Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Illegitimate Legitimacy


Steven Johnston

Author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

While democracy is no stranger to violence, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have escalated and exacerbated democracy’s violence problems. Among other things, violence has achieved a new level of viciousness, bordering on murderous. This change could be seen during Trump’s campaign when the candidate himself called on his supporters to attack fellow citizens in his audiences who were there to voice their political disagreement and disapproval. It could be seen when Trump, on more than one occasion, effectively solicited his followers to assassinate his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump also threatened to unleash the forces of the state on Clinton after the campaign (lock her up) if he won. Violence is also inherent in Trump’s (and the GOP’s) domestic and foreign policies—from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the elimination of women’s reproductive rights, from an embrace of the fossil fuel industry and the denial of climate change to torturing and bombing America’s enemies in the so-called War on Terror. The material harm these policies portend range from serious injury to death. This reactionary agenda constitutes Trump’s impotent vision of American greatness. It is a vision shared by Republican America and its fellow travelers.


The GOP’s, not just Trump’s, resort to violence poses an existential threat to American democracy, especially in combination with another age-old political debility: illegitimacy. Trump’s November 8 victory reeks. He defeated Clinton in the Electoral College, which gave him the formal win, but he lost the popular vote by over 2.6 million ballots cast. This translates to a 2% defeat. Given the undemocratic character of the Electoral College, Trump, at best, enjoys an illegitimate legitimacy. From a democratic perspective, Hillary Clinton deserves to be president of the United States. American democracy earned a Clinton victory. If the principle of electoral equality (one person, one vote) means anything, the Electoral College cannot be defended as a democratic political institution or practice. It enables, even invites illegitimacy. Trump’s presidency is the illegitimate offspring of this antiquated institution. Wyoming voters, for example, exercise nearly four times the voting power as California voters. This is not just unacceptable but intolerable. When American citizens claim that Trump is not their president, this is more than a rhetorical ploy. It is a valid, even compelling democratic political argument. (Tom Dumm’s December 5 post brilliantly recounts and dissects the Electoral College’s fatal defects.)


Candidate Trump also received illegitimate assistance from another source, one not as well-known for its distortions in American politics as the Electoral College. There is convincing evidence, Donald’s refusal to believe notwithstanding, that Russia tampered with the American election in an effort to secure Trump’s victory. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell refused to publicly denounce the interference when they had the chance prior to November 8 and when it might have made a difference. They preferred to effectively collude with a foreign dictatorship rather than protect the integrity of American elections, as long as their candidate potentially benefited. The Trump Administration will assume power indebted to Vladimir Putin and tainted by the specter of treason. Someday, and that day may never come, he’ll call on Trump to do a service for him. What payment will Putin demand in return for his assistance? Is a Secretary of State enough? Trump’s white nationalist regime can now claim Russian ancestry.


These are not the only problems with Trump’s ascension. For years the GOP has been engaged in deliberate voter suppression efforts to deny the franchise to people they deem political enemies (people of color, the poor, the elderly, college students, etc.) and prevail in elections they assume they would otherwise lose. Many of these legislative efforts successfully took place in battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin. No one can say with exactitude what kind of effect they had on turnout and thus the election’s outcome, but the fact that a decisive influence cannot be categorically ruled out in a tight contest is damning. The Republican Party invented the problems of voter fraud in order to commit voter fraud. Donald Trump, resentful of Hillary Clinton’s decisive numerical triumph, has perpetrated new lies about illegal voting, part of new efforts to further suppress voting. Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign and the GOP oppose recount efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, even though it is a standard aspect of the political process, and even though it is unlikely to alter the election’s result. Since Republicans have secured total power at the federal level, it does not matter to them that they won by hook or by crook. Only the outcome matters since they understand themselves to be the only party entitled to rule America. For them democracy and (permanent) one-party rule (theirs) are tailor-made for each other.


Mass political deceit is not a phenomenon limited to presidential politics. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have gerrymandered congressional districts to guarantee themselves a national superiority unwarranted by the total number of votes they receive in each election. Republicans have thus legislated their way into a nonrepresentative—and therefore illegitimate—position of power. With the election of Trump, Paul Ryan’s House will be able to introduce and impose ideologically-driven legislation that should never see the light of day, thus making American citizens subjects rather than authors of the laws that govern them. This is a traditional definition of domination. The Republicans Party is the ugly embodiment of authoritarian minority rule in 21st century America. The pushback on many fronts thus far has been minimal, though on November 21 the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 reconfiguration of State Assembly districts to ensure Republican Party control violated the 1st and 14th amendment rights of its Democratic voters.
Republicans at the state level have recently expanded their power ambitions. In North Carolina, following the defeat of incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Republicans called a last-minute special session to pass legislation to cripple the governor’s office and limit its power, perhaps especially including ways that will make it difficult to reverse successful Republican voter suppression efforts, now that a Democrat has been elected to it. Republicans will do anything to prevent Democrats from winning electoral office. Failing that, they will sabotage any office they do not control—until they hold that office again. Republicans seek a form of democratic totalitarianism where they—and they alone—can rule. They have not yet acquired a monopoly on power nationwide, but this is what they are after. It is a kind of political psychosis with them and there is no effective response to it other than raw power in one form or another.


GOP subversion of democracy is not restricted to electoral domains. The Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell, for example, refused to consider, let alone approve Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice following the death of Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts stood by and said nothing on behalf of the judicial branch as the Republican Party converted the court into an instrument of its conservative ambition. This constitutional coup delegitimizes the court itself, especially any 5-4 decision issued if and when Trump’s appointee rules with the majority. The GOP cannot simply arrogate to itself a monopoly on Supreme Court appointments and thus control of the final decision-making power of the court regarding the law of the land.

"Teens Throwing Rocks At Overgrown, Long-Vacant Supreme Court Seat"
Each one of these democratic assaults is corrupt. Taken together they undermine the credentials of the very system that enacts them. This, of course, is the point. Republicans do not pursue these measures ignorant of or indifferent to their consequences for American democracy. They implement them precisely because of the political consequences they generate. Just as Republicans did not think Bill Clinton or Barack Obama legitimate office holders and did everything they could to obstruct and destroy their presidencies, they do not think those who would vote Democratic (or anywhere on the political “left”) are anything other than voices to be suppressed or silenced, however possible. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they cannot (and do not want to) share a democratic polity with anyone unlike themselves, which makes it impossible for others to live with them as democratic equals. This is a recipe for not just resistance but upheaval.

(Metaphor)
The United States is always quick to condemn any violence that the state does not authorize and impose itself. The story the country tells itself is that violence is unjust insofar as political institutions exist where differences and disagreements can be resolved peacefully because all parties accept the inevitability of winning and losing, where political office and power are open to genuine contestation and results reflect the democratic will of the people, and where opposing voices are not only listened to and respected but also protected from the exercise of arbitrary power by majority coalitions or minority tyranny.

Yet the Republican Party has systematically subverted these institutions and understandings, which means that American citizens have been deprived of their most basic political right, the right to self-determination. If anything, American citizens today have greater cause for complaint than British colonists, who took up arms in opposition, did in the 18th century. American citizens have been disenfranchised in a system where there is no longer agreement on and loyalty to its fundamental terms. Republicans use democracy to game the system and destroy it just enough to empower themselves and retain a democratic veneer. It could thus be argued that the Republican Party has effectively forced the question of violence back onto the American political agenda. In this kind of hegemonic context, do the people have a right to resist those who successfully manipulate, mutilate, and render meaningless the democratic process to control and dominate their perceived enemies? If so, what forms might resistance take, especially when the state is likely to attack those who oppose, protest, and disrupt illegitimate minority rule?


Ironically, democratic citizens under violent assault from an illegitimate Republican regime might take a lesson from the testosterone-driven, gun-toting antics of the Bundy family, a gang of welfare-system deadbeats determined to open public lands to private exploitation and extraction, and its followers. They invoke the cause of freedom, but this rhetoric is mere cover for their know-nothing anti-statist libertarianism. At the same time, they embody a defiant, oppositional disposition uncowed by the state that democratic actors with actual grievances would do well to channel productively.

Republican subversion of American democracy is nothing new. Much of the country, however, has fooled itself regarding Republican identity and intentions. America regularly tells itself reassuring stories to maintain and stabilize the order in the face of incursions against it. After the Rehnquist Court shamelessly installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2000, for example, Vice President Al Gore came to the rescue with a stoic concession speech that honored the allegedly final decision of an institution that had just delegitimized itself by its blatant ideological intervention in and usurpation of the electoral process. The Court stole an election, but the country preferred to congratulate itself about and revel in the peaceful transition of power. In similar fashion, mainstream acquiescence to the Trump regime-to-be is now under way.


According to American political lore, what happens when government tyrannizes its people and denies them the possibility of effective participation in the political process where the collective future is decided? American citizens from the Revolution in the 18th century to the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in the 20th century have, when necessary, turned to the possibilities of democratic violence to counter state and state-sponsored domination to exercise and take (back) their rights. The GOP envisions something other than benevolent, white nationalist, free market despotism. The program it plans to implement is beset by violence. The state does not need to resort to guns, truncheons, gas, and water cannons (though we are likely to witness an upsurge in the use of force by police at all levels under Trump) to perpetrate violence against citizens. Flint, Michigan, is one example. People there have been poisoned by a Republican-controlled political machine that deemed political ideology more important than the health and well-being of those in its charge. Paul Ryan’s plans to privatize and thus gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, to cite but one post-election example, would also constitute violent assaults on human well-being.


As the (now Trump-led) Republicans make social, economic, environmental, and political war against American democracy and many of its people, what are they supposed to do? Sit and take it? As Rousseau, hardly an advocate of violence, wrote in pre-revolutionary Europe: “I would say that as long as a people is constrained to obey and does so, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke and does so, it does even better.” What might shake off the yoke mean here and now? It’s not just a question of the indispensability of everyday resistance that is called for. The Republican Party needs to be put on notice: the United States of America is a political fiction the continued existence of which is unnecessary. Perhaps it’s time to deconstruct it, as some anti-Federalists imagined in the 18th century, for the people of the United States no longer share a commitment to, let alone practice, a democratic way of life. A United States split into two (or more) separate and distinct political entities would not only trigger a new birth of freedom on the North American continent; it would also be a boon to peace across the planet.


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