They have been wrong every time.
But recently, experts endorsed the popular verdict.
In February 2018, a poll of 170 political scientists rated Trump the worst president ever. The respondents comprised more than half of the scholars in the Presidents & Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association.
Despite their expertise, they formed the same objectively incorrect belief shared by millions of less qualified laypersons.
We can forgive average Americans for letting the heat of present political passions distort their historical judgment.
It is, however, extremely regrettable when their error gets replicated by a large group of scholars with advanced degrees in American politics and specialized knowledge of the presidency.
To be fair, the people and the political scientists are closer to the truth than the president himself, who recently boasted, “We have done more than any first-term administration in the history of our country.”
Still, the evidence in hand does not yet justify ranking him as the worst chief executive of all time.
Before Trump, scholars generally agreed that our worst presidents were the ones who…
- Wasted thousands of lives in needless wars — or by botching just wars;
- Caused severe economic crises — or failed to address them effectively;
- Committed or permitted grave, massive violations of human rights;
- Seriously violated the Constitution;
- Committed or tolerated widespread corruption.
To date, Trump is clearly not guilty of #1 or #2. His foreign and economic policies raise legitimate concerns, but they have not yet caused a major war or recession.
Trump has been working on #3. Under his direction, federal authorities have made life harder for millions of immigrants, refugees, and people of color. However, Trump’s aspirations to violate human rights more broadly have failed to win support in Congress, and have encountered resistance from the courts, state and local governments, and even the armed forces, police chiefs, and some law enforcement organizations.
Ongoing investigations and litigation will determine whether Trump is guilty of #4 or #5.
Apparently, the political scientists polled chose to rate Trump as our worst president based on what might happen with regard to war or the economy. Or on what might happen if Trump got his way on human rights. Or on what might have happened or might still be happening with regard to alleged corruption or constitutional violations.
This is not expert opinion. It is fortune-telling.
Political scientists may be more qualified than laypersons to project the outcomes of the Trump administration, but presidential rankings should reflect the actual evidence in hand — not imagined outcomes, however likely they may seem.
Of course, the current president’s worst-ever rating could mean political scientists believe Trump has pioneered new and different ways to be the worst chief executive ever. The survey authors helped lead the scholars to this conclusion by introducing a new question: they asked respondents to identify the “most polarizing” presidents in our history. Of course, the political scientists obliged and awarded that title to Trump by a landslide.
Here, the experts got it right. Even when past presidents pursued polarizing policies, they generally articulated their rationales with unifying rhetoric. In a sharp departure from this tradition, Trump obviously revels in provocative and divisive rhetoric. He delights in departing from tactful, scripted remarks — not just in Twitter tirades and at raucous rallies, but also in televised interviews and high-stakes conversations with foreign leaders.
More seriously, the scholars probably noticed that Trump is our first explicitly authoritarian president. His bluntly fascist campaign sales pitch stoked voter resentment against foreigners and people of color. In his victory speech, he boasted that his supporters “want and expect our government to serve the president.” He has called the media “the enemy of the people” — the same phrase used by Nazi and Soviet propagandists. As a candidate, Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for foreign dictators, whom he has assiduously coddled since taking office. Responding to news that China’s Xi Jinping had arranged to become dictator for life, Trump said, “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday."
The extreme danger posed by Trump’s obvious fascism justifies ranking him among the worst presidents in our history — even if checks and balances and popular resistance continue to frustrate his authoritarian ambitions.
But Trump has not yet earned the title of worst president. In past years, the political scientists correctly identified our most damaging president as James Buchanan (1857–61). The scholars should have stuck with that verdict, because Trump remains far from matching or approaching the misdeeds of his least distinguished predecessor. As I wrote elsewhere, “In order to wrest the title of worst president from Buchanan,” Trump “would need to wreck the economy, revoke all human rights from an entire race, violate the constitutional separation of powers, and plunge the country into a ruinous civil war that kills nearly 2% of the US population.”
Trump’s critics will retort that his determined inaction on climate change may ultimately kill far more people than the Civil War did. Or that he may yet cause wars, wreck the economy, or commit even graver human rights abuses.
But that is fortune-telling, again.
One of the worst vs. the worst: Does it matter?
It may seem a subtle distinction to argue that Trump is not the worst president ever, but merely one of the worst.
Nevertheless, it matters.
My concern here is with the political scientists.
Scholars should model responsible habits of thought. Laypersons already excel at ignoring evidence, leaping to conclusions, and making snap predictions. They do not need scholars to affirm these follies.
The manifest vileness of Trump’s words and deeds should suffice to fuel resistance to his administration. His opponents need should not additional motivation in the form of false historical claims.
In fact, when apparently qualified scholars tar Trump with intemperate attacks, it confirms his supporters’ worst prejudices. It feeds their stubborn rejection of expert opinion, evidence, and objective reality. It affirms their faith in the existence of a sinister conspiracy — an unholy alliance of academia, the media, Hollywood, and the deep state — all arrayed against a leader “raised up” by the “hand of God.”
So, yes, the truth matters.
What then, led political scientists to a false conclusion in this case?
Ideology played a relatively small role. When the poll authors disaggregated the responses by party affiliation, they found that Democrats ranked Trump dead last, while independents and Republicans ranked him more reasonably in 43rd and 40th place, respectively (out of 44 presidents).
The poll’s bizarre results betray inconsistent standards and a shallow understanding of history.
For example, the scholars ranked William Henry Harrison as the third-worst president ever. This is a harsh verdict for a man who died of pneumonia a month into his presidency. While his untimely demise denied Harrison any significant achievements, it also ensured that he did no harm to the country or the world. Thus, he should rank above every president who did more harm than good — a list that would include, at minimum, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Harding, Hoover, Nixon, Bush the Younger, and Trump.
The scholars vastly overrate the presidencies of James Madison (1809–17) and John Quincy Adams (1825–29) — rating them 12th and 23rd, respectively. Evidently, political scientists ignored their failings in the White House and gave them high marks for their nonpresidential résumés.
Before he ascended to the Oval Office, Madison helped draft the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Bill of Rights. With Jefferson, he co-founded and led the Democratic-Republican Party. As president, however, Madison proved a weak leader, dragooned into the disastrous War of 1812 by hotheads in Congress.
Prior to his presidency, John Quincy Adams pursued a distinguished diplomatic career that culminated in his service as Secretary of State — one of the greatest ever to hold that office. After his presidency, he served in the House of Representatives, where he tirelessly inveighed against slavery. The nobility of his pre- and post-presidential careers seem to have won a middling rank for his failed presidency. Tone-deaf to the democratic spirit of the times, Adams won the White House in a tainted election, publicly urged Congress to defy the will of their constituents, and consequently achieved nearly nothing as president — frustrated at almost every turn by supporters of his aggrieved rival, Andrew Jackson. Adams belongs in the same stratum as William Henry Harrison and others who entered office with good intentions but achieved little or nothing.
The political scientists’ well-justified disdain for Trump has richly enhanced his predecessor’s reputation. Barack Obama’s rating rocketed from a plausible #18 in 2014 to an improbably lofty #8 in the recent poll.
Obama deserves a great deal of credit. Domestically, he orchestrated a recovery from the Great Recession, secured passage for the Affordable Care Act, and then successfully defended that reform from a hostile GOP Congress while finding common ground with them on tax cuts and deficit reduction. In foreign policy, he repaired our reputation by engaging international partners as equals and winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, he also failed as a party leader by losing control of Congress in 2010 and never regaining it. When he took office in 2009, Democrats controlled 28 governorships and one or both houses in 33 state legislatures; when he left office, they controlled just 18 and 14, respectively. Those historic losses enabled Republicans to perpetuate their chokehold on state and federal power through unpredecented gerrymandering and voter suppression measures unseen since the days of Jim Crow.
The reasons for this were clear. His moderate response to the financial crisis forfeited the opportunity for truly progressive reforms that might have attracted new constituencies that ultimately reverted to Trump and the Tea Party. Moreover, Obama remained statesmanlike, high-minded, and conciliatory long after the GOP made clear their unremittingly hostile intentions.
In foreign policy, Obama failed to balance his desire to withdraw US troops from the Middle East with the need for regional stability. This facilitated the rise of Islamic State and the Syrian refugee crisis. He also failed to contain increased Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Middle East.
For these reasons, Obama does not belong in the top ten.
History shows that judgments of near-contemporary presidents often prove false. Widely derided as a failure, Harry Truman left the White House with the lowest job approval ratings in the history of polling. Over the next few decades, people came to miss his integrity, and scholars grew to appreciate his role in developing the West’s winning strategy in the Cold War. Truman ranked #6 in the recent poll.
Conversely, when Warren Harding died in 1923, Americans mourned a popular and apparently successful president. He had won acclaim for signing a nativist immigration bill to reduce inflows from Africa, Asia, and eastern and southern Europe — places our current president might call “shitholes” — while inviting continued arrivals from pale, Protestant places like Norway.
However, after his death, Harding’s reputation plummeted as evidence emerged of widespread corruption on his watch. Popular fondness for Harding deteriorated further when his economic policies — continued by his successors — helped cause the Great Depression.
Despite his strong ideological resemblance to Trump, the political scientists bizarrely raised Harding’s rating from #42 (second-worst) in 2014 to #39 (sixth-worst) in this year’s poll.
Scholars and laypeople alike would be wise to read history to develop an appropriate sense of proportion in our current political climate — and to emulate the strategies that defeated the past evils Trump now aims to rekindle.
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