By Matt Spetalnick, Andrea Shalal, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When President Donald Trump delivered his inaugural speech on Jan. 20, 2017, he promised an end to “American carnage,” painting a bleak picture of a divided, dysfunctional nation he had insisted that he alone could fix.
Closing out his presidency exactly four years later, Trump leaves behind an even more polarized America, where thousands are dying daily from the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy is badly damaged and political violence has surged.
Trump didn’t create the bitter differences that have come to define American life. Still, he seized upon many of them as tools to build his power base, promising to uplift rural America and the broader working class he said had been neglected by the Washington establishment.
When thousands of his angry followers – the vast majority of them white - marched on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they rallied behind Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. The rioting that ensued left a police officer and four other people dead, dozens wounded and a nation shaken.
A major part of his legacy when he departs the White House on Wednesday is likely to be Americans more politically and culturally estranged from each other than they were when he took office.
At the heart of that divide, Trump’s opponents say, is race. Early in his presidency, he initially resisted denouncing white nationalists after a deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, fueling perceptions that he sympathized with their cause. His harsh rhetoric often worsened racial crises that flared over police killings of Black people on his watch.
“Sadly, he is the natural outcome of the history of divide and conquer,” in American race relations, said Reverend William Barber, a prominent civil rights activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty, anti-racism movement that Martin Luther King helped organize in the 1960s. “The thing is, he just pushed it all the way.”
Trump has repeatedly denied any racist animus.
His staunch supporters argue that he served as a corrective to prior administrations of both parties that let down the poor, the working class and rural regions that have struggled in recent decades. That base of support remains large - another likely legacy of the Trump era.
Alex Bruesewitz, a conservative activist associated with Stop the Steal, a pro-Trump movement protesting the election results, said the president retains his appeal to working-class voters. “They felt like they were the forgotten men and women. And the president said, ‘You are forgotten no longer’,” Bruesewitz said.
Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and his encouragement of his supporters to descend on the Capitol mean his term is ending amid a swirl of untruths that millions of Republicans have taken to heart, creating a serious challenge for the new administration to win their trust.
The disorderly transfer of power comes against the backdrop of the increased spread of a pandemic that Trump has downplayed, and mounting financial hardships from the deep recession spurred by it.
Keeping the country on edge, and prompting security lockdowns in Washington and state capitals, is concern that the pro-Trump mob’s siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6 could embolden far-right extremists to further violence.
“There has never been a presidency in modern times when America’s dysfunction has been so fully on display,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
White House spokesman Judd Deere rejected the notion that Trump’s legacy lay in tatters.
In a written statement to Reuters, Deere cited a list of what he considered Trump’s economic accomplishments, such as getting the country on the path to recovery and deregulatory moves, which have included loosened restrictions on auto emissions and oil drilling. He also argued that the president secured the border with Mexico, rebuilt U.S. military strength, brought some troops home and helped orchestrate development of a coronavirus vaccine in a matter of months.
"He leaves office having made America safer, stronger, more secure,” Deere said.
He declined, in the statement, to address racism accusations against the president.
Trump did, in fact, deliver on a number of priorities for his Republican Party.
In partnership with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he overhauled the U.S. judiciary, giving it a more conservative bent with the appointment of three Supreme Court justices and the fast-tracking of more than 200 federal judges.
Trump pushed through massive tax cuts for corporations. The economy expanded faster than it had under predecessor Barack Obama, and unemployment reached record lows.
But the solid economy, which he hoped would be his biggest re-election selling point, was swept away in a wave of coronavirus-driven shutdowns that plunged the country into the worst downturn in nearly a century as joblessness soared. The national debt, which had ballooned during his term, grew even more in his final year.
Trump catered to his base by cracking down on illegal immigration, but critics condemned his approach as too harsh. Biden plans to reverse much of it, including a travel ban on a handful of Muslim-majority nations.
Erecting a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border was a signature pledge of Trump's 2016 campaign. Less than half of the 1,000 miles he promised was built, much of it where existing barriers stood – and Mexico never paid for it as Trump had vowed.
Abroad, Trump often invoked his “America First” agenda. He dismantled or disrupted multilateral pacts, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, which committed nearly every nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions; and the Iran nuclear deal, which eased sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. His administration eroded bedrock alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, antagonized traditional partners and indulged autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But Trump has been credited by Republicans as well as many Democrats for a tougher stance on China. He slapped tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports, sanctioned top officials over a crackdown in Hong Kong and imposed penalties on Chinese telecommunications companies. His administration faced some criticism, however, for provoking a trade war with Beijing and reverting to Cold War-style rhetoric.
Trump has also won praise for brokering historic accords to normalize relations between Israel and four once-hostile Arab neighbors. And he reduced U.S. forces in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, though he failed to completely extract America from “endless wars” as he promised in his 2016 campaign.
“Trump did accomplish some useful things,” Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the think tank’s website. He deserves credit, Haass said, "for moving the U.S. policy vis-à-vis an increasingly repressive, powerful, and assertive China in a more sober, critical direction."
But what the president got right, Haass added, was “dwarfed by what Trump got wrong,” citing foremost “the damage he has done to American democracy.”
Late on Tuesday, Trump gave his critics more ammunition when, according to a senior official, he pardoned former aide Steve Bannon as part of a wave of pardons and commutations. Bannon, charged with fraud involving funding for Trump's border wall, was the latest political ally to receive such treatment from Trump, who has often used his pardon power to reward loyalists.
Trump’s political strength stemmed, in part, from his ability to pose as a populist champion to tap into white rural and working-class resentment that has been building for years, as the United States became a more multiracial society and their communities felt the brunt of globalization, analysts say.
Some far-right fringe groups have also flocked to Trump’s banner. Rioters who gathered at the Capitol included some of the more extreme elements of his base, including members of QAnon, who espouse a debunked conspiracy theory that claims Trump is fighting a Democratic cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals.
“Trump built a coalition out of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and bigots,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University in Houston.
Trump has denied any affinity for such groups or welcoming them into his fold. “I’m the least racist person you’ll find anywhere in the world,” he insisted in 2019.
Accusations against Trump of xenophobia extended to his immigration policies. One White House official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that it was a “fiasco” when the administration in 2018 separated several thousand children – including infants - from their undocumented parents at the Mexican border. Images of crying youngsters crowded into chain-link pens were beamed worldwide.
While some Trump supporters have turned away from him since the assault on the Capitol, most appear to be sticking with him. Some 70% of Republicans remain loyal to Trump, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling done in the immediate aftermath of the siege. Many activists say they’re willing to abandon the party for any perceived slight against their leader.
"I see Trump as a fighter for the people that actually work and put the backbone into this country," said Will Williams, a Trump supporter from Oklahoma. “His legacy will be remembered by me as a great man that took on the corruption in this country.”
Trump’s invocation of “American carnage” at his own inauguration, painting what many Democrats considered an overblown dystopian vision, was an appeal to that base and also to the urban poor. He said their dreams had been stifled by economic distress, crime, drugs and loss of jobs to other countries.
Opponents say Trump, a wealthy former real estate developer, did little to help them. He sought repeatedly to kill the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which helped millions of Americans get health insurance. His tariffs war with China hurt American farmers and didn’t trigger the U.S. manufacturing revival he had promised. And his tax cuts mainly benefited the rich.
As Trump heads out the door as the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, most recently on a charge of inciting the Capitol riot, the Republican Party's future is deeply uncertain.
Trump remade it in his image, replacing traditional conservative principles of fiscal austerity and commitment to international alliances with large deficits, his “America First” approach and a habit of frequently issuing policy shifts and trial balloons by Twitter. He demanded unwavering loyalty and turned on anyone who opposed him.
Now that Republicans find themselves relegated to the opposition in the Senate, the question is whether Trump’s spell over the party - and “Trumpism” as a viable movement - will endure when he no longer wields the levers of government power.
Trump’s base remains a potent electoral force. It handed him more votes – some 74 million – than any Republican in history. Fear of antagonizing them was evident when nearly half of Republican House members, fresh off the mob attack that had sent them scuttling for cover in the Capitol basement, endorsed a failed effort to block certification of Biden’s victory.
But cracks have formed in Republican ranks in response to the Capitol mayhem, and the party may be in for a period of soul-searching. McConnell said on Tuesday the Jan. 6 mob was "provoked by the president and other powerful people."
Trump’s own political future could be in jeopardy as well. If convicted by the Senate in an impeachment trial that would occur after he leaves the White House, Trump could be banned from holding office again.
Bob Corker, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, said Trump had been a “consequential president” in terms of enacting many policies Republicans wanted. “But in the process of being purposely divisive and perpetuating untruths” about the election, “he undermined our democracy,” Corker told Reuters.
Corker said the Republican Party needs “to go in a direction not led by him. We’ve got to redefine who we are.”
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken, Marla Dickerson and Lincoln Feast.)