Read: The Trump campaign’s chaotic closing strategy
Trump is not trying to shake hands with a tree, but he does have many of the features, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies of the stereotype. The president is incapable of empathy, susceptible to flattery, and prone to self-destructive behavior. He has a mercurial family that exerts undue influence over his administration. He traffics in the most absurd conspiracy theories. His wealth, or lack thereof, is shrouded in secrecy. He is insecure. He lays out his deepest prejudices on Twitter for the world to see. He captivates crowds. Everything about him—the hair, the tan, the long tie, the goofy hat—is outlandish.
He is the president of one of the most powerful countries in history, one that invests unrivaled authority in its commander in chief, including the right to use nuclear weapons. He also has formidable adversaries with powerful stories of their own—the first African American president and the person who would have been the first female president. And it looks like he could meet his political end partly because of a plague. It’s hard to get more biblical than that.
What will make the Trump story particularly irresistible for future generations is that it’s not just a comic farce; it’s also of huge significance to anyone who wants to understand the United States in the early 21st century.
Ever since Trump was elected, political theorists have debated whether his presidency is a cause or a symptom of political change. The conventional wisdom is that he is a symptom of a bigger shift. He benefited from trends that were already under way—the disillusionment of non-college-educated white voters, the shock waves from the financial crisis, and distrust in authority. All of this is true, but that argument overlooks the effect that the president’s irrational behavior has had on America.
If, say, Ted Cruz had been elected president in 2016, he too would have benefited from populist trends. Many commentators would have asked if Cruz’s nationalism spelled the end of the liberal international order—after all, he was the first candidate in the 2016 election cycle to use the term America First to describe his foreign policy. The Europeans would have almost certainly been distraught about his election. But a Cruz presidency would have been qualitatively different from Trump’s. He would surely not have played doctor during the pandemic, actively promoting unproven medicines or advising the public to inject themselves with disinfectant. He would not have tweeted orders at the Pentagon. He would have likely shown empathy when he met a Nobel Prize winner whose six brothers and mother were murdered by the Islamic State. He would not have proclaimed his love for Kim Jong Un.
The Cruz hypothetical is helpful in understanding what about this time historians might attribute to Trump, in particular. To the extent that they focus on certain aspects of his administration’s policy—voter suppression, tax cuts for the wealthy, his failure to stand up for democracy abroad, and the ramming through of a Supreme Court justice while voting is under way—Trump is a symptom, not a cause of change. He may even be less radical than others who might follow him, including Cruz.