The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump

Is Donald Trump a legitimate president? Yes and no.

Not since Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington has a president entered office facing so much organized opposition. Saturday, the day after his inauguration, marches explicitly for women’s rights (and implicitly against Donald Trump) were held all over the country, drawing (by some estimates) more than 3 million participants, and perhaps more than 4 million. The picture above is from much earlier demonstrations in the days following the election, but on the Boston Common Saturday I did see “Not My President” signs. During the boisterous moments before the official speakers took the stage, a “not my president” chant started in my section of the crowd, but quickly fizzled. [1]

It’s not just demonstrators. Last weekend, Congressman John Lewis told NBC’s Chuck Todd “I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president“, citing Russian interference in the election as a reason. Other observers — mostly Democrats, but not entirely — have given other reasons to regard Trump’s victory as shaky or suspicious: Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes than he did, winning the national vote 48%-46%. Trump was also assisted by the apparently improper interference of FBI Director James Comey. [2]

Trump has tried to bluster over such talk by tweeting about his “landslide” in the Electoral College, and making baseless charges about “the millions of people who voted illegally” for Clinton. The word legitimate came into the discussion from Trump’s supporters’ accusation that critics were trying to “delegitimatize”  his presidency. [3] By using that word, Lewis was swinging at the pitch thrown by Trump spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway.

So is he legitimate or not? On both sides, I think we’re getting lost in the vagueness of a word. What does it mean to be a “legitimate” president? I can’t speak for all the people who can’t bring themselves to call him “Mr. President”, but I thought I’d lay out exactly how legit I think Trump is, and what difference it makes.

Legal authority and moral authority. What confuses the issue, in my opinion, is that the presidency is really two things: on the one hand a legal office defined by the Constitution, but also a title evoking a much larger and fuzzier penumbra of traditional respect and moral authority. The President of the United States is not just the one who signs or vetoes laws, or gives orders to the Joint Chiefs. He is also the heir of Washington and Lincoln, the symbol and spokesman for the American people, the leader of the free world, and the recipient of the voters’ national mandate. Americans look to their president to express our collective sorrow in moments tragedy, and our resilience in the face of disaster. In our name, he recognizes outstanding achievements, and honors champions of sport and culture. We look to the president for direction in times of trouble. The Constitution says nothing about any of that.

In my mind, the legal office is really not in doubt. Congress counted the electoral votes and verified that Trump had a majority of them. So in the technical, legal sense spelled out in the Constitution, he is the President of the United States. All the powers the Constitution assigns to the President, or that Congress has delegated to him by law, are his to wield. [4]

As for the rest of it, though, Trump at this point deserves nothing, as far as I’m concerned. He is not my leader, and I do not respect him. He has no moral authority, because he deserves none. He carries no mandate, because the voters chose someone else. Our allies view him with suspicion, as they should. So he has the powers spelled out in the Constitution, period.

To a large extent, Trump has created this situation himself: When tradition would put burdens on him beyond those imposed by law, he sloughs those burdens off. [5] It is, after all, only tradition that insists that candidates reveal their tax returns or presidents put their assets in blind trust. Nothing in the Constitution requires that a president act presidential, rather than respond to even the most respectful criticism like a third-grader in a playground argument. [6] No law requires the winner of an election to be gracious, or to reach out to those who voted for other candidates, rather than gratuitously gloat over “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly“. [7]

On top of his vote deficiency and his unworthy behavior since the election, his entire life shows him to be a genuinely reprehensible person. He assaulted those women. He defrauded those Trump U students. He stiffed those contractors. This is the heir of Washington and Lincoln?

The significance of moral authority. If you think it is toothless to deny Trump the intangible, extra-constitutional benefits of the presidency, consider how often he and his supporters ask for them.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the election settled all the issues that were raised about him during the campaign. He shouldn’t have to account for his conflicts of interest, for example, because the American people knew that when they voted for him. There is no point in continuing to discuss the pussy-grabbing or the defrauding or the stiffing. Or his bigoted attacks on Mexicans or Muslims, or his mimicry of a reporter’s disability. The election washed all that away, as if the electorate were a 130-million-member jury that voted for acquittal.

If Republicans genuinely believed such a clean-slate theory of elections, then President Obama’s clear victory in 2012 would have washed away Benghazi, making all further hearings and rhetoric irrelevant and immaterial. But in Trump’s case even the internal logic of the theory doesn’t work, because the American people did not vote for him. The Electoral College may provide a legal loophole that allows him to take office, but it doesn’t grant absolution. The American people endorsed the case against Donald Trump; he still needs to answer it.

A related claim is that the millions of protesters are misguided, because we need to “give the guy a chance“. Similarly, the Senate should give his cabinet picks the benefit of the doubt, even those who are manifestly unqualified, don’t understand the laws they’re supposed to enforce, have a suspect history on racial issues, or appear to be corrupt.

But none of that is in the Constitution. Constitutionally, nobody has to give Trump or his people a chance, or any benefit of the doubt. He needs to earn all that, and he hasn’t.

Much of Trump’s power over Republicans in Congress, or his hope of intimidating red-state Democrats, comes from an intangible aura of popularity: If elected officials oppose him, his voters will rise up and smite them. That’s why it’s not just legitimate, it’s vitally important to focus public attention on the fact that he is not popular and he has never been popular. Mass demonstrations do that, and so do polls that show Trump’s approval at unprecedented lows for an incoming president. [8]

And finally, I sincerely doubt that the constitutional powers of the presidency are what Trump was aiming for when he ran. He has never shown much interest in governing or in public policy of any sort. I suspect it was the splendor of the presidency that appealed to him, and that is precisely what President Forty-six Percent must be denied unless or until he earns it.

How could he gain legitimacy? To say that Trump can’t be my president unless he agrees with me would deny the whole basis of republican government. We all lose elections from time to time, and we need to learn how to live with that. What keeps Trump from being a fully legitimate president has nothing to do with his beliefs or policies, and everything to do with how he behaves. He could gain legitimacy if he worked at it.

How? To be blunt, he could start by not acting like such an asshole all the time. [Look at note 5 again. I’m using asshole not as an insult, but as a well-defined descriptive term.] A good beginning would be to stop using the word enemies to refer to law-abiding Americans who wish we had a different president, or to journalists who report true things he’d rather people didn’t notice. It was bad enough when Nixon maintained an enemies list in secret. For the President of the United States to use that word in public to refer to anyone short of an ISIS leader is way beyond the pale.

To put that more personally: I will never recognize any man as my leader who uses the word enemy to refer to people like me, or one who takes visible pleasure in insulting me.

He could recognize and carry out the obligations that tradition puts on him, rather than simply claim the benefits. He could release his tax returns and stop setting his business up to profit from his presidency. He could apply the same moral standards to his appointees that all previous presidents have applied to theirs. [9]

He could approach his job with seriousness, and not speak unless he knows what he’s talking about. He could stop telling lies so obvious that they insult our intelligence, like the ones this weekend about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That’s what most of us mean when we say presidential. But if he won’t even attempt to become presidential, then to me he will continue to be president only in a technical legal sense.

[1] “Not my president” didn’t start with Trump protesters. It was also said about Obama and Bush.

[2] Lewis’ statement, as well as expressions of outrage by many other Democratic congresspeople, followed a classified briefing from Comey about the FBI’s investigation of the ties between the Trump campaign and the Putin government. We don’t know exactly what was said in this briefing, but a reasonable guess is that Democrats were angered by Comey’s blatant double standard: When Trump was the target, Comey upheld the FBI policies of not discussing investigations. But he repeatedly made damaging public comments based on investigations of Clinton.

[3] This charge was somewhere between ironic and hypocritical, since Trump himself had literally tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by promoting the belief that he isn’t a native-born American, as the Constitution requires. And after Obama’s re-election in 2012, he tweeted: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

[4] Trump enters office under an ethical cloud that some think should lead to his impeachment, but that’s a different issue. There are legal methods for removing a president from office, and none of them have been carried out yet. So he is president under the law.

[5] In his insistence that he should receive the intangible benefits of the presidency, but shoulder none of the intangible responsibilities all other presidents have taken on, Trump is fulfilling the definition of asshole that Aaron James laid out in 2012 in his book Assholes: a theory.

A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. … His circumstances are special in each case, in his view, because he is in them. If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.

The asshole, in one paradigmic example, is the guy who cuts to the front of the line while believing firmly in the importance of lines

[6] I found his denunciation of the cast of Hamilton particularly noteworthy. If you watch the video of the event, the cast’s message for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was entirely respectful, expressing no hostility. (“There’s nothing to boo here,” spokesman Brandon Dixon said to silence the audience.) Instead, they confessed to being “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us” and encouraged Pence “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us”.

Trump’s response (via Twitter) was not just to punch down, but to answer a respectful request for reassurance with personal insult:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

[7] Contrast this with how Lincoln, another president elected with less than a majority, closed his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

[8] Since Trump must denounce any mirror that doesn’t show him to be the fairest of them all, he claims these polls are rigged.

The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before.

The flaw in this point of view is that although a few state polls (like Michigan) were badly wrong, the national polls were pretty close. The final RCP polling average had Clinton winning nationally by 3.2%. She actually won by 2.1%. There was a much bigger error in the opposite direction in 2012: the RCP final average was that Obama would win by less than 1%, and he actually won by nearly 4%.

Errors of that magnitude wouldn’t salvage Trump’s approval/disapproval spread, which is currently at -8.1% and dropping. Traditionally, pre-inauguration is when Americans are most optimistic about their new presidents. Gallup had Obama at +71% going into his inauguration in 2009. Even popular-vote-loser George W. Bush came in at +36%.

[9] HHS nominee Tom Price profited by trading healthcare stocks while he had inside knowledge of the industry through his position in Congress, and supported legislation that benefited his companies. Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin “failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven.”  The Senate should not have to vote on these men; their nominations should be withdrawn. These are not close calls.

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  • barczablog  On January 23, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Did you SNL this past week?

    He gave Trump a clear and eloquent pathway. Wow this was brilliant because he threw down the moral gauntlet, right at Trump’s feet. President Trump needs to make a speech, explaining that the new legitimacy (haha a funny word, no?) claimed by the KKK and alt-right comes from their assumption that it’s okay to be sexist /racist / homophobic / xenophobic, and it is not okay, no no no. Ha, SEXIST doesn’t cover it, considering that Trump (in the famous tape) claims the right to assault women, which is what gave birth to the women’s pussy hats. But Trump needs to say it’s not okay to do these things and until he does so, he is under the cloud. Nevermind the questions about votes & Russia, the moral authority really comes from showing leadership in this way, from behaving as though he has A CLUE as to what is right and wrong.

  • Dennis Maher  On January 23, 2017 at 8:52 am


  • Anonymous  On January 23, 2017 at 9:54 am


  • Roger Green  On January 23, 2017 at 10:44 am

    And his failure to release his taxes or anything that proves that his taxes are indeed under audit puts all of his business connections under a cloud. He’s done this to himself. Oh, and asshole is a great descriptor.

  • Deborah McPhee  On January 23, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    Thing is, Trump is always speaking to his base. He is even speaking to his base when he speaks to the CIA. (I note that it was his team which produced and distributed the transcript.) We – the adults in the room who find much of what he says cringe worthy – are simply not the ones he is speaking to. And his supporters are just as “Rah! Rah! Rah!” as ever.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On January 23, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you. This is an excellent essay. I especially appreciated your definition and operationalization of “asshole.” I take it to mean: “When I [i.e., Trump in this case] do it, it is brilliant, right, ethical, etc. When you do it, it is stupid, wrong, criminal (e.g., “Lock her up.”).” Perhaps there should be a “Hall of Hypocrisy” (or, alternatively, the “Archive of Assholes”). For example, you note the double standard in vetting and considering Trump’s cabinet nominees. An oldie-but-goodie might be the Republican cries demanding an “up-or-down vote” for Supreme Court nominee Bork in contrast to their simply denying Obama’s nominee Garland.

  • anitathepianist  On January 23, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Dear WS,

    This is the best article I’ve seen on this subject. Thank you.

    Anita T. Monroe

    On Mon, Jan 23, 2017 at 8:23 AM, The Weekly Sift wrote:

    > weeklysift posted: “Is Donald Trump a legitimate president? Yes and no. > Not since Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington has a president > entered office facing so much organized opposition. Saturday, the day after > his inauguration, marches explicitly for women'” >

  • coastcontact  On January 23, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Your focus on “legitimacy” is interesting to read but it makes no sense to me. He won the office in accordance with the constitution. You don’t like him and you doubt his motives. I understand that but he has won the election. That ends the topic.

    • urbanvoyagersite  On January 27, 2017 at 9:22 pm

      if it is true that he won through the interference of russia, then it is reasonable to question his legitimacy. On the surface, we have Trump claiming 1) the election is rigged, 2) asking Russia to leak Hillary’s emails, 3) evidence emerges that Russia DID hack the DNC offices, 4) after winning, Trump claims he won legitimately after all (wasn’t rigged, russia wasn’t involved- but Putin and I are totally bro’s!), 5) Trump’s pick of Rex Tillerson- who’s ALSO a Putin bro!, and 6) the election WAS rigged after all- all those ‘illegal votes’ that helped the Dem’s. What does all this add up to, with Trump claiming both that the election WAS and WASN”T, rigged, if not that IF the election is rigged in any way, then his victory is in question.

      • 1mime  On January 28, 2017 at 2:38 pm

        I predict that the only way potus will be charged with collusion with Russia (regardless of evidence supporting same) is if/when potus becomes dispensible to the GOP. After all, there is no independent investigation, what “investigation” there is will be contained to a majority Republican committee whose self interest will dilute, ignore and block any news that might hinder their plans for the future. Right now, the GOP needs potus – that may not always be the case.

    • weeklysift  On January 28, 2017 at 6:40 am

      We are in agreement on the facts. In a technical, legal sense, he is president.

  • mikelabonte  On January 23, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    This post carefully distinguishes between legal and moral, and decides to address the latter. But John Lewis was addressing the legal aspect, although knowingly missing the mark. Lewis no doubt has the moral aspect in mind, but he overtly challenged the election on the basis that the results in some states did not represent how people would have voted, had interference been absent. Well yeah, I often wish some states’ votes could be thrown out because they have horribly run elections and the real answer to who won is “we can’t be sure”. Several such challenges in Congress were brushed aside Jan 6.

    It is well known that the U.S. has the worst electoral system of any modern democracy. Until we fix that we need to suck it up and accept any president it results in. But the victors in power are never interested in real election reform, are they?

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On January 23, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    It is likely that the balance of the Supreme Court is going to rest on the “fact” that the Senate did not consider, much less give an up-or-down vote, to President Obama’s nominee Judge Garland. This is why norms and legitimacy are central to the functioning of our government. There was no election involved here. This was a stark abuse of an age-old norm in government functioning. As they say: “Where is the outrage?” If President Trump’s “legitimacy,” as defined in this essay, is close to zero AND it is perceived in this vein, then just perhaps this may have an influence on the Senate’s behavior. I doubt very much it will influence President Trump’s choice. But, if I’m a U.S. Senator supporting an extreme nominee from a President with nearly zero legitimacy, then just maybe that will influence my vote.

    • 1mime  On January 23, 2017 at 4:41 pm

      Good luck with that thought. The only mandate this Republican majority has for the SCOTUS, is that an arch conservative be the appointee. Once conservative control is re-established at the SC, Republicans will control all branches of government – Congress, POTUS, SCOTUS. The GOP is on a roll.

  • Jerry Ross  On January 23, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    You make excellent points, particularly in your emphasis of why it is so important to continue to call attention to Trump’s lack of popular mandate. However, the spill-over from the formal authority of the president to his informal ability to influence events (inTrump’s instance destabilize markets, rattle allies, ramp-up enemies and worst of all, incite divisiveness at home) — regardless of his lack of moral authority —- is genuinely frightening.

  • ADeweyan  On January 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    I wonder where we would be today if the Constitution said something about flawed or tainted elections. One can disagree about whether influence from Russia or statements from the FBI swayed the final result of the election, but one can’t really deny that forces other than the quality of the candidates and appeal of their message played an important part in Trump’s victory. And that is to say nothing of voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, and many years of a taxpayer-funded smear campaign against Hillary Clinton.

    Suppose the Constitution provided for a do-over in the case of a legitimately suspect election. No, this isn’t something we’ve needed before, and isn’t something we SHOULD need, but it is looking like it is something we do need in this modern age.

    Obviously, the Constitution says no such thing (and if it did, it would probably just shunt it to the House for a decision), so Trump’s basic Constitutional legitimacy can not be questioned. But maybe this is something to keep in mind for the next Constitutional Convention…

    • weeklysift  On January 28, 2017 at 6:44 am

      In practice, the impeachment power is supposed to cover holes in the system that have no other constitutional remedy. The constitution doesn’t explicitly say that, but I don’t think the Founders would argue with that interpretation.

  • Jene Smith  On January 23, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    Hii, Thanks for the sharing nice posting with us. i’m really impressed.

  • mrarik  On January 24, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    Thanks WS,
    It’s such a shame that the real conversations that need to be had are being overshadowed by so much silly noise. When people want to talk about Trump, it’s hard to get a real word in without being drowned out by hardcore leftists or Trumpkins. Ben Shapiro wrote a great little piece:

    If this is how people are trying to prevent another Trump, I’m not too hopeful. I think that if someone put forward a candidate who wasn’t damaged goods or a disaster like Hillary, that candidate would have won the election. Instead of a proper re-grouping we get this:

    • weeklysift  On January 28, 2017 at 7:03 am

      Shapiro does the usual conservative thing: He mines for insults, and takes quotes completely out of context. It would be foolish for Democrats to try to restrict themselves to language that can’t be taken out of context.

      The hard-core Trump voter represents, I would guess, about a quarter of the electorate. We’re not going to win those people over. Trying to be nice and ignore their many expressions of bigotry is just going to shift the national conversation in a bigoted direction.

      • mrarik  On January 28, 2017 at 4:45 pm

        Did you watch the video? That’s not what I would call out of context, and last time I checked taking things out of context is everybody’s “thing,” not just the prerogative of conservatives alone. Also, I find it ironic that in order to get away from bigotry the solution is to not be nice and fire back with a different brand of bigotry (race-baiting and accusation of unconscious bias among an entire population). This is party leadership we’re talking about and just because they want everybody to feel like guilty little racists inside doesn’t make it a reality. Face it, the Democratic Party is losing its grip on intelligent people. All this stuff is going to end in disaster unless critical thinkers somehow get back in charge of that rodeo. The party needs to get away from appeasing the identity politics crowd.
        Meanwhile the Republican party has Stockholm syndrome and doesn’t know what to do about this orange toad hopping around who wants to lower taxes but also is a big-government democrat at heart. It’ll be an interesting four years. My take is that it could be eight if the left keeps everything turned up to 11 all the time. Think about it, they took Mitt Romney and tried to make him into this evil racist devil in 2012, then the same trick didn’t work twice. It’s like the boy who cried wolf, man. last time I checked it doesn’t end well.
        I just hope that people, real people, start seeing the source not the symptoms of the problems they care about. It’s like the occupy wall street people; Instead of marching over to the Federal Reserve or the White House to demand their freedoms back, they were yelling and screaming about the bankers who simply got all liquored up by cheap money from the Fed. Now, looking at racial inequality, instead of demanding the federal government stop expanding and creating a pseudo-welfare state, you’ve got people yelling and screaming about the “white people” who manipulate society, working together unconsciously with a secret matrix of hate in the ether. It’s a joke.


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