The Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis made headlines recently, and sparked the ire of President-elect Trump, by stating to NBC News that “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate President.” Congressman Lewis’s reasoning was that undue Russian influence in the election propelled Trump to victory. In other words, the procedure that brought Trump to power was tainted by foreign influence and therefore the beneficiary of this influence, Donald Trump, is illegitimate. Congressman Lewis is not the only one questioning Trump’s legitimacy; the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman states, “Is it O.K., morally and politically, to declare the man about to move into the White House illegitimate? Yes it is. In fact, it’s an act of patriotism.” Stating that the Presidential election and the person now occupying the office are illegitimate is a serious charge, but how accurate is it? Congressman Lewis’s charge brings up a whole host of questions, for example, what are the grounds on which the American President claims legitimacy? What are the grounds on which the legitimacy of American political institutions rests? More generally, what are the criteria for democratic legitimacy in the first place?
Max Weber and Legitimate Authority
The question of legitimacy is an important element in many academic disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, and political science. Many social theorists and thinkers have wrestled with the question of legitimacy, but perhaps the most prominent social theorist to articulate the concept is Max Weber. Weber is one of the most important social theorists of the 20th century and one of the founders of the field of sociology, although his work extends throughout many fields including religion, political science, law, economics, and public administration. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Weber, he has two main “big ideas”—the rationalization thesis, which was an overall analysis of the dominance of the West, and the Protestant ethic thesis, which was a rival to Marx’s genealogy of modern capitalism.
More important for our purposes here are Weber’s comments on political authority and legitimacy. Weber makes the commonsense observation that people often obey authorities for a variety of reasons, including self-interest and coercion. There is, however, a third type of obedience with which citizens comply with authority: because of the legitimacy of the rule or, as the political scientist Bruce Gilley describes it, “the moral validity or rightful rule” of the authority. Weber outlined three ideal types of legitimate authority that comprise rightful rule: traditional authority, rational authority, and charismatic authority.
Leaders require followers, and charisma is an essential element in eliciting followership.
According to Weber, traditional authority rests on an “established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.” Rational authority rests on “a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.” Finally, charismatic authority rests on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.”
Modern nation-states such as the United States are primarily constituted of rational authority, but traditional and charismatic authority are present as well. To confine ourselves to the legitimacy of the Presidency of the United States, we can see how all three types are present in that institution. The rational legitimacy of the Presidency is primarily based on the electoral process through which an individual ascends to that position. The enacted rules through which we choose our President in the United State—the Electoral College vote—are certainly questionable in terms of democratic legitimacy but are rationally legitimate since the legality of the institution is codified in the Constitution.
In terms of traditional legitimacy, the Presidency is bound not only by rationally derived rules codified in law and the Constitution but also by informal rules and norms, i.e., traditions. The number of traditions associated with the Presidency is large: they can range from the small and trivial, such as the pardoning of a turkey on Thanksgiving, to large and important, such as the State of the Union address.
Finally, charismatic legitimacy is also bound up with the Presidency. Since the Presidency is the sole major US political institution that consists of a single individual, charisma is an important component of the legitimacy of the the office and its occupant. Leaders require followers, and charisma is an essential element in eliciting followership. All Presidents engender followership above and beyond the simple requirements of citizenship and partisanship, but their level of charisma usually determines the degree to which they can do this.
Belief, Consent, and the 2016 US Presidential Election
Weber’s three-part typology of legitimate authority has formed the basis of the treatment of legitimacy in many of the social sciences, including sociology and political science. Although Weber’s typology is essential as a foundation, there are some problems with his typology that later political theorists have identified and attempted to rectify. For example, the political theorist David Beetham points out that Weber’s typology is one-dimensional in that he only focuses on belief; i.e., that whether an actor is legitimate is based on whether people believe her to be. This is inadequate, according to Beetham, because it does not consider popular consent as a mechanism for conferring legitimacy on political actors.
According to Beetham, there are two modes of popular consent: the electoral mode and the mobilization mode. In the electoral mode, electoral participation demonstrates the consent of the electorate to the government and hence confers legitimacy. In the mobilization mode, consent is demonstrated by popular activism and voluntary commitment. Popular activism and voluntary commitment can take many specific forms, but one obvious form would be popular protest. Beetham shows that legitimacy need not be constituted by individual beliefs but also by individual acts of consent or by behaviors that indicate consent.
In terms of the traditional legitimacy of the Presidency, Donald Trump seems to going out of his way to violate many of the norms and traditions associated with the office.
Combining Weber’s notion that legitimacy is measured with belief and Beetham’s notion that it can be measured through behaviors, we can measure the legitimacy of any political authority by measuring the relevant attitudes and behaviors of the relevant constituencies that confer legitimacy on that political authority. Using Weber’s three types of legitimacy—rational, traditional, charismatic—and measuring them using beliefs and behaviors, we can see how legitimate Donald Trump's presidency actually is.
As to the rational legitimacy of Donald Trump, it is true that he won the Presidential election—specifically the Electoral College vote—306 to 232, and therefore, his ascension to the Presidency is not questionable on those grounds. The problem, of course, is that he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. While the popular vote is not an official component of the Presidential election process, nonetheless it counts as a relevant constituency giving its consent, which is a key behavioral measure of legitimacy. In that regard, Donald Trump falls short. The way the American electoral system operates opens the door for this misalignment between rules and consent. The fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote does not make him illegitimate (although it does put him in a deficit).
There are still the traditional and charismatic elements of Presidential legitimacy that he could accord himself. However, in terms of the traditional legitimacy of the Presidency, Donald Trump seems to going out of his way to violate many of the norms and traditions associated with the office. His violations are too many to list here, but some of the most egregious, in my opinion, are his threats to jail his opponent Hillary Clinton, his failure to adequately divest his business before taking office, his failure to release his tax returns, his open hostility to the press, and his willingness to indulge in and spread misleading and fake news.
The American people also seem to question Trump’s traditional legitimacy. Public opinion polling shows that Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows compared to other Presidents. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 40 percent of survey respondents have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. The lowest favorability rating for a President of the eve of assuming office was Ronald Reagan in 1981 with a 58 percent favorability rating; the high was Barack Obama in 2009 with a 79 percent favorability rating. George W. Bush, who also lost the popular vote, had a favorability rating of 62 percent in 2001 immediately before he took over as President.
A favorability ranking is a blunt instrument with which to measure a President’s legitimacy, but the same poll also shows results on more specific questions—questions that ask people about Trump's violations of some of the traditions of the Presidency. His numbers do not look much better there. For example, 52 percent think Trump is not qualified to serve as President; 44 percent of respondents think Trump is not complying with Federal ethics laws (while 43 percent think he is). On the other hand, 52 percent think he has done enough to separate his business interests from his obligations as President (42 percent of respondents disagree); 74 percent of respondents think he should release his tax returns; 45 percent believe the Russians hacked the DNC with the goal of helping to elect Trump.
CNN exit polls from the election show that 61 percent of respondents did not think Trump was qualified to serve as President, yet 17 percent of those people said they voted for him.
A recent Quinnipiac Poll also shows tough numbers for Donald Trump on a host of issues where he has broken with the traditions of past Presidents. For example, 66 percent of respondents think he should put all his business holdings in a blind trust (which he has refused to do); 52 percent think he has more conflicts of interest than most politicians; 72 percent support a review of his finances to identify possible conflicts of interest; 60 percent are concerned that as President, Trump may veto a law that would be good for the country but bad for his businesses. Finally, and perhaps most damaging for Trump, 64 percent of respondents think he should not keep his personal Twitter account while he is President. All of these question bear on issues that differentiate Trump from past American Presidents and show that on measures of traditional legitimacy of the President he lags behind previous Presidents.
What Donald Trump lacks in rational and traditional legitimacy perhaps he can make up for with charisma. According to Weber, charismatic legitimacy can be based on the “normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” In other words, Trumps lack of rational or traditional legitimacy can be overcome with new “normative patterns.” If Trump’s charisma is strong enough, perhaps those deviations from past Presidential norms will not hurt him as he develops new normative patterns that bolster his legitimacy and create paths for future leaders to follow. While Trump does have support and devotion from a core group of supporters (just witness the rallies he held during the campaign) that group is nowhere near a majority of Americans, and even a significant portion of Trump voters are skeptical of how he will govern. The CNN exit polls from the election show that 61 percent of respondents did not think Trump was qualified to serve as President, yet 17 percent of those people said they voted for him. Also, 64 percent of respondents said Donald Trump was not honest or trustworthy yet 20 percent of those respondents said they voted for him. This shows that despite the fact that Trump got enough people to vote for him to win the electoral college vote, a good chunk of those voters still do not see him as qualified or trustworthy. The fact that Donald Trump was not Hillary Clinton seems to be the only reason a significant percentage of his voters supported him. This, I believe, shows the limit to Trump's charisma; the likelihood that it will make up for deficiencies in the other two areas seems low.
Political legitimacy is not an all-or-nothing concept. It is present in degrees. Legitimacy is conferred on political actors by belief and consent, and although we tend to assume legitimacy is only conferred with an election, it is actually an ongoing process throughout the tenure of a politician. The good news for any political figure is that there are actions they can take in accord with the rules and traditions of politics and with their own charisma that can increase their legitimacy. On the other hand, there may come a breaking point where a political figure lacks so much legitimacy that a crisis occurs and they are forced from office or resign. Donald Trump is not there yet, but he does come into office with a severe legitimacy deficit and, even though he probably wouldn’t admit it, he may also believe it.
Daniel Braaten is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2012. His research interests are in US foreign policy and human rights, international organizations, and international legitimacy.