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‘The Most Ignorant and Unfit’: What Made America’s Worst Ever Leader?

The real challenge is not simply to replace Trump, but to fix a system that produces, promotes, and protects the toxicity that defines his presidency.

Acknowledging that Donald Trump is very likely the worst president American democracy has ever produced and that we, as citizens in that democracy, must accept a general responsibility for choosing such a man, is only the first, and perhaps easiest, step we can take in remedying the situation. If the worst presidents are produced by their historical moment, enabled by their parties, and reflective of deep divides and flaws in American life, simply voting them out is insufficient. We must address the root causes that enabled a man as profoundly flawed and corrupt as Trump to win high office. 

Some of those causes are long tied to our history. We mythologize that history, idealize our heritage, and promote a notion of American exceptionalism. That has become untenable. When we see a racist in the White House encouraging violence against people of color in our streets, we can no longer say, “that’s not us.” This country was built not only on high ideals and ideas of liberty, but also on racism, genocide, greed, and corruption. And just as the supporters and enablers of slavery did in the mid-nineteenth century, those who today gain from structural inequality and exploitation will fiercely resist justice and reform.

The worst among American presidents prior to Trump—Buchanan, Johnson, and Pierce, for example—were all produced by the Democratic Party of the nineteenth century—a party that sought to defend or forgive slavery, and that tolerated and promoted a divided nation. Since President Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the modern Republican Party increasingly taken on that mantle. Trump is often said to have commandeered the GOP. But properly viewed in historical terms, the reverse is also true: President Trump could not exist without the post-Nixonian GOP that has Mitch McConnell patrolling the Senate and Bill Barr providing legal cover for the virtually unlimited power of the “unitary executive.”

This is a Republican Party that has produced two presidents in the past fifty years who worked to undermine constitutional government and have faced impeachment. The GOP has also worked hard to rig the system in its favor. The party has promoted gerrymandering and voter suppression to help Republicans capture statehouses, and has cemented biases in the courts by appointing increasingly partisan, ill-qualified judges. Such power grabs have become an intrinsic part of the government failure we face today.