Ranking Donald Trump: No Cause for National Happiness

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tags: presidential rankings, presidential history, Donald Trump

James M. Banner, Jr., is the editor most recently of Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today (The New Press, 2019) and the author of The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History Is Revisionist History, forthcoming in March from Yale University Press.



As editor of a recent book about presidential misconduct from George Washington’s administration through Barack Obama’s, I’m often asked where Donald J. Trump stands in the rankings of American presidents.  I respond that, in observance of historians’ practice, it’s too early to tell.  After all, the president’s term in office hasn’t yet ended.  And although we already know much about the Trump presidency from press coverage and court filings, the administration’s records are closed to examination.

But today this kind of reticence seems difficult to defend on civic grounds.  In this moment of political, environmental, public health, and resulting economic crisis, Americans deserve a considered answer to the question they ask: How does Trump fare in comparison with his predecessors?

The truth is that historians have never arrived at agreed-on criteria by which to compare American presidents.  Anyone who tries his hand at placing a single president in a ranking of some sort runs up against the fact that, despite many previous attempts, no group of specialists in presidential history has used the same set of measures.

Furthermore, although a number of historians’ presidential rankings have appeared since 1948 when Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. led the first effort to create one, none is recent.  Consequently, what follows is my own stab at an assessment of Trump’s presidency.  Although it adopts some of the same yardsticks used in earlier attempts, it shouldn’t be taken to represent the views of historians generally.  Nevertheless, with another presidential election rushing at us, let me try my hand at trying to determine where the incumbent president ranks against those who’ve occupied the presidency before him.

Preparation for office.  It used to be asked about candidates for the White House whether they were “presidential timber.”  By that was meant two things: previous experience as an elected official and possession of the proven knowledge, bearing, and authority appropriate to the presidency.  Measured for public office-holding experience before their presidencies, all but three pre-Trump chief executives served in elective posts prior to their election,   The three who didn’t—George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—demonstrated their leadership and command abilities by leading large military forces in the field.  Earlier experience in elective office, whether in national posts (like congressional seats and the vice presidency), through high military command, or in state office (say, a governorship), is assumed to give a chief executive the necessary political skills, leadership abilities, and knowledge essential to governing.  Not all presidents have possessed all these qualities even after previous experience.  One thinks of, say, Andrew Johnson as lacking what’s needed in the presidency.  An amateur in public office, Trump, having never been tested for leadership or command in public office, fails when measured for previous preparation, too.

Fitness for office.  This large measure encompasses aspects of a president’s mind and character—knowledge about the history, constitution, and culture of the nation as well as possession  of honesty, skill in selecting cabinet officers and advisors, balance of judgment, prudence of expression, empathy toward others, calmness in action, strength in decision, and the moral compass necessary for effective governance.  Fitness also includes the absence of inherent personality traits that inhibit soundness of judgment, calm behavior in the face of critical challenges, and balance in decision-making.  It’s difficult to find any previous president who exceeds Trump in his lack of so many of these qualities.

The successful pursuit of stated goals.  Central to an administration’s record are the aims it sets for itself, the quality of those aims, and its success in achieving them.  Historians’ favorite example of the successful achievement of campaign objectives is the one-term presidency of James K. Polk.  During the 1840s, Polk met all four of his campaign objectives: incorporating after negotiations with Great Britain the Pacific Northwest (today’s states of Washington and Oregon); gaining the American southwest from Mexico through war; lowering tariff rates; and establishing a federal monetary system independent of private banks.  Most other presidents have achieved only parts of their platform goals.  Trump’s major aims have been to free the U.S. of military and other foreign entanglements (half win), see to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (fail), convince NATO to reduce its dependence on American funding (half win), erect barriers against immigrants, especially via a wall at the Mexican border) (half win), nominate conservative federal judges (win), and reduce federal taxes and regulations (win).    Whether Trump’s aims have been beneficial to the US and the world is debatable, just as the Polk administrations’s addition of additional slave territory has never sat well with historians.  But measured against campaign goals, Trump has done well, especially having been in office for less than four years.

Protecting the national interest.  This is considered the bedrock responsibility of a president.  It’s a major constituent of every campaign platform.  Its pursuit always faces serious challenges, its achievement many obstacles.  Central to it is the avoidance of war, victory in any conflicts that prove necessary, and the creation and preservation of good relations with other nation-states so as to guard and enhance the national interest.  On these grounds, Trump does better than, say, James Madison, James Polk, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the two Bushes, all of whom, claiming provocation or having seen the nation attacked, took the country into wars, some of them of questionable justification.  But are the unforced errors that have led to our recent fraying relationships with NATO, Iran, and China and our hard-to-explain cozying up to Russia and Saudi Arabia productive of greater American security?  By this metric, Trump comes out somewhere in the middle of former presidents.

Skill in governing.  Leading a real estate development firm is unlikely to give a president the political skills and other capabilities needed to govern.  In the White House, you’re head of a political party as well as head of state and chief of government, and it helps to be good at all three.  Sometimes—think of Millard Fillmore and Warren Harding—even prior experience in elective office fails to prepare you to be president of the United States.  Moreover, you’re president of all Americans, not of just some of them.  You’ve got to manage cabinet departments; represent the U.S. with dignity abroad; distinguish between campaigning and governing—all of these and many more skills and sensibilities being central to leading a large, powerful, and diverse nation like the U.S.  Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt stand out as brilliant at governing the nation, their cabinets, and Congress in the midst of war.  Donald Trump?  His governing skills put him in the bottom half of the pack in any ranking of his predecessors.

Truth-telling and exemplary conduct.  Exemplary conduct, honesty being its chief ingredient, is the coinage of effective governance.  Six-year-old George Washington’s celebrated statement (a fictional one) that he could not tell a lie has set the standard for each president who followed him.  Most presidents, most notoriously Richard M. Nixon, have shaded or avoided the truth, often by covering up misdeeds.  Citizens are likely to shrug off a president’s lies if they’re infrequent, venal, and few.  But if, like Nixon’s, they’re many and strike at the heart of the government’s integrity, they pass the bounds of tolerability.  The number of Trump’s lies, tabulated by press and other organizations, surpass previous records by such an order of magnitude that they stagger belief.  Never has a previous president proved as mendacious as today’s incumbent.  In this category, Trump resides at the bottom.

Staying within the law.  Being on the defensive is normal for a president; no act goes without scrutiny and attack.  But once a president has to say, as Nixon did, that “I am not a crook,” that president has lost the authority and credibility to lead.  Nixon was the previous champion of illegal behavior—in his case being the first to orchestrate misconduct (what we know as the Watergate Affair) from the Oval Office.  But compared to Trump, Nixon was a lightweight.  Where Nixon acted purposefully to break the law though illegal acts and cover-ups, Trump has, while flouting the law, used his office to enrich himself at the public’s expense while ignoring existing legislation and breaking venerable norms of governance.  Seeking favors from foreign governments (Russia’s and Saudi Arabia’s), being exposed for corruption (“Individual #1”), padding his company’s pockets in contravention of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, using his foundation’s tax-protected funds for personal use, and failing to see that his eponymous university deliver promised education to its students—never before has a president so flouted the spirit and substance of the law.  Another case of Trump’s landing at the very bottom of the list.

Lifting hearts, banishing fear.  The greatest presidents, through the words they use, summon people to the nation’s service by raising their hopes, routing their anxieties, and helping the best in human nature express itself.  An effective president speaks as a wise counselor and rousing coach as FDR did in telling his fellow Americans that “the only fear we have to fear is fear itself.”  Never before has a president referred to his fellow citizens as “scum” “haters,” “losers,” “lowlifes,” and “thugs” or tried to set American against American.  Although Nixon indulged himself privately in insults against his political enemies, no other president has ever done so publicly or with the same viciousness.  Trump comes out at the bottom in this respect, too.

Empathy toward others.  Humility.  Social Conscience.  An ability to bring people together.    To merit the reins of government, chief executives must have the capacity to project themselves imaginatively into the feelings, thinking, and situations of those whom they lead—to act, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”  Trump possesses no capacity to understand, accept, and empathize with others’ difficulties.  One recalls our great presidents for their magnanimity and inspiration.  On this score, Trump also falls to the end of the list.

Steering clear of self-dealing.  It has long been established—by the Constitution, law, and norm—that an incumbent president must not use his office for self-enrichment.  A chief executive may have inherited or accumulated wealth as, say, Washington and FDR did, and office may fit him for future earnings as it has Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  But as we now know in detail, Trump has repeatedly manipulated law and regulation to protect and enlarge his and his family’s wealth while in office.  He has brazenly hawked his own products, directed the government to house federal officials at his resorts, made clear his expectation that foreign delegations and party stalwarts use his Washington hotel, and thwarted the move of the FBI to the Maryland suburbs so as to prevent the construction of a competing hotel in place of the FBI’s current headquarters.  No other president has attempted anything like Trump’s efforts to line his own pockets while in office.  On this count, too, he ends up at the bottom of any ranking.

Abiding by existing norms of government.  A nation’s code of governance, as much as its laws, reflect the character of the nation itself.  Since the birth of constitutional government in 1789, all presidents have abided by most of the standards of behavior, presentation, and action adopted before their time in office.  Without exception—even Nixon at his most fragrantly illegal—no president has openly stated his defiance of constitutional and other norms as has Trump.  None has flaunted his intention to challenge the outcome of a presidential election.  This threat alone places Trump at the bottom in a league of his own.

An assessment like this one of Trump’s presidency constitutes a bill of indictment of his presidency.  But it also gains his record one gold star of sorts.  He’s accomplished what no other president has been able to achieve since the first presidential ranking in 1948.  He’s managed to raise James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding off the floor.  The sad thing is that this is no achievement we can cheer.

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