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.
Wayne Schroeder says
“The fact that Donald Trump was not Hillary Clinton seems to be the only reason a significant percentage of his voters supported him.”
When this null hypothesis becomes the basis for American political reality, it is not the null placeholder (Trump) that we have to be ultimately concerned about, but the null reality of American politics, society and ideology. Consider Trump the void from which we must emerge as a nation, the symptom of our own sickness rather than the cause.
The null is a black hole in reality, like a vortex, spreading chaos, but at least enabling change from the emptiness of his predecessors. And even with the certain negative change to come, the alienation of red versus blue, white versus everything, the Whitey Winter to storm back against the Arab Spring, that change itself will generate counter-change, certainaly not empty business as usual.
Should we survive this arctic Winter amongst global warming perhaps the null can be reclaimed with a new foundation, a new purpose a new direction from the materialistic machinery of previous American politics, society and ideology–perhaps.
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs…
And what rough beast,
its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Scotty Jenkins says
Interesting application of Weber’s ideas to Trump’s infant presidency. The problem I have with your analysis is that it doesn’t answer the obvious question entailed by John Lewis’s statement: Do the Russian activities during the election render Donald Trump’s presidency illegitimate?
This question would be relevant to his rational authority (perhaps traditional as well), but you take the electoral and popular vote counts at face value, completely sidestepping the huge elephant you acknowledged in the opening paragraph.
Daniel Braaten says
Thanks for your comment and I agree that I didn’t really address the question about how Russian hacking in support of Trump effects his legitimacy. The reason I didn’t address it, although I think it is important, is because as I was thinking about it I couldn’t adequately (in my own mind) figure out how much it effected the outcome of the election. My preliminary thought is that if the hacking and the information that was released swung enough votes from Clinton to Trump to influence the outcome of the election then that would damage President’s Trump’s rational-legal legitimacy significantly. The problem was I am not sure how many voters were persuaded by the information released by the Russian hacking to switch their vote? So that is why I didn’t address it. I would appreciate any thoughts you might have on the matter.
Scotty Jenkins says
I’ve been grappling with the legitimacy question since the initial reports about Russia’s intention to sway the election in Trump’s favor. You’re certainly right that it’s difficult (probably impossible) to quantify the effects. And this makes it nearly impossible to take a determinative stance on Trumps legitimacy in this respect. An interesting way to approach the question, however, would be to start from some idea about what the presidential election is designed to do.
A rough starting point could be to say that the election is intended to determine the will of the autonomous electorate (unsullied by external influence). From there, obvious questions arise. For instance, is Russian meddling any different in terms of hindering the autonomous will of voters than normal electoral circumstances, which include huge corporate influence, Super PACs with agendas that don’t necessarily align with the public interest, campaigns that use advertising tactics as their primary modes of persuasion, etc? And what is the relevance of the meddling being Russian (or just foreign)? Would questions of legitimacy be as prominent if an American grouped hacked into the DNC and Podesta’s emails? Maybe.
Just some of my thoughts.
Scotty Jenkins says
To add onto my comment, I guess I’m saying it would be interesting to assume Russian hacking did have an effect and then explore the implications along the lines I outline above.
Daniel Braaten says
Very good points. They give me a lot to think about and a good starting point for further analysis
Greg Gauthier says
The right accuses Clinton of being a philanderer, so the left accuses GW Bush of rigging the election in Florida, so the right accuses Obama of not being a legal citizen, so the left accuses Trump of treason… and so it goes, ever escalating into infinity.
Every president since WASHINGTON (“trading one George for another”) has had his legitimacy questioned. Why should this year be any different?
Sean O'Neill says
True, though it’s worth noting that only a tiny section of the fringe right attacked Obama on those grounds, whereas nearly all on mainstream left have paid tribute to this ridiculous charge of ‘treason’ on Trump.
When it comes to being hysterical bad losers, the left excels.
Not true. As of August 2016 (i.e., long after Trump acknowledged Obama was born in the United States), “[s]eventy-two percent of registered Republican voters still doubt President Obama’s citizenship, according to a recent NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll conducted in late June and early July of more than 1,700 registered voters.” See http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/poll-persistent-partisan-divide-over-birther-question-n627446
I think the most fundamental problem is that Trump is likely to violate the Constitution’s “Emolument” clause unless he divests his business interests or very scrupulously makes sure he never receives anything more than fair market value when doing business with a foreign government. Considering that he’s already lobbied for his business interests on state trips, it doesn’t appear he’s going to be so scrupulous. Unclear if this would be a “political question” that a court couldn’t resolve, but “bribery” is explicitly a grounds for impeachment. More background here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/02/23/donald-trump-is-violating-the-constitution/
And yes, it does strike me as disturbing that the Duma gave a standing ovation when he was elected, while there is fairly good evidence that Russia at least tried to help get him elected. See here for a Twitter thread that gets into some of the technical details about why it’s so clear: https://twitter.com/pwnallthethings/status/816621553643294720. This doesn’t make his presidency void, but I think it’s another reason to think he owes too much to Russia.
Correction: Not a standing ovation, just clapping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HzAdP3y-k8
Sean O'Neill says
Tiny sample size, and ran by a partisan source with a history of undermining the intelligence of Republican voters with sloppy poll questions. It’s absolutely a fringe who think that way, and completely insignificant compared to the overwhelming mainstream hysteria over Trump.
And of course world leaders have preferences over who gets elected, JFK was massively prefered by Khrushchev who in his memoirs said he did everything he could to get the young and inexperienced Kennedy into power, calling him ‘his man’. It backfired later of course…
The US goes further than using propaganda, actually deposing democratically elected leaders and installing their own choice picks. Hillary Clinton was on record very recently in a hot mic conversation talking casually about committing this very act. Russia did not interfere with the election in any meaningful way, they did not tamper with booths, they (or he) simply had a preferred choice in Trump.
James Cunningham says
A sample size of 2,201 with 645 registered republicans isn’t tiny, particularly when — as in this instance — we’re essentially looking at only one question with a limited range of discrete responses. As long as the sample drawn is representative (and I don’t know if that’s the case; I haven’t examined their methodology), that’s much more than sufficient.
As for sloppy wording … well, I’m not sure how open to interpretation it would be to ask people whether they agree, disagree, or neither agree nor disagree with the statement “Barack Obama was born in the United States.”
Christopher Frederick says
Great points… My problem with all of this is that there is a Myth of Legitimacy with which we must contend in our system. Not too long ago Bill Clinton won the Presidency with only 43% of the votes cast, thereby losing the popular vote by some 14 million ballots. Furthermore, what broad legitimacy did Truman or Johnson or Ford have when they mechanistically inherited the Presidency with absolutely no democratic mandate? Everyone’s hair is on fire over Trump today mainly because deep down nobody thought he’d win. Not the Media, Not Clinton, Not the Russians, not even Trump himself. Trump is the effect of a broken politics in the US, not the cause. The real question we need to ask is what is the shelf life of any Grand System and is it worth saving n its current form?
Daniel Braaten says
You make a good point and I have been trying to think about the broader legitimacy of our democratic system here in the U.S. I think there are a lot of warning signs but I haven’t really grappled with their overall implications yet.
The question then is who would build a new system if not the people put in power by the old system?
The usual answer is “we would.” If there were enough “we” to overthrow the current system, and if that “we” were homogeneous enough to agree on a new system, then “we’s” goals could be accomplished in any system “we” would overthrow.
Ron Paul ran for President several times on the believable promise that he would abdicate much of his own power. It didn’t see like “we” were very interested.
Greg Gauthier says
” Trump is the effect of a broken politics in the US, not the cause. ” — Actually, it’s not broken at all. It’s functioning exactly as one would expect a fundamentally democratic system to work.
The fact that we’re doubting the “broader legitimacy of our democratic system” when Trump gets elected (as opposed to Reagans, or Bushes, or Clintons, or Obamas) only suggests that we don’t happen to like what it’s designed to produce, and are merely shopping for a reason to morally condemn those who won’t give us what we want.
But the *actual* broader question we should be asking is this: why is *political power* as such, regardless of its form, legitimate? In other words, if Divine Right is not a valid justification for granting someone the privilege of using the threat of violence to impose a set of preferences, and Blood Right is not a valid justification for granting someone the privilege of using the threat of violence to impose a set of preferences, and Natural Right is not a valid justification for granting someone the privilege of using the threat of violence to impose a set of preferences, and the World Spirit is not a valid justification, and the Will To Power is not a valid justification, then how is 64.9 million little slips of paper with my name written on them a valid justification? Is it that those slips of paper are somehow imbued with a special moral magic, by virtue of the correct ritual being performed over them? How does that work?
Given the ubiquity of political power, it must be either
* so intrinsic to the human species that no lesser power could inhibit it
* the only one of multiple systems which has demonstrated an ability to survive.
Is that legitimate enough?
Christopher Frederick says
An other interesting aspect of this legitimacy discussion is that it is taken as a given the the Democratic and Republican Parties, and their duopoly, are a given. Neither of these parties are rationally legitimate in a Constitutional sense, yet that’s how they are often portrayed. Their raison d’être is never questioned. Hopefully one consequence of Trump’s Presidency will be to hasten the death of these two bloated political machines…
How much Russian influence is too much? If Putin were to announce that he thinks Trump is a great guy and Clinton is a jerk, one could imagine that some voter might be influenced by that comment. When does the influence become “undue?” There’s no way to know how many people may have changed their minds because of the Wikileaks disclosures. One could argue that the FBI director’s comments were just as or even more influential.
Christopher Frederick says
This is all a game that the US government has perfected… The stakes are high. Influence peddling will only get worse as humanity’s technology lessens the friction with which these tactics can proliferate. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like there is any going back… Unless you want to get rid of the Web and Internet.
Daniel Flack says
The Dulles brother’s prior to becoming the secretary of state and the head of the C.I.A. under Eisenhower were corporate attorney’s
Their role as corporate attorney’s was to get foreign power’s to let loose of various natural resource’s
.The term’s of relinquishing these resource’s were let’s just say highly unfavorable for these other nation’s.
The upshot was after assuming the reign’s of power they made these uncooperative leader’s pay dearly
It was during the cold war and the persecution of communist party members in the U.S…that the Dulles brother;s began successfully deposing democratically elected leader’s around the world who did not cooperate with their efforts in the past and that time, to secure the resource’s that these corporate entities were attempting to obtain…
..So the fact that we were deposing democratically elected leader’s around the world during the cold war on communism…. A war complete with all the rhetoric of making the world safe for democracy….was something never shared with the people….how could it be right….it was hidden and therefore subject to in time to being found out.
Mayne Yes we should be angry with a foreign power interfering in our process,though with the realization that this is something we have been doing for years as a matter of course,nation building and interference on a global scale…..and this is an aspect of how nation;s vye for power and advantage….So maybe the onus should be on our participation in these same advantage seeking behaviour and the politician who gave them this ammunition…
As to unfair advantage,the politic’s of power are just as subject to the element of chance as all else probably even more given the play upon all thing’s great and small that make up men’s perception of a thing,and the constant maneuvering of the pieces as in a chess game
So it would seem any attempt to hide a thing is a chance that the interest doing the deception or omission take’s….and if the end product is that the intent of our rival is possibly realized,that is an unfortunate byproduct though as to the claim of unfair advantage ,it seem’s lost in the advantage given by the omission in the first place..
As well If we consider the great reach and resources of the media and their obvious partisanship and believe it was fair game for any heretofore untold fact’s or even possible fact’s to be let loose
then why is it so important that more fact’s were disclosed…because of the source,…a global rival….their motivation’s
Maybe also that negative is superseded by the truth of matter’s being made public knowledge,maybe not…So maybe it;s good and evil in tandem,we see the truth about one candidate of thing’s they were concealing and we see possibly the lengths another candidate might go to achieve victory…
these also would seem to outweigh the idea of unfair advantage…. but disclose even more pertinent truth;s about collusion on one hand maybe and the willingness to deceive the people outright on another.
So sometime’s our adversaries speak out or act out and disclose that which may defeat our purposes…that it seems is as much a part of the game as is declaring say a war on whatever, only to find that the end’s were not what we were told…… and the mean’s, the process was just as subject to necessity and free will as they are to chance….and therefore subject to the truth omission being discovered.
Daniel Flack says
Also consider the conversation and policy derived from that conversation between Fidel castro and Che Guevara about having an open society or not….and the attendant reach of the U.S. in any open society..and then the decision made about how best to preserve their newly won independent status…
Sigh. I look forward to the day when Russia and Russians are the whipping boy for the establishment. But I suppose this hysteria can be seen as beneficial birthing pangs. The hysteria discredits establishment media and politicians.
Or we can see the opposite. This whole hysteria will consolidate and redouble efforts to war with Russia like we’ve never seen before, with media, hollywood, and establishment politicians firmly in one camp – a hammer that will smash any populist and idealist. Whether domestic or foreign.