It is a testament to the enduring power of the Trump brand that even today, in his final hour, some of his most fierce opponents still hoped for a final act of benevolent rebellion. The Left has spent much of his final week in office calling for pardons for Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner, earnestly imagining that Trump, at the last moment, would stick his thumb in the eye of the deep state. But as the clock on his presidency ran out, it became clear: there would be mercy for political allies, fundraisers, and various celebrities — but none for these opponents of the political establishment.
Donald Trump, a deeply reactionary capitalist billionaire, ran for president in 2016 on the audacious premise that he was actually a radical opponent of the political establishment. With his trademark combination of interpersonal belligerence, catty name-calling, and rhetorical bluster against a few prestigious targets of convenience — his political rivals in intelligence and law enforcement, for example — he maintained this public posture for a long four years.
And the strategy worked. Respectable liberals on both sides of the aisle popped their monocles and wrung their hands at the spectacle. Angry teenagers and maladjusted suburbanite boat dads gleefully retweeted and made a defiant show of wearing his trademark campaign merchandise, a red hat. And Very Serious right populist intellectuals praised Trump’s “trollitics” as “a wrecking ball to the institutionalized dandyism of politics, characterized by moral preening and worthless platitudes.”
But in the end, Trump cut Medicaid. Trump never touched the carried-interest loophole. Trump never followed through on his five-year ban on lobbyists leaving government. Trump failed to end a single war and brought us to the brink of one with the illegal assassination of Qasem Soleimani. He made a grand show of troop withdrawals but simply shuffled them to other countries. And he cut taxes for the rich so aggressively that for the first time in history the wealthiest four hundred Americans paid a lower average rate than the poor and middle class.
Trump is not, of course, the first president to get absorbed into the Washington establishment even as he railed against it. Barack Obama famously ran in 2008 on a platform of change, promising to end the wars, save us from climate change, clean out corruption in the beltway, and so on. But Obama only made it two years before his administration lashed out at the “professional left,” who noticed quite quickly that he was not delivering on his promises.
Particularly among socialists, it has long been conventional wisdom that Obama was not even a frustrated opponent of the status quo — he was an active collaborator, bringing us to war in Libya, developing his health care plan in coordination with Big Pharma, and so on.
Compare that with Trump’s right flank, which, as he leaves office, can only offer excuses. Trump wanted to deliver $2,000 checks, but Congress wouldn’t let him. Trump wanted to end the war in Afghanistan, but his generals wouldn’t let him. Trump wanted to rein in the deep state, but the deep state thwarted him at every turn.
This kind of rationalization might have worked with another president, but unfortunately for his supporters, the one politician it cannot work for is Donald Trump. It was precisely Trump’s will and ability to overcome such intransigence, through his Machiavellian business savvy as President Deals and the sheer force of his monomaniacal ego, that was supposed to be his saving virtue. The standard portrayal of Trump among his supporters was the Garrisonesque figure of Trump as an alpha male, a college jock, a World of Warcraft warrior, an Olympian god, effortlessly dominating his trolls and haters in Congress and online.
In the end, Trump was none of this. Set aside the Assange, Snowden, and Winner pardons that never were, and just consider his growing list of supporters who now face criminal charges in connection with the January 6 riots. In the twilight of Trump’s presidency, they, too, pleaded for pardons; but Trump, mindful of his own reputation among the Washington elite and fearing criminal charges himself, left them to their fates. He leaves DC a traitor to every American who ever dreamed that he would fight the establishment on their behalf; whether some of them ever realize this, of course, is another question.