With just days left in his time as president, Donald Trump undoubtedly has begun to consider how history will remember him. The early returns aren’t promising.
“On several occasions, Trump has suggested that he expects to take his place on the list of former presidents aside Abraham Lincoln, presumably knocking George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and all the others in the top rank down a tick,” wrote presidential historian Joseph Ellis in a op-ed for the Los Angeles Times this week. “To put it politely, he needs to adjust his expectations.”
Added Ellis: “Donald Trump is quite likely to assume the title as the worst president in American history.”
Deciding how presidents rank is, admittedly, a very subjective matter. And it’s usually done by people like Ellis, academics and authors who have devoted their professional lives to the study of the presidency, which may not be a group naturally inclined to like Trump’s decided anti-intellectual approach to, well, everything.
But those are the people who tend to rank the presidents. So, let’s look at a few of the more recent rankings – and where Trump stands.
In 2019, Siena College released its latest rankings, the result of the combined views of 159 presidential scholars who rated each of the 44 men who have been president (Grover Cleveland was president twice!) on 20 different aspects of the job. (The categories range from “integrity” to “willing to take risks” to “luck.”)
In those rankings, Trump placed third to last – behind only James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
“The serving president has entered the survey between 15th, Obama, and 23rd, G.W. Bush, as scholars begin to observe their accomplishments, assess their abilities and study their attributes,” said Don Levy, who runs the Siena College polling operation. “This year, Donald Trump enters the survey at 42nd, and he is only ranked outside of the bottom five in two of the 20 categories that scholars use to assess the presidents, ‘luck’ and ‘willingness to take risks.’”
On “luck,” Trump ranked tenth. On “willingness to take risks,” he was 25th. (Remember that this came out in early 2019, long before the world had ever heard of “Covid-19.” The arrival of the pandemic is very likely to drop Trump’s “luck” score in future surveys.)
The other major recent study of best (and worst) presidents came in 2018 from Brandon Rottinghaus from the University of Houston and Justin S. Vaughn of Boise State University. Known as the “Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey,” this one poll 170 members of American Political Science Association.
Trump ranked dead last in this survey, trailing Buchanan, William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce and Johnson, respectively. Broken out by the relative ideology of the panel, Trump fared little better. Among self-identified conservatives, Trump was ranked as the 40th best president. (Buchanan was conservatives’ choice as worst president.) Among moderates and liberals in the survey, Trump was ranked dead last.
That same group was asked who the next president on Mount Rushmore would be. (This is a theoretical question since there is no more room to add a face to Mount Rushmore.) Only two presidents got double-digit votes: Franklin Roosevelt (108) and Barack Obama (12). Trump got a total of 0 votes.
Which is going to be a tough pill to swallow for Trump, who, according to The New York Times, broached the possibility of adding his visage to Mount Rushmore with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. This, from Noem, is enlightening on that subject:
“He said, ‘Kristi, come on over here. Shake my hand,’” Noem told the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader about a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. “I shook his hand, and I said, ‘Mr. President, you should come to South Dakota sometime. We have Mount Rushmore.’ And he goes, ‘Do you know it’s my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore?’. “I started laughing. He wasn’t laughing, so he was totally serious.”
(Sidebar: Noem did give Trump a four-foot replica of Mount Rushmore with his face on it. Not kidding.)
Now, making historical judgments about a president in the middle of his term – or even immediately after his term ends – is a dicey business. Ulysses S. Grant was widely seen to be a failure in the immediate aftermath of his presidency but has fared far better in the light of history. (Grant is ranked 24th by Siena and 21st in the “Presidential Greatness Survey.”) Ditto George H.W. Bush (21st in Siena, 17th in the “Presidential Greatness Survey.”)
But at least at first glance, it seems unlikely that time will benefit Trump. After all, what these presidential rankings missed is the second half of Trump’s terms in office, which was dominated by his administration’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his tone-deaf response to the “Black Lives Matter” protests in the summer of 2020 and his fact-free allegations of a rigged 2020 election. None of which age well. Not to mention the fact that Trump made history this week as the only president to be impeached twice.
“I suspect the tour guides at Buchanan’s National Historic Landmark homeplace, Wheatland, in Pennsylvania, are already celebrating,” concluded Ellis in his op-ed. “Their man, they must fondly hope, will never be last again.”