If, say, Ted Cruz had been elected president in 2016, he too would have benefited from populist trends. Many commentators would have asked if Cruz’s nationalism spelled the end of the liberal international order—after all, he was the first candidate in the 2016 election cycle to use the term America First to describe his foreign policy. The Europeans would have almost certainly been distraught about his election. But a Cruz presidency would have been qualitatively different from that of Trump’s. He would surely not have played doctor during the pandemic, actively promoting unproven medicines or advising the public to inject themselves with disinfectant. He would not have tweeted orders at the Pentagon. He would have likely shown empathy when he met a Nobel Prize winner whose six brothers and mother were murdered by the Islamic State. He would not have proclaimed his love for Kim Jong Un.
The Cruz hypothetical is helpful in understanding what about this time historians might attribute to Trump, in particular. To the extent that they focus on certain aspects of his administration’s policy—voter suppression, tax cuts for the wealthy, his failure to stand up for democracy abroad, and the ramming through of a Supreme Court justice while voting is under way—Trump is a symptom, not a cause of change. He may even be less radical than others who might follow him, including Cruz.
However, Trump’s ineptitude and erratic behavior also shaped the trajectory of the country. He seemed incapable of reading a brief and of having foresight that extended beyond tomorrow. He had no desire to actually do the job of president and vindictive toward civil servants who were doing theirs, meaning that much of the government was hollowed out under his watch. He did not feel a responsibility to citizens of states that did not vote for him. And now we are seeing just how irrational he would act in a crisis, even when his actions hurt his own political interests. He refused to treat the coronavirus as a real risk, and now the country is in its third wave of infections and has suffered more than 19 percent of the world’s fatalities, even though it makes up only 4 percent of the global population.