Stephen P. Reyna: Is Mr. Trump a legitimacy crisis?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, one US representative, John Lewis, fueled widespread media debates with a claim that he does not believe Mr. Trump to be a “legitimate” president. In a time when the many antagonizing executive orders and cabinet choices make these debates from mid-January appear like yesterday’s news, it is worth reconsidering them with a closer look at the concept of legitimacy itself.

Rep. Lewis, a champion of civil rights struggles, is a something of a moral icon. His reminder about the alleged Russian interference with the US election results outraged Trump’s myrmidons, who rebutted him by asserting that even though Trump lost the popular ballot by a wide margin, he won the vote in the Electoral College, and in the American democracy that means you have won the presidency. Therefore, suck it up—the Donald is legit. Yet, other members of Congress maintain the need for an inquiry about potential Russian activities in the face of what has been a striking silence on the part of mainstream US media and security agencies. One way of advancing this debate is to decide what it means to be legitimate and then exploring if Trump satisfies the conditions of legitimacy.

Broadly speaking, people’s actions are legitimate if they conform to prevailing laws or rules. Legitimacy can be found in two sorts of actions: one official, the other moral. “Official legitimacy” involves conformity to an organization’s rules. If a US political official takes bribes, she or he is not in conformity to governmental laws and is illegitimate. “Moral legitimacy” turns on conformity to moral rules. A person who steals breaks one of the Ten Commandments, is a moral reprobate, and is illegitimate. So, is Rep. Lewis’s claim concerning the Donald legitimate?

Consider, first, the case regarding official legitimacy. US electoral rules forbid meddling with the voting process. However, three sorts of tampering occurred in the 2016 presidential election. First, the Russians conducted a campaign to reduce presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vote. External meddling in an electoral contest by a foreign power is not legitimate. Second, Republicans have conducted voter suppression activities for decades throughout the country. Suppressing their opponent’s votes is not legitimate. Third, FBI Director James Comey interfered with Secretary of State Clinton’s campaign by announcing publically that she was under criminal investigation due to her use of a private server for government business. Comey refused to comment on any FBI investigations against Trump, saying that would be against his agency’s rules. Comey clearly interfered in the electoral campaign against Clinton and for Trump. Russian meddling, Republican voter suppression, and Comey’s intervention may, or may not, have won the election for Mr. Trump. Whether they did, or did not, they were illegitimate.

Consider, further, the case regarding moral legitimacy. During the electoral campaign, a tape of Trump was released in which he bragged of grabbing women “by the pussy.” Seizing a woman, thrusting a hand between her legs, and squeezing her genitals is reprehensible. When the recording was released, Trump said it was just “locker room banter.” Twelve women claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Trump as of mid-October 2016. Contemplate, additionally, Trump has been something of a bully. His vulgar hectoring of Fox News’s Megyn Kelly stands out. After she interviewed him in a manner he did not like, he claimed, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Equally disturbing was his crude physical mocking of the gestures of a journalist with a physical joint disability. He is a compulsive liar. PolitiFact awarded him its “Lie of the Year Award” in 2015. The claim that climate change was a “Chinese hoax” was certainly a whopper. It goes without saying that Mr. Trump is religiously intolerant person, who has it in for Muslims and who lends support to openly fascist, racist, and homophobic individuals and organizations.

Consequently, Russia, the Republicans, and the FBI illegitimately manipulated the 2016 presidential contest. Trump flouts moral rules as a self-admitted sexual abuser—a religiously, racially intolerant bully—given to lying. The 2016 election and its winner are illegitimate, on official and moral grounds. In other words, there was already a rip-roaring legitimacy crisis in the United States before the recent contestations of Trump’s executive orders, his cabinet picks, and his attacks on various institutions of the US legal system. At his swearing-in ceremony, the Donald should have been denied the presidency and returned to Trump Tower—there to tweet away his remaining days.

Stephen P. Reyna 
is a Researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute of the University of Manchester, as well as a Research Associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His most recent book, Deadly Contradictions: The New American Empire and Global Warring, was published by Berghahn Books in 2016.

Cite as: 
Reyna, Stephen P. 2017. “Is Mr. Trump a legitimacy crisis?” FocaalBlog, 16 February.