Sidney Blumenthal: Five Ways to Measure Trump’s Illegitimacy

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Donald Trump with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and his daughter Ivanka at a news conference at Trump Tower, New York City, on January 11. Sidney Blumenthal writes that, emerging from the 2016 election, Donald Trump carries a quintuple burden of illegitimacy. During the campaign he was malicious, dishonest and disreputable, unlike that of any previous major party presidential candidate in the entire history of the country. He is the only one to have waged a campaign from beginning to end that whipped up virulent elements of racism, misogyny, nativism, mockery of the disabled and anti-Semitism. Spencer Platt/Getty

Not since The Wizard of Oz has anyone proclaimed himself to be so great and powerful as Donald Trump.

He knows more than the generals, the spies and the senators. He knows more than the Federal Reserve, the State Department and the scientists.

He often tells us that he is “a smart person.” Explaining why he does not need to pay attention to intelligence briefings, he said, “I’m, like, a very smart person.”

Comparing himself to George Will and Karl Rove, he said, “I’m much smarter than them. I think I have a much higher I.Q. I think I went to a better college—better everything.”

He has said his mind works at “super genius stuff.” He has said that Vladimir Putin “called me a genius,” which he did not, though he did call him “talented.” Trump has said, “I have the world’s most selective memory.”

Trump’s challenge, however, doesn’t lie in the production values of smoke and mirrors. His struggle is against history. History cannot be bargained with, bought or intimidated.

Putin might remind Trump that it was the founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, who remarked, “You may not care about history, but history cares about you.” Or, if you prefer, in another voice, an American one, it was William Faulkner who wrote, “The past is not dead—it’s not even past.”

The polls offer superficial signs of Trump’s underlying problem. Trump has the lowest approval rating for handling his transition of any president-elect in a quarter century—44 percent compared with  an average of 68 percent for the others, according to the Gallup poll.

The Quinnipiac poll measured Trump’s favorability about a week before his inauguration at 37 percent. These unprecedented low numbers for an incoming president are symptoms of a basic frailty.

Related: Inauguration boycott spreads amid Lewis-Trump spat

Here’s where history, “selective memory,” if you will, cares about Donald Trump.

The Great and Powerful Trump is the weakest and most vulnerable president in at least 140 years. Behind the scowl and the curtain there is a diminished man who cannot shake off the circumstances surrounding his election.

Before Trump, only four men became president without winning a plurality or majority of the popular vote. Only one lost a greater percentage of the vote than Trump. Three of them served only one term. Three assumed office under clouds of illegitimacy.

Each of these presidents, raised to the office against the popular will, was marked by the defect of their election. None evaded the debility of their unpopular elections. Either they were so politically hampered they lacked credibility and could do little, or else they tried to defy their original sin by governing as though they had solid mandates and disintegrated.

In 1824, all the presidential candidates were of the same party, the Democratic-Republican Party. Senator Andrew Jackson of Tennessee won the most votes, 41 percent. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams won 31 percent. Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky had 13 percent, while Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford won 11 percent.

The election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Clay supported Adams, who became president, and Adams named Clay as secretary of state. Jackson and his followers claimed the outcome was the result of a “corrupt bargain.”

Adams, who was the son of the second president, the most experienced and distinguished man of his age, a visionary with far-reaching plans to benefit the country, never recovered from the accusation that arose from his loss of the popular vote.

Of all the presidents who lost the popular vote, John Quincy Adams towered over the lot as a man of conviction and foresight, but when he asserted himself he only made himself vulnerable. Adams did not believe himself to be invincible, but felt driven to perform what he believed to be his proper duty. It crippled his presidency and four years later Jackson won in a landslide.

In 1876, the Democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden, the governor of New York, clearly won the popular vote over the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, governor of Ohio, by 3 percent. Yet the results in three Southern states remained in doubt—Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Federal troops had been deployed there to attempt to enforce the civil rights laws of Reconstruction against the violent opposition of white militias like the Ku Klux Klan. In a smoke-filled room in a Washington hotel, representatives from both parties cut a deal selling out Tilden and handing the presidency to Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of the federal troops, effectively ending Reconstruction, leading to the suppression of the black vote and the imposition of era of the Jim Crow segregation that lasted until the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, and whose achievements, particularly voting rights, are again under siege.

No, the past is not dead. Hayes served one hobbled term.

In 1888, the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland, the former governor of New York, won the popular vote by less than one percentage point but lost in the Electoral College to the Republican, former Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana.

Cleveland had been elected in 1884 despite a sex scandal involving his paternity payments to the mother of his alleged illegitimate child. The slogan against him was, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” When he won, the slogan in reply was, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

This time there was no great controversy. The campaign was fought over conventional issues such as the tariff. Cleveland was done in by the betrayal of Tammany Hall, which cost him New York.

Cleveland just had an unlucky break, sort of like the Cleveland Indians. And next time, in 1892, he won.

The otherwise honorable but uncharismatic Harrison, known as “the human icicle,” never escaped the stigma that he had originally lost the popular vote. By the way, the most significant act that Harrison proposed during his presidency was for enforcement of civil rights, which was defeated.

In 2000, George W. Bush lost to Al Gore by almost a half million votes, half a percentage point. The contest rested on Florida. In Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court ruled that the count there, largely of black votes, should stop and delivered the presidency to Bush. The vote that finally mattered was the five member Republican majority on the court.

On September 10, Bush’s Gallup poll rating hovered at 51 percent, relatively low for a president early in his administration. After September 11, Bush soared to a rating of 90 percent, the highest ever measured.

Whatever else 9/11 was, the trauma rescued Bush from becoming a likely one-term president. Without the deus ex machina of the attack, Bush’s presidency would have almost certainly drifted downward from inertia. Instead, he seized upon 9/11 as the rationale for his administration and extended it as the rationale for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, claiming not only that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction but also that he was in league with Al-Qaeda.

After Bush’s narrow reelection in 2004, he assumed he had at last won his holy grail of an electoral mandate and launched a plan to privatize Social Security. His popularity plummeted and his rating when he left office after a series of dismal events eventually leveled off at 22 percent.

Emerging from the 2016 election, Donald Trump carries a quintuple burden of illegitimacy.

First, there is the indisputable loss of the popular vote that indelibly taints him as a minority president. He let fly in a tweet on November 27, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” But Trump fiction cannot erase the fact that he lost by 2.8 million votes.

Second, there is the criminal espionage of a hostile foreign power to aid his election, the Russian hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign, which Trump brazenly encouraged. The former top expert on Russia for MI6, the British intelligence service, also claims in a dossier that Trump’s campaign collaborated and coordinated with the Russians, and that the Russians recorded Trump engaged in compromising behavior.

Third, there is the intervention of FBI director James Comey, who announced late in the campaign that Hillary Clinton was again a suspicious citizen under investigation, his interference triggered by a cabal of politically motivated agents in the New York bureau connected to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani—an act in flagrant violation of strict Department of Justice guidelines against meddling in elections.

Whatever the motivations of anyone involved, whether of Putin or Comey, whether vengeance or arrogance, the FSB and the FBI assaults on the electoral process, separately and parallel, had the effect of a coup d’etat.

Fourth, Republican-sponsored voter ID laws suppressed the black vote and possibly tipped the states of Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Fifth, Trump’s campaign was malicious, dishonest and disreputable, unlike that of any previous major party presidential candidate in the entire history of the country. He is the only one to have waged a campaign from beginning to end that whipped up virulent elements of racism, misogyny, nativism, mockery of the disabled and anti-Semitism.

His venomous campaign has not faded in memory. “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence,” said Meryl Streep to the Golden Globes Awards ceremony on January 9. “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” Within hours, Trump tweeted that she was a “flunky” and “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.”

Less than a week before the inauguration, on January 14, Congressman John Lewis, who was a heroic figure in the civil rights movement, declared he would not attend.

“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected.… That’s not right, that’s not fair, that’s not the open democratic process.” Immediately, Trump taunted him in a tweet for “all talk, no action.”  

Trump’s rancorous performance as president-elect has been consistent with that of his candidacy. No matter how many insults he fires off, he cannot escape the history by which he entered the presidency. That history is the cracked foundation of this Trump Tower. It explains why his approval rating is like an elevator that cannot rise for long no matter how many times he hits the send button on his Twitter account.

Trump, for his part, acts as if he rules by divine right. Congressional Republicans press to enact their radical agenda as if they possess the mandate of heaven. While the Republican congressional leadership not so privately regards him with disdain, they live in the shadow of fear because he has hijacked their base. His tweets startle them as though they are thunderbolts from Zeus.

But they still believe they can manipulate and exploit him for their own purposes. Like Putin, they consider him their useful idiot. The whole project, however, rests on a rickety premise.

Trump’s toxic combination of belligerence and ignorance bodes ill for his presidency. He can’t bully all of the people all of the time. Trump’s inherent weakness poses a clear and present danger to arouse his impulsivity. His conflict with the intelligence community over Russian subversion goes to the heart of an unprecedented threat to American democracy and how he happened to become president.

There is no telling what menace he may create as his vulnerability is exposed—no telling what terrible event he might take advantage of to assert his faltering dominance.

Trump’s constant antics to discredit his ever-widening universe of enemies, to distract from his expanding problems by projecting blame onto others and to justify himself through relentless falsification are obvious traits of a malignant narcissism.

But these signs represent more than psychological dysfunction. They are his signature methods for power.

Trump has always lashed out at anyone or anything he perceived was standing in his way. But now his furious efforts to impose his unquestioned authority are rooted in a crisis of legitimacy.

We are only in the earliest stages of his drama. If ever the truism applies, for Trump the personal is the political, or more precisely, the pathological is the political.

Sidney Blumenthal is the author of A Self-Made Man 1809-1849: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1 . Wrestling With His Angel 1849-1856: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2 will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.