We are now two years into the Trump Presidency, and the question is beginning to be asked with more frequency: Is Donald Trump the worst president ever?
Mind you, this is not whether he is the worst person to ever be President, or presided over the worst period. To answer those kind of questions we would need to have in depth analyses of the individual characteristics/personality traits and historical perspectives cataloging all sorts of variables. No, the question is in relation to how he has handled the actual parameters of the job of president.
Questions like this are not particularly fair half way through a president’s first term, and tend to reek of partisanship. In addition, presidential rankings tend to ebb and flow with the current political climates years after the president is out of office. A president’s legacy is not only how they handled the constraints of power, but also ideologically how they impacted America for years afterwards, much of which is completely outside of their control and not always noticeable until decades after they left office. For instance, Abraham Lincoln presided over the most divisive time in American history, was not as universally adored as he is today, and had to make unpopular decisions in his day (including the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of war powers that were ill defined during the Civil War), but few would argue he made perhaps some of the biggest impacts on the country and the presidency itself.
However, with what we have seen so far, and what many presidential historians and academics use for comparison as to how to rank presidents, we can still get a sense as to where he would fit in and make some preliminary assessments. In compiling this information, we’ll try to compare to several polls of historians and books that outline where Trump would fit in with such a ranking.
Most polls ask historians how to rank directly, or find particular issues and ask them to rank according to those. CSPAN regularly does a poll ranking presidents every 8-9 years , last done in 2017. The best breakdown I have seen is the 1997 book from William J. Ridings Jr. and Stuart McIver, “Rating the Presidents.” More than 719 people took part in the poll/book, primarily academic historians and political scientists, although some politicians also took part. Participants from every state were included and emphasis was placed upon getting input from female historians and “specialists in African-American studies” as well as a few non-American historians. This breaks the rankings down into five distinct categories: 1) Leadership qualities; 2) Accomplishments and crisis management; 3) Political skill; 4) Appointments; and 5) Character and integrity, and then compiles them all into an overall ranking. What makes this comparison appealing is that a president often does very well in one area and may falter in another. Only by compiling an overall assessment do you get a fair and balanced look at how well the president did. For instance, a president like Nixon can do very well in leadership and accomplishments, but rank near the bottom for character, thus mitigating his overall score and putting the man into full context.
Five presidents regularly fill out the top of these ratings; George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. The order may vary some, but those five consistently rank among the top on a pretty regular basis. On the other end of the spectrum, we tend to see five regularly ranked lower than William Henry Harrison, who after serving only 30 days in office is as close to a control set as you can get in this kind of comparison (if you don’t do as well as a guy who only served a month, you’re not doing too well). Those five are: 1) Millard Fillmore; 2) Franklin Pierce; 3) James Buchanan; 4) Andrew Johnson; and 5) Warren G. Harding. Occasionally, Herbert Hoover makes an appearance, related to his handling of the stock market collapse and the Great Depression, but historians differ on how much of that was out of his control.
So let’s analyze Trump on these five criteria and see where he fits in.
Character and Integrity
Let’s start here because it’s the easiest to assess. Trump is utterly shameless in his duplicity. He regularly lies to the point fact checkers almost find it useless. By the Washington Post’s count, in his first 2 years in office he has lied over 7,000+ times. Add to that how he paid off at least two women (Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal) to keep quiet about affairs he had with them soon after his son was born. Add to that the high volume of sexual harassment allegations from a dozen women before he took office. We haven’t even seen the Mueller Report at this point but it can only get worse for Trump from here. According to “Rating the Presidents” the worst two presidents in this category were Nixon and Harding. It says a lot of how low the bar is now when you make Nixon look like an angel by comparison. Rating: Dead Last (44*)
(**It has to be stated, that most people refer to Trump being “45” in regard to presidential order. Obama, was 44, W was 43 and so on backwards. This is somewhat misleading because Grover Cleveland is thus counted twice for non-consecutive terms. In our context, we’ll treat Cleveland as a single president, and therefore, only having 44 presidents total)
Here is another one that should be easy. Most Republicans who really knew what they were doing stayed away from the administration. More often, Trump distinctly vetoed including them if they ever said anything negative about him at all. That left a “C-List” team of potential appointments from which to choose. Many had no sense of the agency they were running (Dr. Ben Carson as the head of HUD?) or were utterly unqualified for what amounted to a hobby interest (Betsy Devos as head of Education Policy). Trump even nominated a rival who at one point suggested eliminating the agency he became head of (Rick Perry at Dept. of Energy) and in his confirmation hearings admitted that he didn’t know what the agency did really until he was appointed. Trump even appointed a National Security Advisor for only 21 days (Michael Flynn) after the FBI told him not to since there was an open investigation into him. He once nominated to a district court judgeship (with lifetime appointment) someone who had never set foot into a court. It has been said that the job interview for a Trump appointment is to look good on Fox News.
For those who did know what they were doing, Trump made their lives impossible. He regularly contradicted what they were saying (Nikki Haley as U.N. Ambassador), ridiculed them (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and fired them for abuses of his own doing (H.R. McMaster, Reince Preibus).
Lastly, most appointed positions have been left vacant for the duration of his time in office, including many ambassadorships and deputy level cabinet offices. The turnover rate is also so high, very few choose to stay with this administration that long. No president has endured the level of turnover and vacancyTrump has, and the more that leave, the harder it is to find quality replacements.
Many presidents have had bad or outright corrupt appointments. Harding had Teapot Dome, Grant’s whole administration was full of graft. But Trump is on a level all of his own. It says something when the most reliable people in his admin are his daughter and son-in-law, who many see as completely incompetent and on the take as much as he is. Rating: Dead Last (44).
Accomplishments and Crisis Management
Let’s let the record speak for itself:
- A tax cut benefiting most of the top 1% that eliminates or guts estate taxes, corporate taxes and high end income taxes. Passed by a vote.
- Couldn’t repeal Obamacare despite majorities in both houses of Congress and it being a main campaign promise…For Republicans for 8 years.
- Couldn’t build a wall on the southern border, despite it being a main campaign promise. In fact, he shut down the government over it causing a bigger crisis, and also his policies of handling migration have caused family separations, longer periods of time for processing asylum claims and mass deportations, compounding the issue.
- Failed to adequately help Puerto Rico following a devastating hurricane. Sixteen months later, many areas still without power or clean water.
- Dismantled NAFTA and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
- Dismantled the Iran Nuclear Deal.
- Rhetorically, has made overtures to North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and outright allegiance to Russia, while neglecting and demonstrating antipathy to allies Germany, U.K., France, Japan and NATO.
- Started an unnecessary trade war with China.
- Has used racially caustic rhetoric, and fails to adequately moderate racially charged situations.
- Presided over 8 of the 10 biggest sell-offs in Dow history, including two over 1,000 pts each.
I fail to see one single improvement or benefit here. God help us if a major crisis occurs. Rating: Dead Last (44).
Believe it or not, he isn’t that bad here. To navigate the GOP primaries, he took a stake appealing to the most populist portions of the party. Not only did most Republicans neglect to understand how large this group was, winning the general election showed his instincts were not unfounded. Trump has deliberately and consistently appealed to this group throughout his two years as president, and it has paid off for him in numerous ways.
First, it has kept him at roughly a 40% approval rating pretty steadily. Second, his supporters, particularly at the GOP grassroots, have scared elected officials representing those districts enough that they don’t dare cross him. Those that do (Sanford in South Carolina for instance) get primaried and lose. Thirdly, this also has the benefit of keeping legislation coming out of Congress angled from the hard right, particularly from the Freedom Caucus in the House. In the Senate when it looked like Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination was in trouble, he doubled-down, told the GOP to get angry and it worked on passing the nomination. It remains to be seen what kind of impact this will have in a majority Democratic House in 2019-2020, but until now has worked well for him.
Nonetheless, he has alienated enough of the electorate, including in gerrymandered districts that should have been a firewall for him preventing a Dem takeover, that he has very little room to grow outside of his base.
So how does this fit into our rankings? According to Rating the Presidents, the worst in this category in ascending order were Andrew Johnson (Worst), U.S. Grant, Buchanan, Harding, and Pierce. This is a pretty hapless crew of people. I’m willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt over Johnson for now, if only because he hasn’t been impeached (yet), and the others were all awful in their own way. The way I would put it is that Trump after two years is in this group, probably a little higher for now, but dropping like a rock in 2019 with an adverse House and a Special Prosecutor Report to have to deal with. Rating: 41.
Of all the categories, this one may be probably the hardest to assess of Trump. People clearly follow him, devotedly I might add. Yes, it is completely in the wrong direction, and the duplicitous nature of what he sells is appalling, but they follow him nonetheless. Like lemmings going off the cliff, you can see how this ends, but they still follow him. As morally repugnant and fraudulent as he can be and has been, there is no denying he demonstrates an ability to incite audiences, appeal to the masses and show the charisma that has kept him in the media’s eye for almost 40 years.
But the appeal should be to the better angels of our nature as Lincoln put it. It should be to spur from complacency to action to change the world for the better. Leadership should mean not just appealing to the lowest common denominator, but elevating those instincts to the highest moral authority one can achieve. Taking one step towards a million miles is a far greater act of leadership than growing up on third base thinking you hit a triple and then bragging about it before a crowd. It’s motivating a nation to end slavery. Its calling out men to fight in Europe and the Pacific. It’s regrouping after a terrorist attack that killed 4,000+ people without disparaging an entire religion. It’s getting universal health care passed amidst a slow recovery and making people believe in it as a right.
In light of that, Trump has not inspired anyone but white supremacists. His only appeal has been to those already wealthy like him. He hasn’t done anything to work with those outside of his core group of supporters, and that is getting smaller by the day. “Rating the Presidents” had the bottom five this way: Harding (worst), Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Pierce and Calvin Coolidge. Buchanan and Pierce were the two presidents who did nothing as the nation became ripped apart by slavery and Andrew Johnson who succeeded to the office after Lincoln was assassinated really had no interest or power in governing. For our purposes Coolidge, despite his laissez-faire conservatism and isolationist tendencies still demonstrated keen leadership in getting four tax cuts passed, reducing the deficit and in the boom of the roaring ’20s. He chose not to run in 1928, ceding the nomination to Hoover (and in a way, setting up Hoover to fail when the speculation fueling the ’20s ended). So while no Civil War or massive world-wide economic calamity is yet evident (although there is some speculation there could be on this last point), Trump comes in behind Coolidge but in front of Pierce. Rating: 41
In comparing these, there really is no contest. Trump clearly is dead last. Whereas other bad presidents demonstrated inabilities due to a lack of will or an era that simply overwhelmed their abilities to fight the times, Trump inherited a U.S. at the pinnacle of power in the world militarily and economically, and the longest bull market in history. And yet, Trump is proactively undoing many of the things that elevated America to that place in the world. Out of pure ego and malice, he spouts and shows antipathy toward any group trying to make a positive impact in the world, often because he is an innate obstacle to it. He sees the Presidency as a mob boss deserving of respect, rather than as an office that earned the respect of the world from over 225 years of intellect, skill, quality and character. He is a man deserving of contempt; for his character, for his temperament, for his choice in those intended to support him. He knows nothing of the actual job of being president and only worships the trappings that come with the office. For this, Trump is alone and deserving to be at the bottom of the list.
No question. Trump. Worst. President. Ever.
Have an opinion? Think we may have been too light or too hard on President Chee-To? Leave a note in the comments!