The challenge of restoring US credibility in a post-Trump world

After the 2016 elections, Americans could plausibly tell the world that Trump's election was a bit of a fluke. After 2020, that's much tougher.
Image: President Donald Trump walks past French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his way to his spot for a family photo during the NATO summit at their new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.
President Donald Trump walks past French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his way to his spot for a family photo during the NATO summit at their new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

I've long argued that the lasting effects of Donald Trump's presidency can be summarized in three C's: the climate, the federal courts, and the collapse of the United States' international credibility.

The lost years on dealing with the climate crisis are tragic, and with Republicans confirming young, far-right ideologues to the federal bench at a brutal clip, we can expect a generation's worth of conservative court rulings on every important issue imaginable.

But let's not brush too quickly past the fact that the world now sees the United States as a country capable of electing someone of Trump's character and caliber to the nation's highest office. The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl had a good column along these lines over the weekend:

As U.S. allies contemplated the prospect that Joe Biden would succeed Donald Trump as president after a less-than-landslide election, it was possible to detect hints of the same sourness that afflicted many Americans last week. Sure, it's a relief to be rid of Trump, some were saying: But if nearly half of the country was ready to give four more years to him and America First-ism, no one could, or should, count on the United States to resume its traditional global leadership.

"[A] terrible question looms," Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tweeted last week. "How could tens of millions of [Americans] reward this lying demagogue [Trump] after everything he's done? People knew exactly what they were voting for. How deep are America's democratic convictions, really?"

After the 2016 elections, Americans could plausibly make the argument to the world that Trump's election was a bit of a fluke. His rise to Republican prominence was the result of radical shifts in GOP politics, but Trump's election, the argument goes, was an accident of history.

There was a unique set of circumstances -- the late-October Comey letter, Russian interference, Hillary Clinton's pneumonia, etc. -- which happened to unfold at roughly the same time, which led to an unfortunate fiasco that the United States was eager to undo.

The thesis was bolstered by Democratic electoral gains in 2017, 2018, and 2019, each of which made it easier for Americans to tell the world, "See? We're correcting the mistake. The accident of history is being gradually undone."

Indeed, the popular vote from the 2016 cycle was a key ingredient. Trump did, after all, win roughly 46% of the vote -- a smaller percentage of the electorate than several recent losing candidates, including Mitt Romney in 2012 and John Kerry in 2004.

But that's what made this year's presidential election problematic: 2020 helped disprove the idea that 2016 was a fluke. While support from roughly 46% of American voters was enough to put Trump in office, the Republican appears likely to finish with roughly 47% of the vote this year.

Or put another way, the United States saw nearly four years of Trump's corruption, failures, lies, and desperation to divide the nation, and when subjected to an electoral test, the Republican's support went up, not down.

To be sure, most American voters rejected him. In fact, Joe Biden will almost certainly end up with the strongest support of any presidential challenger since FDR's election in 1932. The president-elect's victory, by any fair measure, is impressive and heartening for those who hope to see our democracy persevere.

But 47% of the American electorate saw what Trump did and said they wanted more. Writing for USA Today last week, Michael J. Stern added, "[W]e've been slapped with the heartbreaking reality that nearly half our country voted to reelect President Donald Trump after spending four years watching him spew unbridled bigotry, engage in blatant corruption, and tell so many lies you'd need a magnifying glass to read The Washington Post's running list of false and misleading claims."

As the United States tries to reclaim its global leadership role, asking the world to trust us anew, it's a difficult detail to explain away.