It will happen, it is happening, it has happened. Donald Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. It is the greatest political shock of my lifetime, and I’m sure the sentiment is shared by many.
An ignorant, bombastic, constitutionally clueless fool will sit in the Oval Office, while a gaggle of Republicans will try to run — and run away with — the country.
Now an outspoken veteran of the civil rights movement, John Lewis, has called Trump an “illegitimate president.” Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have all hinted as much, but the much-revered Lewis is the first significant public figure to say it outright. Okay, we may agree the guy is spectacularly unfit. But are there any grounds for saying he is illegitimate, that is, that he has come to office by unfair or illegal means?
Lewis based his claim on intelligence reports of Russian hacking and covert support for Trump. These reports have been long on allegation and short on evidence. When Adlai Stevenson accused Russia of harboring nuclear missiles in Cuba at the United Nations in 1962, he produced site photographs, and the missiles were indeed there, or somewhere: after a 13 day standoff when the war to truly end all wars seemed imminent, the Russians agreed to withdraw them.
In 2003, Colin Powell made a similar claim about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He produced a map, but no pictures. The weapons didn’t exist, and the 600 alleged sites were all empty. We wound up with a war we’re still fighting.
I’m not saying there’s no foundation to the Russian hacking story, which now includes charges of hands-on management by Vladimir Putin and possible coordination with Trump operatives. I am saying, show me the money. And tell me, by the way, your theory of how Russian shenanigans tricked millions of people into voting against Hillary Clinton because of carelessness with her e-mail server and a hot tip on a debate question in favor of a serial bankrupt, con artist and uninvited sampler of private parts.
A second argument for illegitimacy is based on Trump’s election despite having been outpolled by nearly 3 million votes in the popular balloting.
This argument turns on the anachronism of the Electoral College, which enables — and has now produced, in five of 45 presidential elections including two of the last five — a candidate who won the popular vote but lost the election because of the Electoral College result. The disparity between Clinton’s share of the popular vote and her Electoral College vote is striking; she received 48.0 percent of the former, but only 42.2 percent of the latter (including the defection of five independent or so-called “faithless” electors).
Trump, meanwhile, with 46.0 percent of the popular vote, won 56.5 percent of the electoral vote, not counting two defectors. These are not small differences; they’re very large ones. In blowout elections, the gap is far wider: in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon with 60.8 percent of the popular vote but 98.5 percent of the electoral vote, and Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in 1972 with 60.7 percent of the popular and 96.7 percent of the electoral one. We don’t pay any attention to the Electoral College in blowouts, except when television networks compete to call the election by calling the magic number of 270 required for the electoral majority. But such elections show us how radically unbalanced the Electoral College distribution can be relative to popular voting. No one can seriously say that 96.7 percent of the American voting public was pleased at the re-election of Richard Nixon.
The Electoral College was put into the Constitution to court support from small and slave owning states. There are no more slave states, and small states are adequately super-represented by the provision that gives each state two members in the upper chamber of Congress, regardless of population. No serious argument exists for retaining the Electoral College today, and there is a glaring, not to say stupendous argument against it: it has given us Donald J. Trump as our president. Of course, had the electoral majority (or, in this case, plurality) ruled, that would have given us Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Since the rules of Electoral College voting were in place for both sides, and both sides understood, accepted and worked them, Trump’s accession to the presidency is no more illegitimate than that of John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 or Benjamin Harrison in 1888. It is arguably more legitimate than that of George W. Bush, because, although Al Gore’s roughly half million popular vote plurality over Bush was far less than Clinton’s over Trump, the 2000 election was actually decided by the single vote of an unelected Supreme Court justice in a case that a nakedly partisan court should never have accepted and had no plausible basis for deciding. That election, by the rules and by legal precedent, genuinely was stolen.
So, we can’t say that John Lewis is correct in calling Trump an illegitimate president either by appealing to a Russian state mafia or to the antidemocratic biases of the Electoral College. But is there another argument? Yes, there is, and it is one so blatant and so obvious that it does, in my view, make the case. It’s voter suppression.
Discounting the Electoral College, it is fair to say that the U.S. has enjoyed few if any truly democratic elections in its history. Up until 1865, the vast majority of African Americans were denied citizenship, and that was the least of their disadvantages. Until 1920, women were denied the vote as well. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was finally acknowledged that blacks were systematically blocked from voting across the South, and strongly discouraged elsewhere. Act or not, disenfranchisement continued, overtly by the machinations of local election officials, and more subtly by functionally segregated school systems, imposed illiteracy, and the general constraints of poverty.
Concurrently, there has been a renewed effort — not merely casual or customary, but increasingly planned and implemented as a nationwide strategy — to deny the vote to minorities, to urban voters and to the poor; or in plainer terms, to constituencies inclined to vote the Democratic ticket.
This became obvious with the Florida recount in 2000, where it was apparent voters had been stricken from the voting rolls en masse on illicit grounds, or willfully denied access to polling places. Since, however, the Supreme Court struck down the central provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, thereby gutting it, voter suppression has become the order of the day. It’s catching across party lines, too: in this November’s election, 117,000 voters in Brooklyn, a city that has voted Democratic since the time of Pericles, were disenfranchised on the grounds that they hadn’t voted before (first-time voter alert: don’t even bother).
But the major effort has been a Republican one, on the simple grounds that a party that represents the 1 percent, in addition to bamboozling as much of the electorate as possible, has got to keep as many of the rest from the polls as possible. Thus, a concerted effort has been seen by Republican attorneys and secretaries of states, together with gerrymandering legislatures and local election boards, to suppress targeted minorities.
Why haven’t Democratic officials and supporters been more aggressive in calling this out? It may be, not only because they play the same game when it suits them, but because they closed as many of their own primaries to Independent, Bernie Sanders-leaning voters as possible to realize the death wish of nominating Hillary Clinton. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch have both pointed after-the-fact fingers at voter suppression, as did Katrina vanden Heuvel, the liberal editor of The Nation, in her commentary on ABC’s “This Week” this past Sunday.
A little late, ladies.
Of course, the Democrats didn’t expect to lose this presidential election, as the Republicans, for their part, did not expect to win it. But, can we say that voter suppression really swung the tide? Yes, I think we can. A shift in 112,000 votes among 125 million cast on Nov. 8 would have swung enough states into Clinton’s column to have given her an Electoral College majority. Two of those states, Wisconsin and Michigan, would have done the job by themselves.
In Michigan, Trump won by 10,000 votes, while 449,000 voters were successfully purged from the rolls. In Wisconsin, his victory margin was 27,000, while 360,000 voters were purged. It is a virtual certainty in these Republican-controlled states that a substantial majority of the votes successfully targeted would have gone Democratic. In short, Clinton lost the election because of the chicanery that the Voting Rights Act was specifically designed to prohibit, but no longer effectively does. And so, indeed, this means that Donald Trump’s presidency is illegitimate.
Does this mean there is no recourse against voter suppression? There is, but it is a cumbersome and uncertain one. Recently, for example, a federal court threw out Kansas’ new voter requirements, but this will be appealed, and when and if it reaches the Supreme Court, the same gang that gave us Bush and Trump will await it. There is obviously not a legislative remedy while Republicans control Congress and the presidency.
America’s political parties have never been interested in maximizing electoral participation, only in winning elections for themselves. If we want a democracy, we’re going to have to get it the old-fashioned way, by demanding it.
Meanwhile, we have Donald J. Trump.