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Comparing the presidents: Who was the worst?

In a smart essay for The Atlantic, the great James Fallows drifted into a Richard Nixon comparison, and then turned to Donald Trump.

Because I’m a history nerd, I spend some time thinking about (arguably stupid) historical questions, like “Who is the worst president ever?”

Abe Lincoln is widely viewed as the best, and I don’t dispute that. But worst isn’t discussed as much, and there was perhaps no consensus pick, until, perhaps recently.

Before Donald Trump, there were many contenders. Herbert Hoover, because the Depression started on his watch, but Hoover was a good and smart guy, and no serious person actually “blames” him for causing the Depression. Ulysses S. Grant used to be mentioned for the worstness crown, but he, also, has been devised upward. Richard Nixon, a liar and conniver who authorized crimes and further seriously abused his office to cover them up, deserves mention, although Nixon was extremely knowledgeable and smart, and did some good things in office.

My own candidate, until recently, was James Buchanan, who actually had the most glittering of pre-presidential résumés, having served in the House and the Senate, as an ambassador and in the Cabinet before being elected president in 1856. Although a northerner and personally opposed to slavery, Buchanan referred to the issue of slavery as “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” But during his term the country drifted toward Civil War over the slavery issue and the Civil War actually started (if you consider the secession of South Carolina to be the start of the Civil War), while Buchanan held office. 

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But then came Trump, who has lowered the bar for presidential worstness again and again, and may have done so again while I was typing this paragraph.

In a smart essay for The Atlantic, the great James Fallows drifted into the Nixon comparison, and, in supporting the Trump-is-worse argument, came up with this sad, scary but true paragraph:

Agree with him or not—and mostly I didn’t—Richard Nixon was a substantial figure, as were, in their starkly different ways, other members of that year’s cast, from Johnson and Humphrey to Kennedy, McCarthy, and even Wallace. The American choice in the turmoil of 1968 was among competent exponents of different outlooks. There was no chance that the White House would end up in the hands of a clown.

I encourage you to read the whole Fallows piece, but in case you don’t, here are the final two summary paragraphs from it:

When people feel afraid, they want someone who claims to be strong. Law-and-order candidates rise when confidence in regular order ebbs. Richard Nixon had much more going for him in 1968 than Donald Trump does in 2020—most of all that Nixon, as an outsider, could campaign on everything that was wrong with the country, while Trump, as the incumbent, must defend his management and record, which includes record unemployment. But protests and fear of disorder—especially fear of angry black people in disorder—drew people to Nixon as the law-and-order candidate in 1968, and he clearly knew that.

Donald Trump could not put that point as carefully as Nixon, but he must also sense that backlash against disorder, from people he has classified as the other and the enemy, is his main—indeed, his only—electoral hope. Trump promised in that inaugural address that ‘American carnage stops right here, right now.’ Now, crassly, he seems to be trying to make it worse.

But, really, the whole Fallows piece is worth a read. And it’s right here.