Congressman John Lewis (and our) next move
Congressman John Lewis’ view of President-elect Trump as illegitimate reminds us of his unique qualifications to make argument America’s moral authority undermined by a Trump presidency There was quite a stir recently when civil rights icon,
Congressman John Lewis’ view of President-elect Trump as illegitimate reminds us of his unique qualifications to make argument America’s moral authority undermined by a Trump presidency
There was quite a stir recently when civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis stated that he did not see Donald J. Trump as a “legitimate president.” Lewis blamed the involvement of the Russians in sabotaging the election in favor of Trump, against Hillary Clinton, who lost despite a 3 million popular vote advantage.
Republicans have cried foul, going back to talking points about the number of counties and states that Trump actually won, stating that the legal legitimacy of Trump’s win could not be undercut. RNC Chairman (and Trump’s soon to be chief of staff) Reince Priebus went further, calling on President Obama to rebuke Lewis by reminding us all that the election is legitimate.
Questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s election could go in several directions.
First, Russian interference in the election through computer hacking has been confirmed by our own intelligence agencies. Trump’s clear deference to Vladimir Putin during the campaign was notable and Russia’s desire for him to defeat Clinton was no coincidence. However, it is difficult to prove that Russian hacking made the difference.
Second, FBI Director James Comey inexplicably involved himself in the election by stating with less than two weeks left that the FBI would be looking into whether emails involving Anthony Weiner and his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, could shed light on Clinton’s possible criminal culpability in the email scandal that dogged her campaign.
While Comey cleared Clinton several days before the election, this announcement probably affected Clinton negatively by depressing her voter turnout, brought some voters who were on the fence into the Trump camp. Again, this is hard to prove as the reason Clinton lost.
Third, though discussed less, it is possible that voter identification laws kept enough people from voting to make a difference in key states where Trump secured razor-thin victories, such as Wisconsin. Voter identification laws usually do not help Democrats, who are more likely to be poor, and without valid ID.
Each of these factors may have had an impact. While many passionate citizens believe in their hearts that Trump is somehow legitimate (one way or a couple ways), it is not a legal certainty at this point. Yet, Lewis’ stand struck a nerve with many citizens and members of Congress that represent them. Specifically, dozens of members (all Democrats) have said they will not attend Trump’s inauguration. However, none of these members are sitting out because of what can be proven, but rather because of what they and their constituents believe.
Even if Trump is not technically or legally illegitimate, they believe he is morally illegitimate. Even while Lewis talked about what would amount to legal legitimacy — particularly given how Republicans responded — moral legitimacy is actually more central to his claim. It is morally wrong that the president-elect now seeks unity without recognizing how much he has done to divide the country. It is morally wrong and ironic that Trump expects to be seen as legitimate (and seeks President Obama’s help in this pursuit) despite the fact that he did so much to delegitimize Obama through the “birther” issue.
In fact, it is morally wrong that the country would elect (assuming it did) a man who degraded women, the disabled, and incited racial tensions. And, to be sure, Trump’s apparent preference for Putin over President Obama, calling him a better leader than the president despite the atrocities Putin has perpetrated, is morally wrong. In truth, Lewis cannot make a point about Trump’s legitimacy in light of Russian involvement in our election and not have it be a moral point.
And while supporters allude to Trump’s “fresh brand” of leadership, he finds himself coming into the job with the lowest approval ratings of just about any incoming president. His transition has been mired with the same confrontation that defined his campaign. This is not because of his politics.
Interestingly, Lewis’ statement questioning Trump’s legitimacy reminds us that he is uniquely positioned to make the argument that America’s moral authority is fundamentally undermined by a Trump presidency. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s, Lewis worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and willingly sacrificed his life in the pursuit of freedom. He was beaten nearly to death as a result. Lewis bears the scars of this country’s ugly history of racism and segregation in a way that few do. The idea that Trump would spend time attacking him at all, despite Lewis’ comments, breaks the cardinal rule of presidents not “reaching down” to criticize those that criticize them in all circumstances. In attacking Lewis the president-elect is attempting to reach a level that his arms, burdened by the weight of racism, misogyny, and self-righteousness, simply cannot attain.
Even while investigations surrounding Russian influence and the FBI’s actions continue, the feeling of Trump’s moral illegitimacy is real and should be built on by Lewis and others as they move forward. Whether one supported Trump or not, none of us can afford to normalize behavior that we would never allow in our own children. While many people may not agree Trump is a legally illegitimate president, his moral illegitimacy is a much clearer and more effective argument.
This argument does not go away with the result of any investigation. It does not go away at all unless and until Trump truly rebuilds bridges he has burned, which starts with acknowledgment that he burned them. In short (and yes, politics aside), the stand Lewis is making should be a moral outcry that forces the president-elect to change his stance or face the consequences.
Joe Richardson is an attorney living and practicing in Los Angeles.