Donald Trump has already made some serious political mistakes. He gave the Israelis their much desired American embassy in Jerusalem without asking for any concessions from them on the thorny Palestinian issue. Not a very good case of deal-making. And in a similar fashion he gave the North Korean leader his sought-after recognition as an international statesman without getting from him any firm commitments on the nuclear issue. There are other such failures but, significant as they may be, none of them is really Trump’s most egregious mistake.
Some people might, of course, argue that Trump’s biggest mistake was to enter politics at all and to run for the presidency. It has certainly become clear by now that he was not and is not qualified for the position. So, he wants to shake things up and be a disruptor. But what is to be put in place when the old order has been destroyed? Trump’s vision is woefully inadequate in this respect. It comes to a recreation of the United States of the 1950’s: predominantly white, equipped with heavy industries, economically and military unchallenged, and conservative in attitudes and tastes. But history doesn’t repeat itself and a quite different constellation of issues face the country now in the 21st millennium.
Trump’s biggest mistake has been and is, rather, his unrelenting aggressiveness. There was, in particular, no reason for him to turn on Barack Obama and make himself the central figure in the so-called “birther” campaign. The whole thing was a fake, in any case. Does it matter whether Obama was born in Hawaii or abroad? He was certainly born as the son of a US citizen and therefore held citizenship rights from the moment of birth. That is all the Constitution demands from an American president. And the claim that Obama was not born where his birth certificate says he was, was an absurdity from the beginning. Given Obama’s popularity then and now Trump’s actions unnecessarily alienated all those for whom Obama was the symbol of a new post-racist America. They have found his anti-Obama agitation utterly unforgivable. The same unnecessary aggressiveness Trump manifested in his campaign against Hillary Clinton with nicknaming her “Crooked Hillary” and leading choruses of “Lock her up.”
We can be sure that the ongoing Russia investigation would not have become such a heated partisan matter without Trump’s animus against Obama and Clinton. He could, of course, have changed his tone once he was elected; but he proved unable for such a gesture. He has injected in this way a new nastiness into American politics and that may well be his biggest mistake and failure in politics.
“The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture… And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die)