Disputes Over the Election Don't Serve Either Side
A friend on Facebook suggests that the recounts in the Rust Belt, and similar strategies that challenge the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election, are a “canny” strategy to provoke the president-elect into spending all his time on Twitter, issuing thin-skinned tweets like this weekend’s unlikely claim that if you subtracted the number of illegal immigrants who voted, he would have won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College vote.
My Trump supporting readers will point out that I don't know Trump's claim to be false. That's fair. And so I said "unlikely." There is scant data available. 1
But Trump offered no evidence that it was true, and it was a wildly irresponsible thing for our president-elect to say. 2 It is corrosive to our already-frail civic institutions.
One of those bedrock institutions is the legitimacy of election results. It is often observed that the true test of democracy is not whether an election is held; it is whether the loser accepts the outcome. If elections lack legitimacy, then our officials, and the laws they make, are always up for contest. No one can make plans, because they don’t know how long the current regime will last. Worse still, the opponents of that regime will have few qualms about resorting to violence to hasten that end -- nor will the regime hesitate to use terror and extralegal tactics to hold on to power.
We’ve had such incidents in the U.S., but rarely, and so we have come to view the legitimacy of the democratic order as a sort of natural law that can be taken as a given. It isn't so. Consider the unpleasant results when people stop nurturing that hard-won legitimacy. That’s why Al Gore conceded in 2000, even as his supporters were muttering “President Select.” And that is, most especially, why the president-elect should not casually allege widespread voter fraud.
By the same token, however, Trump's opponents should not be questioning the legitimacy of his election. Our election rules may not be the ideal ones, but he won by those rules, and come Jan. 20, he will be the rightful holder of the Oval Office.
Quite a lot of energy has been expended since the election in trying to call that core premise into question. Tweetstorms were devoted to warning against “normalizing” his presidency. Money has been raised to contest results on flimsy pretexts. Protesters poured into the streets before he’d done much more than give a rather banal acceptance speech. Yes, yes, I know he lost the popular vote, but let’s be honest: How many of those protesters would have stayed home if he’d won the popular vote too?
I’ve written some very strong words about Trump; I am deeply worried by the prospect of his presidency. But I am worried even more deeply by the fact that both the people who protested Trump and the supporters who defended his outrageous tweet are so willing to slander any election result that displeases them.
I understand that both sides believe themselves to be in a vitally important fight for the future of this country. I applaud their willingness to fight for what they believe in. But they should bear in mind at every step the pit of doom that awaits any country that cannot figure out how to settle its disputes by politics. In that pit lie all the human rights abuses, the lawlessness and autocracy and misery, that ensue when people get fed up with the injustice and unsatisfactory compromise of democratic politics. Beware.
As bad as our politics may be, what we’d have without those politics would be far worse than any economic program of left or right, any immigration policy, any health-care system or campaign-finance law. What's keeping us from descending into that pit? The tenuous safety net of civic institutions, like the legitimacy of election results. No cause is worth hacking at that net, because that net is what has made it safe to attempt to climb higher still.
Does that mean that people should keep silent when Trump is unjust or unwise? Absolutely not. A vigorous loyal opposition is itself a civic institution. They key is to oppose Trump’s statements and actions, when they warrant opposition -- not to oppose his election or his presidency, which are legitimate. Whatever bright future either side is seeking, the first step toward it is to avoid falling into the pit.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
But if we take one of the very high end estimates, and say that 14% of illegal immigrants voted in the election (possible, though not, in my opinion, all that likely), that would be around 1.6 million people. Even if every single one of them voted for Clinton (very unlikely in my opinion, since no large group of people votes as a monolithic bloc; even the first black president did not pull 100% of the black vote)—well, even if that were true, subtracting those votes still leaves Trump well short of a victory in the popular vote.
Should we keep illegal immigrants from voting? Yes, in my opinion, we should. I would support gathering better data as to how often this happens; if the answer is “often enough to affect elections”, then I would support strong measures, such as requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration, in order to halt it. But we do not have such data.
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