After Donald Trump’s election, his political opponents have divided themselves into two broad camps. One is exemplified by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. They have made speeches widely described as gracious, that have not only stressed the peaceful transition of power but also claimed that Democrats owe good wishes to the president-elect.
Thus Clinton said of Trump, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Obama, in a statement that was more of a plea to Democrats than a report of their existing feelings, said, “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.”
Protesters in several cities have spoken very differently. Convinced of Trump’s virulent bigotry, they view his presidency as a direct danger to women and to immigrant communities. Pursuing this to what they take to be its logical consequence, they have rejected the very legitimacy of a Trump presidency (under the slogans #notmypresident or #nevermypresident). One Austin city councilor, rejecting the call for healing, called for immediate protests, strikes and civil disobedience, and said that if Trump came to town he would refuse to shake his hand.
Those advocating charity think that to play by the constitutional rules, we have to presume that those who hold office mean well and can, with help, do the right thing. The less charitable regard the president-elect as fundamentally corrupt, unfit or malicious. They furthermore think that this provides grounds for rejecting the soon-to-be president’s authority, for not acknowledging him as truly or properly holding the office.
There are good reasons to believe that both these attitudes are confused and mistaken. They conflate a president’s legitimate authority with his or her competence, virtue or justice. My research on David Hume’s political thought — derived from that great philosopher and historian’s reflections on hundreds of years of history — suggests that the whole point of a constitutional system is to ensure that questions of legitimate authority have essentially nothing to do with questions of competence, virtue or even justice.
This seems counterintuitive. But then, constitutional government is counterintuitive. It might seem more natural for people to come together and pick the leader who seems to be the best because he or she is smartest, strongest, wisest, most pious, related to previous leaders by blood or marriage, or some combination. But though this method seems to come naturally, both intuitively and historically, it is not good. Except in tiny societies, people won’t know the prospective leaders personally, and will have to rely on chancy reputation. More problematically, people are likely to disagree over who is the best leader, especially in diverse societies divided by religion, culture and ethnic identity. Indeed, these disagreements may easily lead to war between different factions, each with its own preferred leader or petty warlord.
This is why civilized government requires that we come to accept — through a mix of accident, reflection, habit and bitter experience — a set of rules for choosing leaders. Our attachment to such rules has to be stronger than our attachment to our favored choices themselves. When, and only when, that’s the case, we can say that the government is constitutional rather than based on “personal” authority.
Hume portrays hereditary monarchy as one big step toward constitutionalism. It may seem crazy for people to accept a monarch’s son or daughter as the next monarch, regardless of his or her personal qualities. It seems less crazy once we realize that the alternative was a set of wars over which member of the royal family had superior personal qualities. In Hume’s view, this is why the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ultimately became one, called “England”: The other six royal families, lacking clear rules of hereditary succession, killed themselves off in games of thrones.
While hereditary monarchy beats civil war, our current method of choosing leaders — constitutional, representative democracy — beats monarchy. Because leaders are chosen through votes, not birth, we can hope that they will be roughly responsive to popular demands. And because their rule is limited, rather than absolute, the costs of ending up with the wrong leader are lower than they were under Henry the Eighth.
But there still is a basic difference between submitting to a leader toward whom we feel love, admiration or trust, and submitting to a set of rules for choosing leaders toward whom we may feel none of these things.
We must, therefore, accept that the figure named by our accepted procedure gets to serve as our leader even if we personally think that person unfit for, or unworthy of, the job. We think we want charismatic leaders. The problem is that one person’s charismatic model of all the virtues is another person’s thuggish dolt. Once the rules select a winner, citizens must accept that that person is entitled to hold the office (on a constitutional or procedural level) even if we think he or she absolutely doesn’t (on a substantive level) deserve to.
From one perspective, this is deeply frustrating. At best, our relationship to our leaders will rarely be one of fervent personal attachment (because we rarely get our first choice). At worst, the system demands that we proclaim and practice allegiance to leaders who strike us as malicious or foolish.
Yet this distinction between procedural legitimacy and substantive virtue can also be liberating. As long as one accepts the election result — with the proviso that the winner respect constitutional laws and conventions — one is not required to feel, or even feign, admiration for our leaders themselves, nor to support anything they would like to accomplish. A constitutional system does not require that people agree on either our leaders’ personal qualities or their political goals. Though we must accept the authority of leaders we thoroughly hate, we are also free to thoroughly hate those placed in authority.
Of course, there may remain reasons to work across lines of hatred for particular purposes where shared interest or the public good requires it. Democrats promising to work with Trump on his infrastructure proposals are presumably thinking pragmatically in this way. It may also be that people making statements that presume that the new leader has good intentions are subtly warning that they will oppose him if their presumptions are disappointed.
Obama’s and Clinton’s speeches, read carefully, may just be more polite versions of Bernie Sanders’ characteristically pugnacious statement that progressives will work with Trump “to the degree that he is serious” about pursuing policies that help working families, but “will vigorously oppose him” if his policies are “racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment.”
But these political choices are strategic and rhetorical. They are not matters of constitutional ethics. Constitutional citizenship requires that we unequivocally accept the results of an election that our preferred candidate loses — and no more. When protesters say “not my president” or “Dump Trump,” they are breaching constitutional norms. But if they say instead (as many do) “F‑‑‑ Trump,” they are respecting such norms.
Constitutionalism allows them to hate and oppose Trump as much as they want, as long as they recognize that he is president. It is precisely because everyone is required to respect the rules of the game that no one is required to respect the winner.