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?
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.
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