money policy that brought America much closer to full employment (and rising real wages) before the pandemic hit.
And during the pandemic, Trump embraced the generous top-up to unemployment insurance that led to a dramatic improvement in the lives of the working poor. As Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine, “With its $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit and $1,200 relief checks, the CARES Act succeeded in bringing America’s poverty rate to its lowest level on record—even as the nation entered a period of pandemic-induced unemployment. Instantly improving the lives of tens of millions of working-class Americans did not come at any discernible cost to the nation’s wealthy: No spike in inflation eroded the value of their assets, no tax hikes were enacted to defray the cost of the spending.”
Levitz thinks that Trump’s embrace of full employment, if continued by his successors, will be a “transformational” policy shift. His assessment is that “if U.S. politics continues to follow its current trend, then the Trump presidency will represent a pivotal era in U.S. policy-making, one that leaves both parties more interested in promoting demand and full employment than preempting inflation and policing deficits.”
Trump truly didn’t care about deficits, which has led liberals to brand him a hypocrite since he had previously accused Democrats of running up the national tab. But the accusation of hypocrisy only carries a weak sting. Rather than flay Trump as a hypocrite, it would be far better to imitate him as a robust Keynesian.
The other political lesson that Trump teaches is that there is no reason to be shy when you are giving people money. In previous recessions, presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not put their names on checks. Trump’s insistence that his name appear on stimulus checks was seen as tawdry. That may be the case, but it was also effective politics and helped bolster the strong showing Trump had in polls measuring his management of the economy.
Putting your name on checks—or at the very least boasting about getting the checks sent out—can be defended on democratic grounds. Most people don’t vote just for lofty ideological reasons but because they want concrete results that make their lives better. That is a reasonable expectation, and it’s justified for politicians to take credit for these results.
Trump has often been denounced as a transactional politician. But there’s a difference between corrupt deals like the quid pro quo bargain he tried to strike with the Ukrainian president, and giving his voters what they want. The fact is that Trump went out of his way to give each part of the Republican coalition major items on their wish list. To the well-to-do, he gave tax cuts and deregulation. To evangelicals, he gave conservative judges. To national security hawks, he gave a bigger military budget.
Biden would do well to emulate at least some aspects of Trump’s policy approach. Biden should focus on forcing the Federal Reserve to keep with an agenda of full employment and easy money, disregard deficit hawks in his party, loudly hog credit for generous stimulus checks, and keep his promises to his political base. If he does that, he’ll have learned the right lessons from the Trump era.