Top 5 most controversial figures in American history

Who were the most divisive Americans?

Richard Nixon on a television screen. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
  • Many of the most polarizing Americans were presidents.
  • Being controversial created complicated legacies.
  • Pop culture can also cause strong division.

Controversy is not always bad for you. Case in point, most of the people on this list are well-known political figures who have made a strong imprint on the country's life. While President Trump is certainly a divisive figure to many, the full extent of his impact on America is yet to materialize. And as incendiary as some of his tweets might be, he's definitely not the first leader to act on opinions that exploit and exacerbate major ideological rifts. Here are 5 people who courted controversies that are still affecting the United States of today.

5. George W. Bush

President George W. Bush Addresses Nation On 9/11 Anniversary. 2006.

Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images

If you judge by Wikipedia, the former U.S. President George W. Bush is undoubtedly the most controversial person in the history of the country. While 2019 stats are not available, the community encyclopedia reports that Bush's page is edited almost twice as often as any other page on the site.

Why is "W" such a magnet for revisionary thinking? While he has become to some an almost beloved figure after leaving the office, in part thanks to taking up painting, his tenure as the 43rd President was very polarizing. Gallup reports that over his two terms Bush's average approval gap from Republicans to Democrats was 61 points. This means that generally 61% more Republicans were supportive of what he was doing than Democrats. In the period from 2004 until 2005, this gap was even worse, at 76%, with only 15% of Democrats (against 91% of Republicans) approving of Bush's decisions, like going to war in Iraq.

Besides getting the U.S. involved in costly and largely unwinnable wars that have crippled its own economy, other decisions made by George W. Bush that have been dogged by protests and argument include establishing the special prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and his administration's poor response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

4. Barack Obama

President Obama Delivers Remarks On Executive Action Immigration Reform. 2014.

Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

The president who followed "W" into the Oval Office was perhaps an even more divisive figure. Barack Obama's decisions and background contributed to an ever-growing partisan approval gap, pointing to the expanding division in the country. Obama had a 65% difference between positive job ratings from Democrats (88%) and Republicans (23%) during his first year in office.

What was so controversial about President Obama? The first African-American president had to contend with deeply entrenched racism, a growing economic inequality in the country, and a Republican Congress that would not compromise on almost anything. Obama's support for an overhaul of the country's healthcare system, dubbed Obamacare, was another lightning rod that made him a target of constant attacks.

President Trump, of course, who is still fond of criticizing Obamacare, has already surpassed Obama partisan approval gaps in his tenure, "achieving" a 79% difference between Republican and Democratic support – a fact that underscores the continuing growth of polarization within the country.

3. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performs during halftime at Super Bowl XXVII. 1993.

Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

You might wonder how the late singer Michael Jackson makes it to this list but quantifiable proof exists of his continually controversial status. Over 15 years, Jackson's Wikipedia entry has been edited less than George W. Bush's but more than those for Jesus and Obama – a testament to the cultural power of pop stardom.

Called the King of Pop, Jackson was undoubtedly the world's most famous entertainer during the 1980s and 1990s and his legacy still draws worldwide examination. Just recently, the documentary "Leaving Neverland" premiered during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. This HBO film makes the case that Jackson was a sexual abuser of children.

2. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson.

Portrait by Ralph E.W. Earl. 1837.

Serving as president from 1829 until 1837, Andrew Jackson was seen by his detractors as a dangerous demagogue and a man who did not respect the system of checks and balances mandated by the Constitution. He was also infamous for his decisive role in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans who were forced into horrific mass migrations during his term.

Removal of Native Americans was Jackson's top legislative priority and resulted in such acts as the relocation of the Cherokee Nation in 1838, called the Trail of Tears. Four-thousand Cherokees died during the journey. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole people were also moved under duress, accompanied by state and local militias away from their traditional lands. On the way they encountered disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements.

Known first as a war hero, Jackson portrayed himself as a fighter against a "corrupt aristocracy". He was also an owner of hundreds of slaves and a duelist – a fact that added to his reputation for violence.

Map of United States Indian Removal. 1830–1838.

Wikimedia.

1. Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley. 1970.

Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers

No list of this kind would be complete without Richard Nixon, who was President of the U.S. from 1969 until 1974. Nixon's Watergate Scandal has become the golden standard of American political scandals and is likely to forever plague the legacy of the 37th President. Nixon's associates were discovered to have broken into Democratic campaign headquarters during the 1972 Presidential race, setting off a chain of coverups that ended up in Nixon's resignation from his job – the only time so far this has happened in American history.

Even before Watergate, Nixon wasn't really a universally beloved leader. His paranoid personal style resulted in numerous abuses of power, including using the FBI to wiretap 17 government officials and journalists. This has overshadowed some of the achievements of his administration, like the creation of the EPA and passage of the Endangered Species Act as well as the Clean Air Act.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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