The Tragedy of Missed Opportunities: An Objective Review of Donald Trump’s Presidency (UPDATED)

Way back in 2011, Donald Trump said that if he chose to run for president, “you’ll have the great pleasure of voting for the man that will easily go down as the greatest president in the history of the United States.”

He made that remark as the subject of a Comedy Central roast, so perhaps it can be dismissed as a self-deprecating riff on his own ego. But as his presidency became reality, it became clear that Trump really believed, as he told Bob Woodward, that “nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”

Those of us who are not Donald Trump and wanted something more out of this presidency than an entertaining figurehead have a somewhat different view of his job performance.

Granted, Trump did do good things in the areas of abortion, the economy, religious freedom, conscience rights, immigration enforcement, education, deregulation, and the Middle East. His judicial record, while lackluster (see below), still contains meaningful differences from who Hillary Clinton would have appointed. While his COVID-19 record was far too deferential to Saint Anthony Fauci in supporting lockdowns and mandates, and in rushing questionable drugs to market instead of prioritizing safe therapeutics, from a general-election perspective the death toll should be understood in light of Joe Biden’s early admission that, despite demagoguing the subject for the better part of a year, he wouldn’t be delivering better results than Trump’s after all. Even Trump’s rhetoric served a valuable purpose in showing Republicans that blunt talk and open contempt for the villains of American politics are political assets rather than political suicide, and that the American people will put up with a lot of nonsense from a candidate as long as they believe he’ll deliver the things they really want. And most significantly, he prevented a Clinton administration from doing unspeakable harm to the United States, to the Constitution, and to the American people. [4/22/23: This paragraph has been updated; see footnote at bottom of article.]

But while the Trump administration’s list of good points more than proves it was worth supporting over any Democrat, its failures and betrayals are both severe and numerous enough to easily keep Donald Trump from rising to the level of “good president.”

He didn’t come close to finishing the border wall or delivering the rest of his immigration promises. His judicial nominees were shot through with unconservative, unfit jurists because he outsourced selection to the Federalist Society without knowing (or caring) that its reputation on the Right is undeserved. He allowed Planned Parenthood to escape justice for its grotesque crimes. Federal spending skyrocketed because he signed almost every Swamp budget Congress sent him without a fight. His only major legislative accomplishment (aside from a tax cut, which is the GOP presidential equivalent of the Free space in Bingo) was a horrendous crime bill that will only make communities more dangerous (undermining his own “LAW AND ORDER!” tweets to chase a perceived voting bloc that wasn’t enough to reelect him anyway). He negotiated a deal with the Taliban that will all-but guarantee a bloodier Afghanistan. He did virtually nothing to clean social-justice warriors out of the military. He consistently sided with Mitch McConnell and the Swamp over his own base in Republican primaries. He let policy and personnel be undermined by a son-in-law who shared virtually none of the values or priorities Trump’s base had voted for. His last wave of pardons gave Bill Clinton’s pardons stiff competition in sleaze. On his way out the door, he revoked his own executive order to ban ex-administration officials from becoming lobbyists within five years of leaving government.

(And, while far less important and certainly no reason not to support Trump over any Democrat, we obviously could have done without the headaches and distractions created by Trump’s habit of saying or sharing stupid, crazy crap about voting twice, Joe Scarborough killing a staffer, Osama Bin Laden really being alive, falling in love with Kim Jong Un, etc.).

But his most damning failure, the failure that keeps him from deserving full credit for his positive executive actions, was his failure to take any meaningful action to ensure his contributions would last.

Just as Trump did to Barack Obama’s legacy, Biden immediately began dismantling Trump’s legacy by rescinding executive orders (is it really a legacy at all if it can be undone with the stroke of a pen?). Trump did very little to clean the opposition out of federal departments and agencies (a mistake Biden is not repeating). The rule of law continued to deteriorate because Trump didn’t fill top law enforcement posts with anyone committed to rooting out corruption. He complained a lot about corporate censorship of conservative speech, but all he did was an executive order that didn’t go very far.

Perhaps worst of all, he spent four years not investigating or prosecuting election fraud or meaningfully pushing for cleaner election laws (aside from one halfhearted “attempt” in the form of a failed commission that was doomed from the start thanks to more incompetence in selecting personnel)—even though we knew months ahead of time that mail voting was being expanded for nefarious purposes. The Justice Department did send observers to several polling places on Election Day… but only to monitor compliance with voting rights law (just as the Obama administration had done), not to be on the lookout for fraud.

Then, finally, after not acting when it could have made a difference, Trump decided the time after the election—after many types of fraud became untraceable and illegal state rule changes flooded the polls—was the time to go to war against election theft, and in doing so to make the worst possible strategic move at every turn, from elevating shoddy examples of evidence, to seeking dead-on-arrival remedies (states awarding electors to Trump, courts voiding votes en masse for process reasons) instead of redo elections in the tainted jurisdictions, to making a villain out of his heroically-loyal vice president over his aversion to a legally-questionable stunt that wouldn’t have worked anyway. While Trump’s comprehensive botching of the fraud battle is not responsible for the January 6 riot, it has done more to put the cause of election integrity on defense than any other Republican in recent memory.

Before his election, Trump famously boasted that under his leadership we’d “win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.” Unfortunately, the winning was more Charlie Sheen “winning” than, y’know, winning-winning.

For four years, much of the above either went un-discussed (especially on talk radio, which absolutely could have helped steer Trump rightward), or was brushed off with an endless stream of excuses. The Swamp was against him! (The Swamp he started hiring before even taking office.) The Deep State was against him! (Didn’t Trump have experience firing people?) The courts were against him! (Weird how such an admirer of Andrew Jackson didn’t draw any lessons from the most famous quote attributed to him.) His nominees kept undermining him! (So he didn’t know how to “surround myself only with the best and most serious people” after all?) There were no better nominees in DC to choose from! (The guy picked an Exxon Mobil CEO as his first Secretary of State; it’s not as if thinking outside the box was an alien concept to him.) He kept so many promises! (Only the ones that were easy to keep; see above discussion of executive orders.) He was such a hard worker! (Throwing yourself into the part of a job you enjoy, in Trump’s case speaking tours, is not the same as being a hard worker overall.) Left-wing persecution kneecapped his presidency! (Russiagate & Ukrainegate were among the best things that ever happened to him, because they gave him something to rail against & dominate the media instead of focusing on his lackluster job performance.)

Enough. He was the President of the United States. Nobody forced him to offer himself as capable of undertaking the job and its myriad challenges. He put his hand on a Bible and assumed a responsibility that would affect the lives, freedoms, and welfare of millions of other people. But the simple truth is that he didn’t have what it took to live up to his own hype. He lacked the philosophical grounding, practical understanding, and personal character necessary to do the job right and be the president America really needed.

To be clear, none of this even comes close to meaning we were wrong to support Trump in the last two general elections. None of it vindicates NeverTrump’s venomous insistence that it would have been better to let Democrats—a corrupt, babykilling, anti-liberty party of enemies of the Constitution—control the executive branch instead. I stand by every word of my 2016 and 2020 Trump endorsements, and everything I wrote in between.

But it does vindicate those of us who recognized Trump’s defects in the 2016 GOP primary, and should be a bitter lesson to those who let themselves be swept up by the force of his personality or the enthusiasm of his fan base. Call it a personality cult or call it hero worship, putting faith in politicians over principles is nothing new, and rarely ends well.

So no, unless things get so much worse on the Right that we literally have no other choice, Trump should absolutely not be our presidential nominee in 2024. There’s no reason to expect him to learn and grow from the mistakes of his first term by the time he turns 78, and the one silver lining to our current mess is that we have a far better option on the horizon.

From his record of conservative results to his courageous COVID-19 response to his skill in handling the media, Ron DeSantis is the clear choice to nominate for president in 2024 (“MAGA without the bullcrap,” as Daniel Horowitz puts it.) If, God forbid, DeSantis doesn’t run, then Kristi Noem, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley should all receive serious consideration before we even consider settling for Trump again.

But Donald Trump had his chance, and he blew it. His first election was a desperation move, a crude megaton bomb alerting all with eyes to see just how badly the Republican establishment had been serving its own base, a necessity grudgingly accepted as the only alternative to a party dedicated to the unmaking of America. That may have been a worthy first step to saving our country, but it’s abundantly clear that Trump simply doesn’t have what it takes to deliver the next steps. It’s time to move on to someone who can.

UPDATE: Since this piece was originally published, Noem has disqualified herself from consideration.

UPDATE 2: Since publication, several pro-Trump readers have seized upon the overly-charitable language I originally used in this paragraph as justification to ignore the rest of the article and exaggerate the positive side of Trump’s presidency, so I have revised the paragraph to give a more accurate and nuanced assessment. In the interest of transparency, the original wording is preserved below.


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