Monday, January 16, 2017

On Legitimacy


Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia stirred things up last week by saying of Donald Trump, “I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

This was during an NBC interview broadcast on January 13. By early the next morning Trump was attacking Congressman Lewis in a series of tweets:

Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......

mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!

My immediate response to these tweets was, “How do you ‘falsely complain’ about something?”

More to the point, most people know that Congressman Lewis struggled heroically on behalf of civil rights in the 1960s, during which time he was clubbed almost to death by conservative southerners. So, I wondered why Trump would describe him as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results?” Really, all talk and no action is the opposite of Mr. Lewis.

But Congressman Lewis's heroism aside, let’s consider the question his comment raises: Will Donald Trump be a legitimate president? 

My answer is a decisive Yes. 

And No.

Perhaps you're unimpressed by my bold stand on this issue, but wait -- let me explain. The American presidency rests atop two structures, one legal, the other moral. These two systems don’t always correspond in our society or in many others. For example, in The Sound of Music, when a group of nuns stole a distributor cap to disable a Nazi vehicle, thus allowing the Von Trapp family to escape to freedom, nobody faulted them for the theft – though it was an illegal act.

Well, maybe David Duke, American Nazi icon and Donald Trump fan may have faulted the nuns, but ordinary people would not, because, though their action broke the law, it reflected a higher order, a moral order. Any decent person would want the Von Trapps to escape the Nazis, even if the legal system had to be violated to make their getaway possible. What is legal is not always what is moral, and vice versa.

That’s Donald Trump’s problem. Or one of them. He is the “legitimate” president because he got enough votes to allow him to slip into the White House with a boost from our quirky Electoral College. By law he is about to become president.

But the American presidency is different from the offices of many other world leaders in that the occupant of the White House is not only a powerful politician, but is also a representative of the American people. In this role, a president is expected to occupy an elevated moral plane, much as a constitutional monarch (ideally) would.

Queen Elizabeth, as a monarch, is the representative of the British people. She fulfills this office with dignity, even though there are those who don’t believe that the UK should have a monarch. If she had Trump’s personality, she might well tweet something like this to those Brits who harbor anti-monarchist sentiments:

One day the throne will be Williams and then Georges, so whiffle-piffle on you so-called “patriots.” It’s a right gaggle of losers you are!

Or:

Tho tis true everyone’s seen Harry’s private parts, this doesn’t keep him from being an emergency back-up king. Long live the Royal Family and its proud members!

But no, the queen doesn’t send out crude, petulant tweets every time someone attacks the Royal Family. If she did, she would lose her legitimacy as the representative of the nation.

This is one reason why Trump is not legitimate in a moral sense. He is not a worthy representative of the American people. He doesn’t present to the world an image that says, “This is who we Americans are.”

Instead, his persona says, “I’m a grossly unethical, corrupt, and narcissistic vulgarian, and, I only care about myself.”

At his core, where most people harbor a basic sense of decency, Trump nurses a deep self-loathing shrouded with a crude, ill-humored hyper-sensitivity.

Is this the kind of person that we, as Americans, want representing us? Most would say, No, a point that was officially (and legitimately) revealed in a Gallup poll taken earlier this month. According to this poll 51% of Americans expressed disapproval of Donald Trump. The same poll had shown that in 2009 83% approved of Barack Obama during his transition and in 2001 61% approved of George W. Bush.

So my view is that in Trump we have someone who can legally occupy the White House by virtue of the Electoral College. What we lack is a legitimate representative of us and our ideals.