Trump's Final Days Could Settle the Issue That's Polarized the Public | Opinion

In the last 20 days of his presidency, Donald Trump will settle, at last, the perplexing, poisonous question that has polarized the populace throughout his tumultuous term.

That unbridgeable divide involves sharply contrasting involves sharply contrasting perceptions of the president's character. These arguments have proven far more impassioned, and far less amenable to compromise, than any particular issue of policy or ideology. Unlike debates over trade, spending, immigration or taxes, it's tough to find middle ground in arguments over Trump's personal integrity. Americans remain intractably split over whether the dominant figure of the age qualifies as a peerless, fearless hero or a corrupt, clownish jerk.

Trump enjoys the ongoing admiration of legions of devoted followers who view him as a patriot, a selfless billionaire who sacrificed his lavish lifestyle to defend the values of hard-working, heartland citizens against the contempt of arrogant elites. His horde of dedicated detractors, on the other hand, saw a grifter and a chronic liar with ludicrous delusions of grandeur, a rank opportunist always ready to sacrifice the national interest for the sake of his own enrichment and advancement.

Consider the extremes in evaluations of the president's record. Opponents routinely dismiss Trump as "the worst president we've ever had" (as did Joe Biden in their first presidential debate), and seem genuinely shocked by how much his supporters exalt him as one of the all-time greats. None of Trump's White House predecessors ever produced such jarringly discordant, simultaneous reactions from the American people.

When Trump, on countless occasions, compared himself to Lincoln (for example, "No one's done as much for Black people except, possibly, Honest Abe"), many commentators laughed and scoffed, but the faithful who jammed his electrifying rallies roared in agreement. Other presidents quarreled with hostile press coverage, but no chief executive ever went so far in his condemnation of the perpetrators as "enemies of the people"—a level of frenzied hostility that provoked as many cheers as it did fears.

Americans either loved or loathed Trump's personality, and those extreme, instinctive reactions left no chance of splitting the difference—until, perhaps, "the long, twilight struggle" (to borrow JFK's resonant phrase) following his election day defeat on November 3.

This is not to say that his loyal cadres have abruptly abandoned his flailing efforts to disqualify millions of ballots; polling shows the majority of his supporters still believe he actually won the race before dastardly Democrats purloined votes in key battleground states. But the abject and sometimes comical failure of Rudy Giuliani and his much-heralded "elite legal strike force" in court after court, forum after forum, combined with the mid-December certification of 306 electoral votes for Biden, left even Trump loyalists shaken, not stirred.

His insistence on plowing forward in the face of certain defeat has brought fresh, inevitable focus on the old question that's divided the nation all along: What is his underlying purpose in waging this hopeless fight?

Is he an idealist, or an idiot?

Is he motivated by personal pique and pride, or patriotism?

Does Trump's desire to orchestrate congressional challenges to swing-state electors, or his plan to become the first incumbent since 1869 to boycott the inauguration of his successor, serve the nation's interests, or his own—or neither?

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump Al Drago/Getty Images

That last possibility should give Trump pause during his final days in office. If he continues to project an unprecedented level of petulance, he won't help his future fundraising, his prospective campaign for 2024 or his place in history.

But imagine if, after New Year's Day, he displayed a dramatic change of heart: inviting Joe Biden to the White House (as President Barack Obama did with him) and cooperating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on implementing the latest COVID-19 rescue package. He might even initiate a bipartisan, formidable response to the recent Russian cyber-attack (perhaps involving Biden's designated national security advisor, Jake Sullivan). Most important of all, Trump could drop the self-destructive plan to stage counter-programming to upstage Biden's inauguration. He could shock the world, in a good way, by taking to heart Mark Twain's timeless advice: "Always do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

No, such a sudden transformation will not persuade those adversaries who write off Trump's single term as a total, unmitigated disaster. But it would at least inspire some doubts over popular perceptions of his character as narcissistic, infantile and profoundly selfish. He has just enough time to display some sign of "growth in office," an elevation to truly presidential stature, that most of his fellow Republicans long yearned to see.

A classy exit could serve as the ultimate surprise from a mercurial leader who loves to shock the world. It would help Trump—to say nothing of the nation at-large—and accord him enhanced stature for whatever pursuits he seeks next. Occasionally, he claims "Honest Abe" as something of a soulmate, so he should seize the fleeting opportunity of heeding the Great Emancipator's 1862 sagacity: "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion."

As past is prologue, the odds don't favor such a positive development. Chances are, President Trump will ignore the better angels of his nature in order to continue whining and railing about a purportedly stolen election. But instead of dwelling on electoral defeat, he might still grab the chance for some version of post-election victory. He can't depart in a blaze of glory, but he might yet leave an exhausted nation with a welcome sense of relief and reassurance, forcing a new open-mindedness on the overriding character questions that have consumed his career.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.