US-NEWS-TRUMP-LEGACY1-LA

Then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accepts the party's nomination on the last day of the Republican National Convention on Thursday, July 21, 2016, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Four years ago, when Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination in a Cleveland basketball arena, he painted a dark portrait of a nation in crisis. "I alone can fix it," he vowed.

In April this year, as a deadly contagion scythed the land and millions lost their jobs, Trump deflected all blame for his administration's failure to control the coronavirus. "I don't take responsibility at all," he said.

As Trump prepares to accept his party's nomination again on Thursday, this time from the white-columned splendor of the White House, his legacy after one term is the vast political chasm between his grandiose promises and slipshod delivery.

He has kept some of his 2016 campaign pledges, cracking down on immigration and nullifying dozens of Obama-era regulations and diplomatic achievements. But Trump's successes are deep in the penumbra of a devastating pandemic, economic calamity and painful racial reckoning, all on his watch.

Even the promises he fulfilled came with caveats.

Rather than building a wall along the 1,954-mile-long border with Mexico, as he vowed, he has built or refurbished roughly 200 miles _ and Mexico didn't pay a penny. He enacted the largest overhaul of the tax code in three decades and a criminal justice reform bill, just as he said, but failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act or offer a plan to repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

He put two conservatives on the Supreme Court, but judges have blocked several of his executive orders on immigration and the environment. He pulled the United States from arms control, climate and other international accords, opening up a deep rift with U.S. allies. He revamped a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, but failed to achieve the sweeping deal with China he claimed would be easy.

For historians, Trump's policy wins and losses may figure less in his legacy than his caustic personal impact on the institution of the presidency. He purged government agencies of critics, gutted federal oversight and expertise, and pushed the limits of executive power to protect himself and his inner circle.

Trump will go down in history as only the third president to be impeached in office _ and the first to then run for reelection. Just months after he was acquitted in the Senate, the constitutional crisis of last fall already seems like just another fading plot line from a presidency constantly embroiled in controversy, melodrama and scandal.

The November election is a referendum, in large part, on Trump's performance in office. The outcome will help determine his place in the history books.

"If he gets reelected, he's changed the presidency forever," said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University. "Right now, he's a cult figure. You can say he's ranked at the bottom of American presidents alongside James Buchanan, but there is no cult around James Buchanan. Trump will be around in history for a long time because his supporters will think he's as great as Lincoln."

His greatest challenge in office was managing the coronavirus outbreak, the kind of unforeseen cataclysm that only a handful of presidents ever face. But by almost any measure, he failed to harness the nation's resources and grit to prevent needless deaths and confusion. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of his response.

For weeks, Trump downplayed the threat or insisted it was under complete control. When the emergency worsened, he claimed he had nearly total authority to act, and then abruptly insisted that governors must take charge. As hospitals sought critical supplies, and the death toll soared to the worst by far in the world, he touted unproven drugs and dangerous therapies.

"The American people yearn for national leadership in crises, for a president who recognizes such moments as a time for unity," said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, who compared the challenge of fighting the pandemic to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II, and the 9/11 attacks that launched a global war on terrorists.

"Instead of promoting national resolve, Trump began to confuse people about the nature of the challenge and for that he will always be remembered because it inevitably led to unnecessary deaths," Naftali said. "He created a false sense of security in a crisis, and Americans don't forgive lies from their government."

Trump also frayed the social fabric like no other modern president. Tweeting at all hours, he has unleashed more than 20,000 false or misleading claims since taking office, flouting ethical norms and fanning the flames of sexism, nativism and racism.

His supporters praised his authenticity. His detractors denounced a demagogue.

"The underbelly of American politics has always been how to mobilize white grievance and resentment," said Eddie S. Glaude, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. "We cannot read Trump as an exception. He is an extension of what has always been."

Six months ago, Trump planned to seek reelection on a record of economic growth, no foreign wars and domestic accomplishments mostly aligned with Republican orthodoxy: tax cuts and deregulation, criminal justice reform and appointing more than 200 conservative judges to the federal bench.

"In the areas where he followed a traditional conservative or Republican policy, he was wildly successful," said Michael Steel, former top aide to GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner.

Tommy Binion, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, called Trump's appointment of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court as "the biggest thing he did."

 

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