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.