We treat the American presidency with a certain degree of reverence it probably doesn’t deserve. By the Nuremberg laws virtually every postwar president is a war criminal who has either escalated or continued destructive, violent, and illegal U.S. imperialism.
The arrival of Donald Trump to the Oval Office gave us a glimpse into a different kind of bad. Trump expanded upon Barack Obama’s illegal drone program, but his deficiencies extended to his personal stupidity and lack of conviction beyond anything but stoking division and trying to own the libs. He will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst presidents America has ever seen.
Still, it’s a little gauche to say Trump is the worst president ever. After all, there are so many to choose from. In honor of President’s Day, we’ve selected a few options to pick from. The next time you have a conversation where someone insists on saying Trump’s the worst, don’t sheepishly agree—bring up one of these names to impress them.
On the Mount Rushmore of shit presidents, Johnson’s bust should be first. He was as virulently racist as pretty much any president ever, which is saying something considering a bunch of them owned slaves. Johnson’s handling of Reconstruction is what lands him here, though. You can plausibly argue that no president in American history would’ve been worse suited for the job than he was. Ultimately, Johnson capitulated to white Southern interests and opposed granting civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans, which doomed any kind of real Reconstruction effort. America has never fully recovered.
The veil seems to have been lifted on Reagan’s posthumous popularity. He enjoyed a generally positive legacy from politicians and D.C. media types, but hagiographies can’t cover up all the genuine evil he oversaw as president. His administration helped foment coups and genocides in Central America and beyond under the guise of communist threats to the United States. Reagan instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward drug use as his own intelligence agencies trafficked cocaine and kicked off the crack epidemic. His administration also virtually ignored the AIDS epidemic, referring to it as the “gay plague.” But Reagan is perhaps best known for his advocacy of trickle-down economics, the theory that if the wealthiest people in society are able to keep their wealth (mostly through enormous tax cuts) they’ll use it to create more jobs and boost the economy. A recent study from the London School of Economics found that 50 years of tax cuts for the wealthy had virtually no effect on GDP, but did vastly increase income inequality.
George W. Bush
Talk about rehabilitated Republicans. Bush Jr. left office with the worst approval rating in history, even worse than Trump’s. But if you let legacy media tell it, Bush wasn’t all that bad—in fact, compared to Trump, he’s great! The argument is complete nonsense. Bush’s presidency was packed with one international embarrassment after the next. But it’s uniquely defined by the War in Iraq, which was started illegally and led to the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraqi civilians nearly 5,000 American soldiers. In terms of body count, Bush is way up there. Throw on his disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Great Recession, and fomenting the kind of conservative radicalism that led to Trump, and you could easily make an argument that W. is the worst to ever hold the office.
This one is a little bonus since no one ever really mentions Truman when discussing the worst presidents of all time. But his resume is pretty stacked, as Thomas Swan explains. He began the Cold War with the Soviet Union, entered the Korean War, and created the Central Intelligence Agency (and therefore can directly or indirectly be blamed for all the agency’s evil). That’s all well and good, but Truman still has something no president or world leader can ever claim—he’s the only person to authorize the use of atomic weapons in warfare, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Some would argue those bombs were necessary to end World War II—a postwar analysis said there would’ve been 5 million more deaths before the end of the war if the atomic bombs weren’t dropped. But that distinction and the rest of his resume certainly warrants consideration.