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!
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 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?
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.