We've heard about low ratings, and we've read column after column about how Trump is debasing the office of the American presidency. However, The New York Times has just done a poll that reveals that it's not just the general American public who rates Trump at the bottom of the scale. Political science scholars agree that Trump's presidential ranking means he might be the worst president in American history — though he's got some serious competition for that title.
After all, the U.S. has seen one president die after only being in office for a matter of weeks. Another led the country into civil war. Another basically got impeached just for being terrible — and yet, scholars across the political spectrum agree that Trump is the worst.
If you break down the scholars posed by political affiliation, then there is slightly more variation. While scholars who identified themselves as Democrats had him at the bottom of the pile and independents have him one spot from the bottom, those who said that they were Republicans put him at 40th out of 44 (yes, Trump is the 45th president, but there are only 44 on the list because Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th president). While that isn't a compliment on the best of days, the presidents who they ranked below Trump give you a sense of how bad even Republican scholars think he is.
Short answer, Republicans didn't put Obama at the bottom — you'll find him at 16th even on the poll of Republicans, as opposed to 12th for independents and 6th for Democrats.
Instead, Republican scholars rank only these four men lower than Trump: Andrew Johnson, whose handling of Reconstruction got him impeached; Franklin Pierce, who championed the piece of legislation that eventually led to the Civil War; William Henry Harrison, who died exactly a month into his first term; and the often derided James Buchanan, who basically sat by and didn't worry about slavery as the nation inched closer to the Civil War. Independent scholars have Buchanan at the very bottom, and Democratic scholars have him at 43rd.
While Trump hasn't presided over the country as it entered civil war — yet — he has led an exceptionally divided nation and his own actions and words have largely enflamed divisive sentiments rather calmed them. He's also approached the presidency in a much different way than any other president before him, in terms of everything from foreign policy to addressing the American public, which could be one reason that scholars of the American presidency haven't rated him kindly.
At least one prominent voice, Nate Silver of the statistics blog FiveThirtyEight has said that political scientists' decision to rank Trump so low reflects poorly on their academic field, as it's proven difficult to put recent presidents and their achievements in context. George W. Bush, Silver notes, saw one of the most significant rises in this ranking — he rose five spots, to end up at 35th place.
However, the ranking doesn't come out of nowhere. Trump has also achieved the lowest popularity ratings of any president in multiple polls at different times in his still-young presidency. After his first 100 days in office, a Gallup poll notched his approval rating at a historically low 41 percent. After his waffling response to the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, Trump beat his own low point with an approval ranking of 34 percent. All of the most recent polls have his approval rating between 38 and 42 percent — far from a ringing endorsement of the American people.
On the sliver of a bright side, this means that Trump has a lot of room for improvement, in the eyes of both the academic community and the general public. The question of whether he'll actually improve, however, will remain unanswered for now.