John Lewis stood with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He now sits in the House of Representatives as the Congressman from the 5th District of Georgia. On this Martin Luther King day, it is worthy to note that he is, without question, a civil rights leader deserving of a nation’s appreciation and respect.
But that doesn’t mean his every utterance is above reproach. John Lewis is an elected official, and every elected official should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. It does not diminish his accomplishments, which stand on their own. But his accomplishments do not make him immune from criticism. And criticism of an elected official can come from high or low. Even from another elected official, no matter how incomprehensible it may be, for which he too should be criticized.
The problem isn’t that he was criticized, but what he was criticized for and whether the criticism is sound.
Lewis, D-Ga., told moderator Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press in an interview set to air Sunday that he does not see Trump as a “legitimate president.”
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said. “I don’t plan to attend the inauguration.”
There may well be good reason to question the impact of external influences in Trump’s election, but questioning the legitimacy of the election requires assumptions that cannot, and will never, be provable or proven.* What this assertion does, in an atmosphere as inflammatory as exists today, is undermine the hallmark of our nation, that despite huge, sometimes insurmountable, differences in opinion, we change regimes in a bloodless coup.**
Lewis doesn’t have to attend the inauguration if he doesn’t want to. No one does. And if, as many believe, Trump is the least qualified person to hold the office, they should protest his election and challenge him and his administration. This is part of how our democracy works.
But does Lewis suggest that, for the first time in American history, the office of president will be held by someone who failed to be elected, who is not legitimate? That’s what he says.
Whether Russia acted to influence the election is a fair question, but even if they did, it does not mean Trump would not have won anyway, or that his election was the product of Russia’s influence. Indeed, there have been shenanigans in past elections (remember hanging chads?), and in this one (remember Donna Brazile’s revealing debate questions to Clinton?). These are all reasons to question propriety, and to address problems in the hope they won’t happen again.
But legitimacy? If Trump is not the legitimate president, then his actions as president can be ignored, refused to be accepted. After all, if he is not entitled to the office, then nothing he does as president is entitled to respect. And the whole misadventure of the election, of the tripartite government, falls into meaninglessness.
The response by Trump to Lewis’ assertion was, without doubt, inappropriate and idiotic.*** The reply to Trump’s twits wasn’t much better.
That this happened “ahead of” Martin Luther King Day is irrelevant. It happens when it happens. Had Lewis said this a month earlier, it would have been addressed then. A week later and it would have been “shortly after” MLK Day.
“John Lewis is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement who is fearless in the pursuit of justice and equality,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted. “He deserves better than this.”
Perhaps Lewis deserves better than a defense from someone whose pursuit of “justice” involved apologizing for cops killing black guys, or who had been a senator for more than twelve minutes. Regardless, Harris is right that Lewis is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and deserves respect for all he’s done. But as a member of the House of Representatives, he deserves to be scrutinized no differently than any elected official.
Media, officials are using cartoon characterizations to lionize and demonize, to play to confirmation bias and constituencies, under the unfortunately accurate assumption that people will read them, click on them, watch them, like them, if they say what people want to hear.
If you haven’t connected the dots yet, this is far more likely to be the reason Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as president than Russian influence. And Hillary Clinton’s failure to grasp that Americans weren’t willing to let their children starve so that women and minorities would never suffer hurt feelings was far more likely than Donna Brazile’s violation of trust or her silly use of a personal email server to be the reason she lost.
Will Trump be the worst president ever? Maybe. We’ve had some really bad ones before, but he could top them. Or maybe he won’t. Or maybe, it will end up being a mixed outcome. Either way, Trump will be president. He will be the legitimate president. Lewis is wrong.
That we survived the election of George W. Bush was, at the time, hard to swallow, particularly given that his presidency depended on a decision by the Supreme Court. But once decided, we accepted it, for better or worse. And thereafter fought against the administration’s actions, as necessary. We will do the same this time.
But the nation endures. It was never in question then, and it shouldn’t be now. John Lewis’ assertion that Trump will not be a legitimate president was foolish, even if it played to the maddened crowds. No matter how much Lewis is admired for his accomplishments, no matter that today is Martin Luther King day, no one is so perfect, so heroic, that he is above criticism. And when that person is an elected official, it is our duty to scrutinize his words and actions.
John Lewis is a great man. He was wrong this time. As were Trump, Pelosi and Harris. Even heroes can be wrong. Presidents, too.
*It would be impossible, after the fact, to separate whatever amorphous influence Russia might have had from the reasons why individuals voted as they did.
**The military has contingency plans in the event that the American public refuses to accept the outcome of an election. The alternative to the bloodless coup isn’t the other candidate.
**In two twits, Trump responded:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!