Over the past four years, lots of Americans have considered the possibility that Donald Trump is the worst president in U.S. history. Is he?
I’ve often been tempted to conclude that the answer is affirmative. But, because I’m historically minded, I’m aware that there are other contenders for that dubious honor (really, dishonor) and have wanted to avoid a rush to such a judgment.
James Buchanan, whose presidency immediately preceded the Civil War (the first secessions actually occurred before he left office) seems like a serious contender. Richard Nixon, while very smart and competent, allowed his everybody-hates-me-but-I’ll-show-them dark side to turn him into a criminal conspirator and had to resign to avoid being impeached. Warren Harding has come down to us as both dumb and corrupt, although the corruption that occurred in his administration was committed mostly by others. An accidental president, Andrew Johnson, who took over after Abe Lincoln was assassinated, and was impeached but not removed during his brief, unelected presidency, is sometimes in the running.
Of course, it’s not officially knowable or provable who was the worst POTUS. (Because the Civil War was so terrible and deadly, I’ve leaned toward Buchanan in the past, even though Buchanan had a glittering pre-presidential résumé.)
But, as Trump left office, an actual scholar of presidential history, Tim Naftali of New York University, reviewed the candidates I’ve mentioned above and a few others, and came to the conclusion that Trump has indeed taken the worstness crown from them all. It’s difficult to trust one’s present-day thoughts and feelings over those whose records have been considered and discussed for generations, but, dang it, Naftali did win me over.
Here are a couple of paragraphs from Naftali’s summation, published by the great magazine The Atlantic:
As Trump prepares to leave Washington, the capital is more agitated than during any previous presidential transition since 1861, with thousands of National Guard troops deployed around the city. There have been serious threats to previous inaugurations. But for the first time in the modern era, those threats are internal. An incumbent president is being asked to discourage terrorism by supporters acting in his name.
There are many verdicts on Donald Trump still to come, from the Senate, from juries of private citizens, from scholars and historians. But as a result of his subversion of national security, his reckless endangerment of every American in the pandemic, and his failed insurrection on January 6, one thing seems abundantly clear: Trump is the worst president in the 232-year history of the United States.