Donald Trump: He’s bad, but I’m here to tell you he’s not the worst president our neighbours have ever had

Posted on January 05, 2018, 2:22 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Donald J. Trump. Never mind what you think. He’s not the worst American president ever. Actually, he’s probably about the 7th worst … so far. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.) Below: Worse presidents James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Andrew Jackson (in his dotage), Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore.

People, I’m here to disappoint you! Never mind what you’ve just heard on the news and on your favourite social media platform, Donald J. Trump is not the worst president in United States history.

He’s not even in the bottom three!

What’s more, historians are almost certainly never going to rate Mr. Trump as the worst president in American history.

That’s an extremely low bar to aspire to come under, and after James Buchanan told the slave states he was sure it would be fine with everyone if they went ahead and seceded from the Union, it was always going to be extremely difficult for Mr. Trump or any other president in the future to underperform that badly.

Given the stiffness of some of the competition, which we’ll get to in more detail in a moment, probably about the only thing Mr. Trump could do to be the worst president in American history in the time still allotted to him would be to provoke a nuclear exchange with his reputed friends in Russia. This is always possible, given that he has a bigger button than anyone else plus the foresight and maturity of a four-year-old. But if he does, there won’t be any historians around to give him an F- in the history books, will there? There’ll certainly be no Internet on which to read the reviews.

Don’t get me wrong. Unlike some commentators in this country, I’m not trying to suck up to Mr. Trump so I can get a presidential pardon and move back to the old neighbourhood in Palm Beach. No, I think Mr. Trump is just as bad a president as most readers of this blog do.

I just don’t happen to think that’s bad enough to get him a rating of Worst President Ever … ever.

I say this despite the president’s casual relationship with the truth, his habitual race baiting, his bullying and harassment, his ignorant Tweets, his overt sexism, his open corruption, and his constant efforts to undermine democracy.

But as my friend Olav Rokne, the presidential scholar, says: “Claims that any of America’s recent presidents was the worst president ever are largely the result of historical myopia.” What he means is, it’s far easier to be aware of Mr. Trump’s many misdeeds because they are constantly in the news, right now.

When was the last time you thought about all the ways Warren G. Harding messed up? Or for that matter, Thomas Jefferson?

You’re probably thinking, Who’s this Rokne guy? OK, he’s an editor I used to write columns for and he knows more about American presidents than anyone else I’ve ever met. And so what if he doesn’t have a PhD in the topic? I mean, seriously … who would examine him?

If it wasn’t for Mr. Rockne, how would I have known that Jack Kemp – George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a member of the United States Congress for Western New York – ruined his NFL career by playing one game for the Calgary Stampeders? (Note: Surely this justifies the Alberta Politics tag on this story!)

Well, Mr. Kemp never got to be president like Mr. Bush’s son did, so never mind him. And never mind Dubya, either. I think we’re all in agreement that as bad as he was, the younger Mr. Bush, No. 43, wasn’t as nearly bad as the elderly Mr. Trump, No. 45.

So, who was worse?

Andrew Johnson was. Mr. Johnson (No. 17, in office from 1865 to 1869) never would have been a good president. But for him to ascend to the post immediately after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was certainly an inauspicious moment for a man of his notable lack of talent. He was an avowed racist. He refused to deal with the pressing issues arising from the Civil War. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Plus, he was an unrepentant alcoholic, sometimes unable to stand upright at public events without a flunky to prop him up.

Warren G. Harding (No. 29, 1921 to 1923) said of himself, accurately, “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Mr. Harding was a gregarious newspaper publisher, a bad sign then and now, good-natured but lazy and incurious. (Laziness and a lack of curiosity are surprisingly common among newspaper publishers to this day.) He wasn’t paying attention when his officials were absconding with public funds. He avoided impeachment only by dying suddenly in office.

Millard Fillmore (No. 13, 1850-1853) was weirdly reminiscent of Mr. Trump. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act. He hated immigrants and was opposed to immigration. He whipped up hatred against Catholics (although he did get to meet the Pope, who kindly remained seated so Mr. Fillmore wouldn’t have to kiss his ring). He was the last Whig president – pretty well destroying his party. (Signs of things to come?) Later, he helped found the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party.

Franklin Pierce (No. 14, 1853-1857) also helped bring on the Civil War as the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas,” the civil war that preceded the Civil War. He also turned Native Americans into refugees and created the conditions for the second-worst economic crisis in American history, the Panic of 1857.

Mr. Buchanan (No. 15, 1857-1861), mentioned above, was subject of the appropriately titled 2016 biography by Robert Strauss: “Worst. President. Ever.” President Buchanan basically failed on all fronts, mishandling the economy, engineering a racial crisis, and misinterpreting the U.S. Constitution to encourage the conditions that permitted the Confederacy’s secession.

It’s interesting – and perhaps telling – that four of the half dozen worst presidents were in office just before and after the United States’ worst crisis. Had it not been for No. 16, Abraham Lincoln, it is unlikely the Union would have survived.

Still, as we seek more likely candidates than Mr. Trump for Worst President Ever, we ought not to forget his personal favourite, Andrew Jackson (No. 7, 1829-1837) whose portrait hangs in Mr. Trump’s White House today and graces, if that’s the word, the country’s $20 bill. Mr. Jackson destroyed the Second Bank of the United States for political gain, causing the economic crisis of 1837. Half a million Africans were kidnapped and enslaved every year on his watch, as was the genocidal expulsion of Native Americans from the Southeastern United States. He is credited with beginning the corrupt “spoils” system in the U.S. Government.

That’s enough. There are probably others. Mr. Trump is a terrible president. But we ought not to make the mistake of concluding he’s the worst. He’s probably about No. 7 up from the bottom right now. But there’s still time for a downgrade.

11 Comments to: Donald Trump: He’s bad, but I’m here to tell you he’s not the worst president our neighbours have ever had

  1. Heather

    January 5th, 2018

    Bush Jr was a warmonger, an opportunist, a liar in his own right (WMDs anyone?), who started a war that ultimately gave his family financial gain, refused to investigate the “anomalys” in the Florida election and simply declared his brother the winner, was President when the second biggest economic crisis hit the US, is widly considered an idiot (Green Days album American Idiot was named for 43), he was a hot mess as an orator and yet Trump makes him look like a master statesman. True there are worse presidents than 45* but that’s like choosing to have your hand eaten off by ants or wolves. American ex military repeatedly express anger at 45* for many things but including how well Dubya looks in hindsight. Read @Stonekettle or on The Facebook, Stonekettle Station and @colmorrisdavis for only two (of many I follow) who are openly against Trump and comment regularly how much they hate how presidential Trump makes Jr look. My view may be myopic but this is the age I live in.

    Reply
    • Olav

      January 5th, 2018

      2008 wasn’t the second-worst economic crisis in U.S. history, and I’m not sure it’s even in the Top 10 worst.

      What has to be remembered is that prior to the 1900s, there was so much mistrust in central banking institutions that the U.S. would abolish its central bank on a semi-regular basis, leading to a cycle of massive financial system failures every 20 years or so. The first 100 years of U.S. history is just one financial crisis after another.

      There was the Panic of 1857, the Panic of 1837 and The Copper Panic Of 1789, Thomas Jefferson abolished the first U.S. bank, which led to the The Depression of 1815-21, the Panic of 1797 almost ended the U.S. in its infancy …

      During the Panic of 1893, more than 15,000 businesses failed, 500 banks closed, and unemployment remained in excess of 10% for more than five years.

      In the Panic of 1873, the markets crashed so severely that New York Stock Exchange ceased trading for ten days. 18,000 businesses failed over the course of two years. Unemployment exceeded 14%.

      Reply
  2. January 5th, 2018

    Another excellent column, David, and one that reflects the thought I have whenever I hear someone say about a current leader “____ is the worst premier/prime minister ever”. Whenever I hear that I want to ask ‘Who was the worst one before that?’ I do wonder how many of the people making a comment like that can even name all of the previous leaders, let alone comment on them?

    Reply
  3. January 5th, 2018

    Interesting your comment about the worst presidents occurring around the civil war. That era was, of course, also the era that slavery became unacceptable, so I think the case can be made that what the voters of the time saw was various presidents’ inability to change with the changing times, or more accurately, their unwillingness to change because of their supporters’ demands.

    That very much resonates with climate change today, and the degrees of willingness various leaders have to deal with it.

    Reply
  4. Colleen Chapman

    January 5th, 2018

    When I read the headline I thought, “hogwash!”. You changed my mind by rattling previous teachers. Thanks, excellent read. All year long I have been gobsmacked every time I have looked upon Dubya’s countenance with nostalgia for the good old days.

    Reply
  5. Andy M.

    January 5th, 2018

    Your blog inspires other thoughts about U.S. presidents. Every president in my adult life time has had deep flaws. Kennedy was a tom cat who pursued dangerous liaisons; Johnson had the sense to realize his own inadequacies; “I am not a crook” Nixon; Ford who couldn’t chew and walk; Carter, well he was the exception that proved the rule (just kidding — he was quite a rube); Reagan, a cunning dope who went crazy on the job; out-of-touch Bush Sr., “I did not have sex with that woman “Clinton; brainless, war-mongering George W. (actually they’ve all been war-mongering), hate to say it but equivocating, wavering, secretive Obama. Now this guy. One explanation is that we’re all flawed, and that elevation to such high and responsible office will always eventually expose serious flaws. Relentless exposure by all kinds of media obviously peel back defences. We’ve had a weird lot of PMs, too, but they haven’t faced the scrutiny placed on U.S. presidents. Spotlight on leaders highlights in exaggerated form the ridiculousness of all of us humans. We reap in leaders who we the people really are. Happy new year.

    Reply
  6. David

    January 5th, 2018

    Well I suppose history is helpful to put things in context. Of course, none of us were around in 1857, so we have to rely on history to judge the Presidents from that time. Given the US ended up in a terrible civil war shortly after that is is likely there was a series of incompetent idiots shortly before that happened. Also, its probably likely some incompetence contributed to the Great Depression. I doubt it just happened all by itself.

    Aside from not seeming that relevant, I suppose we would like to think the modern world has progressed a long ways from the errors of the distant past – we don’t have slavery now and the even the Great Recession was not a repeat of the Great Depression. I suppose we should take some comfort that the worst presidents are mostly from a time around 150 years ago and none (except maybe Trump) are from the last 50 years.

    However, I suppose it also demonstrates the US is not immune to stupidity, no democracy is. To paraphrase what Churchill said, it is the worst possible system except for all the other alternatives. As the Presidential term is only 4 years, hopefully the Trump era will end by then or at the rate things are going perhaps sooner. Of course, that is no guarantee he will be ultimately be replaced by a better President, that part is up to the American people.

    Reply
  7. January 5th, 2018

    All of the examples presented are assuredly horrible but all are from a bygone era in which the stakes were less and the world knew much less about them or anything outside their immediate sphere for that matter. Trump should know better simply because of the times we live in.

    Reply
    • Expat Albertan

      January 6th, 2018

      Indeed, those men were presidents when the USA was not a nuclear armed superpower with a huge victim complex…the stakes are very different.

      Reply
  8. Jerrymacgp

    January 6th, 2018

    Maybe The Donald isn’t the worst President ever … yet. But he hasn’t yet been in office a full year, so give him some time and he might yet excel in worseness. However, you certainly can’t deny he is shaping to be the worst in living memory. He’s certainly the least qualified since, well, anyone you can think of. He is the first since Eisenhower who had never sought, let alone held, elected office at any level before running for POTUS, and Eisenhower’s only previous experience for high public office was … the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis.

    Trump is evidence that American democracy is broken. Hopefully it will repair itself beginning with this year’s mid-term Congressional elections.

    Reply
  9. TC

    January 8th, 2018

    Interesting commentary… Although the list of bad presidents supplied by the writer needs some (historical) context.

    With the exception of Warren Harding, the list of bad presidents were in office during the mid-19th century. Due to divisive issues such as slavery, candidates from major parties were often compromises between differing factions within the party. They were the one least dislike by most in the party.

    More importantly, American presidency in the 19th century was much less influential than the 20th century, and for that matter, the 21st. At the time, if one wanted to be an influential politician, he would run for the US Senate. American political culture at the time only required the President to execute the laws passed by Congress, and not things like fixing the economy or leading the “legislative agenda”. While history has judged those presidents listed by the writer very badly, one could argue that, with the exception of how President Buchanan handled the southern states seceding during his lame duck period, having a string of bad presidents in the mid-19th century didn’t hinder the development of the United States from becoming a world power.

    Reply

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