Why Trump Cares about Legitimacy

Donald J. Trump is clearly worked up over the question of the legitimacy of his claim to the presidency. Yes, he’s in office. He can move into the East Wing, issue executive orders, nominate cabinet members, and all that. But can he create his own legitimacy?


Years ago the president of the Kettering Foundation, David Mathews, said to me: Governments can create public highways and public schools, but they cannot create their own legitimacy. Only publics can deem a government legitimate.

Stupid as he is, Trump gets that. This is why he is fretting and lying about how many people were at his inauguration and about why he didn’t get the popular vote. He knows he needs more than the okay of the system; he needs the okay of the people.

And he doesn’t have that. Saturday’s Women’s Marches around the world just dug that truth in deeper.

In 1989, new civic movements (with deep and long roots) in Central Europe called the bluff of their governments, which had been claiming to be the “people’s” parties. No you’re not, said these new civic organizations. Suddenly, everyone could acknowledge that the emperor had no clothes.And within days these governments collapsed. When people in the U.S. now say, “Not my president,” they are calling the bluff of Trump’s claim to legitimacy.  Of course they know that he won the electoral college vote; but they are saying very clearly that his presidency lacks the authorization of the majority of the people and that rule by the minority is illegitimate through and through.

And they are also nodding to the the fact of Russia’s meddling in our election and the very real likelihood that Trump’s folks collaborated with the Russians in this, which by the way would be treason.

Whether by treason or merely by creating the illusion of public support, Trump’s attempts to conjure up his own legitimacy are sickeningly desperate and, let’s hope, short lived. Maybe this regime will collapse the way that those of Eastern Europe did in 1989. The more we organize, the better the chance.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. The left accuses Bush of stealing the election from Gore, so the right accuses Obama of not being a citizen, so the left accuses Trump of being a traitor, so the right accuses… and so it goes. This is nothing new. What’s more, this post has nothing at all to with academic questions like moral legitimacy, and everything to do with choosing “sides”.

    1. Greg, this post has everything to do with political legitimacy and why Trump cares about the size of his crowds and wants to claim that he “really” would have won the popular vote were it not, now he claims, for all those illegal immigrants. Are you suggesting that Trump’s fabrications about the size of his crowds and the reason he didn’t get the majority of the popular vote is about something else? Perhaps so, perhaps it’s just pure narcissism. But I am trying to give a more political account of why he is concerned….

  2. Thanks for this keen observation, Noelle. It’s an important principle for bringing about political change through non-violent non-cooperation. In “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” Gene Sharp writes, “Dictators require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain the sources of political power… [chief among those sources is] authority, the belief among the people that the regime is legitimate, and they have a moral duty to obey it.” Trump is clearly fighting to consolidate his power, which is in large part dependent on his legitimacy. If enough people don’t see him as legitimately elected and he starts to do things that cause more people to withdraw their belief in his legitimate authority such as denying First Amendment rights, we might see the bringing down of his presidency. It might come to that.

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