Illegitimacy Is an American Tradition

Illegitimacy Is an American Tradition

Ever since Bob Dole, the opposition has questioned the legitimacy of the president.

President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to concede the election is bad news for many reasons. One is that it all but guarantees that some portion of his followers will refuse to recognize the Biden administration’s legitimacy—just as some people did not recognize the Trump administration’s legitimacy, or the Obama administration’s legitimacy before it. President-elect Joe Biden is promising a return to normalcy, but the perception by some substantial part of the electorate that the American president is illegitimate is no longer an aberration in American politics. It is normal.

This may have all started with Bob Dole. Although people tend to think of the former Senate majority leader, now 97 years old, as an old-school Republican of the pre-scorched-earth era, he was as early as 1993 a chief source of chaos and destabilization. When Bill Clinton routed the incumbent George H. W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election—bringing the Democrats to the White House for the first time in 12 years—the ornery Dole was having none of it. Many Republicans were touting the threadbare claim that Clinton had won the presidency only because the third-party candidacy of the Texas billionaire Ross Perot siphoned votes away from Bush; in fact, Perot’s voters’ second choices broke almost evenly between the two candidates.

But Dole went even further than many of his party mates (including the defeated Bush). He trumpeted the specious notion that because Clinton netted only 43 percent of the popular vote in the three-way race, he—Dole, the ranking Republican in the federal government—was the rightful representative of the other 57 percent. Other Republicans followed his lead, treating Clinton as usurper. And when Dole tried to unseat Clinton in 1996, the Republican asserted that the news media were trying to “steal” the election from him.