Politically Thinking, Eric L. Davis: After Trump’s term, can the nation recover?
Donald Trump considers himself a “man of destiny,” and, in his mind, being elected president validates this belief. Trump has also claimed that he is more “presidential” than all previous occupants of the office except Abraham Lincoln.
Trump’s place on the list of American presidents cannot be finally determined until he leaves office. However, his performance since January leads many observers to speculate that he will be ranked close to the bottom of that list. Due to his temperament, his lack of political experience and historical knowledge, and his failure to understand and proclaim central elements of the American political tradition, Trump may be the person least suited to the presidency who has ever held the office.
Most surveys of historians and other scholars place Warren Harding and James Buchanan at the very bottom of the list of presidents. Harding, who served from 1921 to 1923, may have presided over the most corrupt administration in American history. Two members of Harding’s cabinet, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall and Attorney General Harry Daugherty, were implicated in Teapot Dome and other scandals, although only Fall was convicted of any crimes. Harding appeared to be blissfully unaware of the corruption going on around him.
As for economic policy, Harding’s push for “normalcy” consisted of large tax cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals, along with rolling back many Progressive-era reforms and regulations designed to restrain business and protect consumers. Continued by his successors Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Harding’s policies laid the groundwork for the “boom and bust” economy that culminated in the Great Depression of the early 1930s.
In my opinion, James Buchanan, a Democrat who served from 1857 to 1861, ranks as the worst president ever. Although Buchanan had been a member of Congress for 18 years, and had also served one term as Secretary of State, he was both unwilling and unable to do anything about the sectional crisis that had been building since the end of the Mexican War in 1848. Buchanan, from Pennsylvania, was a northerner who was sympathetic to the south and slavery.
Buchanan was a strong supporter of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which held that a Negro, whether slave or free, had no rights of American citizenship, and that Congress had no power to regulate the expansion of slavery in federal territories. He supported southern slave interests that wanted Kansas admitted to the union as a slave-holding state, a move that markedly heightened tensions between north and south.
Buchanan’s passive reaction to the building sectional crisis led to a split in the Democratic party between northern and southern Democrats, with the recently organized Republican Party taking control of the House of Representatives after the 1858 midterm elections. Buchanan sat idly by during the last two years of his term, as southern states began talking more and more explicitly about seceding from the Union. To Buchanan, secession was unconstitutional, but so was forceful action to prevent a state from seceding.
The actions, or lack of actions, by both Buchanan and Harding led to two of the greatest crises in American history — the Great Depression and the Civil War. Fortunately for the nation, the political system was able to produce presidents — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — who could rise to the occasion of those crises and lead the country through them.
One of my greatest worries about Trump is that poor performance on his part will result in some national or international crisis, but that our dysfunctional political system will not be able to produce the quality of leadership necessary to enable the nation — and the world — to recover from that crisis after Trump is no longer in the White House.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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