A U of T historian and sociologist look back at Trump's year of chaos

donald trump
U.S. President Donald Trump stands near the Rose Garden at the White House today before being introduced to speak to pro-life leaders, who are in Washington D.C. for a march to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade (photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s been a tumultuous year since U.S. President Donald Trump came into office. Between the daily Twitter drama, the nuclear face-off with North Korea, the probe into Russian involvement in the presidential election and the racist overtones spewing from the White House, it’s been exhausting to keep up. 

U of T News spoke with historian Robert Bothwell and sociologist Ellen Berrey to unpack the year.

Bothwell, a professor of international relations and Canadian history at the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs, and Berrey, an assistant professor of sociology at U of T Mississauga, examined the extent of the damage left in the wake of Trump's first year in office.

How would you summarize his year in office?

Ellen Berrey: Trump’s first year in office was America’s first year of rule by a reality TV billionaire with authoritarian tendencies. Trump created a lot of drama, and the news media sold us that drama. He governed by chaos, which mostly hampered his political agenda. He had few major victories on the legislative front, despite working with a Republican-controlled Congress. The big exception was a tax law designed for corporations and the wealthy, which the Republicans railroaded through Congress to finally get a win. However, Trump was quite successful at packing the judiciary and the executive branch with industry insiders and conservative ideologues, many of them unqualified for their jobs. In addition to his appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, he selected a record number of federal judges, who have lifetime appointments. The effects of their legal decisions will play out for decades.

Really, Trump’s biggest accomplishment was debasing public discourse, promoting racism, and deepening political divides among Americans, with the complicity of the troubled Republican party. Another way to think about that, though, is that he stepped so far over the line of what’s acceptable that he created a lot of clarity for many Americans. We don’t know a 2017 without president Trump, but I’d venture to say that his bragging about grabbing women in the crotch helped to spark the #MeToo movement. 

Robert Bothwell: Trump has been surprisingly consistent over the past year. Much of what he said he’d do, he has done. His basic attitudes, beliefs and behaviour appear to be unaltered. A striking example is his ludicrous promise to build “the Great Wall of Trump” along the border with Mexico. Many people – including some in his entourage – expected he would drop it, but whenever it is questioned he doubles down on it.

He has also been able to expand his control over the Republican party, thereby solidifying his political position. Because of his consistency, he has been able to degrade and/or dismantle key U.S. institutions like the EPA, the State Department and Obamacare, and he has successfully lowered America’s standing in the world. 

As U.S. Senator Richard Durbin looks on, Senator Patrick Leahy questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 16. Leahy and Durbin both questioned Nielsen about derogatory language reportedly used by U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting on immigration (photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Can you talk about key themes that emerged this year like the growing racial divide, the conflict with North Korea and Iran, U.S. isolation from the rest of the world and damage to the institution of democracy?

Robert Bothwell: The racial divide seems to be key to his political performance and in a very narrow sense to his success.  The Charlottesville riot, and his statement that there were fine people among the white supremacists, is most significant, but it is only one incident among many. There is no doubt that he appeals to resentment among whites. 

A nuclear showdown with North Korea and Iran? So far these have been avoided. There is no sign that he is actually planning a U.S. attack on either, and my guess is that he would be surprised if war actually occurred. His astonishing indifference to the nuclear scare in Hawaii suggests to me that he is simply unable to focus on this rather serious problem. 

The collapse of support elsewhere in the world is quite remarkable. This week, Gallup produced a world opinion survey on the reputation of the U.S. as a world leader. I have to say that generally it is no surprise, but there are some points worth noting: Germany is now the most trusted world power, followed by China, with the U.S. third and Russia last. That is pretty well the ranking in Canada, too. But let's pause a moment on Canada. Canada leads the whole survey (134 countries) in terms of diminution of trust in the U.S. We are down an astonishing 40 per cent, from 60 per cent at the end of Obama’s administration to 20 per cent when the poll was conducted in December, and Mexico is lower at 16 per cent. It’s true that American reportage slops over the border, and Canadians are the most likely people to be influenced by U.S. media and the constant barrage of admittedly interesting news from south of the border. But the change in Canadian opinion is much more marked than in the United States, though there are signs that some more moderate Americans are recalibrating their political preferences. So Trump has done a really good job of alienating his NAFTA partners. Bear in mind that this has political and security implications in the long term. In the short term, if only 20 per cent of Canadians approve of the U.S. and Trump, it is going to be very hard, or suicidal, for the Canadian government to make the kind of bad deal that Trump wants and presumably needs to show to his supporters. Michael Wolff, in his sensational book, has Trudeau biting his tongue when dealing with Trump, a sensible precaution, but if Trump jettisons NAFTA with the usual verbal fireworks, Canada will not be unscathed, and Trudeau will finally be obliged to plot a new course – carefully, but definitely.

Ellen Berrey: White supremacy is not new. It is foundational to American society. What’s new, in recent U.S. history, is that the person who holds the highest political office openly champions the idea that white people and majority white, majority Christian countries are superior. This has emboldened people who think it’s OK to march in the streets, chant racist slogans or violently attack innocent racial minorities. More subtly, Trump legitimates their cause, making it seem like a reasonable point of view. He and many of his Republican allies use white supremacist ideas to justify regressive public policies, like harsh immigration controls and overly aggressive policing. This has created terror, heartache, and travesty for many people of colour. 

Trump’s first year was also a year of massive political mobilization by liberals and progressives. “The Resistance” certainly threw sand in the gears of Trump’s legislative agenda. By showing up in mass numbers at town halls, they stopped Congress from outright appealing the Affordable Care Act. It’s an open question whether this movement will translate people power into election victories, but early signs point in their favour.   

Trump has shown disregard for the rule of law and for all three branches of government. Democracy depends on people following democratic norms. Trump degrades democratic norms. He mostly does this with ridicule. He has not actually tried to put Hillary Clinton into prison or shut down CNN for producing unflattering news, but he repeatedly endorses these sorts of actions. That is very dangerous. We must ask ourselves: Would he do those things, if he easily could? And if he did, how would we respond? Trump also uses his government office to attract business to his companies and sell his brand, which enriches him and his family. He’s certainly not the first to convert his political power into financial gain, but he is at the extreme. His allegiance to the Trump Organization directly interferes with his duties as the U.S. president.

Steve Bannon, former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, arrives at a House Intelligence Committee closed door meeting, last week. The committee is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Bannon has reportedly struck a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller's team to be interviewed by prosecutors rather than testify before the grand jury (photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Do you think the Mueller investigation will lead to charges against Trump? 

Ellen Berrey: I imagine that the more Trump feels threatened by that investigation, the more he will try to shut it down with authoritarian-style tactics.

If the Mueller investigation uncovers “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and Democrats win control of Congress (a long shot), the story of the year could be Trump’s impeachment.

Robert Bothwell: Who can say where Mueller will get to? It looks like money-laundering, and suspect but possibly not illegal political contacts with the Russians. The lack of ethics is obvious, but that’s not illegal. Trump is plainly obsessed with the investigation, and most likely is terrified of what it may be turning up – as in “follow the money.” Members of his innermost circle have been charged or are in their way to being charged. His enablers in Congress have done their utmost to derail or discredit the investigators, but all that means is that Mueller is even more the main item. If Trump thinks he’s cornered, what will he do? Suppose he terminates Mueller and shuts down the probe. Will the U.S. political system respond? Or will his many enablers in Congress just go back to work and pass more tax relief for their billionaire supporters? And what then? I’m pretty sure there would be trouble, but it’s hard to say whether the trouble would lead to disorder. 

What do they need to impeach him? They need a Democratic majority in the House with a 2/3 majority in the Senate. Otherwise, it won’t happen. The Republicans will not vote to impeach even if Trump does something that is even worse than his existing record. 

It is not clear if the president can be indicted – that is, charged and possibly arrested, but not impeached. Does the law outside impeachment apply to the president? There is no clear conclusion on this point. Personally, I think he can be, but it would be a first. Impeachment is very cumbersome, and as noted above, it is highly political and given the record of the Republicans lately, it would be resolved on party lines. The Republican majority in the House will not vote a bill of impeachment on any Republican president, even Trump. 

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump during the G7 Summit last May in Italy (photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

What could the next year look like with Trump? 

Robert Bothwell: Oh dear, I see a series of contingencies. If we are all lucky, there won’t be a major international crisis, which would test Trump’s non-existent knowledge on foreign affairs. Allies would have no confidence in his judgment, and would be uncertain whether he would leave them in a lurch. So he would not be a natural coalition leader, and we must pray that his talents in that sphere would not be tested.

Assuming there is no absolute crisis, I would expect relations with most other countries to continue sliding downhill. Allied leaders know that Trump has nothing to say and nothing to contribute. 

Merkel learned that first when she was the first foreign leader to see the president in early 2017. Trump’s appearance at last year’s G7 was apparently remarkable for its gaseous irrelevance. This might affect the way the G7 is run. We have a particular interest in this because Canada is hosting the G7 this year at La Malbaie. There is, of course, the chance that Trump would decide not to come, but I understand that the fragments of the State Department are proceeding as normal to prepare for the event. Perhaps the G7 will occur, and superficially it might work as usual. I would not lay odds on it continuing if Trump remains president. It is based on the ability, the hope, to exchange views, and since Trump has nothing to offer except bluster and bullying, it will probably crumble, this year or next. That is, if Trump is still in office.

Ellen Berrey: There are two big stories to watch. One story is the mid-term congressional elections in late 2018. Many seats in Congress will be open. History favours the Democrats (as the party that last lost the White House), but those elections still will be a referendum on Trump, and the media will certainly treat them that way. 

Any way it goes, 2018 will be another exhausting year for those of us worried about democracy and nuclear war, and it will bring even more hardship for poor, minority, and undocumented Americans. It seems unlikely that Trump would just walk away from the job – fly down to sunny Mar-a-Lago and not come back, but I like to entertain that fantasy.


The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief