I was 15 when Trump descended the gilded escalator and announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President, 16 when he defeated Hillary Clinton and a few weeks shy of 17 when he was inaugurated. When his term officially ended Jan. 20, I was on the cusp of turning 21.
Late adolescence is usually a time of profound tumult and transition. In my case – and the case of millions of similar-aged Americans – we underwent this time of upheaval in an all-consuming political vortex.
Like most of those within my social circle, I dismissed the Trump candidacy in 2015 as a bad joke. Even as Trump started to clear the Republican primaries, it seemed impossible to me that the same country that resoundingly elected, and re-elected, Barack Obama – a disciplined, cerebral and thoughtful former professor – would swing so far as to elect his antithesis immediately after.
My confidence in Trump’s fall increased further after the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, when elected Republicans began to distance themselves from their presidential nominee. If even Republican lawmakers were deciding that Trump was beyond the pale, surely at least some significant part of their rank and file would concur. Trump’s victory on Election Day 2016 came as a shock that never fully wore off throughout the ensuing Trump presidency.
The last four years of the Trump presidency has left an indelible mark on American politics. Journalists and commentators have battled over this presidency’s meaning since Trump was declared the victor in November 2016, and historians will surely take up the debate for decades to come. The meaning of almost every aspect of it is disputed. Without a doubt, it has been a unique presidency.
Before the Trump presidency, I can remember a few incidents of contemporary American politics becoming common discussion for a few days at a time. The end of the general election in 2012, the Bin Laden raid and the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges are all primary examples of this pattern. Politics would crash in to become a conversation subject on everyone’s mind for a few days and then invariably retreat. With Trump, that tide never seemed to recede.
Even trying to recollect all the news of the last four years is difficult. There always seemed to be another scandal or controversy that the media was scrambling to cover. To do so, they had to abandon yesterday’s scandal. Each of these abandoned scandals was significant enough that it would have consumed the media and the White Houses for weeks and months during any other presidency.
The Trump presidency has contributed to the detrimental colonization by politics of the rest of our society. Under previous presidents, politics had intruded into other spheres, but it was more selective. During the Trump presidency, politics simmered far closer to the surface in every conversation than before. Celebrities became more political, and lawmakers became celebrities. The United States’ self-sorting into political tribes has continued unabated. Even within families, some studies suggest there were more ruptures due to politics than previously.
The first lesson the Trump presidency would teach me – and one that would be repeated throughout the next four years – started to sink in the days and weeks following Election Day. Americans profoundly disagreed over what the core values of the United States should be. We are not just caught in a debate about balancing competing priorities or what policies would best reflect our values. Instead, Americans have radically different views about what those core values are. Even when we use the same language, Republican and Democrat stalwarts have radically different visions of concepts like equality.
After the Trump presidency, it is startling how much has changed yet remained the same. The Trump presidency was more the convergence and glorification of a number of trends in American politics than the development of anything new.
We are more bitterly divided than we were even during the Obama Presidency, which was hardly an idyllic era of bipartisanship, but partisanship has been escalating since the Reagan presidency.
The Republican Party radicalized, but those who witnessed Newt Gringrich’s Republican Revolution and the Tea Party would argue that it is nothing new. However, it is hard to find a parallel in American history for Trump’s cult of personality.
Tax cuts and hardline conservative judges are not new Republican priorities. However, Sen. McConnell’s (R-Ky.) willingness to toss aside long-held norms and contort himself and his caucus into knots to seat Trump’s nominees on the Supreme Court is unusual.
The United States has faced momentous challenges before and has botched them. Still, it would be rare to find a historical parallel to the Trump administration’s early response to COVID-19 when the federal government largely abdicated responsibility, and the states were bidding against each other on the open market for PPE.
Though this chaotic presidency was less than an ideal background in which to experience late adolescence, I worry more about those a few years younger whose formative presidential experience has been Trump, in the same way, mine was President Obama.
The Obama Administration was no idyll. However, Obama understood the multifaceted role of the presidency better than Trump. For one particularly vivid example, look at how President Obama comforted the nation after the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting or after the Charleston Church shooting and compare it to the dearth of public mourning under Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, while the end of the Trump presidency has lessened the pit of anxiety, it has not faded away completely. American politics remain too tumultuous, and America’s institutions have revealed themselves to be too vulnerable for that to be possible. And we still have to deal with the consequences of Trump’s presidency: a surge in right-wing domestic terrorism, a radicalized Republican Party and a governmental response to a devastating pandemic that has been haphazard, faltering and scattershot.
Yet, the Trump presidency has also spurred activism at levels unprecedented in recent American history. Millions of Americans have become more involved with the political process. In particular, the youth activists have been inspirational. From the survivors of the Parkland shooting in 2018 organizing and leading the March for Our Lives to the youth-led Sunrise Movement, to the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg crusading against apathy towards climate change, to protesting against racial injustice and police brutality, young people have been stepping up.
It was fitting then that it was Biden’s youthful Inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, who delivered a hopeful analysis on the impact of the Trump Presidency saying, “…even as we grieved we grew. That even as we hurt we hoped. That even as we tired we tried.”