Great presidents? Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman rank high while Donald Trump sits near the bottom.
Starting in the year 2000, at the end of each presidential term, C-SPAN conducts a well-respected survey of presidential historians that ranks the presidents from best to worst. The eagerly anticipated results of the fourth survey were recently released and have garnered attention due to Donald Trump's inclusion.
But other changes in rankings have also raised some eyebrows.
First, how did Trump do? Not very well. The 142 historians surveyed ranked him as tied with Franklin Pierce as the third-worst president in U.S. history. Only Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan scored lower.
At the top of the list are, in order of ranking, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy. Two newcomers rose a few spots from the 2017 survey to break the top 10: Ronald Reagan is No. 9 and Barack Obama is No. 10.
Two presidents have had dramatic changes in their fortunes over the four surveys. Ulysses Grant, long-thought of as a disaster as a chief executive, now comes in at No. 20, a big jump from his No. 33 spot in 2000.
Andrew Jackson has gone the opposite direction, moving from No. 13 in 2000 to No. 22 in 2021. How did this happen? For General Grant, there has been a recent re-examination of his progressive outlook toward African-Americans, Native Americans and civil rights, and he is being given more credit for his policies during Reconstruction.
It also helps that reports of his frequently being drunk in office have been debunked.
Andrew Jackson — a longtime American icon — has come under increased historical scrutiny for his dedication to the institution of slavery as well as the abhorrent policies directed at Native Americans during his administration.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump, who scored very low in such categories as “moral authority,” “administrative skills,” “performance within the context of the times” and “pursued equal justice for all.” His highest score, 30, was in the category of “public persuasion,” no doubt because he was able to garner 47% of the vote in the 2020 election.
Trump is an avowed admirer of Andrew Jackson, praising him often on Twitter and hanging his portrait in the Oval Office. This affinity makes sense, as some of the traits that make Jackson a controversial figure also contribute to Trump’s low ranking.
Obviously, we don’t have recordings of Jackson speaking, but read this description of him, written by Alexis de Tocqueville when Jackson was in office: “General Jackson is the agent of the state jealousies; and he was placed in his lofty station by the passions that are most opposed to the central government. It is by perpetually flattering these passions that he maintains his station and his popularity.”
The phrase “perpetually flattering these passions” is actually an apt description of Trump’s use of Twitter, rallies, and other public appearances to deride, heckle, target and mock those who do not abide him.
It also neatly portrays his continued stoking of election-fraud claims long after such allegations have been debunked by his own Justice Department.
In contrast, Kansas’ Dwight Eisenhower is ranked as one of the top five presidents, due partly to his calm, steady leadership during difficult times.
Such positive traits are timeless but seem to be less valued now by many in America. Let’s hope they return to prominence soon.