How Will History Judge Trump?

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he talks to journalists who are members of the White house travel pool on board Air Force One during his flight to Palm Beach, Florida while over South Carolina

This is not the first time a newly elected president has caused anxiety at the start of his mandate.

November-December 2017

Where does the Trump moment fit in all that? Looking back on one of his most difficult decisions as president, Eisenhower reflected on the words of Vannevar Bush: “Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; and it can be managed by reason and evaluation.” As different as Obama was from Eisenhower fifty years earlier, these are words he lived by when, late in his presidency, he cited his decision to not intervene in Syria as his own “liberating” moment. Can Trump, too, have a liberating moment—from himself, no less than from others? And where and how: for doing more in Afghanistan and Ukraine, maybe, or for greater aggressiveness in North Korea and Iran, or confronting Russia and China, or wherever his impulses take him in these and other instances? The cannons of tweeted rhetoric he fires ad nauseam are deafening, embarrassing and worse—but these are often blanks that fail to explode, and the simple truth is that no one yet knows for sure how far his moment will extend and with what consequences, however much fears may spread on both accounts.

Hold some of your fire, then: “things past” are not past yet, and “things future” have not been told yet. History is reluctant to share its plans. At its best, it remembers the present, though retroactively. At its worst, it imagines the past, though creatively. Throwing the dice and pretending to know the way ahead is risky.

MEANTIME, THERE is “the present of things present,” which oddly begins in the past tense. On the eve of Obama’s election, Zbigniew Brzezinski asked: How has America led since the Cold War? “In a word, badly,” he responded, expounding on his answer at book length. Obama’s eight-year presidency did not change this verdict, notwithstanding the enthusiasm, both at home and especially abroad, that greeted his election. If anything, the “Zbig question” has gained in intensity. Trump has been wasting America’s reputation, which Obama had restored somewhat from the new lows of his predecessor. Indeed, he may be the first U.S. president ever who does not know, or measure, what he says, and does not fully understand what he does. A mere one hundred days into the Trump moment, a Pew survey of thirty-seven countries revealed an image of the president as “arrogant” (75 percent), “intolerant” (65 percent), “unqualified” (74 percent) and “dangerous” (62 percent), resulting in an overall 42 percent decrease in confidence in the U.S. president.

That alone, however, does not mean that what the president does or aims at is wrong, or that what he or his advisers say is meaningless. Over eight years, Obama reminded us that a seductive and competent president does not necessarily produce a successful presidency. Now, his opposite proposes to engage Russia, challenge China, contain Iran, defeat the Islamic State, defang North Korea, reset bad wars that went worse, deny the reported “unfixability” of the Middle East, ask allies for more defense spending, outsource conflicts to no-name viceroys, negotiate better trade deals, balance the reality of climate change with the realities of economic growth, and more; indeed, to put America first—to stand up, speak out and move on distinctively from the past president who was said to have stood down, gone low and moved backward.

In short, keep America up, the allies in their place and the enemies out of place, so that the world can be made safe “like never before.” Well, why not? On every issue, there is room for a serious policy debate; restraint, too, responds to laws of diminishing returns. This is nobody’s exclusive agenda, and each question has been, is, or will be everybody’s problem and responsibility.

Beyond the president’s political and moral failures, the Trump moment will take a bit longer to be adjudicated over the same security agenda that awaited Hillary Clinton or might be inherited by Vice President Mike Pence. There are global issues of great-power relations, including Russia and China (don’t provoke, but don’t indulge); there are postsecular struggles to wage on terrorism (deter, preempt, destroy and coopt); there are ongoing wars to end, even if or because they cannot be won (in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria); there are regional conflicts with nuclear overtones (in North Korea and with Iran); there are the perennials of history (like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or in Ukraine and some other parts of eastern Europe and Northeast Asia); there are a third nuclear age to master, flows of refugees to redirect, tons of global debt to carry, an environment to protect, a cybernetic space to regulate, trade deals to update—first things first, but so many pressing matters that everything appears to need to come first.

For the most part, these are all issues that cannot afford a time out for the rest of the decade. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his most recent book, “It must not be assumed that, left unattended, these trends will at some point reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation—or even any order at all.” This is a moment, possibly an era, of permanent crisis, moral uncertainty, geopolitical mutation and global disorder—a time when History is about to test Isaiah Berlin’s dying conviction that “the twenty-first century . . . can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been.”