There was a time when it could be assumed that the citizens of the United States more or less signed up to what was called ‘the American way of life’. There were bitter political conflicts and tensions, yes, but the public rarely questioned the rules of politics or the legitimacy of the institutions of governance.
Times have changed. Today, significant sections of the American public no longer accord the political class and its institutions with automatic respect. The American establishment’s loss of moral authority, and its corresponding behaviour and attitudes, serves as the background to the 2016 presidential election.
Many factors led to Trump’s victory, but the principal reason he succeeded is because he exploited this loss of legitimacy among America’s political and cultural elites. He succeeded because millions of Americans did not believe, or much care about, what the media told them. They have come to regard opinion polls, political pundits, celebrity commentators and the Washington-based political class as unworthy of their trust.
In recent months, the two main presidential candidates depicted one another as unfit for office. Trump’s chant of ‘lock her up!’ was about both criminalising and delegitimising Hillary. She went a step further, targeting not only Trump but also his millions of supporters. She questioned their moral status. Huge numbers of them were a ‘deplorables’, she said, who were ‘irredeemable’. This implied that these citizens were not really fit to vote. Members of the Washington establishment piled in and denounced Trump as an ‘illegitimate candidate’. In an article titled ‘Why Trump is illegitimate’, Robert D Kaplan denounced Trump’s ‘trashiness’.
In the end, it was Trump who benefited from America’s legitimacy deficit. His claim that the presidential election was ‘rigged’, and therefore the outcome could not be trusted, provoked the wrath of the American media. But it resonated with millions of voters. According to an Associated Press/GfK poll, most of Trump’s supporters said they would have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the election if Hillary won.