Democratic Legitimacy and the lessons of an illegitimate, incompetent, and incapable presidency

It’s been 6 months since Mr. Trump ursuped the office of the US presidency following one of the most bizarre election cycles in US history. Even before the foreign involvement elements of the election which are currently monopolizing press coverage, the very nature of the primaries gave a foreshadowing of what was to come – open lies, disregard for the legitimate press, incomprehensible actions, vindictive tendencies, and a complete and utter lack of regard and respect for the basic tenets of a democratic system and those living within it. While other candidates detailed how they would go about achieving their platforms (with various degrees of believability), Trump simply kept adding elements to his based on whatever direction the populist trends of were pointing and never bothered to address how they could be achieved or what the impacts would be.

There is a concept known as Democratic Legitimacy which in large part explains the mess the US finds itself in at the moment. The Trump regime has had to fight against it from the start – it didn’t so much win the Republican nomination as inherited it from the abdication of real candidates. A fair number of the votes it did get in the presidential election were not actually for Trump but against Clinton, as well as from partisan voters who voted Republican despite misgivings over the individual. By gaining the presidency not by the real election of the popular vote but through the arcane (and inherently undemocratic) institution of the electrical college, the regime already started off on a poor footing relative to legitimacy – when you only win by virtue of non-representative vote counting and the majority of people did not vote for you it’s hard to consider it a legitimate victory.

Mr. Trump aside, the current government, being controlled by one party as a result of an inherently flawed winner take all system, has an obligation under the tenants of Democratic Legitimacy to take extra steps to avoid even the impression of laws being passed or considered based on partisan principles. The idea of Democratic Legitimacy is that actions speak louder than words when it comes to being a legitimate democratic government – there are numerous examples of regimes calling themselves democracies without actually being one. Key elements of this are actually embracing and following the underlying guidelines of democracy such as honesty, integrity, open access to information, consideration of the views of all stakeholders, merit based appointments, respecting the rule of just laws, and acting in the best interest of the population regardless of individual viewpoint. The Trump regime has failed in these areas to a tragically humorous level.

Whereas past administrations of both parties have had occasional blunders in these areas, the Trump regime distinguishes itself as only having the occasional observance. Policy decisions are arbitrary and inconsistent. Appointees with grievous conflicts of interest are routine. The legitimate press is excluded from access in favor of known dubious outlets. Decades of successful policies are arbitrarily reversed. Groups of men claiming to act against “big government” sit in closed sessions to determine the legality of what women can do with their own bodies. People who have the best health coverage in the country, paid for fully by taxpayers, work to find ways of removing what little coverage is available to everyone. The confirmation hearing for an existing Supreme Court Justice nominee is blocked for over a year by a Republican congress, and then that nominee is replaced without ever having a hearing by a new one and the rules are changed to fast-track him through. Longstanding regulations protecting the health of entire communities and regions are repealed in the interest of a handful of temporary jobs. Longstanding traditions of the president divesting from personal business interests and openly revealing their dealings are simply ignored despite calls from all sectors of society for that transparency. These are not the actions of a legitimate leader or government.

Trump’s background should have been a warning to those of his supporters who believed he could deliver what he was promising. His background experience as a real estate developer was based on a history of failed promises and rule bending. Real estate “development” is one of the most artificial businesses there is, and in general is based on finding ways around the regulations intended to protect those who are already there or, if that can’t be obtained in the required timeframes, simply ignore rules and use massive financial backing to lock things up in litigation so long that the impact of going back to the original state is no longer an option.

The end goal of a developer is not to create a longstanding and positive part of the organic local community, but to take profit, move on, and leave the fallout to those left holding the actual property – regardless of impact to those who were there to start with. A great example of this is what happened where I used to live in Indiana. It was a mainly rural county with low population density, and the county had a zoning regulation requiring minimum lot sizes and certain spacing between new houses, ostensibly to protect the character of the area for those living there. When challenged by a consortium of well-funded external developers, the resources of individual landowners to defend this regulation were soon expended and, without a public vote, the zoning board (with developers as members) decided to allow developers with plans to build at multiple locations to take an average of all their planned projects in the county. This resulted in what had been a relatively open market with organic growth mainly by independent homeowner / builder combinations buying lots of 1-10 acres for individual properties being overrun by groups that had the external funding to buy land by the thousands of acres for speculative building at a greatly reduced price per acre. To comply with the revised zoning, the developer would then break ground for a “luxury” community with significantly larger lots than required and maybe build a model home, then stop work on it, focus on building several higher density “basic” communities on much smaller lots which, at an individual basis, would not have met the zoning requirements, and eventually claim the market no longer supported the “luxury” community and either sell it to another developer or apply for a zoning exemption to turn it into a “basic” one. For over 5 years I watched new “basic” developments popping up in contravention of the actual zoning while the offsetting “luxury” one sat idle and was sold multiple times. The quality of life for those originally living in the area decreased dramatically with increased noise, traffic, and pollution as well as increased taxes to pay for the infrastructure changes needed to keep up with the external growth, and the profits of the development went out of the county.  The point of this example – someone whose background is the large real estate development industry is coming from an area where regulations and restrictions are seen as nothing more than things which can be bought off or worked around with no significant individual impact to themselves.

This is the general background Trump came from – one where rules do not apply, individual accountability is zero, and if by some stretch of fortune something does come back at you, you throw enough money at it and it goes away. In addition, Trump lived in a virtual bubble where people were paid to cater to his every whim. The end result – a dangerous person who has no knowledge of the realities that exist outside his own ego nor any sense of consequence for his actions.

In a healthy democracy a person like Trump would have never made it to the level of a national primary candidate much less receive a party nomination – he would have been called to account numerous times for lack of relevant experience, understanding, and accountability. This is a key reason why the German system has the 5% hurdle – painfully learned by the experiences of the Weimar Republic. But the US system is not a healthy democracy, nor has it been one for many years. A healthy democracy puts the best interests of the whole over that of the individual or party, but what was seen in the 2016 election was a triumph of partisanship over democracy. It’s now up to the population to ensure that the government is held accountable for their actions and to continue to live up to the democratic principles of openness, transparency, and working for the common good.

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