DI Politics Chat: Is Trump the Worst President of All Time?

He stands on the shoulders of giants. Photo: John Taggart

Ezekiel: Alright, so George Will says that Trump is the worst president of all time. Agree or disagree? Where would you rank him if he died today?

Ed: Not sure how to assess unlimited potential for horror.

Jon: I don’t think he’s come close to the damage Andrew Johnson wrought. It’s possible, but unlikely, he will. In terms of capability of doing the job, Trump might be the worst. (Johnson would have a decent argument, too.) He just hasn’t done enough damage yet.

Eric: Yeah, think it’s really hard to argue that he’s the worst president ever at this point, without whitewashing a lot of American history. He’s almost certainly the worst human being to occupy the Oval Office.

Ezekiel: Ehh, not enough ethnic cleansing.

Ed: If Trump had his druthers, he’d definitely be the worst president, and maybe the last elected president.

Jon: Johnson undermined Reconstruction, and if that had succeeded, the arc of American history would have been dramatically better in almost every single possible way we can imagine. He was the hinge to the greatest tragedy and missed opportunity in our history and the damage is ongoing.

Ed: But bad intentions aren’t enough. I’d disagree with Jon about Andy Johnson for that reason. He wanted to thwart Reconstruction, but didn’t. It took Rutherford Hayes to do that.

Olivia: Even though we are so early in his term, I think you could argue that while Trump hasn’t had an opportunity to truly become the worst yet, he’s the worst in terms of long-term damage he’s wreaking on the presidency itself, no?

Jon: I think Johnson damaged it quite a bit, though he himself did not end it.

Ed: Nixon did some serious damage to the presidency, of course.

Jon: Olivia, you might be right, though it has yet to play out, I think.

Olivia: Trump has only had, like, 11 months. Give him time!!!

Eric: If you factor in moral conventions of the time, and just what a holistically bad person Trump is — the vanity, intellectual vacuity, greed, lack of taste, in-eloquence, racism, the sheer, effervescent virulence of his misogyny …

Jon: Sure, as a human being.

Ed: If Trump gets to pick another SCOTUS member, and another 30 judges or so, his long-term negative impact will go way up.

Ezekiel: I think he’s very embarrassing.

Olivia: LOL.

Ezekiel: And I think people conflate that with damage to the country.

Jon: By the way, it’s pretty typical of Will that he buried his case for Trump as the worst president as the final line of his column, and did not bother to include even a single sentence worth of substantiation. That’s why we have to argue it for him.

Olivia: But, and correct me if I’m wrong, Trump’s SCOTUS pick, and judges, are probably not different than who, like President Ted Cruz or President Carly Fiorina (remember when they were a ticket?) would have picked.

Ed: Yes, and for that reason Ted Cruz would have ranked pretty high on the Bad Presidents list as well. Trump, though, is unique in combining horrifying style and substance. He’s the “complete package,” as they say in sports.

Olivia: Ezekiel, I kind of agree, but Trump has questioned the integrity of our elections, he’s fought with his own intelligence community, he’s questioned the authority of all others in the federal government, at this point. Maybe because he’s so fickle and full of shit, it won’t matter long term, but I am inclined to think it might.

Ed: Olivia’s right: We need to factor in the effect he’s having on his supporters, which will last much longer than his presidency.

Ezekiel: I think there’s some recency bias at play here.

Ed: Of course. None of us were covering Andrew Johnson every day.

Olivia: Sounds like a vacation to me.

Jon: Yeah, back then, Ed, you only filed weekly, I believe.

Ed: Walked right into that one, didn’t I?

Jon: Couldn’t resist.

Eric: I think it remains possible that Trump’s long-term effects will be a net positive. If Clinton won last November, the Republican Party would very likely have amassed huge congressional margins in the 2018 midterms, and then ousted her in 2020 (by Election Day her disapproval rating was in the high 50s, I believe, and four years of divided government–fueled inefficacy probably wouldn’t have changed that).

With or without Trump, the GOP’s donor-driven commitment to a fringe economic orthodoxy with no popular support — and no compelling answers to the problems of the 21st century — was already making them more reliant on demagogic racial appeals, and quasi-authoritarian attempts to restrict popular sovereignty.

A more talented and broadly appealing GOP president might have been able to do more damage, for a longer period of time, on behalf of that coalition. Trump, by putting the ugliest possible face on American conservatism, may well hasten the party’s collapse before it can do much beyond pass a temporary tax cut.

Or, ya know, he could get us all killed …

Jon: Bimodal distribution.

Ed: By Eric’s metric, all bad presidents have some possible long-term value by discrediting themselves and their followers.

Jon: Except bad presidents for your own side (like Jimmy Carter).

Eric: Eh, Nixon managed to discredit liberalism with his failures, by promoting distrust of government.

Ed: Andy Johnson certainly helped the radical Republicans get into the saddle.

Jon: My historical version of this take is that history would have been better if Gerald Ford won in 1976.

Eric: Absolutely.

Olivia: Maybe. I don’t know, I know a lot of people were thrilled or relieved by the Alabama results, but I think the fact that it was that close at all is just proof that our politics are completely broken right now. I mean, we’ve had a lot of bad presidents. Have we ever had a president who knowingly endorsed a man accused of sexually abusing an underage girl?

Jon: It’s bad.

Ezekiel: I mean, Jefferson raped Sally Hemings. Pretty bad.

Olivia: Most of our presidents have probably been abhorrent human beings privately. But publicly endorsing someone like Moore — telling the country, and the world, that this is who you are — is different.

Jon: I think Olivia is arguing that Trump is causing a disintegration of political norms, which Jefferson did not do. And Eric is saying the backlash against that might prove more enduring if we don’t all die in the meantime.

Olivia: Yes, thank you, Chait.

Ed: Maybe it’s because I’m from the Deep South, but Judge Roy is only marginally more horrifying than some other pols. Alabama’s own George Wallace was a nightmare morally, as was the guy who “out-segged” him (to use the cleaned-up version) in 1958, John Patterson.

Eric: I honestly think that having a Congress that tries to pass sweeping changes to America’s tax and health-care systems as rapidly as possible — because they know a supermajority of the public opposes their priorities — undermines democratic norms about as much as anything Trump has done.

Ed: We are talking about all-time bad, not just the people we have experienced.

Ezekiel: Yes, we’re talking about two things — personal morality and negative effects on the nation. I don’t think Trump ranks at the top on either scale.

Olivia: It’s tough to judge people you haven’t experienced though, or judge them as passionately.

Eric: The modern GOP is the problem IMO, they were always going to get back power, and Trump might expedite their passage back out of it.

Jon: I think it’s structurally too hard to pass legislation, so making it easier — even in the service of terrible proposals — might do long-term good, Eric.

Eric: That’s fair.

Jon: But on health care, the system worked!

Ed: I’m with Jon: I’ve argued for a good while that what this country needs is for one party or the other to actually govern for a while.

Eric: I guess, what would really undermine the system is if they got away with it – i.e., paid no political price for ignoring voters and stakeholders shoving heinously unpopular legislation through. But my argument rests on them not doing so.

Ed: Political power always offers a choice between entrenching that power by doing popular things, or using it up to get things done that might be unpopular.

Eric: Yeah.

Ezekiel: All right, so what is Trump going to have to do to take that No. 1 spot?

Jon: Major war, serious undermining of democracy, managerial failure that causes/allows a big disease outbreak or other disaster — the tail risks that come with incompetent government.

Eric: He could make a lot of headway with the right moves on North Korea. I think war + major cyberattack on U.S. voting system in 2018 that he refuses to investigate, these sorts of things.

Ed: It’s unclear Trump understands what “getting things done” means. Does his sheer ignorance make him stand out?  I’d argue no POTUS since Warren Harding was as clueless.

Olivia: I do wonder, though, isn’t his historic dumbness technically … bad? In terms of the effects on the country broadly and our place in the world. I mean, we genuinely do not know, each day, if he will send a tweet about some far-flung murderous dictator having man boobs and get us all nuked. That seems pretty bad!

Ezekiel: I think it protects us from the malevolent things that he might want to do intentionally, but exposes us to bad things he could do unintentionally — that tail risk.

Ed: And as I suggested earlier, if Trumpism remains a thing when he’s gone, that will elevate his badness.

Olivia: What even is Trumpism though, without Trump?

Ed: You could argue he’s taken a marginally destructive conservative political party and made it entirely destructive.

Eric: Yeah. I wonder — and some right-wing (white) nationalists fear —that he’ll ultimately do damage to their movement. Discredit their ideas.

Ed: Wow, Eric is really dialectical today.

Eric: When a figure like Tom Cotton (but more charismatic) could have truly legitimized them.

Ezekiel: Yeah, I was gonna say — I think the worst thing that could happen is probably someone else taking up the Trumpist mantle who actually knows what they’re doing.

Eric: Yeah.

Ed: There’s a good chance Tom Cotton will get the chance to do just that.

Ezekiel: We’ll see.

Ed: And remember: Compared to Trump, Cotton is friggin’ Pericles.

Olivia: Meh, I dunno. The only reason Trump works is because he’s Trump.

Jon: In my opinion Trump won because of Clinton. But that’s a tangent.

Eric: My hope is that, by the time he gets the chance, enough baby-boomers will have died — and millennials, registered to vote — that that dog just won’t hunt.

Ezekiel: I don’t think Trumpism needs Trump, but I think it needed someone like him to show the way.

Ed: Trump as Moses, Cotton as Joshua?

Ezekiel: Haha, yeah, exactly. I think he used his shamelessness as a battering ram to open the path he used, no other ordinary politician could have wielded it so effectively.

Eric: I just think, on some level Michael Anton and Steve Bannon aren’t necessarily wrong — there really might not be enough white people in America a decade from now to make their politics possible (if Trump fails to truly undermine democracy first).

Olivia: I do just wonder though, although Trump hasn’t yet had the chance to kill some or all of us, in the contemporary era, I think arguably more Americans are living in fear generally because of their skin color or gender or religion, and in a sense, that’s a form of mass terror, which seems … pretty bad! The threat of his badness I think at a certain point is just badness.

Ed: Yeah, if you could quantify years taken off people’s lives, it not as bad as killing people, but it’s bad.

Ezekiel: Alright, let’s get some fake numbers here. What are the chances that Trump ends up being the worst president ever. 25 percent? 60 percent?

Jon: 30 percent.

Ed: I’d say 50 percent.

Olivia: If he’s a one term president: 30 percent; if it’s two terms: 75 percent; if he decides he’s president forever: 100 percent.

Ed: Haha, good one.

Eric: Olivia’s calculus seems right — except, if he’s only in for one term, I’d put that percentage lower.


Jon: My final fake number right there.

Ezekiel: I’m gonna put it at 10 percent. Have a hard time imagining him doing anything that damages the country as badly as screwing up Reconstruction. And I don’t think he’s going to get two terms, and I think a Democratic wave will shackle him in the second half of his first term. The 1/10 chance accounts for him doing the Tweet That Started the Last War.

Eric: No question about that. My only doubt is whether the huge economic incentive to exploit black labor in the South would have undermined Reconstruction even without Johnson. (I don’t have a strong opinion on that point and consider Andrew Johnson the worst. But not sure I trust the counterfactual would have worked out fine.)

Ed: I agree about Reconstruction, Ezekiel, but I’d spread the blame for that around quite a bit.  Trump’s malevolence is concentrated.

Ezekiel: Yeah, it’s possible that I’m falling prey to a Great Man Theory that doesn’t hold up.

Ed: Yeah, if Hannibal Hamlin had been renominated in 1864, Reconstruction would have gotten off to a quicker start, but it would have still been undone.

Jon: Wars of Reconstruction is pretty optimistic about the potential for success under the right level of support, FWIW.

Ezekiel: Any last thoughts?

Jon: George W. Bush is still pretty bad. I think it’s not a coincidence that within two decades the modern GOP will have produced two of the four or five worst presidents in history. It’s a function of the party’s ideological and social makeup.

Olivia: All presidents are bad, because anyone who wants to be president is bad, because anyone who wants to run for any public office more powerful than the town mayor (small town) almost certainly has a personality disorder and in short we should bring back monarchies.

Ed: This could make for some interesting reading down the road.

Ezekiel: Yeah, when the world is a postapocalyptic hellscape, people are going to shout “10 percent!” at me derisively. Because they’ll remember this chat. And curse my name.

Jon: First line of the obit: “Writer predicted Trump would be fine, dead in flu outbreak caused by Trump.”

Ezekiel: Haha.

Olivia: What an uplifting chat. I feel amazing.

Ed: Next up: a chat on which family will form the coming monarchy.

DI Politics Chat: Is Trump the Worst President of All Time?