Looking Back at Donald Trump’s Presidency: A Reading List

As Donald Trump’s presidency comes to a close, a reexamination of his domestic and foreign policy reveals a fractured legacy—of populism, protectionism and unilateralism.

Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States (US) in 2016. In the 2020 presidential race, he lost to former Vice President and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Trump’s candidacy has been marred with tensions, from alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections where he won an electoral college majority to his refusal to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential elections, which culminated in his supporters storming the US Congress building at Capitol Hill resulting in violence and the death of at least five people.

His presidency has been equally prone to controversy. His domestic policies such as the watering down of the Affordable Care Act, implementation of tax cut reforms, and the handling of the COVID-19 crisis have been criticised. And during his tenure, the role of the US in the global world order has changed owing to foreign policy moves such as his unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, decisions to quit multilateral organisations including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and the trade war with China.

Trump is also the first president in US history to have been impeached twice by the House of Representatives.

In this reading list, we break down some of the key themes that marked Trump’s helmsmanship of the US.

Xenophobia and Populism

In the run-up to the 2016 US elections, Rohit Chopra (2016) remarked on the rhetoric pervading the Republican primaries:

Immigrants, particularly of the wrong kind, such as those from Mexico or West Asia, should be excluded from the US. The authenticity of one’s Americanness is contingent upon one’s race and ethnicity. Muslims, in particular, deserve to be viewed and treated with suspicion. And the greatness of the US rests upon an aggressive, unapologetic assertion of this narrow conception of American identity. All these sentiments coalesce in the figure of Donald Trump who, bucking the predictions of pundits and to the surprise of most observers, has moved from the position of outside figure to the leading Republican candidate.

After being elected, Trump made good on his xenophobic campaign promises with his “ban on immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries” (EPW Editorial, 2017) and his “scheme of separating children (of immigrants and asylum-seekers) from their parents” (EPW Editorial, July 2018).

Chopra noted:

For Trump, the Muslim or Latino citizen or immigrant is a suspect; he gestures towards the underlying anxieties about Muslim terrorism or waves of illegal immigrants swamping America. 

Trump’s foreign policy ventures have the same xenophobic undertones as his immigration policy missives. According to an Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) editorial (24 March 2018):

The US military–intelligence apparatus still, by and large, views Russia as its principal antagonist. But the Trump administration represents a section of the US capitalist class that instead views the Islamic State, Iran, North ­Korea, and China as the country’s principal antagonists.

Such a post-Cold War stance also serves the US’s imperialistic tendencies, best demonstrated in Trump’s approach to Iran. An EPW editorial (January 2020) wrote:

The unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there, imposing back-breaking economic sanctions against the people of Iran, and declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation were all provocative acts designed to apply maximum pressure and test Iran’s “strategic patience.”
The US and its regional allies are opposed to Iran’s involvement in Syria and its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria because enhanced regional connectivity is likely to destroy sectarian political regimes serving US imperial needs. The US is perturbed by the nationalistic surge in Iraq and the growing demand for the removal of US troops from Iraqi soil.

But as Satyendra Ranjan (2020) wrote, “the White Supremacist tendencies which (Trump) has unleashed” were not absent prior to him.

… some progressive intellectuals and activists have rightly said that the victory of Trump (in the 2016 elections) was a symptom of certain deep malaises in the US political economy, rather than being the disease itself. 

An EPW editorial (24 March 2018) explained:

… what is more pertinent is the fact that neo-fascist politics, bankrolled by a section of the “billionaire class,” managed to put an ultranationalist, racist, sexist, billionaire financial–capitalist into the top slot of the executive of the US. One cannot say that something like this was not on the cards, given the secular increase in inequality in the distribution of income and wealth in the US over the last four decades to a present, historically unprecedented, all-time high.
The evolution of an economy “of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%” created the social conditions for the emergence of a character like Trump in the Oval Office.

The same social and economic inequalities have continued to prevail in 2020, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Commenting on the 2020 electoral race, Ranjan observed:

Trump has, undoubtedly, established kleptocratic rule more firmly and has been playing on the divisive and cynic agenda without any hesitation, but Joe Biden too has not offered any positive and progressive agenda for change.

‘Make America Great Again’ and Protectionism

Trump’s economic policies have entailed rollback of regulation in sectors (such as banking) and reduced taxation, with a stated end of boost productivity and employment. Have such policies helped? Trump, himself, claimed that indications such as high stock market prices mean that his policies have been successful. Avinash Persaud (2017) rubbished such claims, with a reminder that “what is good for the stock market is not always good for the economy.” He explained:

… lower-than-expected interest rates, a weaker dollar and share buy-backs are the foundations of the Trump rally. While these factors can cause a temporary boost to the markets, they do not raise long-term productivity without which the stock market’s performance and faster economic activity cannot be sustained.

Persaud (2018) reiterated:

Despite the fake proposition that tax cuts will yield so much growth that tax revenues will rise, Trump’s tax cuts will no doubt put further funding pressure on public education, health, and infrastructure.

He argued that the failure of such economic policies on the domestic front would ultimately result in protectionist posturing when it comes to foreign trade.

… pinning all of US’s economic hopes on tax cuts for the rich, despite the evidence gathered from the previous occasions that US Republican Presidents and governors have tried this same party trick, will disappoint. And when that disappointment sets in, Trump will rely increasingly on the remaining levers of policy: dollar devaluation and protectionism.

His predictions took shape with the US’s subsequent imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports. While “unfair trade practices” on the part of China have been used to justify the US’s tariffs, the US–China trade war is belied by the nationalist rhetoric of “America First.” EPW Engage (2019) wrote:

The decision by the US—and more specifically the Donald Trump administration—to impose increasing tariffs on China is an attempt to stem China’s global influence. 

Atul Bhardwaj and Inderjeet Parmar (August 2020) wrote:

As Donald Trump faces the possibility of a catastrophic electoral defeat in November 2020, he has constructed an enemy that can be constantly vilified, and whose alleged intentions and actions to end American primacy may generate fear psychosis among American voters and also among as many of his international allies he can persuade or coerce.

According to an EPW editorial (10 March 2018), Trump’s “protectionist” moves must be viewed not in isolation but as part of “a concerted US attempt to undermine the multilateral trading system governed by WTO rules.”

Withdrawal from Global Commitments and Unilateralism 

During his tenure as President, Trump unilaterally withdrew from a number of global commitments—with long-term effects on the credibility and leadership of the US in the foreign policy arena.

Trump’s announcement withdrawing from the Paris climate accord serves as a critical example. Noting the “futility of any further accommodation of the US,” Navroz K Dubash (2017) observed:

President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will exit from the Paris Agreement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the agreement works. It also goes against long-agreed climate principles, and is blind to emergent clean energy trends. In practical terms, the US had activated a rollback of mitigation policies and contributions to climate finance prior to this announcement. Until there are changes in domestic US climate politics—of which there are positive signs—the US cannot be regarded a reliable partner for global climate cooperation.

It is not only the unreliability of the US that has been criticised but also the unilaterality. For instance, in the context of US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal), EPW Engage (2019) found:

Allies of the US—especially the European Union (EU)—have criticised American “bullying” of Iran in its quest for a more receptive Iranian government.
… the current campaign to destabilise the Iranian regime has less to do with the desire for a peaceful West Asia and more with the US pursuing its own agenda in the region. 

In 2020, the US gave notice for withdrawal from the WHO. S Faizi (2020) explained:

The US’ refusal to pay mandatory annual dues to WHO reflects the country’s disregard for the multilateral democratic organisations.

He added:

The US’ efforts to financially throttle UN agencies are not new. They have been consistently refusing to pay the dues to the UN secretariat on flimsy grounds. In 2018, the US paid $ 482 million less than its agreed assessed contribution to the UN. This has been the case with the US, despite its largest economy in the world and while low-income countries have been duly paying their statutory contributions. 

Furthermore, it is not only WHO that has come under the US’ attack but also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Again, Trump is not the only crack in the US hegemony edifice—the myth of “American exceptionalism” was already on shaky ground. Ranjan (2020) wrote

Its claim of being the flagbearer of demo­cracy and human rights (or its soft-­power) were never real, but even that got severely tarnished since the first decade of the 21st century with the George Bush Jr administration’s war on terror, the camps of Guantanamo, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, and the unfinished wars in Afgh­anistan and Iraq. The alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections broke its image of being technologically superior to all and being invincible. In such a situation, one tends to agree with these lines of a BBC columnist that “American exceptionalism has increasingly come to be viewed as a negative construct: something associated with mass shootings, mass incarceration, racial division and political chaos.” 

Yet, Ranjan conceded that, “the US, despite being a declining force, still holds big influence over the international system.”

Read more

American Democracy Struggles for Recuperation | EPW Editorial, 2021

Trump, ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and the Diaspora: Do Indian Americans Support a Hindutva Agenda | Anu Mandavilli and Raja Swamy, 2019

Trump’s Populism Is as Lethal as Liberalism | Atul Bhardwaj, 2018

Symptom Controlled, Disease Persists | EPW Editorial, 2020

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