The 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon ran extraordinarily close and may well have been decided by Chicago political boss Richard J. Daley, who allegedly found enough Democratic voters among the dead to engineer a narrow victory for Kennedy in Illinois. The corruption of the Daley machine was well known, yet Nixon never questioned the vote and delivered a gracious concession speech.
We know today that Nixon was not a gracious man. As president, he kept an “enemies list” and conducted politics within a framework of distrust that bordered on paranoia. Why, then, did he concede without a fight? Nixon understood that the legitimacy of the electoral process in 1960 was far more powerful than any cause or group he represented. To challenge the system would have had no effect on the outcome but would have destroyed him politically.
That was another America. Our latter-day protesters, I suspect, would consider such obedience to flawed institutions a form of false consciousness and fascism. It is certain that for years we have marched resolutely in the opposite direction, caught up in the shadow wars between populists and elites. The legitimacy of the vote has been a major casualty of that conflict.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was never considered legitimate by his opponents. Every aspect of the process that had produced his victory was repudiated. The Electoral College as an institution, for example, came under ferocious criticism. The electorate itself was said to be easily manipulated by fake news on social media, throwing doubt on the most fundamental principle of representative democracy. To undo the damage from a Trump presidency, radical departures from past practice were advocated, such as expanding the number of judges on the Supreme Court.
These attacks suited Trump’s political style. He, too, rejected the legitimacy of the system: it was “the swamp” he meant to drain. As president, Trump exploited his command over the information sphere to rally supporters against the institutions of democratic government and the corrupt elites who managed them. To the populist mind, always suspicious of structure, chopping down the ancient oak was a perfectly sensible way to remove the sparrows perched on it.
We are about to inaugurate a new president next January. The question is whether he can resist getting sucked into the old labyrinth. Joe Biden, the presumptive winner, has called for unity—and the political and media elites have raised a vast uproar of approval around him. If Trump, to elite eyes, looked like the Beast of the Apocalypse, Biden is being hailed as the second coming of legitimacy, a sturdy man of faith and a president “for all Americans.” After four years of railing at the electoral machinery that gave us Trump, the subject of voter fraud has suddenly become indecent to those twin pillars of propriety, Facebook and Twitter.
Besides being self-serving, these maneuvers are self-defeating. Attempts to shut down debate and bestow legitimacy from above will collide against the thick wall of the public’s distrust. Today every interpretation of every event is contested. As of this writing, for example, Trump still contends he won the election. Whether this is more than a final troll of his adversaries is a question worth pondering. Trump’s more than 74 million voters, in any case, have not forgotten the relentless effort to de-legitimize their candidate and feel no incentive to line up behind Biden. If you favor conspiracy theories, the baroque complications of the mail-in ballot will reward you with an ideal storyline; evidence of actual fraud will just be icing on the conspiratorial cake.
For all the media applause and the distant praise of foreign leaders, Biden will begin his presidency in the same place as Trump did: with half the country in “resistance” mode, denying his right to govern. What happens next is therefore important, not just for Biden but for the future of the democratic process in our country.
Rather than resume the old script with its reflexive nihilism, we would do well to pause and reflect. In this space, I want to ask a few hard questions: about legitimacy, about unity, about how—and by whom—such matters are decided. The answers might give us a clue as to whether a Biden administration can begin the long climb out of the rabbit hole.
Legitimacy as the Quest for Authorizing Magic
Legitimacy is a slippery concept. The word means “lawful” but carries an almost mystical weight of connotation. Often legitimacy has been granted to ancient ruling families, no matter how criminal or depraved. This was the policy of the reactionary Congress of Vienna in 1815. On occasion, however, charisma delivers a surprise: the rightful king might be the boy who slew Goliath or pulled the sword out of the stone.
In practice, legitimacy is a generally accepted set of limits imposed on conflict and change. When the limits are respected, an outcome is perceived to be legitimate. In times of stability, the rules of the game acquire a sacred character. To defy them calls down the wrath of God. That was the case with Nixon in 1960.
Complications arise when we ask who, precisely, must be consulted in the general acceptance of limits. As in all human endeavors, winners are preferred to losers and those with great power and loud voices have a disproportionate say. But the public counts. The public has the option to secede from elite arrangements. In republican Rome, the population developed the habit of stomping angrily out of the city, leaving the ruling class with nobody to rule. The election of Donald Trump was a 21st-century instance of secession. To a public in revolt, Trump represented the greatest possible distance from the despised elites.
Every political system grows out of a shared story, derived from history, that transcends social divisions and binds high to low, government to the governed. European monarchs ruled by divine right. Democracies are ruled by equal citizens. Neither proposition can be demonstrated empirically, but both possess a powerful authorizing magic so long as they are believed. Like money and marriage, legitimacy is objectively true when subjectively affirmed. Limits “triumph by being taken for granted,” observes Henry Kissinger.
Awareness of arbitrary limits is an irritant, an itch you can’t help but scratch; it leads inexorably to transgression. The loser of the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, initially followed Nixon’s example and conceded—but then, in one of the most consequential decisions in American political history, Gore withdrew his concession and challenged the results in Florida. The American electorate cracked apart like an eggshell. When the Supreme Court declared Republican George W. Bush to be the winner in Florida, many of the Democratic faithful denied any legitimacy to a president who had been “selected, not elected.”
This was the prelude to a time of tumult and change. The digital tsunami that swept across the world in the new century has been an extinction event for legitimizing stories. Political institutions, frozen in the immobile hierarchies of the industrial age, have lost the trust of a public that moves online at the speed of light. The elites who inhabit these institutions have seen their authority evaporate and now flounder grotesquely, baffled and demoralized.
The last two presidents have been anti-establishment prophets: Barack Obama and Trump. The last decade has produced three effective anti-establishment movements: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The collapse of authority has been so severe that it has infected questions of truth and falsehood. The very fabric of reality has fractured and is in dispute. Finally, a deadly pandemic has exposed, for all to see, the ignorance of the experts and the impotence of governments.
Joe Biden is a formless establishment figure. He’s also a creature of the 20th century. Like popes elected in the expectation that they will die quickly, Biden’s term is likely to be perceived, even by his supporters, as a reactionary and transitional interlude. It would be unfair to demand that he put Humpty Dumpty together again.
With regard to the crisis of our democratic institutions, however, he can only make things better or worse. In action and rhetoric, he can abide by the limits, for example, marking a break with his predecessor. He must understand the nature of the unity he has called for. It’s not peace or love or some other romantic impossibility, but a resumption of legitimate political combat, conducted within the system rather than against it. He should remember the examples of Abe Lincoln and Harry Truman: even in an age of conflict, legitimacy can be earned.
Two early decisions will have a momentous impact on how the next four years play out for Biden. Not surprisingly, those decisions involve the two historical developments that have cast the longest shadows over our political life: Donald Trump and COVID-19—specifically, the COVID-19 vaccine.
Legitimacy and the Prosecution of Trump
Biden’s Trump dilemma is unlikely to be posed by Trump himself. Against the received wisdom, Trump has shown himself to be largely indifferent to power and only tangentially interested in “winning.” What he craves and needs, both personally and as a politician, is an endless supply of attention. That is the object of the current dance of denial. But the performance carries an expiration date. Republican grandees clearly feel that, except for the presidency, they have enjoyed a successful election, and they don’t wish to spoil the mood. Once the Electoral College has voted and Biden’s victory is certified, they will endorse the results, leaving Trump with few viable alternatives.
If he continues to deny the validity of the election, Trump will become an object of ridicule, a one-man Rejectionist Front, hauled out of the White House on the back of a pickup truck while still clutching the presidential chair, like the granny in The Beverly Hillbillies. I find it easier to imagine a more typical Trumpian maneuver, in which he barely adheres to the letter of the law while emitting a rhetorical mushroom cloud of repudiation, thus allowing himself to pose as the rightful president of the federal government-in-exile and to preach to the multitudes from Radio Free Mar-a-Lago. No doubt Trump will get his attention and become a thorn in Biden’s side—but, almost certainly, he will lack the political heft to threaten the new president’s legitimacy.
Yet Trump will become an issue because his fiercest antagonists will demand it. Biden ran and won as a moderate, so by the perverse laws of politics the immoderate wing of the Democratic Party—identitarian war-bands eager to impose fuzzy visions of “justice”—will insist on proof of orthodoxy and loyalty to the cause. These mostly young warriors are humorless but web-savvy and well-represented in the newsrooms of The New York Times and The Washington Post. They have the capacity to seize control of the information agenda and the willingness to take over the streets, and they want Donald Trump punished. Trump, to them, is literally Hitler, and they will gladly sacrifice Biden’s presidency if this gets them to their Nuremberg trials.
To the extent that he is an old-school politician, Biden can be expected to govern by the traditional rules of the system. To prosecute a defeated rival, his family or his inner circle, however, would trample on tradition and radically shift the ground of American democracy from a system of limits to the realm of pure political will. The permanent alienation of Trump voters would be the least of the damage for Biden.
Once the rules are discarded, there is no logical stopping place. That’s the reason revolutions turn progressively more extreme until they explode in mayhem. Biden’s natural stage is the cozy Washington establishment. The rule of the will, justified by appeals to austere principles, will make him into an incidental player—at best a character actor impersonating the president, at worst a helpless political punching bag—while fanatical factions of every persuasion battle for attention and control.
The drumbeat for prosecution can already be heard. “Donald Trump along with his worst enablers must be tried for their crimes against our nation and constitution,” a Democratic congressman has proclaimed. “I believe the next attorney general should investigate Mr. Trump and, if warranted, prosecute him for potential federal crimes,” Andrew Weissmann has written in The New York Times. Biden’s instincts, as always, incline to moderation. His hopes of healing the hemorrhage of trust in our institutions will hinge to a considerable extent on how he decides this question.
Vaccination as a Token of Legitimacy and Trust
If the decision on Trump is essentially a negative, a refraining from political self-destruction, the opportunity presented to Biden by the COVID-19 vaccine will be entirely positive: carrying out a necessary action quickly and well. By all accounts, the new vaccines will be ready before Biden takes office. I doubt there will be a more significant project during his tenure than persuading the public to accept the vaccine, in sufficient numbers to ensure a general immunity. The stakes involved are the life or death of hundreds of thousands—Republicans and Democrats, moderates and radicals, indifferently.
But in a climate of pervasive distrust, amid the collapse of institutional and personal authority, even saving lives will require a heroic political effort. As I said before, every statement of fact now engenders a resistance movement. Truth has been transformed into a battleground, and never more so than with regard to COVID-19. The intervention of government in questions of health—once, in Kissinger’s phrase, taken for granted—is now a source of inspiration for sectarian shouting matches and online conspiracy theories.
Nothing will more readily trigger the wild suspicions of the public than a mandate on vaccines, a procedure that involves exposing the patient to direct contact with the disease. This reaction can be expected regardless of class, education or political predilection. The media elites love to portray skepticism of the health establishment as a particular weakness of pro-Trump yahoos—but the original anti-vax movement has prospered primarily among the affluent and hyper-educated, people with doctorates who believe they know better than the doctors. Immunizing the public despite itself will take both empathy and fine judgment.
For all of that, Biden will bring unexpected advantages to the situation. The pandemic destroyed Trump’s presidency by turning his political strengths into weaknesses: personalizing every scrap of news, for example, or demonizing the establishment. A vaccine campaign could convert Biden’s very obvious weaknesses into strengths. His image as a wooden establishmentarian will actually simplify communication. Unlike Trump, he won’t appear to be at war with himself. His antiquated demeanor is peculiarly fitting to the task: health campaigns were a type of activity the 20th century did extremely well.
Furthermore, he can accomplish this in 20th-century style, by symbolism and delegation, rather than by being forced to demonstrate personal qualities of charisma and finesse he plainly does not possess. In 1954, Elvis Presley’s very public inoculation did more to eradicate polio than any number of presidential proclamations. Such indirect means of persuasion are still available to Biden.
Controversy will be unavoidable over decisions of priority and precedence. Who gets first shot at the vaccine—and why? Who brings up the rear? In the end, none of it will matter if the task is accomplished at the appropriate speed.
The public will not be asked to hold hands around a vast campfire of national unity. It will be asked for compliance. Americans will have to choose, at the level of each family, between safety and distrust. Here is the riddle of legitimacy in a nutshell. If general immunity is achieved within a reasonably short time, the credit will and should go to Joe Biden, but the real winners will be our battered institutions of government.