One-termers such as Trump enjoy only marginal political influence. Hoover, Carter and Bush snr, the last three presidents, until Trump, to lose re-election, are the great failures of the modern presidency. None ever ran again. They were replaced by much more historically significant men and movements.
So the question is not when will Trump leave. He surely will at a precise hour. Rather, it is whether he is leaving before the system has developed an appropriate immunity. Let us suggest that Trump is a vaccine for much of what ails the United States. He is a small dose of something nasty to inoculate the system against something much worse. Two historical moments illustrate this claim.
In 1861-62, the first year of the American Civil War, General George McClellan proved a remarkable success. As Abraham Lincoln’s first great war leader, he transformed the organisation of the Union army and, though he was ultimately unable to press home this advantage himself, proved crucial to the defeat, in 1865, of the Southern Confederacy. Had McClellan achieved this victory sooner, in 1862, with the South defeated but not destroyed, it is debatable whether slavery would have ended or reconstruction attempted.
The bloody and terrible Civil War was, it now seems clear, the necessary cleansing, the purging, of a broken national order. Had it ended too quickly, the issues that provoked its fighting in the first place would have probably endured. As it was, it took the United States until the 1960s to tackle more fully, and then imperfectly, the racial inequities of the 1860s – and that was with the reconstruction forced by total war. Imagine how much slower, if at all, that reckoning may have come without it.
In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt, in his powerful second inaugural address, argued America needed struggle to make progress. “Symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster!” Ongoing crisis was necessary for the fundamental political transformation FDR was seeking. The “economic epidemic” (his words) needed to last long enough for the cure to work. The “new order of things” could not be realised if a return to prosperity was declared too soon. To stop now, warned Roosevelt, would be to leave “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”.
Let’s accept that Trump’s America, the Civil War excepted, is about as bad as we can imagine it being: more than 300,000 Americans killed in a pandemic, their economy shot, once-great cities such as Portland and Seattle under mob rule, a political class riven by ideological conflict, an electorate divided into two rival camps, its international reputation in disrepair, and China – its great authoritarian competitor – emboldened. The list is long and growing.
However, these problems either pre-date or were not caused by Trump and will last long after him. What Trump offered was a crisis, yes, but also an opportunity, forcing both parties to rethink their trajectories. That rethink has started but it has not been concluded.
Another four years and Democrats and Republicans might have found common ground, as they did in the 1860s and 1930s. However, the 2020s are not shaping up to be a time of bipartisan reconstruction and coalition. As it is, the probably insufficient four-year dose of the Trump vaccine has left both sides stricken by a form of zealous identity politics. Democrats have not re-learnt the language of the industrial working class; Biden is busy re-racialising the American government as if it were a big progressive campus. Republicans are torn between “never Trumpers” and his facilitators.
A Trump second term would surely have convinced his lukewarm supporters to find a lasting alternative, drawn, unlike Trump, from a Republican intellectual tradition. With Trump gone, the steady expansion of multi-racial conservatism, one of the GOP’s under-reported successes in the recent election, could well stall.
Let us acknowledge the inherent and unavoidable perversity in this argument. If Trump is a disease, better we are cured of him quickly. But what if he is more akin to a vaccine? What if the dosage of one term is not enough to heal the body politic? What if his leaving merely invites the onset of a disease much worse?
Timothy J. Lynch is associate professor in American politics at the University of Melbourne and author of In the Shadow of the Cold War: American Foreign Policy from George Bush Sr. to Donald Trump (Cambridge, 2020).