Good riddance to the criminal-in-chief

It was inevitable that Trump’s presidency would end this way: in scandal and ignominy, fear, loathing and shame

Mark Phillips
Jan 20 · 16 min read
Donald Trump hugs the US flag as he arrives to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on 2 March 2, 2019. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

HE surprise isn’t that it ended this way, but that it took so long.

From day one way back on 20 January in 2017 — when he ordered his press secretary to lie to the media about the size of the pitiful crowd at his inauguration — it was written in the stars that Donald Trump’s presidency would finish in scandal and ignominy, fear, loathing and shame.

A president who spent his last fortnight hiding in the White House out of sight, if not out of mind; a pariah to his own party, shunned by all but his closest family and last few loyal staff, at the final hour having even been spurned by his sycophantic vice-president.

Already, historians have judged this 45th president to be the worst in the 230 years since George Washington first took the oath: worse than Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Warren Harding. Worse even than George W. Bush. And yet, as Dan Rather observed, future history is likely to mark him even worse than we do today.

To be the first president to be impeached twice, by a congress now guarded against his insurrectionists by 25,000 armed soldiers (more troops than the US currently has on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria combined) like the Green Zone in a city under military occupation, while he remains defiant to the end and his deluded supporters plan more and worse violence. The prospect of jail hanging over him when the reckoning finally takes place for all the crimes of the past four years.

While the siege on 6 January may well be judged by future generations as a footnote to an abysmal term in office, it says a lot that Trump’s behaviour since the election has been far worse than anything during the preceding four years.

Ever since November, Trump has ranted and raved that the election result was a fraud, that the presidency had been “stolen” from him — even when the final margin was among the largest in history — but never once in that time has he shown any inclination or interest in doing the job of president. Meanwhile, another 150,000 Americans have died from COVID.

The slide of America towards the status of a failed state has accelerated under his watch. The people he claimed to represent and whose grievances he exploited to get elected — working class whites in dying rustbelt towns or rural communities wracked by unemployment, poverty, poor public services and drug addiction — are far worse off at the end of his term than at the start. Betrayed by their “saviour”, they are overwhelmingly the victims of COVID who took their leader’s word that the disease was exaggerated, whose lives have been thrown into further turmoil by the recession he caused, and who have been led along a path towards extremism by the seditionist-in-chief.

The wreckage he left in his trail will take years to recover from. So much for making America great again. The carnage of Trump’s term is far worse than what he described in his own inauguration speech.

This pathetic man, who lied and cheated his way to the job and showed himself so patently unsuited and unqualified for it, who spent his final days in office either pardoning his cabal of criminal cronies, or randomly executing death row inmates in a final vengeful killing spree, who does not even have the grace or humility to attend the inauguration of his successor (not that he would be welcome) but demands he is seen off with a 21-gun salute and a red carpet leading him to Air Force One for the last time before slinking off to exile in Florida.

The contrast could not be more stark with the dignity and respect that followed his predecessor as he left office: remember the victory lap of media interviews and late night talk show appearances – culminating in his “Obama out” mic drop at the White House Correspondents dinner? Remember the huge wave of popular sentiment and goodwill towards Obama and his family after eight scandal-free years of real progress?

Trump hasn’t held a single press conference since the election, has been silenced by his favourite social media platform, abandoned at last by other Republican Party leaders, ignored by Fox News, and is even shunned by his Vice President — the one person he couldn’t sack — who preferred to spend his time at the inauguration of his successor rather than pay tribute to the outgoing president.

Instead he left us with a 30 minute video full of pompous boasts and straight out mistruths. Even the last man standing, Rudy Giuliani, who fell victim to COVID like so many of the inner circle, is reportedly embroiled in a dispute with Trump over unpaid legal fees.

Trump against the world: a stubborn Donald Trump is confronted by world leaders including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron at the 2018 G7 summit in Canada in Jesco Denzel ‘s iconic photo.

Trump’s presidency was only 22 days old when his national security advisor Michael Flynn resigned in shame. Flynn would eventually be sentenced to jail for lying to the FBI, the first in a conga line of Trump associates to do so.

From the very start, a pattern was set of a dysfunctional and incompetent administration mired in scandal and corruption, churning through staff and lurching from one self-inflicted crisis to another.

Through his words and actions, Trump encouraged the rise of right wing extremism, fanned conflicts over race and class and divided an already polarised nation. Like any good fascist, he declared a free and independent media an enemy of the state and colluded with a propaganda unit (Fox News) to spread his lies. He played footsie with dictators and snubbed his nose at diplomacy, democracy and accountability.

Even the ordinary everyday mechanisms of government were beyond him. Trump had neither the temperament, the intellect nor the inclination for hard work that the job demands and was unable to switch from protest to governance.

The scandals came so fast one after another, we became immune to outrage, whether it was bribing a porn star to buy her silence about their affair, using the trappings of office to enrich himself and his family, hiding his tax records or inciting a coup to overturn the election result.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. Well before he ran for office, Trump was well known as a race-baiting, foul-mouthed narcissist with a long track record of bankruptcy and financial crime. During his run for office he showed a casual disregard for the truth while his election rallies resembled those of Hitler’s Germany.

The invasion of the Capital on 6 January was the logical conclusion of Trump’s presidency. As court testimony has shown, the mob were following to the word Trump’s command to march on the building and seize control of the government, and only luck prevented them fulfilling their professed aims of kidnapping or killing Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi and others. They had been building up to this moment for four years, egged on by Trump.

Only then — when he was damaged goods — did the enablers and sycophants, the Mitch McConnells and Lindsey Grahams and Paul Ryans take a stand. It was too little and too late, a transparent effort at arse covering driven by self-interest and a sudden realisation that embracing Trump was electoral poison after the GOP had lost all three arms of national government in the space of two years.

But let us never forget these same partisan apologists had stood by and encouraged Trump for four years, even voting against impeachment for his attempt to get Ukraine to collude in a political smear campaign against the Biden family.

It’s worth noting that just 10 out of 207 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump a second time for leading the insurrection even after their lives were endangered by the mob who besieged the Capitol.

For four years, they lived in fear of enraging Trump’s base of Qanon and MAGA conspiracists, allowing the party to shift dramatically to the fringes of neo-fascism. For the GOP, the day of reckoning is coming, a choice between acknowledging and adapting to the changing face of America or fully embracing a shrinking core of angry white men.

After all these years of foaming at the mouth about the unproven and imagined threat of external Muslim terrorism, America now discovers the true enemy lies within.

One certainty is that Joe Biden won’t waste more than a moment’s breath thinking about the forlorn loser who vacates the Oval Office today.

Biden will hit the ground running in a race to undo the toxic legacy of the Trump administration. In his first days as president, he plans to implement 17 executive orders, including raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, installing a White House taskforce to tackle COVID with the aim of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days, rejoining the Paris climate accord, abolishing the Muslim nations travel ban, rescinding mining permits on Indigenous and environmentally sensitive land, and reinstating reproductive rights. He has made bold picks for Cabinet nominations and has big plans for healthcare, education, climate change and racial justice.

Most symbolically, he planned to halt construction of the wall on the Mexican border, Trump’s signature policy.

But executive orders will only get you so far.

The coronavirus pandemic is a monumental threat on its own but the list of crises is so long it is doubtful even an FDR or a Lincoln could cope with the burden Biden has taken on. America today, at the start of 2021, is in a far worse state than it was in 1973, when Richard Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace in the midst of a global recession, the oil crisis, and with the Vietnam War still raging. And the hurdles to rebuilding any sense of trust and faith in political institutions are much greater.

The Georgia run-offs were a fillip for the Democrats by giving them a slender one vote majority on paper in the Senate, but the reality is from day one Biden will face partisan opposition determined to frustrate his plans.

But of all these challenges, the most important will be for Biden to restore respect for the presidency and the pillars of democracy and to heal his nation. Literally to reverse the collapse of the American dream.

He begins not with the giddy expectations of hope and change that characterised the first days of Barack Obama’s term but in an atmosphere of fear, apprehension and a resigned sense that things are going to get worse.

America is now at a tipping point which poses the greatest risk to the union since the Civil War — far greater than the late-60s early 70s — and with its reputation on the global stage at its lowest ebb ever.

Even Biden’s inauguration is overshadowed by the threat of terrorism and the next four years will see an acceleration of anger and violence, especially from the right. This is the dystopian nightmare Trump has led America into.

After all these years of foaming at the mouth about the unproven and imagined threat of external Muslim terrorism, America now discovers the true enemy lies within, extremist militias armed to the teeth and pledging allegiance to the madman who occupied the White House for the past four years. A nation bitterly divided, which is just how Trump always wanted it.

Ironically, the only thing that unites Americans hate and anger at each other.

It will take a long time to erase the images of armed soldiers entrusted with protecting the Capitol against a second attack asleep in the halls of Congress under statues with the stern faces of presidents past.

And yet, the power of the presidency is not defined simply by policy enactment, executive accomplishments or even legislative victories. Perhaps the most important tool at the president’s disposal, the one that can influence the course of the nation as much as anything else, is tone.

Tone is why Obama will always be regarded as one of the great presidents, why JFK is still remembered so fondly despite less than three years in office. Trump’s tone of division and grievance, his temper tantrums and litany of insults, is why his presidency was always doomed to be a failure, even if he had achieved everything he claimed to have.

Words matter. Words can inspire, unite and heal. But they can also hurt and throw fuel on the fire of anger and hate.

While there is lingering disappointment that the man who replaces Trump shares superficial similarities in age and race and that the chance was missed for a truly transformative leader, the reality is that Biden was elected not only because he was the polar opposite of Trump in temperament and outlook — an anti-Trump, if you will — but because his personal history of family tragedy means he is uniquely placed to play the role of healer-in-chief. His own story is one of resilience and renewal, two qualities his nation is desperate for right now.

The greatest immediate difference Biden can offer to America is a change of tone to dignity, hope, unity and compassion. For many Americans, that is precisely the reason why they chose Biden over Bernie Sanders, and then again over Trump. They wanted a president who would lead them from the shadows of violence and hatred back towards the light.

Dream team: incoming president Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first person of colour to be elected vice-president in US history. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

For tens of millions of Americans, the overwhelming emotion today is one of relief. Relief that the unhinged fool in the Oval Office no longer has the power to start a nuclear war. Relief that the Trump soap opera is over and that political wars will no longer dominate every day of their lives, every moment on their television screens.

Biden is a throwback to a kinder, gentler time, but in an odd way he is also the right man for these times. But he will not succeed unless there is a collective will across politics to heal the divisions and play by the rules. Republicans need to be part of the solution.

For all the high minded rhetoric, Biden’s election was hardly a victory for democracy. If just a few dozen politicians and officials had acted differently, it would be Trump taking the oath a second time today, regardless of the outcomes of the popular vote and the electoral college. American democracy is in life support right now.

In his inauguration, Biden will plea across the divisions for unity. He will try to appeal to the better nature of his political opponents and the collective spirit of the American people.

But judging by the reaction of Republicans since the attempted coup, this is unlikely to be successful.

The second impeachment vote shows that despite all the events of the past fortnight, bipartisanship is no closer. The battle lines drawn over decades remain as distinct as ever.

It’s no surprise that as he leaves office, a national poll found Trump’s approval rating has dived to just 34 per cent, his lowest in four years, with a record 63 per cent of voters disapproving of his performance.

But flip that and it means one-in-three Americans still support him; 71% of Republicans and 90+% of people who voted for him.

Where does this leave the GOP?

Back in 2016 when it was clear Trump would be the Republican nominee for president, the party was forced into a Faustian pact to support him as its nominal leader. But ever since, the tail that is Trump’s base has wagged the dog.

There clearly is no long-term future in pandering to Trump’s rag tag base of white supremacists, Qanon conspiracy theorists and militiamen in neo-Nazi insignia and military regalia. But in the short-term, any Republican who stands up to the base will face primary challenges and death threats.

The GOP establishment would dearly love to be rid of Trump, who has cost them three elections and left the party in tatters with Georgia the final judgement. But it is stuck with him. It is hard not to see the Republican Party tear itself apart as it tries to resolve these conflicts, and perhaps the best outcome would be to burn it to the ground and start all over again.

While there will be a short period of regret and navel-gazing, there is nothing to suggest that the Republicans will not resume their embrace of the far right.

The sombre poses of remorse by the likes of Mitch McConnell are crocodile tears: they were happy to support Trump, for instance, when he broke with convention by appointing a Supreme Court justice days before the election, and when waved through tax cuts for big corporations and the uber-wealthy. They should be made to pay for their silence and acquiescence.

The Republican hypocrites who turned a blind eye to Trump’s worst excesses when he was president should also be on trial.

And once this period of self-reflection and regret is over, the jostling will resume to adopt Trump’s ideology and capture his base.

Only time will tell whether frauds like Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton are now damaged goods for their embrace of Trump and their enthusiastic advocacy of the “stop the steal” lie.

We can only hope they come to regret their association with Trump even as they scramble to recruit his base.

While the possibility of Trump running for president again in 2024 can’t be ruled out, it becomes less likely with each passing day. But he has shown there is a malign tumour in the very heart of US politics and that much can be gained by pandering and embracing the far right, so no doubt there will be another, smarter and more cunning Trump sooner rather than later.

What Trump himself does next is a moot point, but it is likely that he will be so embroiled in legal disputes and fighting to save his business empire that the launch of a new media platform will be a non-starter.

With any luck, he’ll be forced to seek refuge in Russia, where he can cuddle up to his pal, Vlad. After all, they have history, going back to when Putin hacked the DNC and helped Trump win the 2016 election. The chaos and dysfunction that followed, rendering the US impotent on the world stage, suited the Russians just fine.

But more likely he will hide out at his resort in Florida to wallow in self-pity, surrounded by the only people he’s ever felt comfortable with, paid sycophants and other filthy rich sociopaths who are willing to throw a game of golf to satisfy Trump’s pathetic toddler’s ego.

While the politics are yet to be played out, it was the right thing to do for Democrats to impeach Trump for a second time because his behaviour on 6 January and the days leading up to it was so heinously criminal.

The impeachment trial set to start within days will be an unwelcome distraction for Biden in the early days of his presidency, but if a conviction means Trump can never again hold public office, it will be worth it.

If we are a mature nation, we need to act like one, not an over-excited puppy dog because the owner let them inside for once.

Questions also have to be asked about Australian conservatives’ enthusiastic embrace of Trump and Trumpism, beginning with Scott Morrison.

Morrison’s silence when offered the chance to condemn Trump for his role in the 6 January invasion speaks volumes.

Anthony Albanese was correct today when he accused Morrison of pandering to Trump “partly out of his affinity with Donald Trump, partly because of the political constituency they share”. Morrison’s 2019 visit to the White House with the state dinner, the acceptance of a Legion of Merit medal, the appearance at a Trump rally and the gushing endorsement of Trump’s policies, was cringeworthy.

We can be an ally of the US while critical of its politics and of individual politicians. But the way Morrison embraced Trump has damaged our standing going forward.

We need to approach our relationships with all major powers strategically aware that in a multilateral environmental we will be judged by other countries on how we relate to the US. John Howard’s brown-nosing of George W. Bush not only took us into an unwinnable war in Iraq, but made Australia less safe by making us a target for anti-American terrorism.

The sycophancy towards Trump by Morrison, and to a lesser extent by Malcolm Turnbull, has alienated China, potentially a more important and powerful nation in our region in coming decades. We forfeit our right to be a global and regional leader when we fail to show the maturity to criticise a demagogue like Trump.

If we are a mature nation, we need to act like one, not an over-excited puppy dog because the owner let them inside for once.

Morrison lacked the moral authority to criticise Trump probably because in his heart he’d like to be him, but also because he is beholden to the mini-Trumps on his backbench like George Christensen.

As Marx famously wrote, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce”.

Donald Trump’s final gift to the American people on his last day in office was a coronavirus death toll of 400,000, the highest in the world. Trump’s callous disregard for those lost lives, which he has never acknowledged, has been breathtaking but typical of a man without a shred of humanity. So many deaths to a disease he refused for months to take seriously, mocking those who wore masks. So many deaths caused by his incompetence. So many deaths, except the one we prayed for when we learnt Trump himself had COVID.

In the past 24 hours, Biden has offered more solace to the dead and those left behind than Trump managed in 12 months.

Now all that awaits Trump is a lifetime of irrelevance and a misery of law suits and financial problems likely to drive him permanently bankrupt once and for all.

There are no regrets and certainly no apologies from a man who failed to show a single shred of human decency over four years.

Yes, it was inevitable it would end this way. But it was also inevitable America would reach this point, on the verge of a second Civil War, because Trump is less an aberration than a creation of modern day America, a product of the damaged American psyche.

How will history see this moment? Perhaps in much the same way as Marx regarded the French coup of 1848, captured in his timeless observation: history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.

So dominant of the news cycle has Trump been, that it feels as if he has been president for a lot more than four years.

If only we could avoid ever mentioning his name again, but alas the ugly stain of the Trump era will be with us for a long time to come.

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