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Trump secures his place as the nation's worst ever president

Our worst-presidents-in-history lists "need to be recalibrated now to account for the new undisputed king of that category."
President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Feb 7, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Imagesfile

In 1993, my family took me to the movies for my birthday. We saw Dave, a political comedy about an average guy who sort of becomes president due to an unfortunate accident.

Watching the movie, it's hard not to root for Kevin Kline's character, but it's also hard not to imagine what would happen if such an experiment happened in real life. What if there was someone in the Oval Office, behind the Resolute Desk, who had no idea what he was doing? Who had had literally no background in government, politics, public policy, or public service of any kind? Who had none of the requisite presidential skills? What would happen?

In the film, Klein's Dave Kovic did his best to get by, largely because he wanted to succeed. The fictional faux president's heart was in the right place, and he was determined to do the right thing during his limited time in the seat of power.

But what if his heart wasn't in the right place? What if there were an accidental president -- with no relevant experience and no meaningful understanding of the job -- who didn't care about doing the right thing? What if such a president were a corrupt, malignant narcissist whose sole focus was his own self interests?

Well, that would be a national disaster.

Trying to overlay fictional narratives over real-world events is inherently tricky, but it's easy to see Donald Trump as the anti-Dave. They were both unprepared for the presidency, but only one was aware of it. They were both in over their heads, but only one had sincere, selfless motivations.

In the film, viewers saw a strained fantastical experiment. In the United States over the last four years, Americans saw a failed political experiment, culminating in the nation's worst-ever president.

A few years ago, members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked each of the American presidents from best to worst. Trump had only been in office for 13 months, but even at the time, the scholars agreed he was on track to be the worst of all time.

They were clearly onto something.

The United States has had some extraordinary presidents and giants of history who led effectively through good times and bad. The country has also had some dreadful presidents whom many would prefer to forget. The latter group is relatively diverse in its failures: some were corrupt, others ignorant. Some suffered humiliating failures, while others failed to try.

But as Tim Naftali, an NYU historian, explained this week in a piece for The Atlantic, Trump is unique in his horribleness.

There are many verdicts on Donald Trump still to come, from the Senate, from juries of private citizens, from scholars and historians. But as a result of his subversion of national security, his reckless endangerment of every American in the pandemic, and his failed insurrection on January 6, one thing seems abundantly clear: Trump is the worst president in the 232-year history of the United States.

What makes Trump such an extraordinary failure is the scope and scale of his ignominy. He was corrupt. And ignorant. And mendacious. And indifferent in the face of crises. And eager to pit Americans against each other. And a genuine threat to our system of government.

Americans have had presidents who embodied some of these, but only Trump checked every box.

As Rachel noted on last night's show, our worst-presidents-in-history lists "need to be recalibrated now to account for the new undisputed king of that category."