Days before the inauguration of our new president, Georgia Representative John Lewis and Donald Trump got into a bit of a dust-up. The details of the spat are unimportant; we demean a citizen’s responsibility to stay informed by equating Trump’s mean tweets with news. The president can be an insult comic on his own time. But though it got lost in the coverage of the furor it caused, Lewis’s initial comment was worthy of deeper consideration. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Lewis remarked: “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president.” In another year, a comment like this might be more easily dismissed as sour grapes. But not this time, with this president. Lewis was right to question Trump’s legitimacy, although not for the reasons he asserted.
Lewis’s more expanded comments presented the traditional argument for illegitimacy—that the president’s victory was ill-gotten. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis said of Trump. “And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” That’s only one of the many ways that Trump’s victory could be reasonably called into question. Besides the certainty of direct Russian influence on Trump’s behalf (and the possibility of treasonous direct coordinate between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin for purposes of campaign sabotage), there was Trump’s unprecedented 2.1% popular vote deficit to Hillary Clinton and his active encouragement to supporters to engage in acts of voter intimidation and suppression.
Though these facts undoubtedly affected the fairness of the election, they should not alone undermine the respect with which we accord Trump’s ascension to the White House. Former President Obama was right to emphasize the importance of the peaceful transition of power. After all, Trump did win the most votes in enough states to secure an electoral college majority. Fair or not, our democratic system must persevere beyond the momentary outrages of partisan politics.
Indeed, we’ve been here before. In 2000, George W. Bush’s election was far more suspect. That contest saw another popular vote loser win the presidency after a dirty campaign replete with voter purges and butterfly ballots. A lawful recount was obstructed at every turn by a political hack and a state administration run by Bush’s brother and then shut down by a partisan Supreme Court on the flimsiest of legal justifications. There was real, documented evidence to suggest that Al Gore had won Florida, and with it the presidency. Yet, when the legal battles ran their course, Gore withdrew and gave one of the most eloquent and important concession speeches in American history. The heart of his address was the need for finality: “Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” Though painful, it was the right thing to do.
So why then, is Lewis’s legitimacy question a legitimate one? If Trump is the duly elected president, why is he not entitled to loyal opposition from those who did not vote for him?
The answer is simply this: a president’s legitimacy depends upon whether he or she recognizes and upholds the basic American credo ratified in our founding documents. Trump’s conduct in the campaign, and now his actions in office, are fundamentally incompatible with what it means to be American.
During the transition, an oft-repeated talking point on the left about Trump’s behavior and actions was, “this is not normal.” Its purpose was to prevent the gradual integration of Trump’s norms-defying conduct into our society’s collective consciousness as acceptable political behavior. “This is not normal” was a well-meaning refrain by those who refused to pretend that a president who talked and acted like Trump was acceptable, though it soon became a tired phrase that somewhat missed the point. And it’s important for Trump opponents to be precise in explaining to the hazy middle, the standard conservative, and indeed the entire American people why wholesale opposition to Trump himself is morally essential.
The reason is not that Trump isn’t normal. Trump’s peculiar brand of politics is actually his selling point. For those frustrated by status quo politics and “political correctness,” Trump’s refusal to bend to political niceties or be bound by elite convention was his greatest feature. His willingness to take politicians head-on without regard to the usual, phony conventions of referring to everyone as “my friend,” was seen as a sign of his sincerity and “authenticity.” And to be fair, this view wasn’t entirely misguided. There was something thrilling about seeing Trump mock the smug sanctimony of a John McCain or a Lindsey Graham.
Nor is the reason that many of Trump’s policies are principally cruel and unjust. That may be true, but a free people must govern itself; Trump was elected in part on the targeted enthusiasm for deeply misguided goals such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and building a wall on the Mexican border. If Trump were just another president, Democrats could raise hell over those initiatives while working him on other, shared priorities.
Instead, Trump’s illegitimacy derives from the particular norms he is willing to discard: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, respect for free and fair elections, the independence of the Justice Department and most important of all, the inviolable democratic principle that a government must tell its citizens the truth. The Trump administration’s willingness to lie in the most brazen way again and again is not something than can be sanctioned through silence. A single election result cannot legitimize conduct antithetical to 250 years of American history. Trump is unacceptable.
There was another line from Gore’s concession speech that bears directly on the struggle today. In explaining why the Florida recount would not undermine American democracy, Gore proclaimed that “[t]he strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome.” That promise will be put to the test again over these next four years. But our democracy will not outlast this hour’s challenge if we do not own up to the unpleasant truth. Trump is not just an unpopular president; he is the difficulty to be overcome.