At noon on Friday, Donald Trump legitimately became the president of the United States. Voters made a free choice, their votes were tabulated accurately, he won the contest under the rules that have always applied to presidential races, the electors registered as much and Congress certified the results.
Trump will hold the office every bit as rightfully as his predecessors did – including Barack Obama, notwithstanding Trump’s noxious attempts to deny his legitimacy.
Not everyone agrees about Trump’s pending status. “Trump isn’t a legitimate president,” says Rep. John Lewis. A Facebook group called “Donald Trump Is Not My President” has nearly 150,000 members and Madonna just echoed the sentiment.
My purpose here is not to try to argue the legitimacy deniers out of their view. It’s to ask what they mean by it.
Are the liberals who deny Trump’s legitimacy saying that they will not treat laws signed by him or regulations promulgated by his appointees as valid? Will they stop paying taxes to the federal government that they believe he illegitimately heads? Will they ignore Supreme Court decisions whenever his appointees were decisive to the outcome? Will Lewis be filing a motion to impeach Trump?
Anyone who truly believes that Trump holds his power illegitimately would at least have to consider such steps. But if anyone who is questioning his legitimacy is prepared to follow their premises to such conclusions, I haven’t heard of it.
It could be that Lewis means he will not cooperate with Trump and will not defer to his wishes. But the congressman has not said that he will refrain from working with Trump even when the two men agree. And he need not call Trump “illegitimate” to refrain from working with him when they disagree; the disagreement itself is enough to justify opposition.
Or perhaps Lewis just means that he will refrain from showing Trump any respect and will look for ways to snub him. Again, though, the rhetoric seems disproportionate to the action. Why aren’t you going to the inauguration? Because Trump is an illegitimate president. And what are you going to do about the usurper in the White House? Things like not going to his inauguration.
People who say that Trump is not their president betray an unhealthy view of the relationship between the citizen and the executive branch. When, after all, is one called upon to say that the person in the Oval Office is your president?
I’ve never felt the need to affirm or deny that any president is “mine.” All of them have, however, been the president of the country of which I am a citizen. And that will be true of Trump for nearly all of the people who are saying he won’t be their president, too. Whether they like it or not is irrelevant. (I’m not wild about it myself.)
Heightened rhetoric has its place in politics, no question. But sometimes it communicates more than the speaker intends, such as that he doesn’t take his own words seriously.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.