Monday, January 16, 2017

Does it Matter Whether Trump is a "Legitimate" President?

by Michael Dorf

In explaining his intention to absent himself from Trump's inauguration civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis said that he did not regard Trump as a legitimate president. That statement inspired a typically childish and mendacious Twitter response from Trump. As noted in the story just linked, there is some debate among those who oppose Trump over whether his impending presidency will be illegitimate or merely despicable, with David Axelrod disagreeing with Lewis on the legitimacy question.

I don't have a strong view about this question, which strikes me as mostly a semantic debate about the meaning of the word "legitimate," rather than a substantive debate about anything that matters. We agree about the facts that, depending on one's definition, could call into question Trump's legitimacy: that he received 3 million fewer votes than Clinton; that he ran a campaign appealing to people's basest instincts; that he benefited from voter suppression efforts made more effective by the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act; that he benefited from highly questionable interventions by the FBI and the Russian government; and that it is possible, though not yet proven, that some people working in his campaign may have colluded with the Russian government. Any of these facts alone or in combination could call into question the legitimacy of Trump's election, if one defines a legitimate president as one who was chosen by the American people based on a free and fair election.

If the debate over the word legitimacy is semantic, there is nonetheless a genuine substantive disagreement about how to treat Trumpism. I can illustrate by reference to the nascent boycott of LL Bean over the support by one Bean board member--Linda Bean--for Trump and Trump's confusing her with the company as a whole. The company has tried to remain apolitical, emphasizing that its leadership, management, and employees hold a wide range of political views. That in turn has led some people who oppose Trump to oppose the boycott as poorly targeted. Why punish a more or less virtuous company that treats its workers well and supports American manufacturing based on the views of one of its board members?

A counter-argument (as expressed thoughtfully by a friend of mine on Facebook) goes like this: If one of the ten members of the LL Bean Board were a klansman, surely that would be a basis for boycotting the company (so long as the klansman remained on the board), and support for Trump should be treated as just as socially unacceptable as membership in the KKK.

I want to sidestep any discussion of whether Trump support actually is morally equivalent to support for the Klan. That's just an analogy. My friend's point was that a strategy of delegitimation needs to resist the tendency--inherent in Bean chairman Shawn Gorman's response to the controversy--to treat support for Trump as just like any other political opinion.

LL Bean is admittedly in a tough spot. Even if some members of its leadership team think that Trumpism should be deemed outside the bounds of acceptability, the fact that 46% of voters pulled the lever for Trump shows that Trumpism is not currently regarded that way. A company that aims to sell general-purpose merchandise cannot risk alienating 46% of the population.

Thus, if you think boycotting LL Bean unfairly punishes its workers or suppliers, don't boycott. If you think boycotting has no logical stopping point because just about every major company has some leaders with distasteful views or practices, don't boycott. And if you think that boycotting LL Bean would be ineffective in delegitimating Trump because it would be regarded by much of the general public--including many who do not support Trump--as an overreaction, then don't boycott.

However, I don't think it is an especially good use of time and energy to oppose the boycott of LL Bean either. Even if, like Axelrod, you think that Trump is a legitimate president under your definition of legitimacy, surely there are more pressing matters than arguing with those who, like Lewis, think otherwise. Likewise, there are more pressing matters than arguing about whether it's necessary to delegitimate Trump or merely to oppose him forcefully.

Put differently, statements to the effect that Trump lacks legitimacy and efforts to delegitimate Trump are inevitable, given the unruliness of social and political movements. Such efforts are also largely complementary with more narrow resistance to Trump on particulars. Both broad and narrow opposition to Trump, where successful, will undermine Trump's already historically low popularity. The less popular Trump is, the more emboldened politicians--especially Republican politicians--will become in standing up to him and frustrating his most awful ambitions.

Let's agree to disagree about whether Trump is merely horrible or illegitimate and about whether we merely need to oppose him or to delegitimate him. In general, there is a tendency of left-leaning movements to debate small internal differences while neglecting the real enemy. That tendency is self-indulgent at all times but completely unaffordable now.


T Jones said...

I entirely agree with your conclusion. I've found the Democrat's reaction to this election to be unfocused, disheartening and unsatisfactory: Generally protesting the idea of a Trump presidency (e.g., I got an e-mail with a "survey" seeking my support for the idea that Trump should be impeached already), rather than identifying specific policies which will harm Americans, and beginning to create a narrative which might lead, in 2, 4 or 6 years, to some change in the Congress.
The Democrats' job, as I see it, is to come up with a message which will finally reach the Trump Democrats, or white middle class, and finally convince them that they are being conned, when the Republicans pull their usual bait and switch, and substitute tax breaks for the rich and de-regulation which ends up making ordinary people less wealthy, less healthy and less secure for the promised ends to immigration, abortion and terrorism and return of good paying low skill manufacturing jobs. So long as those people continue to either vote Republican or stay home on election day, all the protests and quibbles about legitimacy will accomplish nothing.

Joe said...

I generally agree with the comments.

The term "legitimate" or whatever to me is not as important as the fact Trump is not simply someone who won an election when I wanted someone else to or even someone I strongly disagree with as a matter of policy. It is not even that I think he's an asshole -- there are assholes in the world and some will be politicians in office. Nor, compare any garden variety criminal case in our flawed criminal justice system.

Trump and company here are bad enough, not worthy of normal respect of opponents in our republican system, to warrant things like going to his inauguration, given some minimal amount of reasonable doubt we usually provide to those in power etc. Plus, yes, simply on policy etc., they are dangerous and should strongly be opposed.

I think "illegitimate" could be applied here (the post succinctly describes why) well enough not to harp on word choice.

Shag from Brookline said...

In long current parlance referring to one as being a "bastard" was not limited to those of illegitimate birth standards. As well, referring to someone's election to office as "illegitimate" can have a different meaning than illegitimate birth or illegally or unlawfully elected. Lewis was more polite than Joe's perhaps more "perfect" descriptive.

el roam said...

Thanks for that interesting post . The issue of " legitimacy " of a president, is not at all semantic (only) and can clearly be analyzed with clear objective precision:

And first and most common , is , whether the president has been elected in fair an clean voting . If by fraud , by coup d'etat or whatever , he is not legitimate !! In this regard : legitimate and legal , are synonyms .

Second : If the views of the president , are unconstitutional , and radically so , he is not a legitimate one !! And how shall the constitution be ever changed ?? even somehow , I mean even technical aspects ….. well :

If as a candidate, he doesn't violate the law, doesn't violate the constitution, and clearly, conclusively, declares in his campaign, what are the constitutional changes he does intend to bring, he is legitimate!! Yet :

Once , he does , secretly , fraudulently , abuse trust of voters , in order , to radically , violate the constitution , he is not a legitimate one . This is because :

The US constitution , is its identity !! its basic fundamental raison d'etre . That is the US !! You can't change what it is , by cunning Putsch .

Freedom in all of its appearances or forms , can't be subjected every Monday and maniac day , to new radical capricious views .


Diane Klein said...

I know my reaction is lawyerly, maybe too much so - my general feeling is that "illegitimate" is not a relevant category. The Electoral College has certified his election, he will be the President. Adding a new, fake category, and then debating whether he falls into it, or not - what's the use? John Lewis is free to say what he wants, that's not my concern.

Joe said...

If a court convicts with tainted evidence, is the conviction simply "legitimate" or can someone suggest (especially in a non-lawyerly way ... like someone can call OJ a "murderer") it is not? The certification to me only goes so far in that respect and saying it is "fake" particularly is somewhat ipse dixit.

The "use" is that we aren't a nation of lawyers & in general if public officials are seen as illegitimate, they have a heavy burden to bear, including not getting various benefits of the doubt that those who are "legitimate" would get. Plus, the general idea that "if one defines a legitimate president as one who was chosen by the American people based on a free and fair election," mere certification might not be enough. Mere forms, like a judge convicting and being upheld on appeal, is not the end of the story here.