Wayne O'Leary

The Worst Administration of All Time?

We’re currently in the midst of a grand national experiment to determine if the Trump administration can lay claim to the coveted title of worst in American history. It faces strong competition: the Grant administration of the 1870s and the Harding administration of the 1920s have long occupied the top two slots. But the Trump gang is coming up on the outside and closing fast.

It’s not necessary for the man occupying the White House to personify corruption or incompetence for his government to take the booby prize in this dubious contest. Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th president (1869-76), was personally honest and reasonably intelligent; his wartime memoir, edited by his friend Mark Twain, is considered a classic among military narratives.

Nevertheless, Grant was politically naïve and a lax, inattentive administrator. Graft and corruption ran rampant throughout government during his time in office, which encompassed the freewheeling era of the Robber Barons (whose business acumen he admired), eventually implicating cabinet members and even his private secretary. Grant himself reportedly placed 42 of his relatives on the federal payroll, a record of nepotism aspirant Donald Trump will be hard-pressed to match.

If Grant, onetime commander of the Union armies, was theoretically fit for the job of president despite his flaws, Warren G. Harding, the 29th president (1921-23), was not. A small-town journalist and Ohio senator, with a handsome profile, an affable personality, and not much else, Harding was picked by Republican party bosses as someone they could direct and manipulate, which they did. From the start, he was in over his head.

Harding, it was said, possessed an “adjustable conscience” that could be altered to fit the circumstances. His main political attribute was an impressively sonorous speaking style. Contemporary William Gibbs McAdoo, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the Treasury, described Harding on the stump this way: “His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.” (Sounds uncannily Trump-like.)

One of Harding’s ideas was to appoint aluminum magnate Andrew W. Mellon to head the Treasury. Mellon, America’s second-richest man at the time, pushed through the largest income-tax cuts for people like himself prior to the Reagan years; it was he who first sold Republicans on the belief in tax cuts for the rich that has become their guiding principle down to the Trump era.

Others in the sleazy Harding retinue included Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, Attorney General Harry M. Dougherty, and Veterans’ Bureau head Charles R. Forbes, all of whom were tried for fraud or bribery in connection with scandals in their departments. Fall and Forbes eventually served jail time. Most famous of the scandals was Teapot Dome, which involved the leasing (without competitive bidding) of naval oil-reserve lands controlled by the Interior Department to private oil interests, in exchange for under-the-table payoffs. The clueless Harding was perhaps fortunate to die in office before the details came to light.

The Trump administration clearly has competition to overcome in any historical race to the bottom. Regardless, it has the makings. Like those of Grant and Harding, the Trump government is a government of, by, and for unscrupulous business interests; it proudly proclaims its preference for crony capitalism over democracy and celebrates acquisitiveness above all else. And, like its predecessors, it’s headed by an individual who can’t be bothered with the complicated ethics of government, defers to the more extremist ideological elements in his cabinet and the Congress, and serves as a convenient distraction from those in his party with selfish agendas antithetical to the public interest.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump reign will be short-circuited through its own hubris, cynicism, and openness to quasi-legal practices. But its familiar cast of characters suggests a reckoning is in the cards.

Most everyone knows about the president’s feet of clay: his unwillingness to divest himself of business holdings leading to conflicts of interest, his apparent violation of the “emoluments clause” in Article I, section 9 of the Constitution regarding improper payments from foreign governments, his refusal to release his tax statements. The similar behavior of his extended family, the assorted Kushners and Trumps, in refusing to divest while using government positions and connections to enrich themselves overseas is already scandalous, entwining them with, among others, foreign banks and Chinese real-estate investors.

That’s only the start. Meet Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former orthopedic surgeon who, as Georgia congressman, traded in biomedical, pharmaceutical, and health-insurance stocks while pursing federal legislation directly beneficial to the companies in his investment portfolio. At the time of his appointment, the new HHS chief held shares in 43 health-related firms, whose lobbyists gave him thousands in campaign contributions prior to 2016.

Then, there’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an enthusiastic supporter of predatory for-profit charter schools and colleges, whose family investment firm has holdings in companies that refinance student loans and market educational products, including digital textbooks and online charters. What could go wrong?

Or consider Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, banker, financier, hedge-fund and equity-fund manager, and Goldman Sachs alum, who made his tainted money (held in the Caymans) buying and selling distressed properties, foreclosing subprime loans on struggling homeowners (50,000 of them) during the Great Recession, and bundling purchased life-insurance policies together for resale to investors as bizarre and risky derivatives. He’d like to weaken the Dodd-Frank banking reforms to enable more questionable lending.

And let’s not forget Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier who sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general. The recipient of $300,000 in political funding from the oil and gas industries over the years, he plans to repay their confidence by eviscerating his own agency through staffing cuts (up to two-thirds), closed regional offices, and reduced environmental rules and regulations on things like clean air and water.

The unanswered question is which of these (or other) seedy Trumpian characters will drop the smoking gun that exposes the entire corrupt enterprise. Harding’s “Ohio gang” took three years to incriminate itself. Trump’s may take a lot less, even without the Russians.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2017


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652