Friday, June 2, 2017

Wresting the title of worst

After the nasty guy pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement I began to wonder if he might reach the distinction of worst president ever. I knew the one currently at the bottom of the ranking was James Buchanan the one just before Abraham Lincoln. My understanding was that Buchanan was either the most incompetent or the laziest. Perhaps the nasty guy would win on most destructive, the one that brought the world ecology to collapse? So I went surfing for bad presidents.

Brian Scot MacKenzie of the Indivisible Movement takes a look at a Buchanan and a few other bad presidents to give us a benchmark. First of all, the nasty guy hasn’t been in office long enough – two months when MacKenzie wrote his post, four months as I write mine.

Some reasons why bestowing the title of worst is premature: It evokes too much juvenile glee. The nasty guy won by declaring Obama to be the worst (which the GOP implied the day he took office). A claim of worst should not simply affirm our biases. False claims of worst assume the past has nothing to teach us. So let’s study that past.

MacKenzie lays out what made Buchanan (1857-1861) earn the spot at the bottom:

* At a time when the issue of slavery in the south shifted from an economic practicality to fanaticism, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to finally settle the matter. That resulted in the Dred Scott decision that declared black people as subhuman noncitizens and opened northern territories to becoming slave states. This energized abolitionists in the North.

* The economy floundered and the Panic of 1857 wiped out hundreds of banks. Buchanan refused federal relief. That spooked investors, deepening the following depression. Buchanan’s party, the Democrats, had refused banking regulations.

* Buchanan’s appeasement of the South alienated Northern fellow Democrats. That divided his party and handed the House and Senate to the Republicans in 1858.

* When Democrats split into North and South in 1860, Buchanan didn’t stop them. Southern states started seceding. Buchanan essentially gave the South a four-month head start in preparing for the Civil War (at the time the Inauguration was in March).

MacKenzie’s benchmark:
In order to wrest the title of worst president from Buchanan, a contemporary commander in chief would need to wreck the economy, revoke all human rights from an entire race, violate the constitutional separation of powers, and plunge the country into a ruinous civil war that kills nearly 2% of the US population.
Are we there yet? The nasty guy hasn’t wrecked the economy, though today’s jobs numbers were low. As for human rights, he seems to gaining ground on revoking rights of Muslims. He’s working real hard to violate separation of powers (and commit other impeachable offenses), though not providing checks the Congress seems to be urging him on. As for the ruinous Civil War, perhaps we can substitute ruinous climate change? Perhaps as an extra bonus we can add disenfranchising voters and in other ways making hash of the constitution?

Some of the other bad presidents listed by MacKenzie:

Andrew Jackson (1829-37): defied the Supreme Court who required protection of Native American property rights. This resulted in the Trail of Tears, several tribes forced from their lands. He also killed the Second Bank, causing the Panic of 1837.

Andrew Johnson (1865-69): An avowed racist he vetoed every effort to protect the rights of former slaves. Congress overrode the vetoes, so Johnson tried to interfere with enforcing those laws. He was impeached, but not removed from office.

Warren Harding (1921-23) was incredibly corrupt. He signed laws that banned nonwhite immigration. Calvin Coolidge (1923-29), was Harding’s VP and with Harding’s help, invented modern economic conservatism: tax cuts for the rich and no regulation for workers or consumers. The 1920s were wonderful. The 1930s weren’t.

Herbert Hoover (1929-33) didn’t cause the Great Depression. But he did make it worse.

Richard Nixon (1969-74): Lyndon Johnson almost had a peace deal for Vietnam. The Nixon campaign convinced the South Vietnamese to hold out for a better deal once Nixon took office. But that deal, not reached until 1973, doomed South Vietnam. His incursions into Cambodia led to the bloody Khmer Rouge that killed off a quarter of the country. At home there was the Southern Strategy, War on Drugs, and Watergate.

George W. Bush (2001-09): He signed tax cuts skewed towards the wealthy, turning surpluses into deficits. He may have been justified in going into Afghanistan (we’re still there), but bungled it by needlessly going into Iraq, which destabilized the entire region, leading to the rise of ISIS. Deregulation led to the 2007 financial crisis, in which he insulated the rich from their bad behavior as the rest of us lost houses and jobs.

So the nasty guy isn’t the worst. Yet. But it is up to us to resist, to make sure he isn’t as bad as Buchanan because if he is many of our fellow Americans and humans will have suffered a great deal.

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