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Popularity vs. Legitimacy and Why It Matters (in the Age of Trump)

posted Feb 8, 2017, 9:46 AM by Jared Rubin   [ updated Feb 8, 2017, 9:46 AM ]

My previous two (and only) posts (here and here) centered around the concept of political legitimacy. One of the key takeaways from these posts is that thinking through how rulers acquire legitimacy can provide insight the manner in which rulers attempt to rule. This is a topic I have spent much of my career thinking about. This concept seems especially pertinent in the age of Trump, so much so that it compelled me to write these posts. The age of Trump is one where, in the absence of a historically-grounded theory for how and why rulers rule, much of what we know about U.S. governance is seemingly being re-written on the fly. But is it really? Is the age of Trump all that new? I do not think so. A point made implicitly in those posts is that what Trump trying to do is not new; indeed, it is straight-forward to analyze his ruling style and if/how he will be constrained if we have a concept of legitimacy and the role it plays in political decision-making.

I have tried to clarify why legitimacy is important in my previous posts (and in my book, which is out this month!). The current post is meant to clarify one potential, and important, misconception regarding political legitimacy. In my last post, I argued that an important part of Trump’s legitimacy derived from him winning a democratic election, and whether he held onto his legitimacy would depend on whether he followed the rule of law. I think these are two central pillars of the legitimacy of the U.S. presidency, as dictated by U.S. norms and culture and enforced by the judiciary and, in theory, the legislature. In response to this previous post, a good friend and co-author of mine, Murat Iyigun, argued that Trump’s legitimacy “derives from his promise to rattle the existing U.S. political system.” I think Murat has a good point – although I have refused since December 2015 to make any statements on Trump’s appeal, which has been vastly over-explained and is completely mystifying to me. My response Murat's point was that this was a definitional issue. I think that Trump’s popularity is derived from his promise to rattle the system (or, pick your own pet explanation); his legitimacy comes from winning the election.

Does this distinction between legitimacy and popularity matter, or is it just a silly bit of semantics thrown back and forth between a couple of out of touch professors? I obviously think it matters – or I wouldn’t be taking the time to write this post. Consider the following. Let’s start by assuming that Trump is popular enough. It doesn’t really matter for the sake of this argument why he is popular … just assume that he is. Whatever the reason he is popular – his willingness to rattle the system, his celebrity, his hair – the point here is that this is not what makes him legitimate. A ruler’s legitimacy is based on a society’s norms for what makes a legitimate ruler. For instance, in most medieval European monarchies, the king’s first-born son was the rightful heir to the throne (even if he was a giant asshole, as most kings and princes were), while in modern democracies the legitimate ruler is the winner of an election (according to the rules of the election, such as winning the Electoral College).

Why are these different concepts? Why can’t popularity be a source of legitimacy? The short answer is that popularity is fleeting; legitimacy is not. A ruler can lose or gain popularity quickly, sometimes due to his/her actions and sometimes for reasons beyond his/her control (e.g., business cycles). Legitimacy, once attained, is much more long-lasting. If one has come to power in a legitimate manner (e.g., winning an election), that aspect of their legitimacy remains with them throughout their reign. To maintain or enhance their legitimacy, rulers are constrained to take actions within a set of actions that society considers legitimate. So, for instance, in the Ottoman Empire sultans would frequently make public displays of religiosity (even if they were not themselves religious), because showing that one was a “good Muslim” was a key aspect of their legitimacy. Kings in early modern England would submit to Parliament on issues of taxation; rights to authorize taxation over time became the legitimate domain of Parliament, and kings who tried to evade Parliament eventually found themselves in trouble (see Charles I). In the U.S., a president can legitimately take many actions; (s)he can issue executive orders, conduct diplomacy, declare a state of emergency. These actions are generally considered legitimate … so long as those orders abide by the established law of the land.

Some examples might help clarify the distinction between legitimacy and popularity. A ruler who enters into an unpopular war may be unpopular but is still legitimate, so long as (s)he entered the war legitimately. Think Lyndon Johnson at the low points of Vietnam. Meanwhile, a leader who gains power in a coup with popular backing may be popular but illegitimate. Think Fidel Castro soon after the Cuban Revolution.

Why does this distinction matter? It matters precisely because popularity is fleeting but legitimacy is not. Let’s say that Trump is popular with part of the population because of his promise to shake up Washington. And, for the moment, let’s say that Trump is popular with a large enough share of the population that Congressional Republicans are afraid to challenge him. Fine. Anyone can rule if they are popular enough. People will listen to a popular ruler, and the usual sources of constraint (i.e., Congress), may not be strong enough to check a popular ruler. But what happens when a (seemingly inevitable) recession hits and Trump’s popularity falls with it? What does this mean for his capacity to enact his agenda? If the framework I proposed above is correct, it means that Trump will need to fall back on something besides his popularity in order for him to act as an effective president. Historically, most unpopular U.S. presidents were able to ‘fall back’ on their legitimacy as president. Fidel Castro was able to ‘fall back’ on coercion, persecuting and imprisoning any supposed enemy of his regime. An unpopular but legitimate president has a hard time pushing through laws and policies, but few will question that (s)he is the one that has the right to do so.

But wait, isn’t Trump really not that popular? It is true that his approval ratings are historically low for an incoming president, but that is not the point. The point is that he is popular enough. As long as Trump has the unwavering support of the ‘base’ – about 35-40% of the population – the conventional checks (i.e., Congress) are unlikely to actually check his power, since they depend on the support of the same swath of the population. Thus, as long as Trump’s popularity among the base holds, it does not really matter how legitimate he is. He can act however he wants, rule of law be damned, and he will likely get away with it. However, popularity is fleeting, even among the GOP base. It will not take a great loss of popularity – say, approval ratings around 30% – for those Republicans he has co-opted in Congress to realize that their incentives are no longer aligned with those of the president. In such a case, Trump is in real trouble if he repeatedly acts outside of the rule of law. Acting within the confines of the rule of law is one of the most important sources of legitimacy a U.S. president has available. And an illegitimate, unpopular ruler tends to not last very long unless they have co-opted another source of power, such as the military (ask Richard Nixon circa 1974).

The fear posited in my previous post is that Trump will take a page out of the autocratic playbook and fall back on something else (à la Castro) should he lose his popularity. But is this fear warranted? Thus far, it is probably not warranted. There is little to suggest that Trump can or will co-opt an alternative source of power. I have been wrong on Trump many times before, but I think there is little chance he will co-opt the military to support an unpopular – and illegitimate – regime.

It is easy to get lost in the short-run actions of a popular (enough) president who acts contrary to the rule of law. It is easy to ask “how can this be happening?” It is harder to think through the longer-run consequences. On the optimistic side, I am now more convinced than ever that Trump’s comeuppance will come, possibly in the form of impeachment, should he continue to thumb his nose at the rule of law. For this to come to fruition, Trump must be unable to cultivate an alternative source of legitimacy outside of democratic norms. If he fails to do so, he will be in major trouble once something happens to damage his popularity. On the pessimistic side, even if Trump’s comeuppance does come, he will have likely done lasting damage to the democratic norms that have long been important in the U.S. To take the extremely pessimistic view, Trump’s body blow to U.S. democracy and democratic norms could very well lay the path for a future strongman to deliver the knockout punch.