Allan Levine is a historian and author whose most recent book is Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Café Society Murder.
During the recent U.S. election campaign, soon-to-be former president Donald Trump found it highly amusing – in his usual twisted way – to disparage his Democratic opponent, soon-to-be-president Joe Biden, for “hiding” himself in the basement of his Delaware home. That Mr. Biden took precautions because of the COVID-19 pandemic – and he did regularly leave his residence to participate in many physically distanced events – was beside the point; Mr. Trump got a big laugh from his supporters with the line, so he kept it in his duplicitous routine at his rallies long after it had become stale.
The irony is that it is Mr. Trump who will be forever relegated to the basement of U.S. presidential rankings. Indeed, if anyone must be smiling down from heaven it has to be James Buchanan, president for one term from 1857 to 1861, who (almost always) has been rated as the worst of the worst in historic presidential rankings. Other low-ranking presidents include: Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, William Harrison, Warren Harding and Millard Fillmore.
A case in point: In the most recent ranking compiled in 2018 by 170 scholars who are members of the American Political Science Association’s presidents and executive politics section, the bottom four were Franklin Pierce, William Harrison, James Buchanan and, last but not least, Donald Trump in his first inclusion on this list after one year as president.
Early in 2018 when that ranking was published, The New York Times noted that Mr. Trump had “at least three years to improve on an ignominious debut.” But that never happened. The long list of his failings includes his pathological lying, abysmal management of the pandemic and his abject refusal to accept that Mr. Biden won the 2020 election. Plus, there is now his historic second impeachment by the House of Representatives for “incitement of insurrection” on Jan. 6 – yet another disgrace on his presidential record even if he is not convicted by the Senate for a second time. All of these and many more transgressions and corrupt actions will be sufficient to keep him trapped in the ratings basement for a long, long time.
Mr. Trump is destined to be ranked as the absolute worst president in American history. Or, in the criteria devised by historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in the inaugural 1948 ranking in which presidents were categorized as “Great,” “Near Great,” “Average,” “Below Average,” or “Failure,” Mr. Trump is now and for years to come the leading failure.
Admittedly, the rankings, like similar rankings of Canadian prime ministers, are subjective and influenced by the biases of the political scientists and historians who have participated in these academic exercises. In the ASPA’s 2018 ranking, for example, scholars who identified themselves with the Democratic Party ranked Mr. Trump at the bottom of the list, while those who were Republicans placed Mr. Trump as the fifth worst president. (There were also independents who participated and the overall scores – on a scale of 0 to 100 – were “averaged for each president, with presidents then ranked in order of highest average to lowest.”)
Curt Nichols, who teaches political science at Baylor University in Texas and who has researched presidential rankings, suggested in a 2012 study two other key factors. First, that such an evaluation “now takes place in a cultural milieu that favors presidents dedicated to equal justice.” And second, “that presidential performance – understood simply as maximizing one’s time in office, reordering when given the opportunity, and providing wartime leadership – tends to be rewarded within the [ranking] game. "
Given this, it is not surprising that – with a couple of exceptions – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, three presidents who overcame crises and governed with dignity, exhibited principled leadership and were resolute when required, consistently have owned the top three ranking positions in more than 20 surveys over seven decades.
Buchanan’s perennial low ranking, on the other hand, has been based on his terrible decision-making and inflexible ideology in the volatile years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War.
In most respects, Buchanan was Mr. Trump’s opposite. For starters, the choice to be a one-term president was entirely his own decision; American voters have decided that issue for Mr. Trump.
Buchanan was also one of the most prepared presidents to take office up to that point. A lawyer, he served in the House of Representatives in the 1820s as a loyal backer of president Andrew Jackson and the revamped Democratic Party, and later as a senator from Pennsylvania. He had diplomatic experience with stints as the U.S. representative in Russia and Britain and also was the secretary of state under president James Polk in the late 1840s.
Yet after winning the presidency, Buchanan’s ardent belief in states’ rights led him to support the Southern states – and soon-to-be Confederacy – in their campaign to maintain and spread slavery to newly designated states such as Kansas. It was a recipe for disaster. Denouncing abolitionists, Buchanan alienated anti-slavery Northern Democrats, who castigated him as a “doughface” – a Northerner who sympathized with the South.
Buchanan’s biographer Jean Baker put it like this in 2004: “He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise … In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.”
After Buchanan left office, he spent the Civil War years attacking his many critics. In 1866, two years before his death at the age of 77, he published a presidential memoir in which he rewrote the facts of his presidency. “Having excoriated Lincoln and the Republicans for years,” Baker wrote in 2009, “[Buchanan] chose to defend himself by saying that his post-secession policy was like Lincoln’s.”
Mr. Trump no doubt will viciously attack Mr. Biden for the next few years. He may even enlist someone to write a memoir of his White House years for which, of course, he will take full credit as an author, filled with “alternative facts” conspiracies and insults. No matter. Together with Buchanan, he will still be stuck in the basement of presidential ratings for the foreseeable future.
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