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ByTim Naftali

File photo outgoing US President Donald Trump (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.

In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?

Former California republic Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls Trump ‘worst president’ ever, ‘failed leader’ after Capitol riot | ABC7

It is helpful to think of the responsibilities of a president in terms of the two elements of the oath of office set forth in the Constitution. In the first part, presidents swear to “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States.” This is a pledge to properly perform the three jobs the presidency combines into one: head of state, head of government, and commander in chief. In the second part, they promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Trump was a serial violator of his oath—as evidenced by his continual use of his office for personal financial gain—but focusing on three crucial ways in which he betrayed it helps clarify his singular historical status. First, he failed to put the national-security interests of the United States ahead of his own political needs. Second, in the face of a devastating pandemic, he was grossly derelict, unable or unwilling to marshal the requisite resources to save lives while actively encouraging public behavior that spread the disease. And third, held to account by voters for his failures, he refused to concede defeat and instead instigated an insurrection, stirring a mob that stormed the Capitol.

Many chief executives have failed, in one way or another, to live up to the demands of the job, or to competently discharge them. But historians now tend to agree that our worst presidents are those who fall short in the second part of their pledge, in some way endangering the Constitution. And if you want to understand why these three failures make Trump the worst of all our presidents, the place to begin is in the basement of the presidential rankings, where dwell his rivals for that singular dishonor.

For decades in the 20th century, many historians agreed that the title Trump has recently earned properly belonged to Warren G. Harding, a president they remembered. The journalist H. L. Mencken, master of the acidic bon mot, listened to Harding’s inaugural address and despaired. “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history,” he wrote.

Poor Harding. Our 29th president popularized the word normalcy and self-deprecatingly described himself as a “bloviator,” before dying in office of natural causes in 1923. Although mourned by an entire nation—9 million people are said to have viewed his funeral train, many singing his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”—he was never respected by people of letters when he was alive. An avalanche of posthumous revelations about corruption in his administration made him an object of scorn among most historians. In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. began the tradition of regularly ranking our presidents, which his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. continued—for decades Harding consistently came in dead last, dominating a category entitled “failure.”

The scandal that prompted Harding’s descent to presidential hell involved the leasing of private drilling rights on federal lands in California and under a Wyoming rock resembling a teapot; Teapot Dome would serve as the shorthand for a terrible presidential scandal until it was displaced by Watergate. In April 1922, the Republican-controlled Senate began an investigation of the Republican administration, with Harding promising cooperation. Public hearings began only after Harding’s death the next year. The secretary of the interior was ultimately found guilty of bribery, becoming the first person to go from the Cabinet to jail. Other scandals engulfed the director of the Veterans’ Bureau and the attorney general.

Although Harding had some warning of the corruption in his administration, no evidence suggests that he personally profited from it, or that he was guilty of more than incompetence. John W. Dean, the former White House counsel who pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in Watergate, later concluded that Harding’s reputation was unfairly tainted: “The fact that Harding had done nothing wrong and had not been involved in any criminal activities became irrelevant.” And, regardless of Harding’s role in the widespread corruption in his administration, he didn’t ever threaten our constitutional system.

On the other side of the ledger, Harding had a number of positive achievements: the Washington Naval Conference to discuss disarmament, the implementation of presidential authority over executive-branch budgeting, the commutation of Eugene V. Debs’s sentence. These, combined with his own lack of direct involvement in the scandals of his administration and the absence of any attack on our republic (which no positive administrative achievements could ever balance out), ought to allow him to be happily forgotten as a mediocre president.

Harding’s reputation has hardly improved, but in recent presidential surveys organized by C-SPAN, his tenure has been eclipsed by the failures of three men who were implicated in the breakup of the Union or who hindered the tortuous effort to reconstruct it.

The first two are Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, abetted and at times amplified the forces that drove the Union asunder. Although neither was from the South, both men sympathized with southern slaveholders. They considered the rising tide of abolitionism an abomination, and sought ways to increase the power of slaveholders.

Pierce and Buchanan opposed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had calmed political tensions by prohibiting slavery above a certain line in the Louisiana Territory. As president, Pierce helped overturn it, adding the pernicious sentence to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that declared the Compromise “inoperative and void.” The Kansas-Nebraska Act not only allowed the people of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to determine themselves whether their respective states were to be slave or free but opened all unorganized territory to slavery.

Buchanan then used federal power in Kansas to ensure that slaveholders and their supporters, though a minority, would win. He authorized the granting of an $80,000 contract to a pro-slavery editor in the territory and “contracts, commissions, and in some cases cold cash” to northern Democrats in the House of Representatives to press them to admit Kansas as a slave state.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected to replace him in November 1860, and states began to secede, Buchanan effectively abdicated his responsibilities as president of the United States. He blamed Lincoln’s Republicans for causing all the problems he faced, and promised southerners a constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever if they returned. When secessionists in South Carolina set siege to a federal fort, Buchanan collapsed. “Like … Nixon in the summer of 1974 before his resignation,” wrote the Buchanan biographer Jean H. Baker, “Buchanan gave every indication of severe mental strain affecting both his health and his judgment.”

During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, President George Washington had led the militia against the Pennsylvania rebels. Buchanan’s Cabinet didn’t expect him to personally lead U.S. troops to protect the federal forts and customhouses being seized by southern secessionists, but he shocked them by doing effectively nothing. When federal officeholders resigned in the South, Buchanan did not use his authority to replace them. He even had to be deterred by his Cabinet from simply surrendering Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and ultimately made only a feeble effort to defend the fort, sending an unarmed merchant ship as relief. Meanwhile, former President Pierce, who had been asked to speak in Alabama, instead wrote in a public letter, “If we cannot live together in peace, then in peace and on just terms let us separate.” After the Civil War ended, Pierce offered his services as a defense lawyer to his friend Jefferson Davis. (Pierce might not have been our worst president, but he’s in the running against John Tyler, who left office in 1845 and 16 years later joined the Confederacy, for leading the worst post-presidency.)

The next great presidential failure in U.S. history involved the management of the victory over the South. Enter the third of the three men who eclipsed Harding: Andrew Johnson. Lincoln had picked Johnson as his running mate in 1864 to forge a unity ticket for what he expected to be a tough reelection bid. A pro-Union Democrat, Johnson had been the sole southern senator in 1861 not to leave Congress when his state seceded.

But Johnson’s fidelity to Lincoln and to the nation ended with Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. While Lincoln had not left detailed plans for how to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the war, Johnson certainly violated the spirit of what Lincoln had envisioned. An unrepentant white supremacist, he opposed efforts to give freedmen the vote, and when Congress did so over his objections, Johnson impeded their enjoyment of that right. He wanted slavery by another name in the South, undermining the broad consensus in the victorious North. “What he had in mind all along for the south,” as his biographer Annette Gordon-Reed wrote, “was a restoration rather than reconstruction.”

Johnson used his pulpit to bully those who believed in equal rights for formerly enslaved people and to encourage a culture of grievance in the South, spreading myths about why the Civil War had occurred in the first place. Many people are responsible for the toxic views and policies that have so long denied Black Americans basic human rights, but Andrew Johnson was the first to use the office of the presidency to give that project national legitimacy and federal support. Having inherited Lincoln’s Cabinet, Johnson was forced to maneuver around Lincoln’s men to impose his own mean-spirited and racist vision of how to reintegrate the South. That got him impeached by the House. A Republican Senate then fell one vote short of removing him from office.

All three of these 19th-century presidents compiled awful records, but Buchanan stands apart because—besides undermining the Union, using his office to promote white supremacy, and demonstrating dereliction of duty in the decisive crisis of secession—he led an outrageously corrupt administration. He violated not just the second part of his oath, betraying the Constitution, but also the first part. Buchanan managed to be more corrupt than the low standard set by his contemporaries in Congress, which is saying something.

In 1858, members of Congress tried to curtail a routine source of graft, described by the historian Michael Holt as the “public printing rake-off.” At the time, there was no Government Printing Office, so contracts for printing the reams of congressional and executive-branch proceedings and statements went to private printers. In the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson had started steering these lucrative contracts to friends. By the 1850s, congressional investigators found that bribes were being extorted from would-be government printers, and that those who won contracts were kicking back a portion of their profits to the Democratic Party. Buchanan directly benefited from this system in the 1856 election. Although he signed reforms into law in 1858, he swiftly subverted them by permitting a subterfuge that allowed his key contributor—who owned a prominent pro-administration newspaper—to continue profiting from government printing.

Does Trump have any modern competitors for the title of worst president? Like Harding, a number of presidents were poor executors of the office. President Woodrow Wilson was an awful man who presided over an apartheid system in the nation’s capital, largely confined his support for democracy abroad to white nations, and then mishandled a pandemic. President Herbert Hoover helped drive the U.S. economy into the ground during the Great Depression, because the economics he learned as a young man proved fundamentally wrong.  

President George W. Bush’s impulse after 9/11 to weaken American civil liberties in the name of protecting them, and his blanket approval of interrogation techniques universally considered torture, left Americans disillusioned and impeded the struggle to deradicalize Islamists. His invasion of Iraq in 2003, like Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on foreign trade during the Napoleonic Wars, had disastrous consequences for American power, and undermined unity at home and abroad.

These presidents were each deeply flawed, but not in the same league as their predecessors who steered the country into Civil War or did their utmost to deprive formerly enslaved people of their hard-won rights while rewarding those who betrayed their country.

And then there’s Richard Nixon.

Before Trump, Nixon set the standard for modern presidential failure as the first president forced from office, who resigned ahead of impeachment. And in many ways, their presidencies have been eerily parallel. But the comparison to Nixon reveals the ways in which Trump’s presidency has been not merely bad, but the very worst we have ever seen.

THE ATLANTIC

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