Is Trump’s Presidency Legitimate?

Representative John Lewis, a man who was nearly killed fighting for civil rights, has claimed that Trump is not a legitimate president. While some dismiss this as mere sour grapes, it is certainly an interesting claim and one worth given some consideration.

The easy and obvious legal answer is that Trump’s presidency is legitimate: despite taking a trouncing in the popular vote, Trump won the electoral college. As such, he is the legitimate president by the rules of the system. It does not matter that Trump him denounced the electoral college as “a disaster for democracy”, what matters is the rules of the game. Since the voters have given tacit acceptance of the system by participating and not changing it, the system is legitimate and thus Trump is the legitimate president from this legal standpoint. From a purely practical standpoint, this can be regarded as the only standpoint that matters. However, there are other notions of legitimacy that are distinct from the legal acquisition of power.

In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader. This can, of course, be amended to a majority vote by the citizens who bother to vote—assuming that voters are not unjustly disenfranchised and that there is not significant voter fraud or election tampering. On this ground, Hillary Clinton is the legitimate president since she received the majority of the votes. This can be countered by arguing that the majority of the citizens, as noted above, accepted the existing electoral system and hence are committed to the results. This does create an interesting debate about whether having the consent of the majority justifies the acceptance of an electoral system that can elect a president who does not win a majority of the votes. As would be suspected, people tend to think this system is just fine when their candidate wins and complain when their candidate loses. But, this is not a principled view of the matter.

Another standard of legitimacy is that the election process is free of fraud and tampering. To the degree the integrity of the electoral system is in question, the legitimacy of the elected president is in doubt. Since the 1990s the Republican party has consistently claimed that voter fraud occurs and is such a threat that it must be countered by such measures as imposing voter ID requirements. With each election, the narrative grows.  What is most striking is that although Trump won the electoral college, he and his team have argued that the integrity of the election was significantly compromised. Famously, Trump tweeted that millions had voted illegally. While the mainstream media could find no evidence of this, Trump’s team has claimed that they have evidence to support Trump’s accusation.

While it seems sensible to dismiss Trump’s claims as the deranged rantings of a delicate man whose fragile ego was wounded by Hillary crushing him in the popular vote, the fact that he is now president would seem to require that his claims be taken seriously. Otherwise, it must be inferred that he is a pathological liar with no credibility who has slandered those running the election and American voters and is thus unworthy of the respect of the American people. Alternatively, his claim must be taken seriously: millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election. This entails that the election’s integrity was grossly violated and hence illegitimate. Thus, by Trump’s own claims about the election, he is not the legitimate president and the election would need to be redone with proper safeguards to keep those millions from voting illegally. So, Trump would seem to be in a dilemma: either he is lying about the election and thus unfit or he is telling the truth and is not a legitimately elected president. Either way undermines him.

It could be countered that while the Republicans allege voter fraud and that Trump claimed millions voted illegally, the election was legitimate because the fraud and illegal voting was all for Hillary and she lost. That is, the electoral system’s integrity has been violated but it did not matter because Trump won. On the one hand, this does have some appeal. To use an analogy, think of a Tour de France in which the officials allow bikers to get away with doping, but the winner is drug free. In that case, the race would be a mess, but the winner would still be legitimate—all the cheating was done by others and they won despite the cheating. On the other hand, there is the obvious concern that if such widespread fraud and illegal voting occurred, then it might well have resulted in Trump’s electoral college victory. Going back to the Tour de France analogy, if the winner claimed that the competition was doping but they were clean and still won, despite the testing system being broken, then there would be some serious doubts about their claim. After all, if the system is broken and they were competing against cheaters, then it is worth considering that their victory was the result of cheating. But, perhaps Trump has proof that all (or most) of the fraud and illegal voting was for Hillary. In this case, he should certainly have evidence showing how all this occurred and evidence sufficient to convict individual voters. As such, arrests and significant alterations to the election system should occur soon. Unless, of course, Trump and the Republicans are simply lying about voter fraud and millions of illegals voting. In which case, they need to stop using the specter of voter fraud to justify their attempts to restrict access to voting. They cannot have it both ways: either voter fraud is real and Trump is illegitimate because the system lacks integrity or the claim of significant voting fraud is a lie.

 

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  1. You’ve covered this off well Mike. I suppose the only consideration that you may have overlooked is the claim made my some that whilst Clinton convincingly won the popular vote she did so under a system where the candidates obviously know that the end game is to win the electoral college not the popular vote.

    Therefore one could argue that had Trump been operating under the rules of winning the popular vote he would have campaigned in the large democratic strongholds like California and New York (and at least dedicated more resources and time to Democrat leaning states) and perhaps closed the popular vote gap in that way.

    Basically they are making a case for uncertainty i.e. that Clinton’s popular vote win was due to Trump campaigning in less populated states that he needed to win the electoral college whilst had he known he had to win the popular vote he would have campaigned far more rigorously in the more populous states since that presents the more effective pathway to victory.

  2. “In a democratic system of government, one standard of legitimacy is that the majority of the citizens vote for the leader.”

    In a representative democratic system of government, the only standard of legitimacy is that its representatives are elected according to the methods decided by the people.

    The people decided that long ago, and the people could change it now if they wanted to. There is a complication in that the US is a federal democratic republic, so the mechanism of states applies, but that too is at the will of the people.

    The method allows for challenges based on voter fraud in the courts. There were none, or no significant ones. Campaign rhetoric has no bearing on the legitimacy of the result.

    No doubt, if the method was based on the popular vote, more Republicans would have been active and voted in Blue states, and more Democrats would have been active and voted in Red ones. It would have been a completely different election, and we can’t know what the result would have been. However, if the US had a PR electoral system, with a two-round run-off for single offices, we can’t know what the result would have been either. If there were no primaries, and all candidates had a multiple-round run-off system, the result might have been different again. Claiming illegitimacy because the result might have been different in a second specific system, when there are thousands of possible voting systems, seems inappropriate.

  3. Legitimate literally means legal. Used as hyperbole it questions whether something should or should not be legal.

    Was Hillary Clinton legit. The USA is one of the most corrupt democracies in the world, in terms of campaign and personal finance of candidates. But this corruption is legitimate because it is literally legal, even though there is no other democracy in the developed world that allows it. So it could be said Hillary acted by the letter of the law, in accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Goldman Sachs for a speech, but contrary to the spirit of the law as this specific technique of bribery even has a name; the Goldman handcuffs.

    I would have preferred to see Hillary win this election, but Trump was correct in his assertion that Crooked Hillary is indeed a crook, even if she cannot be prosecuted under the law.

  4. Trump was protected by the law in his bankruptcies and in not paying taxes. Goldman Sachs is well represented in Trumps Cabinet picks. There has always been hypocrisy in relation to Hilary. The email issue was much ado about nothing. The FBI could not make a case out of it.

    The problem with Hilary was she would not play by the rules. She would not be like Merkel and May who stay within the boundaries of their job descriptions. She would wave the banner of women’s rights or act to protect children from exploitation. It was ironic that fake news accused her of exploiting children. Powerful interests do not want banner wavers.

    The Trump presidency has different possibilities. I would predict a muscular Christianity. A turning towards eastern Europe, referred to as the ‘new’ Europe in the Bush/Chaney years. Western Europe being referred to as ‘old’ Europe. A close relationship with Russia and a war on radical Islam, and on Islam, if perceived as a threat. This won’t be a ‘turn the other cheek, love your neighbor’ kind of Christianity.

    The problem with a veneer of populism and religious fervor is that both can mask other less savory agendas.

  5. This article seems to focus solely on legal legitimacy. The question of moral legitimacy is not addressed. The presidency is as much about moral authority as it is about legal power. When you win an election by lying, you can end up with legal power which is difficult to exercise because others do not respect your authority. Governments can only function if the vast majority of citizens follow their rules. If more than a tiny fraction of the citizens simply fail to cooperate, the system cannot function. Gandhi understood this clearly when he stated British Government could not control India if the people of India refused to cooperate. Trump now has the legal power to order a nuclear launch without any congressional oversight. However, it is questionable at this point whether the men and women of the military would actually carry out such an order. Considering Trump’s erratic temperament, they might consider any such order to be illegitimate.

  6. “The presidency is as much about moral authority as it is about legal power. When you win an election by lying, you can end up with legal power which is difficult to exercise because others do not respect your authority. Governments can only function if the vast majority of citizens follow their rules. If more than a tiny fraction of the citizens simply fail to cooperate, the system cannot function.”

    Sure but you’re erroneously conflating an uncooperative citizenry with an impotent government. Clearly that’s not true, look at Syria.. the military continues to follow the orders of the govt despite the clear moral illegitimacy of Assad in the eyes of the citizenry.

    The real difference between US soldiers and Syrian soldiers is the US soldiers usually take their oath to uphold and defend the US constitution as a non-derogable duty so they’re unlikely to obey what they know to be unconstitutional orders.

    But insofar as the order is not known to be unconstitutional they will carry it out because they are professionals.

  7. Karen Lankford,

    “This article seems to focus solely on legal legitimacy. The question of moral legitimacy is not addressed. The presidency is as much about moral authority as it is about legal power. When you win an election by lying, you can end up with legal power which is difficult to exercise because others do not respect your authority.”

    Moral legitimacy is undermined by improper behaviour of the powerful. A major factor in the rise of dangerous populists like Trump, is rooted in the public’s view of politicians. In the financial crisis, the bankers were bailed out, while the majority public were sold out. The politicians sold the public out.

    Trump presented himself as someone not in the pocket of anyone. In the primaries he openly admitted his contributions to politicians had been bribes. That he had even bribed Hillary Clinton. And everyone knew this to be true. Trump has promised to destroy this system, and many who voted for him are confident he can, through sheer incompetence if through anything else.

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