America Has Survived Illegitimate Regimes Before. Can We Survive Trump’s?

He may be legal, but he’s illegitimate.  

That’s what Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said when President Donald Trump slid into the White House. Unfortunately, we, as a nation, did not join in and say it out loudly and boldly, like we meant it. Sure, there was a Women’s March, there were Sarah Kendzior and Walter Schaub pointing out all the warning signs. There certainly was grassroots organizing that was essential to the high voter turnout in the midterm elections.  

But despite that rumbling from below and from certain public voices, there was acquiescence from far too many Americans who just wanted the routine of normalcy and, tragically, that includes too many in pundit land, in Congress, and in the business world.  

They hemmed and hawed. They genuflected. Hoped he would pivot. Looked for any feeble sign that he would become “presidential!”  They kept praying that he would grow into the job, perhaps when he was confronted with a natural disaster like the ones in Puerto Rico or California. Or maybe when he interacted with the troops and honored fallen American soldiers. Surely next time, when he visited Arlington Cemetery on Veteran’s Day.

Those prayers were never answered; the pivot never arrived. Waiting for it was a fool’s errand, and it has cost us.

The pivot never arrived. Waiting for it was a fool’s errand, and it has cost us.

Toddlers have been tear-gassed at the border. He has caged babies and ignored a federal court order to reconnect those children with their parents or guardians. He has put our very existence at risk by mocking the science of climate change, by trashing a successful treaty with Iran that had actually stopped nuclear proliferation and by deluding himself that Kim Jong-Un is dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.   

He has stomped all over our nation’s basic laws regarding nepotism, obstruction of justice, asylum, the Census, the use of the military on domestic soil and financial conflicts of interest.  

He has made cruelty and amorality the hallmarks of his administration. He openly praised the Saudis despite the horrific murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He tried to sic the Department of Justice on his enemies Hillary Clinton and James Comey. He illegally appointed an unqualified and unvetted crony to be acting attorney general simply to stop the Mueller investigation and do what no law-abiding, self-respecting official would ― go after Hillary because Trump hates her.

As he continues to drag the United States into the authoritarian abyss, the cry of “This is not who we are!” rises up as if it were an incantation that can exorcize America’s demons.  

But the evil remains because we have not collectively acknowledged the simple truth: Trump is illegitimate. He’s a usurper, a squatter and a fraud.  A pretender in the Oval Office. He snaked into the White House on the back of Republican-sponsored voter suppression and by playing footsies with the Russians.  

Instead of fully acknowledging this hard truth, far too many Americans have been intent on maintaining the facade of order: salutes coming off of Air Force One, pardoning turkeys, White House “press conferences,” tree lighting and Hanukkah ceremonies even in the wake of a slaughter in a synagogue. So intent are they on making the abnormal seem normal that they have sacrificed the very substance of democratic governance.

Unfortunately, this willful, collective denial isn’t new. We are well-practiced at it. Even when we admit that the electoral playing field was vastly unequal and unfair and, as a consequence, delivered a tainted, compromised result (as in 2000 and of course, in 2016), we have rationalized that the “world’s greatest democracy” can withstand a few years of bruising and pounding from undemocratic rule.   

Let’s be clear. America cannot. It never has. Undemocratic rule has always left a mark, sometimes it’s a wound so jagged and so deep that it has never healed.

Trump is illegitimate. He’s a usurper, a squatter and a fraud. A pretender in the Oval Office.

After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson illegally granted amnesty to many of the Confederate’s political and military leaders, who quickly re-assumed control of their state governments in the defeated South. It was as if more than 600,000 American soldiers had never died in the quest to “hold these truths to be self-evident.”

In Louisiana, for example, the state’s 1865 constitutional convention stated: “Ours is and shall forever be a Government of white people. Made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the white race… Those of African descent,” the delegates continued, “can never be considered citizens of the United States.” Mississippi’s newly elected governor in 1865 was a Confederate general at Gettysburg. Georgia’s congressman in 1866 was the former vice president of the Confederate States of America.

These neo-Confederate regimes across the South implemented the Black Codes, which re-inscribed slavery by another name. The law required African-Americans to sign annual labor contracts, forbade them from any occupation other than laboring in the fields, mines, homes or lumberyards, and allowed previous slave owners custodial (and, therefore, labor) rights of some black children and minors. If African-Americans refused or resisted, they were arrested and their labor auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The message was clear. Slavery really wasn’t wrong. The South really wasn’t defeated. And the Confederacy was noble, whereas black Americans were not.

Undemocratic rule has always left a mark, and sometimes it’s a wound so jagged and so deep that it has never healed.

This is the legacy that now allows Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) to don a Confederate army hat while proclaiming it represents “Mississippi history at its best,” cheer, in a campaign against a black man, that she would gladly attend a public hanging, and openly express the need in a democracy to suppress the votes of American citizens.

These are the wounds of undemocratic rule.   

We also felt its damaging power during the era of Jim Crow in the 20th century as massive disfranchisement installed one regime after the next in South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Each of them was based, as Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge explained in 1946, on the maxim “keep the n*****s where they belong!” These governments had not only sanctioned anti-black violence but had also mastered the tools of disfranchisement so effectively that by the time the world was fighting the Nazis, who had once visited the United States to determine how legalized discrimination was done, only 3 percent of age-eligible African Americans in the South were registered to vote.  

Southern lawmakers were elected legally, but not legitimately. And with their deep disfranchisement, they buried America in a range of racially discriminatory and distorted policies. We live under the weight of those regimes now as we confront the inequality brought on by a virtual whites-only Social Security program, limited access to affordable high-quality college education, race-based K-12 public schools and segregated homeownership opportunities.  

Similarly, the pressure of America’s longest war, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and nearly $6 trillion, is a direct result of George W. Bush, who was selected, not elected, to be president. The voter suppression shenanigans deployed in Florida during the 2000 election, from illegal voter roll purges, to police stationed like Checkpoint Charlies at access roads into voting precincts in black neighborhoods, to a U.S. Supreme Court intervention to stop the recount when it looked like Al Gore just might win, installed a man who should have never been that close to the presidency.  

He was so far out of his depth that the watchwords like Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, the Torture Memos, rendition, WMDs, as well as Hurricane Katrina, will forever sully American claims to moral leadership. Similarly, Bush’s eagerness to use the Department of Justice to hunt down non-existent rampant “voter fraud” and to punish U.S. attorneys who refused to prosecute innocent people simply to substantiate the GOP narrative of “stolen elections” set the stage for the calamity that has befallen us today.

Trump, who bellows “voter fraud” because he didn’t win the popular vote, has worked to hide his illegitimacy behind bluster and a system that he has compromised and debased at every turn. His illegitimacy has crept like kudzu into the judicial and legislative branches of the U.S. government, daring and defying what’s left of the so-called pillars of democracy to stop him.  

In addition to the numerous unqualified nominees that now pepper the federal judiciary, Trump has successfully nominated to the highest court in the land a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, perjury and financial misdealings. Enabled by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Trump then ensured that there would be no real investigation, no real vetting, only a sham of a confirmation hearing. And, yet, as the justices welcomed him to the “Supreme Court family,” the power brokers in the Federalist Society gave him a standing ovation, and cases are argued before the court with him sitting there on the bench, we pretend that Brett Kavanaugh is legitimate.

Trump, angry at an attorney general who gave him everything he wanted except the thing he wanted most – protection from the Mueller investigation – forced Jeff Sessions to resign. Trump then ignored federal law, leapfrogged over the Senate-confirmed successors and tapped someone whose only qualification was vocal disdain for the special counsel. And, yet, the Department of Justice pretends that acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is legitimate, as it pleads with the Supreme Court not to look too closely at his appointment and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) only asks that Whitaker recuse himself from the Mueller investigation. 

Then there’s Jared Kushner with his limited security clearance, coziness with the Saudis and questionable business deals that required U.S. foreign policy to extort millions out of Qatar. Nevertheless, as the son-in-law, he is ensconced in the West Wing with the equally compromised and ill-equipped daughter, Ivanka. And, yet, government officials and the pundits pretend that they are legitimate.

Trump’s illegitimate regime has proven that there is no bottom, there is no pivot, there is no pretense at acting presidential. Instead, there is nothing but graft, corruption, cruelty and, most importantly, unending scorn for American democracy because it hasn’t stopped him so far. He believes it isn’t strong enough to do so now.

It is time to prove Trump wrong. And we have the ability to do so. Through our votes, our unending pressure on elected officials, our demand for accountability, our continuing financing of and engagement with grassroots organizations and our insistence that the media stop hunting for normalcy in this Gregor Samsa of a regime, we can ensure that the horrific wounds the United States has suffered will not be fatal. And, then, we rebuild to ensure that we no longer have to contend with the dangers of yet another illegitimate government.

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.

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