I’ve been thinking a lot about James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States and the individual who, historians generally agree, was our worst president.
It’s one thing to categorize our presidents in general terms like “good” or “bad”. It’s something completely different to go for the superlative.
So without going through a blow-by-blow summary of the events of his presidency, it’s fair to ask the question of why his presidency is so poorly regarded. Let’s start with the timing of when he was president: elected in 1856, took the oath of office in 1857, and served one whole term. His immediate predecessor was Franklin Pierce, and his immediate successor was Abraham Lincoln.
I’ve written before that when I was in high school, the AP history test had a heavy focus on three decades, and the 1850s were one of those decades, so the events of the presidencies of Pierce and Buchanan played a strong part in that.
Buchanan came into office knowing that the issue of slavery was reaching a boiling point: the slaveholding south was doubling down more than ever on its stance, and the antislavery movement was becoming louder and more vocal. More than 25 years of compromise going back to when Missouri became a state became less and less viable moving forward, as evidenced two years before his election by the bloodshed commonly known as Bleeding Kansas.
If you lived anywhere in America in the mid-1850s, and without regard to your position on slavery, the odds were pretty good that you could tell that Civil War might have been on the horizon, but it wasn’t exactly inevitable. Not yet anyway.
Buchanan certainly didn’t want a civil war. That much is clear. But with both sides becoming increasingly vocal, he sought a way of tamping down the volume on both sides, as he hoped that it might calm tensions down.
And the opportunity arose pretty quickly. A few months before he took the oath of office, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about a slave who had escaped from his master and reached a “free” state, thus suing for his freedom. The Supreme Court wanted to rule narrowly on the case and not have it apply broadly to the question of jurisdiction across the board.
President Buchanan lobbied the Court to make it a broader precedent, in the hopes that something definitive would help to tamp down the tensions between the two sides, and the Court agreed.
I don’t know that a broad ruling in this case — in either direction — would have eased tensions. The south was digging its heels in deeper and deeper, especially as it must have known that it was losing some degree of clout and power as many of the lands out west really didn’t justify holding slaves to maintain them. And the antislavery movement was still divided between people who wanted to ban it outright and those who just wanted to curtail its expansion.
So knowing that the antislavery movement was divided, President Buchanan sided with the slave states. Repeatedly. And vocally.
If a civil war wasn’t inevitable when Buchanan came in, it certainly was when he left. Secession was on everybody’s minds and lips, and he took the position that states shouldn’t secede, but at the same time, the federal government was powerless to prevent it.
If that sounds wishy-washy, well, it is. But you could at least back up that position based upon the tenth amendment to the constitution. But it’s not really leadership. Or the stuff of a good president. A president who accelerated the approach of a civil war is definitely a good candidate for our worst president.
So now let’s talk about Donald Trump.
Now before I go on, I would like to underscore that I’m very much aware that I’m on the record as saying we really shouldn’t judge any presidency until after they’ve been out of office for at least thirty years. This way we can get a good sense of the long term results of their policies that might not have been immediately obvious in the time. I like to point out, for example, that I’m still not sure if George H W Bush’s push for Most Favored Nation trading status with China is a good or a bad thing. And that has been thirty years now.
But I’m going to make an exception for Donald Trump, as the events of his presidency certainly do demonstrate that, as far as his temperament, his policy decisions, and the scope and depth of his public statements and policies, if nothing else, we don’t need to wait. Waiting longer will almost definitely reveal things that are bound to solidify a standing that supplants James Buchanan as our worst president.
James Buchanan made some bad choices in a vain attempt to prevent the country from devolving into a civil war, effectively hastening that very result. Trump, on the other hand, demonstrated at every turn exactly how unfit he was at being president.
I want to underscore that there is one thing that doesn’t necessarily matter with regard to judging a president: opinion polls. Gallup recently published a poll that underscores that Trump has record low polling numbers. In the lens of history, polling numbers don’t mean much of anything.
But even without polling, there are five aspects of Trump’s presidency that catapult him past James Buchanan and will solidify his position as the worst president of all time.
First, was the sheer corruption he and his cabinet embraced. There’s a meme going around the internet that claims that Trump didn’t collect the presidential salary of $400,000.00 annually, and that he lost money as president. It’s true he didn’t collect the salary, but if he’s not willing to release his tax returns, we have no way of knowing how much money he lost (if he actually lost any money). And just because he didn’t collect a salary, that doesn’t mean he didn’t have other ways of profiting off of the presidency. Every time he visited one of his properties, the Secret Service had to spend money for lodging of the agents protecting him. Foreign governments would buy rooms in his hotels in hopes of getting access to him. The Republican Party hosted countless parties in his various properties. That’s all invisible money, so his decision not to collect the presidential salary was visible and he knew he could do without that and still look good.
Second, was pure spite. You can argue that Donald Trump’s political ambitions started in earnest when Barack Obama poked fun at him in the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, and everything Trump did after that was little more than spite aimed at Obama. From Trump’s calls to pull out of both the Paris Climate Accords and The Iran Nuclear Deal, Trump did these things to the detriment of both national and world security and without any good reason other than Obama negotiated them. We may never know the exact decision-making process that led to the disastrous Raid on Yakla a mere nine days after Trump took the oath of office, but undoubtedly a part of the reason why Trump green-lighted it was because Obama had said he wouldn’t do it.
Third, was petty grievances. Related to the second, of course, but Trump would attack anyone and any entity that dared to challenge him on anything he might have said. Hillary Clinton called it out in the debates leading up to the 2016 election and she was right. If you did good things for him, he was your best friend; if you didn’t, he’d drop you faster than you could say ‘boo’. When he fired James Comey, he thought for sure that doing so would win him some support from people who might not have voted for him, and he apparently was quite angry that this wasn’t the case. In late 2019, when the Pentagon made the decision to award a cloud computing contract to Microsoft instead of Amazon, everyone wondered whether this was due to the Trump’s animus with Jeff Bezos or whether Microsoft legitimately earned the contract. (Disclosure: I own some shares of Microsoft, so my openly wondering it could actually affect my own personal bottom line.) He co-opted the term ‘fake news’ to mean any news that was not favorable to him, rather than what it really means: news reporting that isn’t based in actual fact.
Which of course, leads us to the fourth aspect of Trump’s presidency: the absolute dishonesty. I get that politicians as a general rule will not always be truthful, but Trump’s lies are so legion, they are in a category all their own. And he lied about stupid things that shouldn’t even matter, like his inaugural crowd size to the path of Hurricane Dorian. And those lies are part of the reason why the United States has fared so poorly in the face of a worldwide pandemic. He really seems to have taken Adolph Hitler’s advice about the Big Lie seriously. To be honest, I’m not even sure which of his lies is the biggest.
Which brings me to the fifth and final aspect of Trump’s presidency: the cult of personality that arose around him. I’m not sure it’s the biggest of his lies, but his insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, despite a complete lack of evidence, enabled the people gullible to believe and accept his lies (a frighteningly large number of people) to Storm the Capitol Building in an attempt to disrupt the constitutional process of verifying the election.
President Buchanan might have been wrong about the direction he wanted to lead the country, but he at least thought or hoped that he was going to make things better. He was an experienced politician who at least showed some humanity to Lincoln on the way out the door (and was wise enough not to seek a second term). Trump, on the other hand, ran the country like a mafia boss and never once gave any consideration to anyone other than himself. Everything he did for other people, was a function of how much it would / should pay off back to him. (Note that this link is to the blog of an old friend of mine from college, who is now an established author…)
Worst president ever? How could he not be? Could there be some long-term effects that might rehabilitate his piss-poor presidency? I’m going to say no in even the most generous timeline we can imagine, partially because he didn’t really accomplish all that much, and partially because the one thing that he did that could truly have long-term positive results — the Abraham Accords — aren’t anywhere near enough to cause me to rethink the above.
This ought to be a warning to future generations about whom we should and should not vote for.