Illustration by Carl Muecke
Donald Trump lost the popular vote by a historic margin, three million votes. He never released his tax returns. He asked for, and received, the help of Russian intelligence in hacking the Democrats and undermining his challenger, Hillary Clinton. He is in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, has not stepped back from his tangled business interests, has stuffed his cabinet with similarly compromised billionaires. His first National Security Adviser was a Russian agent. The fate of 319 million Americans was decided by 77,744 votes in three states out of more than 136 million ballots cast nationwide. Now he has claimed a mandate to radically remake America.
For many, if not most, of Hillary Clinton voters, Trump is an illegitimate president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stymied President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, an unprecedented act. Garland received neither a hearing nor a vote. McConnell recently executed the "nuclear option," denying the filibuster to Democrats so he could assure the confirmation of the arch-conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. For millions of Americans, we now have an illegitimate Supreme Court, too.
The reaction of Republicans is along the lines of, "This is how we felt during the Obama presidency, too." This is symptomatic of our Cold Civil War. But Obama was soundly elected and re-elected. He was careful to preserve continuity with his predecessor, George W. Bush, observed every norm, and governed from the center — even using the Republican health-care plan as the template for the Affordable Care Act.
This is different.
When W. was elected despite losing the popular vote, Democrats weren't happy but only a fringe questioned his lawful right to take office — even though many had hesitations about the outcome being decided in the Supreme Court (thanks, Sandy) rather than the House of Representatives, as the Constitution required. And before 9/11, Bush governed from the center. Remember his work with Sen. Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind?
Nothing like this has happened in my lifetime, although we began drifting that way with many conservatives adopting the posture that Bill Clinton was an illegitimate president. Soon this would be applied to any Democrat that won the White House. To find a comparable analogy, we must go back to the election of 1860, when Southerners refused to accept the victory of Abraham Lincoln and Southern states began to leave the union.
Today, states are much weaker. We also have an enormous standing military and national security state. These would make short work of any blue-state secession. That is, unless the military itself fragmented. Then things would get, as they say in the South...interesting.
The media will do its best to normalize Trump. To do so is shameful, but the search for "balance" will continue, even if the facts suffer. But it won't work. For one thing, Trump himself will not be normalized. He will continue to be reckless, impulsive, a wanna-be authoritarian putting his family in positions of power while acceding to the worst of Republican ideology. Even if Trump's "skinny budget" and embrace of plutocrats totally shafts his white working class base, they will stay with him. They love the strongman. They support white majoritarianism above all. They form a core that, along with the vote suppression of red states, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and a right-wing Supreme Court, makes me wonder if Democrats will ever be allowed to win again.
The damage will be worse than most imagine and long-lasting: to climate, the commons, transportation, science and research, the social safety net, the public's lands, the environment, health and safety. If the Republicans can get their act together, they're coming for our "entitlements."
Trump has the nuclear codes. To be sure, Vladimir Putin has something on him at best. At worst, Trump and his cronies such as Rex Tillerson have such deep business connections to Russia that "America First" will be a sick joke. On the other hand, we're dealing with an unstable illegitimate president who has asked why we have nuclear weapons if we don't use them. He disdains expert opinions. He makes Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II look like a steady statesman by comparison. It's been more than seven decades since we've had a war among major powers — just long enough for memories to fade and dangerous illusions to set in.
Meanwhile, we have millions of educated, reflective Americans who refuse to accept this man. As they should. This is perilous territory.