0602 GMT May 26, 2022
Trump was indeed as bad as I predicted, but, fortunately, the worst-case-scenarios never happened. Domestically, Trump was a disaster. He used his position to fatten his own coffers. He behaved in ways that no other president would dare. He lied constantly. He spread misinformation. His behavior during the pandemic was disgraceful, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. His policies widened the gap between rich and poor. He appointed three reactionaries to the Supreme Court, who are already undermining rights that Americans have fought for and won over decades of struggle. He catered and appealed to the worst and most bigoted and hateful elements in American life. And then he tried to stage a coup to overthrow the results of the 2020 elections and has been lying that he won ever since.
Let’s also look at his foreign policy, which weakened and isolated the United States and sent all the wrong messages to the world. Trump surrounded himself with generals and militarists, many of whom were warmongers. But they didn't start any new wars, which is rare for American presidents. They certainly came close though. First up was North Korea. Trump responded to troubling North Korean bomb and missile tests with threats and provocations of his own, that simply deepened the conflict and escalated the situation. As North Korea perfected and tested its ICBMs that could hit the US mainland and tested what appears to have been a hydrogen bomb 17 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Trump issued sanctions, threats, and insults. Kim Jong-un responded in kind. The two militaries girded for battle. The prospects were terrifying. Some predicted a million could perish in the first day of a war. Nuclear war seemed imminent in late 2017. Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, believed that there was s 50-50 chance of war. Trump and Kim exchanged further insults as their name-calling intensified.
Fortunately Moon Jae-in took his own initiative to defuse tensions and then Trump and Kim had a series of meetings. Although no progress was made toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, they were at least talking and sharing photo ops. Negotiators, however, were frustrated by the lack of progress. But Kim understood how to flatter the shallow, narcissistic Trump who talked about the beautiful love letters that Kim sent him. So, nothing was ultimately resolved and North Korea has resumed its shorter-range missile tests, including hypersonic missiles, but at least the war was averted and the world breathed a sigh of relief.
Trump threw down the gauntlet on North Korea's main ally – China. He declared and waged a destructive trade war and bitterly condemned China for its inflexibility in the South China Sea, crackdown in Hong Kong, and repression against the Uyghurs. He took Obama's Asia pivot containment policy toward China one big step further. In 2018, the Pentagon announced that the main threat to US national security was no longer international terrorism but Russia and China. Administration officials made clear that China was the principal threat and Russia the secondary one.
Trump spoke warmly of Vladimir Putin, but he acted aggressively toward Russia, increasing sanctions, sending lethal aid to Ukraine, and bombing Syria. My Russian colleagues soon agreed with my warnings that Trump would ultimately turn out not to be a friend toward Russia. Unfortunately, they had to learn the hard way. Trump withdrew the US from the Open Skies and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties. He failed to extend the New START Treaty, which was about to expire in February 2021, leaving the US and Russia without any agreement to limit deployment of nuclear arms.
Trump coddled dictators and fascist forces around the globe. He spurned America’s traditional allies. He ignored human rights abuses. He gave legitimacy to some of the most anti-democratic forces in the world with his racist, hyper-nationalist, America First policies.
Trump was a disaster when it came to climate change. He pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accords and did everything he could to increase dependence on fossil fuels.
He elevated the use of nuclear weapons and asked what was the use of having nuclear weapons if we couldn’t use them. To most people that would mean we should get rid of them. To Trump that meant making them more useable, which he did.
The one area that all of Trump’s advisors agreed upon was their aggression toward Iran. Even the ones who were considered “adults,” like General Mattis, were hawks when it came to Iran. Mattis had actually been eased out by Obama because of his hawkish views toward Iran, but he was the voice of moderation in the Trump administration given the role of Bolton and the other extremists. Trump constantly sought an excuse to start a war with Iran. As he became more and more desperate in the final days of his administration, many of us feared that he would initiate hostilities. He withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 in a move that was widely condemned by the other signatories.
All in all, I was clearly correct in my previous evaluation of him. Trump was not only an embarrassment to himself, to his family, to his party, and to his country. Trump was an embarrassment to the human species. We’re just lucky that he didn’t cause more damage than he did.
*Peter Kuznick is professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University.