On Wednesday, C-Span released its 2021 historians survey of presidential leadership, a ranking the network has been producing at or near the end of each presidency since 2000. The survey was sent out to 141 historians, professors, and “professional observers of the presidency” who then ranked every American president according to ten characteristics with an aggregate final score.
The big question: How did our last president do? Well, Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America (as his letterhead in public pronouncements continues to inform us), finished 41st out of the 44 American presidents no longer in office. In other words, he did not disrupt the consistently low rankings of the three presidents who botched the leadup and aftermath of the Civil War: James Buchanan (last), Andrew Johnson (second-to-last), and Franklin Pierce (third-to-last).
The good news for Trump is that historians agree he did better than Buchanan, whose disastrous presidency led to a national secession crisis, after which he refused to take a firm stance confronting the nascent confederacy, instead seeking to write slavery further into the Constitution prior to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Trump also beat out Johnson, whose racism was infamous even for that era—he so vigorously opposed efforts to grant basic rights to the newly freed slaves that he was eventually impeached, though he was not removed from office. And Trump even scored higher than Pierce, whose drive to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and nullify the Missouri Compromise pushed the country further towards the precipice of Civil War.
The bad news for Trump is that his is by far the worst initial ranking of the four modern presidents who have been reviewed since the survey began—though George W. Bush was ranked seventh-to-last in his initial survey, and has since risen out of the bottom 15. But Trump is currently considered a worse president than Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, and—as Slate “human excrement field” presidential scholar Ben Mathis-Lilley predicted might happen in 2017— William Henry Harrison, who died after just 31 days in office.
Historians rank presidents in ten individual categories. Trump’s best category, according to historians, was public persuasion, in which he ranked 32nd. His worst categories were “moral authority” and “administrative skills,” in which he ranked dead last. But historians viewed Trump as a better president than several in a number of other categories. Let’s take a closer look.
Public Persuasion: 32 out of 44 for Trump
This is Trump’s best category and the one where it felt like historians were potentially most grading on a curve. Sure, Trump won the presidency without any experience in politics in a shocking upset in 2016. And, sure, he came within some 30,000 votes in less than a handful of states of winning re-election. And, yes, he maintains a political stranglehold on one of America’s major parties.
But this guy was elected with perhaps the lowest popular mandate in history, losing the popular vote in each election, finishing with just 46.1 percent of the popular vote in 2016 and an only slightly better 46.8 percent in defeat in 2020.
In this category, Trump pipped Warren G. Harding (33), who won his one presidential election with 60.4 percent of the vote. Sure, Harding’s popularity collapsed after he died in office following revelations around the Teapot Dome scandal and a sexual affair in the Oval Office. But he was apparently very persuasive in his lifetime!
Trump also finished ahead of Chester A. Arthur (34), who was elevated as vice president and never won an election on his own (OK fine this makes sense), and Jimmy Carter (35), who won the popular vote in 1976, but admittedly didn’t quite have that Trump showmanship.
Crisis Leadership: 41 out of 44 for Trump
This category roughly matches the final rankings, with Trump finishing fourth-to-last behind the troika of pre and post-Civil War schmucks. Trump just barely finished with a lower score than Herbert Hoover (40), with 26.5 points out of 100 compared to the 31st president’s 26.6. I guess the half a million dead Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic was considered worse than 25 percent unemployment during the Great Depression under Hoover.
Economic Management: 34 out of 44 for Trump
Here’s another category, like public persuasion, where Trump significantly outpaced his final ranking. In this case, it’s a bit easier to see why. Trump was handed and—to his credit—oversaw a humming economy that reached the lowest national unemployment rate in decades. (That’s good!) Of course, that unemployment rate exploded after his horrific mishandling of a pandemic caused nationwide economic shutdowns and mass death on a scale never previously seen. (That’s bad.) Trump was, however, able to use his leverage with his own party to support Democratic-sponsored initiatives to pour trillions of dollars into the economy, including via enhanced unemployment benefits and rescue checks that raised the standards of living for millions. (Also good!) Trump, though, really had very little to do with the passage of those packages, which he saw as benefiting him politically and so tacitly endorsed, and indeed he nearly tanked pandemic rescue legislation with his shifting negotiating positions and mercurial demands.
Moral Authority: 44 out of 44 for Trump
Many of the men on this list were enslavers. That Trump wasn’t ought to earn him a few relative “moral authority” points, but it seems he was docked several for becoming the first and only president to refuse the peaceful transfer of power and for seeking to overturn American democracy. That plus all of the sexual assault allegations, open racism and xenophobia against people from “shithole countries,” many alleged crimes, and record-breaking two impeachments, among other things, probably edged him towards the bottom of the list. He finishes just below James Buchanan (43), Andrew Johnson (42), and Richard Nixon (41), with Bill Clinton (38) also notable in the bottom of the pile.
International Relations: 43 out of 44 for Trump
Trump kept the United States out of major wars, sure, but he also abandoned friends and allies in favor of brutal dictators. He beats out Buchanan (44), whose accomplishments in international relations involved letting half of the United States try to become another country.
Administrative Skills: 44 out of 44 for Trump
This is one of two categories where Trump finished dead-last, with a score of 22.8 out of 100. Blame Jared?
Relations with Congress: 42 out of 44 for Trump
Trump finished below John Tyler (41), who was the first president to have impeachment proceedings opened against him and who at various points in his career abandoned both of Congress’ major political parties at the time, alienating all sides. Andrew Johnson finished last in this category, which seems a bit unfair given that Johnson was only impeached once.
Vision/Setting an Agenda: 36 out of 44 for Trump
This is another one of Trump’s best categories and another where he seems to have been graded on a curve. Here who he beat: Harrison (died in office, 37), Harding (died in office, 38), Hoover (name synonymous with the Great Depression, 39), Tyler (nearly impeached and quit both parties, 40), Fillmore (led country towards Civil War, 41), Pierce (really led country towards Civil War, 42), Andrew Johnson (impeached after siding with ex-Confederates in post-Civil War America, 43), and Buchanan (really, really led country towards Civil War, 44).
Equal Justice for All: 40 out of 44 for Trump
Again, there were 18 enslavers on this list. In the category of “pursued equal justice for all,” Trump beat out three of them—Tyler (41), Johnson (43), and Buchanan (44)—along with Franklin Pierce (42), who didn’t own slaves but used his term to seek to entrench slavery leading inexorably towards Civil War. Trump is barely edged out by his presidential idol, Andrew Jackson (39), one of the most brutal men in American history whose genocidal actions against Native Americans surpassed all those before and after.
Performance Within Context of Times: 42 out of 44 for Trump
This category feels sort of like the only ranking that matters, doesn’t it? How someone performs in his own unique times and circumstances can’t truly be judged against how another president performs in his. The context of the framework and society in which they lived is very important, historians would likely tell us. Under that analysis, Trump drops one spot from his overall ranking to third-to-last, finishing with 28.3 points. It was Civil War-inspiring Pierce who historians appear to think did better considering the circumstances he was handed.
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