The Presidents Ranked in Brief Capsules (Trump Included)

After the 2020 election I decided to bring together my work on the presidents and condense the rankings into short capsules. So here they are, all on one page, with links (from their names) to the full analyses.

In order to qualify being ranked on this list, a president must have served at least two years (half of one term). So I do not rank the following three: William Henry Harrison (9th president, who died after serving only a month), Zachary Taylor (12th president, who died after serving a year and a half), or James Garfield (20th president, who was assassinated after serving six months). That leaves 41 presidents — from the unassailable John Tyler to the excremental Woodrow Wilson. It’s taken years for me to get a handle on evaluating presidents, and well, this is where the road took me.

1. John Tyler. (10th president, 1841-1845, Whig/Independent). Rating: Excellent. Tyler, the “accidental president” who never wanted the job, ended up being the best at it. He (1) ended the Seminole War, the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history, and allowed the Indians to stay on their ancestral land; (2) agreed with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the high-seas slave trade (and Tyler was a Virginian southerner, no less); (3) vetoed the Third National Bank, against the wishes of his party the Whigs, as most American people didn’t want it (Tyler put the interests of the people above his party, which got him ostracized from the Whigs and cost him the re-election); (4) recognized and protected the Kingdom of Hawaii; (5) peacefully opened up China to free trade, which allowed the U.S. to begin leading in the Asian theater (America’s European rivals would struggle to catch up and get the same commercial and political benefits); and (6) diffused a rebellion in Rhode Island, by letting both sides know their actions could have serious consequences (because of this, the positive outcome was possible — an improvement over the status quo in Rhode Island without more violence). Tyler was a true leader, a Constitutional president, executively restrained, and virtually flawless. The only strike against him is Texas: he had been warned by the Mexicans that annexation would mean war, yet persisted in the face of those warnings, and so bears at least some responsibility for the Mexican War that happened under his successor James Polk.

2. Warren Harding. (29th president, 1921-1923, Republican). Rating: Excellent. He started an economic boom that would last for an entire decade (the “Roaring Twenties”). He was more fiscally austere than most any other president in history, and yet he used government funds to help those in need (like pregnant women and farmers), even in the face of protests about welfare. He cleaned up all of Woodrow Wilson’s damage and reversed Wilson’s racist policies. He campaigned in the south for blacks and gave them jobs in the federal government and high positions. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, and appointed free speech and liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices. He pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly imprisoned under Woodrow Wilson (for simply speaking out against World War I), and kept the nation at peace. His foreign policy was immaculate. Of all the smear campaigns leveled against excellent presidents, none is more astonishing than the one that continues against Warren Harding.

3. George Washington. (1st president, 1789-1797, Federalist). Rating: Excellent. We owe this man a great debt for all he did, especially for recommending the Bill of Rights, and for getting a new Constitutional system through a very rocky stage. Most importantly, he stepped down from office after two terms. He could have easily kept the presidency until he died if he had wanted to; people loved him that much. But he established the important precedent so that America would not become a monarchy. Relinquishing the presidency when he could have kept it is the best and most important thing a president has ever done in his capacity as president. The only reason I rank Washington at #3 instead of #1 is because he bought into the vision of Alexander Hamilton, which carried some long-lasting negative consequences.

4. Rutherford Hayes. (19th president, 1877-1881, Republican). Rating: Excellent. Mark Twain, usually contemptuous of all politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president. Twain was right, but few people appreciate Hayes if they remember his name at all. He ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well, pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well. He defied Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children. He was a model of executive restraint, and thanks to his fiscal austerity presided over one of the highest economic growth periods in the nation’s history. He pledged at the outset to serve only one term, and there hasn’t been a president since who has done this.

5. Chester Arthur. (21st president, 1881-1885, Republican). Rating: Very good. He wisely avoided military intervention, while at the same time rebuilt the navy, since ships had been badly eroded. He went to bat for African Americans when the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Most importantly, he advocated for and signed the Pendleton Act of 1883, also known as the Civil Service Act, which for the first time allowed government employees to be appointed on the basis of their skills, rather than their party affiliation. They no longer had to contribute money to party elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about new parties in the White House. The Pendleton Act was a landmark, but it alienated Arthur’s Stalwart Republican base and cost him the reelection. (On April 22, 2020, a Trump official stated that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional, and that all two million federal employees should be Trump loyalists. In other words, Donald Trump tried resurrecting Andrew Jackson’s spoil system of rank amateurism.)

6. James Monroe. (5th president, 1817-1825, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Very good. He presided over the “Era of Good Feelings”, because he kept Americans prosperous and in harmony. This was a much needed kumbaya after the disastrous War of 1812, and before the ascendance of Andrew Jackson’s frontier politics. We need another executive like this today. He founded the Monroe Doctrine, which basically said that America would mind its business unless British or European powers tried encroaching on territory in the new world. That doctrine became perverted in the 20th century (especially under Teddy Roosevelt) to mean the U.S. could intervene over any perceived threat of encroachment, rather than waiting for an actual invasion. But at the start it was a sound doctrine. Monroe also has the honor of being one of the four top-notch presidents for national economic growth (along with Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding).

7. Harry Truman. (33rd president, 1945-1953, Democrat). Rating: Very good. Much maligned by the woke left and hard-core libertarians, Harry Truman did what was necessary in bringing World War II to a close. Using the atomic bomb saved more lives than it destroyed. He built a national security apparatus, and made it independent of the military. He made America economically great again, after 16 years of depression under Hoover and FDR. He established a Committee on Civil Rights that would outline means of eliminating racial discrimination, and gave a famously thundering speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, saying that “the extension of civil rights today means not just protection of the people against the government, but protection of the people by the government”. He also asked Congress to satisfy the claims of Japanese Americans who treated horribly by FDR during World War II. He wasn’t perfect (witness the Korean War), but on whole he was very good, and remains the best Democrat president of the 20th-21st centuries.

8. Dwight Eisenhower. (34th president, 1953-1961, Republican). Rating: Very good. Precisely because he had been a military general in WWII and knew the cost of war, Eisenhower wisely kept the nation under military restraint for eight whole years. He is the unshakable proof that it is possible to stay out of war in the post-World War II era. His outstanding fiscal policies gave an era of prosperity rivaled only by the ‘20s and ‘90s. He was the last good Republican president, and would rank much higher if not for a few missteps, like siding with Egypt against Israel in the Suez crisis, and refusing to support desegregation in schools and universities.

9. Calvin Coolidge. (30th president, 1923-1929, Republican). Rating: Very good. He continued Warren Harding’s amazing fiscal policies that kept the Roaring Twenties going (see #2, above). When Coolidge left office in ’29, the amount of households with these “luxury items” had increased as follows: electric lights 35%-68%, central heating 1%-42%, indoor plumbing 20%-51%, vacuum cleaners 9%-30%, washing machines 8%-24%, automobiles 26%-60%. Like Harding he kept the nation at peace and free of entangling alliances. By rights he should rank up near the top with Harding, but sometimes he wasn’t as proactive as he could have been with African Americans and Native Americans. He also expanded the money supply, which contributed to Black Tuesday on October 29, 1929, causing an initial economic downturn before the Great Depression. (Though note: Coolidge did not cause the Great Depression; his successor Hoover caused it, and FDR prolonged it.)

10. Jimmy Carter. (39th president, 1977-1981, Democrat). Rating: Good. His landmark energy bills, causes for the environment, fiscal restraint, military restraint, and overall sound priorities testify to a much better legacy than his critics allow him. Like John Tyler (#1) and Chester Arthur (#5), he did the right thing for the country instead of what his party expected from him — he prioritized fighting inflation over unemployment — and that cost him the reelection, as it did for Tyler and Arthur. Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve, whose tight money policies would eventually produce the prosperity in the ’80s and then renewed in the ‘90s. Carter gets a bum rap, and if not for his terrible foreign policy blunders (Camp David, Afghanistan, the Iran-Hostage crisis), he would place in my top 5.

11. John Quincy-Adams. (6th president, 1825-1829, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Good. Unlike his horrible father, John Quincy-Adams was a good and underrated chief executive. On his watch the nation was kept safe. He continued his predecessor James Monroe’s policy of staying out of foreign affairs. He stood up for African Americans and Native Americans (more than his predecessors and two successors did) and he spoke scathingly against the religion of Islam and Islamic oppression. In other words he applied social justice principles consistently. He didn’t whitewash a violent religion for fear of offending people. This is the kind of guy we need today. He did have domestic transgressions, being a Federalist at heart, and though they weren’t terrible ones, his Antebellum New Deal and ideas for expansive government provoked enough anger to guarantee the emergence of Andrew Jackson’s Democrat party. For this reason he places outside my top 10.

12. Millard Fillmore. (13th president, 1850-1853, Whig). Rating: Good. Often blasted for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore was actually a damn good president. He personally loathed slavery but as president he knew it was his job to uphold laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished — and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s exactly what the Compromise of 1850 achieved; the North was the slam-dunk winner in that Compromise. The Fugitive Slave Act was the only Southern-friendly part that meant anything, and in any case should be seen as a good consequence, since the hunting of slaves was made more visible to people in the north, which woke people up and caused the required outrage. Fillmore did lots of other positives, facing down rebellion in both Texas and South Carolina. He began a good-neighbor policy with Latin America; avoided war with Cuba; pushed the French away from Hawaii and preserved Hawaiian independence. Negatively, he opened Japan to trade by military coercion, subsidized railroad building, and a few other black marks, but on whole he was good.

13. Thomas Jefferson. (3rd president, 1801-1809, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Average. Some presidents were great, others were terrible, and others were both great and terrible. Thomas Jefferson is a classic example of the mix. His first term was excellent: he turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech; he smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror; he expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France. All of this and more would earn him his place on Mount Rushmore. But his second term torpedoed that glowing executive image: the Embargo Act of 1807 was an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, when it only punished Americans; they starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved due to presidential incompetence. To add insult to injury, Jefferson violated civil liberties by his oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. We can praise Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence. But as a president he deserves praises and curses in equal measure.

14. Bill Clinton. (42nd president, 1993-2001, Democrat). Rating: Average. Like Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton was both excellent and awful. The excellent: he reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. The result was the immense prosperity of the ’90s. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. (If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.) Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and encouraged the lower classes to work. The result of his fiscal reforms was the lowest unemployment in thirty years. The awful: his needless, countless military interventions. He at least avoided ground troops and major wars (unlike the two Bushes and Obama), but his military engagements were so numerous and costly that it still downgrades his ranking considerably.

15. Gerald Ford. (38th president, 1974-1977, Republican). Rating: Average. Unlike Jefferson and Clinton (who are average by virtue of being great and awful in different ways), Ford was average across the board. He wisely continued Nixon’s policies of detente with the Soviet Union and China. He signed the Helsinki Accords, which finally accepted the post-World War II borders in Europe, and which also called for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms. Inflation went down during his term, though only because of the recession/unemployment that Ford helped somewhat to exacerbate. He proposed spending cuts along with his tax cuts, and left the Federal Reserve alone to its natural policies, all of which was a vast improvement on Nixon. On the bad side, he pardoned Nixon.

16. John F. Kennedy. (35th president, 1961-1963, Democrat). Rating: Average. Kennedy deserves neither the hero worship nor the over-reactive censure that he tends to receive. To his credit, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis well, defended West Berlin’s freedom, and established the Peace Corps. To his shame, he was responsible for the Bay of Pigs and escalating conflict in Vietnam. His tax cuts were mostly positive, though they were unaccompanied by corresponding cuts to federal spending. He could have been better on civil rights, but he was better than a lot of people give him credit for.

17. Ronald Reagan. (40th president, 1981-1989, Republican). Rating: Average. Enshrined in myth as a demigod, there is less to Reagan than meets the eye, though he’s not the demon of leftist narratives. On the upside, he was willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair (and without ever firing a shot); he kept the Federal Reserve in good hands on a tight leash; he declared a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, and appointed the two great Anthony’s (Scalia and Kennedy) to the Supreme Court; he gave an amnesty to millions of immigrants. On the downside, he escalated the drug war; funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets in Afghanistan and Pakistan; engaged needlessly in Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada; and he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like his idol Calvin Coolidge (as well as Harding), but came up short. He did not win the Cold War, contrary to myth; the Soviet Union simply collapsed as it was fated to, from overextending itself and its bad economy.

18. William Howard Taft. (27th president, 1909-1913, Republican). Rating: Average. Taft was elected mostly to carry out Teddy Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt (for whom the Constitution was anathema), but in truth that’s not saying much. On whole he was mediocre.

19. Benjamin Harrison. (23rd president, 1889-1893, Republican). Rating: Average. Harrison undid the damage of his predecessor Grover Cleveland, and provided aid to Civil War veterans. He crusaded for African American equality, and tried to get bills passed that protected black voting rights and funding for black schools (the Democrats in Congress blocked him). But Harrison was somewhat inconsistent on human rights, persistently calling for progressive legislation (for blacks) on the one hand, while also calling for unnecessary restrictions on Asian immigrants on the other. He didn’t have the best fiscal policies, supporting tariffs as well as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which depleted the nation’s gold standard. He wisely avoided conflicts with Chile, Italy, Britain, and Germany, but nefariously tired to annex Hawaii. For all his pros and cons I rank him towards the bottom of the average presidents.

20. James Madison. (4th president, 1809-1817, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Average. Like Thomas Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father (for his blueprint for the Constitution), but left a lot to be desired as president. The worst thing he did was to take the new and weak nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, which was unnecessary and avoidable. Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. The best thing he did was preserve people’s civil liberties through the war, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR).

21. Herbert Hoover. (31st president, 1929-1933, Republican). Rating: Poor. Contrary to liberal myth, Hoover didn’t “do nothing” about the nation’s recession, but just the opposite, and not for the better. He took many actions that interfered with the economy’s tendency to right itself naturally. It was he who created the Great Depression, which FDR prolonged. If Hoover didn’t create the welfare state, he was certainly its precursor, paving the way for FDR. For all of his rhetoric about individual freedom, he set direct precedents for FDR’s programs. He also zealously enforced prohibition, and catered to American xenophobia by stopping immigration (though immigrants would have helped the economy). What saves Hoover from ranking much lower is his immaculate foreign policy record, second only to Warren Harding’s.

22. George H.W. Bush. (41st president, 1989-1993, Republican). Rating: Poor. The Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures (in Iraq and Panama) were disastrous and effectively resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world policeman. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., Bush seemed more interested in serving the United Nations rather than the United States), he initiated a chain of events that we’re still reaping the consequences of today. It set a precedent for even worse interventions under the Younger Bush and Obama. His bank bailout was another horrible precedent. What saves him from the bad category are his surprising enlightened views for a (post-Eisenhower) Republican president: he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan, W Bush, and Trump who supported tariffs), and raised taxes in order to heal the budget. He even signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set voluntary curbs on greenhouse gases.

23. Andrew Johnson. (17th president, 1865-1869, Democrat). Rating: Poor. No one likes this guy and he’s hard to rate objectively. He gets high marks for opposing a military occupation of the south, but then low marks for advocating this cause in a completely racist way (which called down the wrath of Republican military measures). He gets very high marks for his fiscal and economic polices (he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard, alongside James Monroe, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding), but then abysmal scores for his racist vetoes, and for lobbying states to not ratify the 14th Amendment. His impeachment proceedings were a farce; even the Supreme Court ruled his favor afterwards.

24. Ulysses Grant. (18th president, 1869-1877, Republican). Rating: Poor. His heart was in the right place, but the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. By trying to pass laws and enforcing them at gunpoint in the South, Grant (and Congress) made things worse for the African Americans they were trying to defend. The KKK evolved into a terrorist group as a result, and Jim Crow laws were foreordained. (Nation building at gunpoint never works, and always produces backlash, whether in foreign countries like Vietnam and Iraq, or on home turf in the South.) Grant is also responsible for the horribly disproportionate Indian slaughters that happened on his watch. He deserves credit for signing progressive legislation for blacks and supporting the 15th Amendment, but those efforts were substantially torpedoed by his inability to uphold them in any meaningful way. The best thing about him was his fiscal and economic policies; he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard (alongside James Monroe, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding).

25. Grover Cleveland. (22nd & 24th president, 1885-1889 & 1893-1897, Democrat). Rating: Poor. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he shat on almost everyone who wasn’t white and male — African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, women, union workers. He did give the Indians full citizenship, but that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them. He was both good and bad for the economy. The best thing about him was that he kept the nation at peace with excellent foreign policy, and refused to annex Hawaii. (The native Hawaiians didn’t want to be a part of the United States, and the treaty signed by Cleveland’s predecessor Benjamin Harrison had been foully obtained.) The worst thing was his veto-happy pen: he vetoed 584 fucking bills, thereby making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body.

26. Richard Nixon. (37th president, 1969-1974, Republican). Rating: Poor. Most people think of Nixon as a conservative, but he was a flaming liberal. He was a strong activist for environmental protection. He ended the military draft, creating the voluntary army we have today. He ended public school segregation in the South. He was the best and most effective president for the Native American Indian cause. That’s the upside of his liberalism. The downside is that he was also a fiscal liberal — the last Keynesian president until George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He spent huge amounts on welfare (even more than Lyndon Johnson had for his “Great Society”) and alongside his loose money policies, this ended up causing the great stagflation of the ’70s. Foreign policy wise, he was a mixed bag: a war-monger in Southeast Asia, but a dove elsewhere, establishing good relations with China and making the Soviets want better relations with America. He also started the drug war, however, and that added to Watergate brings down his ranking considerably.

27. Martin Van Buren. (8th president, 1837-1841, Democrat). Rating: Poor. Libertarians love this guy, and I’m somewhat of a libertarian myself, but Martin Van Buren was actually a rather dismal president. Yes, he avoided conflict, which is usually a good thing, but he did so at all costs, which in his case amounted to leaving serious problems for future presidents to solve under worse conditions. He helped the economy by creating the Independent Treasury, but that only helped to an extent and brought its own problems. And if America was a bastion of liberty on Van Buren’s watch, it was only that for whites; Indians and blacks suffered horribly, even by 19th-century standards. Van Buren is almost as responsible for the Trail of Tears as his predecessor Andrew Jackson; and the way he handled the Amistad incident was reprehensible.

28. William McKinley. (25th president, 1897-1901, Republican). Rating: Bad. McKinley brought immense prosperity to America (by going on the gold standard) and this is what keeps him from ranking among the very worst presidents on my list. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, putting America on the road to becoming a trans-world empire. The Cuban crisis had no relevance to the Monroe Doctrine, since it was a preexisting Spanish Colony. While McKinley’s intentions in the Philippines may have been benign, they were also imperialistic, and his pure intentions didn’t matter in any case: when the Philippines put forth their own guerilla independence movement, the U.S. responded with horrendous atrocities against the Philippine people. It was because of McKinley’s precedent that the U.S. in the 20th century evolved into the world policeman. And his decisions resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

29. Franklin Pierce. (14th president, 1853-1857, Democrat). Rating: Bad. His notorious claim to fame was endorsing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two vast territories to determine whether or not they would be slave states. But Pierce was a doughface (a northerner who went to bat for the southern cause), and actually injected himself into the territories’ decision-making process — encouraging pro-slavery border thugs to cross from Missouri into Kansas and set up a pro-slavery government. He then recognized this government, and appointed countless pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Northerners were so pissed that a mini-civil war broke out in Kansas. Thus was born the Republican Party (in 1854), in opposition to the causes of slavery. What keeps Pierce out of the very bad rankings is his fiscal record: he paid down the national debt by an amazing 83%.

30. James Polk. (11th president, 1845-1849, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Polk is usually praised by historians for accomplishing all of his stated goals, even though those goals were terrible. He recklessly courted war with two countries at once (Mexico and Britain), and unethically provoked the weaker one (Mexico), for what he perceived as a God-given right. The term manifest destiny gained traction on his watch, as critics ridiculed him for his “God given rights”, and for waging a war which the American citizens and Congressmen resented. Polk actively promoted slavery: not only did the Mexican War itself advance that cause, but he took part in crushing the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have at least banned slavery in newly acquired territories. Saving him from the cellar of this ranking is that he respected people’s civil liberties during wartime (which is rare in U.S. history), and he also successfully fought inflation and opposed tariffs.

31. Theodore Roosevelt. (26th president, 1901-1909, Republican). Rating: Bad. Teddy is on Mount Rushmore, but he absolutely shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. He set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore or go beyond the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by legislature officials for this, but Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do whatever he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump has been similarly drunk on his own self regard.) Teddy perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for no good reason. He believed that African Americans were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, outrageously declaring a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. On the plus side, Teddy got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust — for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

32. Barack Obama. (44th president, 2009-2017, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Obama was George W. the Second, though a slightly improved version of Dubya. Foreign policy wise, Obama repeated Bush’s disasters as if trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. To his credit he killed Bin Laden, but did nothing to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. Domestically, Obama followed Bush’s playbook in using toxic bailout/stimulus relief strategies; and like Dubya printed money to kingdom come. Other Bush-sins include detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. To his credit, Obama stopped torture overseas, refused to suspend habeas corpus, made a couple of moves for gay rights, and did some things for the environment. But he did nothing to combat the drug war (for a black president in the 21st century that’s a major strike) and nothing to help the middle class, which fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

33. Lyndon Johnson. (36th president, 1963-1969, Democrat). Rating: Bad. He was the most effective president in U.S. history (James Polk was a close second), and not for the better, accomplishing his goals by doing the wrong things in the worst possible situations. The only good thing he did was push for and sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — fully accepting that he was sacrificing his own party in the South — and that critical landmark keeps Johnson from falling in the bottom category of this list as a complete failure. Everything else was disaster. He fought the Vietnam war, which he knew and acknowledged was stupid and wrong, and for purely political purposes; then he escalated it to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed — one of the most reprehensible acts of any Commander in Chief. His Great Society program was a train wreck, promising the abolition of poverty, where in fact Johnson had no idea how to abolish poverty (any more than anyone does). In his mind there were no limits and he acted like Santa Clause.

34. John Adams. (2nd president, 1797-1801, Federalist). Rating: Very bad. He almost brought a ruinous war down on America. Strangely, he is usually given credit for avoiding that war with France, but it was he who stoked up the battle fever to begin with. His notorious sins involve committing some of the worst crimes against liberty in American history, with The Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams enforced these acts with zeal. The acts (1) made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act), (2) allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), (3) allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act), and (4) criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act). Before he left office, he pulled a stunt that presaged FDR. After he lost the election to Jefferson, he took the last month of his term to stack the courts with partisan (Federalist) judges. John Adams was a disgrace, and the fact that he was the second president shows how vulnerable the republic was in its earliest years, even with the hatred of British tyranny still hot on people’s minds.

35. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (32nd president, 1933-1945, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. Like Ronald Reagan, FDR has been enshrined in myth as a demigod, but the myths are even deeper and the offenses more egregious. School teachers tell kids that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, Roosevelt lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. The best part of his presidency is that he won World War II, which (from our hindsight perspective) needed to be won; but to get there he provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was disastrous to the economy and prolonged the recession. As far as his treatment of minorities, he issued one good executive order, stating that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. Outside of that singular positive deed, he avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans in camps as if they had the plague. During the war he used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested. He assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies. FDR, to say the least, was a disgrace.

36. Abraham Lincoln. (16th president, 1861-1865, Republican). Rating: Very bad. He attains the #1 slot on most presidential ranking lists, but a careful study of “Honest Abe” leads to serious thoughts about tearing down the Lincoln Memorial. Some critics of Lincoln are southern/Confederate revisionists, and they have no credibility. But there are valid reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War was unnecessary. Lincoln could have (1) let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists urged, or (2) offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves, which other countries (like Britain and Mexico) had done. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South, helped out by a slave haven in the free North. Under the second option (which I’d have preferred), Lincoln would have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829). The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. Lincoln treated the Native Americans horribly, even by 19th-century standards, seizing one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. He authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians. On top of this, he was an enemy of the First Amendment, arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and throwing them into prison; he closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies; he “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). Only a dishonest apologist could claim that Lincoln was a good president, let alone the best. However, I don’t rank him a complete failure, because the end result of the Civil War was the liberation of the slaves — in itself obviously a praiseworthy and momentous event. But given that the slaves could have been freed without the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and given that the war and subsequent military Reconstruction (under Grant) produced the backlash of the KKK and Jim Crow laws, that’s damning Lincoln with faint praise. Because of the war, union occupation of the South, and Jim Crow, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) came in remedy. Admirers of Lincoln ignore all of this.

37. Andrew Jackson. (7th president, 1829-1837, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. The best thing Andrew Jackson did — vetoing the Second National Bank — he did for the worst reason.  But at least he did it, and for decades the American people were better off. The problem with the national bank is that it had no accountability to the American people, and was essentially an independent fourth branch of government — dominating the economy while operating completely free of any checks and balances. It had the power to destroy state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans; it gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk; it was knee-deep in corruption, bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors. But Jackson had supported the Bank when he was Senator from Tennessee (in 1823-1825), and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. From then on, he was on a crusade to kill the bank simply to spite his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Which he did. Also, Jackson was the only president in history who balanced the federal budget to the point that there was no national debt at all. Big kudos there. But unfortunately everything else he did was pernicious. His fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle and his specie circular were the primary causes of the Panic of 1837. He began the spoils system, resulting in amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act in 1883. He was the first active pro-slavery president, ramming through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. He signed the Indian Removal Act, and was responsible for more pain and suffering on the part of the Natives than any other president. He gave the middle finger to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties.

38. Donald Trump. (45th president, 2017-2021, Republican). Rating: Very bad. Trump gets due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice (no points for Kavanagh though, and it’s still too early to tell about Barrett). He made Obamacare non-mandatory. Those are non-trivial points, and they save Donald Trump from being ranked on my list as a complete failure. But the rest of his record is abysmal. He gave fake tax cuts (like Reagan and the Younger Bush) without making cuts to federal spending; he supported tariffs, which protect businessmen but not free trade; his Muslim travel suspensions were Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), but they were needless and toothless (not least since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist); his wall along the Mexican border was absurd, and his mass detentions and separating children from their parents was an appallingly inhumane way to handle illegal border crossings; he withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement; he was no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water; he fired the Pandemic Response Team and mismanaged the Covid crisis; he undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas opposed their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc. His rhetoric inflamed white supremacist groups; racial violence escalated during his administration. Worst of all, like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump openly flouted the Constitution, by making fastuous appeals to the Constitution itself, which on his reading gave him the right to do whatever he pleased. He was an unbridled authoritarian.

39. James Buchanan. (15th president, 1857-1861, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Buchanan was like Franklin Pierce — a northerner who went out of his way to accommodate, encourage, and inflame the pro-slavery cause of the South — but even worse than Pierce, and with none of the fiscal positives that keeps Pierce out of my lowest tier. Picking up where Pierce left off, Buchanan wreaked chaos on the battleground of the Kansas Territory: A pro-slavery faction in Lecompton had drafted a constitution that allowed slavery, and they encouraged pro-slavery residents of Missouri to state-hop and vote illegally in Kansas, while denying Kansas residents a vote if they favored a free state. On top of that, the Lecompton government made it a felony to criticize slavery. Anti-slave forces were bullshit with rage by this perversion of democracy and set up their own alternate government in Topeka. Buchanan openly favored Lecompton over Topeka, and sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress to be approved — using bribes and threatening peoples’ jobs to get the thing passed. His bribes came in all forms: cash, commissions, even whores. Because of Buchanan’s appalling shenanigans, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Pierce’s shenanigans had already caused enough outrage that the Republican Party was born; Buchanan enraged the northern Democrats to a breaking point. Buchanan then took the worst of both worlds. Once Lincoln was elected, and southern states started to secede, Buchanan sent a message to congress stating (1) that secession was illegal, but (2) that the Constitution didn’t allow him to force a state to stay in the union. He was dead wrong on both counts. If a president so chooses, he can act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and allow states to secede. But he also has the authority, under the mildly centralizing powers of the Constitution, to put down secession attempts — again, if he so chooses. So Buchanan could have done either. He could have let the South go, or he could have done as Millard Fillmore did (see #12), by strengthening southern forts and sending in military forces to stop secession. Either option would have averted the imminent Civil War. Instead, Buchanan sat on his worthless ass, and said that his hands were tied.

40. George W. Bush. (43rd president, 2001-2009, Republican). Rating: Complete Failure. Aside from Woodrow Wilson (see #41), George W. Bush has the most catastrophic foreign policy record of any American president. He was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them. He was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed the lesser evil of Saddam Hussein. He was responsible for peddling a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, just as it drove the Barbary Pirates in the days of Thomas Jefferson (who unlike Bush knew how to properly smash jihadists). He was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause. The largest antiwar protests in history exploded over the globe. Bush’s domestic policies were just as outrageous. He caused the Great Recession (the worst hit since the Great Depression) and made it worse with bailouts — a horrendous policy on many levels, not least because it encourages more reckless decisions in the future by corporations who feel they can rely on Uncle Sam to save them from extinction. He tyrannically expanded the powers of the presidency, disdaining Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as commander in chief he wasn’t subject to the separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Most notoriously, he created CIA detention centers overseas, and the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture. He violated the Fourth Amendment with glee. There was nothing redeeming to his presidency. Nothing at all.

41. Woodrow Wilson. (28th president, 1913-1921, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Wilson ruined the 20th century and beyond. If he had kept America out of World War I, the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved, and history would have turned out much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies. Even aside from World War I, Wilson aggressively intervened elsewhere; he was the most devastatingly interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because — incredibly — a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; he invaded Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and then Mexico again, repeatedly. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives. Then there was the Spanish Flu. Donald Trump was not the first president who mismanaged a deadly pandemic. Wilson downplayed the impact of the Spanish Flu and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending that would help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the flu. Wilson created the Federal Reserve, which shafts the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, and is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery. Then there was racism. Even by early 20th century standards, Wilson was a virulent white supremacist. He pushed for legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. For that matter, Wilson’s presidency was the worst time in U.S. history for anyone’s civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. John Adams (during the Quasi-War with France) and Abraham Lincoln (during the Civil War) were atrocious like this too, but Woodrow Wilson outdid even them.

 

Excellent

1. John Tyler (I)
2. Warren Harding (R)
3. George Washington (F)
4. Rutherford Hayes (R)

Very Good

5. Chester Arthur (R)
6. James Monroe (D-R)
7. Harry Truman (D)
8. Dwight Eisenhower (R)
9. Calvin Coolidge (R)

Good

10. Jimmy Carter (D)
11. John Quincy-Adams (D-R)
12. Millard Fillmore (W)

Average

13. Thomas Jefferson (D-R)
14. Bill Clinton (D)
15. Gerald Ford (R)
16. John F. Kennedy (D)
17. Ronald Reagan (R)
18. William Howard Taft (R)
19. Benjamin Harrison (R)
20. James Madison (D-R)

Poor

21. Herbert Hoover (R)
22. George H. W. Bush (R)
23. Andrew Johnson (D)
24. Ulysses Grant (R)
25. Grover Cleveland (D)
26. Richard Nixon (R)
27. Martin Van Buren (D)

Bad

28. William McKinley (R)
29. Franklin Pierce (D)
30. James Polk (D)
31. Theodore Roosevelt (R)
32. Barack Obama (D)
33. Lyndon Johnson (D)

Very Bad

34. John Adams (F)
35. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D)
36. Abraham Lincoln (R)
37. Andrew Jackson (D)
38. Donald Trump (R)

Complete Failure

39. James Buchanan (D)
40. George W. Bush (R)
41. Woodrow Wilson (D)

This Venn diagram

It’s amusing to see Trump in this Venn centerfold, but the overall chart is somewhat misleading. First of all, a single term isn’t necessarily a mark of presidential shortfall. It can mean quite the opposite in fact: some of America’s best presidents failed to secure a second term precisely because they did the right thing instead of what their party expected of them, which doomed their chances at reelection. Second, impeachments aren’t necessarily deserved. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton should have never been impeached; the fact that they were is no real strike against them.

Let’s focus on the one-terms. The chart properly omits the single-term presidents who died or were assassinated while in office (Harrison, Taylor, Garfield, Harding, Kennedy), and also those who pledged at the outset to serve only one term (Polk, Buchanan, Hayes), as well as the one whose party (the Whigs) dissolved at the end of his presidency (Fillmore). The chart should however include the two presidents who had intended to run for a second term and chose not to only when they realized they didn’t stand a chance (Tyler and Arthur). Conversely, the chart should have probably omitted Grover Cleveland, since he did get a second term, if non-consecutively. So instead of the 13 presidents listed in the “one-term” bubble, I would list the following 14:

John Adams (2nd)
John Quincy Adams (6th)
Martin Van Buren (8th)
John Tyler (10th)
Franklin Pierce (14th)
Andrew Johnson (17th)
Chester Arthur (21st)
Benjamin Harrison (23rd)
Grover Cleveland (22nd & 24th)
William Taft (27th)
Herbert Hoover (31st)
Gerald Ford (38th)
Jimmy Carter (39th)
George H.W. Bush (41st)
Donald Trump (45th)

The only really bad presidents on this list were John Adams, Franklin Pierce, and Donald Trump. Most were poor to average, and others were quite good (John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter) or even excellent (John Tyler, Chester Arthur). In the case of those four, it was precisely their good policy decisions that alienated their base and doomed them to a single term. John Tyler (1841-45) vetoed the Third National Bank, infuriating his Whig colleagues. Chester Arthur (1881-85) implemented the landmark Pendleton Act (which Donald Trump tried dismantling), thereby alienating his Stalwart Republican base. Jimmy Carter (1977-81), who gets a bum rap, prioritized fighting inflation over unemployment, turning his Democrat base away from him. Even George H.W. Bush (1989-93), while on whole a poor president, did a few things right, one of which was raising taxes against his promise not to (in order to heal the budget), turning his Republican constituency against him.

The point to take from this is that doing what’s best for the country often means sacrificing yourself when that policy doesn’t go over well. Imagine where we’d be today without the Pendleton Act. Many two-term presidents were horrible ones.

 

 

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years (try these for starters); both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s

Rating America’s Presidents

There’s a new book coming out, and it’s quite a treat: Rating America’s Presidents. The author, Robert Spencer, wrote the magisterial History of Jihad and many other books on Islam. A ranking of the U.S. presidents is outside his usual area, but he does a very good job where most others fail. Of the countless president rankings flooding the market, there has been only one that I find useful: Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland. Spencer’s book is now a second helpful remedy to the established mainstream views of which presidents were good and bad and somewhere in-between.

Mainstream historians tend to favor presidents who were (a) charismatics, (b) goal-oriented “managers”, (c) foreign interventionists, (d) big-government statists, and (e) globalists. Call these biases the (a) charisma bias, the (b) effectiveness bias, and the (c-d-e) activist biases. I’ve said this many times before: Just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was for the American people. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. (James Polk and Lyndon Johnson were the two most effective presidents in history; they were also bad ones.) That he intervened militarily abroad, economically at home, and meddled in worldly affairs are just as likely bad signs as good ones, and usually more bad; it’s precisely when presidents “do too much”, instead of showing executive restraint, that America (and other nations) end up suffering for it.

Seriously: On the basis of charisma, effectiveness, and activism, some of the worst leaders in history would have to be pronounced great, not least Adolf Hitler. These are lousy criteria to judge our chief executives, and yet most everyone uses them, consciously or not. Human beings are suckers for charisma; we feel the pull of magnetically persuasive leaders like FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama (charismatics are usually Democrats, for whatever reason). We also like to focus on a president’s effectiveness (in achieving his goals, no matter what those goals are), because it allows us the illusion of neutrality, and to abstain from judgment and keep our politics private; but we can’t be apolitical in evaluating politicians. We have to get our hands dirty for the exercise to mean anything. Spencer’s cards, refreshingly, are all on the table. In his introduction he writes:

New criteria are needed—or more precisely, old criteria. In fact, what is needed is the oldest criterion of all for judging the success and failure of various presidents: were they good for America and Americans, or were they not?… What makes a great president is one who preserved, protected, and defended the Constitution of the United States. Or to put it even more simply, a great president is one who put America first.

The idea that all responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens primarily, rather than those of the world at large, has been out of fashion since World War II, and in many ways since World War I. It has been mislabeled, derided, and dismissed as ‘isolationism,’ a fear or unwillingness to engage with the wider world, even as it is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. But it does not necessarily mean that America will withdraw from the world; it only means that in dealing with the world, American presidents will be looking out primarily for the good of Americans.

The term America First has also been associated, quite unfairly, with racism and anti-Semitism. The founding principles of the republic, notably the proposition that, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, ‘all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,’ shows that putting America First has nothing to do with such petty and irrational hatreds.

That will therefore be the principal criterion of the evaluations of the presidents in this book: Did he put America first? Was he good for Americans? Or did he leave us in a worse, poorer, more precarious, or more dangerous position than we were in before he assumed office?

Indeed, an “America First” criteria would seem so obvious, and I tend to frame that issue in the way Ivan Eland does in Recarving Rushmore. Presidents should be judged by what they did for the American causes of peace (foreign policy), prosperity (domestic policy), and liberty (freedom). After all, those are what most Americans want from life: to live in peace, to prosper, and to enjoy freedom. Though Spencer doesn’t spell out his criteria this way, they emerge implicitly in his assessments.

His grading scale is as follows. (There are no presidents who get a ‘3’ rating, so I’m not sure what that descriptor would be.)

10 – Great for America
9 — Very good for America
8 — Very good for America
7 — Good for America, but also did some harm
6 — Did good things for America, but also significant damage
5 — Did little good for America, but not much damage
4 — Harmful for America, but did some good
3 — ?
2 — Very damaging for America
1 — Disastrous for America
0 — Disastrous for America

To compare Spencer’s ratings with mine: In my blog series I graded the presidents on a scale of 0-60, but here I translate those scores into Spencer’s 0-10 scale. In most cases (26 presidents), our scores differ by 2 or less, usually boiling down to minor quibbles. For the other 14 presidents, our scores differ by 3 or more, but of those 14, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford Hayes, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump very high, where I score them quite low. Spencer scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton very low, where I score them high. So on whole, Spencer and I agree quite a bit about what makes a good and bad president.

Here’s how it breaks down. I provide commentary for all the presidents where our scores differ by 3 or more, and also in a few cases where we closely agree, starting with Washington.

George Washington

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 9

— Everyone loves Washington, but often for superficial reasons, or just because he was the first president. As Spencer says, “the histories of the nations of the world are full of first chief executives who were not and never could be the political and moral exemplars of what the occupants of their office should be”. Washington did many good things — not least recommending the Bill of Rights — but his most important act often goes overlooked. Spencer highlights it:

“The importance of Washington’s voluntarily leaving office cannot be overstated. It was a sign of a certain degeneration of the American body politic that what had been a virtue and a hallmark of honest republican government, a voluntary safeguard against dynasties and demagogues, became a legal requirement, an element of morality that had to be legislated. Today, when the nation’s wealthiest areas are concentrated around Washington, DC, and congressmen and senators cling to power for decades if they can, often becoming millionaires in the process and creating their own private fiefdoms, the nation could benefit greatly from a few public servants who actually lived up to that term, and emulated Washington in relinquishing power instead of staying in office as long as they possibly can, more for their own benefit than anyone else’s.”

In other words, George Washington refused to become a king — something he could have easily done. Relinquishing the presidency is, I believe, one of the most important things a president has ever done in his capacity as president. For voluntarily establishing this precedent we owe Washington a great debt.

John Adams

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

Thomas Jefferson

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 7

— Jefferson has been a tough one for me to crack. Judged by most of his first term, he deserves a high 9. Judged by his second term he earns about a 4. Of course, his pre-presidential legacy — the Declaration of Independence — makes him one of the most important founding fathers. But a ranking of the presidents should be based exclusively on what the man did as president; the Declaration of Independence is really irrelevant here.

Indeed, according to Spencer, “without his illustrious pre-presidential record, Jefferson might have been compared unfavorably to other occupants of the White House” and never been carved on Mount Rushmore. I think Jefferson is a class-A example of the Peter Principle — that people who are promoted for their accomplishments at lower-level jobs fall short at higher level ones. Still, Jefferson’s first term was pretty solid; he began as a glowing model of executive restraint. He turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, especially in suppressing free speech. He avoided wars except a defensive one that was necessary, reversing Adams’ policy of paying tribute to Islamic jihadists who were terrorizing Americans for no good reason. Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary pirates resulted in the first triumphant American victory over unprovoked jihad terror. He reduced the federal debt from 80 to 57 million. All very good.

But as Spencer notes, Jefferson then

“effaced his good work and threw a wrench into the American economy in 1807 with the Embargo Act. He vastly overestimated the importance of American products to Britain and France, and thereby did damage to the American economy that took years to repair. Even worse, in enforcing the Act, Jefferson abandoned his long-held principle of a limited federal government, becoming instead a strong advocate of centralization”.

Jefferson failed to hold true to his republican philosophy of limited government. He violated civil liberties under the Embargo Act, using oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Jefferson had been the hero who had ended the Alien and Sedition Acts and the persecution of free speech under John Adams — freeing those who had been imprisoned for speaking their minds — but now he was the executive villain flouting the Fourth Amendment. The American people starved thanks to the embargo. Farmers couldn’t export their crops. Urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs. Jefferson also assaulted the judiciary system, by trying to get judges impeached for purely political reasons. All very bad.

“All in all,” says Spencer, “the strict constructionist Jefferson became one of the most activist of presidents” — and this is why I wasn’t sure how to rate him. In the end, I scored him 42/60, which translates into Spencer’s own 7/10, because I think the good eclipses the bad. He also made the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed America to become a great power. So I think Spencer gets Jefferson right.

James Madison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 5

— To me, Madison is like Jefferson, another example of the Peter Principle. His blueprint of the Constitution makes him one of the most important founding fathers, but as a president he wasn’t so towering. He took the new and weak nation into an avoidable war with Britain, and because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in history, aside from 9/11. Washington DC was burned, and when the War of 1812 was over, little had been solved. Madison basically failed as commander in chief. But Spencer is right that he did some good things too, which scores him 5.

James Monroe

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 8

John Quincy Adams

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Andrew Jackson

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 3

— Jackson represents our first real point of disagreement, and a wide one at that. Spencer mounts an interesting defense of the spoils system, noting that while the term is today synonymous with government corruption, “Jackson began it as a blow against corruption, preventing the establishment of an entrenched bureaucracy that would oppose the president”, and indeed that “the administration of Donald Trump has made it clear that such a bureaucracy determined to thwart the president at every turn is a genuine concern; it is time for a reconsideration of the spoils system”. I believe, however, that it is hard to overstate the cost to Jackson’s dismantling of elitist networks. The price was amateurism in civil service, and a system of patronage bestowing entirely unearned privileges.

I rank Jackson low for many reasons, one of them being that he was the first active pro-slavery president. There were presidents before him who happened to own slaves, of course, as was standard, and some of them not even liking the practice. Jackson was the first president to crusade for the actual cause of slavery. When abolitionists started sending anti-slavery mailings into the south in early 1835, Jackson’s postmaster general, Amos Kendall, allowed them to be burned. When Jackson learned of the anti-slavery mailings, he wanted the abolitionists blacklisted — their names recorded in newspapers — and attacked free speech and the press by recommending that Congress pass an act prohibiting abolitionist papers in the south. Then he rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal.

Then of course were the Indians. Spencer acknowledges the downside of Jackson’s Indian policy:

“In May 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that made this recommendation the law of the land. This is today considered to be one of the black marks on his presidency and a shameful period in the history of the United States. This is a reasonable judgment, as this policy amounted to penalizing all Indians for the misdeeds of Indian warriors, and it led to untold suffering.”

But I docked Jackson much more for his treatments of the Native Americans, as they were extremely severe. Also, Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v Georgia was an impeachable offense. Like Spencer, I’m not big on impeachment (presidential impeachment attempts have often been groundless), but defying a Supreme Court decision is unquestionably an impeachable offense.

Spencer applauds Jackson for using force against South Carolina in the nullification crisis, as it made the point that “the United States was one nation, not a compact of many, and the central government had the right and the authority to pass laws and enforce them.” I agree that Jackson had the Constitutional right to use force against South Carolina, but he was a hypocrite for doing so, because he had always in the past sympathized with states rights to nullify. For example (to use the Cherokee incident again), the state of Georgia had years before nullified the federal treaty with the Cherokees and passed legislation to abolish Cherokee laws and government. Jackson was perfectly fine with Georgia’s nullification in this case, though he shouldn’t have been. Even on the assumption that nullification is a valid principle (which it isn’t), a state can only nullify what applies to its sphere of control. It cannot nullify Indian laws, because the Indians had been granted sovereignty by federal treaties, and the U.S. has the right to enter into treaties with Indians.

In other words, Jackson gave the finger to the Supreme Court — the highest authority in the land — in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties, which is plainly wrong. And yet when confronted by a rebellious South Carolina, he was making sweeping claims that nullification was wrong, period. His stated reason was that “nullification amounts to an assault on the foundations of democratic government”. That’s actually right, but Jackson never believed that in the past, and he almost certainly didn’t have a real change of heart now. He was only using force against South Carolina out of personal hatred for his vice president John Calhoun, whom he despised for perceived disloyalty.

I agree with Spencer that Jackson must be given serious credit for killing the national bank. Spencer writes: “Jackson’s opposition to the Bank destroyed the power of a moneyed elite that was manipulating politicians for its own ends. His example is salutary and instructive in an age when people of modest means get elected to Congress and walk away millionaires a few years later.” However, as with the nullification crisis in South Carolina, Jackson opposed the bank for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores, in this case with his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Jackson had actually supported the national bank when he was Senator from Tennessee in 1823-1825, and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. But the end result is what matters most, regardless of his bad motives, and so I do give Jackson significant credit for vetoing the bank.

However, the way Jackson went about killing the bank was awful, and contributed to the Panic of 1837 — the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Basically Jackson removed all federal funds from the bank and redistributed them to various state banks that were loyal to him. By flooding the economy with a massive surplus, he caused runaway inflation. The amount of paper money in circulation increased dramatically. Jackson then tried to dam the effect by putting through some hard money policies over the next two years, but they were counter-productive: by requiring that all government land sales needed to be done with gold or silver (in 1836), the market soon crashed.

On another plus side, Jackson did wipe out the national debt, and Spencer is right that this “set an example of fiscal responsibility that has been forgotten in our enlightened age”, and so Jackson deserves credit for that. But for me, Jackson’s bad policies (the spoils system, Indian removal, pro-slavery activism, dispersing funds to pet banks and flooding the economy with federal surplus) far outweigh his good ones.

Martin Van Buren

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 4

William Henry Harrison

Spencer — [not rated]
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

John Tyler

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

— Since John Tyler is my #1 president, I was glad to see Spencer rate him highly. Tyler’s two vetoes of bills that would have rechartered the Bank of the United States “saved America from the tyranny of an unelected elite class with the power to manipulate the political process”. Tyler’s support of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty “was statesmanlike, for it helped calm the relationship between the former colonies and their mother country and set the two nations on the path to a lasting alliance. The ban on the transatlantic slave trade was far-seeing coming from a slave-owning Southerner.” His humane policy toward the Indians was also exceptional for a president during these times. And in the treaty with China, says Spencer, “Tyler was operating on the principle of America First, opening up new trade possibilities without committing the nation to what could have proved to be a costly political alliance.” For these reasons and many more, I believe John Tyler was the best American president.

James Polk

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Zachary Taylor

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Millard Fillmore

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Franklin Pierce

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 4

— I agree with the reasons Spencer grades Pierce so low. He was a doughface (a northerner who sympathized with the southern cause) who signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, accommodated pro-slavery forces who made that territory a battleground — and the real ignition of the Civil War: “Bleeding Kansas was appalling enough in itself, as was Pierce’s inability to bring the violence to a halt. But for abolitionists, presidential perfidy compounded presidential impotence. There are two kinds of failed presidents: those who were effective in imposing unwise and destructive policies upon the country, and those who failed to deal adequately with a crisis, thus making it even worse. Pierce managed to be both.”

Quite right, but I had to upgrade Pierce considerably for his fiscal prudence. He paid down the national debt by a whopping 83%. That’s not a trivial point; Spencer gave Andrew Jackson loads of credit for the same thing, so scoring Pierce a rock-bottom rating seems inconsistent. Also, Pierce got rid of tariffs on products traded between America and Canada, which I take as a good thing. (Spencer favors tariffs, which is a point of difference between us).

James Buchanan

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 1

Abraham Lincoln

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 3

Andrew Johnson

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

Ulysses Grant

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 5

Rutherford Hayes

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 9

— My most dramatic disagreement with Spencer lies in the run of presidents between Lincoln and Hayes, and the question of the Civil War and the Reconstruction.

First Lincoln: Many take-downs of him are the products of southern/Confederate revisionism, and I have no use for that nonsense, but there are very good reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War was unnecessary.

(1) If Lincoln had wanted to preserve the union above all (which he did, as Spencer rightly notes, being a pragmatist), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Alternatively, Lincoln could have simply let the southern states go, and gotten Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery. This alternative wouldn’t have preserved the union, but it would have been a better solution, in my view, than the Civil War.

Either option (the first being the better one) would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of Jim Crow laws and terrorist organizations like the KKK. After the war and the Reconstruction efforts, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln and Grant curiously ignore. The North’s war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try nation-building strategies (“building democracy”), like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good. I’m a bit surprised at Spencer’s defense of Grant and censure of Hayes in this light, because in his many writings (his books, on Jihad Watch, etc., and also in this book on the presidents), he rightly criticizes nation-building strategies as vain and counterproductive; that’s what the Reconstruction was.

I endorse warfare and military action when it is necessary (like Thomas Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary jihadists, Harry Truman’s dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, and Donald Trump’s strike against Soleimani), but not when it can be avoided, and the Civil War could have been easily avoided. Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even backwater Mexico had ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too — without resorting to warfare.

Lincoln showed his contempt for the First Amendment by arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and throwing them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. (The only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech were John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.) Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus. (The only other president who ever did that was George W. Bush.)

Spencer defends Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus as follows:

“Lincoln ordered the suspension of habeas corpus in the areas of Maryland where the fervor to join the Confederacy was strongest. The Constitution gave Congress the authority to suspend habeas corpus ‘in cases of Rebellion or Invasion,’ but Congress was not in session at the time. Lincoln justified his action by arguing that time was of the essence, and only the president could act quickly, in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, to preserve the Union in this time of large-scale insurrection.

Lincoln was called a dictator and a tyrant for this. Yet he had not seized powers that were not in the Constitution; he had assumed, in a time of crisis, powers that the Constitution delegated to Congress. Congress later ratified his actions. That he had no intention of becoming the dictator and tyrant that his detractors accused him of being was clear from the many things he did not do that characterized the behavior of real dictators: he did not suspend habeas corpus indefinitely or universally; he did not profit personally from his actions; he did not issue a sweeping decree abolishing slavery in the Union, but instead asked Congress for a constitutional amendment that would phase slavery out extremely gradually, ending with the institution’s extinction in 1900.”

But Chief Justice Robert Taney ruled that it was in fact only congress, not the president, who had the authority to suspend habeas corpus during wartime. Lincoln ignored the highest authority in the land and did as he pleased (in this sense Lincoln was like Andrew Jackson). For that matter, Lincoln created military tribunals to try civilians who had discouraged people from enlisting in union armies. The Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civilians, and these civilians were simply exercising their free speech rights.

After the Civil War was over in 1866, the Supreme Court rejected Lincoln’s argument that as commander in chief he held emergency powers during wartime that were outside the law or the Constitution. “Time being of the essence” is simply no warrant for the chief executive suspending a basic civil right. The point is larger in any case: habeas corpus shouldn’t have been suspended at all, whether by congress or the president. The writ of habeas corpus gives people the right to challenge their detention when they are jailed, and that is a fundamental right in a republic.

In sum, while it’s true that Lincoln had the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what southern revisionists today claim), I don’t believe he should have exercised this right with the better options available.

For Johnson and Grant: They each get a scoring of 5 from me, for different reasons, but the best thing about them was what they did for economic growth and fighting inflation. (Along with James Monroe and Warren Harding, they comprise the “Fiscal Mount Rushmore”, in the opinion of some conservative analysts.) And yes to Spencer’s point about Johnson’s impeachment, which was outrageous and precedent setting. I also agree with Spencer that Johnson was reprehensible in his view of African Americans, and that Grant’s heart was more in the right place. But in evaluating the presidents, it is results that matter more than intentions.

The Republicans were right that a northern presence was needed in the South — someone had to make sure that African Americans were integrated properly and their voting rights established, and Johnson was no help there. Johnson opposed slavery but didn’t care a whit about improving things for the blacks in any meaningful way. But Johnson was right (as Lincoln had been) that a military presence (i.e. nation-building) was a terrible idea. “Building democracy” at gunpoint always fails; it’s why the South won the peace.

What was needed was something between Lincoln and Johnson’s excessively benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of Republican Reconstructionism, a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash (KKK, Jim Crow) against African Americans.

Finally, Rutherford Hayes, whom I judge an excellent president: I believe he was correct to end Reconstruction in the South, in the same way that Donald Trump was right to end the Bush-Obama quagmires and nation-building strategies in the Middle East. In Spencer’s chapter on Hayes, he says that the chronology doesn’t bear out the claim that Reconstruction gave rise to the KKK, because the KKK was founded in December of 1865. But the Klan began on that Christmas Eve in 1865 as a social club. It was only after the harsh military occupation began in 1867 that the organization evolved into something else. From 1868-72 it became the band of terrorists we think of today, precisely in backlash against northern militancy.

So obviously this segment of presidential history, from Lincoln to Hayes, is where Spencer and I disagree most.

James Garfield

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Chester Arthur

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

Grover Cleveland

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 5

Benjamin Harrison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

William McKinley

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Theodore Roosevelt

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

William Howard Taft

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Woodrow Wilson

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 0

— Worth noting is that I believe Woodrow Wilson was the absolute worst president ever. He’s the only one I give a rating of zero. Spencer dishes out quite a few zeroes (Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama), but I’m glad he slices down Wilson with an especially nasty razor. He concludes: “Wilson was president of the world more than he was president of the United States. Consequently, his presidency was an unmitigated disaster for the country he had been elected to govern.” Indeed, there was no president more catastrophically interventionist, domestically pernicious, and having such utter contempt for African Americans, free speech, and liberty in general than Woodrow Wilson.

Warren Harding

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 9

— Warren Harding is my #2 president, but like John Tyler has been incredibly maligned in mainstream opinion. Spencer gets him right: “About the only things that Americans today remember about Harding, if they remember anything at all, are that he had a mistress, his presidency was engulfed in scandal, and he was out of his depth as president, winning the election only because he was handsome and women had just been given the right to vote.” But moral rectitude isn’t a constitutional duty, and the Teapot Dome scandal has been way overblown.

In fact Harding had a near perfect policy record. He reversed nearly all of Woodrow Wilson’s toxic policies. He rejected the League of Nations and brought the nation under a consistently applied military restraint. He got the economy booming, with policies that ushered in the Roaring Twenties — a time of immense prosperity. He campaigned in the south for African Americans, gave them jobs in federal government (and high positions), urged the passage of anti-lynching legislation, appointing liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Wilson for speaking against World War I.

Honestly, what was not good about Harding? As Spencer says, “The country was much better off with the simple and humble Harding in the White House than it was when the renowned intellectual and crusader for civilization (Woodrow Wilson) was there. Harding’s presidency deserves an honest reassessment, but that is unlikely to happen given the fact that most historians today share Wilson’s messianic globalism and visions of massive state control.”

To be fair, there are some mainstream historians who do Harding justice, like James Robenalt, who, writing for the Washington Post, says that our obsession with Harding’s sex life and corrupt underlings have obscured the plain truth: that the man was a damn good president. But historians like Robenalt are few and far between. It is time, as I said in my piece on Harding, to let the real Warren Harding take his place among the nation’s greatest presidents, and Spencer does just that.

Calvin Coolidge

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 8

— Again, as with the above two, we agree closely, but it’s worth some commentary give that Coolidge is one of the four presidents Spencer puts on Mount Rushmore. Like Harding, Coolidge was a model president —

“– a lifelong opponent of the now-fashionable idea that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure not just equality of access to services and opportunities, but equality of outcomes despite difference in individual interests, abilities, and aptitudes. Said Coolidge: ‘Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.’ Indeed. The history of totalitarian regimes throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries shows Coolidge to have been correct: state-enforced egalitarianism is not actually good for everybody, or anybody; it only makes everyone poor, with the exception of the elites that hold political power, and creates a gargantuan government that oppresses its own people.”

Quite true. And also like Harding, Coolidge wisely rejected the League of Nations, not because he was an “isolationist”, but simply to protect American sovereignty and to avoid being involved in ongoing warfare. Like Harding again, he was fiscally prudent, and kept the economy booming and the Roaring Twenties roaring along.

I dock Coolidge a couple of points, however, because for all his fiscal prudence he did expand the money supply, which contributed to the stock market crash on Black Tuesday. However, it is incorrect to say — as many historians insist on saying — that Coolidge “caused” the Great Depression. Coolidge helped, rather, to cause the initial economic downturn of 1929-31, which was just a typical recession, and indeed much less severe than the recession Woodrow Wilson dumped in Warren Harding’s lap back in ’21. The recession of ’29-’31 devolved into the Great Depression — and lasted all the way through the ’30s and up to World War II — not because of anything Coolidge did or didn’t do, but because his successors Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t allow market forces to naturally restore equilibrium. It was these two presidents who deepened, exacerbated, and prolonged the situation, and created the Great Depression.

It’s an important point, because Roosevelt is lionized as a near saint (he was anything but), and is often given credit for pulling America out of the Depression (he did the opposite), with all the blame being transferred to Coolidge. That’s a gross misreading of history. Spencer reads the history right.

Herbert Hoover

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 5

— Sort of like with Pierce, I agree with most of the reasons why Spencer rates him low, but on foreign policy he was as non-interventionist as his predecessors Harding and Coolidge. So while Hoover was bad overall, I think a bottom-of-the-barrel score is too harsh.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— We agree closely here, but FDR deserves comment, given that most historians rank him as one of the greatest of the greats. He was in fact one of the worst. The great myth is that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, FDR lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression with most of his New Deal policies, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. Spencer crucifies FDR as he deserves.

Harry Truman

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

— Interestingly, Truman is the highest ranking Democrat (in the 20th-21st centuries) for both of us. No modern Democrat scores higher than 6 for Spencer, nor higher than 8 for me.

Dwight Eisenhower

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

John F. Kennedy

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Lyndon Johnson

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— For me, the Civil Rights Bill keeps LBJ out of the lowest cellar.

Richard Nixon

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 4

Gerald Ford

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Jimmy Carter

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— A wide chasm here. I agree with most of Spencer’s critique of Carter’s foreign policy, but in other ways Carter shined. I believe he was the last good president.

Ronald Reagan

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 6

— For Reagan, I agree with much of Spencer’s critique: Reagan escalated the drug war; in Afghanistan and Pakistan he funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets; he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like Coolidge (and Harding) but came up a bit short. But since Spencer agrees that these are Reagan’s faults, his rating of “9” seems way too generous.

Our major disagreement has to do with who gets credit for ending the Cold War, to which I say no one person. I don’t think Reagan deserves any more credit for this than Gorbachev or the pope, because the Soviet Union collapsed from overextending itself and its bad economy. The handwriting was on the wall as early as the ’60s, and by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is an inherently dysfunctional system because it gives no one any incentive to produce anything of value. The Soviet empire was bound to fail, no matter who was in charge, with or without an arms race like the one Reagan conducted, and this was something Eisenhower understood — that possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War. Communism made people poor and kept them poor forever, eating its own tail. Capitalism is bound to triumph without resorting to huge amounts of military spending in order to “contain” communism. (Excessive military spending, in any case, undermines investment in the civilian economy which is critical to a healthy republic.) Also revealing are the statements of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman: “The idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviets into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The now-open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet-defense spending offensive.” The Soviets collapsed because they kept over-extending themselves into other countries.

Reagan does deserve more credit than I ever gave him back in the ’80s, and Spencer is right that he should be commended (instead of excoriated) for being willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair. In my college years (’87-’91) saying that communism was an evil or dysfunctional system was like saying today that Islam is a religion of violence; both statements should be non-controversial. And while Reagan did engage in needless military excursions (like Libya and Grenada) he didn’t engage in Wilsonian attempts to police the globe with lasting military presences on the ground (like H.W. Bush, W. Bush, and Obama). Compared to most of his successors, Reagan was surprisingly moderate interventionist; he kept us from being bogged down in an equivalent of the Southeast Asian fiascos of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the Middle-East fiascos of the two Bushes and Obama, that drained the American economy and got vast numbers of peoples killed for no good reason.

George H.W. Bush

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

— Spencer and I agree that the Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures were disastrous (Iraq, Panama), and that Bush resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world police. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., and as Spencer notes, Bush seemed more interested in serving the United Nations rather than the United States), he initiated a chain of events that we’re still reaping the consequences of today.

But I believe that Bush’s tax-raising strategies, against the wishes of his own constituency, speak for rather against him, in the same way that (1) John Tyler’s killing the bank angered his own Whig party, (2) Chester Arthur’s civil service reform angered his own Stalwart Republican base, and (3) Jimmy Carter’s fighting inflation over unemployment made the Democrats turn on him. In all these cases, the chief executives did what was best for the country rather than cater to their constituencies, and it cost them each a second term. Doing the right thing entails a price. And the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act went a way toward deficit reduction, which had ballooned under Reagan, so this is also a plus for Bush in my view. Then too, he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan and the Younger Bush, who supported tariffs), which I also applaud, but Spencer does not.

Where I believe that Bush failed domestically was in his bank bailout. Instead of taking the free market approach of allowing the savings and loan banks to go broke (as Harding and Coolidge would have done), he approved the largest federal bailout in all of American history — the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 — costing the government $300 billion over ten years.

Spencer and I also agree about Bush’s escalation of the drug war (bad) and his appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas (good).

Bill Clinton

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— I was surprised by Spencer’s goose-egg.  It’s true that Clinton left much to be desired foreign-policy wise. He backed the worst side in the Serbian War (Kosovo), which he shouldn’t have gotten involved with in any case, on any side. Somalia was unnecessary. Etc., etc.

But he deserves immense credit for the ’90s prosperity. He reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. (The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.)

Also like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, Clinton was the fourth (and last) president of the 20th-21st centuries who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He also encouraged the lower classes to work, by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for those just above poverty line, thus encouraging them to keep working instead of going on welfare. The result of his welfare reforms was low unemployment (the lowest in thirty years), sinking poverty rates, and contracting welfare rolls. He may have initially opposed some of these efforts, as Spencer says, but he supported others, and the bills that the Republican congress passed he signed.

Much as I dislike the Clinton dynasty, I have to give Bill loads of credit for the ’90s prosperity.

George W. Bush

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 1

Barack Obama

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 3

— Not much to dispute here; I agree with almost everything Spencer says in blasting Obama. But I do give Obama points for some positive environmental achievements; unlike Bush, Obama never suspended habeas corpus; he stopped torture overseas and made a couple of moves for gay rights. But aside from that, he was essentially George W the Second.

Donald Trump [from January 2017- February 2020]

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 2

— A huge chasm here. Spencer’s chapter on Trump will probably draw the most attention, as it puts Trump on Mount Rushmore (along with Washington, Lincoln, and Coolidge, the other presidents whom Spencer scores a rating of 10). [Note: The following analysis covers Trump’s policy record up through February 2020, since that’s when Spencer’s book was submitted to the press.]

I give Donald Trump due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice (no points for Kavanagh though), and since the Supreme Court is a big issue for me, that’s a huge score. He did other things that I applaud, which have been wrongly decried by the left. As Spencer notes, he rightly upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. They’ve controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. I also applaud Trump’s removal of the individual mandate in Obamacare provision that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t.

Trump’s tax cuts, however, were a mixed bag — not as bad as some have claimed, at least in principle, but again (as per Reagan), tax cuts mean nothing without cuts in federal spending. Trump has deficit spent to kingdom come. It’s puzzling to me when self-avowed fiscal conservatives (like Spencer) make tax-cutting a priority, but then overlook unobtrusive tax increases and massive federal spending. Trump was known as the King of Debt during his business career, and he’s even less an old-school Republican than Reagan was. Eisenhower was the last really good Republican in the mold of Harding and Coolidge. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output (though the Democrat Bill Clinton did, and yet Spencer scores him a 0).

Like Reagan’s tax cuts, Trump’s could have been a very good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Only four presidents in the 20th-21st centuries did this when they cut taxes: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and (the surprising Democrat) Clinton.

Spencer and I disagree about tariffs and free trade, and so naturally I think Trump fails on this point for the reasons Spencer applauds him. Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, where I think it was one of the best. Tariffs put American businesses first, rather than America first. They protect businessmen but are ultimately bad for free trade, as tariffs (a) increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and (b) also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

And we disagree on other things. While I do consider the Muslim travel suspensions Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), I also thought they were needless and toothless, since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist. Other bad policies include the wall along the Mexican border, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has been no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water. He fired the Pandemic Response Team. He has undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas oppose their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc.  

Spencer’s claim that Trump’s presidency shows the need to resurrect Andrew Jackson’s spoils system as a means of civil service reform will surely be his most controversial one. I acknowledge that a president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them for any reason, but I don’t think that right should extend to firing just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The civil service reform under Chester Arthur (the Pendleton Act of 1883) is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Frankly I never dreamed that I’d read an argument that it should be overthrown in favor of Jacksonian spoils. Spencer advocates the spoils system particularly on account of the “deep state” opposition to Trump:

“Trump encountered an entrenched coterie of bureaucrats at all levels who were determined to thwart his every move. While the media dismissed talk of a ‘deep state’ as a conspiracy theory, the New York Times admitted its existence on September 5, 2018, when it published an anonymous op-ed that proclaimed: ‘I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.’ The Times elaborated on these foes of Trump within his own administration in October 2019: ‘President Trump is right: The deep state is alive and well. But it is not the sinister, antidemocratic cabal of his fever dreams. It is, rather, a collection of patriotic public servants — career diplomats, scientists, intelligence officers and others — who, from within the bowels of this corrupt and corrupting administration, have somehow remembered that their duty is to protect the interests, not of a particular leader, but of the American people.’

Obama’s CIA director John Brennan also all but admitted its existence in October 2019, when he tweeted: ‘As in previous times of national peril, we rely on our military, diplomats, intelligence officials, law enforcement officers, & other courageous patriots to protect our liberties, freedom, & democracy.’ In this case, however, the diplomats, intelligence officials, and law enforcement officers in question were not protecting the nation from foreign enemies, but from what they considered to be the misguided policies of the man whom they were supposed to be serving, the president of the United States.

While this sounded high-minded, there is no doubt whatsoever that the New York Times and Brennan would have taken the opposite position if the federal bureaucracy had dared interfere with the Obama agenda.”

Spencer also dismisses Russiagate (Russia hacked the election US election; Trump and Russia colluded to defeat the Democrats) as a political farce:

“The apex of the deep state coup was the Democrats’ attempt to make Trump appear guilty of various misdeeds, which would lead to his impeachment. Before he was inaugurated, he began to be charged with being a tool of Russian president Vladimir Putin and colluding with Russia to fix the 2016 election. Trump agreed to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate this.

After a two-year investigation, Mueller found nothing for which Trump could be impeached. The Democrat-controlled House didn’t give up, however; it then fastened on a phone call Trump had in the summer of 2019 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that Trump had threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to investigate Joe Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. The transcript of the call showed this was not the case, Zelensky denied it, and Ukraine received the aid. But the Democrats charged ahead anyway, impeaching Trump on two counts, one of abuse of power for the Ukraine matter and one of obstruction of Congress, which wasn’t a crime in any code of law, for not cooperating with the sham investigation.”

It’s not only conservatives who find no evidence for collusion with Russia. Leftist Trump-haters like Aaron Mate find it baseless as well.

Regardless of the truth of Russiagate, the idea of resurrecting the spoils system is cause for alarm. The point of the Pendleton Act of 1883 is that civil servants should be serving society rather than parties. Whether they do a good job of that or not during a particular presidency doesn’t affect the necessity for such a system. But despite my disagreement with Spencer, I respect his reasoning. His defense of Trump isn’t the usual alt-right emptiness; it’s a compelling read, whether or not it persuades you.

But the worst danger of the Trump presidency goes unmentioned by Spencer: his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020 (I realize this happened after Spencer finished writing his book), Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines.

Trump’s declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t terribly surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.

Verdict

Spencer has written another terrific book, and a very unexpected one given his usual subject matter. Even if I disagree with some of his presidential evaluations (and six in particular), that’s not the important point. Let’s face it, none of us will ever agree 100% with each other in a ranking of all the U.S. presidents. What really matters are the criteria being used to make those evaluations, and this is where mainstream historians have failed us. When Tyler and Harding are always at rock bottom, and FDR always at the pinnacle, there’s a problem. When Arthur and Coolidge are widely dismissed, and Wilson and LBJ are intoned as progressive visionaries, that’s another epic failure in judgment. Spencer exposes these problems acutely. Rating America’s Presidents is a solid guide to get people thinking about how our chief executives should be assessed, and I hope it will be widely read.

Appendix

Here I list Spencer’s rankings, followed by my own, and then also Ivan Eland’s from Recarving Rushmore, for comparative purposes. Interestingly, I have six major disagreements with both Spencer and Eland, but on completely different presidents. Spencer and I disagree on Jackson, Lincoln, Hayes, Carter, Clinton, and Trump. Eland and I disagree on Monroe, Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Which means that Spencer and Eland disagree on all those twelve.

All three of us agree on what matters most: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of capitalism and fiscal conservatism, and the importance of American liberty.

Spencer (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump)

10 – Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump
9 — Harding, Reagan
8 — Jackson, Tyler, Grant, Arthur
7 — Jefferson, Monroe
6 — Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Eisenhower,

5 — Madison, Quincy-Adams, Taylor, Fillmore, Garfield, Harrison, Taft, Kennedy, Ford
4 — Adams, Polk, McKinley, T. Roosevelt
3 — [none]
2 — A. Johnson, Hayes, Nixon, H.W. Bush
1 — Pierce, F.D. Roosevelt, L. Johnson, W. Bush
0 — Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama

Rosson (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Tyler, Hayes, Harding)

9 — Tyler, Harding, Washington, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur, Monroe
8 — Truman, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 ½ — Carter, Quincy-Adams,
7 — Fillmore
6 ½ — Jefferson, Clinton, Ford, Kennedy
6 — Reagan, Taft, Harrison
5 ½ — Madison

5 — Hoover, H.W. Bush, A. Johnson, Grant, Cleveland
4 ½ — Nixon, Van Buren
4 — McKinley, Pierce
3 ½ — Polk
3 — T. Roosevelt, Obama, L. Johnson
2 ½ — Adams, F.D. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jackson, Trump
2 — [none]
1 ½ — [none]
1 — Buchanan
½ — W. Bush
0 — Wilson

Eland (Mount Rushmore: Van Buren, Tyler, Hayes, Cleveland)

10 — Tyler
9 ½ — Cleveland
9 — Van Buren, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur
8 — Harding, Washington
7 ½ — Carter, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 — Clinton
6 ½ — Quincy-Adams, Fillmore
6 — Harrison
5 ½ — Ford, A. Johnson, Hoover

5 — Grant, Taft, T. Roosevelt
4 ½ — Adams, Buchanan
4 — Pierce
3 ½ — Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson
3 — Madison, Lincoln
2 ½ — Nixon, F.D. Roosevelt
2 — L. Johnson, H.W. Bush, Obama
1 ½ — Reagan, Kennedy
1 — W. Bush, Polk
½ — McKinley, Truman
0 — Wilson

The Flashing Swords Controversy (Robert Price)

Robert Price has stirred another shitstorm. For those who don’t know, Price is the atheist who has argued that Jesus never existed, worships Donald Trump, knows everything to know about the Cthulhu myths and Lovecratian scholarship, and has a life-long passion for the great pulp fantasies that PC culture so desperately wants to cancel. (In other words, he has serious pros and cons to say the least.) Recently he revived the Flashing Swords anthology series from the ’70s that had published sword-and-sorcery stories from giants like Leiber, Vance, and Moorcock. For this revived volume (#6) Price wrote a story and got other authors to contribute. Then he wrote a foreward to the volume — an unexpected political screed — of which the other authors were wholly unaware, and were livid when they found out; many of them demanded that their stories be withdrawn. The book has now been delisted.

Personally I think the offended authors were overreacting, and it’s their loss. Who cares what Price’s political opinions are? He’s the one who wrote the foreward, not them. I happen to agree with some of Price’s screed anyway — or at least his condemnation of the the feminist hatred for pornography — but even if I didn’t, if I were a contributing author, I would have given the foreward my blessing. Price’s politics have no bearing on any sword-and-sorcery story that I might write, and I’m not so insecure that I worry about being associated with those with whom I disagree. If we were talking about something like an academic work it could be different. There are cases where a foreward can indeed “speak for” the views, or at least the common ground, of a book’s contributing authors. This plainly isn’t one of them. If readers assume that it is, then that’s their problem, not the authors’.

This is a segment of Price’s foreward:

I think Price was more stupid than anything else to write this kind of a preface, instead of something more directly on-topic. As I said, if I’d been one of the authors, I would have gone along with it fine. But the fact is that many authors, especially these days, are not on board with the expression of political views that are guaranteed to call down censure.

Price’s story is called Immortals of Lemuria. Other tales that were included in the book are The Tower in the Crimson Mist, by Adrian Cole; The Lion of Valentia, by Steve Dilks; The Island of Shadows, by Paul McNamee; A Twisted Branch of Yggdrasil, by Dave Ritzlin; Blood Games in the Temple of the Toad, by Frank Schildiner; and Godkiller, by Cliff Biggers. I hope these stories will see publication at some point. Pulp fantasy is practically a dead genre, and I always appreciate revivals like the one Price attempted here.

For more details on the controversy:

Authors Ask That Their Work Be Removed From Flashing Swords #6
Publisher Delists Flashing Swords #6 After Authors Object to Foreword

 

 

Fact-Checking Reality

Some people are taken in by satire and fake news, but then there’s the opposite problem. I see satirical gags all the time when I’m reading accurate reporting. Our age of absurdity is getting worse by the year, and here’s just a handful of highlights from the last two:

  •  An Islamic doctor described her therapeutic suppositories that curb homosexual urges: “The sexual urge develops when a person is sexually attacked and afterwards it persists, because there is an anal worm that feeds on semen. What I did was to produce suppositories, which cures homosexual urges by exterminating the worm that feeds on sperm.” (4/24/19)
  •  A New York university promoted an academic paper comparing cow insemination to rape, and milking cows to sexual abuse. (8/15/19)
  •  A Quebec author and his publisher were charged by the Canadian government with producing and distributing “child pornography”, because of a paragraph in one of the author’s novels describing a father who sexually assaults his daughter. (The novel is an adult retelling of Hansel and Gretel and contains no pornographic photos.) (1/3/20)
  •  The president of the United States recommended bleach injections as a way to cure Covid-19. (4/24/20)
  •  A large movement of D&D players have objected to the game’s depiction of orcs as “racist”. (4/27/20)
  •  A physician (who worked as a pediatrician in Louisiana, is licensed in Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky, and is now practicing in Texas) believes such things as, (a) gynecological problems are caused by dreaming of having sex with demons, (b) alien DNA is being used in medical treatments, (c) the US government is run by lizards, and countless other lunacies. (7/28/20)

In each of these cases, I checked Snopes and/or other websites to be sure these reports weren’t false or at least blown out of proportion.

I mean, surely the woke culture of academia hasn’t devolved to the point where scholars are arguing that cow insemination/milking is the equivalent of rape and sexual abuse.

And surely an enlightened nation like Canada would never arrest an author for writing things which published novelists write about all the time. I’m of course aware that Canada doesn’t have a First Amendment equivalent, and that a Canadian citizen can be thrown in jail for arguing a crank theory like “the Holocaust never happened”. That’s bad enough: crank theorists should have every right to espouse and publish their views without fear of governmental obstruction. But for writing a story about sexual assault, on a minor or otherwise? That’s a level of absurdity I couldn’t wrap my head around. On this logic you’d have to arrest Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist, and thousands of other published writers — and then mass purge every library and book store of a lot of mainstream fiction. Child pornography consists of photos or videos, that those are rightfully illegal — not because they are “too offensive”, but because it involves exploitation of real-world children. Narrative descriptions are (or should be) unambiguously legal. Jesus Christ. Good novelists write about offensive things. The best fiction is often precisely that which explores the taboo and disturbing.

And even granting Donald Trump’s countless idiocies, I found his “bleach cure” advice too off the scales — I couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe it until I checked Snopes.

And while I’m acutely aware of how anal D&D players can be, surely they haven’t become so pathetic as to be triggered by the concept of genetically evil fantasy races like orcs and drow. They’ve made me actually nostalgic for the ’80s, when D&D was decried as Satanic by the religious right. I always expected it from the right. Today the moral panic comes from the left, who should know better; they used to be the intelligent ones. Honestly, if you’re offended by a fantasy race for not having human tendencies, then you’re in the wrong game. It’s one of the reasons why D&D has other races — to make things different and more interesting.

And so on down the line. Just a handful of absurdities I couldn’t believe until I fact-checked them; there have been many more. I suppose it’s good to err on the side of being skeptical than hoodwinked by falsity… but it’s dispiriting when reality itself has become this satirical.

Trump vs. The Pendleton Act

Donald Trump is in the process of trying to remove political appointees and career officials who are not loyal to him, and in support of his crusade, the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Mike Rigas, is now claiming that the Pendleton Act of 1883 is unconstitutional. You heard that right. I was wondering when we would hit this point.

Trump began this purge after being acquitted in his his mid-February impeachment trial, leaving much of the task to John McEntee, the head the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) which recruits candidates for the executive branch. On March 17, McEntee forced the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, to resign, replacing her with Michael Rigas. The change from Cabaniss to Rigas happened just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation hard — on St. Patrick’s Day, the day my library in Nashua shut down. Since then Rigas has been the one overseeing the two million workers in the federal government. Yesterday, April 22, he stated publicly that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional. Many Americans have never heard of the bill.

The Pendleton Act

Also known as the Civil Service Act (1883), it replaced the spoils system that had been in place since the presidency of Andrew Jackson (for 54 years), with a system of merit, and it allowed government employees to stay secure in their jobs no matter which party was in power. It’s astonishing that it got passed when it did. In 1883 both parties in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, derived much of their political power from the Jacksonian spoils system. President Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881) had crusaded against the spoils system, but it was his successor Chester Arthur (1881-1885) who got Congress to abolish it and pass the Pendleton Act — despite the fact that Arthur himself was a mighty beneficiary of the spoils system, and a Stalwart Republican (a faction of Republicans at the time loyal to the legacy of Ulysses Grant, and the Jacksonian spoils system). For him to reform the spoils system was career suicide, and it cost him a second term.

But Arthur did what was right, rather than cater to his constituency. His signing of the Pendleton Act marked a watershed moment in America. Civil servants were to be appointed because of their capacity to do the job, not because of whom they knew and what they could pay. Their performances were to be assessed by objective standards and discerned by examinations. These exams were to be administered by a neutral civil service commission and graded by boards that were unaffiliated with factions. Once appointed, civil servants were to serve society rather than parties. They would no longer be subject to mandatory contributions during the elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about losing favor with the party bosses. It was now illegal to fire or demote federal employees for their politics. As a civil servant myself, I cherish this historical moment, and the roles of both Presidents Hayes and Arthur in making it happen. (Hayes and Arthur, in my assessment, were the fourth best and fifth best presidents of the U.S.)

Giant Steps Backwards

The system of Jacksonian spoils hasn’t been the way of things for 137 years now. But Trump and his man Rigas want to bring back that antiquated system, and staff the entire executive branch with partisan appointees.

While I believe the U.S. president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them, that right should not extend to just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The Pendleton Act and civil service reform under Chester Arthur is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Should that be reversed and the spoils system of Andrew Jackson resurrected, it will be giant steps backward.

More here.

Ranking Donald Trump (So Far)

Donald Trump’s first term isn’t over, but I’ve decided to score him for the period of January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020, to see where he falls in my president series. As I post this today, the Covid-19 virus is peaking in New Hampshire and is close to peaking in other states. The political climate is tumultuous to say the least, and who knows how things will look months down the line. This evaluation is obviously subject to change. For now, here’s how I rate our current president.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Of the three categories, Trump scores highest in this one. That’s not saying a lot.

The Moratorium (“Ban”) on Immigration

Trump used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Later Iraq and Sudan were removed, and North Korea and Venezuela (non-Muslim majority countries) added in. The moratorium (often incorrectly called a “ban”) was hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and it didn’t even include the critical country of Saudia Arabia, which spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from. All Trump did was lift a template from an executive order signed by Barack Obama against the same nations two years before: the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, listing Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. (Obama’s order had been as needless as Trump’s.)

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court was correct in upholding Trump’s order. In Trump v. Hawaii (6/26/18), the majority ruled that Trump lawfully exercised the broad discretion granted to him to suspend the entry of aliens from countries construed to be jihadist hotspots. The Supreme Court has no power to second-guess the president’s executive decisions, no matter how disagreeable, only to decide if the president’s decisions are constitutional or not. Aliens who have never set foot on U.S. soil have no constitutional rights, and nor should they. While the Constitution prohibits discrimination in the issuing of visas, it does not limit the president’s authority in any way to block the entry of nationals from certain places — just as several presidents have done before Trump. And while the Establishment Clause prohibits unduly favoring one religion over another, there were many majority-Muslim countries that were not subject to Trump’s order. The moratorium was not a sweeping ban against any and all Muslims, but a suspension against certain countries for purpose of national security. Whether or not one agrees that such a suspension was necessary or effective (I do not), the Supreme Court was correct that the president has the right to enforce such suspensions as he sees fit. Presidents have wide discretion on questions of alien entry into the U.S., and that is as it should be.

In sum, Trumps’ executive order wasn’t unconstitutional, but it was misguided and pointless, especially without the inclusion of Saudi Arabia.

Jerusalem: Recognizing Israel’s Capital

After the failures of three presidents, Trump upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move (absurdly) on grounds of national security. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but in December of that year ended the stalling.

Personally, I wish the state of Israel had never been created. Not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution has made a battleground of Palestine. What the Allies should have done in 1947 was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) and given that land to the Jewish people. But for better or worse, Israel does exist, and has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem since 1967 — for over 50 years now. Every other nation on earth gets to choose its capital, and Israel should be treated no differently.

Protesters claimed that making Jerusalem the capital of Israel would play into the hands of jihadis, but that’s kowtowing to thuggery. When groups like Hamas threatened to launch a new intifada, they were doing as they do anyway, per the Islamic mandate for holy war. Trump should be applauded, not criticized, for standing up to jihadist intimidation. Repeating failed solutions in Middle-East — the failed solutions of all Trump’s predecessors going to back to Jimmy Carter at Camp David — will only continue to bring failed results. Muslim jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all, regardless of where its capital is. It was about time that the Congressional law of 1995 be enforced.

Involvement in the Middle-East, The Iran Nuclear Deal, Striking at Soleimani

Trump isn’t consistent about much, but on the singular issue of war in the Middle-East he has been absolutely consistent and reliable. He doesn’t want it. He has dramatically reduced the number of troops in certain U.S. war zones overseas, and kept America out of war. He ended the vain, costly and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama that sank the American economy and made things far worse in the Middle-East, and indeed for the world. The dictators toppled by Bush (Saddam) and Obama (Mubarak and Gaddafi) gave us ISIS in Iraq; unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. Trump is to be applauded for putting an end to our misguided Mid-East ventures. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism; they were about imposing Islamic law.

And as Trump kept America out of quagmires, he also knew when to strike, as he did at the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. This was in response to (a) Iran burning the American embassy on top of (b) engaging for a full year in other aggressions — attacking ships in the straits of Hormuz, shooting down American drones, firing on American bases, and arming terrorist groups across the Middle-East. The accusations that Trump was looking for an excuse to go to war in the Middle-East were proven empty, when the next day Trump announced there would be no declaration of war on Iran by the U.S.

Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (in 2018) was also a good move. The appeasement under Barack Obama — in bringing Iran to the table and giving Iran money — had born the expected rotten fruit. I had mixed feelings about the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015. On the one hand I could justify it as a lesser of two evils, especially coming as it did in the midst of Obama’s pointless war-mongering in every other corner of the Mid-east. But while negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation may have kept us out of conflict, it increased Iran’s determination to escalate conflict, and that is what Soleimani and others had been doing.

Trump’s strike against Soleimani was risky in the manner of most military strikes, but it was the right move. On moral grounds, if I had to decide between taking out a threat like Soleimani and bending over backwards for Iran — which allows the ayatollahs to continue being as violent as they want with impunity — my compass aligns with the former.

Saudi Arabia

On the downside, if Trump has broken with most of the policies of his predecessors, he has followed them in cultivating warm relations with Saudi Arabia — calling the nation a “great ally”. The Younger Bush held the hands of Saudi King Abdullah, and Barack Obama bowed to him. Trump did neither for King Salman, but he has nonetheless treated the Saudis as allies when they should be America’s #1 enemy.

North Korea

When North Korea stepped up its missile testing efforts in 2017, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury”, using shockingly inflammatory language that no other president has ever used in the context of nuclear armaments. His incendiary aggressiveness — on top of the missile testing and mounting military presence on the Korean Peninsula — sparked fears of a nuclear conflict. Even members of the White House staff were appalled. Though a friendly détente began to develop between Trump and Kim Jong-un in March 2018, the year of 2017 was a harrowing one that yielded the speculative novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, by Jeffrey Lewis. The novel portrays a realistic nuclear attack by North Korea against the U.S., triggered in part by Trump’s tweets on Twitter.

In sum, Trump’s first year was one of reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, and we are fortunate that missiles didn’t end up flying.

Russia

Trump has cultivated warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and denied collusion with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. On whole, his policies towards Russia have been a mixed bag.

In terms of his presidential actions (though not his rhetoric), Trump has been harsher on Putin than Obama ever was. Trump armed the people of Ukraine against his “friend” Russia with deadly weapons, which Obama would not do. Two hundred Russian soldiers were killed in Syria by U.S. forces under Trump, not Obama. Obama was the one who said (to Dmitry Medvedev) that he wanted to be flexible with Russia in 2012. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia not under Trump, but under Obama, who turned a blind eye. The list goes on. Throughout his entire presidency, Obama underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. Obama dismissed Mitt Romney for “exaggerating the Russian threat”, and his foreign policy was grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the U.S.

So while Obama didn’t like Putin, those personal feelings never translated into policy. Trump has had better policies on Russia (Obama apologists have made fools of themselves fumbling over this), but that does not excuse Trump’s reverential praise for Putin, his cozying up to the Russian president, nor his refusing to endorse the mutual aid clause of NATO (Article 5), which requires that other NATO allies come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Mexico: Immigration and the Border Wall

The worst stain on Trump’s foreign policy record is Mexico. From day one he has crusaded for an expanded wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in efforts to stop illegal immigrants, gangs, and drugs from entering the U.S. A border wall is an impractical and expensive way of addressing those issues. The largest border challenge involves the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees applying for asylum. They travel as family units and voluntarily surrender to US authorities. A wall wouldn’t stop anyone from claiming asylum at a port of entry, only border crossings. Nor would a wall stop the flow of drugs, most of which are smuggled through legal ports of entry. The only way to stop drug traffic from Mexico would be to completely shut down trade with Mexico. The drug war (which was always wrong to begin with) has taught that as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will always be a supply and ways of getting through.

The most hideous outcome of Trump’s border-wall crusade came in April 2018, when he enacted zero-tolerance for illegal border crossings, leading to mass detentions and the separation of children from their parents. The public outcry was so great that the administration pledged to end the family separations; but that doesn’t undo the ugly stain on Trump’s record.

Then came the government shutdown. When the House of Representatives refused to give Trump money ($5.7 billion in federal funds) to build the border wall, he shut down the federal government so as to force the congressional funding. It was the longest government shutdown in American history, lasting 35 days (December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019). When that strategy failed, he then declared a national emergency on the border, which allowed him to divert funds from various sources (the Pentagon, anti-drug funds) to build the wall. (The House and Senate voted to end the national emergency, in February and September of 2019, but Trump vetoed their bills each time.) The Border Wall remains a national embarrassment.

The Paris Climate Agreement

By withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, in which nearly two hundred countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump showed his disdain for global welfare.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

If Trump’s foreign policy record is a mixed bag, his domestic policy record is a disaster.

Taxes

Trump’s tax cuts aren’t as bad as some have claimed, or at least in principle. Here’s the problem: tax cuts mean nothing without cuts to federal spending, and like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (though not George H.W. Bush), Trump has deficit-spent up the wazoo while giving tax breaks. It’s always astonishing to me, as a fiscal conservative, when self-avowed “fiscal conservatives” make tax cuts a priority, and yet willingly overlook the more sly tax increases and massive federal spending.

Trump’s tax cuts could have been a good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly, and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Trump has done neither. But voters love government programs from which they benefit and for which they don’t have to pay; and because the impact of budget deficits is severe but mostly invisible in the short term, presidents like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump easily win their second terms. The ones who really pay are America’s future generations. They’re the ones who will have to repay the borrowed money (plus interest) while not benefiting nearly as much as their sires. And of course they’re too young to vote.

Those who fancy themselves “small government Republicans” are not in fact for small government when they endorse spendthrifts like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump (especially Bush and Trump). Eisenhower was the last really good Republican. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output. The Democrat Bill Clinton did, however, putting all post-Eisenhower Republicans to shame.

Tariffs

Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, and he has launched trade wars by enacting tariffs. This is backwards. Tariffs are bad, because global free trade is ultimately better for everyone, businesses and consumers alike. Tariffs increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

The irony about tariffs is that they are considered a “conservative” policy, but they often lead to non-conservative fiscal rescue operations. For example, Trump’s tariffs have hurt farmers in particular, and to compensate for that, the Trump administration has tried to steer government funds towards some of those areas — which is far from a conservative economic policy.

Free trade and low tariffs are the truly conservative policy, and are best for everyone. The only post Eisenhower Republican president who understood this was the otherwise less than impressive George H.W. Bush.

Health Care

While there is much in Obamacare that can be criticized (not least: it has caused healthcare costs to skyrocket), Trump’s war on the Affordable Healthcare Act was counterproductive, and it’s just as well that it largely failed. However, I do applaud Trump’s success in removing the individual mandate that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t. That part of Obamacare had to go.

Department Appointments

Trump appointed department heads whose agendas oppose their mandates. For the Labor Department he chose a serial violator of labor law (Eugene Scalia); for the Education Department a woman with contempt for the public education sector (Betsy DeVos); for the Environment Protection Agency a climate change denier (Scott Pruitt), then replaced him with someone hardly better (Andrew Wheeler); for the Energy Department a former state governor who had called for its abolition (Rick Perry).

In other words, the Trump Administration was set up from the start as a self-parody. It would be amusing if it were satirical fiction, but this isn’t a novel, it’s real life.

Pandemic Response

As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump fired the Pandemic Response Team in 2018. This spelled serious consequences with the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. As late as February, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, comparing it to influenza and saying that the disease was well under control.

In March he wised up and declared a national emergency, allowing states to access more than $40 billion in additional funding from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). He signed a bill providing for free testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment insurance, as well as a $2 trillion stimulus that includes direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and grants to businesses, increases to unemployment benefits, and support for health-care providers.

On April 15, he announced that the U.S. was placing a hold on funding to the World Health Organization (for 60–90 days) for “failing in its basic duty” to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever WHO’s shortcomings in the early period, it’s an appalling decision to cut funding to the organization best equipped to fight pandemics.

Trump’s handling of the crisis has left much to be desired, but there has also been misplaced outrage, not least over his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”; as if pointing the finger at China is necessarily racist. That Trump himself is a racist in no way mitigates the root cause of Covid-19, and the necessity of speaking honestly about the way Asian dietary habits have killed millions of people: SARS, the bird flu, the Hong Kong Flu, the Asian Flu, Covid-19 — and there will be more if exotic foods continue to be marketed and eaten.

There are hand-wringing Americans who insist that Chinese people don’t eat bats — that it’s a racist myth — even though the diet has been known and documented for some time:

“Bats are not specifically protected in China and many species are eaten, especially in southern China, where bats are found regularly in markets. Requests from international agencies following the SARS outbreak, (which resulted in several hundred human deaths) that wildlife legislation be introduced in China prohibiting inter alia hunting and sale of bats have been ignored.”

That being said, Trump has reveled in finger-pointing China for the wrong reasons. His primary concern has been deflecting blame away from his administration’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Environment

Besides withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump has taken actions that prove he is no friend of the environment — nor even something so basic as clean water. In February 2017, his administration reversed the Obama administration’s decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, approving its construction. In June 2019, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to rescind the Clean Power Plan (2014), a regulation that would have required states to move away from coal-based power plants. In January 2020, his administration rolled back the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) requiring government agencies to carefully consider public health before permitting projects on federal lands, and which gave the public a voice in that process. Later that same month, his administration rewrote the Clean Water Rule (2015), removing protections for more than half of America’s wetlands, along with many rivers and streams — threatening the drinking water for millions of people.

This environmental record speaks for itself. Green isn’t Trump’s color.

3. Liberty (Freedom, Justice)

The worst danger of the Trump presidency has been his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020, Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines. That won’t stop him from trying.

His declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t that surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.

It doesn’t help matters that lan Dershowitz — a modern liberal Democrat, who was one of Trump’s defenders in the Senate impeachment trial — tossed in the following grenade: “The president is far more powerful than a king. The president has the power that kings have never had. He has a very, very powerful office, and the framers wanted it that way.” No lie: Dershowitz actually said that. The framers are rolling in their graves.

Trump and his Democratic defender — and indeed many Americans — are clueless as to what the Constitution says about executive power, and sadly many people are used to the idea of an uber-powerful president bearing no resemblance to what was envisioned for the office at the nation’s founding. We have primarily Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) to thank for that, though certainly others set horrible precedents in this regard: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), and George W. Bush (2001-2009). This catalog is party-blind; there have been as many power-happy Democrats as Republicans.

Free Speech

So far under Trump there have been no blows against free speech or the press, but there has been cause for alarm. He has repeatedly bashed the news media, and even threatened to pull NBC’s nonexistent “license”. He has used the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” against NBC. This sort of rhetoric, coupled with his authoritarian complex, leaves no room for doubt: if he could get away with censoring the media he would.

Habeas Corpus

It’s not being paranoid to worry about a martial law under Donald Trump. In March 2020, his attorney general, William Barr, submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of their habeas corpus rights during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason, without being able to challenge their detention.

Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus, Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and both wrongly. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberty, the suspension of habeas corpus could be a stepping stone to martial law — which would be a nightmare under an executive like Donald Trump.

Overseas Detention

Trump has supported the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, signing a 2018 executive order to keep the prison open. Obama had tried to close the facility, but was blocked by Congress (Obama can be criticized for much, but not this). While the Trump administration has sent no new detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Trump did make noise about using it to jail captured Islamic State fighters.

Transgender in the Military

Trump overturned the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender personnel to serve openly in the military. Another setback.

Native American Indians

Trump’s treatment of the Indians has been disgraceful. He routinely insults Native Americans and ignores their concerns about his plans for drilling on sacred land. In 2017 he approved slashing the protected Bears Ears site by 200,000 acres, and later announced that it would be opened for oil and gas bidding.

His most recent targets are the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, who are losing their reservation status for more than 300 acres of land. That land will no longer be held in federal trust, and the tribe won’t have any tribal authority over it.

On a minor plus side, in November 2019, Trump did sign an executive order (“Operation Lady Justice”) for creating a task force to address the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children. A small amelioration for a mountain of sins.

The Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch

Trump’s positive contribution to the cause of liberty has come in his appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Antonin Scalia after thirty years of service on the bench. Anyone who doubts Gorsuch’s rightfully earned place can refer to my detailed look at how he has ruled since joining the court. His model of jurisprudence is exemplary; he is the best justice who has served on the court in my lifetime.

He has often been the lone conservative ruling with the four liberals against the other conservatives. He joined the liberals, for example, in favor of Indian tax exemptions (Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.); then again for the Indians on the question of Indian treaties (Herrera v. Wyoming); on a ruling about guns during crimes of violence (United States v. Davis); and in upholding the right to a trial by jury for a man convicted a second time of carrying child pornography (United States v. Haymond). If Gorsuch is conservative, he’s certainly no ideologue; he rules with the right kind of conservatism, interpreting the law, not legislating his personal views.

He has also gone where his fellow justices fear to tread. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was the famous case involving the baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court correctly ruled for the baker (in a 7-2 decision), but on a technicality more than on the merits of the case itself. Gorsuch, in a separate concurrence, addressed the issue head on, affirming the free expression rights of a private business owner. There is a huge difference between (a) equal access to a commodity and (b) obliging someone to do creative work. If the baker had been in violation of (a) — in other words, refusing an available service or sale to a gay person — then the baker would be in violation of discrimination laws. That wasn’t the case. The baker, rather, was refusing to create something that he does not provide, period. Gorsuch rightly affirmed the baker’s First Amendment right.

We need more Gorsuchs on the Supreme Court. It’s not that the liberal justices are necessarily bad, but they tend to be more tribal. The judiciary by its nature is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. It’s the nature of a progressive liberal to seek favorable change, but the best place for that is the legislature. The judiciary is restrictive. On issues of civil liberties, abortion rights, and separation of church and state, liberals like Ginsburg have usually ruled well, grounded in constitutional acumen and firm legal precedent. But on questions of economic liberty, and separation of the public and private sectors, the liberal justices have left much to be desired.

Conclusion

Here is Donald Trump’s report card, reflecting his presidency from January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020. The scoring is subject to change.

Peace (Foreign Policy). For keeping the U.S. out of war (an immense change from the previous 16 years), Trump deserves serious credit. Most of his policies in the Middle-East are also impressive, but must be weighed against his mediocre policies with Russia, his reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, his hideous detainment polices for migrant families, his foolish crusade for the Mexican border wall, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. All of this weighs to a score of 9.

Prosperity (Domestic Policy). For fake tax cuts, trade wars, tariffs, crony capitalism, undermining departments by appointing them lousy leaders, mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis, and torpedoing environmental progress, he almost gets a goose egg. I throw him a single point for making Obamacare non-mandatory.

Liberty (Freedom, Justice). For his anti-Constitutional authoritarianism, believing himself to be entirely above the law, threatening the press, trying to suspend habeas corpus, supporting Guantanamo Bay, opposing transgender rights, and routinely stepping on Native Americans, he gets a putrid liberty score of 4. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch alone earns him 3 points, and I graciously throw him one more for creating the task force to investigate murdered indigenous peoples.

Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 1/20
Liberty — 4/20

TOTAL SCORE = 14/60 = Very Bad

This makes Donald Trump, in my estimation, the fourth worst president in history, perched above James Buchanan, George W. Bush, and Woodrow Wilson.

Bill Maher on China: Simple Truths

Bill Maher continues to host Real Time while quarantined inside his home. And he continues to offend the PC Police for making what should be non-controversial statements. In this case, that Covid-19 is a Chinese virus, which it obviously is, but the PC police find that racist. Maher refutes the silliness with his usual wit, facts, and common sense:

Scientists — yes, scientists — have been labeling diseases after the place they came from for a very long time. Zika is from the Zika Forest; Ebola from the Ebola River; Hantavirus from the Hantan River; there’s the the West Nile Virus, Guinea Worm, and Rocky Mountain Spotty Fever; MERS stands for Middle-Eastern Respiratory Syndrome — it’s plastered all over airports, and no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?

Jesus Fucking Christ, can’t we even have a pandemic without getting offended? When they named Lyme Disease after the town in Connecticut, the locals didn’t get all ticked off. It scares me that there are people out there who would rather die from the virus than call it by the wrong name. This isn’t about vilifying a culture. This is about facts. This is about life and death. We’re barely four months into this pandemic, and the wet markets in China — the ones where exotic animals are sold and consumed — are already starting to reopen.

The PC Police say it’s racist to attack any cultural practice that’s different than our own. I say that liberalism lost its way when people started thinking like that, and pretended that forcing a woman to wear a burqa was just ‘a different way’ instead of an abhorrent human rights violation. It’s not racist to point out that eating bats is batshit crazy. In 2007, researchers at the University at Hong Kong wrote:

‘The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.’

Dr. Fauci says we should force a global closure of the wet markets, because the current crisis is a direct result of that. On Monday the UN’s acting head of biodiversity said the same thing. So when someone says, ‘What if people hear “Chinese Virus” and blame China?’, the answer is, we should blame China. We can’t stop telling the truth because racists get the wrong idea. Sorry, Americans, but we’re going to have to ask you to keep two ideas in your head at the same time.

We can’t afford the luxury anymore of ‘non-judginess’ towards a country with habits that kill millions of people. SARS came from China. And the bird flu. And the Hong Kong Flu. The Asian Flu. The next one could be even worse.

Watch the entire segment here.

Habeas Corpus: Lincoln, Bush, and Trump

The writ of habeas corpus makes it illegal for the U.S. government to confine people in jail without their being able to challenge their detention. Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, has submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of this fundamental right during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason.

Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus: Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush. Lincoln acted in the context of the Civil War (in 1861), and Bush acted in the context of the War on Terror (in 2006). Each cited “invasion” and “public safety” as justification.

Lincoln

Both Lincoln and Bush were wrong to do this, but Lincoln was the more offensive. He suspended habeas corpus unilaterally, and without congressional approval, and then defied the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Robert Taney ruled that it was congress, not the president, who had the authority to suspend habeas corpus during wartime. Lincoln ignored the highest authority in the land and did as he pleased. He also created military tribunals to try civilians who had discouraged people from enlisting in union armies. The Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civilians, and these civilians were simply exercising their free speech rights.

After the Civil War was over in 1866, the Supreme Court rejected Lincoln’s argument that as commander in chief he held emergency powers during wartime that were outside the law or the Constitution. Justice David Davis wrote: “The Constitution is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace. No doctrine, involving more pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies of government.”

There was more. Lincoln trampled on the First Amendment by shutting down newspapers, closing the mail to publications that opposed his points of view and his war policies, arresting journalists, and even physically attacking and eliminating a peace movement. Whatever one’s feeling about the Civil War, there’s no question that Lincoln prosecuted the war as a tyrant.

Bush

Bush at least had congressional backing when he suspended habeas corpus. But he still should not have done so.

Basically Bush believed that he could simply label anyone in the U.S., or elsewhere in the world, as an enemy combatant and detain them indefinitely. The bill passed by congress in 2006 (The Military Commissions Act) granted Bush virtually unlimited authority to do that — establish and conduct military commissions to try anyone who was considered an “unlawful enemy combatant” in the War on Terror, and to suspend the right of said “unlawful enemy combatants” to present court orders of habeas corpus in their own defense.

Trump

Barr’s proposal grants himself (the attorney general) and Trump the power to ask any chief judge to hold a citizen, “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.” What qualifies as “disobedience” or “emergency” is left completely to the attorney general. So he and Trump would be able to hold any American citizen — man, woman or child of any age — indefinitely at their own discretion, without trial, for any reason, whether related to Covid-19 or not.

I cringe at the thought of habeas corpus being suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberties, it could also be a stepping stone to martial law — which under Donald Trump is something anyone in their right mind should be concerned about.