“Being president,” former First Lady Michelle Obama has said, “doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” In this moment, we may also need to acknowledge that presidents also reveal much about who we are.
American presidents do not exist outside the systems or times that produced them. Great presidents—like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and, arguably, Lyndon B. Johnson—have emerged when the nation has risen to meet challenging circumstances. And, granted, most presidents are middling—which tells us something about the quotidian nature of much of political life in the US. But America’s worst presidents demonstrate something essential about what is most broken or troubling in the character of the country and the temper of the times. A dismal or dire US president is a symptom of great problems within society that weaken it or put it in peril.
In this year of a presidential election, we must account for our forty-fifth president because the real challenge before us is not simply to replace a terribly flawed leader, but to understand how to fix a system that produces, promotes, protects, and even values the dangerous toxicity we see daily from our commander-in-chief.
It has been said that one of the most important ingredients for a successful career is wisdom in choosing the right predecessor: if the one who came before was bad enough, the one who comes after is almost certain to look better by comparison. This may be some consolation to whoever is Donald Trump’s successor—it certainly worked to the advantage of George Washington.
As much as the United States was founded on ideals, it was also established in response to the manifold failings of King George III. The British monarch is, in fact, the defining bad leader of American history. He and the system over which he presided were so dire that they fundamentally shaped our idea of what a leader should and shouldn’t be—inspiring Thomas Paine, the English radical who arrived on these shores in 1774, to compose Common Sense, the definitive condemnation of England’s abuses and an argument for breaking with the country. Paine wrote of kings (and, we might add, by extension those born into privilege at any time):
Men who look upon themselves as born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
The Declaration of Independence, published only months after Paine’s pamphlet, was itself primarily a denunciation of George III. The crux of the document is a section devoted to his wrongs—“a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States”—a litany of twenty-seven separate complaints about his rule.
George is condemned for, among other offenses, having refused to approve laws that are “necessary for the public good,” for bullying governors, for blocking reasonable legislative progress, for blocking immigration to the states, for “obstructing the Administration of Justice,” for bending the judiciary to his will, for seeking to make the military “independent of and superior to the Civil Power,” for conspiring “with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,” “for cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world,” and for having “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Any of those grievances sound familiar?
During the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, Representatives Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler both cited a letter Alexander Hamilton wrote to George Washington warning that:
When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
Hamilton also observed that “the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.” And it was Washington, our first president, who noted in turn that, for the republic to succeed, “the form of government must be supported by a virtuous citizenry.” The Founders saw that good governance required leaders and citizens of good character, and realized neither was a given.
Should we conclude, then, that Donald Trump is the embodiment of the Founders’ worst fears?
Every day, there are new outrages, to be sure. We would need a list of more than twenty-seven complaints if we were to enumerate a lifetime of Trump’s misdeeds, from defrauding US tax authorities and obstructing justice to violating the Constitution. He has invited our enemies to interfere with our elections to help him win, then sought to do it again. He has misused federal resources, inappropriately elevated his own family members, and enriched his own businesses. He has repeatedly attacked the First and the Fourteenth Amendments. He has had infants thrown in cages and denied relief to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria at the cost of thousands of lives. He has gutted environmental protections and attacked alliances that the US spent decades building and maintaining. And now he has mismanaged the worst public health crisis in a hundred years, overseen the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, and attempted to use the US military to crush legitimate protests on the streets of the capital.
Lately, in the space of just a few days, he was revealed to have endorsed concentration camps in China and to have again sought the assistance of a foreign adversary in winning a US election, was quoted as calling for the deaths and imprisonment of US journalists, defended the slave power traitors of the Confederacy, admitted that he suppressed testing during the pandemic because true data about the rate of infections would harm him politically, sought to fire more truthtellers in the administration and had his attorney general remove an official in charge of investigations into him and his supporters. He was reportedly briefed about a Russian scheme to place bounties on American and allied troops in Afghanistan, and not only did nothing about it but continued to act as an advocate for Putin. And so it goes on… before we even consider the many complaints about his character—his racism and misogyny, his ignorance and contempt for science and history, his lies, his narcissism, his vulgarity, his demagoguery. Has there ever been a public official in US history so unable to relate to others, show an emotion besides anger, or view the world through any means but his own self-interest?
It is easy to imagine he is the worst leader the US has ever had. It is a view endorsed by the American Political Science association, which canvassed some 170 historians who ranked Trump dead last—a largely bipartisan verdict, too, since even self-identified Republicans on the panel rated him fortieth against the forty-four other contenders. C-Span has conducted similar surveys of presidential historians in 2000, 2009, and 2017 (none of these, naturally, include Trump). The bottom ten in the most recent survey were James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Millard Fillmore, Herbert Hoover, Chester Arthur, and Martin Van Buren. (There were some shifts in the group over the three surveys, with, for example, George W. Bush making the bottom ten in 2009, but just missing the cut in 2017.)
Several patterns become apparent from such lists. In addition to a negative association with the divisions of the Civil War period, corruption and scandal were another way on to the list for several of those ranked among the worst (for example, Grant and Harding). Of the presidents who faced impeachment, Andrew Johnson is always ranked in the bottom group, Nixon is sometimes, and Clinton is not. Trump is on his way to joining Johnson.
The best—maybe only—saving grace for Trump in the history books is that no one could accuse him of causing the Civil War. That said, the signature approach of defending and promoting white supremacists and ethno-nationalist policies that has come to define his presidency has capitalized on precisely the legacy of those regional and racial divisions in America that did lead to the Civil War.
It is one thing to compare Trump to others who have held the country’s highest office, but as the Founders also pointed out, the fate of the country rests in the hands of those who ultimately wield the power of government in our shaken but still standing republican system: the people. Many may despise those aspects of our society embodied in Trump’s presidency, but in a democracy it is up to us to work to correct what is wrong with our communities. If we have a president who is selfish, ignorant, venal, dishonest, racist, misogynist, and corrupt, what does it tell us that a significant minority of American citizens celebrates such a leader, while another segment of our compatriots are willing to tolerate them, at least enough to give him their votes?
His supporters have had plenty of encouragement from politicians and press pundits who have normalized his behavior. And they have had little discouragement from an opposition party that has been far too flaccid in its response to Trump’s abuses, too often indulging in finger-wagging rather than taking effective action. Even when Democrats took the action of impeachment, they ceded ground, limited their hearings, abandoned efforts to subpoena vital witnesses, and failed to rally public opinion to prevent the president’s party from derailing the process. But we, too, must own up to our part in enabling this dereliction.
Acknowledging that Donald Trump is very likely the worst president American democracy has ever produced and that we, as citizens in that democracy, must accept a general responsibility for choosing such a man, is only the first, and perhaps easiest, step we can take in remedying the situation. If the worst presidents are produced by their historical moment, enabled by their parties, and reflective of deep divides and flaws in American life, simply voting them out is insufficient. We must address the root causes that enabled a man as profoundly flawed and corrupt as Trump to win high office.
Some of those causes are long tied to our history. We mythologize that history, idealize our heritage, and promote a notion of American exceptionalism. That has become untenable. When we see a racist in the White House encouraging violence against people of color in our streets, we can no longer say, “that’s not us.” This country was built not only on high ideals and ideas of liberty, but also on racism, genocide, greed, and corruption. And just as the supporters and enablers of slavery did in the mid-nineteenth century, those who today gain from structural inequality and exploitation will fiercely resist justice and reform.
The worst among American presidents prior to Trump—Buchanan, Johnson, and Pierce, for example—were all produced by the Democratic Party of the nineteenth century—a party that sought to defend or forgive slavery, and that tolerated and promoted a divided nation. Since President Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the modern Republican Party increasingly taken on that mantle. Trump is often said to have commandeered the GOP. But properly viewed in historical terms, the reverse is also true: President Trump could not exist without the post-Nixonian GOP that has Mitch McConnell patrolling the Senate and Bill Barr providing legal cover for the virtually unlimited power of the “unitary executive.”
This is a Republican Party that has produced two presidents in the past fifty years who worked to undermine constitutional government and have faced impeachment. The GOP has also worked hard to rig the system in its favor. The party has promoted gerrymandering and voter suppression to help Republicans capture statehouses, and has cemented biases in the courts by appointing increasingly partisan, ill-qualified judges. Such power grabs have become an intrinsic part of the government failure we face today.
Ending Trump’s misrule and restoring confidence in the presidency demands the undoing of impediments to free and fair elections. That will entail root-and-branch campaign finance reform, an end to voter suppression, new defenses against foreign interference in elections, and reining in the digital disinformation engines. These are perhaps only the minimum demands for restoring American democracy.
Trump is a sign that we as a nation have lost our way. Just as Hamilton warned, a confusion of celebrity for leadership, fame for accomplishment, and popularity for genius has given us “a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune.” Seizing the opportunity, unscrupulous “insolent men” have pandered to the lowest common denominators of fear and greed to win power and exploit it for a small elite. November’s election is a judgment day for this nation’s form of republican government. Or else, only “civil commotion” awaits us.