Legitimacy Must Be Earned

David Remnick of The New Yorker has written a puzzling essay on the current contest of words between Rep. John Lewis and the President-Elect, Donald Trump.

The title of the piece is “John Lewis, Donald Trump, and the Meaning of Legitimacy,” a title which promises a thoughtful, perhaps even philosophical examination of what it means to be a duly-elected, approved servant of the public good.

But that’s not what Remnick offers his readers.  We get instead an essay which says, “I like John Lewis.  I don’t like Donald Trump.”  And never once does Remnick actually deal with the supposedly-thorny issue of Trump’s legitimacy.  Perhaps in laying out the terrible battle scars Lewis wears from the march in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and comparing what those scars signify in relation to Trump’s business career and endless self-promotion, Remnick means for us to catch an implied conclusion that Trump is not a “legitimate” President.

If so, that’s not good enough.  If one wants to argue that a man is not a legitimate office-holder, he ought to make the case concretely.  The writer ought at least to spell out what exactly his concept of “legitimacy” is.  In this situation, however, Remnick can’t make the case because the case turns on the conduct of the Electoral College, which was designed to balance the potentially-damaging effects of domination in the Popular Vote by states with the greatest populations and give a significant voice to states with smaller populations.  Contrary to the present-day perception, squabbling over the Electoral College isn’t a new development; both parties have been complaining about supposed inequities in the Electoral College since the day it was instituted.  Most of those complaints come every four years from the losing side in the Presidential election.  Both parties also talk every year about Electoral College reform, but they don’t do anything because they realize that, as risky as earning both a popular victory and an electoral victory may be, the system as it is can benefit both Democrats and Republicans.

We’ve had numerous elections in which a defeated candidate has outpolled the winner in the popular vote.  The difference has always been the Electoral College.  In the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump won the Electoral College decisively.   Democrats can complain about it, they can bitch about it (i.e., holler without actually making a case) all they want, but Donald Trump won the election.  His political legitimacy is, like it or not, beyond argument.

But, of course, the effects of that victory make the matter not quite so simple.  The Democrats are driving at something deeper in their protests over Trump’s “legitimacy.”  Their complaints have to do with Trump’s personal integrity–almost (but not quite) his “moral right” to hold the office.  Remnick finds Trump sorely lacking in gravitas when compared to a man like John Lewis.  (Lewis, it should be observed, also felt that George W. Bush wasn’t a “legitimate” President, either.)  Perhaps Trump does lack that weight, but that is a completely separate issue from the question about whether he won the election.  The new President needs to show awareness that he is about to step into an office whose importance immeasurably outweighs his own.  He needs to show that he is the President of all the people–the people who voted for him and the people who did not.  He needs to show that he can remain calm and composed when events do not go well for him.  He will have ample opportunity to demonstrate growth in all these areas.

Usually, a President, no matter  his background, brings a certain degree of gravitas with him into the office.  Lincoln was hated not only because he opposed slavery but because he encouraged the public perception of himself as a buffoon to the extent that many (including his supporters) believed that’s what he was.  If his opponents had read his speeches, however, or seen him in action (and many of his opponents did do these things), they would have realized that, whatever his political stances might have been, Lincoln took the Presidency most seriously, and he was no fool.  We might remind ourselves also of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who took office  in California buoyed by the extraordinary success of his action-movie career, but took the job seriously and seldom confused his old life with his new one.

What the Democrats truly want, then, is a President with thoughtfulness, a sense of the importance of the moment and the importance of the office that would legitimize his right to hold it.  Trump hasn’t shown such gravitas thus far, and he may not set much store by his own personal dignity.  If so, that’s too bad.  All during the campaign, I kept waiting to see Trump say or do something with dignity, but he never did.  Those who interacted with him on the campaign, however, saw and felt a warmth and personable aura that has never come across in any of his tweets.

Trump will need to project much of that warmth if he is to lead.  It’s a poor substitute for gravitas, a sense of the moment, but we have to remember that the events of the next four years will bring to Trump a sense of the moment’s importance, whether he wants history to bring it or not.  The responsibilities of the office will weigh on hm, as they have weighed on every person who has ever occupied it.  How he reacts to carrying that weight will define his term.  Trump may lack, to many eyes, a certain degree of legitimacy in his personal ethos and in his sense of the importance of public service as he enters the Presidency, but the next four years will take care of that problem.  For good or ill, as he’s dealing with Obamacare or Russia or domestic social protests, Trump will turn out to be as legitimate a President as anyone who has ever held the office.  Whether he’s a good President or a very bad one, his conduct as President will have earned him that legitimacy.


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