In this moment, we fix on Mike Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor. Speculation flies as to why this happened. Officially, it is because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence, putting the latter into a position of lying to the public about the substance of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador while Obama was still president. Some speculate that Flynn was forced out only because the Washington Post was about to publish a story about it. But the crisis is far deeper than personal betrayal or managerial incompetence in the White House.
Legitimation Crisis brews.
The term evokes the German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas and his 1975 book of that title. We are not in what Habermas would call a system crisis, where the demands of the system are incompatible and can’t be hierarchically integrated. The crisis is much more cultural because such a large portion of the US public doesn’t believe Trump is legitimate. And that portion will grow.
Of course some believe the presidential election was rigged, but many more people believe that Trump’s legitimacy suffers because his excesses have not been tamed by the awesomeness of the presidential office itself. He is, rather, tarnishing it with his own arrogance and refusal to be treated like other presidents (releasing taxes and divesting assets), and with his own incompetence in managing not only world and national affairs but even his own staff. Most people probably still want to believe Trump’s authority is legitimate, but I think that teeters on the edge. In order to be prepared for the coming full scale legitimation crisis, we need to anticipate that moment when Trump might have legal authority, but will lack the cultural authority to exercise it.
The crisis has its roots in the occasionally overt but always subliminally present resurgent whiteness and misogyny of Trump’s candidacy and early administration. We all know too well how grabbing private parts, the Wall, the Ban, and the know-nothing failure to see the danger of embracing white supremacists have communicated to many which citizens count, and how others need to explain why they need to be respected in Trump’s America.
Trump won the election, however, and with that victory, the chance for the Republican Party to realize many of its dreams, from an assault on environmental regulations to a new Supreme Court majority that could, ultimately, overturn US policy on women’s reproductive rights. In the run-up to the inauguration, Republicans consolidated Trump’s victory with their own declarations of respect, despite the alienation and disgust so many articulated during the primaries and even the general election.
Republicans are increasingly likely to see, however, that they are tying both their individual and Party futures to a ship whose reckless captain believes it can survive any glancing blow from only the apparent iceberg. They could just grab lifeboats, but they will increasingly see that they are too far from safe shores. I anticipate that they will decide that they need to take command of the vessel to steer it away from a cascading legitimation crisis. Of course that, itself, builds on more enduring inequities of America.
Many have long criticized the biases of the rule of law in the US, where for the wealthy and white one set of rules and punishments exist, and for people of color and those without legal counsel and tax accountants at the ready, another set rules. Trump’s behavior is making this explicit, and leading not just radicals but many leading American politicians to openly defy how the law is made. Consider how the struggle over sanctuary cities and forced deportations is playing out.
Second, anticipate an increasingly overt contest for authority within the Trump administration between Trump’s ideologues and those who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations, notably so many former military officers who now lead many offices. While they may have preferred Republican administrations, they respected the rule of law and their oath to defend the constitution above all else. With so many constitutional violations charged, from concerns over emoluments to treason itself, these generals and others may have to choose their loyalties to Trump or to Constitution. And even if they do not perceive a choice, the public just might.
I frankly cannot see how the brewing legitimation crisis will do anything other than worsen along these two lines and others. Two things could avert this disaster, however.
The first is an even greater disaster. We know from history how authoritarians stage, or manipulate, violent crisis to arrogate greater power. Whether in the assault on the German Reichstag in 1933 or the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002, legitimation crisis can be repressed by declaring the security of the state to be at risk. When Stephen Miller, the White spokesperson, insisted that the authority of the president “will not be questioned”, too many felt an authoritarian chill in the air.
The second will be a temporary crisis, but it will demonstrate the resilience of our democratic institutions. That momentary crisis will take place with the impeachment, or the voluntary resignation, of Donald Trump. Vice President Pence has many detractors, but he has the political experience, and perhaps mental balance, to recognize that the USA heads toward a legitimation crisis from which it will not recover without a reset of national solidarity on far more inclusive and mutually respectful democratic foundations.
It’s hard to be confident about the likelihood of any of these scenarios. But as a testament of the times, I can’t imagine a smooth extension of the present into the future. That future cannot digest the deepening legitimation crisis facing our nation.