Three months ago I marked the looming legitimation crisis in Trump’s America. I subsequently argued that not all contradictions accompanying President Trump’s governance magnified that crisis. In the succeeding months, those conflicts that reinforced cultural authority among Trump’s base have not changed much, if at all. However, his Russian Achilles Heel has grown much more vulnerable while the health care crisis functions to make him even more unstable. I have been able to extend these points around Trump’s legitimation crisis on various television programs but I consolidate those observations here. In what follows, I elaborate some of my original argument from the second article in this series, one that was animated by my crude sketch. An anonymous artist has transformed that image to accompany this third essay on the legitimation crisis in Trump’s America. But before I elaborate, I clarify the meaning of “legitimation crisis”.
Recognizing Legitimation Crisis
I previously simplified legitimation crisis as the lack of sufficient cultural authority to support legal authority. Its scholarly elaboration is much more substantial.
In its classic formulation, legitimacy refers to an acknowledged right to govern, but that right has different kinds of cultural authority behind it. More than a century ago, sociologist Max Weber argued that such authority could have different sources — tradition, a rational/legal system, or charisma. Legitimation crisis as such is associated with a 1973 book by Jürgen Habermas, but Nancy Fraser recently has refined his argument. She notes both the abiding, and transforming, legitimation crisis of advanced capitalism, in a condition where “public opinion turns against a dysfunctional system that fails to deliver” (p. 165). She also draws on Antonio Gramsci to elaborate how hegemonies and counter-hegemonies work in that contest:
‘What grounds hegemonic worldviews—and their counter-hegemonic rivals—are suppositions about the subject positions and capacities for agency available to social actors, the proper responsibilities and actual capabilities of public powers, the structure and operation of the reigning social order, the principles and frames of justice by which that order is to be evaluated, and the historical availability of desirable and feasible alternatives.” (p. 172).
This is a good guide. For this immediate context, and perhaps for other Trump-type societies, the most immediate issue before us is the distribution of justice frames. By articulating that distribution with hegemony as such, we not only can recognize conflicts animating Trump-type rule but also parse which contests reproduce cultural authority and which ones transform it.
It’s not enough to have an increasingly alienated and mobilized opposition to authority for a legitimation crisis to develop. After all, legitimacy does not depend on everyone, or even a majority, accepting cultural authority; it only depends on assuring that “other authorities confirm decisions of a given authority” (p. 171). A legitimation crisis emerges when those with a sufficient array of resources withdraw their support and challenge an incumbent. That rearticulation of power relations comes from two possible sources:
- where the opposition grows sufficiently strong as to disrupt the reproduction of power and privilege; or
- when erstwhile allies of an authority recognize the danger that authority poses to their own position and withdraw their support.
Simply, conflict does not, in and of itself, risk cultural authority. Indeed, others have observed that Trump thrives on crisis and conflict; some conflicts nourish his position and others threaten it. The first five points below reflect the former, the latter two, with different social dynamics, are likely to drive legitimation crisis through to Trump’s impeachment or resignation.
Conflicts Reproducing Trump’s Cultural Authority
- Trump’s economic nationalism is increasingly anchored to militarism…
On his first trip abroad, Trump sings the glories of arming Saudi Arabia and assuring them a “good deal” in return for their investment in the US economy and support in defeating ISIS. Trump thus fuses a muscular military strategy with claims to American job creation, replicating that Cold War practice in which US expenditures on oil are returned to the US economy through sales of US weapon systems to client states.
While those who prioritize human rights might not find comfort in Trump’s embrace of autocrats elsewhere, they are also unlikely to be among those who support Trump in the first place. Even the beating of peaceful protesters on US soil by the Turkish Prime Minister’s bodyguards might be seen as a small price to pay to gain support from other nations’ strong men to fix security.
We can find ways to differentiate Trump’s approach to the Middle East from Obama’s, but there is also significant continuity for US foreign policy toward the region. Nevertheless, I do fear that in that autocratic company, US authorities could acquire an even greater taste for life without protest. Commerce Secretary Ross already celebrated it. But this retreat from human rights and democracy does not, in and of itself, undermine Trump’s cultural authority, and for now, only reinforces his image of being a tough guy making tough choices. His base loves it.
- Trump came back with a revised Muslim Ban….
That is no Muslim ban, but a travel ban to enhance national security, offer his proponents. And, they may say, to declare Trump hostile to Islam is obviously not the case given his trip to Saudi Arabia. But Mustafa Akyol and Wajahat Ali clarify the disdain evident in his visit. Yes he bowed before the king to receive Saudi honors and, unlike Steve Bannon, managed a smile during a sword dance. But all this, they argue, was much more testament to the fight against terrorism and embrace of autocracy in the process. It was certainly no expression of respect for Islam or its believers as such.
Nonetheless, and despite his gaffe, President Trump may have given enough material to those who envision a fundamental conflict between Judeo-Christianity and Islam to deny that Trump’s policies are prejudicial against Islam. In this context, you just need to be sure to give restrictive nationalists (those who prioritize “true Americans”) enough to deny creedal nationalists (those who prioritize the Constitution) the edge in popular contests over defining the nation. But that may not be enough in the legal arena. The arguments before the 9th circuit court were revealing.
Judge Michael Hawkins asked Trump’s advocate whether President Trump ever declared that he was wrong, as a presidential candidate, in calling for a Muslim Ban. Without adequate reply, we are simply invited to trust that the President knows what needs be done for national security. That, as the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II reminds us, is no great assurance. No measure of Saudi sword play will suffice to draw proponents of the First Amendment close to Trump. But then they, and Muslim Americans, are not his base. Being hostile to Islam can increase Trump’s appeal among those who already support him for the view that Islam is not like other religions.
“Can a Muslim be American; and an American, Muslim?” That question divides America, but does not undermine Trump’s cultural authority. Too many believe the answer is no.
- Deportation of the undocumented intensifies….
The same contest apparent 3 months ago around the undocumented remains the same, but with accumulating fear, ill health, and insecurity among those at risk of deportation, and for those tied to them. While the number of stories of communities devastated floods the public sphere, including accounts even of previous Trump supporters who thought their families immune from such deportations, this too does not change the calculus surrounding Trump’s cultural authority.
It does, however, introduce new rifts into the racial formations of America, where opportunities in political life for people of color to distance themselves from the more vulnerable and dispossessed grow.
Thus, rather than focus on ethnicity per se to understand the conflicts and contradictions of Trump rule around documentation, one needs to look at constellations of local power, and how sanctuary rules find sustenance in broader networks of affinity. Regardless of solidarity’s spread, stories of suffering among the undocumented are unlikely to move those with substantial resources already aligned with Trump to withdraw their support from him.
- The contest over truth generates heat …
The elevation of “fake news” has become an ever more important element in the repertoire of those who would defend Trump at all costs. Recently, some of his advocates even have proposed flooding mainstream media with phony leaks as part of the information wars with which news is viewed in Trump’s America. This was even evident in the March for Science.
This protest seemed to have been conceived as a politically neutral project designed to elevate evidentiary reason over partisan position in figuring things science might. This enabled Brown University, among other associations obliged to avoid partisan association, to celebrate the mobilization’s embrace of truth and ridicule of concepts like “alternative facts”. However, Trump’s supporters used the political inflections of the protest to diminish its larger point by claiming science to be with them and even offering that those with less science in their backgrounds use a science checklist to challenge politically biased PhDs.
Here too conflict seems unlikely to pose much challenge to Trump’s cultural authority given the ways in which intellectual authority and liberal disposition correlate. This is one reason why I’ve become increasingly interested in learning from leading conservative intellectuals whose commitment to reasoned principles animate their accounts of Trump’s governance. But here we need recognize that many of Trump’s supporters are not following any other principles than hating on those who oppose Trump. Appeals to truth, reason and evidence in a system where information is weaponized are unlikely to challenge Trump’s cultural authority.
- The arrogance of Whiteness consolidates his base.
The drawing accompanying this essay references the moment when Trump asked April Ryan, an African American White House reporter to convene her friends in the Congressional Black Caucus. That othering is something familiar to those who recognize how resurgent Whiteness draws on the repertoires of recurrent Whiteness. I failed in my past essay to mark how this racialization relies on the criminal justice system itself to magnify racial division. This is especially apparent in the opposition between Blue and Black Lives.
Trump has clearly supported the Blue Lives Matter movement. In turn, Black Lives Matter has transformed its practice to extend solidarity, but not in a direction that transforms the vision of those oblivious to the veil. While white ally movements may grow, the challenge of reproducing white privilege even within them daunts. Transforming the power of whiteness is requisite to a just America, but Trump’s America relies on its insurgence, and draws power from racial confrontations, regardless of the justice of their cause.
Trump’s cultural authority is reinforced by conflict. It depends on economic nationalism fueled by militarism, disdain for creedal nationalism’s embrace of the First Amendment and the courts, hostility toward the undocumented, contempt for intellectuality, and a new racial formation for America led by white resentment. While struggles will, and need, continue in these domains to protect those marginalized, exploited, vulnerable, and closer to the truth of things, these conflicts will not move legitimation crisis. Two other things will.
Transformative Conflicts Generating Legitimation Crisis
- The implication of Russia in the US election and Trump’s cover up moves consequential conflict among elites.
Three months ago, I took Mike Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor as the harbinger of the legitimation crisis that now grows every day. The crisis cascade became a waterfall with the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the man leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections and of possible collusion between Russian authorities and Trump’s election team. With the appointment of a special prosecutor with impeccable authority across the power elite, the distribution of incriminating memos by those whom Trump attempted to intimidate, and testimonies by a number of officials about Trump’s quest to obstruct justice in pursuit if not in law, and all this just within the last week, Trump’s cultural authority is not only at risk. With increasing regularity, journalists and pundits, including John Dean himself, liken Trump’s situation to Richard Nixon’s shortly before his own resignation. The best signal of this precariousness is the repeated warnings to all those in Trump’s employ to get a lawyer to assure their own insulation from the dumpster fire engulfing the White House.
Many will point to a key difference with the time of Nixon’s downfall. In contrast to Nixon, Trump’s party controls both houses of Congress, and thus the likelihood of impeachment is slender. But as legal and political challenges mount, the number of Republicans pushing Trump to resign will grow. After all, many of the most prominent Republican Senators, just last year, spoke of the disaster Trump would be as President. They need only recall that oratory and said that they gave him a chance. That becomes even more likely with the popular insurgency developing out of the health care debacle.
- Trump’s Incompetence Around Health Care Assaults His Base
One of the most emotively powerful (and still “respectable” as opposed to the racist and misogynist motifs audible) themes animating the Republican base against Obama and Clinton was the debacle named Obamacare. Of course that debacle was partially manufactured by the Republican Party itself before Trump was elected, and whose accomplishments, notably in the number of newly insured, are overlooked. Insurance companies lost their own government insurance for extending coverage, and with that withdrew from small high risk markets, the very same markets Republicans typically represent in Congress. In turn, these political representatives could, a bit disingenuously, charge the earlier presidential administration with ruining the health care of their constituents and mobilize for an alternative. The problem is, of course, that an alternative is not as simple to manufacture as Obamacare’s poison.
Those familiar with health care policy and practice could laugh at Trump’s discovery of its complexity were his leadership in devising its alternative not so pathetic. Finally, a second effort to invent an alternative policy passed the House, despite its condemnation by the American Medical Association among other health care professionals and advocates. Rather than return triumphant to their base, however, most Republican Congressmen who signed onto the “reform” hid from their town halls, recognizing the fury their constituents had for being sold a bill of goods that threatened the mortal well-being of them and their families. Indeed, some could hope that the maleness of the decision might move a bit more gender consciousness in the mobilization to come. That movement needs be mobilized, but it is coming.
This is a classic legitimation crisis. A dysfunctional health care system, which the Republicans helped to make but clearly now own, is being forced on people who will suffer from it. This is not only sparking moving stories but clear outrage by those who are the Republicans’ electorate.
It is hard to imagine how Republicans, whose President is at risk of being accused of high crimes and treason, or at least the obstruction of justice, and whose incompetence in managing life and death policy changes in health care is manifest, can retain control of the House after 2018. Past racially motivated gerrymandering may assure some of that survival, but even that now has been declared unconstitutional. The GOP is itself at risk of death with Trump in the White House.
Legitimation Crisis Does Not Determine Its Alternative
Apart from facing down a violent crisis (think of the German Reichstag in 1933 or bombings of apartment house buildings in 1999 Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk), I can see no means by which Trump can survive the legitimation crisis brewed out of a combination of Russian hybrid warfare, obstruction of justice and health care crisis in which he is now implicated. He will be impeached, or he will resign, before his term concludes in 2020. But that end does not, by any means, signal what is the alternative.
Some dystopian but perhaps realistic futurists a year ago anticipated that this was some clever plot by Tea Party wizards to engineer their man’s elevation to President. But Mike Pence is himself implicated in many of the legal, and cultural, troubles around Russian interference in our democratic process. Indeed, for some, Trump is better than the ideologically rigid, homophobic, even if twitter averse, Pence. For that reason, Nixon’s threatened impeachment was enabled by the prior resignation of his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, and replacement with the Congress-friendly former Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, comes to mind. No doubt some work to figure the analogous now.
There are many political figures plotting alternative futures for the time after Trump is impeached or resigns. But this should also be a time where those in civil society figure futures beyond the power elite whose management of our political and economic system brought us to this legitimation crisis.
While I have focused in this series of publications on the legitimation crisis made by Donald Trump, this is not just Trump’s legitimation crisis. As Nancy Fraser has emphasized, this is a deeper crisis whose transcendence might ultimately enable our betterment. But that is only if we think beyond the system that brought us here in the first place, and toward a system that might enable us not just to survive, but to thrive.