As John Lewis and 66 other Democratic members of Congress boycotted the festivities surrounding the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, they got an earful from pundits about how wrong it was to question the “legitimacy” of an elected US president.
“For all of John Lewis’s heroic service to his country,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus (1/16/17), “the Georgia congressman’s assertion that Donald Trump is not a ‘legitimate‘ president was not appropriate or helpful.”
“In the end, the protests are not about legitimacy,” declared Jonathan Turley (USA Today, 1/19/17). “Trump is by any measure our duly elected and legitimate president. It is about a refusal to accept legitimate results.”
“I’m ready to grit my teeth and accept Trump as our legitimate president for the sake of national unity,” said Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune, 1/17/17), “just as I hoped America would unite behind President Obama, whether they voted for him or not.” He went on to “suspect that Lewis, not being a stupid man by any means, knows Trump is ‘legitimate,’ at least in the constitutionally legal sense.”
While acknowledging that “moral legitimacy” was “in the eye of the beholder,” Page concluded that “as good Americans, we should support our newly elected president in good faith, even as we criticize his ways—and look ahead to the next election.”
In Real Clear Politics (1/17/17), Carl Cannon and Caitlin Huey-Burns wrote of “The Danger of Delegitimizing Trump,” which turned out to be a warning that there might be “long-term ramifications to these guerrilla tactics that Republicans can choose to employ the next time they lose the White House.” So Republicans might start questioning the legitimacy of a Democratic president? Ominous.
Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/18/17) complained that “Lewis is…refusing to attend Trump’s inauguration and arguing that Trump cannot be a legitimate president because of Russian meddling in the election.” His rebuttal to that was peculiar:
Lewis may have reason to believe that Trump did not win fair and square, but questioning Trump’s legitimacy is exactly what the Russians probably wanted from the beginning: to undermine Western and American faith and confidence in democracy.
So Goldberg’s argument is that you should not question the legitimacy of a president who, through “Russian meddling,” likely “did not win fair and square”—because, otherwise, the Russians win? Got it.
Goldberg noted as “a sign of Lewis’ partisanship that he also boycotted George W. Bush’s first inauguration because he didn’t think Bush was legitimate either.” That’s the Bush, you may recall, who lost the popular vote, but was awarded the presidency when a partisan majority of the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the recount in Florida. That George W. Bush.
(Goldberg also cited, as an example of “poisonous cynicism,” Lewis’ “insinuating that voting for Mitt Romney might lead America to ‘go back’ to the days of fire hoses, police dogs and church bombings.” Those who have followed the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline are aware that the use of water cannon and attack dogs against protesters is alive and well in 21st century America. As for church bombings, the BATF has reported at least 2,378 cases of arson at houses of worship over the past 20 years—if you’ll pardon my cynicism.)
Why is it so important to corporate media commentators that presidential legitimacy not be questioned? By and large, they are part of, and identify with, an establishment whose fragility is all too evident. That’s why you get circular arguments like Marcus pleading for the public to accept election results because accepted election results are what the public needs:
At some point, after the procedures established by the rule of law have run their course, the country needs to accept the result, however difficult it may be…. Trump is a legitimate president because our system demands finality and acceptance even in the presence of uncertainty. Posting an asterisk next to an election result is not healthy for democracy.
That’s completely wrong: Refusal to accept undemocratic results is the only thing that has moved democracy forward. This country came into being when people refused to accept a system in which the chief executive was the first-born son of the previous chief executive. Even though hereditary monarchy was the procedure established by the rule of law, the signers of the Declaration of Independence rejected it, holding that it was their inalienable right to alter or abolish their form of government.
The new system of government, of course, still left almost everything to be desired from the standpoint of democracy. From 1789 until 1824, the proportion of the US population taking part in presidential elections never got above 4 percent, and usually was closer to 1 percent. With the extension of suffrage to non-propertied white men, to African-American men, to women, to young adults, the country came closer to being a society where the people actually ruled—but this happened only when the people refused to concede the legitimacy of systems designed to disenfranchise.
It’s easy to see now that a country where only wealthy white men could vote was not a democracy. For some of us, it’s equally obvious that the system we have now—where a candidate who loses by 2.9 million votes is declared the winner, due to an archaic structure designed to preserve the power of slaveholders; where voter suppression removes voters from the rolls or simply leaves their votes uncounted; where vast disparities of wealth allow a handful of billionaires to alter the course of elections—cannot call itself democratic either.
Only when we refuse to accept such results—when we say that a rigged system has no legitimacy—will these problems be addressed. It’s the boycotters, and not the legitimacy-mongers, who are pushing this country toward what it ought to be.