Believing himself a political genius without parallel in world history (admittedly, not the president’s strongest subject), Donald Trump saw no need to change anything. There was never an acknowledgment of the gravity of office, never a plea for national unity and certainly never a stutter-step towards the center.
In 2017, Trump the Master Builder couldn’t even bring himself to cut a deal with eager Democrats to rebuild highways, bridges and tunnels. Long hours confined to the Oval Office – with only national security briefing books for diversion – allowed Trump to hone his mastery of bizarrely capitalized, often misspelled and consistently bilious tweets. He was an insult comedian who didn’t realize that he had access to the nuclear codes.
The result was that the Trump inaugural honeymoon lasted about as long as a Tinder date. He hit a dismal 43% approval rating in the polling averages in February 2017 – and never consistently rose above it during the rest of his presidency. In comparison, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W Bush all boasted approval ratings around 60% during similar periods when the unemployment rate hit rock bottom.
Politically, everything that Trump touches has been a disaster for the Republicans.
Trump’s bumbling endorsements even helped the Democrats win a 2017 Senate seat in deep red Alabama. In theory, the Republican party should have been poised to hold their own in the 2018 congressional elections with a buoyant economy and massive tax cuts to brag about. But Trump – displaying his trademark manhandling of politics – instead made 2018 a referendum on his person and on phantom caravans of bloodthirsty migrants heading for the Mexican border.
The results: Nancy Pelosi became House speaker and congressional Democrats roared through the suburbs, electing legislators in unlikely places like Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City. With 26 Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot in 2018 (compared with just nine Republican seats), the Republicans were in a position to create an enduring Senate majority under Mitch McConnell. Instead, thanks largely to Trump, they gained a paltry two seats.
Even before the pandemic, the seeds were planted for Trump to become just the fourth incumbent president in a century to be defeated for re-election.
Voters over 65, a key demographic group that gave him an edge in 2016, had begun to abandon the president in mid-2019, even before the coronavirus. Despite the predicted “Democrats in disarray” headlines, shared rage against Trump allowed Joe Biden to unite the party after decisively winning the South Carolina primary. And it was Trump himself who hired Brad Parscale as his initial 2020 campaign manager, setting in motion a hapless re-election effort that blew through $1bn and left the Trump forces scrounging for lost coins under seat cushions to pay for October TV ads.
Trump’s only political success over four years was cowing the Republican party into submission. Instead of distancing themselves from an incompetent president, Republican officials hitched their wagon to his supposed star power. As a result, Republicans became a party that is not only anti-science, but anti-public health. Which is certainly an unorthodox stance in the middle of a pandemic.
The truth is that the Trump presidency was always destined to end badly. Trump’s narcissism does not allow him to change, because doing so would force the admission that his radiant being has a few minor flaws. How could Trump see the light when he believes he is the light? So instead he headed for the darkness of defeat still pretending that it was 2016 and Hillary Clinton was on the ballot.