Donald Trump was the most unpopular major party candidate in modern history, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly three millions ballots, and enters office on Friday as, by far, the most unpopular incoming president since record-keeping began. Meanwhile, he is inheriting an economy near full employment; a relatively stable international order; increasing wages, modest deficits, and record-low levels of uninsurance. It’s a fair bet that some of these metrics would deteriorate even under a serious-minded president, but the Trump-GOP policy agenda threatens to reverse several of them fairly quickly.
The question is whether, decades hence, Trump’s presidency will be remembered as an aberration that the country quickly corrects, or as a harbinger of a longer turn away from liberal democratic traditions and increasing tolerance. And this, in turn, will determine exactly how history remembers President Barack Obama.
Many bizarre factors contributed to Trump’s unlikely victory, but the one that should trouble Democrats most, is that across the country, and particularly in states Republicans needed to flip to carry the Electoral College, working-class whites responded to Trump’s racist campaign by voting in the same lopsided way that minority communities typically vote for Democrats. RealClearPolitics elections analyst Sean Trende told me in November that if what happened last year turns into a trend, Republicans are going to be winning national elections much more regularly than their demographic slide would have you believe. That may well include Trump in 2020. After all, most presidents get reelected—even bad ones, like George W. Bush, who also lost the popular vote 16 years ago.
A protracted Trump era would further divide whites and ethnic minorities; it would shift federal policy toward welfare chauvinism. Democratic norms would erode substantially; the playing field of elections would be tilted further, through the gutting of voting rights and other means, to delay the ascendance of a younger, more diverse electorate. Eventually, that electorate will rise, whether in four years or many more, the country will emerge from the Trump era and recognize it as an error. What we will face then—indeed, what we are already facing—is a battle for narrative control over why the country made that error in the first place. Was it a primal scream of race panic that, for a time, drowned out a silent majority? Or was it a backlash to the arrogance of Obama and his coalition?
It is widely assumed that Trump, at the head of a unified GOP government, will leave Obama’s legacy in rubble. This assumption rests on the twin premises that a president’s legacy is measured mostly by policy achievements, and that Republicans will have near-total success in beating back Obama’s. These premises are shaky, but not without merit. Obama wanted to be succeeded by a likeminded Democrat not just for the good of the country, or to preserve his legacy, but because he believed it to be an important validator of his claim to being a transformative president—a Democratic Reagan.
But to the extent that Trump will shape Obama’s legacy, it will have less to do with his success or failure in chipping away at Obama’s policy achievements, and more about whether Trump’s retrograde changes to the country will be laid at Obama’s feet in the public’s imagination.
Anyone who paid attention as the Obama years unfolded, and as Trump rose to power, knows the truth of the matter. But we also know that early drafts of history aren’t always written faithfully, and it will be incumbent upon us not to allow the dark period we are now entering to be blamed on the very people who tried to prevent it.
We know that Trump is a right-wing creation—an almost perfect product of Republican politics—because the GOP establishment did everything it could to stop him from winning, failed, and then bent the knee for him.
For years, Republicans believed they could employ a politics of mass hysteria to cripple Obama and then nominate for president a conventional standard-bearer who didn’t exude lust for revenge against the outgoing administration. In 2012, when the line against Obama was that he was a failed leader whose catastrophic blunders would cripple America, they nominated a corporate manager who promised to fix what was broken. When that failed, they turned to a younger bench of presidential hopefuls, some of whom hoped ironically to become the Republicans’ Obama.
In the end, the strategy of emboldening birthers and doomsayers while championing a farm team of clean-cut fixers was destroyed by its own internal contradictions. Republicans whet the right-wing appetite for a leader who closely resembled the extreme and unrepentant resistance to Obama. Republicans won the presidency almost by accident, with a candidate whom they loathed, feared, and widely condemned. They are now leashed to a man whom they recently described as untrustworthy and unfit.
This is terrible news for the country, but for narrower legacy questions, it helps explain why Obama has spent the last several weeks touting the stability he’s passing along to the new administration. Because Trump rose to power as Obama’s antithesis, their respective regimes will be held up against one another as totems of competing visions of the country’s future. And if Trump fails by running the country on behalf of a slender but feral base, he will bolster Obama’s legacy rather than destroy it.
Over four or eight years, Trump can repeal a lot of laws, but to genuinely erase Obama’s legacy, he’ll have to do more than sign bills. He’ll have to challenge major new points of consensus—that government should guarantee the public health care coverage; that same-sex couples deserve all the same rights as heterosexual ones; that climate change is a major threat to the future of civilization; that Obama rescued the country from global recession—and undo them. I expect him to lose every one of those arguments, and by losing, he will vindicate Obama’s presidency, if not Obama’s governing vision for the country.
George W. Bush campaigned on the promise of restoring honor and dignity to the White House—an implicit repudiation of Bill Clinton’s deceptiveness and sexual indiscretions. Bush went on to be one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. Along the way, he turned inherited surpluses into structural deficits; rising middle class incomes into shrinking ones. The prosperous ’90s gave way to the war-torn, economically calamitous aughts. And while important aspects of Bill Clinton’s presidency have not worn well, it is mostly because they have fallen into disrepute on the left. Bush made Clintonism look pretty good by comparison. Trump, at the very least, could create the same halo-effect around Obamaism.
But historical memory isn’t always so linear. For over 100 years in the U.S., the historical consensus in academia and popular memory held that the South’s racial segregation was an outgrowth of a heavy-handed policy of Reconstruction, imposed by an arrogant Northern elite. Eventually, truth broke through that consensus, but not before it did immense damage in the form of federal complicity with lynching, segregation, and plunder. If the Trump era endures beyond Trump himself, its enablers may one day seek to absolve themselves, of different but analogous sins, using the Obama years as a scapegoat, the way American exceptionalists once used Reconstruction.
This would be fitting, as the Trump movement is famously at war with objective truth. But the movement is winning this war, and may continue to do so many years from now. If Trumpism endures beyond the man himself, the policy battles of the next four years will seems insignificant compared to the false, revisionist history that will have taken hold of Obama’s legacy. The best way to render a verdict on Trump’s answer to Obama would be for Democrats to defeat him in four years. But however that election unfolds, the fight over the closing era—and the fight to protect everything that Trump puts in the firing line—begins on this ominous Inauguration Day.