As President Donald Trump’s days in the White House are increasingly numbered, the conversation has begun to turn to one of legacy: How will history remember Trump’s four years in office?
The early returns, as you might guess, are deeply divided.
A total of 48% in a Fox News poll released over the weekend rated Trump as somewhere between “average” and “one of the country’s greatest presidents.”
A very similar 50% said that Trump will down in history as somewhere between “below average” and “one of the country’s worst presidents.”
What’s most interesting – at least to me – is the extremes, the people who say Trump is either in the pantheon of the greatest presidents or among the lowest of the low as the worst presidents. And while I am not terribly surprised that 42% of Americans think Trump will be among the worst presidents ever (strong opposition to this president has been the one constant of his time in office), I was somewhat struck by the fact that more than 1 in 5 people (22%) believe that Trump will be remembered as one of the greatest presidents in American history.
After all, Trump, inarguably, botched the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. He weaponized race for his own political purposes, worsening the already-raw divides in the country. His entire term was clouded by a series of guilty pleas and convictions of people who, at some point over the last five years, have been in Trump’s inner circle. The economy, which was Trump’s crowning jewel before Covid-19, appears to be in a very slow recovery from the depths of the spring. And, since the election, he has engaged in an all-out assault on the foundational pillars of our democracy.
And yet, despite all of that, more than 1 in 5 of our fellow Americans believe that Trump will be remembered as on of the country’s greatest presidents.
So, who are these people? A look into the guts of the Fox News poll gives us some clues:
* 29% of white men believe Trump will go down as one of the country’s greatest presidents.
* 49% of 2020 Trump voters say the same as do 44% of self-identified Republicans.
* 36% of white evangelicals think Trump will be rated as one of the best presidents.
These numbers, of course, gibe broadly speaking with the core of Trump’s core base. And are yet more evidence that Trump’s command over his base is more powerful than any GOP politician we have seen in a very long time. They don’t just think he deserves a second term; they think Trump is a historically great president.
Which, of course, echoes Trump’s own view of his presidency.
“I would give myself an A+,” Trump told “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace in November 2018.
And, just days before the 2020 election, Trump told a campaign crowd in Pennsylvania this:
“You know we’re the party of Abraham Lincoln, a lot of people don’t know that. The great Abraham Lincoln, a man that I’ve always competed against. I said, ‘I can be more presidential than any president ever, except for the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln when he’s wearing the hat.’”
While how Trump will be viewed in the light of history is something we can’t know right now – consider how George W. Bush looked when he left office in 2009 versus how he is perceived today – there’s lots of data to suggest he probably isn’t going to end up in the conversation as one of the best leaders America has ever had.
A 2018 survey of political historians by the American Political Science Association rated Trump as the single worst president ever. A Siena College poll of presidential experts that same year had Trump third from the bottom.
“The average ranking for presidents who win a second term is 14th. That’s well above average given we’ve had 44 presidents. None ranked lower than 32nd (George W. Bush). The best was the top spot overall (George Washington).
“The average for presidents who did not win a second term is 30th. That’s well below average. None of the presidents who didn’t have a second term ranked higher than 13th (John Kennedy, who was assassinated). The worst was last overall (James Buchanan).”
Trump, as you may know, did not win a second term. Which means, if past is prologue, he’s headed for the bottom half of the presidential rankings. Which will undoubtedly disappoint the 22% of Americans who believe he should be up near the top alongside Lincoln, Washington and FDR.