The confirmation that state-sponsored Russian hackers intervened in the recent election to support Donald Trump and various Republican congressional candidates further heightens questions about the incoming administration’s legitimacy.
We are not speaking of legitimacy in the legal sense. The Russians’ unacceptable intrusion into our electoral process was only one of the factors that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. So, too, was FBI Director James Comey’s clumsily politicized 11th hour letter concerning Clinton’s emails, as well as the fact that she herself was a poor candidate freighted with more baggage than a Korean container ship and her campaign was badly managed and inadequately thought-out. All that combined with a dramatic underestimation of white working class disaffection to allow Trump a narrow victory in the Electoral College.
The Electoral College, by the way, was the product of converging anxieties among the Framers that seem newly relevant to this political moment: The Constitution created the institution because Northern conservatives feared the notion of popular sovereignty, while Southern slave owners dreaded the prospect of majoritarianism that would threaten their “peculiar institution.” The emergence of the contemporary Republicans as the national white people’s party has created a whole new constituency for this constitutional relic, which for the second time in this century will subvert the popular will.
The Electoral College may have begun life as an anti-democratic prop for institutionalized white supremacy, but it’s still the way we constitutionally elect a president, which means there is no question of legal legitimacy in Trump’s election. Political legitimacy is another matter entirely, particularly because there is no popular mandate for the kind of radical transformation of our national life that Trump and the freshly empowered, ideologically motivated GOP majorities in congress now propose.
Start with the fact that, despite Trump’s characteristically grandiose claims of an Electoral College “landslide,” 47 presidents have had larger margins of victory in that forum. The incoming president is only the fifth in history to lose the popular vote; Clinton beat him by nearly 3 million votes or 2.1% of all the ballots cast. Only John Quincey Adams (10.4%) and Rutherford B. Hayes (3%) took office after losing the popular ballot by great margins.
As a consequence, a poll conducted for the Washington Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government found that just 29% of Americans—or fewer than one in three—feel that Trump has a mandate to pursue the agenda on which he campaigned.
Sentiments are similar when it comes to the first item of business on the Trump/Ryan/McConnell agenda—repeal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which currently provides health insurance to more than 20 million Americans previously without such protection. According to a new non-partisan Pew survey, only 39% of the country supports repeal, while 55% actually oppose it. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey reported an even slimmer percentage—25%–in favor of repeal. As the Los Angeles Times reported, not a single health system stakeholder—doctors’ group, insurance company or organized patients’ association—supports repeal.
Where’s the mandate for depriving so many people of the healthcare on which their very lives may depend? There is none; just blind ideological impulse masquerading as public policy.
On the stump, candidate Trump vowed to protect both Social Security and Medicare, the two most unambiguously successful social programs in our history. President-elect Trump, however, has nominated as his Secretary of Health and Human Services a Republican congressman—Tom Price—who wants to see Medicare abolished and has said he is open to House GOP proposals to radically slash and remake Social Security.
Where’s the mandate for either thing? There is none; just a reflexive right-wing antipathy toward any form of government assistance that humanizes the lot of ordinary people.
We need not belabor here the demonstrable lack of popular support for the sort of massive tax cut Trump and the congressional Republicans propose for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. What, though, about the incoming chief executive’s intention to gut the current system of free trade that has done so much to increase not only the American standard of living, but also incomes and the general welfare around the world? Trump would replace it, if at all, with a series of bilateral agreements.
Clearly, the disaffected white working class voters of the rust belt and coal regions are desperate enough to buy into Trump’s empty promises that their jobs will be restored by seceding from the globalized economy predicated on free trade. The problem with that vain hope is a minor inconvenience called reality. Since the passage of NAFTA—the great Satan in Trump’s economic demonology—American manufacturing output actually has increased several times over.
The problem is that technology has increased productivity, and now we simply make more with fewer people. The ongoing revolution in robotics and, more recently, 3D printing technology has accelerated this trend. Similarly, coal mining has declined not because of trade or environmental regulation, but because natural gas, which the U.S. has in staggering abundance—is cheaper to extract and cleaner to burn. Nothing Trump can do about that.
In fact, he has zero mandate from the part of the country that has adapted to change and is still working and producing.
As my former colleague Ron Brownstein recently pointed out, “Hillary Clinton dominated in the racially and culturally diverse metropolitan centers that are helping forge a globalized, information-based and low-carbon economy. Trump, meanwhile, posted crushing margins in the places that feel threatened by all those trends.”
An analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro found that, since 2000, America has increased total economic output by 30% while cutting carbon emissions by 10%. Individually, 33 of the 50 states grew their economies while reducing their carbon footprints. Muro also found that, across the country, the counties carried by Clinton produce close to two-thirds of the nation’s total economic output. In other words, Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory was achieved in those portions of the country most resistant to the demographic, cultural and economic changes on which our current and future prosperity is based.
None of this is to deny that more can and should be done for those left out of the globalized, information-based economy. Failure to make that case was candidate Clinton’s and the Democratic Party’s biggest failure in the general election—a moral, as well as political shortcoming. Retraining for jobs that actually exist and relocation assistance to the places in the country where those positions really exist would go a long way toward addressing the most legitimate of such concerns. The cultural anxieties about race and immigration are another matter—though many of those might be alleviated by a decent sized and regular paycheck. The New Deal’s Jim Farley once mused that the best social program is a good job. It’s also a great changer of hearts.
That said, the needs and resentments of those disaffected voters do not constitute the sort of mandate required for the sweepingly radical remake of our society that the incoming Trump Administration and its congressional accomplices seem to anticipate. Any pretense to the contrary lacks legitimacy and invites bitter political and social strife—which, by all indications, is what we’re about to get.