There are defining events that mark the spirit of a particular time in history. The experience of learning about those events gets stuck in our memory, making it possible to recollect them vividly regardless of time. Psychologists call them flashbulb memories.
I was on assignment in the Philippines on election night on November 9, 2016. Local media, just like international media, widely expected Hillary to clinch the presidency by a landslide margin. As soon as it became clear things would take a different turn, shock settled in. Both Philippines Daily Inquirer and The Philippins Star, the country’s two biggest newspapers, would title: “OMG, It’s Trump!”.
Donald Trump lived up to expectations. He disregarded tact and sense to push his agenda both at home and abroad. Today, the US and the whole world are in a very different place than they were four years ago.
He did not do it all by himself by the way. The wave of populism that mounted in those months would send shockwaves through the whole world. Characters like, among others, Rodrigo Duterte in the same Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Boris Johnson in the UK all rose to power promising to disrupt the status quo in their own way.
One way or another, they made it. With the tacit consent of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, multilateralism is in shatter, social divisions are deeper than ever, and the very foundations of liberal societies – rule of law and free market institutions – are being questioned.
It is hard to discuss such a polarising figure like Mr Trump without taking sides. A way to do it is by looking at his presidency through the prism of data.
Some data about his presidency is unambiguous.
During his presidency, the US economy kept running and Wall Street boomed as he pushed through a historic tax reform that shored up the competitiveness of the US economy.
These are not secondary achievements. “I don’t like him, but look at how much money he put in my pockets,” a US lawyer told me a few months ago. A woman from New York living in London, she would have many good reasons to vote against him. Yet tax savings plus stock market capital gains are enough in her mind to move the needle in the other direction.
He lost the battle against trade deficit – the monthly figures in August was the widest in 14 years – but he managed to align investment flows to his America First (China Last) platform, with US companies closing down factories in Asia as they nearshore to Mexico or reshore altogether to the US.
Some data is even refreshing. Investment into renewable energy in the US spiked up during his presidency despite his disregard for climate change, suggesting that the paradigm shift in the energy sector transcends politics.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare all his shortcomings. In the international arena, Mr Trump has dissolved most of the political capital he had inherited from his predecessors, with people in countries across the world trusting Mr Putin or Mr Xi more than they trust Mr Trump, according to a survey by non-partisan think-tank Pew Research Center. The November 3 elections will tell whether US voters have also lost trust in him. Either way, brace for another flashbulb moment.
This article first appeared in the October - November print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.