Is Trump the Worst President in History?News at Home
tags: political history, presidential history, Trump
Richard Striner, a professor of history at Washington College, is the author of many books including Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery and Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.
As the chance of getting rid of Donald Trump — through impeachment or by voting him out — continues to dominate the headlines, the historical challenge is compelling. No president has been a greater threat to the qualities that make the United States of America worthy (at its best) of our allegiance.
The rise of Trump and his movement was so freakish that historians will analyze its nature for a long time. From his origins as a real estate hustler, this exhibitionist sought attention as a TV vulgarian. Susceptible television viewers found his coarse behavior amusing. Then he announced that he was running for the presidency and it looked for a while like just another cheap publicity stunt.
But his name-calling tactics struck a chord with a certain group of voters. Our American scene began to darken. Before long, he was hurling such vicious abuse that it ushered in a politics of rage. As his egomania developed into full megalomania, the “alt-right” gravitated toward him.
The “movement” had started.
More and more, to the horror of everyone with power to see and understand, he showed a proto-fascist mentality. So alarms began to spread: mental health professionals warned that he exemplifies “malignant narcissism.”
Never before in American history has the presidential office passed into the hands of a seditionist. And the use of this term is appropriate. With no conception of principles or limits — “I want” is his political creed —he mocks the rule of law at every turn.
At a police convention in 2017, he urged the officers in attendance to ignore their own regulations and brutalize the people they arrest. He pardoned ex-Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court. He appointed Scott Pruitt to head the EPA so he could wreck the agency and let polluters have the spree of their lives.
Trump is fascinated by powerful dictators with little regard to human rights or democracy. He compliments Vladimir Putin and hopes to invite that murderer to stay in the White House. He likes Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, a tyrant who subverts that nation’s democracy.
So, Trump certainly has the personality of a fascist. But he is not quite as dangerous as other authoritarians in history.
In the first place, he lacks the fanatical vision that drove the great tyrants like Hitler and Stalin to pursue their sick versions of utopia. He is nothing but a grubby opportunist. He has no ideas, only appetites. The themes that pass for ideas in the mind of Donald Trump begin as prompts that are fed to him by others — Stephen Miller, Sean Hannity, and (once upon a time) Steve Bannon. To be sure, he would fit right in among the despots who tyrannize banana-republics. But that sort of a political outcome in America is hard to envision at the moment.
Second, American traditions — though our current crisis shows some very deep flaws in our constitutional system — are strong enough to place a limit on the damage Trump can do. If he ordered troops to occupy the Capitol, disperse the members of Congress, and impose martial law, the chance that commanders or troops would carry out such orders is nil.
Third, Americans have faced challenges before. Many say he is our very worst president — bar none. And how tempting it is to agree. But a short while ago, people said the same thing about George W. Bush, who of course looks exemplary now when compared to our presidential incumbent.
The “worst president.”
“Worst,” of course, is a value judgment that is totally dependent on our standards for determining “badness.” And any number of our presidents were very bad indeed — or so it could be argued.
Take Andrew Jackson, with his belligerence, his simple-mindedness, his racism as reflected in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Take all the pro-slavery presidents before the Civil War who tried to make the enslavement of American blacks perpetual: John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan. Take James K. Polk and his squalid war of aggression against Mexico. Take Andrew Johnson, who did everything he could to ruin the lives of the newly-freed blacks after Lincoln’s murder.
The list could go on indefinitely, depending on our individual standards for identifying “badness.” Shall we continue? Consider Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, so clueless in regard to the comparatively easy challenge of preventing corruption among their associates. Or consider Grover Cleveland and Herbert Hoover, who blinded themselves to the desperation of millions in economic depressions. And Richard Nixon, the only president to date who has resigned the office in disgrace.
Which brings us to Trump.
However incompetent or even malevolent some previous American presidents were, this one is unique. The Trump presidency is a singular aberration, a defacement of norms and ideals without precedent. However bad some other presidents were all of them felt a certain basic obligation to maintain at least a semblance of dignity and propriety in their actions.
Foul beyond words, he lurches from one brutal whim to another, seeking gratification in his never-ending quest to humiliate others. He spews insults in every direction all day. He makes fun of the handicapped. He discredits journalists in order to boost the credibility of crackpots and psychopathic bigots. He accuses reporters of creating “fake news” so he can generate fake news himself: spew a daily torrent of hallucinatory lies to his gullible followers.
He amuses himself — with the help of his money and the shyster lawyers that it pays for — in getting away with a lifetime’s worth of compulsive frauds that might very well lead to prosecutions (later) if the evidence has not been destroyed and if the statute of limitations has not expired.
So far, however, he is always too brazen to get what he deserves, too slippery for anyone to foil.
Anyone with half of ounce of decency can see this wretched man for what he is. They know what’s going on, and yet there’s nothing they can do to make it stop. And that adds to Trump’s dirty satisfaction. Any chance to out-maneuver the decent — to infuriate them — quickens his glee. It makes his victory all the more rotten, incites him to keep on taunting his victims.
It’s all a big joke to Donald Trump, and he can never, ever, get enough of it.
The question must be asked: when in our lifetimes — when in all the years that our once-inspiring Republic has existed — have American institutions been subjected to such treatment? How long can American morale and cohesion survive this?
Nancy Pelosi has said that in preference to seeing Trump impeached, she would like to see him in jail. Current Justice Department policy — which forbids the indictment of presidents — makes it possible for Trump to break our nation’s laws with impunity. Impeachment is useless if the Senate’s Republicans, united in their ruthlessness and denial, take the coward’s way out.
So the prospect of locking him up may have to wait. But the day of reckoning for this fake — this imposter who will never have a glimmer of clue as to how to measure up to his office — may come in due time. Then the presidential fake who accuses his victims of fakery will live with some things that are real: stone walls, iron bars, a nice prison haircut, and the consequences of his actions.
comments powered by Disqus
- Indentured Students: Elizabeth Tandy Shermer on Student Debt (Monday, October 4)
- The Last Good Neighbor: Mexico in the Global Sixties (Washington History Seminar, Mon. 9/27)
- Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (Thursday, 9/23)
- Traveling Black: Mia Bay Joins the Washington History Seminar, September 20
- Why are Historians Facing Online Abuse Over Whether Atlantis Existed?