“Not my President!” is what at least one sign read during a recent anti-Trump demonstration. A perfectly understandable sentiment, but problematic. The plain, ugly fact is that Trump will actually be our president. I think it’s wrong, both in principle and as a matter of political strategy, to suggest that Trump’s occupation of the White House will be illegitimate. To do so would be to commit the same transgression that we rightly criticize Trump for: an apparent unwillingness to play by the rules of our democratic system, rules that notably include a respect for the outcomes of elections. It is certainly fair to say—and we should, say repeatedly—that Trump’s election, and therefore his presidency, is tainted. Tainted because of the substantial margin by which he lost the popular vote; because of Comey’s probably decisive impropriety; and because of Putin’s intervention. But “tainted” isn’t the same as “illegitimate.” The popular vote is not the constitutionally prescribed method of choosing the president, and we can’t know for sure that Putin or even Comey decided the election. Even if they did, it was the voters who decided freely to cast the votes that they did.
So, Trump’s presidency will be legitimate in a strict technical sense, but significantly tainted. Certainly, the repeated claim by his spokesperson Kellyanne Conway that Trump has a mandate can be dismissed. A victorious politician’s claim to have won a mandate is almost always dubious: people cast votes for different reasons, and an election seldom represents a clear popular expression of will for one or another course of action. But it is more than dubious to claim a mandate for a politician who hasn’t even won a plurality of the popular vote—it’s ridiculous.
And we must never, ever fall into the trap of expressing respect for Trump because he’s our president. President Obama was obliged to say nice things about Trump because as president he has a constitutional responsibility to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power. Ordinary citizens are under no such obligation. The Trump presidency will be abnormal, not only because of the tainted circumstances of his election, but because of the character of the man himself. Trump is not only a dangerous jerk with a vastly inflated belief in his own capabilities; he is also a thoroughly contemptible human being, a genuine sociopath utterly lacking in integrity and largely unencumbered by what most of us would call a conscience. Never has the White House been occupied by such a man. Moderation in contempt for Trump is not a virtue.
I’m planning to do a post on the Obama legacy some time soon, but in the mean time, if you’re not a subscriber I would encourage you to try to get hold of the Jan. 2-9 issue of The Nation, a special issue devoted to “The Obama Years.” It has a good number of insightful articles, some of which I will be talking about.