The Worst President in U.S. History
It’s considered bad taste to declare that Donald Trump is the worst President the United States has ever had; even now, as we run out the clock, his first term still isn’t over. To be fair, there are all sorts of reasons to be cautious. There’s recency bias, by which we’re more likely to remember and pay attention to things that happened recently than those that happened long before; George W. Bush’s cutesy dog-painter persona has already started to overwrite the whole “involve the United States in two endless wars” thing that defined his presidency. There’s also some fog of war involved; we may be operating off of rumors we’ve heard or knowledge that isn’t quite complete. Usually, it’s better to let the dust settle before we make a distanced clinical judgment of presidential quality.
But as with many things in the past four years, the traditional ruleset doesn’t really apply. This President breaks so many norms that to judge him by a norms-based system is inherently flawed. It’s like his first year in office, when newscasters and pundits anxiously awaited his first State of the Union address to find out if this was the moment when Donald Trump would finally become President; if now was the time the host of The Apprentice, known for whining on Twitter about TV ratings and the success of Robert Pattinson’s sex life, would begin to conduct himself with the decorum of a world leader. (The CliffNotes for those of us who understandably have trouble remembering that far back: people were impressed with his pre-written speech; within a week, he was going nuts on Twitter again.)
The idea that the current President is the worst we’ve ever had is only a controversial one in two circles: his supporters and historians. Thanks to our current system of extreme polarization, this probably isn’t an argument I need to have with the left. But the problem, academically speaking, with labeling Trump the worst of all time (the WOAT) is that we’ve had some pretty fucking bad Presidents. A lot of us thought George W. Bush was the supreme idiot of executive history, but long before him, President Herbert Hoover did a notoriously bad job at staving off the effects of the Great Depression. Warren G. Harding’s entire term as President was marked by House of Cards-level conspiracies and scandals. Presidents Pierce and Buchanan watched as the United States slid gently into Civil War, and President Andrew Johnson smiled as he entirely botched the reconstruction effort.
If we’re having a serious discussion of Presidential quality, we can’t undersell each of these candidates for the coveted position of WOAT. Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal absolutely desecrated the office of President. When we talk about Trump’s lack of respect for the presidency, those are echoes of Harding. The Great Depression was not only the worst economic disaster in United States history, but in world history, so Hoover’s inability to mediate its effects cannot be understated. The Civil War is the Civil War; my elementary school didn’t bus me out to a field and have grown men in costumes feed us shitty crackers to have me forget it. This was the worst disaster disaster in American history, a conflict that left millions dead. To be powerless to stop it is a mark of failed authority.
And then there’s Johnson: handed the legacy of the most significant tidying up in American history by his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, Johnson’s careless succession of fuckups led directly to the Confederate Statues and Southern Pride era we’re still existing in. Abe did all the digging, and Johnson filled the hole with poopoo and called it a day. He was notably the first President to be impeached, and he escaped conviction by only one vote. Yikes.
So Donald has some stiff competition. I think the proud Americans/closet nationalists among us may like to imagine that all of the Presidents before our lifetimes were very serious, stoic men who put country before self or whatever, but that’s clearly not the case. We’ve had some bad executives. I still think this one trounces those.
Here’s one reason: for most of the Presidents listed above, each did a shitty job dealing with an already-shitty situation. Hoover couldn’t fix the Great Depression, but he didn’t start the Great Depression. Pierce and Buchanan couldn’t stop the country from descending into civil war, but they weren’t the ones who had given the south an indefensible legacy of human-ownership they were willing to die to defend. Even Johnson, who had been handed a Civil War victory on a platter by Lincoln, was still wading in unexplored waters, being responsible for cleaning up after a war he had no part in starting and a minimal role in waging. The most comparable is Harding, who actually was pretty responsible for all of his failings and jeopardized his position as a popular President in happy times with all of his god-tier corruption.
Contrast all of this with Trump. The great recession economy had cooled in the latter Obama years. The United States was still engaged in the Bush wars, but we seemed to be entering the long tail of those, an end-stage of indeterminate length. We were polarized, for sure, but by no means on the brink of Civil War. Relationships with other countries were pretty good. Russia had been doing its best to bait us with cyber attacks and invasions of Ukraine, and our conduct with China was back-and-forth, but our allies in Europe and abroad knew where we stood, and an external war didn’t seem likely either.
Then Trump came. He ran a primarily nationalist campaign that targeted non-issues like Mexican immigration and a suspicious lack of coal in the national economy. He galvanized a support base of uneducated voters in rural and industrial areas, and cashed in hard on resentment of liberal politics and a period of growing racial, cultural, and sexual inclusion in the United States.
The best thing anyone credible can say about the Trump administration (and they say it a lot) is that the economy soared. Talking about economic performance during the reign of a normal president is difficult; measures like GDP and stock market performance only provide part of the picture. But a lot of economists agree, the Trump economy was booming. Was that due to Trump himself? Maybe partially. It’s hard to deny that a national feeling of corporate thirst could have easily been inspired by a very vocal acknowledgement of laissez-faire ideas by the President himself. So maybe he’s responsible for that. He’s also responsible, though, for the subsequent uber-crash the economy took when the coronavirus hit last year. During that ongoing crisis, the government’s total refusal to act beyond two stimulus checks definitively contributed to a rapidly-failing economy. Even now, as traditional indicators of investment economy are ticking up, the families who lost jobs months, or even a year, ago aren’t likely to be reinvigorated by knowledge that Wall Street is chugging again. The Trump economy was, if nothing else, a Trump economy, the sort that invariably benefits people like Donald Trump, and only accidentally enriches anyone else in doing so.
When he took office, Donald Trump momentarily saw himself as a President for all Americans. He sorta echoed that whole “I’ll be a President for everyone!” aesthetic popular with modern politicians at his victory speech, and then immediately fell away from it at the first sign of adversity. Donald Trump may be the President who communicated most directly with his constituents, having done so almost entirely through Twitter and his bizarre, medi-Presidential rallies (no President holds rallies after being elected). Being surrounded almost exclusively by his most rabid fans, Trump delighted in further radicalizing them against anyone he saw as his political enemies. On any given week, Democratic politicians like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the dreaded Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and, for some reason, Cory Booker? Maybe he was the one who most resembled Trump’s arch nemesis, Obama) were certainly on the hate docket, but there was also usually some Republican who had sufficiently angered the President by not complying with some insane demand, so it’s not like the GOP was totally unfamiliar with the feeling of being assaulted by the President’s personal hate-brigade.
Trump’s entire term was built around the anger of his base: hearing it, stoking it, soaking it in, but never calming it. Trump was satisfied with the happiness of his mob when it was directed at him, but general life satisfaction as a reward for his underlings and supporters wasn’t a goal of the President’s; conversely, it was a route to be avoided. Solving immigration concerns means his wrathful horde is no longer angry about immigration. Bringing back coal, supporting the police and military, locking her up, these are great chants, but actually following through means risking a hold on your attack dogs. For Trump, that was never an option.
This promulgation of anger reached its so-far apogee last week, when the President’s personal guard broke past barriers (some more easily than others) and stormed the United States Capitol in the interest of overturning a democratically-conducted election. Comfortably seated behind his phone screen, the President happily urged them on. His personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, publicly supported a violent option. In the aftermath of an attempted fascist coup, the President has remained mostly silent (though that may be, in part, due to the fact that his favored communication medium, Twitter, permanently banned his account). The words he has said weren’t enough, and they won’t ever be enough, because, at the end of the day, the President does not want to call off his dogs. He might see the political benefit in downplaying the situation or attempting a calm, metered response (whatever that looks like from him), but he can never quite blame anyone who shows him love, unless it benefits him directly. Very fine people on both sides at Charlottesville. Proud Boys? Stand by. He thinks he’s compromising, but his absolute inability to condemn his supporters shines through.
We focus so much on Trump’s hateful rhetoric and politicking because, beyond that curtain, his presidency isn’t much more. It’s almost impossible to believe that Donald Trump is remotely interested in the day-to-day operations of the Department of Energy, Department of Education, any other federal department, or the country at large. It’s all a show for him. It’s all about the ego: what makes him look good, what makes him feel powerful. Everything else is permanently relegated to the sidelines.
Abroad, the reputation of the United States has tanked under Trump. Once iron-clad bonds between this country and NATO have oxidized significantly under Trump, with a post-Brexit Europe turning to the leadership of figures like Angela Merkel instead of a Trump who cozies up more comfortably to puppeteer dictators like Vladimir Putin. Throughout his campaign and subsequent administration, Democrats have scratched their brain for the source of the secret juice that Putin can supply to Trump. Maybe he has some sort of kompromat, like the famed pee tape. Or maybe it’s a business deal to build Trump Towers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the end of the day, though, is it so difficult to believe that the President likes Putin because Putin knows how to play his game? Vladimir Putin is a political father-figure for a man whose whole life was spent in pursuit of his own father’s vision of success. Trump wants to be a successful strongman, and Putin tells him he believes in him and tucks him in. Really, that should be more terrifying than any urophilic porno starring Donald Trump.
The rest of Trump’s foreign policy is as short-sighted and vain as his relations with Europe. Our national relationship with North Korea is wholly dependent on the personal hot-and-cold between their Supreme Leader and our would-be Supreme Leader. We’ve edged back and forth to the precipice of war with Iran more than once based only on the President’s mood and his deep hatred for the Iran Nuclear Deal as a relic of the Obama administration. We have no more friends on the world stage, just weekly work partners fated to become staunch enemies as soon as their leader fails to properly anoint the President’s testicles.
And then there’s the bizarre: decisions like banning transgender people from the military, an idea espoused by no prominent politicians or military leaders, but undertaken swiftly by the Trump administration as a way to… what?
Every news cycle from January 2017 until now has been entirely dominated by the rapidly-shifting whims of one egotistical man. We used to wait anxiously by our phones to see what crazy shit he’d do next. Then we got used to it, fell apathetic, felt bad for feeling apathetic. Drained of the thrill of receiving unlimited attention, the President resorted to wilder means. As his grasp on another term escaped him, he became more desperate, more unhinged. His stupidly-strong contingent of Republican allies increasingly distant from his own collapsing alliance of creeps and sycophants, the President grows angrier, readier to make decisions none of his predecessors had considered, not in the name of bettering the country or preserving the union, but in preserving his own power.
As with all of his political maneuvers, the President’s current itinerary of actions remains short-sighted, fueled entirely by of-the-moment emotional whims. He doesn’t care what the fallout of a potential coup or betrayal of the American democratic will would mean. He doesn’t understand or care that a second term for him would, at this point, be marred completely by the means he has undertaken to achieve it. This is a man who has only ever had eyes for money, power, and prestige. Everything else falls to the wayside. That’s how he ran his businesses, that’s how he steered his campaign, and that’s how he led the country.
Previous Presidents failed to steer us from the Civil War due to their own inabilities and incompetencies. This President tried to steer us toward one for no other reason than his personal desire for power.
Donald Trump is the worst President in United States history.