Monday, February 19, 2018

Trump as Worst President?

Tis Presidents' Day in the US (the name of the holiday in Canada varies by province--Family Day in Ontario, I think), so folks are trying to figure out if Trump is the worst President in US history.  Too soon?  Maybe.

Tis fair for Silver to think that Trump hasn't done enough damage yet.  Those at the bottom of the list tend to be those who broke the country: Buchanan as the last president before the civil war, Andrew Johnson who screwed up Reconstruction, Harding who helped give us the Great Depression.  Thus far, nothing as bad as the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Great Depression have happened.

But to be fair, those dead Presidents were only partially responsible--they had tons of help (I am not so sure about Johnson--I don't know Reconstruction politics that well).  Harding had heaps of help from Coolidge, Hoover and Congress.  Buchanan was one of many who helped bring the US to the brink of civil war.

One could ask about individual contributions of awful (I am omitting the tax cut since he had heaps of help with that), and this is where Trump really shines:
  • Undermining every norm about conflicts of interest and seeking to profit off of the presidency.  Has any President engaged in more corrupt behavior in their first year?
  • Appointing an agent of a foreign country (at least one, maybe two) to be National Security Adviser.
  • Refusing to fight Russian meddling with American elections.
  • Speaking of elections, Trump has tried to encourage more voter suppression but his own incompetence may have harmed that effort.
  • Obstructing justice early and often.
  • Appointing a retrograde racist to be Attorney General (yes, the Senate is guilty of letting that happen, so not just Trump).
  • Undermining civilian control of the military by appointing active and very recently retired generals to many significant posts and delegating responsibility for major decisions to those in uniform.
  • Attempting to make the Justice Department a biased participant in American politics.
  • Leaving the US understaffed in key areas at a time of significant crisis (who is the Ambassador to South Korea?).
  • Lying every damned day about everything as well documented by Daniel Dale.
  • Brinksmanship with North Korea.  Yes, North Korea is a hard problem, but it is far closer to a boil now than a year ago, and much of that is on Trump and his statements.
  • His condoning/encouraging of white supremacy (one reason why Woodrow Wilson is overrated).
  • Spilling secrets that allies have collected, creating great mistrust of the US.
Sure, none of this involves war (yet), economic hardship (yet), or civil strife (depends on how you count the number of minorities beaten and killed over the past two years).  So, maybe Trump has not presided over the worst times in American history, but he has almost certainty committed the most and potentially some of the gravest unforced effors.  But, yes, recency bias is a thing.

So, it may be too soon to put Trump at the very bottom of the list, but he is properly rated if he is near the bottom. Again, it depends on whether it is about the individual or about the Presidency and the era.  Which is why survey questions are hard to write, and the answers are often hard to interpret.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, also disagree with Nate on this. Trump's singlehanded threat to the post-war international order is enough to put him near the bottom, aside from everything else. You can argue the exact position (the conservative-leaning historians poll him at #40).

Criticism of best president rankings typically focus on who's in the top 20, not the worst of the worst. Recent POTUSes are almost always ranked higher and drop over time. "Most overrated" debates are over the placements of Jackson, Reagan, JFK and LBJ.

Anonymous said...

No - Harding had pretty much nothing to do with the Great Depression. His Administration is known for its widespread breathtaking level of corruption -Teapot Dome, etc.