‘The Most Ignorant and Unfit’: What Made America’s Worst Ever Leader?

Historians in the News
tags: presidential history, Donald Trump, rankings

Should we conclude, then, that Donald Trump is the embodiment of the Founders’ worst fears?

Every day, there are new outrages, to be sure. We would need a list of more than twenty-seven complaints if we were to enumerate a lifetime of Trump’s misdeeds, from defrauding US tax authorities and obstructing justice to violating the Constitution. He has invited our enemies to interfere with our elections to help him win, then sought to do it again. He has misused federal resources, inappropriately elevated his own family members, and enriched his own businesses. He has repeatedly attacked the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. He has had infants thrown in cages and denied relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria at the cost of thousands of lives. He has gutted environmental protections and attacked alliances that the US spent decades building and maintaining. And now he has mismanaged the worst public health crisis in a hundred years, overseen the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and attempted to use the US military to crush legitimate protests on the streets of the capital.

Lately, in the space of just a few days, he was revealed to have endorsed concentration camps in China and to have again sought the assistance of a foreign adversary in winning a US election, was quoted as calling for the deaths and imprisonment of US journalists, defended the slave power traitors of the Confederacy, admitted that he suppressed testing during the pandemic because true data about the rate of infections would harm him politically, sought to fire more truthtellers in the administration and had his attorney general remove an official in charge of investigations into him and his supporters. He was reportedly briefed about a Russian scheme to place bounties on American and allied troops in Afghanistan, and not only did nothing about it but continued to act as an advocate for Putin. And so it goes on… before we even consider the many complaints about his character—his racism and misogyny, his ignorance and contempt for science and history, his lies, his narcissism, his vulgarity, his demagoguery. Has there ever been a public official in US history so unable to relate to others, show an emotion besides anger, or view the world through any means but his own self-interest?

It is easy to imagine he is the worst leader the US has ever had. It is a view endorsed by the American Political Science association, which canvassed some 170 historians who ranked Trump dead last—a largely bipartisan verdict, too, since even self-identified Republicans on the panel rated him fortieth against the forty-four other contenders. C-Span has conducted similar surveys of presidential historians in 2000, 2009, and 2017 (none of these, naturally, include Trump). The bottom ten in the most recent survey were James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Herbert Hoover, Chester Arthur, and Martin Van Buren. (There were some shifts in the group over the three surveys, with, for example, George W. Bush making the bottom ten in 2009, but just missing the cut in 2017.)

Several patterns become apparent from such lists. In addition to a negative association with the divisions of the Civil War period, corruption and scandal were another way on to the list for several of those ranked among the worst (for example, Grant and Harding). Of the presidents who faced impeachment, Andrew Johnson is always ranked in the bottom group, Nixon is sometimes, and Clinton is not. Trump is on his way to joining Johnson.

The best—maybe only—saving grace for Trump in the history books is that no one could accuse him of causing the Civil War. That said, the signature approach of defending and promoting white supremacists and ethno-nationalist policies that has come to define his presidency has capitalized on precisely the legacy of those regional and racial divisions in America that did lead to the Civil War. 

Read entire article at New York Review of Books