With March Madness officially behind us (congratulations to the University of Virginia for finally playing a watchable basketball game), that means it’s time to leave the March noun bracket gimmick in the past as well. Two weeks ago, we (I) ranked the 16 worst presidents in American history, and then put them in this bracket.
Last week, we played out the first-round results, and with only seven remaining games, we’ll cut straight to the chase and give you our bad president champion by the end of this column. This good joke in the wake of Virginia’s national championship doubles as a reminder of the grading system used here to define “worst.”
(1) James Buchanan vs. (2) Donald Trump
We’re going to open this up by leaning on a tried and true TV trope: killing off a popular character (Trump isn’t “popular” per se, but we have plenty of traffic data proving that folks click on titles with his name in it more often than not). I know that we’re all presently worked up by Trump’s special brand of evil incompetence, but his white nationalist stupidity was really forged in the administration of James Buchanan.
The last president before the Civil War is the top overall seed in this bracket for a reason. Not only did Buchanan have an administration that far outpaced the calamity of Trump’s reign (so far), but he can match Trump’s aggressive stupidity, like when he lobbied the Supreme Court to intervene in the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (one of the central sparks that directly led to the Civil War)—when SCOTUS hadn’t overturned a federal law in over half a century before stripping black Americans of their basic rights. Trump is incompetent, but Buchanan actively supported Southern interests over American ones, and he was as responsible for the breakup of the Union as much as any individual. Trump made it farther than any president in this bracket without serving a full-term, so those of you disappointed in his early exit can take solace in the fact that he is our partial administration champion.
(1) George W. Bush vs. (2) Herbert Hoover
I named this region after the Spider-man pointing at Spider-man meme because it became clear this was going to be the second-round matchup the moment the bracket revealed itself. The two biggest economic collapses of the last century took place on these two’s watch, and history remembers them both as feckless and incompetent. Hoover tried to dig out of the Great Depression with austerity economics, and George W. Bush’s profligate spending on two unpaid wars and an unpaid trillion-dollar tax cut, combined with decades of pro-Wall Street policy that inflated their insatiable desire for short-term profits helped lead us to the Great Recession in 2008.
This is a really tough matchup. The Great Depression was the most severe contraction of the last 100 years, as Hoover oversaw a staggering 25% decline in chained GDP figures. He is remembered as a bad president because he failed to pull us out of the Great Depression with a kind of economics currently espoused by the Republican Party. Hoover was feckless, but Bush was the original Trump in so many ways.
He said stupid shit. All the time. He employed many of the same evil and stupid people currently working for Trump. He lied. Constantly. If you are one of the majority (?!?!?!?!?) of Democrats who view George W. Bush positively, spend a weekend recapping the disaster that was 2000 to 2008, take a wider view of history, and consider how our Trumpian malaise is directly connected to America’s preeminent failson (if it makes it easier to remember Bush’s toxic incompetence, imagine Don Jr. being president). Hoover was horrible and the Great Depression is self-evidently worse than the Great Recession, but one of Bush’s legacies is Donald Trump, and thanks to the late-game evil heroics of the orange madman, W. ekes out a double OT victory over Hoover in the signature game of the tournament.
(1) Andrew Johnson vs. (3) Ronald Reagan
This is like another version of the Buchanan-Trump matchup. Reagan is rightfully despised throughout liberal America thanks to his role in helping to create this new Republican Party. There is a direct line between Reagan and Trump, and Reagan’s legacy is still very much TBD until we can fully assess the damage he has brought upon American politics.
But as bad as Reagan was, he still wasn’t the first president ever impeached—a man who basically tried to restart the Civil War. Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President, and after the death of one of our greatest presidents (perhaps our greatest, but that’s a noun bracket for another March), Johnson reversed plenty of Lincoln’s policies and like Buchanan, seemed to rule as if he was President of the Confederacy. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” When Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln, he instituted a Presidential Reconstruction that led to Southern states passing literal apartheid laws in the Black Codes, stripping black Americans of their rights. Like the Trump-Buchanan matchup, this isn’t much of a contest (yet), since Reagan’s white supremacist sins could not be possible without the foundation provided by horrible presidents like Andrew Johnson.
(1) Franklin Pierce vs. (2) Andrew Jackson
Pierce is a one-seed thanks to his complicity in and proximity to the Civil War (he was the president before Buchanan), and Jackson made it this far on the wings of his enthusiasm for racism and genocide. There really is no “right” answer here, since both have a major hand in leading us in to a Civil War, so Jackson is going to be the only non-one seed to advance because he took an immense amount of pride in opposing abolitionists and murdering Native Americans while stealing their land. Donald Trump called Andrew Jackson a “hero” of his, proving yet again that Trump only admires dictators.
History proves that most empires last about 200 to 250 years. That’s not to say they disappear, as the current existence of London and Beijing proves, but they contract. That’s what we are currently experiencing in the United States during our 243rd year. Our empire is crumbling. We have followed the calamitous colonial model put forth by countless empires before us like Rome and Athens, and now we are beginning to buckle under the excesses of its greed.
I bring this up because who advances through to the final in this matchup is a philosophical question as much as anything. Because we have over a century of history, we can better prove Buchanan’s inadequacy, but given the reality of President Trump, we will likely look back on George W. Bush’s presidency as the beginning of the end of the American empire. Because I take the view that this kind of collapse was baked-in to our model, I fault the man who shaped my politics as much as any politician in my 32-year lifetime just a little bit less than the guy who actively cheerleaded us into a Civil War. The only certainty I had throughout this whole process was that James Buchanan was locked in to a title game appearance.
It’s really difficult to understate how evil Andrew Jackson was. Trump looking at him as a role model is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire grading system that I devised around perpetuating white supremacy is embodied by Andrew Jackson as person. This is where the question of who is a “bad” president moves towards the unanswerable. If this whole bracket was just about attitudes, the Fatal Four would have been something like Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, Johnson, and Jackson—with a likely Trump-Jackson title game.
But because we at Paste politics try to focus on policy as much as we can, weighing the relative evils of white supremacy pre and post-Civil War leads me to conclude that Johnson fits my “worst” rubric better. Andrew Jackson left office 20 years before the Civil War, and Johnson was given one of the most important American moments ever in the wake of the Civil War, and it’s difficult to see how he could have handled it much worse than he did, and had it gone just a little more poorly, it’s a real question whether The United States of America would still be around today.
If you’re wondering who the two men in the title photo of this column are, now you have your answer. I kind of gave away that this was going to be the championship in my first paragraph of this whole thing, when I wrote that “The rubric for “worst” here will weigh America’s founding sins of slavery and genocide as the most egregious, and complicity in destabilizing events will be given additional weight over general incompetency and/or ineffectiveness—the third tier of the grading system.”
A. Founding Sins of Slavery and Genocide
These presidents bookended the Civil War while giving special treatment to Southern* interests while acting as the chief American executive—and like Mississippi said in their secession decree, their abandonment of the union was “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”
*Southern is capitalized because I am speaking about the actual Southern state, which was essentially ruled by slave-owners. I shouldn’t have to take this aside to explain that the state which seceded from America does not automatically represent those who currently live in the area that left the union, but such is the legacy of our Civil War.
B. Complicity in Destabilizing Events
I think it’s safe to call a war that killed two percent of the U.S. population a destabilizing event.
C. Incompetency and/or Ineffectiveness
Again, Buchanan and Johnson bookended the Civil War and exacerbated tensions between slave-owning and non-slave-owning states. The legacies that sprang from that event lead us directly to President Trump.
Veterans of bad president lists may find this conclusion a bit cliché given Buchanan’s perpetual status at the top of these lists, but it’s not like the additional weight of recent history has been any kinder to the Buchanan administration. Things are undoubtedly getting worse in modern-day America, but a cursory review of Buchanan’s Wikipedia page can turn even the least knowledgeable person into something of an expert on how horrible Buchanan’s administration was.
When the concept of judicial review was established in 1803 by Marbury v. Madison, it created an ultra-powerful Supreme Court. All law ultimately stops at their doorstep, meaning that democracy can be overruled at a moment’s notice by five AARP members. The Supreme Court initially understood and respected how immense that power was—and they were hesitant to use it—not overturning any other federal laws until James Buchanan helped change that in 1857.
Dred Scott v. Sandford ruled that black people were not guaranteed rights by the constitution, and Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to decide the case before his inauguration so slavery could be the law of some lands, and thus beyond political debate. Put another way: one of the major reasons why we live in a world where many women’s rights may rest on an 86-year-old woman not dying is thanks to this change in judicial norms driven by a man trying to legalize slavery.
Buchanan also helped create the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which tried to write slavery into the constitution of this new state, before being overwhelmingly defeated by Kansas voters. This event angered both abolitionists and states rights advocates—the latter whom largely supported slavery—but preferred to allow states to determine whether or not they would institute it. This helped fracture his political support to the point where his only option was pledgeding not to run for reelection.
Combine all this with the Panic of 1857, and Buchanan oversaw a disastrous presidency that quickly degenerated America into a rudderless, leaderless country with an ascendant slave-owning class who helped drive us into a war over slavery that killed the modern-day equivalent of 6.5 million Americans. Congratulations to James Buchanan—an anodyne, easy-to-forget name that becomes impossible to escape your memory once you even take a glance at his legacy.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.