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CU Historian Looks Back on "Worst President Ever" Donald Trump

Donald Trump during a 2016 campaign appearance in Denver.
Donald Trump during a 2016 campaign appearance in Denver.
Photo by Brandon Marshall

At this point in the electoral process, the continuing refusal of Donald Trump to concede to President-elect Joe Biden calls to mind a classic song by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks: "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"

Nonetheless, University of Colorado Boulder professor Thomas Zeiler firmly believes that Trump's presidency is history — and because that's his academic specialty (he's the former head of CU Boulder's history department and currently directs the international affairs program), he knows whereof he speaks.

Yet Zeiler also admits that Trump's time in office has surprised him in at least one substantial way. While the professor went on record early in predicting that Trump would be a terrible president, and later dubbed him the lousiest American commander-in-chief ever, he acknowledges that he didn't expect just how bad Trump would be.

"It did get worse," Zeiler says. "I never thought he'd grow into the job. I thought he'd continue being Donald Trump, because he's not a very educated or smart guy. But at some point, I thought the position might stop overwhelming him and he would look with some pride at being the leader of the country — especially when the pandemic hit and he called himself a wartime president. But by his very nature, he wasn't capable of that, and he proved to be incompetent in so many ways."

In 2017, prior to Trump's inauguration, Zeiler helped coordinate a Westword survey of colleagues in the CU Boulder history department about the worst presidents of all time and Trump's chances of joining the list. At the time, Zeiler thought Trump had excellent odds of doing so — and while historians typically prefer to let plenty of time pass before coming to a definitive determination, he told us a year later that Trump had already achieved this discreditable goal.

Nothing that's happened since then has changed his mind. He references Biden's comment "Man, you're the worst president in history" during the pair's initial debate, which "turned off so many people I know who were more likely to vote for him," Zeiler says. "That was really the clincher."

Donald Trump during another 2016 Colorado appearance.
Donald Trump during another 2016 Colorado appearance.
Photo by Brandon Marshall

The reasons for this conclusion are many, he says, including "things we discovered about kids in cages and the silly overtures to the North Korean dictator." Zeiler also thinks that Trump's impeachment left a mark: "He wasn't chased from office, and I know his side says 'That was all politics' and talk about unfair treatment. But there was legal justification to impeach him."

Zeiler also feels that Trump was more interested in accruing power than buckling down and doing the job for which he was chosen. "Most presidents go gray, and maybe he did; I don't know the real color of his hair," he notes. "And I think he gets stressed and outraged on a personal level when he'd see things he doesn't like on CNN. But I think Barack Obama is right: He didn't take this seriously. Believe me, there are several recent presidents that I didn't agree with anything they did, but they all took it seriously, and he didn't. That was good for his health, but it wasn't good for the country."

Still, Zeiler suggests that Trump's response to the novel coronavirus is what will define his legacy. Granted, that didn't happen for Woodrow Wilson despite the 1918 rise of the Spanish influenza, which killed approximately 675,000 Americans during his watch. In Zeiler's view, Wilson hasn't been downgraded as severely as he might have been, because the country was embroiled in fighting World War I, his own health was compromised (he suffered a stroke in 1919), and medical knowledge was much more primitive then than it is today. "It's a different era," he says, "and it brought down Trump's presidency."

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Right now, Trump shows no signs of leaving the White House. But Zeiler doubts that we'll see him being frog-marched out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January 20. "Donald Trump blusters and bloviates and talks loudly, and then he backs off. He's basically a wimp at heart, and he knows it. Republicans are saying, 'You need to look through this election and make sure it's fair,' and they're not really losing anything by doing that," he says. "My guess is that once the courts weigh in and say there's no credibility to any of these cases, it will deflate everything."

Likewise, he's optimistic that Trump's shadow will not prove to be as long as some of his critics fear. "It's a bit like Joe McCarthy," he maintains. "He died three years after those Army hearings, and before he did, he got censured by the Senate — and even the senators in his own party got brave."

Zeiler doesn't predict similar courage from Trump's legislative supporters, however. "I think they'll just be quiet," he says.

How many will miss Trump when he's finally gone is another question entirely.

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