America has elected a lot of presidents over the years. Some of those presidents are universally loved or widely hated today. But many of them fall somewhere in between. Similarly, there’s always disagreement over who qualifies as the worst presidents in American history. The controversy may have something to do with politics, especially when more recent presidents enter the picture. But some presidents were truly terrible people. And some historians contend that the very worst presidents all had a shocking personality trait in common.
Read on to learn exactly which personality trait America’s worst presidents have shared. And don’t miss the chance to see whether Donald Trump has that personality trait, too, on page 14.
What personality trait did the worst presidents have in common?
There are as many ways to rank the worst presidents in American history as there are ideas about what qualities are most important in a president, or how you can judge an administration’s success. But many historians have looked for a nonpartisan way to evaluate them.
As Alternet reports, one way to do that is to look at which presidents have caused the most harm to other people, as well as the intent behind their actions. Applying that logic, the one personality trait that the worst presidents all had in common was inhumanity: the kind of cruel behavior that has ultimately made presidents responsible for genocide, atomic warfare, and other senseless deaths during their time in the White House and beyond.
Next: Here’s are the worst presidents in American history, and how they displayed their inhumanity while in office.
12. Andrew Johnson
Alternet reports that Andrew Johnson lands in twelfth place among the worst presidents in American history. Johnson displayed his inhumanity by pardoning former confederates and, according to Alternet, blocking the prosecution of murders committed during Reconstruction. He did nothing to stop southern states from enforcing “Black codes,” and vetoed legislation aimed at protecting black Americans.
Johnson even tried to get southern states not to ratify the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to black people. As CBS puts its, Johnsons’ actions revealed “an astonishing indifference toward the plight of the newly freed African-Americans.” And inhumanity enabled Johnson to “turn a blind eye to southerners who tried to undo what the Civil War had accomplished.”
Next: This recent president is responsible for numerous deaths that could have been avoided.
11. George W. Bush
Alternet puts George W. Bush in eleventh place among the worst presidents in part because of his administration’s use of torture against terrorism suspects. The publication also cites the numerous deaths caused by “incompetence and ideological blindness in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars,” the largely preventable death toll of Hurricane Katrina, and Bush’s role in blocking a chemical warfare treaty and nuclear free zone in the middle east.
CBS notes that even during Bush’s presidency, historians found it difficult not to pass judgments about the long-term consequences of his more inhumane actions.
Next: This president started an unjustified war.
10. William McKinley
Next on the list of the worst presidents? William McKinley. Alternet cites McKinley’s choice to start a “war of aggression” in the Philippines and his failure to stop atrocities from being committed during that war. The publication also cites McKinley’s seizures of Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Samoa as further evidence of his inhumanity.
CBS notes that several historians emphasize “sins of commission” when they rank the worst presidents. To those historians and others, McKinley’s “savage and unjustified war in the Philippines” is a major offense.
Next: This president attracts criticism for needless violence against civilians.
9. Harry S. Truman
Another president whose inhumane acts land him on the list of the worst presidents? Harry S. Truman. Alternet cites Truman’s choice to engage in atomic warfare targeting Japanese civilians as one of his worst offenses. Truman also chose to engage in chemical warfare, using napalm, during the Korean War.
Other acts that make historians question Truman’s sense of morality? His choice to target civilians during World War II, his use of atomic bomb testing on Pacific Islanders, and his partial responsibility for starting the Cold War.
Next: This president turned the other way when genocide happened elsewhere in the world.
8. Gerald Ford
Alternet puts Gerald Ford in eighth place on the list of the worst presidents. Ford ignored genocide in East Timor. In fact, The New York Times notes that U.S. political and military support “for Indonesia was vital to its ability to invade East Timor in December 1975 and to sustain a brutal 24-year occupation that cost the lives of at least 100,000 people.”
Ford also continued Operation Condor, which had begun under Richard Nixon. Need a refresher on that particular episode of American history? Al Jazeera characterizes Operation Condor as a “coordinated campaign” among six South American military dictatorships “to kill political dissidents across Latin America in the 1970s, all with the knowledge of the U.S.”
Next: This recent president also ignored genocide.
7. Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton lands in seventh place on Alternet’s list of the worst presidents thanks to his choice to ignore Rwandan genocide. “Even Clinton admits 300,000 could have been saved,” Alternet reports. And The Washington Post notes that “It is not that the U.S. government didn’t know what was happening in Rwanda. The truth is that we didn’t care.”
According to Alternet, Clinton also showed incompetence that had deadly consequences in the Somalia invasion and Branch Davidian standoff, further increasing the number of deaths for which critics hold Clinton responsible.
Next: This early president ignored genocide right in America.
6. Millard Fillmore
As we approach the top five worst presidents of all time, Alternet puts Millard Fillmore in sixth place. Fillmore ignored the genocide of Native Americans happening in California. As History reports, “In just 20 years, 80 percent of California’s Native Americans were wiped out.”
History explains, “though some died because of the seizure of their land or diseases caught from new settlers, between 9,000 and 16,000 were murdered in cold blood—the victims of a policy of genocide sponsored by the state of California and gleefully assisted by its newest citizens.” Alternet cites “being a presidential candidate for Know Nothing terrorism” as another of Fillmore’s worst offenses.
Next: This president made the California genocide possible — and provoked a war, too.
5. James Polk
James Polk lands in fifth place on Alternet’s list of the worst presidents thanks to the inhumanity he showed in enabling the California genocide of Native Americans. Additionally, Polk provoked a war between the United States and Mexico, expanded slavery, and even partially contributed to the advent of the Civil War.
Additionally, the Miller Center reports that “Polk’s critics accuse him of being too partisan to understand the dangerous depth of the emotions that might erupt over the expansion of slavery westward. ” He left the U.S. facing a crisis that “would progressively tear the nation apart in the twelve years between 1848 and 1860.”
Next: This president ignored the California genocide and worsened the Civil War.
4. James Buchanan
Alternet puts James Buchanan in fourth place among the worst presidents in American history. The publication cites the inhumanity of Buchanan’s choice to ignore the California genocide, and the way he worsened the Civil War as a result of his incompetence.
CBS notes that Buchanan “rejected slavery as an indefensible evil but, like the majority of his party, refused to challenge the constitutionally established order.” The publication cites Buchanan’s “weak acquiescence before the secessionist tide” as his major shortcoming — one that demonstrates the inhumanity he shared with many others among the worst presidents.
Next: This president perpetrated his own genocide.
3. Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson lands in third place among the worst presidents of all time. Alternet points to the inhumanity of Jackson’s genocide against the Five Tribes, as well as his status as a slave trader.
The Miller Center reports that Jackson’s “aggressive Indian removal policy and his espousal of cheaper western land prices reflected his nationalism’s grounding in the southwestern frontier.” The group also notes that he “indulged in violent hatreds, and the extent to which his political positions reflected mere personal animus is still debated.”
Next: This recent president is responsible for many deaths, too.
2. Ronald Reagan
According to Alternet, Ronald Reagan is the second worst president in American history. The publication reports that Reagan is responsible for “mass deaths by collaborating with genocide in Guatemala, U.S. sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua, supporting repression in El Salvador and Honduras, US bombing El Salvador, and invasion of Grenada.”
Additionally, the Reagan administration provided intelligence to Iraq while secretly permitting the sale of American-made weapons to Baghdad, helping Iraq avert defeat and eventually grow into the power that would invade Kuwait and spark the Persian Gulf war.
Next: This president had a role in genocide, torture, and chemical warfare.
1. Richard Nixon
As for the very worst, most inhumane president in American history? That would be Richard Nixon, according to Alternet. The publication cites Nixon’s role in “the U.S.-directed Cambodian genocide, leading to the Khmer Rouge genocide,” his oversight of “the latter half of the Phoenix Program of mass torture,” the overthrow of the Chilean government, and the use of chemical warfare with Agent Orange and napalm in the Vietnam war.
Nixon also ignored the Bengali genocide, pardoned William Calley, and was responsible for mass deaths under Operation Condor. Alternet reports that Nixon should also be held responsible for “mass deaths by ideological blindness” in the Vietnam War.
Next: Does Donald Trump have the personality trait that the worst presidents all share?
Does Donald Trump have this personality trait, too?
So does Donald Trump have the same kind of inhumanity that rendered previous presidents indifferent to slavery, genocide, and other atrocities? Like any other question about Donald Trump, your convictions on the matter probably depend on your politics. But experts have said some alarming things about Trump’s personality and influence.
The Baltimore Sun notes that Trump has compelled ordinary people in the federal government to carry out inhumane acts to enforce his policies. Quartz characterizes Trump’s cruelty as a force that has “emboldened the idea that violence is the only viable political response to social problems, and in doing so normalize[d] violence.” And a Hoover Institution fellow writes in The Atlantic that Trump shares many of the personality traits of the worst presidents, even if inhumanity doesn’t explicitly number among them:
Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.
Next: Which presidents didn’t have this personality trait?
So who makes the list of the best presidents?
Alternet argues that while the list of the worst presidents is long, the ranks of the best presidents are quite small. The publication contends that for a president to truly qualify as one of the best, “the number of lives saved must greatly outweigh any failures that led to preventable deaths” under his administration. So who makes the list of the best presidents?
Abraham Lincoln does, thanks to his emancipation of black slaves and Native American slaves in California. So does Martin Van Buren, who delayed the California genocide and avoided war with Britain and Mexico. Alternet also places Jimmy Carter on the list thanks to the Camp David Accords, and human rights policies that helped end the Cold War sooner. And finally, Ulysses S. Grant makes the list due to his peace policy to reduce battles between the U.S. Army and native Americans, plus his crackdown on KKK violence in Georgia and South Carolina.
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