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The Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake

The Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake
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President TrumpDonald TrumpSouth Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Ex-Trump aide Pierson won't run for Dallas-area House seat House Oversight panel reissues subpoena for Trump's accounting firm MORE’s term of office will end at noon on Wednesday, but his impact will reverberate for years.

To his critics — not all of them Democrats — Trump has been a uniquely destructive figure, traducing every norm, insulting every opponent and sowing havoc across the nation.

Those traits reached their nadir in the Jan. 6 insurrectionary violence at the Capitol, which shocked the world and, soon afterward, made Trump the first president in history to be impeached on two occasions. 

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The Senate will in time render its verdict on whether he was guilty of incitement of insurrection.

Trump still has his defenders, of course. Seventy-four million people voted for him in November. To many, especially those who rallied most strongly to his Make America Great Again slogan, he was a tribune, capable of giving voice to their hopes and fears — and sticking a finger in the eye of condescending elites while doing so.

The fans are in the minority, however. President-elect Biden beat him by around 7 million votes. Trump’s approval ratings, never better than tepid, have fallen even further since the outrage at the Capitol. 

The final Gallup poll of his presidency gave him an approval rating of just 34 percent. His average approval rating in that poll across his tenure — 41 percent — makes him the most unpopular president since modern polling began. 

There is, too, the stench of failure that inevitably clings to any one-term president. Trump is the first incumbent to lose a reelection bid since former President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Trump, Bush and former President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - J&J vax rollout today; third woman accuses Cuomo Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter return to Georgia church after vaccinations The progressive case for the Hyde Amendment MORE are the only three presidents in that unflattering category in the past 40 years.

But Trump is no historical afterthought, even if he was confined to a single term. He leaves a huge mark on American politics — and American life — for good or ill.

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“He is not some kind of asterisk,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. 

Zelizer argued that Trump’s chief legacy is a negative one — the way he has trashed so many standards that were previously accepted.

“It has been a presidency that has shattered many norms and broken many guiding principles, and he did it at the presidential level, which gives that behavior a kind of imprimatur. The next president doesn’t have to follow that, of course — but the precedent is set,” Zelizer said.

He added that the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol sealed Trump’s fate in history.

“That kind of incitement now becomes part of the political lexicon,” he said.

Many Democrats put it even stronger than that. 

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not 'high priority' for Biden in COVID-19 relief Murkowski never told White House she would oppose Tanden Tanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted that Tuesday was “the last full day of the worst and most dangerous president in American history.” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Some Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE (D-Calif.) said in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid that Trump was “a stain on our country.”

The president mounted the case for his own defense in a 20-minute farewell video released on Tuesday afternoon.

In it, he insisted that “we did what we came here to do — and so much more.” He cited deregulation, trade deals, increased oil and gas production, and the imposition of tariffs on China as among his achievements.

He also put considerable stress on tax cuts and — especially — on the nation’s pre-pandemic economic performance.

Twelve months ago, there were many people on both sides of the political divide in Washington who believed the strong economy gave him a solid chance of reelection.

His stalwart supporters still insist that Trump deserves more credit on this point as well as for his avoidance of serious conflict overseas.

Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior advisor for Trump’s first presidential campaign, texted The Hill his laudatory summary of the president’s legacy, which began with “more peace and less war, more jobs and less poverty.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial on Tuesday sought to draw a distinction between Trump the man and the Trump administration.

“Donald Trump’s profound character flaws need to be separated from what so many people in his administration accomplished for the country,” the paper wrote. 

Tellingly, however, even the Journal, conservative in its editorial outlook, credited a number of advisers for talking Trump out of potentially damaging actions he might otherwise have taken.

Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, said that, in terms of policy, one of Trump’s most enduring legacies could be the tax cuts he enacted in 2017. 

Reeher made clear he was not asserting that the tax cuts were good or bad, simply that they would be hard to reverse, since the political disincentive to raise taxes is so strong. By contrast, he noted, Biden has promised to instantly reverse or otherwise erase signature Trump policies pertaining to the Paris climate agreement and the infamous travel ban.

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Reeher argued that the events of Jan. 6 could prove to be an inflexion point, after which the nation is turning away from the kind of inflammatory politics that Trump embraced.

Be that as it may, Trump will likely never escape the fact that many of the biggest stories of his tenure were rebarbative — Charlottesville, the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border, the loss of 400,000 American lives to COVID-19 and finally the Capitol insurrection.

Right now, it's hard to see how his legacy escapes those taints.

"When Donald Trump gave his inauguration speech, he spoke of 'American carnage,'" said Democratic strategist and CBS News contributor Jamal Simmons. "But instead of him soothing the waters of the nation, he brought carnage to the Capitol."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.