There is nothing so important to a political leader as legitimacy: the undeniable public perception that they are in charge, that they are worthy of respect, and that they deserve to be in their position. Unless you are a trained politician (or have been to corporate leadership seminars, which is much the same thing), it can be easy to ignore the importance of legitimacy. After all, if you have a position, you must have the power that comes with it, right?
Of course not. No position of authority in human society exists without support and approval. Authority depends on legitimacy because authority depends on people acknowledging power and responding to it in a way that the authority finds preferable. If that situation ever changes, the authority ceases to exist, and someone else steps in to fill the void. To put it another way, you are only in charge as long as people think you are in charge. Losing legitimacy causes a loss of authority for the simple reason that people quite rationally prefer to be lead by someone whom they feel deserves to lead them — normally someone stronger, smarter, wiser, or simply more decisive than they are.
Donald Trump has a serious legitimacy problem, and it is badly hurting his presidency. Without the perception of legitimacy he is going to have great difficulty enacting any of his political plans, and for the past several weeks he has spent much of his free time shooting his prospects for legitimacy in the foot. If it weren’t for the fact that this is preventing him from doing the same to the country, it would be sad to watch. As it is, it is merely pathetic that a man with such a slight grasp of the realities of politics has managed to become President.
Over the past several months Mr. Trump has committed a whole series of errors, all of which have seriously sabotaged his chances of being able to claim the legitimacy that should come with the Presidency. These are as follows:
- Doubt cast on his ascent to power: The legitimacy of the Presidency depends first and foremost on the democratic process — the President is acknowledged as an authority because we vote for the person who holds that office. He is the first among equals, chosen by the citizenry — he is not a tyrant, he is not a monarch, he is there because we put him there. Any doubt cast on a President’s election creates an immediate problem, because it reduces the desire of other politicians to associate themselves with the President, and it reduces the desire of the citizenry to support the President. Mr. Trump has had the Russian scandal hanging over his head for many weeks, and has been unable or unwilling to address the apparent fact that Russian meddling helped to smooth his way into the Oval Office. He would rather keep calling it “fake news.” The public disagrees. The media disagrees. This damages his legitimacy by weakening the public trust that his position was acquired fairly and honorably, and the more he covers it up the worse it looks.
- Poor diplomatic presence: An office is often defined by the temperament of the person who holds it. Mr. Trump’s grotesque lack of even a basic acknowledgement of the dignity inherent in the Presidency is doing untold damage to the legitimacy of his position as time goes on. Forget the 1/3 of Americans who seem to think that “saying whatever is on your mind” is indicative of a diplomatic tour-de-force. This is not about them — this is about Mr. Trump’s ability to sit down with other world leaders and be taken seriously when the other party knows that at any point he might change a national policy on Twitter, misrepresent their statements, or even just casually insult them by not shaking hands. The power of the President is partially dependent on other world leaders taking the incumbent seriously, which is becoming an issue for Mr. Trump.
- Poor leadership presence: The President is a leader, by intention, design, and default. And as a culture we have a very clear image of what a good leader is and what a good leader should do. A good leader is decisive. A good leader is knowledgeable. A good leader is inspiring. A good leader gets results. A good leader is not petty; a good leader is not vulgar; a good leader is not unsure; a good leader is not divisive. Mr. Trump must be seen as a leader in order to be seen as a legitimate President. To be a leader, he must have supporters, and so far he simply has not been able to expand support beyond his base; indeed, he has been doing nearly everything in his power to calve off support from his base. If he does not project the leadership necessary for the Presidency, if he cannot manage to rally more of the citizenry behind him, if he cannot even develop some rapport within his own party… then he cannot be a legitimate President.
- Poor grasp of sanity: Mr. Trump does not have a clear grip on reality. Or more precisely, Mr. Trump is unwilling to admit that some things are real and some things are not, when real things displease him. This is evidenced quite clearly in such petty disputes as those over his election day turnout numbers: he did not have the largest turnout in history. It is foolish, useless, stupid, and counterproductive to even try to argue otherwise, and yet this was an argument that he made for nearly a month (at great expenditure of politically valuable airtime). The office of the President has power partly because we trust the occupant to know more than we do, and moreover, to make correct decisions based on that information. Mr. Trump cannot be a legitimate President so long as the public cannot be sure that he will acknowledge basic facts.
- Poor communications: The Presidency has long been a bastion of communications competence. This is because most Presidents over the years have realized that words matter — the way you phrase an argument, the way you frame your views, the way you signal your intentions. These are all critical aspects of this office because the President, more than any other government official, must be trusted to tell the public what is important. And consequently, part of the legitimacy of a President stems from the knowledge that his every word has been scrutinized, weighed, and evaluated by people whose business it is to make sure he is saying the right thing. Mr. Trump goes on Twitter tirades at 6 AM. Mr. Trump resists all attempts to pre-plan his statements. Mr. Trump commonly needs his staff to walk back his statements. Mr. Trump forgets that he is supposed to speak for America, not for Donald Trump. And so Mr. Trump divorces himself from his office even as he revels in the attention it grants him.
- Poor personal presence: A President is expected to be dignified, eloquent, and well-dressed. This is because a President is supposed to represent the United States in every action, every word, every raised eyebrow. A President should never be slovenly, crass, or caught off-guard. A President should represent the best of America in their person. Let me be frank— this is going to sound petty. It is not. Donald Trump scotch-tapes his ties and insults people randomly. He looks like a cheap, cut-rate corporate bully. He acts like the uncle you hope you never have to sit next to at Thanksgiving. He does not represent an image of a President, and he will have a legitimacy problem until he learns that he is no just longer Donald Trump — he is the President of the United States, and his actions are no longer his own. He cannot act like Donald Trump. He must act like a President. He cannot dress like Donald Trump. He must dress like a President. He cannot speak like Donald Trump. He must speak like a President. Otherwise he’s not a President, he’s just Donald Trump.
As long as these conditions remain unaddressed, Mr. Trump will continue to suffer a legitimacy crisis — people will constantly question why they should work with, for, or around him. His party will slide around his wishes, his problems will dominate the news cycle, and his opponents will have endless ammunition to disrupt his plans. He will be unable to claim the authority inherent in his position, because he will not appear to fit his position. He is not yet a legitimate President; he just happens to be the one who got elected.