Mark Souder: President Trump's political legitimacy
Wednesday, February 01, 2017 10:57 AM
FORT WAYNE – Winning an election is one thing; winning political legitimacy is another. The current debate about crowd sizes, popular versus electoral vote, and fake news all revolve another equally salient point: Elections in America are anchored on Election Day results but that is just the start of a continual battle for “political legitimacy.”
This process will continue during an entire administration, but the first stages are the most important in establishing basic legitimacy: Election Day and debate about the results, transition, and inauguration and the first 100 days.
Election results debate
When Trump raised doubts as to whether he’d accept the election results, the media went apoplectic and the Democrats mocked him. Trump won, and then many on the left refused to accept the results, challenging them way past any legitimate concerns about fraud. Fair observers realized that this unwillingness to accept the election totals was a fundamental challenge of the integrity of the voting process.
Furthermore, if there was significant fraud, the majority was on the Democrat side. It is a complex issue, but to deny that most election fraud now, and for all American history, has been in dense urban concentrations is, well, an alternative fact. It results in “fake news” by omission. This part of “fake news” is a problem that many in traditional media cannot even comprehend because of their bias. They see the issue as one of “commission” (i.e. printing “made up” facts) as opposed to creating a false story by omission of facts that would change the story from favoring their point of view.
The conflict over legitimate vote results was compounded by the fact that Trump defeated Clinton in the Electoral College vote decisively, but, thanks to California, she prevailed in the popular vote. Those who argue for a pure democracy and not a republic hated the concept of an Electoral College long before Donald Trump ran for president. They, however, hoped to utilize what they perceived as universal scorn for him to unite with what they perceived as general outrage against the Electoral College to de-legitimize his clear victory.
Trump countered these attacks with a series of counter-attacks, designed to establish the “legitimacy” of his victory, some true and some that strained credibility (to use the kindest word possible).
He said that he would have won the popular vote if that was the way the winner was decided in American elections. That is very possible because he would have definitely altered his advertising, personal schedule and possibly his issue focus. He is a flexible man. I’m not sure what Constitution complaining Democrats were following.
He claims that he won among legitimate voters, implying that many voters should not have been registered, in addition to traditional fraud. Both are likely true, both likely would not have reduced but a small fraction of Clinton’s popular vote margin.
Trump claimed that his victory was massive, one of the largest ever. It was significant but his claim is demonstrably false.
While he had missteps, the initial Election Day debate was decisively won by Trump, and undermined the left for the next battle over the transition.
President-elect Trump avoided any major personal mistakes. His biggest test during this phase was the formation of a new government. His combination of inflammatory tweets and selection of enough “original” high profile Trump people like Steve Bannon pleased his core supporters and distracted the media from substantive issues. Most of his choices were within the conservative range of experience and credibility.
Trump effectively used Mitt Romney and at-risk Democrat senators as foils to solidify his legitimacy. He summoned a wide variety of people to visit him at Trump Tower to further demonstrate that he was now in charge. Even his criticized usage of Trump Tower was a brilliant strategy to strengthen his aura of business success.
The president-elect successfully stonewalled the release of many financial forms for himself and his cabinet, which minimized the constant media carping about small conflicts. The media history of nit-picking effectively undermined potential discovery of serious conflicts of interest.
While there were some hints of the problems that plagued his early campaign, Trump won the transition period so decisively that most Americans, even those who hated the results, were reconciling themselves with his presidency.
Inauguration day and the first 100 days
The inaugural crowd debate was a disaster. His speech pleased his core who, frankly, cared more about tone. Many traditional Republicans blithely ignored the parts they didn’t like. He added no one to his support.
The “alternative facts” debate will be on-going. The lousy choice of words meant that that it came out as “an alternative to facts” as opposed to “other facts that the media had not included.” This, of course, fueled the debate about what constitutes “fake news.” These debates gave his “legitimacy” a negative hit and his continued obsession with defending every mistake could prove very damaging over the long haul.
President Trump’s first executive orders upset most of those who were always against him, as did President Clinton’s and President Obama’s. However, they are what he promised to do and within a president’s authority.
The revenge of a government bureaucracy through leaks, and the predictable tendency of all presidents to complain and then over-react to them, is magnified in Trump’s case. More pointed things are leaked by a hostile bureaucracy, and he over-reacts more severely. The fact is, however, that the bureaucracy was elected by no one and does not have the right to set policy.
The net of these early phases as to been to successfully negotiate the first mine fields, resulting in most Americans accepting him as a “legitimate” president. The protests increasingly seem to be the elongated whining of losers.
President Trump’s challenge will now be to extend his somewhat broadened, but still shaky, majority into a workable governing coalition. His unorthodox style has thus far been blended more effectively with traditional governing than most expected. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to somewhat exceed expectations.
Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.