There are four presidents worse than Donald Trump. One, Andrew Johnson, was impeached. Two, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, helped set the course for what became the Civil War. And the fourth, William Henry Harrison, died just a bit more than a month into office.
That is actually the verdict of *Republican-leaning* presidential scholars. And among all scholars, Trump is the worst — dead last among our country's 44 presidents.
The latest rankings in the Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey present us with the first real look at where scholars rank Trump historically, and the early verdict is a decidedly awful one. At the same time, it's worth placing all this in some much-needed context.
First, here's a quick recap of how dire the numbers are for Trump:
- Beyond ranking last overall, Trump is also ranked as the most polarizing president in history, with more than half of respondents (95 out of 170) saying he is No. 1. On this ranking, Trump is slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln, whose presidency happened during the Civil War (a time of noted polarization in this country).
- Even Republican respondents rate Trump as the most polarizing.
- Trump receives an overall “F” grade, though that grade rises to “D” when it comes to his legislative accomplishments and communications skills.
- His best grade among any group is a “C,” which is what Republican scholars give him for his foreign policy.
- Trump doesn't get a single vote when it comes to which president should be added to Mount Rushmore next, despite attempting to insert himself into that conversation.
And now for the caveats.
The first is that even among scholars, these rankings tend to overvalue immediacy. Three of the four presidents most cited as having been the most polarizing just happen to be our last three presidents: Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. While our increasingly polarized electorate lends credence to this, this ranking is about the presidents, not the country over which they happened to preside. In addition, our country was also quite polarized when Pierce and Buchanan were president — which is a big reason they rank so low for some scholars. Alas, we simply don't have as much readily available polling data from the mid-1800s. If we did, I suspect scholars wouldn't so readily place Obama and Bush (or even Trump) ahead of some more-forgotten predecessors.
The second is that there is reason to be a little skeptical about how seriously some of these “scholars” took the survey. For instance, on the Mount Rushmore question, fully 3 percent of those who answered this question picked presidents who are already on Mount Rushmore: Abraham Lincoln (2 votes), George Washington (1) and Theodore Roosevelt (1).
And thirdly, the survey also skews Democratic, which perhaps isn't a huge surprise. There are more than four times as many scholars in it who lean Democratic (95) as Republican (21). While that certainly doesn't make Democratic presidents immune to bad rankings, it's worth noting that only four of the top 16 presidents are Republicans (vs. half being Democrats), and 10 of the bottom 17 are.
Not that any of this will particularly trouble Trump's most ardent supporters. Poor reviews of Trump from establishment-oriented groups such as the media and even the official Republican Party have long served to almost reinforce the GOP base's support of him. A bunch of academics rating Trump as the worst ever will only pour some more cement on that.
That doesn't change the fact, though, that the people who are paid to study presidents and compare them with one another view Trump so dimly. While this survey certainly has its limits, it's tough to find anything redeeming in it for Trump.