When Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) said he did not regard the Trump presidency as “legitimate,” Trump quickly tweeted his denunciations. We should get straight the difference between “legitimate” and “legal,” as it is likely to be a twitter war.

The two words have the same Latin root — lex, legis — meaning law but over the centuries have separated. In the Middle Ages, the “legitimate” king was his father’s legal son. Claimants to the throne born out of wedlock — such as Normandy’s William the Conqueror, known as “William the Bastard” — encountered doubts among the nobles they needed for support because they were literally illegitimate.

By the time of Robin Hood, meanings started to diverge. That story revolved around the legitimacy of King John in the absence of Richard Lionheart, who was away on a crusade. John was legally king but lacked legitimacy in the hearts of Englishmen. Well, it makes for good movies.

China developed legitimacy millennia before Europe. Confucius said a “mandate of heaven” conferred legitimacy on a given ruler. But, if he could not govern well, if banditry, invasion, mismanagement of waterworks and corruption plagued the land, it was a sign that he had lost his mandate of heaven, and his reign would end. This might be the first time legitimacy became linked with good governance.

With John Locke in the 17th century, legitimacy assumed its present form: A government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, words the Founding Fathers loved. And if it messes up, it loses its legitimacy and is ripe to be replaced. 

Modern legitimacy means a feeling among citizens that the regime’s rule is rightful and therefore ought to be obeyed. One quick test of legitimacy: How many police does the country have? Few indicates high legitimacy (e.g., Japan); many, low (e.g., China).

Lack of legitimacy stunts development in much of the world. Corruption skims foreign aid, oil revenues go to a few and bandits and terrorists blend into one. Many leaders come to power by coup or rigged elections and rule with brutality because they know that many want to overthrow them (example: Assad of Syria). “Nation building” in such countries may accomplish little, as we see in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) defined three basic types of legitimacy: (1) traditional, as inherited by kings; (2) charismatic, as usurped by powerful personalities; and (3) rational-legal, as in the modern bureaucratic state. Weber argued that the breakdown of traditional legitimacy ushered in tumult and charismatic despotism (example: the French Revolution and Napoleon).


Weber might see the paralyzed polarization of modern democracy as opening the way to charismatic chiefs who scoff at existing institutions and rule by force of personality. Weber did not live to see how Hitler took over the chaos of Weimar Germany, a regime stillborn from illegitimacy. It is not a far stretch to apply this to our current situation.

So, where does that leave us today? Trump supporters thunder that Trump is absolutely legitimate, because he came to power through constitutional means. But that really means “legal.” Lewis supporters, on the other hand, argue that because Hillary got 2.9 million more votes and Russians meddled, his presidency is illegitimate. They talk past each other.

Scholars have attempted to quantify legitimacy by survey research. One important question Pew asks every two years: “Do you think government can be trusted?” Starting at a high of 75 percent in 1964, the graph plunged into the 20s by 1980. The causes were not hard to see: Vietnam, inflation, and Watergate.

Ronald Reagan’s sunny “It’s morning in America” brought a temporary uptick, but it too faltered from endless Mideast wars and the 2008 financial meltdown. Now it’s back into the 20s. Trump cleverly understood this with his “Make America great again,” but if it does not materialize we could reach European-levels of mistrust in government.

Trump’s low approval ratings at the start of his presidency do not augur well for a speedy restoration of legitimacy, which does not fall from heaven or is set in concrete but rises and falls along with government performance. We could soon be praying, “Make America governable again.”

Russian kompromat revisited: Last week I wondered why the Kremlin would release compromising material on Trump. Shorn of secrecy, it could not be used for influence. Who leaked what and why? A two-sources explanation intrigues: Moscow released anti-Clinton hacks (through WikiLeaks) because Putin hates Hillary and likes Trump. But Kiev, fearing that Trump would let Russia keep chunks of Ukraine, leaked anti-Trump allegations (through a retired MI6 spy).

Russian-American journalist Vladislav Davidzon reports (in Tablet online Jan. 13) that Ukrainian security services were out to get Trump, whose original campaign manager, Paul Manafort, made millions from the previous pro-Kremlin Ukrainian regime and likely advised Trump on friendly relations with Russia. We have been assuming that all kompromat flows from Moscow, but some may flow from Kiev.