Sure, President Donald Trump would probably launch a war with Europe to seize "the classy parts" for the United States. Yes, he'd likely divorce and deport gay couples ("One half of each couple goes to Canada; one half to Mexico. Bada-boom, problem solved!") But would Donald Trump really be our worst president? At the very least, he's got some stiff competition. Let's look back at some of the White House's blackest sheep. Because by my count, there are at least five presidents in America's history that were worse than President Trump would be.
Warren G Harding. Harding was America's own Nero, playing golf by day and poker by night — reportedly gambling away antique White House china — while his buddies helped themselves to the U.S. Treasury. Harding was an unrestrained womanizer whose own father declared that if Harding were female he'd have been pregnant all his life. As his appointed pals looted the country, Harding carried on an eventual 14-year love affair with a German sympathizer, who may have been an actual spy, and who certainly later shook him down for hush money. "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here," moaned Harding, long after it was too late to do anything about that. He died in office, on August 2, 1923, from what historians believe was the ghosts of the Founding Fathers punching him in the heart.
James Buchanan. The crisis years leading up to the Civil War saw a succession of weak, forgettable presidents getting their fingers slammed in the car door of history. Millard Fillmore was bad, and then Franklin Pierce was more bad, but third-troll-under-the-bridge James Buchanan was the baddest of them all. Buchanan fought hard for tradition... the tradition of slavery. He supported the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision affirming that slaves were property, and he helped those trying to spread slavery to new states and even Cuba. (Hey, ladies... guess who's single?) When the South announced its intention to secede, and states started dropping out of the Union — when America's greatest existential crisis loomed — Buchanan boldly and decisively sat on his hands, giving the Confederacy time to organize, and his Cabinet time to upload resumes to monster.com. Buchanan reset the bar for the presidency so low that the country-bumpkin railsplitter from Kentucky who followed him is now on your pennies and your $5 bills.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Andrew Johnson. As bad as the presidents that preceded Lincoln were, it was about to get worse. With the Civil War winding down, Lincoln wanted to display national unity by forging an alliance — bringing a proud Southern Democrat onto the ticket. Johnson was his man, and the unlikely bedfellows won. But one week after the South surrendered, John Wilkes Booth aired out Lincoln's hat, and we had ourselves a new president — a passionate white supremacist who gleefully did everything within his power to undo Lincoln's legacy, right up to and including pardoning Lincoln's murderer's co-conspirators. He let unreconstructed Southern politicians enact Black Codes (the precursors to Jim Crow laws), vetoed civil rights initiatives, and turned a blind eye to anti-black violence that swept the South. He was impeached, but not removed from office, paving the way for another hundred years of institutional racism.
Richard Nixon. Sure, you can argue that "Tricky Dick" didn't know that whole unfortunate Watergate kerfuffle was going on. But you can't deny the conscious accomplishments of a guy who sprang out of bed every day with fresh ideas for screwing the future. He dragged out the Vietnam War for five extra years, tried to strangle civil rights in its cradle, launched covert ops against college students, and birthed the idiotic-in-retrospect War on Drugs. Basically, he did everything a self-respecting third-world dictator would do, short of setting up a secret police. (Oh, wait — he did that too.) "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal," he told an instantly jubilant David Frost. Watergate? That's just the icing on the cake.
George W. Bush. Have enough years elapsed that we can realistically assess this clueless C-student's thrilling contributions to history without being accused of blind partisanship? This Yale-educated cowboy spent more time on vacation, literally and figuratively, than any president before or since. And it's a good thing, because when he was on the clock, he was groping Angela Merkel, choking on pretzels, imagineering WMDs, suspending civil liberties, holding hands with Saudi Arabian despots, outing CIA operatives, playing with schoolkids while the Twin Towers burned, and flying over in Air Force One while New Orleans burned. He blew up the Middle East with a blind vengeance, let his dastardly VP dictate policy and torture prisoners, and gleefully tossed aside the Geneva Convention and the Kyoto Protocol and anything else he couldn't read. His last act before retiring was presiding over the collapse of the financial industry he'd deregulated, an unprecedented crisis that almost ate the world.
Would Donald Trump really be worse?
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.