Donald Trump has a right to his opinion and may be an expert on real estate and “shock marketing,” but he is an apprentice at American history. With America’s ahistorical orientation and restrictive two-party political system, people on the right of the American political spectrum reflexively and viscerally believe that the current left-of-center president is the worst in history; left-leaning people had the same opinion of George W. Bush.
Yet in the American two-party system, the parties behave like two giant corporations that are alone in one market – that is a duopoly. They pretend to fiercely compete on the surface but really collude under the table. This fact is hard for the American public to grasp, given the harsh public rhetoric and posturing by both parties and a 24/7/365 cable news environment that feeds on such rhetorical controversy. But the evidence that this sub rosa collusion between the parties exists is that the policy records of “liberal Obama” and “conservative Bush” are very similar. They both started and escalated needless wars, restricted civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, and increased the federal government’s role domestically. As an example of their parallel actions at home, they both expanded health care coverage, increased federal intrusion into education, bailed out or socialized industries, doled out goodies on a grand scale to special interest groups, and spent like drunken sailors on domestic programs.
Yet, historians do not share the view that Obama and Bush are the worst presidents in American history. They usually pick on people like James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Herbert Hoover, and (very unfairly) Warren Harding as being the bottom dwellers. I might disagree with many of such choices by historians, but I don’t disagree that Obama and Bush aren’t the worst.
Naturally, people – especially in America – live in the moment and, given the “crisis” orientation of cable news, think that this is the worst period the country has ever gone through. Not really. In U.S. history, there have been much greater economic calamities and grander needless wars – and thus worse presidents.
In Recarving Rushmore, the four worst presidents – falling below both Obama and George W. Bush – were in rank order: James Polk, William McKinley, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. James Madison was correct that war is the primary cause of big government in American and world history. War creates a national security state, greater government intervention in domestic society and the economy, and promotes the state’s erosion of cherished civil liberties. What these four presidents have in common is that they led the country into needless wars that changed America for the worse. James Polk purposefully started a war with a weak state, Mexico, to steal a third of its land and, in doing so, aggravated regional tensions that eventually led to America’s most searing and cataclysmic war – the Civil War. William McKinley undertook the Spanish-American War to launch the United States, which had revolted against the British Empire, into its own imperial role by acquiring colonies and beginning the long, interrupted trajectory toward America as an interventionist superpower. Harry Truman converted a local war in Greece into an expensive worldwide Cold War against the Soviet Union, which began with a stalemated hot war in non-strategic Korea that led to the creation of the national security state, the imperial presidency, and the shelving of the traditional requirement that the American people, rather than its leader, would decide if war was needed. Finally, Woodrow Wilson, ignoring America’s tradition of staying out of Europe’s wars, took the nation into World War I, which laid the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s rise, World War II, and the Cold War.
So Barack Obama is a bad president whose stock is dropping, as I said on the show, because his war against ISIS is likely to make Islamic radicalism and terrorism worse; but Woodrow Wilson is the worst president in American history, because he ruined the 20th century and is now working on the 21st.