Commentary: We need to talk about how Donald Trump’s presidency wasn’t a complete disaster
The former president has come under fire after the US Capitol storming. While America prepares to turn a page on his term, Americans should be wary not to throw out policies the last administration got right.
SINGAPORE: “It’s a sad day,” Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean said after watching shocking scenes of protesters storm the US Capitol on Wednesday (Jan 6), forcing lawmakers to flee.
Fingers have been pointed - to Mr Trump’s demagoguery and the Republican Party for getting into bed with him and his base of “deplorables”.
But this national soul-searching will need time and distance for the full implications to be understood, with few historical antecedents to take guidance from. Parallels have been drawn to the 1860s Civil War.
READ: Commentary: Facebook’s eleventh-hour suspension of Trump’s account raises questions about its motives
MOVING ON QUICKLY
America, however, seems almost too ready to move on.
The US saw an “insurrection” two weeks ago. Then impeachment last week. This week’s inauguration of President Joe Biden will provide the turn of the page Americans want, wrapping work up in three mere weeks.
More than a dozen executive orders have been signed on Mr Biden's first day, undoing his predecessor’s policies.
And with Democrats winning equal control of the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over it, it’s time to exit this dark chapter of US history, many Americans say.
It’s understandable if Americans want to press on from Mr Trump. These past four years have been disruptive, with the leader of the most powerful country consistently brushing aside established rules, norms and niceties.
A big bold line must be drawn on inciting assaults on sacred political institutions, spreading lies undermining the legitimacy of an election and sowing divisions. Mr Trump not only misled a huge part of the electorate, he all but called for an angry mob to overturn the election results and sack Congress.
But while Mr Trump will get his just desserts, with impeachment underway, strident liberals seem to be adopting a binary approach in wanting anything, everything, to do with him out. They sound like they want to wipe his administration clean from the face of the Earth.
That is worrying. Mr Biden faces a momentous task in carving out a new path but a zealous purge to annihilate all Mr Trump has done risks throwing the baby out with the Trumpism water.
Doing so could see important policies that have benefited America, Americans and the world torn up.
WHAT TRUMP MIGHT HAVE GOTTEN RIGHT
For one, Mr Trump has presided over one of the strongest economic rallies in US history.
While the seeds might have been sown years before, Mr Trump’s aggressive, expansionary agenda of deregulation, higher government spending, tax cuts and pressure on the US Federal Reserve spurred the economy despite the economist consensus in 2016 the US had reached full employment.
He brought back US$1 trillion of investments to American shores, encouraged more Americans than ever to find a job, and boosted median households income by nearly 10 per cent since 2016.
READ: Commentary: With the Democrats firmly in charge in the US, we can look forward to economic gains
These have benefited the broad middle of Americans. Poverty rates for youths, Asian, Black and Hispanic Americans reached historic lows.
Due credit for his economic programmes is often lacking.
His tax cuts have mostly been framed as pandering to the super-rich, when technical policy nuances shaping commercial decisions for the greater good were missed.
Incentives to create new opportunities in impoverished communities to spur US$100 billion in long-term capital investment, which were part of the same tax cut package, received less attention for example.
His administration also deserves praise in the area of securing intellectual property rights. Copyright laws for the music industry were strengthened, guaranteeing music producers a share of the spoils in a digital world where Spotify dominates our listening choices. Yet Kanye West’s rambling at the signing received attention instead.
Overall, investor outlook remains strong, with the S&P 500 up by almost half since Trump’s 2016 election win. US manufacturers expressed some of the strongest optimism about the future in 20 years.
COVID-19 may have wiped out most of these gains and singlehandedly lost Mr Trump the election. His horrendous management of the pandemic - in perpetuating falsehoods on the cause, cure and China, and undermining the work of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to mention individual states - was also inexcusable.
But any economy could scarcely hope to escape the pandemic unscathed.
Mr Trump has also done more for women and minorities than the conventional narrative suggests. Mr Trump presided over the expansion of help for women, in getting tougher on sex trafficking, setting an example by providing paid parental leave for federal government employees and ensuring mothers have breastfeeding spaces in airports.
His administration also championed criminal justice reforms to tackle outdated sentencing laws disproportionately affecting minorities. Perhaps the outrage here was his First Step Act not going far enough.
A US ENGAGED WITH THE WORLD
Attacked at home, with allegations involving Russia, Robert Mueller and “golden showers” swirling, the world had expected Mr Trump to focus on domestic issues and neglect global affairs. Instead, he went on the offensive.
He made NATO allies increase defence spending instead of free-riding on the US security umbrella. He wagged the finger at North Korea’s nuclear programme.
And he focused American minds on the Asia-Pacific, where managing US-China relations has emerged as the indisputable chief foreign policy priority that generally enjoys bipartisan consensus.
In fact, reading last week’s freshly declassified national security documents outlining the US' Indo-Pacific strategy suggests a tick on many policy goals in these boxes over the last few years.
READ: Commentary: Trump’s playbook on China in the South China Sea has some lessons for the Biden administration
Part of this was enabled because Mr Trump created huge manoeuvering space in the Middle East for the US. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no more. US troops in Afghanistan have been drawn down to their lowest levels since 2001. Israel has normalised ties with one more Arab state.
Part of it was Mr Trump’s focus on China from day one, through his executive orders on 5G, Chinese Big Business and more, though these have created fresh tensions and may have sparked an unhealthy zero-sum dynamic.
Still, under Mr Trump, American credibility in taking swift, decisive action has been restored. US rebalancing towards Asia has accelerated.
The question may be whether the American foreign policy establishment can reconcile how a leader who took actions they considered thuggish, even reckless, achieved these ends. The answer may be more complex than Mr Trump’s critics wish.
His penchant for unilateral action may have riled many partners, including Japan, South Korea and more who became collateral damage in his trade war but they have no illusions such painful adjustments in US-China trade relations were coming.
Indeed, many observers here focus on his conspicuous absence at ASEAN-led summitry, but clear-eyed Asian states know their interests are served when the US continues to be engaged in this region, albeit in other ways, having been long used to the US’ no-show during George W Bush’s presidency.
But to be sure, his bypassing of multilateral groupings and international institutions like the World Trade Organization was a pity.
He would have achieved stronger global support on tightening trade regulations and reining in countries that do not play by the rules.
NOT ALL BAD WHEN TRUMP WAS PRESIDENT
Mr Trump does not deserve all credit. It is true a Democrat president might conceivably have achieved all this or more, when policies sometimes happen only because of time, chance and a complex mix of politics and horse-trading among activists, advocates and lawmakers.
In this, his administration’s short track record here probably speaks to the resilience of the American political system and the continuity across administrations, regardless of which party is in charge, more than Democrats and Republicans care to acknowledge.
But these few examples should dispel the monster myth the last four years were a total disaster and nothing but a stain on America’s record.
And judged by this brief account here, there were more than a few wins for America and the world during these four years when a man named Donald Trump was president.
Listen to Prof Chan Heng Chee and BowerGroupAsia Managing Director James Carouso explain how America came to be so deeply divided amid a bitterly fought election on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast episode published in November 2020: