I’ve been trying to compose my thoughts about what transpired last November that has left us with one of the most uncertain political situations we have faced in so long that I find it difficult to make a comparison. Possibly Rutherford B. Hayes. Possibly Harding.
The aspect of this that has baffled me most is the fact that sixty million of my fellow citizens cast a ballot for a man they do not trust.
An odd statement, I know, but in all the rhetoric I’ve seen, both before and after the election, I see very little that suggests anyone actually trusts Trump. That’s not to say there weren’t many reasons for those who did to vote for him, but I don’t believe trust is one of them. Maybe it’s opposite. Certainly a good dose of cynicism was involved.
I’m not going to rehearse here the various theories about stolen or corrupted elections. I’m not concerned with that at the moment. What I’m concerned about is those sixty million voters. Those and the ninety million who did not vote. For the purposes of this piece, I see them all of a piece.*
So one hundred fifty million Americans put a man in the White House they do not trust. Other metrics were involved. Other motives.
Firstly, about that trust thing.
When Obama was elected, people voted for him with a measure of confidence that he would represent their interests. That change was in the offing. That he was capable of making a difference to the benefit of the country. They talked about hope and change interchangeably. It was obvious that they felt he would do positive things. They trusted him. Both times.
And the reaction of his opponents came out of recognition of that basic reality. What his enemies had to do was destroy that trust, if possible. And because of that trust, their main weapon was denial. Because it meant their candidates did not command such confidence or trust. He had to be shown, therefore, to be ineffective.
He had to be delegitimized.
In the brawl over the last eight years, perhaps they succeeded on a level not intended. They did not, I think, manage to delegitimize President Obama. Rather, they fulfilled one of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical dictums and managed to delegitimize the idea of governance.
No, I don’t think that’s what they intended to do, but the fight they engaged was over fundamental principles of the purpose of government. In past fights, it was easier to simply discredit the person in office, either by impugning his reputation or exposing corrupt policies. This time, though, they had neither opportunity, not in any useful way. What policies they attempted to present as corrupt were not. Some of them were mistakes, some bad ideas, some poorly managed, but none were in any way explicitly corrupt. And the man himself offered nothing to attack. Even Obama’s detractors, unless they were being programmatically obtuse, could not but respect him.
Which left them only with a fight over principles.
Which they were losing.
Why else adopt a tactic of pure and undifferentiated obstruction? This became obvious with the nomination of Merrick Garland, who had previously enjoyed more than a little praise from the very people who then refused to even have hearings about his appointment to the Supreme Court. There was no good reason to do this. It was purist petulance. The commitment on the part of GOP senators and representatives to block everything Obama attempted to do had no basis in logic or sound thinking. It was entirely party driven. A short-sighted policy to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.
The intent, no doubt, was to show Obama’s philosophy of governance wanting. That the Democrats, as exemplified by the president, had no good ideas. That based on their success at roadblocking even discussions on his policy measures the Republicans would show themselves as morally and philosophically superior.
The problem is, without that discussion there is no way to know who has the superior governing philosophy. Ideas need airing, discussion, debate in order to determine their merit. Instead, the GOP has successfully damaged, possibly destroyed, public trust in governance of any kind, at least at the federal level, for a substantial number of citizens. By blanket opposition to anything Obama attempted, nothing was shown to be superior—only achievable. Namely, the inevitable loss of public confidence in government.
They managed to strip the presidency of legitimacy.
They intended to strip Obama of legitimacy. They failed. He still retains it. But he’s leaving office. It is the office that has been damaged, though public understanding of that fact has probably not caught up with the reality.
What could be more inevitable then that we elect a man who already has no legitimacy to an office that may be badly lacking it?
The idea of legitimacy is a tricky one. It precedes trust. It is an intangible assumption that a person or institution deserves to be entrusted with representational responsibilities, that they are what they appear to be, that their actions, in part and in total, are born out of sound motives and based on confidence in the abilities and competencies required to be present and at the ready. In part, it is a kind of faith that what will be done will be done for the benefit of the community. That even in failure, the attempts to fulfill duties are done in good faith. When all these various implicit characteristics are in place and extant, then trust follows.
Legitimacy underlies all assumptions of power back to the days of kings and pharaohs and other potentates. It is the reason for such grave concern over lineage and the legal rights of heirs and successors. Because continuity is important, certainly, but the imprimatur of authority must be seen to pass rightfully from one hand to the next in order for chaos to be kept at bay. It is a delicate, powerful thing which, when in place, is hardly thought of but once damaged or absent can be seen as all important. Which explains both why we are now so troubled by possible outside interference with this election and why forms are being so rigorously defended by those who know something is amiss. Why, specifically, the Electoral College did not act in its legal capacity to change its vote in the face of evident misadventure and the clear unsuitability of the president elect—because in the absence of legitimacy in the outcome the legitimacy of the institutions must be protected. Because the office has been damaged in the eyes of the people, a changed vote by the Electors could easily have been the final blow to a marginally creditable system. Barring Trump would be seen as less a decision against a usurper than as one more reason to distrust the system.
I say “usurper” purposefully, though with full admission of the irony implied.
It was usurpation that invented those so-called popular sanctions, those speeches, those monotonous congratulations, the customary tribute that in every age the same men pay, with great prodigality and in almost the same words, to the most contradictory measures. In them, fear apes all the appearances of courage, to congratulate itself on its own shame and to express thanks for its own misfortunes. A peculiar stratagem that deceives no one! A game that impresses no one and that should have succumbed long ago to the arrows of ridicule! But ridicule attacks all and destroys nothing.
Benjamin Constant, On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814
Constant was talking about Napoleon, of course, but consider—Napoleon achieved a position of ultimate power in France with the assent of the people who claimed legitimacy to bestow that power. That Napoleon turned out to be other than what anyone expected made him a species of usurper. He replaced legitimate authority by virtue of pure assertion. That he did so in the wake of the complete loss of legitimacy on the power of the monarchy only underscored the fact that he had no authenticity, only the force of a manufactured popular mandate.
People loved him.
For a while, at least. And when he had been beaten and exiled the first time, the Sisyphean task of recovering legitimacy in a Restoration ran into the reality of a desolated economy and a broken public trust led to a final surge of popular support during his Hundred Days.
Now, a usurper can still do the job, but has the same problem as the delegitimized “rightful” ruler, namely a lack of trust from the people. In this instance, the office is the damaged part, which is why Obama was unable to pass on his still-intact legitimacy to an heir, namely Hillary Clinton. Large segments of the popular base that swept him into office in two historic elections did not stir itself to grant its favor upon her because she had been the one the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama had successfully tainted. They could not damage him so they attacked his staff. The repeated harangue over settled questions served his enemies well, because she was seen finally as corrupt—so corrupt in fact that her corruption was beyond revelation.
Constant again: Usurpation brutalizes a people while oppressing it—accustoms it to trample on what it respected, to court what it despises, to despise itself. And if usurpation manages to endure for any length of time, it actually makes impossible any freedom or improvement after its fall.
The irony in our case, of course, is that the usurpation has been done for the usurper, rather than by him.
When I say that no one who supported him trusts Trump I base this on the immediate and almost desperate sounding apologia that followed on the heels of his election, that he never really meant all the things he said, that he was speaking allegorically or metaphorically, or, more cynically still, that he was only saying those things in order to win and would never actually act on any of it. Often these apologies are made by people who months before lauded him for plain-speaking, for “saying it like it is,” for being “genuine.” And again, this was all said with no sense of irony. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But disturbingly, I think, based on a perception that it didn’t really matter, which suggests either no understanding of what was happening or an admission that all faith in the office had been lost and it was of no consequence who inhabited it.
Of course, the apologies on his behalf also suggest some understanding of how undesirable those things he said actually are. People made excuses for the visiting uncle at Thanksgiving who couldn’t stop telling off-color jokes and wondering why cousin so-n-so had to go an marry someone not of his or her ethnicity. Oh, he doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being, you know—
And no one seems to have the authority, the moral will—the legitimacy—to tell him to leave, or just shut up. Possibly because they see him as a founder of the feast.
This is no surprise in a movement which on the one hand is represented by David Brooks and on the other end by Alex Jones.
The lack of trust manifests among those who must now work with him. Many stepped up to voice opposition to him during the campaign, but are now backpedaling because they see him as the one who may be useful to them. But while they may be acting as if everything is as it should be, they do not trust him, and may well believe he is not legitimate. They’re stuck, though, because the institutions they have worked so hard to control are in danger of collapse after several decades of sapping, and if they move aggressively to correct what is clearly a mistake they risk losing everything they have worked toward.
In order for a government to work effectively, a certain degree of confidence must be in place that what it does is done legitimately. The general populace may know some of what goes on, but the entire point of a government is in its function of dealing with things too vast and complex for the average citizen to access, at least in the details. We have to trust that the institutions in place are managed by people who do what they do with a minimum degree of competence and for the benefit of those they represent. When Reagan began his campaign of delegitimizing the very idea of government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” August 12, 1986) he put at risk that powerful, fragile trust necessary for a government to function. It has never been a question of criticizing the government—we have always done that, it is part of the very institutions we rely on that we do that—but the very idea that the general will can be legitimately expressed through those institutions that Reagan called into question.
I doubt he intended the results we see now, but this is his true legacy. This is what has become of popular conservatism.+ Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of the struggle against progressivism.
Conservatism itself has been usurped. It has morphed from a philosophy of preservation and economic and demographic caution to one that simply rejects change. From there it has become dynamically retrograde, identifying a priori change as a viable target, rejected out of hand as having somehow violated conservative prerogatives. Hence the assault on even New Deal concepts which have long become part of the settled landscape of Things To Be Conserved. (The entire movement to privatize as many public programs as possible is part of this. Should they acknowledge the legitimacy of these programs as part of the proper purview of government, they would be forced to admit change as a necessary aspect of their philosophy.)
There is in the current manifestation of the Conservative movement a deeply-nurtured mediocrity. Partly this is a result of a mangled understanding of the nature of equality, but mostly it stems from a distrust of anything that requires imagination or innovation. The only vision put forth by their best lights is a vague ritual solemnity that masks an avarice without taste and certainly stripped of genuine morality. Form is all and even in that it is only the form of denial.
There is no climate change. There is no viable secularism. There is nothing to evolution. There is no alternative to oil, capitalism, or god.
There is no good progress.
Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of their struggle against progressivism. Lacking a substantive alternative, they have engaged a battle of labels. Over time, the things meant by those labels have been abandoned, so we no longer know—possibly on either side—what they mean. So attempts at restructuring the economic landscape, for instance, to shift the flow of resources to a broader population are labeled Socialist, but what is meant by that within the context of the struggle has nothing to do with socialism.
So what has replaced genuine conservatism is a regressive denial of progress. Consequently, one method in play to thwart progress is the categorical dismantling of the material and legal scaffolding on which any progress depends for any success. Like social security. Or voting rights. Progress is not to be trusted. Therefore the tools and foundations of it must be denied those who would most likely pursue it on behalf of those who would most likely support its use. The so-called Safety Net must be destroyed so those it allows a degree of comfort and security to move forward cannot affect change.
This philosophy has been ideal for those who have been pouring huge amounts of money into the political process in order to secure for themselves a free field of movement to guarantee their hegemony over resources. The use of money in campaigns may have begun as a tool to support ideas and a representational legitimacy, but as the contest fragmented and the points of focus were lost, it became a means of winning. When it was no longer clear what winning served, money became the end in itself. Building war chests on the chance that one day there might be a philosophy worth supporting has become endemic to the struggle. Consider the point-free arguments over taxation. We rarely hear clear arguments over what use taxes are to be put, only increasingly strident rhetoric over whether they should even exist. Meanwhile, borrowing continues, because that feeds private coffers which then pay for more strident anti-tax rhetoric.
Through all this the one thing that is excised from our political life that will be perhaps the final brace to a damaged system is competence. Competence aligned to legitimacy is dangerous to a self-justifying mediocrity.
As I said at the beginning, I did not intend to talk about outside intervention here. I am concerned with the voters, who have chosen to reward an illegitimate candidate, both by direct ballot and, more importantly, by abstention. The work of delegitimizing our institutions is all but accomplished and this election is proof. Because popular sentiment became invested not in the office but in the persons involved, to the exclusion of much if not everything else. Once there was a time when it did not matter so much which candidate won, we all trusted that certain basic duties of the office would be fulfilled regardless.# So those who lost grumbled and went home and geared up for the next election and got on with their lives knowing the scaffolding and superstructure was in place. That the one who won at minimum would fulfill the required functions of the office to the general benefit of the community. We trusted in the legitimacy of the elected candidate. We could change our mind in four years.
That did not happen this time. One hundred fifty million voters decided there was no legitimacy to be had, so on the one hand keep the competent one out and on the other hand assume a principle aloofness and refuse to participate. Because those who voted for Trump do not trust him. This will become apparent. Nor do they have confidence in the institutions anymore, so why elect someone who would be adept at running those institutions?
They have placed themselves in a mindset that allows for no real alternatives other than the continued deterioration of systems they no longer believe in but hope will not abandon them. We have a crisis of legitimacy. Worthy candidates will be seen as more a danger than a benefit because making things work to our benefit has been characterized as somehow inimical to our identity.
In a way, we have usurped our own government. In its place will now be a set of forms that will set the stage for a series of convulsions until finally we get past the constraints of our fear.
*And yes, I acknowledge that voter suppression was an active force in all of this, but ninety million? No, suppression cannot account for even half of that.
+ To be clear, I do not see this movement as legitimately conservative. This is the name they have taken from people who are or were genuine conservative thinkers and who would never have countenanced the circus taking place under their rubric.
#No, I do not mean to suggest there were no differences between candidates, only that regardless who won, which ideology or philosophy became dominant for the duration, the institutions of the country could be depended on to continue and that certain values were held on common by both sides of the political divide.