News & Politics

Robert Reich: Is Donald Trump the Worst President in American History?

We've had our share of crooks, bigots and incompetents, but never all three at once.

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America has had its share of crooks (Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon), bigots (Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan), and incompetents (Andrew Johnson, George W. Bush). But never before Donald Trump have we had a president who combined all these nefarious qualities.

America’s great good fortune was to begin with the opposite – a superb moral leader. By June of 1775, when congress appointed George Washington to command the nation’s army, he had already “become a moral rallying post,” as his biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, described him. He was,“the embodiment of the purpose, the patience, and the determination necessary for the triumph of the revolutionary cause.” 

Washington won the war and then led the fledgling nation “by directness, by deference, and by manifest dedication to duty.”  

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A president’s most fundamental legal and moral responsibility is to uphold and protect our system of government. Donald Trump has degraded that system.

When he threatens to loosen federal libel laws so he can sue news organizations that are critical of him and revoke licenses of networks critical of him, he isn’t just bullying the media. He’s threatening the constitutionally guaranteed freedom and integrity of the press.

When he equated Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, by blaming “both sides” for the violence, he wasn’t being neutral. He was condoning white supremacists, thereby undermining the constitution’s guarantee of equal rights.

When he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, for a criminal contempt conviction, he wasn’t just signaling it’s okay for the police to engage in violations of civil rights. He was also subverting the rule of law by impairing the judiciary’s power to force public officials to abide by court decisions.

When he criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, he wasn’t just demanding they demonstrate their patriotism. He was disrespecting their – and, indirectly, everyone’s – freedom of speech.

When he berates the intelligence agencies and the federal bureau of investigation, he isn’t just questioning their competence. He’s suggesting they’re engaged in a giant conspiracy to remove him from office – potentially inviting his most ardent supporters to engage in a new civil war.

When he boasts that he made up information in a meeting with the prime minister of Canada, he isn’t just undermining his own credibility. He’s undermining the credibility of the united states in the eyes of the world. 

Donald Trump is degrading the core institutions and values of our democracy.  

But America is fighting back. 

In Alabama, voters turned out in droves to elect a Democrat to the senate for the first time in 25 years. In Pennsylvania, Republicans lost control of a congressional district that went for Trump by nearly 20 percentage points. Since Trump took office, Democrats have flipped 39 Republican-held state legislative seats.

The 2018 midterm elections are approaching. It’s up to all of us to keep up the momentum. In the face of the worst president in history, we are at our best when striving to strengthen our democracy. 

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Reich's documentary, "Saving Capitalism," is streaming on Netflix. His latest book, "The Common Good," is available in bookstores now.