April 23, 2021 - 4:13pm

Is it too early to reassess the Trump presidency? Let’s try anyway. Back in 2017, a Der Spiegel journalist asked France’s newly-elected philosopher-president Emmanuel Macron whether he believed in Hegel’s idea of the Weltgeist or “World Spirit,” as embodied in the German philosopher’s encounter with Napoleon riding through the streets of Jena— the “world spirit on horseback” as Hegel termed him. 

“Do you believe that a single person can, in fact, steer history?” asked the journalist.

“No,” responded the Hegel scholar-turned-politician, because:

Hegel viewed the ‘great men’ as instruments of something far greater. It should be said that in referring to him in that way, he wasn’t being particularly nice to Napoleon, because he of course knows that history can always outflank you, that it is always larger than the individual. Hegel believes that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist for a moment, but also that the individual isn’t always clear they are doing so.
- Emmanuel Macron, Der Spiegel

Could this be said of Trump, the unwitting force of history against whom Macron was positioned (then, anyway) as the antithesis? No less a thinker than Henry Kissinger seemed to think so, remarking to the Financial Times in 2018 that:

I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.
- Henry Kissinger, FT

The Biden presidency, even at this early stage, gives weight to this idea. In his actions so far, he has followed Trump’s lead, pursuing through the realm of action an ideological rift with the logic of neoliberalism which Trump was incapable, himself, of manifesting beyond soundbites. Almost everything Trump was condemned for by right-thinking liberal opinion, Biden has brought into being.

It is Biden, and not Trump, who has withdrawn American troops from Afghanistan, rejecting the war-hunger of the DC blob. Biden has accepted the logic of great power competition with China, turning the Cold War framing Trump was vilified for into the central pole of US foreign policy. On immigration, Biden has maintained Trump’s border policies against both migrants coming overland from Latin America and refugees from the troubled countries of the Islamic world. On state capacity, Biden has turned Trump’s tweets into concrete action, pledging vast sums of money to rebuild America’s creaking infrastructure, not least as part of the great competition with China.

Lazy and inept, surrounded by low-calibre staff and courtiers and besieged by a hostile press, Trump was unable to achieve any of his stated core goals, seemingly content to shout into the Twitter ether and enjoy the results. Yet like the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, once he unmasked the emperor’s nakedness, there was no going back. 

There is no return, now, to the world of Bush and Clinton, or to the hollow ideologies that underwrote their era. We have entered a new stage, which Trump, perhaps entirely unwittingly, was chosen by history to usher in. Future historians will mark his brief, contested reign as a great dividing line in America and the world’s story: it is not absurd then, to view him as history’s ironic agent, the Weltgeist on Twitter.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.