When Donald Trump left the White House in January after serving just one term as president of the United States, he walked away knowing that his influence on the public was far from over.

For the four years prior, amid a distracting backdrop of chaos, scandal, legislative reform, infighting and Twitter rants, he and powerful Republicans quietly hatched an ambitious plan.

They worked to overhaul one of America’s key institutions, which touches virtually every aspect of life and society.

Meticulously and bit by bit, Trump planted a bomb that will detonate in about two decades’ time, when his true power will be finally realised.

He may not be here to witness it – he would be 94 at that time, after all – but it will be quite a sight to see … and it will fundamentally shape the US for generations to come.

Trump’s very busy four years

From the moment the Trump era began, the president got to work with then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to leave a mark on society well beyond both their tenures.

It wasn’t to do with overhauling healthcare, nor gun control or environmental protections. And it certainly wasn’t a focus on narrowing the gap between the very rich and the very poor.

Instead, the pair devised a process for rapidly installing a mammoth number of conservative judges in courts right across America.

For those unfamiliar with American politics and law, it doesn’t sound like an exciting way to seize and maintain power, but it’s the most effective method of doing so.

Conservative groups, funded by largely anonymous donors, lobbied Trump and Senator McConnell, providing lists of suitable legal figures who could protect and maintain the most right-wing ideological values.

It’s these appointees who will make crucial decisions on laws relating to gun control, reproductive rights, LGBTIQ protections and religious freedom now and into the future.

And there were quite a lot of them.

Over the course of his first term – and only term, as it turned out – Trump appointed a total of 226 judges.

By comparison, former President George W Bush appointed 322 judges, but across eight years in his two terms in office. In his first term, former President Barack Obama appointed 172 judges.

When he was done, one-quarter of all active judges in the United States had been appointed by Trump.

A breakdown of Trump’s picks reveals some distinct patterns.

For one, just 24 per cent of his candidates were women, compared to 47 per cent of his predecessor Barack Obama’s nominations.

Overall, 189 of his 226 court appointments were white.

There was a lack of racial diversity, too – of his 54 appellate court picks, not a single one was African-American.

But the most distinct and most important trend that emerged among Trump’s lifetime appointments to the courts was that the vast majority of them were very young.

Amy Coney Barrett, one of two of Trump’s nominees for the Supreme Court, her young age of 48 made her the second-youngest appointee in history.

When it comes to the next level down, the powerful courts of appeals, Trump’s nominees were the youngest of any other president in more than a century.

Analysis by The Washington Post found the average age of his appellate judges was 47. He appointed 54 in his single term in office, of which only five were aged 55 or older.

Half a dozen were in their 30s, which is unusually young for such an esteemed and senior role.

For all these judges, their younger ages mean they are each set to serve on the bench for decades to come, moulding and transforming the law and the political landscape.

A far-reaching and significant legacy

The Atlantic put it best this week when they declared that “the Trump era has only just begun”.

It’s not just the number of judges he installed in courts across America, but their young ages, that guarantee his long-lasting influence.

Trump’s picks won’t reach the peak of their power until about 2040, when they are poised to “simultaneously sit atop nearly every appeals court in the country”.

“This portends a potential disaster for progressive gains in many areas of law, including voting rights and health care,” Jacob Finkel, a lawyer and former Appeals Court for the Third Circuit, wrote for The Atlantic.

“The limelight typically falls on the Supreme Court for these developments, but the lower courts are where much of the action happens.

“In its most recent term, which ended in July, the Supreme Court issued 63 signed opinions. The Circuit Courts of Appeals, by contrast, decided or issued orders on 48,300 cases in 2020.

“Although the Supreme Court has the final say, and Trump’s three new justices will shape the law for decades, the large majority of appeals – more than 97 per cent – will be decided by the 12 geographic circuit courts, and the 167 appellate judges who sit on them.

“And the individuals who wield the most influence in shaping those outcomes are the chief judges of each circuit.”

President Joe Biden was quick to begin undoing many of Trump’s actions in office, issuing a flurry of executive orders in his first weeks.

And Biden has vowed to continue working to repeal and erase some of his predecessor’s controversial or divisive policies.

But Brian Fallon, executive director of advocacy group Demand Justice, believes that won’t be nearly enough.

“(Americans) will be living with the legacy of Donald Trump for decades to come as a result of his judicial appointments,” Fallon told Associated Press.

Finkel agrees, saying that Republicans have secured “unprecedented future influence” over the courts for decades to come.

“If Democrats fail to be similarly farsighted with their forthcoming nominees, the 2040s and beyond are destined to be the true Trump era,” he wrote.

Trump was proud of his record of court appointments, and often took potshots at the Obama Administration for leaving him so many vacancies to fill – more than 100.

He’s not the only Republican crowing about what was achieved in the space of four short years.

“I think it’s far and away the most consequential thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Senator McConnell said last year.

“And it’s the most long-lasting accomplishment of the current administration, by far.”

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