Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, John Lewis the Civil Rights hero and Congressman from Georgia remarked that “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate President.” His comment was mostly due to the notion that Russian interference threw the election to Trump. I had my own take on Trump’s (ill)legitimacy right after the election here, and now 8 months into his Presidency it’s a good time to take another measure of his legitimacy. A politician’s legitimacy can be evaluated against Weber’s three types of political legitimacy: rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic. Rational-legal legitimacy rests on “a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.” Traditional legitimacy rests on an “established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.” Finally, charismatic legitimacy 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.” This is an examination of empirical legitimacy – what can we observe against the standards outlined above – rather than normative legitimacy – a set of standards to judge against – so to see how much or how little legitimacy Trump has one needs to look at the behaviors and attitudes of the people.
On the rational-legal criteria the best case against Trump’s legitimacy is that he did not win the popular vote. Of course that doesn’t matter for the election but that is a fault of the system and one can still judge Trump’s legitimacy on rational-legal ground against the fact that more people wanted Hillary Clinton to be President than him. Of course, since the election as the investigation into Russian ratfucking of the election has intensified Trump’s electoral college victory also looks less legitimate, but to measure this behaviorally we need to wait until the next election to see how many votes Trump gets.
On the basis of traditional legitimacy Trump’s position since the election has not improved. One broad measure of Trump’s traditional legitimacy is approval rating (in that they provide a comparison to other Presidents). Trump’s approval rating has never been over 50%. No President in modern history can claim that. Trump did not receive the common “honeymoon” all President’s have received and his dismal approval rating has only gotten worse over time. Approval rating is a blunt measure but on more precise measures Trump’s traditional legitimacy still looks bad. The most recent Pew Research Center poll finds most Americans do not view Trump as acting like a traditional President.
Across the board Americans do not like or have mixed feelings about how Trump conducts himself as President. Even in the demographic categories that comprise Trump’s base – older white male republicans – the numbers don’t look good. 18% of men like the way he conducts himself as President, 20% of whites like the way he conducts himself as President, 19% of those 50-64 like the way he conducts himself and 22% of those 65+ feel the same way, and, amazingly, only 34% of Republicans like the way he conducts himself as President. These are not numbers indicative of a President with a lot of traditional legitimacy.
Also, most people don’t think Trump has the traditional traits of a President. While a bare majority see him as intelligent (wtf?), and a slight plurality see him as decisive, 62% and 72% do not see him as honest and even tempered respectively. Also 55% and 65% see him as prejudiced and selfish respectively.
With regards to charismatic legitimacy Trump has also lost ground since his election. One of the dangers of a charlatan like Trump is that through his serial norm breaking he might be able to create a new normal where nepotism, corruption, and incompetence would be the new standard at which future Presidents would be judged. Thankfully that does not appear to be happening. According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey 40% of American think Trump should be impeached. Although that is not a majority the percentage has increased by 10% since February. Also 49% think that Trump has acted in ways that violate the U.S. Constitution.
These numbers reflect popular (lack of) support for Trump but even within his own administration there are signs of contempt. This piece in Politico highlights the fact that just in the last week Trump was publicly rebuked by three high profile members of his administration – Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Jim Mattis. The article continues:
“In a more normal time, in a more normal administration, any of these would be a firing offense . . . The fact that this hasn’t happened is an advertisement of Trump’s precarious standing, broadcast by officials he himself selected for positions of significant power and prestige.”
In other words, Trump has such low standing both within and outside his administration that he is unable to exert control over his subordinates. The overall takeaway is that Trump has even less popular legitimacy now than he did when he was elected. Sad!