Democrats, we think, are getting tangled up over the term “illegitimate” — and more than semantics are at issue. President-elect Donald Trump uses attacks on his “legitimacy” to deflect attention from incontrovertible evidence that Russia engaged in cyberwarfare to try to influence the election. He calls those denying his legitimacy sore losers, in essence painting them as anti-democratic (small “d”) extremists. Saying he is “unfit” or “unworthy” or “not normal” does not really capture how far he departs from mainstream views and American values. So where does that leave anti-Trump opponents on both sides of the aisle?
Trump lost the popular vote, won the electoral college vote by narrow margins in three states and got really lucky. He drew a flawed opponent whose own poor judgment (e.g., on her emails) came back to haunt her and induced the FBI director to inject himself into the election (for no good reason, it turned out). The Russians assuredly lent a hand with WikiLeaks, social media trolls and other disinformation techniques. Does any of that mean Trump is not “really” (gulp) going to be president at noon on Friday? No. Any of a dozen factors — including WikiLeaks — may have influenced the vote, but his election was not “illegitimate.” We cannot say that his election was “not authorized by the law.”
Trump’s behavior, rhetoric and unethical business arrangements, however, are “not in accordance with accepted standards or rules,” which is another definition of “illegitimate.” His attacks on the NATO alliance and his reverence for Russian President Vladimir Putin are not in accord with any foreign-policy norms, treaty commitments, or obligations to defend the United States from domestic and foreign enemies. His refusal to divest himself of his business interests defies accepted standards and norms each and every one of his predecessors followed. As of noon Friday, he likely will be in violation of the highest law — the Constitution — due to continued receipt of emoluments from foreign governments. His bullying, tweeting and incessant lying are not in accordance with presidential standards of his predecessors. What do we call that — the sort of illegitimacy created by his refusal to operate within democratic norms, the Constitution and American values? Perhaps more accurately, we can say he lacks “moral legitimacy” because of the way he conducts himself.
Aside from confusion about its meaning, “illegitimate” does not tell us much about what Trump is doing now that opponents find unacceptable. An all-encompassing term such as “illegitimate” does not inform or persuade fellow citizens. Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.
Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.