President Trump’s four years in office come to a close Wednesday after a reign defined by constant chaos, corruption and scandal, a tenure that numerous scholars predict is destined to rank him among America’s worst presidents.
Trump’s claims of policy victories — including a raft of conservative judges and steps toward Middle East peace — will be vastly overshadowed by his mismanagement of the pandemic and his unprecedented assault on the U.S. election results, they said.
“You never want to be ranked below William Henry Harrison, who was only president for one month. If you rank below him, it means you’ve harmed the country,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. “Now you’re getting into James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson territory. Trump will automatically be in that category.”
Yet as Trump departs the White House — and the daily controversies and social media warfare he provoked begin to subside — the historians preparing to reckon with his legacy say it’s not just Trump who will be examined in the harsh reflection of history’s mirror, but also American society and the nation’s commitment to democracy.
Trump’s relentless attacks on civic institutions, provoking of racial and social divisions, trampling of political norms, broadsides against the free press and impugning of America’s international allies have raised profound questions about the nature of American governance and the endurance of the values the United States has long professed to cherish, scholars said.
“Trump and Trumpism have brought those flaws into sharp relief,” said Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University. “The fact that 74 million people could vote for someone who is a conspiracy theorist and a perpetual liar and encouraged violence and the Proud Boys and white supremacy — in that sense, the Trump presidency will be important for those reckoning with: ‘What does it mean to be an American?’ And also: ‘What does it mean to live in what a lot of people thought was the world’s greatest experiment in democracy, when it turns out that experiment is incredibly fragile?’ ”