The final days of the 45th United States president’s time in office saw a push from a number of organs of ignorance — CNN, The New York Times, and weirdly, Arnold Schwarzenegger — to declare him the worst chief executive America has ever produced. While the Don may have disgraced himself in his last months with the kind of hissy fit more suited to his reality TV background than elected office he doesn’t even make the leader board for the biggest incompetent to ever find themselves with a presidential parking space.
If media commentators had made the slightest effort to acquaint themselves with the missteps, delusions and downright criminality of past presidents they would have been able to put Trump’s defects into perspective. That they didn’t bother is testament to their laziness, partisanship and general ahistorical solipsism that leads them to distort everything in our present into THE MOST IMPORTANT [INSERT WHATEVER] OF ALL TIME.
Rating and comparing presidential achievements is for the most part a fool’s errand. You can tell this by how many fools try it. The more sober among us wouldn’t even try to pronounce a verdict on the Trump administration until some of the unknowns are known – for example how quickly the post-Covid economy bounces back or how relations with Iran and China pan out over the next few years.
What is worth doing is trying to temper the current narrative of the Trump years as America’s nadir by pointing out other times when US presidents got it very, very wrong.
American presidents are like Guns and Roses’ albums: almost everyone thinks the first was the best. George Washington continually tops out ‘best president’ polls. He was certainly a morally upright man given to a disarming almost self-sabotaging honesty (the cherry tree story). Unfortunately like many righteous men he was given to bouts of hypocrisy. Not less than eleven years after leading the American revolutionary forces in their revolt against the British he ordered the repression of his own newly constituted citizens. His government’s taxing of spirits (9%) led to the ‘whiskey rebellion’ (1794), a revolt among poor frontiersmen unwilling to give the state a cut of their meagre moonshine-generated incomes. For a time Washington himself took command of the troops sent to quell the uprising. That it was an uprising similar in nature to the one he had led in the war -– a rejection of burdensome taxes –- didn’t appear to bother him.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has been suspected (with little evidence) of seeking the powers of a dictator. But it was the revered Abraham Lincoln who most acted like one. He raised an army without congressional approval, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland and ordered a naval blockade of half his country. Even his greatest act, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, was an unconstitutional expansion of presidential authority. And while Trump has been slandered as a white supremacist, Lincoln was avowedly one. In the opening clash of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he assured his opponent (regarding equality between blacks and whites) ‘I am in favour of the race to which I belong having the superior position.’
Trump is frequently derided for his abuse of the US constitution. And yet it was liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt who was found by the Supreme Court to have violated the constitution twelve times. The US never came closer to tyranny than his decision to incarcerate over 100,000 people for the crime of being Japanese (64% were American citizens). Roosevelt considered a similar plan for his fellow Americans of German extraction until it was pointed out to him that there were sixty million of them. In a move that may be attempted by the Biden presidency, Roosevelt also tried to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court (by proposing an expansion in its members) before time delivered a more amenable court -– two justices retired and one snuffed it.
Lyndon Johnson, another liberal, assumed war-making powers (via the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) that enabled him to expand a provincial nationalist squabble into an existential test of American resolve. By the time he hospital-passed the conflict to Nixon, he had committed more than half a million troops into what would become the definition of a military quagmire. The media’s candidate for worst prez ever has scrupulously avoided foreign military adventures preferring to send a rocket or two up foreign bottoms (Syria, Soleimani) in place of troops.
My personal favourite among previous White House occupants is the undistinguished Warren G. Harding (1920-23). The original party president, he gambled, drank (keeping the Oval office stocked with liquor in the middle of prohibition) and bonked his young mistress in a White House closet. Before he died three years into his first term (there were rumours his wife poisoned him – perhaps she’d found out about the closet) his administration had become irretrievably corrupt.
Harding okayed one of his cabinet poker buddies to take control of federal oil reserves; the man then secretly sold off drilling rights for bribes. One of Harding’s appointees was convicted for accepting kickbacks on bids for government property. Another crony diverted alcohol and drugs from veterans’ hospitals to be sold on the black market. It all makes Trump holding a few government meetings at Mar-a-Lago seem small fry.
My candidate for worst president ever is yet another liberal (there’s a theme developing here) the former Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson. He was aggressive abroad – sending troops into China, Croatia, Cuba, Guatemala, Panama, Russia and Turkey as well as the European theatre of WWI– and repressive internally, passing the Sedition act (1918) which made it illegal to criticize the form of the US government, the Constitution or the flag. He stuffed up the post-WWI peace plan resulting in a fractured impoverished Europe ripe for further conflict which duly came two decades later. His handling of the Spanish flu epidemic, allowing American troops to spread it everywhere they deployed, makes Trump’s handling of Covid seem a model of efficiency and foresight.
Nixon covered up for criminals and taped himself doing it; Truman screwed up in Korea and seized the steel mills until the Supreme Court said he couldn’t; Kennedy abandoned Cuban emigres at the Bay of Pigs; Reagan bragged he was ‘tough on terrorism’ and then sold arms to Iran to give to Hezbollah and Clinton pardoned his own brother while finding unnatural uses for cigars and heavyset interns.
And what did Trump do? He tweeted like a teenager with Tourette’s, fired too many people and (arguably) failed to get on top of a pandemic that few leaders have managed to handle well.
These failings don’t amount to a hell of a lot considering the men who came before him.
President Harding’s confession to his mistress applies to more than a few of them:
I’m not fit for this office and never should have been here.
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