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:



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:


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.


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.

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″.

Future History

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the best historical comparisons for Clinton and Trump as potential Presidents. For Clinton, I think it’s clear that she’d fit right into the legacy of Bill and Barack–the expected center-left progress characterized by a lot of little policy achievements, ordinary failures, and one or two big signature moves. At worst, I see her as someone like Jimmy Carter, well meaning and competent but stymied by forces outside the President’s control. At best, the guy who comes to mind is Teddy Roosevelt: Too hawkish (though, like her, also a better diplomat than he often gets credit for) and hilariously wonkish (he was so into managing everything that he got involved in arguments about new rules for football and the spelling of words in English), but a tireless worker, an advocate for fair play, and a brilliant politician and institutional architect.

Where micromanagement leads.

For Trump, the ceiling and floor are somewhat difficult to imagine. For the former I guess I can see a case for a Coolidge-like Presidency, where his utter inattention allows things to just sort of chug along while people of color are the victims of constant terrorist violence and the economy careens toward the Great Depression. At worst I can see him incorporating a sort of greatest-hits of the worst things Presidents have ever done–Watergate is a nice model for his paranoia about election rigging; Wilson’s casual stance toward the re-emergence of the KKK is basically already underway at Trump Campaign headquarters; the Alien & Sedition Acts look like the basis for his position on freedom of the press and libel laws; Harding’s notorious corruption is low-hanging fruit for a guy who literally goes on trial for fraud later this month; and given Trump’s cavalier stance on nuclear weapons, he could end everything by revisiting the Cuban Missile Crisis, except this time swapping out Robert F. Kennedy for Donald Trump, Jr.

If I had to tie Trump to just one President, though, I think I’d go with Andrew Jackson: A populist who combined violent racism with distrust of elites, financiers, and government involvement in the economy. The latter stuff led Jackson to cancel the central bank charter in the U.S. and generally issue policies now thought to have contributed to the Panic of 1837, one of the worst economic recessions in American history. The violent racism, of course, led to the Indian Removal Act, which in turn led to the Trail of Tears.

These kinds of things seem like they’re in play in a Trump Presidency. He rails against money in politics, corrupt insiders, and “this Janet Yellen of the Fed” in particular. It’s easy to imagine him deploying his angry incomprehension of economics to put his thumb on the scales (he has basically indicated that he would like to do this) and essentially wage a destructive war against the modern economy. Certainly his utterly indefensible use of anti-Semitism is partly about its historical role as the socialism of idiots. But it also points to Trump’s real campaign emphasis, the racism. He has based his career on a sort of modern-day Mexican Removal Act, with a Muslim ban thrown in for good measure. It’s important not to be too haphazard with a comparison like that; the Trail of Tears was a human catastrophe, an ethnic cleansing that killed thousands. I don’t think Trump is going to march immigrants through the snow until they die. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he advocates ethnic cleansing—the definition of the term varies depending on where you look, but it’s basically the removal of an ethnic or religious group from a territory with the aim of making it ethnically homogenous.1 Trump does not explicitly advocate for the violence that often accompanies ethnic cleansing, but the purging, deportations, and vision of purity are  right in his wheelhouse, and on a scale that our country has not seen in decades (perhaps a scale large enough that, practically, it would require Internment Camps, along the models pioneered by enthusiastic Trump supporter Joe Arpaio, thus checking off another of our Worst Hits).

I think America would survive a Trump Presidency; we survived Jackson’s, and that was in an era where a national collapse was much more thinkable than it is now. But I also think it would do lasting, terrible damage, to the white people duped by a man who understands their problems even less than he cares about them, and even worse to the people of color who would experience the worst of a history most of us thought we were done repeating. I used to wonder how on earth we still had Jackson on our money, given all that he did. I chalked it up to some combination of historical ignorance and apathy. I still think it was that—but, apparently, for a lot of people it was also a kind of aspiration.


1. It’s kind of chilling, when you read different definitions of the term “ethnic cleansing”, how closely they echo Trump’s ideas. On Wikipedia, it’s “the systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, with the intent of making it ethnically homogeneous.” The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it, even more aptly, “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.”  In the Oxford English Dictionary (that link is behind a paywall), it’s “The purging, by mass expulsion or killing, of one ethnic or religious group by another, esp. from an area of former cohabitation.” Wikipedia has some more legal definitions here. It’s fair to say that Trump is not explicitly calling for terrorist violence, but he does favor ethnically and religiously targeted mass expulsions of people (especially Mexicans and Muslims), and I think it’s pretty clear that this is based on the misguided dream of homogeneous American whiteness that underlies his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

One of the oldest battles in American political rhetoric is the one that pits bold outsiders against experienced statesmen. This election has taken that to such a ludicrous extreme that it put me in mind of a project I did back when I was first learning how to build network diagrams.1  The idea was to see Presidential employment relationships: Which Presidents held major jobs under other Presidents? Who employed the most other Presidents? The results tell us a little about the outsider/insider battle at the highest level of insiderness.

When you start to dig into this stuff, a lot of ambiguous situations arise. For instance, Ulysses S. Grant was Commanding General of the United States Army under both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but Johnson, characteristic of his usual interest in skilled governance, national unity, and racial progress, hated him and constantly tried to get him fired.2 Should that count? What about William McKinley, who was a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War? Technically that means he worked for Lincoln and Grant—should that count? In the end I settled on an imperfect but easy compromise: I took any job that got its own category in the sidebar of the President’s Wikipedia page. Grant’s has his Commanding General post; McKinley’s major post doesn’t make the cut.

Here are the results:


The nodes here are colored by political party and sized by betweenness centrality.3 I’ve arranged everything here to show the major clusters. What immediately stands out is that the early guys are incredibly interconnected. John Quincy Adams worked for four different Presidents (ambassador for Washington, Adams with no Q, and Madison, and Secretary of State for Monroe) and hired another, Harrison, who had also worked for his dad. Recently a lot of people, including Barack Obama, have said that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person ever to run for President, and while I think the basic gist of this is true (she’s as qualified as anyone in the last hundred years), you just can’t beat those early guys. They just insisted on hiring each other to do everything (and that’s before you factor in things like writing the Constitution).

Beyond that, you see a couple of other groups: The Lincoln Republicans, a group I call the Immigration Era Republicans,4  and then the American Empire guys—the WWI and WWII Presidents, followed by the Republican group that dominated the rest of the 20th century. It’s obvious that some things are off here; W. is clearly in the same political club as Nixon (who contributed a lot of his staffers) and George H.W. Bush (who contributed a lot of his DNA, education, baseball teams, etc.). And there are other, slightly more tenuous connections as well: The Harrisons are related, albeit separated by a generation; JFK’s dad worked for FDR; Taylor prosecuted the Mexican-American War for Polk.

Here’s another issue with this data: You may have noticed that the edges in that network are multicolored. That’s to show the nature of the job held, as detailed in this key:


Most of these are probably fine (and note that “governor” only refers to appointed governorships, like when McKinley made Taft Governor-General of the Philippines), but ambassadorships are doing a ton of work here.5  Buchanan, for instance, was the ambassador to Russia under Jackson at the early stage of his bafflingly long (considering how it ended) career in national politics, which is the only reason the President in the late 1850’s is connected to George Washington. Arguably these aren’t substantial enough roles to be included in this kind of graph; that’s what happens when you let Wikipedia make the decisions for you. Still, in broad strokes, I think this really shows you something about the internecine operations of power at our highest level, and its capacity to reset every so often.

One last image: Here’s everything laid out chronologically. This time the edges are directed, so you can see, based on the arrows, who hired whom.


Here the unending nature of that first group really becomes clear. If you worked for George Washington, you stood a surprisingly good chance of being in the same org chart as the guy who would one day lose seven states to secession at the start of the Civil War. You also see that the groups overlap chronologically, with Wilson and FDR crossing the 1920’s Republicans, and the Taylor/Fillmore pair interrupting the Founders’ lovefest. You also get the weird anomaly of Hoover hiring a guy who had already been the President; when he needed a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who better to choose than the man appointed governor of a territory by the man whose Vice President later appointed that same man governor of a territory? (Taft was also a judge and solicitor general under Ben Harrison—you just couldn’t keep Presidents from hiring him, even decades after he was done being President.)

The possibilities for describing these employer-employee chains are pretty fun. For instance, Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s Vice President’s general’s Vice President’s Vice President’s CIA Director’s running mate was Ronald Reagan (that’s Wilson-FDR-Truman-Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford-Bush-Reagan). Or, much weirder, Polk’s Secretary of State’s former boss’s former boss’s former boss’s Secretary of State’s UK ambassador’s former boss’s Vice President’s appointed governor’s Vice President was John Tyler, aka the guy Polk replaced. (That one goes Polk-Buchanan-Jackson-Monroe-Jefferson-Madison-JQA-Washington-Adams-Harrison-Tyler.)

In the recent past, we’ve had a lot more isolates than before, although, as noted, there’s a strong argument for connecting W. to the other American Empire guys. But if Clinton wins, we’ll have connections to Obama (who hired her as Secretary of State) and arguably Bill Clinton (it’s pretty odd to think of that as an employment relationship, but First Lady makes the Wikipedia sidebar—nothing I can do!). And if you’re willing to go along with all that, the only guy who would be left out of the loops in the past 120 years is Jimmy Carter, a mediocre President but arguably in the top three in terms of being a decent human being. It’s a little sad to think of him out there by himself; I think Clinton should appoint him Ambassador to Cuba for a couple days.6  It’s what the Founders would have wanted.




1. I did all of this with Gephi.

2. One strategy was to try and promote William T. Sherman ahead of Grant to dilute his power. For some reason Sherman preferred to side with Grant, which led to the odd situation of Sherman calling in political favors to battle his own promotion on the Senate floor. See Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, 452. 

3. Betweenness centrality basically measures how important a node is for connecting other groups of nodes to each other; so Jackson is big because he connects all those dark blues to the Founders. The parties here include Democrat (dark blue), Republican (red), Democratic-Republican (light blue), Federalist (yellow), Whig (green), and none (white).

4. Two reasons: 1. There’s not another good name for the period from the 1880’s-1930’s; it’s post-Reconstruction, much longer than the Gilded Age or Progressive Era, and doesn’t align well with any wars. But, 2. Tons of people immigrated to the U.S. over this period. The numbers really explode starting in the 1880’s (they double the 1870’s in the source in that link) and stay strong until the mid-1930’s.

5. In the old days they seemed to call ambassadors “ministers” (e.g., Buchanan was United States Minister to Russia). I’m assuming these jobs are close enough to the same thing for my purposes, though I’d be interested to hear if I’m wrong about that. 

6. First Provisional Governor of Cuba for the U.S.: William Howard Taft. Of course. And by the way, to answer the two questions I asked in the first paragraph and then forgot about: 25 Presidents worked for some other President; JQA and Taft each worked for 4 different Presidents, tying for first on that metric. Three Presidents hired other Presidents 4 times: Jackson hired Buchanan, and then Van Buren for three different things. Madison hired JQA and Monroe for two things apiece. And Washington hired Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and JQA, one time apiece.

VPs Are Important

Matthew Yglesias at Vox makes an excellent point in a recent post: The choice of Vice President is one of the most important that a President can make.1  I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize his argument in slightly more qualitative terms.

To date, 14 of our Presidents arrived at the job through the Vice Presidency.2 That’s almost exactly one third of the people who have been President. It’s also about 30% of the people who have been Vice President (we’ve had 47 so far). So that pretty much confirms Yglesias’s point by itself: I doubt there’s any better predictor of future Presidency than having been VP, and evidently there’s no talent pool voters like to raid more than that one.3

Also persuasive is the fact that 9 of our Presidents (about one in five) got the job automatically simply by virtue of being the VP. Eight Presidents died in office, and one resigned. This is a terrible rate of completion; 20% of the people who have held that office haven’t made it to the end of their elected terms. It’s true that no President has left office early in about 40 years, and I think you could argue that the most chaotic days are behind us (e.g., in the forty years stretching from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, three Presidents were murdered). Still, the idea that the VP is a heartbeat away from the Presidency is actually pretty well borne out in our history. And those days are not entirely behind us: Four of our Presidents have died of natural causes. Medicine is better today, but so far people still die sometimes.


Finally, Yglesias notes that even when VPs don’t ascend to the Presidency, they often become the nominees for major parties—further proving the importance of the job. Perusing the list of VPs, I only see four people who ran but failed to win: John Breckinridge served under Buchanan and lost to Lincoln, Hubert Humphrey served under LBJ and lost to Nixon, Walter Mondale served under Carter and lost to Reagan, and Al Gore served under Clinton and lost to W.4  Across all of American history, this appears to be a slightly weaker part of Yglesias’s argument, but three of the four examples are from the past fifty years, so it might be that it’s more relevant today than the raw counts suggest.

So there you have it: If history is any guide, there is a very strong chance that the VP on the winning ticket will become President later on. You could make the argument that, historically, it’s apparently about a third as important a job as the Presidency, since it eventually is the Presidency one third of the time. And that’s pretty important; unless I’m incredibly mistaken about the readership of this blog, it beats your job by a wide margin. So this gives us a rare opportunity to say, realistically, that we hope Clinton doesn’t screw up as badly as Abraham Lincoln.5


1. This is especially obvious, as Yglesias notes, in the case of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson; if anything, Yglesias understates the extent to which Johnson was a complete disaster—appointing him was the single worst decision Lincoln made as President, and one of the worst things that ever happened to Civil Rights in the United States, which is saying something.

2. The 14 are Adams I, Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Johnson I, Arthur, Teddy, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, Johnson II, Ford, and Bush I. This is all from Wikipedia and other easily accessible sources (I think you could probably glean it from the Yglesias post with a little work). All I’m trying to do here is compile and summarize it.

3. As far as better predictors for becoming President, you’re pretty much limited to things that only apply to one person (e.g., “being George Washington”, or “marrying Mary Todd”). It’s actually pretty hard to think of another good smartass answer that works—I thought of “sharing at least 50% of John Adams’s DNA”, but he had six kids (and two parents), so the rate of 2/9 is actually slightly worse than for VPs. (George H.W. Bush has had 6 kids, too). Another important milestone for Hillary Clinton if she were elected would be adding “being Chelsea Clinton’s parent” to this list. 

4. It seems weird that they’re all Democrats. Supposedly conservatives like hierarchy more, which might mean they’d turn out to vote for the guy who seems like the next guy in line, but it could also be a coincidence—it is just four guys. I didn’t include George Clinton in this list; he got a few electoral votes in 1808, but it was while he was running for (and already serving as) VP. You also might double count Nixon as a losing candidate for his party and a future President, since he was both, in that order. 

5. Trump, of course, will surely pick Donald Sterling

The Trump Minimum

Now that Trump has essentially won the GOP nomination, those of us who live in the U.S. have to confront a deeply troubling reality: At some point in the near future, tens of millions of our fellow Americans will have voted in favor of Donald Trump becoming President. This seems destined to go down in history as a fascinating combination of shame and idiocy.1 But just how bad will it be? How many of us are going to officially register our opinion that Donald Trump is not only acceptable but also preferable to another human being as a candidate for the world’s most powerful job?

In this post I attempt to find the Trump Minimum, the absolute best case scenario for this nation as it attempts to live with itself from 2017 on.2 The question: What is the lowest possible number of people who will wind up voting for Trump?

I’m ignoring two possibilities here. First, that Trump won’t run—either he’ll suddenly realize that he might actually have to do the job, and panic and quit; or he’ll run out of money because he has been a secret poor person this whole time; or Paul Ryan will decide that he’d like “history” (one year from now and after) to remember him kindly and will orchestrate a convention coup. In that case Trump will only have his primary votes; these promise to be pretty substantial, already topping 10 million as of this Washington Post article from April. I’m not sure primary votes matter in quite the same way, though. The stakes are just lower in those contests; some people might be voting tactically without hoping for the candidate to win, and others might just be gambling.

The second possibility is that Trump wins. Recent polls do show the field narrowing. Personally, I don’t think this is very likely.3 But if he does win, we’re going to have way more important things to worry about. (Also, I suspect that if he does win we might be more angry at the people who failed to vote against him—who knew he was bad and let it happen anyway. But that’s just a guess.)

My Method

This is all going to be pretty straightforward. I take a margin of victory for the Democrat—I’m just going to say Clinton from here on out, since she’s more likely to win the nomination—along with the third party vote and use that to figure out what percentage of the popular vote Trump receives.4 I’m going to ignore the electoral college as well as demographic breakdowns; both are important and interesting, and the latter affects the overall popular vote, but I really just want big-picture numbers here. I’ll leave the story behind the numbers to the reader’s imagination.

I also estimate overall turnout, which tells me how many people are voting in the first place. I found it pretty tough to find a good source for how many eligible voters there are in the USA, so I used this reliable-seeming Wikipedia page on Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections, which shows this trend:


That’s not the world’s worst trend line, so I just used it to predict that there will be 240 million eligible voters this year. That feels like kind of a strange method, and definitely not like very good social science, but there were 235 million eligible voters last time, so it seems like as good a guess as any.


We’ll start with a pretty plausible, and therefore slightly depressing scenario. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has the race essentially tied as of this writing, so we’ll use a previous close election as our Sad Baseline: In 1960 JFK defeated Nixon by just .17% in the popular vote. That’s perfect for a sad winning margin.

Since 1932, which is when my data starts for this, turnout has ranged from 49% (in 1996) to 62.8% (in 1960—so not only was the result a dead heat, but tons of people weighed in on it). In the past few elections turnout has hovered in the low to mid 50’s. Since this is the Sad Baseline, we’ll assume decent turnout of 55% (thus boosting the raw numbers of Trump voters). And finally, we’ll assume that third party performance is just under the historical median—call it 2%. All together, this gives us:

Percentage Voters
Clinton 49.09% 64,792,000
Trump 48.92% 64,568,000

That’s over 64 million votes for Donald Trump. Thanks to historic population growth, only Barack Obama has ever received more votes in a real Presidential election (though he did do it twice).

Those assumptions were about as pessimistic as possible—good for figuring out the top of the range, but otherwise counter to the spirit of the Trump Minimum. So let’s consider a Plausible Good Baseline. In 2008 Obama beat McCain by 7.27%. That might be about as strong a margin as you can hope for in an era this partisan, so let’s steal that. Let’s also gamble that the historically bad favorability ratings for both candidates will depress turnout to a tie with its worst level in the last 80 years—49%. Those adjustments to the previous scenario lead you to just over 53 million Trump voters.

We’ve still got one powerful lever, though: Third Parties. These have had a pretty substantial spoiler effect in U.S. History; it was only 24 years ago that Ross Perot pulled 19% of the vote. So far there’s no indication that anyone will come close to matching that, but there’s some evidence that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could reach as much as 10% of the vote. If we bump our third party cut up to that, and keep everything else the same, we arrive at a Plausible Gary Scenario wherein Trump receives just 49 million votes.

All of this is well and good, but what if we ratchet the numbers up to a historic disgrace? Is it really so implausible that Trump will do or say something that loses him the votes of 9 out of 10 women? Or that he will quit the race and return to it the next day, on multiple occasions? Or insist that Donald Sterling be his Vice President? In hypothetical times like these, we really ought to turn to the biggest margin of victory in modern U.S. Presidential election history: Warren G. Harding’s 26.17% blowout of James Cox.5

Let’s also start thinking outside the box about voter turnout. Sure, 49% is bad, but what about the examples of other nations? Surely some of them care even less than us. I looked into it and, no, they really don’t, at least not in countries that are doing pretty well.6 Among OECD nations, only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland are more apathetic about voting. Only 40% of Switzerland’s voting age population votes, so let’s just take that as a worst-case-scenario number for U.S. turnout, too.

Finally, we’ll ratchet Gary up to 15%. Why not? After all, in this scenario Trump keeps quitting and promoting a man who was banned from the NBA.

With these parameters, we have reached the Trump Minimum, the absolute lowest number of votes that he could reach if we hit historically plausible extremes. The final count: 28 million votes.

So there you have it. Donald Trump is virtually guaranteed to get at least 28 million votes in November. A minimum of ~30 million people living in this country will choose to place Donald Trump in charge of maintaining the nuclear arsenal, repairing our broken justice system, and engaging in diplomacy with leaders who often are not old white men.

I’ll admit I wanted that number to be lower. I even played around with one last scheme: The Return of Teddy Scenario. In this one Teddy Roosevelt returns from the dead along with his former opponent Eugene Debs, and together they replicate their record-setting third-party performances in the 1912 election to steal 33.4% of the vote. Gary Johnson still runs (nothing has stopped him so far in real life), though he only adds 10% to the third-party haul, since some of his coalition prefers the Bull Moose charisma. Most voters are turned off by the prospect of voting for a reanimated dead person, so turnout dips to 30%. And as a hyper-masculine old-money white man with century-old values, Teddy pulls disproportionately from the Republican vote; Debs does pull some Bernie supporters out of Clinton’s coalition, but her margin still improves to an even 30%. In the Return of Teddy Scenario, which is not likely, Trump receives just 13.3% of the vote, losing to both Clinton and a long dead park enthusiast. But he still pulls 11 million votes.

There’s just no way around it: The man is going to get a lot of votes. Realistically closer to 60 million, but at the very least about 30 million. We’re all going to know someone who voted for him; we’re all going to go into future elections with hard evidence that people who like him are out there voting again. But there’s still the possibility that, like Barry Goldwater or Walter Mondale, he’ll lose badly enough that we can think of ourselves as the country that overwhelmingly rejected him. We just have to hope he’s less like Richard Nixon and more like James Cox—his electoral performance remembered mainly for how thoroughly he was defeated.

1. I used to say this about re-electing George W. Bush, too, so it’s possible that I’m either overreacting or underestimating what’s next. Also, I was originally calling it one of our most shameful and idiotic moments, but then I thought about things that happened before 1950.

2. To be fair, we often don’t seem to have a problem hanging around with evidence of our worst moral failures. Strom Thurmond, who ran for President in 1948 on a pro-Jim Crow platform, only left office in 2003—and he wasn’t even voted out; he just died.

3. Anything can happen, and major party nominees always have a decent enough shot at the White House that it makes sense to worry about the dangerous ones. But speaking purely subjectively, I just don’t see how he overcomes demographic reality. Women and people of color hate him even more than they hated Romney and McCain, who both lost. The theory behind his winning rests on activating enough “missing white voters” (read: racists) to overcome this, but I don’t see how enough of them are A)  still alive, B) eager to vote now, despite having sat out two elections featuring a black candidate.

4. I don’t allocate the third party vote to one party or another, but it shouldn’t really matter for these purposes. If you thought a Libertarian, for instance, would take many more voters from Trump than from Clinton, you could just change the Clinton margin of victory; but I’m just making up that margin in the first place, and why complicate a made up number? We don’t care why people are or aren’t voting for Trump—we just care how many of them there are.

5. I don’t know why the 1920 election in particular. It’s interesting that it’s the first one in which women could vote, and the second biggest margin was in the very next election. Maybe only one party appealed to women voters? Three other things I want to put in this footnote: 1. I’m saying “modern” elections because my data only goes back to the 1820’s. Before that Monroe and Washington essentially ran unopposed, which screws up projects like this one. 2. Kind of funny that the VP on Cox’s ticket was FDR—guess he made up for it later. 3. I thought of Donald Sterling as a joke and was immediately convinced it was plausible. What better choice for Donald than, essentially, himself: a racist real estate billionaire named Donald.

6. I submit this as a replacement phrase for “developed countries”.