Democrats Shouldn’t Call Trump “Illegitimate” Unless They Mean It

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently I’ve been disturbed by how flippantly the term “illegitimate” is getting tossed around by some Democrats and Trump opponents. Since Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) denounced Trump as illegitimate, many have criticized Trump’s petulant reply to Lewis while defending or echoing his remark. Some feel this is perfectly acceptable because the birthers on the right denied Obama’s legitimacy, claiming falsely that he was born in Kenya. But while the birther movement was absurd, we did not see mainstream Republican politicians explicitly deny the legitimacy of Obama–even Trump himself never used that term in any of his birther tweets. Legitimacy is a very serious political concept, and we should be extraordinarily selective about when we invoke it.5b

Political theorists have many different ideas about what makes a government legitimate, but they all have one thing in common–when a government is not legitimate, people are entitled to overthrow it. There are many different sorts of things which might make a government illegitimate, but you can broadly divide them into two categories:

  1. Outcome Illegitimacy–outcome legitimacy is violated when the set of outcomes produced by a state’s institutions are so bad that people lose confidence (or ought to lose confidence) in the ability of the state institutions to produce acceptable outcomes.
  2. Process Illegitimacy–process legitimacy is violated when a regime operates outside the accepted institutional framework, taking power or making policy through extralegal means such that the people lose confidence (or ought to lose confidence) in the ability of the state institutions to ensure that decisions are made through a procedure people recognize as fair and non-arbitrary.

If Donald Trump was elected in a procedurally illegitimate way, or if his election indicates that our institutions are no longer outcome legitimate, we would be entitled to overthrow him by force. Indeed, if he has compromised the integrity of the political process or embodies institutional failure, we would have a duty to overthrow him. When someone says “the president is illegitimate”, that means “you can overthrow the president by force and may have a moral duty to do so”. Telling people that is unwise unless you mean it. They might actually listen to you and attempt to kill the president and his supporters.

Defending what Lewis said on the grounds that Trump is a bully or on the grounds that Lewis is a civil rights hero misses the point. None of these things would make it okay to attempt to kill the president and his supporters. Anyone who defends what Lewis said must defend that claim, because that is precisely what Lewis encouraged, whether he intended to or not–violent insurrection against the state.

It is not, as David Weigel in The Washington Post called it “the new rudeness”. We’re going through a period in politics where rudeness is cool because it connotes authenticity. There’s a feeling nowadays that most politicians are too well-spoken, and that behind this display lies nothing but deceit. Rudeness is emotional, and when a politician shows emotion they’re more believable–people are less likely to think their statements are an act. Trump used this to great advantage, deliberately and repeatedly showing anger as a strategy. Many people didn’t think he could fake that anger. Indeed, many of Trump’s opponents continue to believe he is a genuinely angry, unstable person–even they bought the act, albeit not in the way Trump intended. We know it’s an act because so many Republicans who were concerned about Trump went into rooms with him and came out with all their concerns melted away, like somebody had assimilated them into a borg. Trump was able to turn off the anger in private, because the anger was never real to begin with. The politician who felt the most authentic was really the most mendacious of them all.

Trump was rude a lot, but sometimes that rudeness crossed a line. Sometimes he said things that genuinely made some people worry that they were going to be attacked or brutalized, that really were incitements to violence. Trump probably did not intend them as incitement–he was perfectly willing to tell his supporters to “stop it“–but the words he used as political strategy nonetheless encouraged his more radically inclined supporters to engage in political violence. Many people still feel unsafe and will continue to feel unsafe, because of things Trump said to his supporters during the campaign. When a politician makes people feel genuinely unsafe, we’ve crossed over from rudeness. At that point we’re actively eroding the barrier between legal politics and civil conflict.

Sometimes that barrier needs to be eroded–sometimes governments really are illegitimate, and we have to resist them by civil disobedience or even by force. But we should never, ever erode that barrier unless we absolutely believe this to be the case and we are ready and willing to organize new sets of political institutions to replace the ones we are prepared to throw out.

I don’t think these Democrats are serious. I think they’re screwing around. We don’t screw around with legitimacy. Knock it off.