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Friday, January 20, 2017

Careful What You Wish For: Making Trump an “Illegitimate President”

I’m writing this on Friday, January 20th, the day Donald John Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.  That fact has caused a lot of anxiety in this country.

There’s a great following suddenly for the idea that Representative John Lewis so casually mentioned in a recent NBC interview with Chuck Todd in which he identified Donald Trump as not a “legitimate president” because his election was corrupted by Russian thumbs leaning heavily on the electoral scale.  That’s a very seductive idea for those of us (me included) who are disturbed by the idea of the United States of America being led by someone who has the impulses of a five year old and the attention span of a puppy. 

“OH HELL, YES!” I want to shout.  If only enough people can rise up and proclaim Donald Trump’s so-called “presidency” not real, then—hallelujah!—our national nightmare is over!!!  We aren’t, after all, going to all be merely collateral damage as he alienates first this group, and the next group, and ruins health care, and civil rights, and destroys the environment beyond saving, and pokes other countries until they bristle at his hamhanded attempts to bully them until he’s finally forced to sit the nuclear football down on his lap and begin experimenting with the buttons.

I think all of those things are very, very possible.  The coming nightmare is no dream at all.

But . . .  (deep breath here) . . . but I also think that what John Lewis said and that others are so anxious to embrace is far more dangerous than the presidency of Donald John Trump.  Saying Trump is “illegitimate” is easy; implementing the idea is impossible.

Bear with me as I explain why. 

In the bestselling book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, the author draws a distinction between “facts” and “myths.”  A tree is a fact, but when I say I live in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States of America, that is, in his words, a myth.  Columbus is just a story the people who live around here tell ourselves, but if we quit believing in the City of Columbus, it would disappear.  Yes, the buildings would still be standing, but the ideas that makes it “Columbus” would not.  This is equally true of the “State of Ohio” and the country called the “United States of America.”  That country, in turn, bases its existence on a government run by our Constitution, which is the bedrock of the whole system.  That document is also just a story that we all agree to believe in, or, perhaps more accurately, a contract which we have impliedly made.

Donald Trump has been elected through a process dictated by that Constitution, and today, in front of the major government officials (including his outgoing predecessor) and with the whole world watching, he swore an oath to uphold that Constitution.  This peaceful transfer of power is an American invention, a major development in the history of the world, something now imitated in country after country.

But the whole thing only works if we all agree that it works.  If Lewis’ view prevails and Trump’s presidency is “illegitimate,” well . . . then, what?  The Constitution has made him our president.  The only path it provides for his removal is impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  During the next four years he may commit such crimes, but until he does and that process is triggered, he is still the president.

What would Lewis and adherents of his view have us do?  There is no mechanism for his removal other than impeachment.  Should we nonetheless ignore the Constitution—quit “believing” in it?  Storm the White House and take Trump out by force?  A pitched battle that would pit anti-Trumpers against pro-Trumpers (and the United States military)?  Anarchy?  Civil war? 

Does anyone . . . anyone  . . . think that’s a good idea?

John Lewis is an admirable man, one of the greats of the civil rights movement, and his words should count for something when he speaks so seriously.  But the idea that we can just deem our president “illegitimate” and therefore not recognize him as the head of our government is also a rejection of that government.  It took us a long time to create the world’s first sustainable democracy, but if enough people stop believing in how it works, it will cease to exist.  In the words of King Lear “That way madness lies.”

I hate Donald Trump.  I think he’s likely to quickly prove to be the worst president this country has ever had, and that it was a major mistake to put him in office.  But he’s in that office now.  He’s the President of the United States, and it’s important that that fact be clear in all our minds, like it or not.  Trump is my president and, if you’re a citizen of the United States, yours too.  If you’re going to battle the asshole, do it legally.  Protest his policies and actions, not his office.  I’ll join you in that.

Upside Down Flag: Symbol of Distress

Related Posts:
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“President Preposterous: Donald Takes the Helm,” November 14, 2016;

“Calm Yourself: What Trump Can and Cannot Do About LGBT Rights,” November 16, 2016;

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