Last week, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that he does not regard Donald 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," he told NBC's Meet the Press. "I think there was a conspiracy."
Trump struck back on Twitter, saying Lewis "should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested.)" You may be shocked to learn he did not speak accurately. Lewis' district covers most of metropolitan Atlanta and is home to the world's busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, Coca-Cola headquarters and two universities. It is not, as Trump said in another tweet, "burning."
Trump's assumption that Lewis' district is "infested" and on fire seems like another example of how our new president is awful. It hearkens back to the second debate, when a black man asked how Trump planned to serve "all Americans" and the candidate responded with a disquisition on the problems facing inner cities. Along the way, he claimed that 45 percent of black Americans live below the poverty line. The actual number is 27 percent.
It's almost as if whenever Trump sees a black man, he thinks of crime in the inner city. This is only one of the ways he is dumb. Another is that on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he threw himself into a public feud with one of the original Freedom Riders. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police in 1961 while marching from Selma to Montgomery to protest segregation. He was a close friend of Dr. King. For Trump to attack him on the MLK weekend suggests that the president-elect is historically ignorant, arrogant to the point of self-destruction or both.
But by the end of this week, he will be the president—because we elected him. Although his opponent won the popular vote, Trump won the electoral vote and the presidency in accordance with our constitution. He is unqualified, reckless, almost certainly racist, mean-spirited and not close to as smart as he thinks he is. I despise him and everything he implies about American democracy today. But he is not illegitimate.
Like many people, I have followed news of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election with a mixture of horror and fascination. The narrative that Russia "hacked the election" is tantalizing. It gives us an out. It lets us believe that nearly half of this country's voters didn't really choose a sociopathic reality TV host to be president. We didn't do that to ourselves. The Russians did it to us with computers.
The phrase "hacked the election" shows how simplistic this narrative has become. Neither Russia nor its agents did anything to alter vote counts or subvert the will of the American people. There is no evidence suggesting they hacked any computer systems related to the election itself. If the consensus of the intelligence community is correct, Russian agents hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. They subsequently leaked those emails to the public—something they did not do to Trump.
It seems clear that Russia favored Trump in the election. A hostile foreign power appears to have interceded on his behalf. But it did so by giving American voters information—secret information that was probably much less damning than the secrets Trump harbors, but information nonetheless. Russia "hacked" the election only by telling voters something they didn't know about Clinton and the DNC.
I would like to believe that makes Trump illegitimate. It would let me off the hook—not just for his presidency, but also for the judgment on the state of American democracy that his win represents. If Russia hacked the election, and the American people didn't really pick Trump, I could tell myself that everything was fine. The possibility that Russia is waging some kind of cyberwar against the United States is troubling, but not nearly so troubling as the conclusion that either A) the Democratic Party could not figure out how to beat the worst presidential candidate in history, or B) voters went with the lying bigot because they recognized him from TV.
When we say "Russia hacked the election," we're saying we don't need to worry about scenarios (A) and (B). It absolves us of responsibility for the dangerous turn this country has taken in the last 30 years: away from generosity and intellectual rigor, toward mendacity and a value system that puts money above all else. By the time you read this, the President of the United States will be a stupid asshole. But he is not some reflection of Russian computing power. He is an indictment of all of us and, in this way, he is brutally, terrifyingly legitimate.
Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and accountability at combatblog.net.