America looks over its shoulder to see if Trump is lurking

As we reflect on the former president's legacy, we know he is not finished yet

U.S. President Donald Trump boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Trump departs Washington with Americans more politically divided and more likely to be out of work than when he arrived, while awaiting trial for his second impeachment - an ignominious end to one of the most turbulent presidencies in American history. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
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I recently watched a video clip of Marine One, the aircraft that carries the US president, lifting off with Donald Trump in it for one last time. The visual of the helicopter making its way out of Washington hours before Joe Biden was to be inaugurated was set against the 1969 hit song Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.

This video clip has since been widely circulated, showing up in more memes than I can count. And the chart-topping number in the background has become the theme song to mark the end of the Trump era.

It is ironic, because the song's chorus is usually sung at American football games by fans of the winning team to humiliate their vanquished opponents. Mr Trump, as we all know, despises losers. In his eyes, losers include the veterans who were captured by the enemy in Vietnam, or the marines who died in a battle in Aisne-Marne, France during the First World War.

His own choice of song – which was played when he later took off from the Andrews Air Force base for his Florida home – was Frank Sinatra's macho anthem My Way.

These days, I wake up to the fact that Mr Trump is really gone and yet I can’t believe it. Might he still be hovering somewhere? It reminds me of the days after Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad in 2003, when my fixer told me that he could still feel the presence of the former Iraqi dictator, lurking inside an airplane over the city and listening in on everyone. “He’s still there,” the frightened man said.

That’s what happens when you get traumatised by those in power. Mr Trump is no Saddam, of course, but he did untold damage to the US.

I imagine this is how we will all feel when the coronavirus pandemic is finally behind us. "Is it really gone?," we will ask ourselves for a while. "Will the virus return?" The Trump effect is like the virus.

The man was more than just a president – he was a symbol.

Even Mr Trump is not sure if he is gone. He has vowed to be back “in some form”. Perhaps he said it to console the almost 75 million Americans who voted for him in November. But it has left those of us living in “the United States of Anxiety” – as a popular radio show calls it – even more anxious.

It has also made me think about Mr Trump's legacy.

Barack Obama provided hope at the outset. Mr Biden will hopefully heal a wounded nation. Mr Trump will broadly be remembered for spreading division. His presidency was littered with hateful rhetoric on Twitter, hateful politics in Congress, the rise of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, and divisions in the polity, including within his Republican Party.

Mr Trump was the architect of his own fall from grace. Before he began his unsubstantiated battle against "electoral fraud", he had retained mass popularity and sympathy. But now, he finds himself with fewer backers in the electorate and could even be barred from running for office ever again – although it seems unlikely that the Senate will vote to impeach him.

In any case, let's not kid ourselves. There are still plenty of Americans who still love Mr Trump, and who still support him and believe in what he says to be the truth. They have well-thumbed copies of his book The Art of the Deal and enjoyed watching his hit television show The Apprentice.

His supporters also believe that he kept most of his promises as president. He may have buddied up to dictators but he also stood up to China and North Korea. He might be loathed in progressive intellectual circles on the east and west coasts but his base, enamoured of his "Make America Great Again" campaign pledge, is certain that he was right to raise questions about the voter fraud in the November election.

Just like Mr Trump boasted, his legacy is likely to endure.

President Biden, meanwhile, has wasted little time undoing his predecessor's legacy by signing a slew of executive orders. He has already reversed many of the more damaging policies of the Trump administration – on travel, immigration and climate change – and vows to sign more such orders during his first 100 days in office.

And yet, can he undo the national trauma? Americans watched as Mr Trump appeared to descend into an abyss of insanity in his last 65 days in office. He was in a mad rush to pardon criminals and, worse, exhort his followers into protesting against the election result that eventually led to the insurrection of Congress. Such irrational actions have left many of us feeling rudderless and adrift as a population.

Then there is Mr Trump's casual relationship with the truth.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that he made 30,573 false claims in his four years in office. To have your president exposed for lying is disconcerting. When Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal in 1974, he came to be known as the "Liar in Chief". It took the country decades to recover from it. Even though I was a schoolgirl who barely understood politics, I remember scribbling the words "Impeach Nixon" on one of my notebooks.

Legacies take years to cement, and presidents are really judged by their transformative effect.

FILE - This Jan. 28, 1986, file photo shows President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. In moments of crisis, American presidents have sought to summon words to match the moment in the hope that the power of oratory can bring order to chaos and despair. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)
Former US president Ronald Reagan played a role in ending the Cold War, AP Photo

In 2017, the television network C-Span conducted its Presidential Historian Survey about which American head of state ranked best. This gave me a chance to examine the legacies of those who came before Mr Trump.

William Howard Taft busted the Standard Oil monopoly. Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords. Ronald Reagan was instrumental in ending the Cold War. George HW Bush revamped the Clean Air Act, negotiated a peaceful reunification of Germany, and helped to liberate Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.

How will Mr Trump be remembered in 10 years? In 50 years? Will his enduring legacy be that of his cataclysmic end? Or will he be remembered for some of his achievements? He aided in the destruction of ISIS, stood up to Bashar Al Assad after a chemical attack in Syria, and signed stimulus checks for millions of Americans in the worst days of the pandemic.

Healing takes time. We were akin to a country at war and this is our post-conflict period. For now, Mr Trump is quiet. Washington is like a patient recuperating from a painful surgery. We are all recovering. And waiting.

Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs