“I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia
John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, was beaten, bloodied, bullied and might have been killed while marching for voting rights toward the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. He knows a thing or two about standing up to evil.
When John Lewis said the other day that he did not consider the soon-to-be president of the United State “legitimate” he both stretched the bounds of political discourse and he spoke the truth. I’ll explain.
The comment from Lewis, delivered in his typically low-key, but straight forward way predictably teed up a good deal of outrage including, predictably, the kind of vitriol we have come to consider normal behavior on the part of the man who will be president in a few days.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the Tweeter-in-Chief said in a pair of Twitter posts.
“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” he added. “Sad!”
Where to begin?
Well, how about beginning with pointing out that the original birther – our soon-to-be commander-in-chief – rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, not once or twice but repeatedly over many years. It was a monumental lie that he personally perpetuated.
Or we could begin with the fact that the nation’s intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia participated in widespread cyber crimes, as well as a propaganda and disinformation campaign and may have colluded with the GOP candidate’s campaign to assist with his election. To deny that this Russian activity influenced the election is to ignore that the beneficiary of the Russian help repeatedly cited information – by one count 164 times during the campaign – from Wikileaks documents, leaks undoubtedly facilitated by the Russians, to advance his campaign. You can check the videotape.
Or we could examine the fact that the president-elect mounted, as his tweets aimed at John Lewis make crystal clear, a race-based campaign that mobilized and gave voice to the nation’s white supremacist, immigrants hating alt-right elements in a manner unseen in American politics since at least 1968.
The next time you hear an apologist for the man who will be president say that a major element of his appeal was not about emphasizing race and social division, just reflect on the fact that he explicitly said, two months after his election, that a black congressman could only represent a district “in horrible shape and failing apart (not to mention crime infested).” Like his attacks on an American judge of Mexican heritage or a Gold Star mother and father who are Muslim, failing to see the attacks on John Lewis as profoundly racist is to look the other way at the hate and bigotry this man has put in the center of American politics.
John Lewis, by the way, represents the Fifth District of Georgia, most of Atlanta and home to the toney Buckhead neighborhood with a real luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, as well as the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the campuses of Emory and Georgia Tech Universities and the corporate headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. Nearly 60 percent of the district population is African-America, but as the Atlanta Journal points out if the president-elect “believes Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is ‘falling apart,’ then he believes Atlanta is falling apart.”
And, of course, it isn’t.
And then think about this: a truly legitimate president dedicated to the job of leading the nation and representing all its citizens might have devoted a few minutes of the last two months to a real effort to tone down the volume of division that he has placed front and center in our politics and our culture. But, of course, he’s not capable of such moral leadership. It’s almost enough to conclude that he is not, to coin a phrase, a legitimate president.
The dictionary definition of “legitimate” says: “conforming to the law or to rules.” Synonyms include legal, lawful, licit, legalized, authorized, permitted, sanctioned and my favorite – constitutional.
By the measure of most of the nation’s most authoritative experts on the Constitution, include White House ethics watchdogs for Presidents Bush and Obama, the new guy will be violating the Constitution the moment he utters “so help me God.”
Or, as the majority of us who voted for someone else last November might express it, “so help us all, God.”
The president-elect made a mockery of “conforming to the law or rules” last week in a circus of a news conference where he and his enabling lawyers flaunted the Constitution and the long history of bipartisan presidential efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Genuine commitment to financial disclosure, avoidance of conflict and adherence to the Constitution might have gone a good distance to legitimizing a president who will enter office later this week with the kind of unchecked ethical baggage that makes Warren Harding look like a candidate for sainthood.
But the big-shot-in-chief can’t be bothered with such “legitimate,” “lawful,” “sanctioned” or “constitutional” actions and that, among much else, does make him less than legitimate.
The critics will say that John Lewis has a duty to recognize the duly elected president even in the face of policy differences and the violation of decades of political practice. But neither patriotism nor moral clarity requires anyone to accept the unacceptable.
Besides the duties of a citizen aren’t really any different than the duties of a president. To be legitimate you must display legitimacy and when you have given a majority of the country reason to question your commitment to the rules, laws and the Constitution you don’t automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. You can win an election under our bizarrely undemocratic rules, but you still need to earn your legitimacy.
John Lewis is right, if not politically correct in calling the man less than legitimate. And as our thin-skinned new leader has so often told us being right is always better than being politically correct. Or as he might say: Get over it.
He will take the oath, assume the office, have the power, but he has made himself less than legitimate to a vast number of Americans and most of our friends around the world. He did it himself through his actions, words, insults, crudeness, rudeness, and by defying the rules and defiling the norms. He did it by lying about everything big and small, important and petty. He did it by dividing us in ways that no president has in generations. All this is on him. He did it. His illegitimacy is his problem.
All the tweets in the world will not make that John Lewis’ fault.