Vantage Points

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Of Rankings and Republicanism: A Reflection on President Trump's Legacy

Dec. 10, 2020

by Corey Markum

A few weeks ago, in the immediate wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, a colleague and I discussed where Donald Trump would ultimately land in the presidential rankings. The colleague, who had the soon-to-be-former president ranked in his lowest two, expressed mild surprise that I did not have Trump in my bottom three. The same week, a couple friends texted or private messaged me to ask a similar question of whether President Trump would be considered the worst president in U.S. history. 

The question is reasonable. Presidents are often judged primarily by their handling of momentous events, and Trump’s essentially abdication of response to the coronavirus pandemic will certainly figure largely—and very negatively—into his legacy, both domestically and internationally. His foreign policy has been a roller coaster of provocation and appeasement toward allies and adversaries, as well as a continuum of disruption of global institutions and accords. Social and racial conflict and unrest have intensified to levels not seen since the crux of the late mid-century civil rights struggles, with corresponding increases in supremacist and paramilitary groups who largely claim support for, or perceive support from, the president. Trump’s administrative turnover rate is at levels not seen since the late Nixon presidency. Finally, as a colleague pointed out in reviewing an early draft of this post, Trump’s reputation and legacy are deeply intertwined with his abrasive social media identity. Whereas many other presidents have said or done a host of offensive actions, the vast majority were acted out either in the background or through implication, and often not made public until after their terms were completed. Conversely, Donald Trump has made his Twitter feed a spectacle of public and real-time rants, accusations, attacks, and policy announcements, as well as a massive undercurrent of proffered support by the president’s fans and criticism by his detractors, which tends to spur even more extremity of response on his part. For better or for worse, there is no secrecy, subtlety, or filter to Trump’s impulsive and polarizing persona.

Nonetheless, in each of these cases, I explained my discomfort with the trickiness of ranking presidents. Ought the ranker prioritize nationalistic aims? Ethical mores?  Protection or preservation of constitutional principles? Balancing these categories is a rather subjective feat. Abraham Lincoln, for example, famously suspended habeas corpus and engaged in other constitutionally questionable actions against wartime dissenters, but he is virtually universally considered a top-3 president for his role in preserving the United States and initiating the policies culminating in emancipation. How ought one consider Franklin Roosevelt in light of Japanese-American internment/concentration camps? Andrew Jackson in light of Native removal/genocide? James K. Polk receives favorable ratings in many rankings, yet I place him in my bottom 5 for his central role in engineering an aggressive war of expansion with Mexico, and indelibly exacerbating the crisis over slavery in the process.[1]  

And so, whither President Trump? I contended a month ago to my friends and colleague, and still believe, that Donald Trump does not match the accomplished corruption or (im)moral consequence of an Andrew Johnson or a James Buchanan, although I attribute that in large part to lack of opportunity and sophistication of modern institutions/checks-and-balances. Nor has he executed the level of imperialism or misconduct-via-military as an Andrew Jackson, James Polk, William McKinley/Teddy Roosevelt, or George W. Bush. And while I wouldn’t necessarily be shocked if I’m wrong (and it’s worth emphasizing that I am in no ways a presidential historian), if I had to guess, my sense is that Trump will be remembered and taught as a lowest-tier president. Among the most defining markers of the consistently-ranked bottom-feeders—thinking here of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, etc.—is a legacy of social/sectional division and political schism. And that particular marker seems to apply rather sharply to President Trump. But my specific point here is to note that “best” and “worst” identifiers are very subjective, depending heavily on the aspects of leadership that are emphasized or prioritized.

Nonetheless, I do believe that Trump’s reputation and legacy will in large part be shaped by a particular aspect of his presidency—one where I perceive that he does largely stand alone. Donald Trump, in my estimation, will be remembered as the most anti-democratic president in American history. 

Now, notably, this too is a category that requires qualification. Many presidents oversaw eras of slavery, Jim Crow, women’s disenfranchisement, Native exclusion, and so on. Obviously, those presidencies occurred in far more anti-democratic periods, and I intend in no way to lessen the reality or tragedy of those exclusions or denials of civil rights and citizenship. But I’m hard-pressed to think of any president who more fundamentally or intensely rejected or challenged the *existing structures and policies of democracy* in their presidency than Donald Trump, particularly since losing the election a month ago.

I imagine the previous statement will elicit opposition from some readers, so perhaps a bit of clarification. There are certainly presidents who have accomplished more extreme breaches of constitutionality than Trump. Yet they did not, by and large, deny the legitimacy of constitutional structures and institutions. Andrew Jackson, for example, famously defied the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Cherokee Nation over and against the Indian Removal Act, apocryphally remarking that “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it,” before commencing with the military-forced Trail of Tears. Too, Richard Nixon broke nearly every law imaginable in his execution and cover-up of the Watergate break-in, and then proceeded to fire or obstruct any official  who attempted to pursue investigation. Andrew Johnson vetoed virtually every civil rights measure made by the 39th Congress, until his eventual impeachment reprimanded him sufficiently to acquiesce in policy, if not in spirit.

But in all of these cases, while the policies and structures of democracy were violated, they were not necessarily rejected or denied. Jackson never challenged the authority of the SCOTUS in Worcester v. Georgia; he simply defied the ruling. Nixon evaded and obstructed at every turn, but recognized and acknowledged the structures of law, even while in drastic breach of them. (Notably, Nixon had to reckon with a Republican Party that ultimately opted to side with those structures of law, while Trump, in his refusal to concede and his attempts to overturn the election, has the public and unqualified support of virtually his entire party leadership.) President Trump, however, has pursued a consistent and progressively more exhaustive path of challenging the very framework of American democracy, fabricating a host of unsubstantiated charges of electoral fraud, disparaging and tacitly encouraging violence or reprisal against political officials who have not adequately endorsed his evidence-lacking allegations, and firing numerous bureaucrats who have vouchsafed for the integrity of the election. That many of these officials who have been attacked or targeted are Republicans and/or Trump appointees is not altogether surprising, but is further evidence of the Nixonian lengths to which the president’s denial and paranoia have stretched. Nor has it seemingly mattered to the president or his GOP allies that many of the myriad cases thrown at the proverbial wall have been heard—and universally dismissed—by Republican- or Trump-appointed judges.

Alas, this blog is too narrow to lay out the scope of anti-democratic specific actions taken by President Trump, but readers interested in a succinct distilling may find value in the meat of this article in The Atlantic. The list of such attempts at defying or sowing distrust in democratic institutions increases each day, but as of this writing, the latest example is his endorsement of a lawsuit by Texas to disregard the entire votes of the closest swing-states that doomed Trump’s re-election hopes, and replace the popular-vote electors with partisan electors selected by GOP legislatures. And in a tweet that is eerily reminiscent of James Buchanan’s involvement in the atrocious Dred Scott decision, President Trump invoked the threat of executive intervention in getting the case to and/or through the Supreme Court: "We will be INTERVENING in the Texas (plus many other states) case. This is the big one. Our Country needs a victory!"

Fortunately, the judicial branch has thus far held true to the constitutional safety net of separation of powers and checks and balances, overwhelmingly unwilling to disenfranchise millions of voters to serve the whims of a man unable to cope with the loss of power. The same cannot be said for a myriad of hard-right attorneys general and Congress members, who have affirmed or endorsed the lawsuit as a last-ditch effort to maintain a Trump presidency. (The beyond-the-pale irony of such ostensible “conservatives,” who for a generation have decried the notion of “judicial activism,” now calling for nine judges to overturn the democratic will of a nation in an election that turned out to not even be very close, seems utterly lost on these bureaucrats and legislators.) We will see how SCOTUS responds to the Texas lawsuit, but the Court refused to hear a slightly-less ludicrous suit against Pennsylvania over the weekend, so fans of democracy have reason for optimism. 

This coming Monday, December 14, will witness the final and formal certification of Joe Biden’s victory by the Electoral College. At that point, the nation will witness whether President Trump has any remaining vestige of tolerance for or acquiescence to the constitutional election process. In the short term, while it appears unlikely that Trump will offer any sort of concession or dignified exit, it seems most probable that the structures of democracy and peaceful transition will hold. In the long term, of course, there remains a much starker question of how Donald Trump and the Republican leadership’s all-out assault on electoral integrity will impact future elections. Perhaps the hindsight of future presidential rankings—however imperfect and complicated they are—will help inform us.


            [1] See, for example, the composite rankings at C-Span's Presidential Historians Survey. Of note, a colleague shared with me a study of rankings that placed Polk as top-10 in both “best presidents” and “most controversial presidents,” indicating that other scholars share at least conflicting feelings about the architect of imperialist expansion.