On this Martin Luther King Day, everyone should understand why Representative John Lewis is called “the conscience of the Congress.” He is more than just a United States Representative, he is one of the last remaining representatives of a generation of Americans, black and white, who confronted the injustice and bigotry of racial discrimination in the 1960s, when the engines of government would not.
John Lewis, Martin Luther King, and all the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement reminded our government and our people – with their blood and sometimes with their lives – that the United States of America is more than a sleepy consumer society fixated on materialism and profit.
They reminded us that our country is founded on a radical set of principles and values about freedom, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. They demanded that we pull dusty old documents off the shelf – the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – and reacquaint ourselves with their messages and meaning.
They reminded us that our national principles and values are not easy to live up to, and that every so often, when we have drifted too far from those principles and values, we must correct our course. We have done so many times: on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, in the trust-busting of Teddy Roosevelt, in the New Deal forged in the depths of the Great Depression, in the legislative juggernaut of the Great Society, in the quest for equal access to healthcare only partially fulfilled in the Affordable Care Act.
John Lewis reminds us by his living example that each of those course corrections came at a great cost. And before each victory came a vicious fight in which a desperate but powerful rearguard tried to maintain its grasp on privilege and exclusion by any means possible. Those fights were not waged politely. They did not involve cutting a deal with the rearguard. They did not involve capitulation. They began with resistance – pure, simple, painful, costly, and dangerous resistance to a distortion of our national ideals that could no longer be tolerated. And they were won with resistance – unyielding, uncompromising, relentless.
A few days ago, Representative John Lewis did something extraordinary and unprecedented. In an interview that immediately became national news, he called into question the legitimacy of the incoming President of the United States. When asked if he would cooperate with the incoming Administration, Lewis stated, slowly and precisely:
“It’s going to be very difficult. I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the inauguration. It will be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in Congress. You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right.”
With these words, John Lewis once again stepped forward into a battle for American values. As surely as he stood in the front row of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, he declared to the nation on January 13, 2017 that the limits of his tolerance for Donald J. Trump had been met.
Some things have improved in 50 years. Rather than assaulting Representative Lewis with nightsticks and attack dogs, Trump was only able to hit him with outrageous, childish, and completely inaccurate tweets that managed to confirm exactly what Lewis was saying – that Donald Trump is an illegitimate usurper who does not deserve to hold the office of President of the United States.
Legitimacy is not the same as legality. Representative Lewis is not saying that Trump was not legally elected. Rather, he is saying that Trump, because of how he got elected, and how he comported himself as a candidate and leader, has failed to earn the deference and respect we normally confer upon an incoming President. Being illegitimate doesn’t mean Trump violated our laws (although that may yet be proven), it means he violated the norms of acceptable behavior we demand of a President of the United States.
Legitimacy is earned, not taken, and John Lewis spoke out loud what many Americans are feeling in their hearts, that Donald Trump may have earned the electoral votes to become President, but he has failed to earn the trust or respect required to govern. He has failed to earn the consent of the governed. And he seems to be losing more of that consent every day.
That is breathtaking in itself, but I believe Representative Lewis is saying something even more consequential. He is saying that we are facing another pivotal moment in American history, one in which we must stand together – as he and his fellow patriots stood before – to correct a national course that has drifted out of the bounds of legitimacy. The same desperate and powerful rearguard that flaunted its disrespect for American values in the 1960s has risen again with the hopes of herding American into a new illiberal nightmare: a toxic mix of authoritarianism, fact-free governance, unrestrained lying, Constitutional malpractice, and a perverse dedication to enriching the wealthy at the expense of every other American.
It is not just Trump that is illegitimate, it is the course on which he and the Republican Party have set us. And I believe John Lewis is saying that this course must be resisted with the same ferocity and steadfastness that has been brought to all previous incarnations of this battle.
We must ask a question we have not asked in many years. How do we confront illegitimate political power in America?
There are rules of engagement. You can negotiate with people you don’t like, but you cannot negotiate with illegitimacy. You cannot compromise with illegitimacy. Illegitimacy must be named, challenged, thwarted, obstructed, and distracted at every opportunity.
Here are some guidelines for three groups that today stand between Donald Trump and the future he portends for our country.
To the Free Press. Do not normalize Trump. Do not allow him to set the rules for access and press privileges. Do not allow him to set members of the Press against each other. Never relent in holding him accountable for his performance. Never capitulate to his pathological lying.
Trump will display his illegitimacy at every opportunity. Your job is to record and explain it to the American public, every time. Repetition breeds understanding. Withstand and objectively report his temper tantrums and anti-media outbursts.
It is relatively easy in the opinion pages to call Trump unfit, unprepared, uninformed, and narcissistic. It is much harder in daily news reporting to explain his behavior in terms of these characteristics. But they are often the best explanations for what he does and why he does it.
Part of normalizing Trump is assuming that he knows what he is doing, that he has deep strategic reasons for his behavior. But his past history belies this conventional interpretation. He has a long record of not knowing what he is doing. He is impulsive and petulant. His business record is one of failures, bad decisions, and occasional luck. He is a cloistered billionaire who lives in a bubble of sycophants. These are facts. They are a big part of the reason why he has failed the test of legitimacy. Do not be afraid to cite them when “explaining” Trump.
In the very unusual circumstance we are in today, the best explanation of our new President’s words and deeds may simply be that he is an idiot. If that’s the case, report it honestly and unapologetically, and be prepared for the blowback.
To Democrats in Congress. Do not compromise with Trump or the emboldened Republican majority. Do not acquiesce to an Obamacare replacement that only kills half as many people. Use your procedural skills to obstruct and delay wherever possible. Use the filibuster to stonewall any Supreme Court nominee until the Republicans produce someone all Americans can live with. And maybe block that one as well, just to drive them crazy. Be ruthless and unforgiving. This is not Everett Dirksen or Robert Taft you’re dealing with, it’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and Steve Bannon.
Nothing Trump and the Republicans want to do is going to be good for America. Everything they succeed at achieving will have to be undone later on. Do not fear being blamed for obstruction. Republicans proved throughout the Obama years that voters do not think that way. We blame the team in charge, rightly or wrongly, not the opposition. Trump made the promises that got him elected, Trump will have to own his ability or inability to fulfill those promises.
Engage in more public displays of disobedience like the House well sit-in (led by John Lewis) and the violation of protocol during the first Obamacare repeal vote. Show the American people you are in the game. In the absence of formal authority, use your informal power to let the public know you are fighting for them and against the goals and power of this illegitimate regime. Speak and act like you have a mandate to win, even if you are temporarily losing.
The more disastrous the next two years are, the better chance Democrats will have to turn around the Senate and maybe even the House in 2018. But the American people will need to be really fed up with the Republicans to make this happen. Don’t dwell on the minutia of your policy alternatives, try to protect the American people from harm, but make sure the public is aware of both the chaos Trump is unleashing and the damage the Republicans are inflicting on the middle and working classes across the country.
Don’t be afraid to be angry. Americans who pay little attention to politics respond to emotional authenticity, not to logic and reason.
To progressive activists. Do not wait for the next election to organize and act. Resisting illegitimate power is a full-time job. John Lewis has just sent us off to work, starting today.
Take the lessons of the “Indivisible” activists seriously. Emulate the Tea Party Movement by applying unrelenting local pressure on Republican members of Congress in their districts. But avoid emulating the Tea Party’s lying, hatred, and bigotry. Organize around issues everybody cares about locally, whether tied to economic inequality, healthcare, dignity in retirement, climate change, or something else. Use all the traditional tools of participatory democracy at your disposal: confrontation in town hall meetings, regular visits to your local Congressional offices, protest rallies, sit-ins, letter writing, social media organizing and, when called for, civil disobedience.
When power is illegitimate, properly targeted civil disobedience is an appropriate response. This is the lesson of the Civil Rights Movement. We need to learn its rules once again.
It is important for activists to create open lines of communication to Trump supporters. Many of them are good people and they are about to become very disillusioned. You will be surprised at how receptive they may be to taking a second look at their shared interests with progressive Democrats. Give them a chance. Dr. King would approve. The racists and bigots cultivated by the alt-right are probably lost forever, but they will reveal themselves quickly, and there are many others in rural, white, working-class America who deserve to have their legitimate concerns addressed by legitimate political initiatives, not the empty promises of illegitimate charlatans and snake oil salesmen.
This is what “not legitimate” means, and why and how we must oppose the Presidency of Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress. Resistance begins on January 20, 2017. Representative John Lewis is once again leading the way, placing himself in the front row of the opposition. It is our obligation as patriotic Americans to follow his lead, to the greatest extent each of us is able.