By Max Boot for The Washington Post
Until now, I have generally been reluctant to label Donald Trump the worst president in U.S. history. As a historian, I know how important it is to allow the passage of time to gain a sense of perspective. Some presidents who seemed awful to contemporaries (Harry S. Truman) or simply lackluster (Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush) look much better in retrospect. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, don’t look as good as they once did.
So I have written, as I did on March 12, that Trump is the worst president in modern times — not of all time. That left open the possibility that James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding or some other nonentity would be judged more harshly. But in the past month, we have seen enough to take away the qualifier “in modern times.” With his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus, Trump has established himself as the worst president in U.S. history.
His one major competitor for that dubious distinction remains Buchanan, whose dithering helped lead us into the Civil War — the deadliest conflict in U.S. history. Buchanan may still be the biggest loser. But there is good reason to think that the Civil War would have broken out no matter what. By contrast, there is nothing inevitable about the scale of the disaster we now confront.
The situation is so dire, it is hard to wrap your mind around it. The Atlantic notes: “During the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the economy suffered a net loss of approximately 9 million jobs. The pandemic recession has seen nearly 10 million unemployment claims in just two weeks.” The New York Times estimates that the unemployment rate is now about 13 percent, the highest since the Great Depression ended 80 years ago.
Far worse is the human carnage. We already have more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country. Trump claimed on Feb. 26 that the outbreak would soon be “down to close to zero.” Now he argues that if the death toll is 100,000 to 200,000 — higher than the U.S. fatalities in all of our wars combined since 1945 — it will be proof that he’s done “a very good job.”
No, it will be a sign that he’s a miserable failure, because the coronavirus is the most foreseeable catastrophe in U.S. history. The warnings about the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks were obvious only in retrospect. This time, it didn’t require any top-secret intelligence to see what was coming. The alarm was sounded in January by experts in the media and by leading Democrats including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Government officials were delivering similar warnings directly to Trump. A team of Post reporters wrote on Saturday: “The Trump administration received its first formal notification of the outbreak of the coronavirus in China on Jan. 3. Within days, U.S. spy agencies were signaling the seriousness of the threat to Trump by including a warning about the coronavirus —the first of many—in the President’s Daily Brief.” But Trump wasn’t listening.
The Post article is the most thorough dissection of Trump’s failure to prepare for the gathering storm. Trump was first briefed on the coronavirus by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 18. But, The Post writes, “Azar told several associates that the president believed he was ‘alarmist’ and Azar struggled to get Trump’s attention to focus on the issue.” When Trump was first asked publicly about the virus, on Jan. 22, he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China.”
In the days and weeks after Azar alerted him about the virus, Trump spoke at eight rallies and golfed six times as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Trump’s failure to focus, The Post notes, “sowed significant public confusion and contradicted the urgent messages of public health experts.” It also allowed bureaucratic snafus to go unaddressed — including critical failures to roll out enough tests or to stockpile enough protective equipment and ventilators.
Countries as diverse as Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, South Korea, Georgia and Germany have done far better — and will suffer far less. South Korea and the United States discovered their first cases on the same day. South Korea now has 183 dead — or 4 deaths per 1 million people. The U.S. death ratio (25 per 1 million) is six times worse — and rising quickly.
This fiasco is so monumental that it makes our recent failed presidents — George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — Mount Rushmore material by comparison. Trump’s Friday night announcement that he’s firing the intelligence community inspector general who exposed his attempted extortion of Ukraine shows that he combines the ineptitude of a George W. Bush or a Carter with the corruption of Richard Nixon.
Trump is characteristically working hardest at blaming others — China, the media, governors, President Barack Obama, the Democratic impeachment managers, everyone but his golf caddie — for his blunders. His mantra is: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” It remains to be seen whether voters will buy his excuses. But whatever happens in November, Trump cannot escape the pitiless judgment of history.
Somewhere, a relieved James Buchanan must be smiling.
Max Boot, Columnist Covering National Security
Education: University of California at Berkeley, BA in history; Yale University, MA in history
Max Boot is a historian, best-selling author and foreign-policy analyst who has been called one of the “world’s leading authorities on armed conflict” by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a columnist for The Washington Post and a global affairs analyst for CNN.
Max Boot’s latest work of history, “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam” (Norton/Liveright, 2018), was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography. It was praised as an “epic and elegant biography” (Wall Street Journal), “judicious and absorbing” (New York Times) and “a superb scholarly achievement” (Foreign Policy).
Max Boot was the author of another book released by Norton/Liveright in 2018 — “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right” — which was described as a “devastating dissection of conservatism’s degeneracy in America” by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine and as “soul-searching” and “refreshing” by the New York Times.
Boot is also the author of three previous books that were all widely acclaimed: the New York Times bestseller “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present” (W.W. Norton & Co./Liveright, 2013), which the Wall Street Journal said “is destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest as well as the hardest form of war”; “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today” (Gotham Books, 2006), which was hailed as a “magisterial survey of technology and war” by the New York Times; and “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power” (Basic Books, 2002), which won the 2003 General Wallace M. Greene Jr. Award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation as the best nonfiction book pertaining to Marine Corps history and has been placed on Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy professional reading lists.
Boot was a senior foreign policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2007-2008, Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2011–2012, and Marco Rubio’s campaign in 2015-2016. He served as an adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has lectured on behalf of the U.S. State Department and at many military institutions, including the Army, Navy and Air War Colleges, the Australian Defense College, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School, West Point and the Naval Academy. I
In 2018, Boot was named one of America’s “Great Immigrants” by the Carnegie Corporation and one of the 50 most influential Jewish Americans by the Forward newspaper. In 2007, he won the Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism, given annually to a writer who exhibits “love of country and its democratic institutions” and “bears witness to the evils of totalitarianism.” In 2004, he was named by the World Affairs Councils of America as one of “the 500 most influential people in the United States in the field of foreign policy.” Before joining the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002, Boot spent eight years as a writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal, the last five as op-ed editor. From 1992 to 1994 he was an editor and writer at the Christian Science Monitor.
In more recent years, Boot has been a columnist for Foreign Policy, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times, a member of the USA Today board of contributors and a regular contributor to many other publications, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He serves on the boards of Intelligence Squared US and the Renew Democracy Initiative. Boot holds a bachelor’s degree in history, with high honors, from the University of California at Berkeley (1991) and a master’s degree in history from Yale University (1992). He was born in Moscow, grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in the New York area.
Honors & Awards:
- Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography, 2019
- Named one of America’s “Great Immigrants” by the Carnegie Corp., 2019
- Named one of the 50 most influential Jewish Americans by the Forward, 2018
- Eric Breindel Award for Excellence in Opinion Journalism, 2007
- Named one the 50 most influential Americans in foreign policy by the World Affairs Council of America, 2004
Books by Max Boot:
- The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
- Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present
- War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today
- The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power
- The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right
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244,000+ confirmed coronavirus cases.
10,448,000+ unemployment claims in March.
This is the tragic cost of Trump’s chaotic, incompetent coronavirus response. pic.twitter.com/TjrYakBSXN
— CAP Action (@CAPAction) April 3, 2020
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