Political scientists use the word legitimacy to mean a government that is broadly seen as having the right to govern. Consent of the governed was also a prime concern of America’s Founders.
For most of America’s history, our government enjoyed broad legitimacy. It look a long time, of course, for the national government to regain legitimacy in Dixie. And if you scratch below the surface, many Southern whites still question its legitimacy. But for most of the post-World War II era, our government was seen as broadly legitimate.
Alas, it has not been legitimate since 2000, when George W. Bush, with the complicity of five Supreme Court justices, stole the election. That means citizens might rightly question the legitimacy of policies enacted by Republican presidents and their Supreme Court appointees ever since.
Under President Obama, Democrats soldiered on and sought to find common ground. But Republicans spat in their eye, and doubled down on their own claims that Obama’s entire presidency was illegitimate. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, the Republican game plan was to question her legitimacy as well.
Now, we already have one Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who is the bastard child of Republicans’ successful efforts to block the appointment of a perfectly legitimate Obama nominee, Merrick Garland. Republicans are hoping to jam onto the Court yet another nominee of dubious legitimacy, Brett Kavanaugh. A president who has already committed several impeachable offenses has no legitimate business filling a high court seat.
Here’s the larger problem. A republic of lost legitimacy has a great deal of difficulty functioning. Failed republics, however, do get legitimacy back. France did it on several occasions, and Germany after 1945.
But we might as well stop pretending that in exceptional America there is an unbroken line of legitimacy winding back from Trump to the Founders. There isn’t. Legitimacy is something that we will have to earn back.