As each day passes, Trump adds to an already impressive body of evidence arguing that he should be considered the worst president in U.S. history. But, taking a dispassionate, long view, there are a small number of surprisingly strong contenders for this title. This history call is depressingly closer than it should be.
So, let fellow political junkies, history nerds and interested readers consider and debate below whether Trump was worse than the following four presidents (or other suggestions) for the title of “Worst President Ever.”
1. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Any discussion on this topic has to include Mr. Watergate — the first and only President to resign in disgrace and in the teeth of impeachment. In terms of this debate, Nixon is a Rock Star — and his crimes go beyond the particulars. Potentially no other modern figure is more responsible for the current state of disillusionment, cynicism and distrust in government. He was that bad. And he had egregious Vietnam War problems on top of all this.
Conclusion: Nixon will always be a deserved contender, but personally I can’t put him at # 1 because he had too many other accomplishments, including: (i) establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, (ii) was the first President to visit the People’s Republic of China, (iii) signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, (iv) ended the military draft, (v) lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, (vi) signed Title IX banning gender discrimination at colleges and universities, and (vii) began the first organized scientific “war on cancer.” He also met with Elvis in the White House. Trump has no comparable countervailing achievements.
2. Herbert Hoover (1921-1928)
In this debate, President Hoover is a true heavyweight.
As we all know, Hoover presided indifferently over, and exacerbated, the Great Depression. Hoover’s mistakes were historically consequential. It is really hard to beat this failed record. In terms of this debate, the most interesting thing might be the obvious parallels between Hoover and Trump:
Imagine a relatively successful businessman with no previous experience in elected office becoming president of the United States. While in office, he authorizes a few modest construction projects, but not enough to overcome the crippling economic downturn that sets in a few months after his inauguration. To deal with the hard times, he presides over a forced return of about half a million Mexican immigrants back across the border. He then sets off a trade war by raising tariffs on thousands of imported items, to which Canada and several European countries retaliate by upping their own duties. Trade and other international relations stall, the economy gets even worse, and even a segment of the Army rebels in the streets of Washington. Oh, and the White House literally catches on fire.
Conclusion: This is a really close match. It is hard to equal (much less exceed) Hoover’s record with the Great Depression. But . . . Trump’s epic failure, and catastrophic, misguided and indifferent health and economic record, with Covid-19 is certainly in the ballpark, and its not over yet. I’ll also note that, to my knowledge, Hoover does not share anything like Trump’s attacks on democracy, undermining the free press, profiteering in office, public racism, and disruption of core governmental functions like the State Department, the FBI, intelligence communities, the Justice Department, and military command structures. Nor did Hoover collude with foreign governments to interfere in our elections or seek to undermine the legitimacy of democratic elections. Despite the unquestioned magnitude of the Great Depression, there is a reasonable argument that Trump wins the fight on points during the later rounds. I don’t mean to be cute about this. I would really like input from others on this match-up.
3. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Reaching back in history, we find probably the consensus title holder for Worst President Ever: Pres. Andrew Johnson — although some would count # 4 below, and for somewhat similar reasons. Andrew Johnson (as VP) became President upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. How bad was Pres. Johnson? Well, notably, he also seemed to share characteristics of our current challenger:
The president of the United States was both a racist and a very difficult man to get along with.
He routinely called blacks inferior. He bluntly stated that no matter how much progress they made, they must remain so. He openly called critics disloyal, even treasonous. He liberally threw insults like candy during public speeches. He rudely ignored answers he didn’t like. He regularly put other people into positions they didn’t want to be in, then blamed them when things went sour. His own bodyguard later called him “destined to conflict,” a man who “found it impossible to conciliate or temporize.”
He also was impeached, and escaped removal by 1 vote. And, he was visibly drunk during his inauguration speech. But, more seriously, it is hard to convey the enduring and violent damage done by Pres. Johnson. As one commentary sums it up:
For the most part, historians view Andrew Johnson as the worst possible person to have served as President at the end of the American Civil War. Because of his gross incompetence in federal office and his incredible miscalculation of the extent of public support for his policies, Johnson is judged as a great failure in making a satisfying and just peace. He is viewed to have been a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas. Instead of forging a compromise between Radical Republicans and moderates, his actions united the opposition against him. His bullheaded opposition to the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Fourteenth Amendment eliminated all hope of using presidential authority to effect further compromises favorable to his position. In the end, Johnson did more to extend the period of national strife than he did to heal the wounds of war.
Most importantly, Johnson's strong commitment to obstructing political and civil rights for blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well. Johnson's decision to support the return of the prewar social and economic system—except for slavery—cut short any hope of a redistribution of land to the freed people or a more far-reaching reform program in the South.
Conclusion: Andrew Johnson has always been my personal choice for Worst President Ever, and I believe it is difficult for anyone to knock him off this perch. We are talking about an accidental president — a sympathizer of the Confederacy who gained the presidency by a Confederate assassin’s bullet — who destroyed the opportunity and sacrifice earned in blood by his immediate successor and the greatest national military tragedy. Phew! I don't like Trump, and I don't want to minimize his failings . . . but I think the title still belongs to Johnson.
4. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Pres. Buchanan is a sort of twin to Pres. Johnson: the former criminally blundered his way into the Civil War and the latter criminally blundered his way out of it.
From just his Wikipedia page:
When asked to rank the best and worst presidents, Buchanan is consistently placed among the worst. Many consider him as the worst president in American history, for during his administration, the Union broke apart, and when he left office, civil war threatened.
A 2017 C-Span survey ranked him the least effective U.S. president of all-time . . . . A 2006 poll of historians ranked Buchanan's failure to prevent the Civil War as the worst mistake ever made by a sitting president.[. . . .]
Biographer Jean Baker is [even] less charitable to Buchanan:
Americans have conveniently misled themselves about the presidency of James Buchanan, preferring to classify him as indecisive and inactive…In fact Buchanan's failing during the crisis over the Union was not inactivity, but rather his partiality for the South, a favoritism that bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. His experience in government had only rendered him too self-confident to consider other views. In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.
Notable quotes from Pres. Buchanan include his inaugural speech comment that slavery is “happily, a matter of but little practical importance” and his State of the Union message denying any federal role in stopping slavery or averting a civil war:
All for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way. As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil. . . .
It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.
Conclusion: As said above, Presidents Johnson and Buchanan have been the reigning champs of Worst Presidents Ever. In terms of lasting damage and consequences, Pres. Buchanan is justifiably considered a historical train-wreck and possibly the worst President. Cooling our current passions, it is tough to argue that Trump was worse, was more consequential, than Buchanan — whose failures directly and immediately contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Summary: It is notable and important to recognize that Trump is in the debate for Worst President Ever. It is also sobering and dispiriting to realize that he faces some really stiff competition for that dishonor. For me, I remain with the belief that Johnson and Buchanan (in whichever order) retain the number 1 and 2 last spots. I simply don't know how you surpass their vile, catastrophic failures — measured in oppression, blood, misery and death.
But I do think Trump presently is the third worst president, and that says an awful lot. I also think Trump is a uniquely bad and threatening president in that his failures are decidedly not ones of policy, ideology or failures of judgment. Trump, maybe uniquely among presidents, is unfit, deranged and destructive in a self-interested, unstable and demented way. He is unique, and I would expect nothing less from a true number 3.