Virginia Tech® home

Defining Democratic Legitimacy Down



Authors as Published

The nation has lately been treated to a discussion between many of President-elect Donald Trump’s supporters and the majority of Americans who did not vote for him in the recent election, with the former regaling the latter with assertions such as the following:

  • Get over it; we won.
  • You are a bunch of namby-pambies trying to protect a share of U.S. residents and citizens from the truths that the President-elect neatly brought to the fore.
  • We are sick of your arrogant “political correctness.”
  • President-elect Trump was telling it like it is during the campaign.
  • This election was a referendum on President Obama or, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has reported her brother, Kevin, contended at his family’s recent Thanksgiving dinner:
The election was a complete repudiation of Barack Obama: his fantasy world of political correctness, the politicization of the Justice Department and the I.R.S., an out-of-control E.P.A., his neutering of the military, his nonsupport of the police and his fixation on things like transgender bathrooms.[1]

I could extend this list, but it is fascinating that the statements set aside any reasoned arguments in favor of ad hominem and absolutist attacks that are largely unconnected to reality. This listing does not reveal an inventory of factual concerns. Noting the last point, the current President’s public approval rating sits at 55 percent, and he was not on the ballot. As such, this election was certainly not a personal repudiation of President Obama. Instead, this argument amounts to a fantasy critique that simply asserts grievances that reflect, not the purported broad popular opinion it invokes, but ideological dogma. There is no real evidence for any of Kevin Dowd’s assertions and he provides none, but among many core GOP supporters, they are accepted as something approaching gospel.

For example, Dowd’s statements concerning the Justice Department ignore the fact that FBI Director James Comey acted independently to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her government service, just days before the election, when, for a second time, he publicly announced he had found no prosecutable wrongdoing. So much for the Justice Department “rigging” anything for the incumbent Party’s candidate or the Department being out of control in its efforts to advance Democratic Party interests.

While the particulars of this sort of rhetoric, regardless of who voices it, almost always echo the same basic talking points that are widely shared in GOP and conservative discourse, they point to three larger questions that will continue to shape American self-governance into the foreseeable future.

First, they do not reflect a reasoned analysis of the concerns they supposedly treat. That is, they assert a code of belief and demand its acceptance rather than provide an assessment of whether their contentions make rational sense. These sorts of arguments represent a form of “post-truth” politics that is not characterized by deliberate falsification or lies—as so frequently occurred in the Trump campaign, and which is continuing during the President-elect’s transition—but a distorted sense of reality that arises from a desire to believe that governance, and especially one’s opponents or selected scapegoats, are the source of all of what one perceives to be one’s personal challenges or social woes.

Second, this sort of rhetoric reveals a continuing willingness to delegitimate specific government officials and institutions without evidence, and to do the same regarding governance more broadly. Kevin Dowd chose to impugn President Obama specifically, as well as multiple government institutions, but, taken together, his rhetoric constitutes an attack on civil rights and on the legitimacy of governance itself.

Third, and related to the first point above, the concerns listed are not actual evocations of what is alleged, but revelations of a mindset that is willing to embrace shrill shibboleths and to contend that one’s personal imaginings are really the ugly arrogance of a reviled “other.” For example, there is no evidence that President Obama is fixated on “neutering the military” or on “transgender bathrooms,” but there is much data that shows these false claims have been used quite effectively as mobilizing devices by the GOP. These allegations are projections or proxies for anxiety and concern about global and social change and not empirical statements framed for deliberative debate. Indeed, they bear almost no relationship to reality.

And that is the nub of the matter. Many Trump supporters and some journalists have spent the period since the election arguing that no one should take the President-elect’s rhetoric (and that of his supporters) “literally,” but instead should take his contentions “seriously.” But this postulated distinction misses two fundamental points and is ultimately meaningless. First, much of Trump’s rhetoric has been and continues to be untruthful and/or vile. It is difficult to imagine what to take “seriously” when the President-elect alleges that more than 2 million people voted illegally in our national election, and makes that statement on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and out of apparent personal pique that he did not win the national popular vote. Or how to interpret his malignant attacks on veterans who endured torture for their nation or gave up their lives in its service. And so on. This argument not to take his words literally appears ultimately to be a simplistic willingness to rationalize Trump’s often wildly inappropriate, divisive and even abusive behavior.

Secondly, this supposed “literal-serious” distinction robs the electorate of any genuine capacity to debate policy or political ideas. Citizens are instead asked continuously to read the tea leaves of Trump’s assaults on the truth and on various groups to ascertain what his allegedly “serious” message might be within them. And this always occurs after the fact and as the product of “reinterpretation” and sense-making by those with a vested interested in “spinning” his actions and behavior.

Why any of this makes sense to its proponents frankly eludes me, and it is easy to conclude that it simply excuses continued exploitation of popular fears and prejudices to garner power, even as it makes a mockery of serious deliberative dialogue. Those on all sides are now being asked to imagine what the latest lie or misleading rhetorical flourish signals and to do so without benefit of any relationship of those contentions to the truth or reality in many cases. So, we have entered a period in which Trump’s supporters are apparently prepared to explain and accept anything he might suggest and to live within a mythology of their own creation that “others” self-governance and any who are different or dare oppose them as prima facie “arrogant” and contemptible.  As Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has written recently:

 It’s time to dust off your old copy of ‘1984 ‘by George Orwell and recall this passage: ‘The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.’ And be vigilant. [2]

Should these trends continue, and there seems no reason to believe they will not, we may expect a continued political polarization in which people of good will remain confused concerning whether or how to legitimate their nation’s chief executive and how to interpret his actions as he systematically misleads, lies and worse on an almost daily basis in ways that broker social division and exploit prejudice and anxiety of all sorts. This profoundly anti-democratic situation is a recipe for the continued enervation of popular belief in democratic politics, even as it looks set to institutionalize a political “dialogue” emptied of all markers of civility and deliberation. The President elect’s supporters will continue to fantasize, for example, that government, and not urbanization and globalization, have created economic dislocation for many citizens, and otherwise blame specific groups for ongoing economic and social change.

Indeed, as is rapidly occurring in much of the post-election conversation and evidenced by Dowd’s portrait of what “really” happened in the campaign, Trump’s supporters and the GOP will rationalize all actions the President-elect may undertake as “serious” symbols of his desire to address these distorted concerns. More, no one will be able to understand just what those steps mean until after the President has disparaged a group or shared yet another conspiratorial claim or lie encouraging the undermining of the civil rights of a share of Americans. Or, after he has gone further to malign a group or political institution in the name of personal power and a fantasy dogma that imagines that targeted “others” are the architects of all personal and social anxiety.

Our Republic now confronts an increasingly cynical politics of winner-take-all viciousness characterized by a near absolute unwillingness among millions of people to accept responsibility for their governance, and a companion willingness among a share of our political leaders, including, particularly, our President-elect, to demonize groups and degrade basic civil rights in the name of projected fears. Persistently rationalized by supporters, other citizens and the media alike and left uninterrupted, this is a recipe for the continued evanescence of the values for which this nation has long stood, and for self-governance itself.


[1] Maureen Dowd, “Election Therapy from my Basket of Deplorables,” The New York Times, November 26, 2016, Accessed, November 27, 2016.

[2] Margaret Sullivan, “The Post-Truth World of the Trump Administration is Scarier than you Think,” The Washington Post, December 2, 2016, Accessed December 3, 2016.

Note to Readers: Soundings will next appear on January 2, 2017.  Happy Holidays and best wishes to you and yours! MOS

Publication Date

December 5, 2016