Not all contradictions accompanying President Trump’s governance magnify the legitimation crisis increasingly apparent. Some merely reinforce the cultural conflicts that were apparent during the election itself, but others threaten the bedrock of his legitimacy. In particular, the crisis around Russia may erode the last vestiges of cultural authority buttressing his legal or institutional authority. Nevertheless, unless a broader coalition than those already in opposition act, Trump’s legitimation crisis could turn into an existential crisis for America.
In what follows, I examine six conflicts shaping Trump’s legitimation crisis in order to consider how they could accumulate to risk the nation itself.
- Trump’s economic nationalism is his anchor, but its sustainability is not obvious.
Made in America was a union slogan that neoliberals with their embrace of free trade and globalization thought an anachronism. Promising to build a new fleet of aircraft for America’s defense is one way to build a genuinely popular base among America’s labor unions and other workers. It’s not obvious, however, that such economic nationalism, beyond funding America’s military contractors, is sustainable. Not only are US retailers concerned, but GOP leaders beyond his inner circle no doubt worry about ensuing trade wars that could deflate the world economy.
- Civil and political opposition together with the courts defeated Trump’s Muslim Ban, but we are told he’s coming back with a more legally defensible executive action.
If Trump’s new order meets legal requirements, Trump might regain some respect among those who still believe in the merits of the judicial branch. However, this reconstruction will do nothing to restore the damage done to our nation’s place vis-à-vis the Muslim world and for US citizens and residents with Muslim associations, their allies and those who depend on their labor and learning. Within Silicon Valley and among universities, not to mention those who fear religious hatred to be the foundation of real world apocalypse, Trump may never recover legitimate authority. However, the implementation of this ban would manifest the vision of a fundamental conflict between Christianity and Islam that the President’s advisor, Steve Bannon, and his followers consider axiomatic of the age. With such policy, Trump secures another base of support, even if he undermines American security in the process.
- Deportation of the undocumented intensifies, and punishment for those who articulate sanctuary in policy and practice grows, but where this goes nobody knows.
The escalation of deportation practice and accompanying GOP maneuvers in congress and the executive branch, even as some mayors and governors have declared their fundamental opposition, promise a measure of constitutional and real conflict America has not seen since desegregation. In this, we can see some of Putin’s playbook – as his own legitimacy suffered, he escalated conflict first in Chechnya and then in a subsequent decade Ukraine. Russia’s hybrid wars may find their replication in America, generating a hybrid civil war that Trump can use to consolidate his hold on power. He said he would bring law and order to America after all, but this time I fear law and order without cultural authority will induce real conflict in America itself.
- Attacks on the media as the enemy of the people magnifies a conflict that distracts from the growing legitimation crisis.
Although Trump is notorious for his aggressive approach to the media, and even threats to individual journalists like Katy Tur, his performance in the so-called 2/17/17 press conference clarifies his method of governance. While he cannot deny the importance of a free press given its centrality to our constitutional makeup, he can reconstruct them not as a free press but as his political opposition and an enemy of the American people. This outrageous maneuver has moved some responsible Republicans, like John McCain, to protest but this is hardly enough to stew the legitimation crisis. After all, attacking the press also appeals to his base and is part of a longer range strategy to diminish critical reason and evidentiary arguments in our public sphere. This assault extends to all kinds of science too, most critically environmental science, where those who seek to undermine environmental protection come to be appointed to head the agency designed to protect it. I anticipate, further, that Trump will move environmentally hazardous projects ahead, around fracking and especially DAPL and Keystone, inviting ever more vigorous forms of civil resistance so as to prove that this is a political matter, not a scientific or moral one. Authority matters more than truthfulness in the Trump regime, which if triumphant, signals the dissolution of a free press no matter what its legal standing.
- The arrogance of Whiteness works to consolidate his base, until it winds up assaulting the self-understood moral integrity with which folks with racial privilege define themselves.
When Trump asked April Ryan, an African American White House reporter to convene her friends in the Congressional Black Caucus (), Black folks and their allies can mark the racism, but they won’t be surprised given how such blatant condescension builds on patterns of recurrent Whiteness. Moving this story could mobilize Trump’s opposition, but even that will help to consolidate the base of his power because making America great again was, implicitly, about making America white again. Here again Bannon helps us see more clearly what is going on. While he himself might try to downplay the racist elements of his vision, he opens the space for just that resurgence when celebrating an era of American history known for its modern repression of civil rights struggles. When folks like Sherrilyn Ifill point today to Republican efforts to limit voting rights, or to the explicitly racist past of our now Attorney General, they do not undermine Trump’s base. The Trump administration’s racist supporters deny their whiteness with a wink and a mean nod to say we don’t need you folks because Democrats have you in their pocket anyway, and we have redrawn the electoral system to assure that white power will prevail regardless of your protest. “Know your place” helps to buttress Trump’s legal authority by invoking America’s founding racist culture. Of course we could imagine a different whiteness, one that recoils from, for example, such misogynistic and crude treatment of women as Trump has been known to practice, and even to crow about. Trump’s electoral support by white women proved otherwise, however. One could imagine that when that whiteness is combined with anti-Semitism, if not by Trump and his family but by his staff and their followers, a critical crack in the hegemony of Know-Nothing Whiteness begins to shine. That, however, may only bear critical fruit when explicitly linked to the rise of fascist movements across the world.
- The implication of Russia in the US election and Trump’s vision of a new world order is the accelerator of legitimation crisis.
America First does not only recall the spirit of American anti-Semitism, but it also evokes the message of resurgent nationalisms across the world, beginning first and foremost with Putin’s leadership in Russia. Although his regime has not been directly implicated in the rise of all of the other nationalist populist regimes in Europe, from Orban in Hungary to the Kaczynski-directed regime in Poland, Putin’s influence on Brexit, and now in French elections, is popularly known. All these nationalist expressions will do more than illuminate a racist mirror: they will move the world toward increased violence within and across nations. Of course that is speculation and Trump’s resemblance to such figures is not an impeachable offense. But wondering about how much Putin is tied to Trump’s election, how many of Trump’s advisors and families are implicated in Russian affairs, and how Russian interests are implicated in the rise of Trump and his policies today, is Trump’s greatest point of vulnerability. Of course to discover certain ties could border on, if not define, treason itself. With concerns for his and his family’s violation of the constitution’s emoluments clause, that might be enough. But the key problem may be his own arrogance; Trump appears to believe he is only accountable to himself, and to the people as he defines the people, which means only those who support him, those who are nice to him. By refusing to be transparent in his dealings with Russia, he only increases suspicion and doubt. That, in turn, creates the possibility for some Republicans, the intelligence community, and those for whom defense of the constitution and sensible policy trumps partisanship or presidential servility, to join together and investigate to whom he is accountable. A public and bipartisan investigation of the ties of Trump, his business and his electoral team to Russia during the election is critical to restoring the possibility of Trump’s legitimacy in America.
We know Putin is only accountable to Putin. To the extent Trump takes that page from Putin’s script his presidency will fail. It is, however, important to keep in mind that Trump’s legitimation crisis is not necessarily America’s legitimation crisis. America is more than those who defend Know Nothing white supremacy fostering a Holy War with Islam and a civil war with communities defending families and neighborhoods from the terror of deportation run amok. Trump’s legitimation crisis could, however, become America’s existential crisis if Americans of intellectual and political responsibility don’t come together to see the catastrophe Trump sows, and to figure the constitutional means to stop it now.