Does the President usually get re-elected?

Recently I’ve seen a few pundits (mostly on the left) trying to prepare us all for a horrifying future: Trump will probably win in 2020, they say, because Presidents are usually re-elected. I’ve started to wonder: Is that true? Are Presidents usually re-elected?

There are two ways to look at this. First, we can put it in terms of the people who have been President. Here’s a one-paragraph summary of that version of American electoral history:

Washington was beloved, Adams was not, Jefferson was popular, Madison was popular enough, Monroe was very popular, JQA was good but lost, Jackson was bad but won, Van Buren was a schemer who lost, Harrison died, Tyler was an accident, Polk retired, Taylor died, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan were technically President, Lincoln won and the racists murdered him, no one liked Johnson, Grant was beloved, Hayes sort of didn’t even win once, Garfield was murdered, Arthur was meh, Cleveland was chased out, Harrison was chased out, Cleveland got revenge, McKinley won and the anarchists murdered him, Teddy won, Teddy beat Taft without winning, Wilson won, Harding died, Coolidge was technically present, Hoover was loathed, FDR won won won, Truman defeated Dewey, Ike won, JFK was murdered, LBJ won and then gave up, Nixon won and destroyed himself, Ford never won anything, Carter got screwed, Reagan won, Bush barely happened, Clinton won, W won the second time, Obama won, and Trump got in by -3 million votes.

If you do the math, that amounts to 21 Presidents who have been re-elected, vs 22 who haven’t. (You might notice that this doesn’t add up to Trump’s favorite number, 45—that’s because Cleveland was only one actual person, and Trump hasn’t been eligible for re-election yet.) Of the people who weren’t re-elected, 9 lost in the election (like Carter), 5 were more or less primaried and didn’t even get to run (like John Tyler), 3 quit (like Polk), 3 died of natural causes (like FDR), and 2 were murdered (like JFK).

The most straightforward way to interpret this is that, by a small margin, Presidents usually don’t get re-elected, although the reasons are diverse and include a surprising amount of death. Sidenote: 8 out of 44 Presidents have died in office. That’s an 18% mortality rate! These days the most dangerous job in America is logging, and that fatality rate is about 0.1%—so historically, you’re way more likely to die if you become President. Still, healthcare is better than it was in 1850, and it seems like we’re out of that 100-year period where the President kept getting murdered. It might be fair to say that, barring death, re-election is somewhat likely.

At the same time, thinking of this in terms of people gives you some weird results. In some ways, what we really want to know is, sitting here in 2018, how likely is it that Trump gets re-elected? The data above isn’t great for that. Sitting in 1966, you had Lyndon Johnson, who counts as re-elected above, since he won in 1964, after serving one year—but he was eligible in 1968 and didn’t even run.  And how do you think about Ford, who wasn’t technically eligible for “re-election”, never having been elected in the first place?

This leads us to the other way to think about this question, which is to put it in terms of elections. In other words, we can ask: For any given election year, was the guy in office chosen to serve again? There have been 58 Presidential elections in U.S. history, although we shouldn’t look at all of them. Obviously there was no one to re-elect in 1789, and in five cases the sitting President was legally barred from running again. In another eight cases, the President could have run again, but instead participated in the tradition of leaving after two terms.1 Though this wasn’t a hard and fast rule, it was a strong pressure against re-election, so let’s leave those elections out as well.

That leaves us with 44 elections in which the sitting President could realistically be re-elected. In those, re-election happened 22 times, exactly half—12 times the President didn’t run again, and in another 10 cases the President ran but lost. If we need a tiebreaker, we could count 1892 as a case when the President both was and wasn’t re-elected, since Ben Harrison lost to former President Grover Cleveland; that decides things for re-election by one (I was counting this as non-re-election, since the guy in office didn’t stay in office). But in any case, it’s tough to say the President is “usually” re-elected.

Of course, the people talking about the 2020 election probably don’t really care what happened with Cleveland and Harrison. I suspect they’re probably thinking, well, the last three guys got re-elected, and that gets you back about 25 years, so there you go. It’s fair to look at more recent elections, but this leads you to two problems. First, it’s tough to get enough data to draw any serious conclusions. The past 25 years only had three elections in which a President was eligible for re-election; not exactly enumerative induction.

Second, there’s no good way to know how far back to go. Starting at Clinton the data looks inarguable; go back one more guy and suddenly there’s a counterexample. Or say we start from the first year America had anything remotely resembling universal suffrage, with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. From there, five guys were re-elected and four weren’t (or, in the other terms, in nine eligible elections, there was a re-election five times). That’s hardly grounds for giving up hope in 2020. There’s no particular reason to pick any one cut-off date over another, so you can basically make whatever argument you want.

The long and short of it is that probably doesn’t make sense to talk about whether the President “usually” gets re-elected; it’s just sloppy thinking that gestures at history and empirical data without really engaging it. You’re better off looking at the factors that we know have a strong impact on election results—approval ratings, the state of the economy, gerrymandering effects, and so on.

Still, I think there are two pretty fair takeaways from all of this. First, if a President gets to the general election, he’s got a pretty solid chance of winning—that’s what happened in 22 out of 32 cases. But, second, it’s also pretty common for the President to fail, either through those 10/32 times the election goes against him, or because of the many factors that might keep him from running again. If he’s deeply unpopular, or he turns out to be in very poor health, or, just spitballing, the House discloses overwhelming evidence of Constitutional violations, criminal activity, and treason, it’s well within historical norms for the President to vacate the White House. The incumbency advantage is real, and we’ve learned that we should take the possibility of a Trump victory seriously. But we also shouldn’t resign ourselves to his winning. It wouldn’t be that unusual if he failed.


Notes
1. As FDR later showed, the traditional two-term limit was always a little more tenuous than it seemed; Washington obviously didn’t have to do it, Grant almost ran a third time, and Teddy Roosevelt eventually did run for a third term. I thought it was intuitive to count 1940 and 1944 as re-elections, even though I didn’t count, say, 1876 as a failed re-election for Grant (I just considered it an ineligible, traditional-two-term-limit year). I did count 1952 against re-election, since Truman chose not to run even though he was eligible, had FDR’s precedent immediately behind him, and hadn’t quite served two full terms. To me that seemed like Truman declining to run, although I think you could make a good case that this should also be considered an ineligible two-term-limit situation.

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Race and Gender in the Senate

If America is ever going to be just, white people and men are going to have to lose some things. For people who care about social justice, it’s often more rhetorically effective (and, depending on who you are, comfortable) to frame things in terms of gains for women and people of color. Often, these genuinely are rising-tide situations; in theory, at least, the appalling racial wealth gap could be closed through African-American prosperity, without any white people losing their houses. Everyone wins!

But some things are zero sum. The U.S. Senate is a particularly clear example: The only way to get more seats for women and people of color is to take them away from men and white people. If you care about basic justice, or have even a remote commitment to the principle of fair representation, your only option is to disempower white men. And this is true to an even greater extent than you might think—I’ve got some data about the Senate below, but you might find it interesting to try and guess before you look at it: How many white men would need to lose their seats for the Senate to reflect the racial and gender makeup of America?

First, here’s the gender balance of the senate (see the Appendix at the end of the post for information about my sources, the categories I’m using, and so on).

Gender in the Senate

The bar on the left shows the real, present-day Senate; the bar on the right shows what the Senate would look like if it was truly representative of the United States population. We are 28 women Senators shy of a just Senate—more than we currently have. In fact, in the entire history of the Senate, there have been only 52 women Senators, meaning it would take almost every woman Senator ever just to reach the number we should have right now.

The numbers are even more striking when it comes to race/ethnicity:

 

RaceEthnicity in the Senate

With 91 Senators who are non-Hispanic white, this cohort is overrepresented by 29 seats. More important, they leave almost nothing for anyone else. We should have 13 African-American Senators; instead, in the entire history of the Senate there have been 10. Moreover, the current senate doesn’t have 13 seats for all people of color combined—and the situation is actually more dire than it appears here: Kamala Harris appears on this graph twice, since she was the only person listed twice in my source material, in her case as both Asian American and African American. (See the Appendix for more on multiracial identity in this data; here, my goal was to maximize the diversity I could show in the Senate—and this is still the result).

This decision to count Harris twice points to an interesting question about representation. In theory, there are more “efficient” ways to diversify the Senate than simply assigning seats by one race and gender at a time, as I’ve done here. If, for instance, ten seats held by white men went to ten new candidates like Harris, we’d have ten more women, ten more African Americans, and ten more Asian Americans all at once. These candidates really would reflect those identities, and the representativeness of the Senate would be improved for it. The problem is, we would still have too many white men. Overrepresentation is just as inaccurate a picture of the country as underrepresentation, even if we can correct them at different rates.

The actual Senate makes this clear. Here is the data where every Senator is categorized as either a Non-Hispanic White Man or not:

 

White Men in the Senate

The 72 white men in the Senate are wildly out of proportion to the country. Only 62% of Americans are non-Hispanic white people in total, much less white men. That means we have 41 too many white men in the Senate. This is really a staggering number: There are more extra white men than there should be white men total—so, while African-Americans only have 23% of the seats they should, white men have 232% of the seats they should. In short, two out of every five people in the Senate are extraneous white men. And that means that a group that shouldn’t even come close to a majority has a supermajority with votes to spare. From the standpoint of diversity, adding 10 mixed-race women would be good in itself; but we would still be left with a grotesque imbalance of white male influence on legislation.

Incidentally, this problem persists for Democrats, Independents, and Republicans:

White Men - by Party

In both absolute and percentage terms, it’s much worse for Republicans. There are 42 white male Republican Senators, meaning that one party has 11 more than the whole Senate should have. This is another way to see the scale of the imbalance; remember that there are 41 extra white men, so from a race/gender perspective, replacing the entire Republican party with women, people of color, and one white guy would get us to… fair representation. Still, Democrats and Independents are also quite unbalanced; to fix the problem, the entire political system would have to change.

Of course, it’s not clear that this is possible. Senators are elected on a state level, and there are, for instance, no states with a majority black population. If white people, and especially white men, are reluctant to vote for women and people of color, the Senate is likely to stay profoundly unrepresentative of American diversity—almost as though it’s an inherently unjust institution.

But there’s something telling about laying the injustice bare. This is how far we are from equality. If everyone had a fair shot at life and voters were unbiased, the Senate would look much more like the country it’s supposed to serve. Instead, 41% of its members are living proof that the past is not even past. If women and people of color are to have what is rightfully theirs—if, in other words, the American promise of representative democracy is ever to be achieved—the only solution in the Senate is to take from white men.

 


Appendix: Notes on the data

I’m taking racial and ethnic information about the U.S. from this Wikipedia page, which aggregates census data. Racial and ethnic categories are constantly in flux (as the history of the census shows), and the data reflect that ambiguity. For the graphs, I’m using the categories African American and Asian American, which the census considers racial, the category Hispanic/Latino, which the census considers ethnic, and the categories Non-Hispanic White American and All Other, which are somewhere in between. “All Other” includes the categories Native American and Pacific Islander, among other things. Overall, these are imperfect divisions with a lot of overlap, but I think they give a rough idea of American race and ethnicity in the kind broad strokes used in this piece.

For the racial/ethnic breakdown of the Senate, I’m using this government site. (I asked the Senate Historian’s Office how they reach the conclusions represented on that site, and a respondent said that most of the information there is based on historical sources, some on public statements, and for contemporary Senators on self -report—it seems that a Senator who disagreed with her own information could have it changed.)

Using this site, I assume everyone not listed there is non-Hispanic white. Kamala Harris is listed as both African American and Asian American; she is the only person who is listed as multiracial. In part, this may be because I used specifically Non-Hispanic White American—e.g., perhaps Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would claim both identities. My decision here reflects an attempt to maximize the picture of Senate diversity, so my rule of thumb is to assign each person any identity that would affiliate them with people structurally disadvantaged by American racial and gender politics.

For gender, I used this page and assumed that any Senators not on it were men. This is a good example of how very limited this post is, in that it confines gender to two cis possibilities.  In this post, I’m not addressing representation of trans people—or queer people, people with disabilities, different national or language backgrounds, religious affiliation, or anything else, though these are all important areas where the Senate is similarly unrepresentative of the country.

Guns don’t protect against state violence, because they are state violence

Those of us who support gun control often like to mock the common pro-gun argument that personal ownership of firearms is a bulwark against potential tyranny from the state. It seems pretty mockable: On the one hand, you probably shouldn’t be planning a violent insurrection against your own democracy at all times, and on the other, it probably wouldn’t work—as Jim Jeffries puts it in his famous bit about guns, “You do know the government has drones, right?” But although I like that Jeffries bit, I think he’s a little off base here. I think guns really could be useful in battling tyranny if things took a very bad turn. This particular pro-gun argument is wrong for a subtler reason: Pro-gun people don’t want to battle an authoritative government. They love authoritative government, and guns are a big part of how their particular version of authoritarianism works.

First, the concession: Guns really can help in launching opposition to the state. When John Brown tried to overthrow the slave power, his first move was to raid an arsenal to try to get weapons for slaves; when Castro wanted to overthrow the Cuban government, he began stockpiling weapons; when the Black Panthers began their activism against the Oakland police, they made a point of carrying visible weapons. Historically, having or getting guns has been a very plausible way to prompt serious changes in your government.

But ask yourself this: Which of the rebels I just mentioned would the average American pro-gun activist like? I think it’s pretty obvious that the answer is “None of them.” Picture the kind of person who most vocally opposes gun control. Does that guy like the idea of armed black people? Does he like communists? Is he more of a John Brown guy, or more of a “build more Confederate statues” guy? And even more to the point: Does he think we should spend more or less money on the military? When he hears about Philando Castile or Tamir Rice, does he support the victims or the cops? Does he tend to like protesters? How does he feel about, say, Guantanamo, water-boarding, the border patrol, or prison camps for children?

That’s what I’m suggesting here: The average pro-gun person doesn’t want to guard against state authority. He loves state authority; state-sanctioned violence is one of his most consistent values. After all, who is a gun owner? According to Pew, gun owners are much more often male (39% own guns) than female (22%); much more often white (36%) than black (24%) or Hispanic (15%); far more often Republican (44%) than Democratic (16%); and within the Republican party, more likely conservative (95%) than moderate (69%).

So we’ve got men, who are much more likely to commit violent crimes (they represent about 80% of arrests for violent offense). We’ve got white people; a recent Washington Post article shows that the three “social attitudes” that best predict whiteness are “Approve of the police striking citizens”, “Own gun in home”, and “Favor death penalty for murder” (also in the top ten: “Own rifle in home” and “Own shotgun in home”). And finally, we’ve got the most committed Republicans, a group that overwhelmingly approves of our current President, who thinks police should rough up victims, pardoned (for no apparent reason) a criminal former-sheriff who described his own prisons as “concentration camps”, and, of course, runs his own prison camps for innocent children, to name just a few relevant policies.

All of which amounts to a picture of people who have little interest in limiting the government’s power to use violence against the people. What’s more, their fervent support for the government at this specific moment, in comparison with some of the paranoid fantasies that characterized the prominent right-wing response to the Obama era, suggests that their interest in revolution goes down as the state’s violent autocracy goes up. As long as the people at the top are also white male Republicans who love police violence and the death penalty, they’re happy.

This casts their love of guns in a different light. If the people who most adamantly oppose gun control are the same people who, in so many other contexts, seem to like state-sanctioned violence, then maybe guns aren’t a bulwark against state-sanctioned violence at all. Maybe they are state-sanctioned violence.

Of course, that’s true in a literal sense. The United States sanctions gun ownership, which is, as any remotely honest person can plainly see, the cause of our staggering gun violence. And who suffers? Well, black people are more likely than white people to know someone who has been shot (and more likely to be murdered by guns). Guns in the home put women at much greater risk of being killed by their partners. Poor people are significantly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than rich people. It’s the people who are already vulnerable; the people who have historically been on the receiving end of the most American violence; the people who, not coincidentally, tend to support gun control; the people who, also not coincidentally, tend to oppose Republicans, Trump, police brutality, ICE, and the whole rest of that litany.

But advocating for more guns in America isn’t just about direct violence against minorities, women, and the poor. It also creates the conditions for more complex state institutions of violence. In the United Kingdom, most police officers don’t carry guns. That country is hardly a cesspool of crime—their murder rate is 1.2 per 100,000 people; ours is 5.35—but it’s virtually unthinkable that we would ever follow their lead and disarm our police. We can’t, because the criminals here have so many guns. An officer in America heads into every call or confrontation aware that virtually anyone here might have a gun. And given the way implicit bias works in America, the police are even more likely to think they see a gun if a black person is involved, even if the particular officer is well-intentioned.

In short, widespread gun ownership creates the situation where we have armed police, police who are therefore much more likely to kill us, and, by extension, police who are much, much more likely to kill us if we’re black. This is the principle at work: The government sanctioning gun ownership makes it more likely that the government will kill us.

And to be more specific, it makes it more likely that the government will kill women, minorities, and the poor—the people, that is, who oppose all of these forms of state-sanctioned violence. Citizen gun ownership is a crucial part of this ecosystem, the way a certain form of authoritarian politics perpetuates itself. On the one hand it creates a situation in which it seems to make sense to keep a gun at home, even though that makes you more likely to die; or to arm the police, even though that makes it more likely that they will kill you. And, on the other hand, it disproportionately allocates the bloody consequences to those who most disagree with the policies—more succinctly, it kills the people who stand in the way.

None of which is to say that the victims couldn’t use guns in response. It worked, more or less, for L’Ouverture, the sans-culottes, Zapata, Lenin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and the guys who wrote the second amendment, to name a few. It’s not a strategy I would endorse in America—I’m avowedly on the side that says violence is both bad and, usually, impractical—but it has certainly led to its share of overthrown regimes. The pro-gun people aren’t wrong because they say firearms can start a revolution against a tyrant. They’re wrong because they don’t want a revolution. They are the tyrant. And the one right they hold dear is, they’ll tell you, locked away safely, where you and I and their children can’t get it. They often get that part wrong.

Future History Part II: Where Will Trump Rank?

Note: This is a post I wrote on January 9, 2017; at the time, I found it too depressing to publish. With Presidential rankings in the news, I thought it might be interesting to revisit.

 

Donald Trump is obviously going to be one of the worst Presidents in American history, but will he be the worst? In this post, I take a stab at predicting some possible outcomes of his Presidency. Of course, this should all be taken with a grain of salt; in an earlier post, I suggested that he might lose the election by about 200,000 votes, and instead he won it by about -3,000,000 votes. Moreover, it’s tough to determine a President’s legacy in the heat of the moment. I remember thinking back in 2005 that George W. Bush was easily one of our two worst Presidents; with the mellowing effects of time it now seems clear that he is merely one of the five worst. So guessing before Trump even takes office will be difficult. Yet, why not?

The Ceiling:

If we assume that Trump will do even a small fraction of the things he has said he will do (and political history suggests that he will try), or even that he will simply continue to behave as he has so far, then the best thing that could happen to his legacy would be for him never to take office. Perhaps he would decide Washington D.C. is too muggy and resign; perhaps his flagrant conflicts of interest would accidentally infringe on something Republican representatives care about; perhaps Putin would simply text him, “change of plans”.

In that case, the clear historical comparison would be William Henry Harrison, who died on his 32nd day in office. It’s a common misconception that this places him near the bottom of the Presidential rankings, but this is based on the naive assumption that when Presidents do things, those things are mostly good. In fact, many of the Presidents have tended to do mostly bad things. As a result, WHH is really a middle-of-the-pack guy, near the other forgettable do-nothings like Fillmore and Coolidge. Once you get toward the bottom ten or twelve Presidents you’re already looking at guys like Nixon and Hoover, and WHH clearly didn’t cause as much harm as them. So does this mean Trump has hope of being merely forgotten?

Well, not quite. He has already had a poisonous impact on American discourse and incidents of intolerant violence, his election has delivered a blow to American credibility that we (justly) may never recover from, and he has even managed to ramp up the risk of war with China. Harrison did pick horrible President John Tyler as his VP, so that’s a knock on him, but I think you have to put Trump below WHH even now. I’d say he’s down around Harding or McKinley, in the bottom 12 or 13. Verdict: Ceiling = 13th worst President.

 

The Floor:

Given his vindictiveness, pettiness, cruelty, and utter ignorance of the world, Trump might start a nuclear war. In that case he would be our worst President. Depending on the scope of the war, he would also have a shot at becoming the worst person in world history. Verdict: Floor = Worst Human Being of All Time

 

The Likely Scenario:

Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly what Trump is going to do (I doubt he has a very clear idea himself), much less what will happen outside of his control in the next four to eight years. But a few things seem quite likely:

  • He will oversee a fairly extreme version of Republican dismantling of the welfare state. Since the GOP has the House and Senate, we should expect something like the Ryan Plan to pass, as well as some sort of repeal of Obamacare. How this affects his rank will depend on your political views, i.e. whether you think it’s bad that tens of millions of people will lose health insurance, children will go hungry, inequality will skyrocket, etc.
  • He will be the most corrupt President in modern history, if not ever. So far he has not even bothered to hide his conflicts of interest; he doesn’t even quite seem to grasp the concept of a conflict of interest. I think this is because he doesn’t understand the idea of interests beside his own, but general stupidity would explain it, too. In any case, this would not only be reprehensible on its own merits, but could lead to the kind of deeply distressing systemic corruption described by Matthew Yglesias. But even if it stops short of that—essentially a dystopian kleptocracy with massive inequality and zero first-amendment protections—it would still be on the order of the kind of corruption that always pushes people like Grant, Harding, and Nixon down in the rankings.
  • Many things will stop functioning. He’s staffing everything with ideologues and cronies. I expect something like Bush’s FEMA in virtually every department Trump pays any attention to.
  • He will enable and occasionally enforce massive civil rights / human rights abuses. His immigration policy is essentially ethnic cleansing; his attitude toward Muslims is lightly revised 1930’s anti-Semitism; the company he keeps and the rhetoric he inspires have already set racial politics back decades.
  • He will destabilize the international order. The degree essentially depends on the extent to which the international order is capable of withstanding a hateful idiot at the helm of the world’s most powerful country. Current international context does not bode well for the reign of a man who thinks NATO is a protection racket and views foreign policy as a vehicle for putting his name on hotels in every nation.

I feel confident he’ll do all that. But as the list goes on, it becomes less clear exactly how bad each thing would get, and of course we don’t know exactly what else he might do on top of it—it wouldn’t be surprising if he goes right back to the regulatory atmosphere that caused the Great Recession, for instance. Perhaps he’ll do a good thing, too, although it’s difficult to imagine what it would be.

In any case, this is already enough stuff to guarantee him a place in the bottom three. He skates past Buchanan (he lost several states to secession, but it’s not clear that many Presidents would have done too much better) and Bush (his disastrous wars were limited to two countries) and joins Andrew Jackson (genocide, economic collapse) and Andrew Johnson (setting back the cause of racial justice for 100 years) down at the bottom. Those are a tough two to beat; they caused a lot of damage. It’ll be tough to beat them—there’s no equivalent to an electoral college bailout when it comes to wreaking moral havoc. In essence, we have to hope that the Trump of lazy incompetence (his business life) overpowers the Trump of hateful cruelty (his political and personal life). That should be just enough to ensure that he is not quite the worst person ever to hold this job. Verdict: Likely Scenario = Hopefully third worst President

The Worst First 100 Days

Trump’s first 100 days have been a unique cocktail of horror and failure, but where do they rank historically? Is he as superlative on this metric as he is on, say, health, or intellect? It’s a tough question to answer, because there are lots of different ways to judge the first 100 days.

One path is simply to assess the state of the union: How well is the country doing at the end of the first 100 days, compared to before? In these terms, the worst first 100 days surely belong to Lincoln. He had only been in office for about a month when the South attacked Fort Sumter, basically starting the Civil War. Some people would argue that Lincoln bears a lot of the blame for the Civil War, but they’re mostly buried in Confederate graves with the rest of the pro-slavery traitors who lost that war. So although you can’t easily top “descending into civil war” as a catastrophic start, it doesn’t really reflect on how well Lincoln was doing the job at hand.

Another way to look at it is personal success: How well did the President accomplish his goals? The clear worst all time on this metric is William Henry Harrison. During his first 100 days he died, one of the worst professional setbacks you can have. Not only that, his death saddled the nation with his idiot successor, John Tyler, the subject of our nation’s first impeachment hearings, a sitting President not re-nominated by his own party, and the only President whose death was not recognized by Washington, since he had joined the Confederacy.

The thought of Tyler raises another question: Which President caused the most destruction in his first 100 days? This is a tough one to answer, but here are three candidates:1  

  • Rutherford B. Hayes immediately ended Reconstruction as a condition for winning the Presidency at all. Clearly this was a good political move for him (he got to be President), but, as historian Eric Foner argues of Reconstruction in general, “What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.” So Hayes had a big hand in that, which seems pretty bad.
  • Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon during his first 100 days. The ethics of this are debatable I guess, but it was a major blow to him politically, and one reason he was never elected President.
  • My personal choice: During his first 100 days, Nixon started Operation Menu, a secretive bombing campaign in Cambodia. At the very least this killed thousands of people; at worst, it was an important step in Nixon’s general Cambodian policy, which contributed to the rise of people like Pol Pot.

So where does that leave Trump? In terms of sheer destruction, I don’t think he matches Hayes or Nixon. What makes him interesting, though, is his unique blend of horrific policies and political failures:

Horrors

Failures

Of course, these are not comprehensive lists, but this is still a pretty unusual mix of achieving bad goals while also failing in spectacular fashion. He has somehow managed to combine historically destructive outcomes with several high-profile failures to do anything at all. I guess we could consider this some sort of grotesque reversal of an inspirational poster I loosely remember from high school:

PosterCropped.png

Though not scientifically accurate, this inane claim makes an important point. Man’s reach should exceed his grasp; no one reaches more greedily than Trump, and no one has a tinier grasp. I’d say his first 100 days aren’t quite the personal failure of Harrison, or the policy horror of Nixon, but they’re historic nonetheless.


Notes

1. One fascinating case that just misses the cut: Harry Truman, who on his 116th day in office dropped a nuclear bomb on a city.

The Courage of Our Convictions (for Perjury)

It seems pretty likely that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently committed a felony, which is a pretty compelling reason to remove him from his position at the head of our nation’s justice system. Specifically, it appears that he committed perjury by lying under oath. Under any reasonable interpretation, the case against him is pretty straightforward. During his confirmation hearings, he said, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that [i.e., the Trump] campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” But he did have communications with the Russians, in that he met with the Russian ambassador at least twice during the Trump campaign. This sounds a lot like perjury.

In the real world, perjury cases are pretty difficult to prove, which is probably usually a good thing. This article gives a pretty good rundown of the difficulties of pinning a perjury charge on Sessions for this issue. The long and short of it is that language is full of ambiguity. Did Sessions mean that he didn’t meet with the Russians as a Trump surrogate? Did he just forget about the meeting, like an idiot?1  These distinctions matter, from a legal standpoint.

Still, there was one famous case not too long ago in which these ambiguities were widely ignored by our legislative branch. The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 rested largely on a perjury charge, in circumstances that were also fairly ambiguous—this is where we got Clinton’s famous line that “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”.2 But at the time, a lot of our legislators believed that ambiguities were not important, and that Clinton should be removed from office. Perhaps we should encourage our current Senators and Representatives to take a page from then-Alabama-Senator Jeff Sessions, and find now-Attorney-General Jeff Sessions guilty of perjury.

Fortunately, nine of the Senators who voted Clinton guilty of perjury are still in office. In the House, there are 26 remaining Representatives who cast the equivalent of “guilty” votes on a perjury charge.3   Their names appear below, along with contact information. We can safely assume that they all believe strongly in a very broad interpretation of this law, so it would be very unfortunate if they missed the chance to convict Sessions for meeting with Russian officials and then claiming under oath that he did not meet with Russian officials. To that end, if any of these people represents you (you can check your representative here), or if you have a phone, it only makes sense to contact them and urge them to hold fast to the principles they demonstrated in the Clinton era: find Jeff Sessions guilty of perjury, and do everything they can to remove him from office. To quote a longtime perjury-hawk, “the American people believe no one is above the law.”

Chamber Person Represents Phone Number for D.C. Office Other Contact Info
Senate John McCain Arizona (202) 224-2235 https://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact-form
Senate Mike Crapo Idaho (202) 224-6142 http://www.crapo.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm
Senate Chuck Grassley Iowa (202) 224-3744 http://www.grassley.senate.gov/contact
Senate Pat Roberts Kansas (202) 224-4774 https://www.roberts.senate.gov/public/?p=EmailPat
Senate Mitch McConnell Kentucky (202) 224-2541 http://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=contact
Senate Thad Cochran Mississippi (202) 224-5054 https://www.cochran.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-me
Senate Jim Inhofe Oklahoma (202) 224-4721 https://www.inhofe.senate.gov/contact
Senate Orrin Hatch Utah (202) 224-5251 http://www.hatch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact?p=Email-Orrin
Senate Mike Enzi Wyoming (202) 224-3424 http://www.enzi.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/office-locations
House Don Young Alaska at-large 202-225-5765 http://donyoung.house.gov/
House Jim Sensenbrenner Wisconsin 5 202-225-5101 http://sensenbrenner.house.gov/contact/info.htm
House Hal Rogers Kentucky 5 202-225-4601 https://halrogers.house.gov/office-info
House Chris Smith New Jersey 4 202-225-3765 http://chrissmith.house.gov/contact/
House Joe Barton Texas 6 202-225-2002 https://joebarton.house.gov/
House Lamar S. Smith Texas 21 202-225-4236 http://lamarsmith.house.gov/
House Fred Upton Michigan 6 202-225-3761 http://upton.house.gov/contact/zipauth.htm
House John Duncan Tennessee 2 202-225-5301 http://duncan.house.gov/
House Dana Rohrabacher California 48 202-225-2415 https://rohrabacher.house.gov/contact/offices
House Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Florida 27 202-225-3931 https://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/contact-me
House Sam Johnson Texas 3 202-225-6673 http://samjohnson.house.gov/
House Ken Calvert California 42 202-225-1986 http://calvert.house.gov/contact/
House Bob Goodlatte Virginia 6 202-225-5431 https://goodlatte.house.gov/
House Ed Royce California 39 202-225-4111 http://royce.house.gov/contact/stopby.htm
House Frank Lucas Oklahoma 3 202-225-5565 https://lucas.house.gov/contact-me
House Rodney Frelinghuysen New Jersey 11 202-225-5034 https://frelinghuysen.house.gov/contact-us/
House Walter B. Jones Jr. North Carolina 3 202-225-3415 https://jones.house.gov/contact-me
House Frank LoBiondo New Jersey 2 202-225-6572 https://lobiondo.house.gov/contact-me
House Mac Thornberry Texas 13 202-225-3706 http://thornberry.house.gov/contact/
House Robert Aderholt Alabama 4 202-225-4876 https://aderholt.house.gov/
House Kevin Brady Texas 8 202-225-4901 http://kevinbrady.house.gov/contact/
House Kay Granger Texas 12 202-225-5071 http://kaygranger.house.gov/contact-kay
House Pete Sessions Texas 32 202-225-2231 https://sessions.house.gov/contact
House John Shimkus Illinois 15 202-225-5271 https://shimkus.house.gov/
House Steve Chabot Ohio 1 202-225-2216 http://chabot.house.gov/contact/
House Mark Sanford South Carolina 1 202-225-3176 https://sanfordforms.house.gov/contact/

(Note: If you don’t immediately see any useful contact information in the linked sites, try scrolling down to the bottom of the page. A lot of these guys hide their office locations and phone numbers down there.)

Notes


1. This line of defense hinges on the idea that Sessions completely forgot meeting the ambassador of Russia, the country that was then all over the news for its suspicious involvement with the Trump campaign that Sessions was heavily promoting. In other words, Sessions is arguing that he is too stupid to be the Attorney General, rather than too criminal. 

2. Clinton was right about this. He made a present tense statement, “There’s nothing going on between us”, which was true at the time he said it. Compare Sessions’s claim that he meant he never met with the Russians “as a Trump surrogate”, which is not what he said. 

3. I’m referring to everyone who voted “Yea” on Article I of H.Res.611, as recorded here. It appears to me that Article II also dealt with a perjury charge, but since it failed I ignored it. 

Donald Trump is the Fattest President in 100 Years

Is Donald Trump the fattest President in 100 years? This is, in some ways, not an important question, and it’s cruel to shame people about their weight. Yet, Trump himself thinks it’s very important to judge people on the basis of weight, and he would clearly be infuriated to learn that everyone knows he’s the fattest President in 100 years, which might distract him from killing us all and ruining the world for a little while. So let’s investigate this.

According to his fake medical records, released by handing a grifter a piece of paper on a TV show, Trump is 6’3″ and weighs 236 pounds. This would give him a body mass index (BMI) of 29.5, just shy of the range considered obese (which starts at 30). Where would that place him among U.S. Presidents? Well, it’s tough to get reliable data about weight for Presidents before about WWII, but we can be pretty certain that William Howard Taft was fatter; Wikipedia tactfully notes that “Taft is remembered as the heaviest president; he was 5 feet 11 inches (1.80 m) tall and his weight peaked at 335–340 pounds”. Taking the upper end of that estimate, Taft’s peak BMI would have been about 47.4, which would make him “very seriously obese” according to the Wikipedia BMI page. Trump is nowhere near that, so that gives us a clear limit—104 years ago, there was definitely a fatter President.

What about the intervening century? Only two people strike me as contenders; everyone else was pretty obviously thinner than Trump. Some guy looked into Presidential BMI a few years ago; that writer doesn’t cover everyone, and I think a few of his findings are a little off, but I think he’s close enough on most Presidents that we can safely rule them out. (Harding and Coolidge, the two post-Taft guys he leaves out, were not obviously overweight, either). But for two Presidents I wondered if he was correct.

The first is Bill Clinton, who according to a Phil Hartman impersonation loved to eat fast food. But a quick glance at some photos indicates that he was thinner than I remembered. Here he is in his famous Arsenio Hall appearance; he looks reasonably svelte. In this New Republic article about his health habits, the highest weight they mention is 216 lbs, which, given his 6’2″ height, would indicate a peak BMI of 27.7—overweight, but still shy of Trump.

The other guy is Lyndon Johnson, who is listed in the blogpost above as weighing 200 lbs. But LBJ’s weight fluctuated a lot; he was naturally kind of paunchy but vain enough to diet constantly (and sometimes, apparently, to wear a girdle). One book puts his peak weight as high as 220 lbs; another as “more than 240”. LBJ is usually listed as 6’3.5″ tall (I suspect he was measured very carefully so Lincoln could keep the height record, at 6’4″), so with a weight of, say, 245 lbs, that would give him a maximum BMI of 30.2.

Does that mean LBJ takes the crown from Trump? Is Trump merely the fattest President in the last half century? Not necessarily. Trump’s height and weight records are probably lies. I’m saying that not just because they are claims that Trump made, and not just because any sane person would clearly have released actual medical records if he wasn’t lying, but because the empirical evidence suggests it. Weight changes over time and is difficult to estimate from afar, but Trump’s claim to weigh 236 lbs was met with some healthy skepticism, as in this Washington Post article. It seems plausible that he weighs at least a little more, perhaps in the 240-250 range. But amazingly, the better case has to do with his height. As that article shows, photos of him standing next to other people strongly suggest that he is not 6’3″; Politico also found his driver’s license, which says that he’s 6’2″. Apparently he gets quite angry when people say that he’s 6’2″, but there you have it: Donald Trump is 6’2″. He’s not 6’3″; he’s 6’2″. To be clear: That’s 6’2″ for Donald Trump’s height, which is not 6’3″, and instead is merely 6’2″.

So, even if we don’t change the weight, adjusting to his actual height gives him a BMI of 30.3, nudging him into the obesity range and just past peak-fatness LBJ. When you consider that he probably actually weighs more, the case is that much stronger; at just 240 lbs, he’s up to 30.8. It seems safe to say it: By BMI, Trump is the fattest President in 100 years.

One question remains: Is BMI a good way to measure this? It’s a famously limited metric; a person in great shape might weigh a lot because of muscle mass, so you often get misleading results—e.g., peak Barry Sanders reads as obese on this metric, which is clearly not correct. Could it be that Trump is actually really healthy? After all, in the ludicrous doctor’s note he released during the campaign, the author claims that, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” Is there something to this?

No. Obviously not. To find a healthier President among the other 44 you have to go back… one, to Barack Obama, who is 16 years younger and still plays basketball on a regular basis. Is this answer a coincidence, or perhaps too partisan? Well, you could also go back… two, to George W. Bush, who is also younger than Trump even though he left office almost a decade ago, and who famously liked to work out all the time. Even Bill Clinton, who is also younger than Donald Trump, was jogging to those McDonald’s. Trump apparently loves fast food just as much, and in that Dr. Oz appearance with the fake medical records, we have this exchange:

OZ: How do you stay healthy on the campaign trail?

TRUMP: It’s a lot of work. When I’m speaking in front of 15 and 20,000 people and I’m up there using a lot of motion, I guess in its own way, it’s a pretty healthy act. I really enjoy doing it. A lot of times these rooms are very hot, like saunas, and I guess that is a form of exercise and, you know?

He thinks public speaking is a form of exercise, because he moves his arms around and it is sometimes hot in the room. This is not a man who works out, or, indeed, fully grasps the concept of working out. So, while it is possible that the use of BMI unfairly maligns the fitness of some Presidents, it clearly barely scratches the surface of Trump’s unhealthiness.

Conclusion: No matter how you look at it, Trump is the fattest President of the last 100 years. Spread the word.

 

 

P.S.: He’s also 6’2″.