Skip to main content

The consequences of presidential ‘illegitimacy’

Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | January 21, 2017

When civil rights icon Representative John Lewis said he would not attend the inaugural because he did not consider Donald Trump a “legitimate” president, it ignited a firestorm of controversy. Trump predictably responded with a tweet attacking Lewis’s character rather than Russian hacking and some 60 of the congressman’s colleagues joined him in the boycott.

The legitimacy of a presidential election has come into question on at least three occasions in my lifetime, all with severe consequences. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey lost one of the closest elections in American political history to Richard Nixon who had a “secret” plan to end the war in Vietnam. According to the New York Times, the disruption of Nixon’s 1969 inaugural parade by war protesters was the first in 180 years of the presidency. Just recently what had been suspected has now been confirmed — that during the campaign Nixon had “secret” discussions with the Vietnamese to stall any peace talks until after the election. Of course Nixon’s administration marked a new low for modern presidents as he resigned in disgrace in 1974.

In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush but with the electoral college vote hanging in the balance a Republican Supreme Court handed the election to Bush. Bush proceeded to launch two costly and continuing wars, increase the national debt and wreck the economy. Gore went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on climate change.

It remains to be seen to what extent Russian involvement influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Ironically FBI Director James Comey has refused to speculate on his investigation of the hacking on the grounds that the bureau is always neutral in political matters. Russian hacking, along with the fact that Hillary Clinton received approximately 3 million more popular votes than Trump, have led many to join Lewis in questioning both Trump’s mandate and his legitimacy. It is difficult to accept the calls of Trump supporters to give him a chance when he launched his political career eight years ago as the leader of the “birther” movement challenging the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency.

What seems clear is that we are likely to see increased division in our country until some of the checks our founding fathers placed on democracy are removed. The founders were pre-eminently concerned with power of the House of Representatives and sought to balance it with a Senate that was indirectly elected until the 20th century, a Supreme Court appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate but not the House, and a president selected by an electoral college. This past century we have managed to reform the election of senators although they still disproportionally advantage states with small populations. Isn’t it time to get rid of the electoral college?