There are many ways to measure a president. C-Span’s 2017 Presidential Historians Survey ranks every American president up to Obama based on such hard-to-quantify categories as “public persuasion,” “moral authority,” “international relations, and “performance within the context of his times.” Historians are generally loathe to compare subjects from different eras based on a single, simplistic set of metrics, so it’s always a bit surprising to me that C-Span gets so many well-regarded historians to weigh in every year. Maybe the ranking is intended to remind current office-holders of their accountability to future generations. Maybe it’s just clickbait.
Anyway, having thus problematized the C-Span survey, I will now use it to argue a point. Most of the worst presidents on that list have earned their places by dint of political and policy decisions that would subsequently fetch foreseeably terrible consequences. The bottom spots are largely reserved for the procession of presidents who failed to prevent and/or accelerated the country’s slow and predictable slide into civil war during the mid-19th century. That’s where you’ll find Franklin Pierce, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore and, at the very bottom, James Buchanan, who presided over the South’s secession and the near-dissolution of the Union.
It’s far too early to speculate about how far down that list Donald Trump’s name will eventually appear. Early returns obviously aren’t promising. Stylistically, Trump is probably the worst president in modern memory—placing his bundle of unbridled pathologies on full display almost every morning on Twitter. He has yet to demonstrate the capacity to empathize, emote, focus, or reason in real time. He doesn't, in both his own words and those of his critics, “act presidential.”
Presidential symbolism is another weak point; Trump’s recent refusal to condemn American Nazism in the wake of the Charlottesville riots is the kind of thing that can seriously mar a presidency from a historical perspective—particularly if right wing extremists are emboldened by his non-response to foment further violence. His firing of James Comey, unwillingness to release his tax returns, and the ongoing mystery of his ties to Russia also undermine and degrade the symbolic power of his office. Trump’s threat to leave the Paris Climate Accord could also turn out to be one of the defining symbolic acts of his presidency. Symbolic, because it remains an open question at this point a), whether the US will indeed withdraw, and b), how much impact a US withdrawal would actually have on the global effort to combat climate change.
There are a few substantive things Trump could do right away to reserve his place at the bottom of C-Span’s list. A “preventive war” against North Korea would certainly fall into this category. A preemptive strike by the US would almost certainly lead to an entirely avoidable nuclear exchange, and millions of casualties.
But thankfully, President Trump also counts laziness and irresolution among his many character flaws. So despite the number of preposterously terrible proposals being floated by his administration, Trump hasn’t followed through on much of anything yet. If “bad” presidents are primarily measured in terms of the severity of the real-world consequences of their decisions, the current president simply hasn’t put in enough work to be considered truly, historically “bad.” Not yet.
In fact, to judge by the consequences of his decisions thus far, Mr. Trump is not even as bad as the last Republican president. In 2002 and 2003, over the vocal protests of a large portion of the western world and his own citizens, George W. Bush and his administration ginned up fake intelligence to prosecute an aggressive war to topple Saddam Hussein, without a viable or realistic plan for stabilizing and rebuilding that country’s civil society in the aftermath. Experts within his own administration warned that by pulling military resources away from Afghanistan, from which the September 11th attacks originated, the United States risked losing Osama bin Laden, and getting bogged down in a protracted stalemate, in order to attack a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. (Tonight, as it happens, sixteen years after the US began fighting there, Donald Trump will address the nation on raising troop levels once again in Afghanistan, further prolonging what is already by far the longest war in American history.)
Predictably, the relatively easy deposition of Saddam Hussein opened an ideological and political power vacuum, in which an insurgency comprised of disgruntled ex-Baathists and radical Sunni militants like Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq) triggered a post-invasion civil war that ripped the country apart. From 2004-2011, the United States military fought aimlessly against multiple sides in Iraq’s civil war, including AQI and various Shia militias, in pursuit of a political solution that could only be achieved by Iraqis themselves.
The consequences were hardly limited to Iraq. Sunni factions that had both radicalized and operationalized in post-invasion Iraq poured across the border into Syria beginning in 2011. Their presence helped turn what began as a democratic uprising against the Assad regime into a grinding and endless civil war with no moral legitimacy on either side, while also creating an easy pretext for Russia to assert its malign influence in the region. The effects of the Iraq war allowed President Recep Erdogan to tighten his grip on power in Turkey by starting his own war against the Kurds of northern Iraq. And, with Iraq no longer serving as a check upon the regional ambitions of Iran, the United States began expending far more money and energy to do so—further degrading the combat readiness of an American military, and bringing us into potentially direct conflict with the Chinese, who are quickly becoming Iran's go-to allies.
The bitter fruits of the Iraq War are very much still with us. Through their involvement in neighboring Syria’s civil war, remnants of AQI and the Baath Party eventually transmogrified into ISIL, the Islamic State. So although the United States withdrew completely from Iraq in 2011, we were back by 2014 to respond to ISIL’s conquest of a large chunk of northern Iraq. We’re still there now, fighting to contain the monster unleashed by our initial invasion. Saudi Arabia, our “allies” in the region, are currently using American weapons to commit war crimes in Yemen, which US policy-makers have apparently accepted as a reasonable trade-off for victory in a proxy war against Iran.
Those are just some of the more obvious strategic costs. Add to them the terrible human and financial costs. The American invasion of Iraq resulted in an estimated 650,000 Iraqi deaths in the first three years of the war. Hundreds of thousands more have died since—everywhere from Syria to Turkey, Yemen to Palestine, France, Spain, England, and California—thanks at least in part to the rise of ISIL—itself an unintended consequence of the the US invasion. As of the end of June of this year, 4,424 Americans have died in Iraq since 2003. The war is estimated to have cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion—the interest of which will grow to $6 trillion over the next four decades. Our great-grandchildren will still be paying for it.
The Iraq War was arguably the most foolish and costly single decision by a president in American history. And yet, it was only the most prominent of a long series of stupid, high-consequence policy choices by Bush the Younger. He also squandered Clinton’s budget surplus and cemented much of the Wall Street deregulation that led to the Great Recession. He repeatedly disregarded the intelligence that could've prevented the 9/11 attacks. He signed the USA Patriot Act, tortured terrorists in violation of the Geneva Convention, and spied on American citizens. He placed a disgraced former commissioner from the International Arabian Horse Association in charge of FEMA, gutted the agency’s budget, and sat idly by as New Orleans drowned. He passed Medicare Part D, under which the federal government is not permitted to negotiate prices with drug companies, as do federal agencies in other programs. He nearly succeeded in privatizing Social Security.
When Bush left office in 2008, global financial markets were in freefall, bin Laden remained at large, the United States was fighting two losing wars, and its international reputation was in the toilet. Not for nothing, Bush’s name is near the bottom of the C-SPAN list as well. Those whom Trump has convinced to recall the Bush era with nostalgia may have forgotten how awful he actually was.
All of which goes to show that it takes genuine conviction and hard work to screw up badly enough to rank among the very worst American presidents. Luckily, Donald Trump appears capable of neither. And as disturbing as the Trump presidency has been thus far, it is a small comfort that the neoconservatives responsible for the Iraq war regard him with such distaste.
None of this is to say that Donald Trump can’t rocket right to the bottom of the rankings with a few dire choices. If millions die on the Korean Peninsula, or Neo-Nazis become a driving policy force, or it is proven that Trump was a willing accomplice of the Russians during the election, he’ll give ol’ James Buchanan a run for his money.
But insisting that Trump is already the worst president ever is essentially rewarding him with superlatives that—as usual—the man hasn’t actually earned. Let’s just hope it stays that way.