In some ways, he helped surface those ills, when they might otherwise have been papered over for longer
Trump very much behaved as many world leaders have throughout history.
With the election of Joseph Biden as the next president of the US (pending official certification of the various vote counts), it is possible to take a deep breath and begin to assess the lessons of one of the most remarkable episodes in modern American history. One should acknowledge right away that there were many aspects of the last four years which were not that abnormal for the US, over its history, and certainly not in global experience. Indeed, very early in Trump’s presidency, he was compared to various African dictators by the South African comedian and commentator, Trevor Noah. Of course, there are such examples worldwide, many in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Trump very much behaved as many world leaders have throughout history. He acted without respect for the formal and informal institutions that provide the framework for a reasonably successful and durable society—what supports the “social contract.” He was elected by challenging the status quo embodied in these institutions, and by manipulating the population’s anxieties with respect to race, class, and culture (particularly related to religious beliefs and social hierarchies). The fact that he almost got re-elected, despite his total disregard for the truth and his incompetence, speaks to the efficacy of his approach to capturing and wielding power. This is an important lesson for the whole world—even a society with seemingly robust and durable institutions can be undermined very swiftly. Trump was not beginning from a dire situation, such as that which allowed Hitler to rise to power, in terms of severe societal shocks and fragile institutions. But once he took power, there seemed to be little that could stop his degradation of institutions.
Another lesson is his success, once in office, was facilitated by numerous members of the Republican elite, even those who he had previously abused and belittled. Indeed, some of them are supporting him as he seeks to keep undermining confidence in the US’s democratic institutions by attacking the conduct of the election. Again, there are parallels to the rise of other authoritarians, with Hitler again the most horrifying example. No one wields power without a cadre of enablers. Trump extended his corruption into numerous parts of government, when it served his purposes, even those with formal independence or norms of impartiality, including the justice department and postal service. He spoke of judges and Supreme Court justices as “his,” and he even tried to use the US military as a personal political tool, often with little or no pushback from members of his ruling elite.
The third lesson follows from the first two. Trump was finally stopped, barely, and perhaps only temporarily (he can still wield influence and even run for president again) by a broad coalition of ordinary people and elites across the political spectrum, sometimes putting aside political differences simply to protect core institutions and values. A key factor was often grassroots efforts, and adherence to the rule of law, in the face of Trump’s and his enablers’ corrosive actions. A remarkable example of this was the patient and determined counting of mail-in ballots in each of the states, often under timing restrictions imposed by Republican Party state legislatures and the continued attacks by Trump. The majority of the media also played a role, calling out Trump’s lies more openly, refusing to amplify them, and highlighting the openness and objectivity of the conduct of the election.
A fourth lesson is the value of decentralisation and checks and balances. In some cases, decentralisation can be damaging, as when it allowed racial segregation to persist in many parts of the US, but here the decentralised electoral process prevented Trump from undermining the integrity of the national election. Again, some state legislatures did try to tilt the rules in ways that would favour Trump, but institutional checks and balances prevented too much political interference. But it was a close call.
The most visible domestic consequence of Trump has been the health catastrophe that the pandemic has become, thanks to his and his cronies’ dishonesty and incompetence. But globally, by cosying up to dictators and tyrants, diminishing allies, and sabotaging global cooperation, he also inflicted considerable damage worldwide, hopefully temporary. The overarching negative consequence of Trump has been an erosion of trust, of confidence in the difference between truth and lies, and of the line between right and wrong. Many did not take Trump seriously when he began running for president. A lesson here is that the performance persona of a leader should not become a barrier to understanding their true character and motivations.
The defeat of Trump is not a panacea for the ills of the US or the world. In some ways, he helped surface those ills, when they might otherwise have been papered over for longer. It will take enormous skill and effort to repair some of the damage done by Trump, and to fix some of the problems he exposed. For the people of the US and for other nations and their peoples, the lessons from this episode are of the importance of ethical action, defence of decent institutions, recognition of problems, sustained collective effort to reduce problems once recognized, the value of relevant expertise, and, at the core, the value of being transparent and truthful in public service.
The author is Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz