May 26, 2017

Should We Care Whether Trump Was the Legitimate Winner of the Election?

The subject of my latest column at Vox is the nature of legitimate political authority and Donald Trump’s shaky claim to it. In the mainstream of the liberal political tradition, the legitimacy of political authority is considered pretty hard to justify. Authority entails inequality and political authority in particular entails inequality in the power to use violent measures to elicit compliance. The consensus view is that if it’s possible at all to justify investing some people with the power to coercively boss other people around, it’s only going to be within an institutional scheme in which those powers are very tightly controlled.  A useful way to see the elaborate structure of advanced liberal democracies—elected representative deliberative bodies; division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; a professional and relatively independent civil service; the relative political independence of the judiciary; a charter of rights and freedoms; a free and independent press, etc.—is as an evolved set of solutions to the problem of containing and channeling coercive political authority so that we’re better of with it than without it. I think of these institutions as “legitimacy-enabling.”

Now, when folks talk about the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, they generally have the possibility of Russian interference in mind. That’s not unimportant. But Trump is so overtly hostile to our legitimacy-enabling  institutions, rules, and norms, I don’t think you need to even mention Russian election meddling to make the case that he’s gutted the legitimacy of his authority through his own actions. So I decided to bracket the question of whether he was the legitimate winner of the election in my Vox piece.  

But I still think it’s a good question, and that the answer isn’t at all clear.  

Representative John Lewis (D-GA) created a furor (and elicited some furious Trump tweets) when he said, in the run-up to the inauguration: “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president.” But he had a point.

Lewis did not deny that Trump won according to the rules. He denied that Trump won according to the spirit of the rules—the underlying principles the rules are meant to codify. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis said. “And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

The outcome of a presidential election is supposed to express the preference of the American people, by way of the Electoral College, after a long process of collective deliberation among citizens. If a hostile foreign power intervenes in that process with propaganda, misinformation, and selective leaks, and if this intervention turns out to be decisive, then the procedure picked a different candidate than it would have picked had it not been subverted. It’s hard to prove, but if Russian interference did turn out to decisive in Trump’s victory, the legitimacy of his victory, and the power that he now wields as president, ought to be in doubt.   

Consider a sports analogy. Suppose the unscrupulous owner of a football team, the Cosmonauts, has installed a secret system of high-speed fans that affects the airflow in his stadium. It can be deployed to subtly increase his team’s chances of making long field goals while reducing his opponents’ chances. Suppose this turns out to be decisive in two games over the course of the season, which turn out to be necessary for the Cosmonauts to get to the playoffs. The legitimacy of those victories, and the team’s playoff spot, is dubious not because the Cosmonauts didn’t have more points on the board at the end of the two games. They did! The problem is that the points on the board at the end of those games, and the Cosmonauts’ record at the end of the season, were determined by forces that aren’t supposed to affect the score—forces that actively undermine the institution meant to identify the legitimate winner.

I think Lewis’ doubts about Trump’s legitimacy are just about as reasonable as doubts that the Cosmonauts deserve to be in the playoffs.

The election was incredibly close. If not for 70,000 votes across three states, Hillary Clinton would have won. In an election this close, each major factor might have been decisive. Among these factors were, presumably, the rank incompetence of the Clinton campaign. Then there is James Comey’s October 28 letter announcing a batch of new emails possibly relevant to Clinton’s email practices as Secretary of State Nate Silver thinks it’s pretty clear that the election was tipped by Comey’s letter while Nate Cohn says the timing doesn’t work.

In contrast, the Russian interventions in the election—the DNC hack, the Wikileaks dump, the social media troll armies, the fake news propaganda operations—can’t be shown to have affected the outcome because they were doled out over time and diffuse in their effects. But this is what makes the devious owner of the Cosmonauts so smart! It’s pretty well impossible for any team that lost to the Cosmonauts due to a missed field goal to prove that any particular field goal attempt failed because of the secret fans. That’s what’s so attractive about “atmospheric” interference. It’s hard to detect, so it’s easy to deflect the charge that the output of the process was illegitimate. But we shouldn’t let that stop us from suspecting that it was.

However,  it’s important not to get carried away with this stuff. As I argue in the Vox piece:

Partisans always call their opponents’ legitimacy in question. Politics is always more than a little shady. Governmental stability is so incredibly important that we ought to be willing to tolerate a fair bit of degeneracy in the system for the sake of civil peace.

A healthy political culture isn’t brittle, and good institutions have built-in mechanisms for dealing with some level of corruption and abuse of power. If the system can handle it, we ought to try to ride out low-grade illegitimacy using the established procedures.

I think the same can be said of questions about the legitimacy of elections. Almost every tight election victory can be attributed to the influence of something (e.g., illegal voters, onerous voter I.D. laws) or somebody (e.g., the Koch brothers, George Soros, Rupert Murdoch, Katherine Harris) the losing partisan faction sees as a nefarious and illegitimate. But, again, the value of peaceful transitions of power and basic institutional stability is so profound, it seems wise not to take claims of illegitimate electoral victory too seriously, even when they might be true. If a definitive, decisive way of settling things and assigning power is a necessary element of an open society, a principled hesitancy to look too closely at the democratic process will be a critical, if ironic, democratic norm.

I think Americans have historically observed this norm in a healthy way. But I do worry that wariness about looking under the hood leaves a vulnerability that diabolical foreign rivals, like Russia, can exploit, and this can do real harm to American interests, and dangerously subvert the point of putting the people subject to political authority at the center of the process of assigning it. The possibility that an unfriendly foreign power really might have determined the outcome of an American election is so alarming that it’s probably worth setting aside our scruples about looking under the hood in order to really understand what happened, so that we can ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

But we also ought to take seriously the possibility that antagonistic states might try to affect American election results precisely in order to promote a widespread sense that the outcome was rigged and that the winner is illegitimate. Why would they do this? Because it encourages partisan enmity, erodes national unity, and weakens the resolve and influence of the American state on the world stage. Fomenting a domestic legitimacy crisis in the United States gives rival great powers a bit more geopolitical elbow room. Given this possibility, it seems that we ought to (a) insist on finding out exactly how outside influence was exerted and take strong measures to minimize it in the future, but (b) continue to be pretty casual about the possibility that Trump merits the presidency in the same way that the Cosmonauts merit a playoff spot.

This is a tricky combo for partisans to sustain. Most Americans who want to find out exactly how Russian influence worked want to stick it to Trump, and most who think we ought to shrug about the possibility of electoral malfeasance insist that Russian election meddling is fake news. Though I’m about as non-partisan as is humanly possible, I do want to stick it Trump. However, that’s because I think there’s overwhelming evidence he’s a kleptocratic authoritarian who threatens the integrity of our liberal institutions. For the sake of those institutions, I think we ought to challenge the legitimacy of his authority on those grounds, not on the grounds of how he came into office. That doesn’t mean not worrying about the role of the Russians in the election. But it does mean not putting the focus on whether or not their influence was decisive.