The question of whether Donald John Trump, the 45th president of the United States is the worst the country has ever had has long been a valid one.
Trump filed for re-election the day of his inauguration, just the first of the precedent-breaking moves that he has made.
In doing this he made his very presidency into nothing more than a presidential campaign centered on grievance.
If his four years can be seen through that prism, then it is easier to understand his various actions: the Mexican Wall charade; his constant attempts in federal court to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the law of the land and the signature achievement of the Obama presidency; his moves against China, America’s economic rival; his backing of the extreme right wing and white nationalist groups; and his boisterous rallies.
No president had ever announced that he was running for a second term as early as Trump did. The nation was left aghast and also enthralled by this TV game show host who they had elected to the highest office in the land and made the most powerful human being in the world.
But stay tuned, as Trump would say, because he did not set out to change the presidency as an institution. He set out to make it into one of his brands – like his golf courses and bottled water. Only no one quite saw it that way because it was impossible to see. At first.
Trump – a natural salesman and shill, a prince of the hustler mantra “always be closing” – saw the cracks in the republic. He saw the stuff not dealt with or even dreamt of and blasted straight through, to widen, deepen and exploit them.
He knew that, by digging up the republic’s contradictions, its unsolved problems and unfinished business with itself, he had found a path to a second term.
Before Trump, Andrew Johnson, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon, were considered the worst presidents the nation had ever seen.
Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, was in office from 1865 to 1868. He was an adherent of states’ rights and a vehement supporter of the South. Although technically a unionist, he saw the states as supreme. He championed what he called “plebians”, Southerners who were not rich-landowners, but who still kept enslaved people, which were considered capital. He opposed emancipation and voting rights for the formerly enslaved. He fought congress and the constitution itself; was impeached by the House; sent to the senate for trial; saved by one vote and defeated for re-election by Ulysses S. Grant, the wartime leader of the battle against the Confederacy. Grant despised Johnson so much that, at his inauguration, he failed to share the traditional carriage with the outgoing president.
Trump has been impeached, too, and saved by the senate. But he has an even greater distinction than Johnson: one article of impeachment was voted for by his own side. The 45th president uses this as a badge of honour.
Warren G. Harding – the 29th president, who served from 1921 until 1923 – was actually extremely popular during his tenure, he vowed to return the nation to what he called “normalcy” after the First World War. He had bootleg liquor in the White House and wild parties galore, echoing the mood of the Roaring Twenties. But after his sudden death, the scandals began to emerge: his giving favours to cronies; his flagrant personal life; his general lack of intelligence. With the current president we have seen all this, and more, while he is still in office.
And then there is Richard Nixon, the 37th president. Much has been written about Watergate and his subsequent resignation. But it is important to understand the atmosphere that Nixon generated. His presidency and the scandal that engulfed it created an air of deep paranoia in the average American. We were scared of our own shadows. Trump too has engendered a new atmosphere in his country, and it is just as ugly.
During the Trump impeachment proceedings, an excerpt of a letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington was read: “When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits – despotic in his ordinary demeanour – known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty – when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity –to join in the cry of danger to liberty – to take every opportunity of embarrassing the general government and bringing it under suspicion – to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day – It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama said that the presidency does not change who you are. It reveals who you are. Perhaps that statement should go further: the presidency reveals to the nation who it is.
So rather than ask if Donald J. Trump is the worst president ever, better to ask what has happened to the electorate.
Like Boris Johnson, Trump is a sign that the nation has lost its compass. That it has done what Hamilton warned about and what the UK, too, has done in giving the Conservative Party the majority and therefore making Boris Johnson PM: it has confused celebrity for leadership; fame for real accomplishment and popularity for genius. The US, like the UK, has put into office a man “unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune”.
We can look at the approval ratings of Trump: only one president with his poll ratings has ever been re-elected and that was Harry S. Truman in 1948 after a fluke campaign. But neither Truman, nor Jimmy Carter, nor George H.W. Bush – both of whom had the same mid to low 40s approval rating at this point in the electoral cycle as Trump and lost re-election – had an electorate like the one Trump has.
In the end, a bad president, or prime minister for that matter, comes from an electorate that drinks the Kool-Aid of myth. And that myth is the one that Goering cited at the Nuremberg Trials: the myth of grievance. Of being hard-done by. Of yearning for some way of making the country “great again”.
It remains to be seen whether Joe Biden will defeat Trump. All of the indices indicate that he will. But never underestimate the politics of grievance; the politics of nostalgia and the politics of exclusion. They tap into human traits, the ones that we run to, in the words of the man considered the best president the US ever had, Abraham Lincoln, when we desert “the better angels of our nature”.