The Great Debate

Is Donald Trump’s presidency legitimate? A week ago, Representative John Lewis became the first prominent Democrat to say “No.” In an NBC interview, he charged that “the Russians participated in helping this man get elected” and “helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” This iconic civil rights leader’s stand has spurred an inauguration boycott by nearly 70 congressional colleagues and an important debate about what constitutes the greatest threat to our democracy.

As we awake to Inauguration Day, two writers’ contrasting sets of op-eds embody that debate.

Our Rightful Leader

One piece comes courtesy of University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman, in the New York Daily News. He labels Lewis “a genuine American hero” and Trump “a bully, a narcissist, and a liar.” But he insists that it’s wrong to delegitimize Trump based on unproven Russian electoral impact:

Lewis was wrong to say that Trump won’t be our rightful leader. Indeed, Lewis’ remark sunk to the level of . . . Donald J. Trump. It played fast and loose with the facts, and it placed Lewis’ enemy — in this case, Trump himself — beyond the pale of decency and dignity. It rendered Trump not just as an opponent but as a fraud, who obtained his power via underhanded means.

Trump beyond the pale of decency and dignity? A fraud? Someone who obtained his power via underhanded means? Who could ever imagine that – besides maliciously maligned Mexicans and Muslims, unpaid contractors and workers, Trump University students, political fact-checkers, people appalled by Trump trumpeting the birther movement and bragging about sexually assaulting women, the victims of such assaults, disabled persons, targets of alt-right bigotry and countless other categories of folks?

Nevertheless, Zimmerman correctly concludes that you don’t delegitimize a president due to mere suspicions about the efficacy of foreign electoral interference – even if Trump’s Russian connection is eerily odd and merits intense scrutiny.

A Matter of Principle

Which brings us to another op-ed about Lewis and Trump, by New York Times columnist Charles Blow:

Does ‘legitimate’ refer here to the meaning in law or principle?


It is true that Donald Trump is, by all measures of the law, the legitimate president-elect and will legitimately be inaugurated our 45th president on Friday…


But there is another way of considering legitimacy, another test that his election doesn’t meet: That is when legitimacy is defined as “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.”

If Trump’s fraudulent, underhanded, indecent campaign and character fail to conform to established norms, can’t we say that this president is illegitimate as a matter of principle even as he’s legitimately sworn into office as a matter of law?

Set in Stone

Now, the counterargument to all this is that the guy got elected (albeit with nearly 2.9 million fewer votes than Clinton). So who is Charles Blow to say that he falls short of established principles, rules and standards? Who are we to assert that?

We’re Americans. To paraphrase one popular political commentator, the flag that flies over our schoolhouses and courthouses says certain things are set in stone about who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t. And though we’re all far from perfect, Donald Trump’s track record shows that he’ll do many things that decent folks of all political persuasions don’t and won’t do. If many of our fellow Americans don’t hold him to such standards, we should civilly agree to fervently disagree.

This is so crucial for an additional reason: To the extent that we legitimize Trump, we strengthen his ability to potentially take our democracy down a dark road and to undercut the very principles that our country, warts and all, represents when at its best.

Back to the Debate

Which brings me back to the debate about the biggest threat to our democracy and the debate’s link to the question of Trump’s legitimacy.

For Zimmerman, “the tendency to vilify our opponents…is the worst plague on the political land right now.” This view, together with his conviction that Trump is our rightful leader, apparently flows from the understandable fear that excessive vitriol could irretrievably corrode our democracy. Those who don’t share Zimmerman’s zeal for avoiding vilification might nonetheless agree that we should neither demonize Trump’s supporters nor doubt the legal legitimacy of his electoral victory.

For Blow, the worst plague on the political land right now is moving into the White House tonight: “The election of Donald Trump poses such a significant — and singular — threat to this country that for me all other issues are unfortunately, temporarily I hope, subsumed by the unshakable sense of impending calamity he presages.” He rails against “the corrosive drift of conformity,” of the country potentially coming to accept Trump’s attitudes, actions, tweets and temper tantrums as normal.

I agree with Blow. If you do too, hold fast to this basic principle: A demagogue is not morally legitimate.

And that’s set in stone.

Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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