The term “legitimacy” usually connotes the sense of being lawful. But in national politics, the term refers to the credibility that a politician has among his constituents. It’s not the same thing as popularity. There have been unpopular Presidents who had high legitimacy: people didn’t like the actions of the President, but they acknowledge that he was the right and proper President. Richard Nixon had to resign, not so much because he would be impeached, but rather because he had lost all legitimacy and so was unable to function as a leader.
The real significance of the recent election is not so much that Mr. Trump won as that his legitimacy is very much in question. First, Ms. Clinton received 2.5 million more votes than Mr. Trump — while Mr. Trump will win the Electoral College vote, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Mr. Trump won on a legal technicality rather than through the support of the American people.
At this point Trump supporters will argue that the “legal technicality” is part of the Constitution, and they will be absolutely right — but that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of Americans feel that a man whom they did not want to be President has won the office. “He’s not MY President”, millions of Americans are already telling themselves.
The problem is exacerbated by many questions about the legitimacy of the election itself. Mr. Trump lied hundreds of times — that calls into question the robustness of the election. A swarm of fake news stories flooded the Internet, all of them directed against Ms. Clinton. We now know that the Russians engaged in a variety of efforts to undermine Ms. Clinton’s candidacy. The very idea that a foreign power intruded into our election casts further doubt upon its legitimacy.
Add to that the fact that Republicans all over the country deliberately rigged the election by targeting minority voters and denying them voter registration. Again, this election is looking less and less “free and fair”.
And now we have mounting evidence that the vote counts themselves were riddled with errors. Perhaps these errors hurt Mr. Trump; perhaps they hurt Ms. Clinton. We don’t know. But we do know that the vote counting was seriously flawed, casting even more doubt on the legitimacy of the election.
The Republicans have further undermined the legitimacy of this election by rejecting a practice fundamental to all democracies: compromise. Their attitude is that they have the majority, so they can cram anything they want down the throats of the Democrats. Sure, they have the legal right to do so — but in so doing, they infuriate so many Americans that they only insure that, when the pendulum swings the other way, it will swing even further to the left. The American political pendulum used to swing a little to the left or a little to the right, but now it is swinging wildly to the right — which will only insure that, the next time the pendulum swings, it will swing wildly to the left. That pendulum will tear this country apart.
It gets worse. Mr. Trump is now assembling the most radical Administration in American history. His choices for Cabinet positions are mostly as inexperienced as he is — and will surely make as many mistakes as he will.
Indeed, Mr. Trump has already screwed up in a number of ways, the most egregious of which was his telephone conversation with the President of Taiwan. This comprised a huge break with American policy extending back nearly 40 years, supported by Congresses and administrations of both parties. It was worse than a crime: it was a blunder.
Then throw in his refusal to take seriously the obligations of the office. Mr. Trump has refused to divest himself of his assets; he has instead offered a few token changes that will not prevent him from using his presidential powers to become even wealthier. Indeed, he has already improperly transferred millions of dollars into his personal accounts.
The most serious problem will come the moment he is inaugurated. The Constitution forbids him from taking any money from foreign powers. Yet at the opening of his hotel in Washington, D.C, a few weeks ago, he explicitly urged foreign diplomats to stay at his hotel — whose rates are significantly higher than those of nearby hotels. He is already profiting from his office.
All these improprieties will eat away at his legitimacy. Republicans might have the good sense to impeach him and put Mr. Spence into the Oval Office, but I doubt it. Instead, they will loudly proclaim that he is the legal President and ignore the growing loss of legitimacy.
The consequence of that will be that the loss of legitimacy will be transferred from the President to the US government. Why should the blue states submit to a President they opposed? Why should they tolerate the transfer of so much of their tax money to red states? Why should they submit to policies on abortion, gun rights, foreign policy, public spending, and the environment that they find outrageous?
The election of Mr. Trump is the first step in the unravelling of the American republic. The chasm between red and blue is unbridgeable. A house divided against itself cannot stand.