Worst American Presidents Tournament: The Unsweet 16Photo by Handout/Getty Politics Features Presidents
Last week, we laid out the 16 worst presidents in America’s history, and this week, we begin our March Madness tournament to see who is the worst president in head to head competition. Here is the bracket:
Reminder 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.”
Internet Civil War Region
I swear I didn’t deliberately create these regions, but the symmetry of how these worked out is nice. I sorted the presidents into 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds, and then sorted them within each seed so they numbered 1 through 16, and I followed standard bracketology by pitting 1 versus 16, 2 versus 15, etc…This region features two presidents most responsible for the Civil War, and two presidents who may have helped lead us into a second one given the current path we find ourselves on.
(1) James Buchanan vs. (4) Bill Clinton
I know that this is progressive Paste politics and we’re always harping on how bad the Democrats are thanks to their religious adherence to the neoliberalism birthed from Bill Clinton’s presidency, but this is no contest. James Buchanan’s anodyne name helps hide the fact that he was the last president before we entered a Civil War, and that’s really all you need to say to summarize Buchanan’s pro-slavery presidency that dramatically helped expand the powers of the federal government. Bill Clinton was bad, but he wasn’t “immediately descend us into a Civil War” bad.
(2) Donald Trump vs. (3) John Tyler
This is a close matchup between two men who have a lot more in common that you would think at first. Both are notorious for feckless and incompetent presidencies and both of them are pro-Confederacy (Tyler even served in the Confederate legislature). Even though John Tyler’s presidency was one that helped lead us into a Civil War, Trump seems to be actively trying to stoke another one. This is one of the signature games of the first round, as Trump’s widespread incompetence and zeal for committing crimes against humanity helps him squeak across the finish line in double overtime.
Non-elite 8 Matchup: (1) James Buchanan vs. (2) Donald Trump
Spider-man v. Spider-man Region
This is the only region name that isn’t completely self-evident unless you are well-versed in 20th century American history. The Spider-man pointing at Spider-man meme is used to describe two things that are the same, and these presidencies are not just emblematic of one another, but directly connected to one another.
(1) George W. Bush vs. (4) Richard Nixon
The modern conservative movement really began with the insurrection of 1964. Barry Goldwater, something of a founder of modern conservatism, won a bitterly divided Republican primary, as the establishment candidates lost out to a grassroots politician running on racial animosity (I know that a lot of you accurately have Trump in the back of your head now, but that sentence also applies to W. too). Barry Goldwater got decimated by President Lyndon Johnson, as Goldwater won just South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and his home state of Arizona. In 1968, Richard Nixon won over Hubert Humphrey, but segregationist George Wallace mounted the most successful third-party campaign in American history—winning Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and one electoral vote in North Carolina. According to Gallup, Richard Nixon received 31% of votes from nonwhite Americans when he lost in 1960. When he won nearly the entire country in 1972, he gained 12% of the vote from this group. What happened in between was basically the big bang for the modern GOP.
Nixon’s Southern Strategy of campaigning on white resentment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act is very much the foundational strategy of the modern GOP, and George W. Bush followed it to a T. As bad as Nixon is for creating the foundation for Bush, Bush created the foundation for Trump. This is one of those first-round matchups that is close at halftime before the inevitable juggernaut pulls away late, as W. picks up the victory.
(2) Herbert Hoover vs. (3) Warren Harding
Warren Harding was president from 1921 to 1923 and Herbert Hoover was president from 1929 to 1933. The Great Depression hit in October 1929, hence the Spider-man meme on this matchup. While Harding’s presidency was a corrupt mess that helped set the table for the Great Depression, Hoover’s inability to get us out of the Great Depression with austerity economics makes this a fairly easy victory for the higher seed here.
Non-elite 8 Matchup: (1) George W. Bush vs. (2) Herbert Hoover
Cold Civil War Region
The fact that we have two regions named after the Civil War gives you a pretty good idea of what my operating principle is here: driving the country to murder 2% of itself over slavery and genocide is bad president championship material.
(1) Andrew Johnson vs. (4) Jimmy Carter
There are two heavy favorites here, and they are the presidents bookending the Civil War. James Buchanan claimed the top overall seed in part thanks to his efforts to delve us into a Civil War, and Johnson was the second best 1 seed due to the fact that his actions after Lincoln’s death were seemingly centered around trying to restart the Civil War. Jimmy Carter was an objectively bad president (and an objectively great former president), but he cannot hold a candle to Johnson’s evil incompetency that did things like help introduce literal apartheid laws in the Black Codes.
(2) Millard Fillmore vs. (3) Ronald Reagan
Oh man, this one is tough. Fillmore left the Oval Office eight years before the Civil War and he oversaw the breakup of a major political party where his allies abandoned him for a caucus known as the Know Nothings, but Reagan is the father of the modern Known Nothing Party. Nixon helped organize the racist furor in America into Republican electoral opportunities, but Reagan put a smile on that Nixonian evil. Reagan escalated the War on Drugs, which is effectively just a modern version of Jim Crow (which was a modern version of the Black Codes, etc…), and doubled down on disproved Hooverian austerity economics. While Fillmore’s presidency was an abject calamity, Reagan’s presidency gains more historical power each and every day. Given that you can draw a straight line from the GOP of Reagan to the GOP of Trump, historians may one day comb through the rubble of America and wonder how I could have ever left Reagan so low on my list.
Non-elite 8 Matchup: (1) Andrew Johnson vs. (3) Ronald Reagan
Everyone in this region flaunted their racist beliefs and they should all have that fact tattooed on to their legacy.
(1) Franklin Pierce vs. (4) Woodrow Wilson
Franklin Pierce tried to annex Cuba from Spain and Canada from England while passing a Kansas-Nebraska Act that essentially overturned the Missouri Compromise—meaning that while he helped fuel one of the signature fights that led to the U.S. Civil War, he was risking wars with two global powers at the same time. Woodrow Wilson helped lay the foundation for World War II by humiliating Germany with the Treaty of Versailles, but there are at least some real positives you can point to in his presidency, like the Clayton Antitrust Act. Sorry folks, Cinderella isn’t showing up for this tournament. The favorites are just too evil for her to overcome. Pierce takes this contest fairly easily.
(2) Andrew Jackson vs. (3) Zachary Taylor
Speaking of evil, Donald Trump’s favorite president finds himself in a favorable matchup, as Taylor’s sixteen months of failure is no match for Jackson’s state-sanctioned genocide and his staunch opposition to abolitionists. This game isn’t close, as anyone who Trump points to and says “I want to be more like him” is clearly a murderous authoritarian who is a serious threat to win this whole thing.
Non-elite 8 Matchup: (1) Franklin Pierce vs. (2) Andrew Jackson
Check back here at Paste politics the day after the NCAA National Championship, where we will reveal the “winner” of the Worst American Presidents Tournament.
UPDATE: Here’s our winner!
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.