The language of illegitimacy

Only one President since I have been able to vote has not had the label of illegitimacy tagged to him–George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988. (At least not that I recall). A quick stroll down memory lane.

Bill Clinton was so labelled because he only got 43% of the popular vote; GHW Bush 38% and Ross Perot 19%.

George W Bush was called by me I think, “the President select” given the Bush v Gore Supreme court case and he not only didn’t get more than half of the popular vote, he lost the popular vote to Al Gore. The popular vote is constitutionally irrelevant, but not politically so.

Barack Obama won a fairly convincing victory in 2008, but he was labelled as illegitimate by adherents to the Racist birther lie that he was not born in Hawaii, but rather born in Indonesia or Kenya or somewhere “other.”

Donald Trump also lost the popular vote by around 3 million votes. And some people said that Russia stole the election, or that Russian interference in the election tainted the result. Here is the report from the Republican controlled Senate Intelligence committee report, put out in August 2020. Here is one quote from the report:

(U) The Committee found that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian
effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak
information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president. Moscow’s intent was
to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the
Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the
U.S. democratic process.

The Senate report does conclude that there is no evidence of effect in the election in terms of hacking, altering vote counts and the like.

Joe Biden is said to be illegitimate by some Republicans because of a conspiracy between elected Democrats and Republicans, working in the States of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, who nevertheless failed to take control of the U.S. Senate, lost seats in the House of Representatives, and failed to get control of the State legislature in key states like North Carolina, so the Republicans can control redistricting in 2020. Also, several dozen cases brought by the Trump campaign failed to prove meaningful fraud anywhere. No evidence of such a conspiracy has been brought forward by President Trump in court.

Any President who does not get the most votes is going to have a whiff of illegitimacy, even though the popular vote is constitutionally irrelevant. And in a winner take all series of state races, Bill Clinton got 370 electoral votes with 43% of the vote, and even though he got the most votes, it is also true that more people voted for someone other than him. I agree that seems weird, but the electoral college is a weird, anti-democratic holdover from the 19th Century.

Given that so many Republicans bought into the Racist birther lie, and that this was how Donald Trump himself first fueled his jump from reality show TV host to Republican nominee for President, Republicans were always going to say the election was stolen, or that President Elect Biden was illegitimate. Mr. Trump certainly said it over and over during the campaign. For once he told the truth, he did exactly as he said he would.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University https://academiccouncil.duke.edu/ . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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