Evaluating presidential performance can be difficult. Some presidents' qualities only become clear long after they leave office, as previously unknown information comes to light and the revelations of history render their decisions more or less justified than they seemed at the time. Ideological predispositions inevitably color our views of political figures, who sometimes rise or fall in retrospective estimation as subsequent intellectual trends shift the grounds on which they are judged—like the renewed emphasis in recent years on the importance of civil rights that has bolstered the reputation of U. S. Grant among presidential scholars while damaging that of Woodrow Wilson. And there is no consensus, even among experts, on what the responsibilities of the president are and what standards are appropriate to determine success in office.
Regardless of these challenges, the general verdict on Trump among historians and political scientists, reporters and commentators, and most of the Washington political community (including, at least privately, many Republicans) is guaranteed to range from disappointment and mockery to outright declarations that he was the worst president in American history. And there is little reason to expect that the information yet to emerge about the internal operations of the Trump administration will improve his reputation in the future. Instead, it's far more likely that there are stories still to be told about the events of the last four years that history will find just as damning as today's public knowledge.
Trump's defenders will respond that the scholars and journalists who claim the authority to write this history are fatally corrupted by hostile bias. It's certainly true that these are collectively left-leaning professions, and that the Trump presidency treated both of these groups as political opponents from its earliest days. So what if we tried for a moment to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to evaluate his presidency as much as possible on its own terms? Did Trump succeed in achieving what he wanted to do, even if it wasn't what others wanted him to do?
One approach to answering this question involves returning to the 2016 campaign and comparing the positions of Trump the candidate to the record of Trump the president. Trump did deliver on some of his promises once in office: he cut taxes and regulations, he strengthened barriers to immigration and travel from overseas, and he appointed a large number of conservatives to the federal judiciary. But his signature proposals were never enacted, including the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, the significant renegotiation of international trade agreements, a major federal infrastructure investment, and a wall spanning the nation's southern border funded by the Mexican government.
There was also a more general set of failures that didn't concern specific policies as much as a basic approach to the job. While a candidate in 2016, Trump presented himself as an energetic deal-maker who would fight harder than his predecessors in both parties for the interests of the American people. But he turned out to be much less invested in his official responsibilities than in spending his daily "executive time" watching cable television and his weekends playing golf; he was sufficiently self-conscious about this lack of work ethic to inelegantly deny it in public ("President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings") but not to actually alter his behavior.
Trump's pre-election suggestions that he would attract an all-star team of executive personnel to join the government similarly stood in sharp contrast to the actual staff of his administration, which was by some distance the least qualified and talented group of subordinates assembled by any modern president of either party. (And many key positions were filled by acting appointees or were simply left vacant for months and even years.)
With Trump's evident lack of interest in substantive details, his instinct for combativeness (a universally-acknowledged personal quality which many of his supporters admired), and his apparent difficulties in grasping the motivations of others, the promised knack for deal-making never materialized either. Both major legislative achievements of his presidency—the 2017 tax cut bill and the two rounds of COVID relief in 2020—were, by all accounts, developed and enacted with minimal direct involvement by the president. When Trump did insert himself in legislative negotiations in late 2018 and early 2019 by demanding that Congress approve funding for his border wall, the result was a prolonged government shutdown and subsequent retreat after Senate Republicans abandoned their support for his position.
Of course, politicians occasionally have been known to make promises on the campaign trail that they do not expect to keep if elected. Maybe it's inaccurate to treat public commitments in the midst of a tough electoral race as evidence of a president's true goals. So, based on the actions of the Trump administration once it began, what can we conclude about what it wanted to do and whether it succeeded in doing it?
The primary animating force of the Trump presidency, the juice that fueled the president and his subordinates every day, was the waging of a permanent political war against an array of perceived enemies. The Democratic Party was one such enemy—this was by far the most thoroughly partisan presidency in memory—but hardly the only one. The news media, career bureaucrats, intellectuals and educators, the entertainment industry, and any insufficiently supportive Republican were all dependable targets.
This war was unrelenting, but achieved few victories outside the bounds of the Republican Party (where Trump's influence and threats were most effective at punishing dissenters). Trump's critics spent the past four years feeling sad, angry, offended, and even fearful about the potential destruction of American democracy. But it's hard to make the case that their political or cultural power was weaker at the end of his presidency than it was at the beginning.
Trump succeeded in preventing Hillary Clinton from leading the country, but he wound up empowering Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer instead. He railed against liberal elites who predominate within social institutions like universities, media organizations, and technology companies, but his time in office only saw a continued progression of leftward cultural change in American society and a parallel departure of highly-educated voters from the Republican Party. The conservative intellectual project has not suffered as much damage in many decades as it did over the past four years; conservative thinkers and writers were internally divided into pro- and anti-Trump factions, were exposed as holding a limited ability to speak for the conservative mass public, and were deprived by Trump's behavior of a precious claim to moral superiority over the left. And the fact that the Trump administration is leaving office complaining of being "silenced" and "canceled" by a multi-platform social media ban imposed on its leader is evidence enough of its lack of success in gaining influence over the tech sector.
A final, inadvertantly-acknowledged testimony to the failure of the Trump administration was its prevailing communication style. Both the outgoing president and his succession of spokespeople stood out for two distinctive traits: a lack of commitment to factual accuracy and a perpetually grouchy demeanor. The typical public statement from this White House was a misleading claim delivered with a sarcastic sneer. Of course, no member of the administration would admit on the record that the Trump presidency was anything less than a parade of unparalleled triumphs. But it doesn't make sense to lie so much unless the truth isn't on your side, and there's no good reason to act so aggrieved all the time if you're really succeeding as much as you claim.