Lately, people seem obsessed with pinpointing the exact moment Donald Trump became President of the United States. In a literal sense, he became the president-elect on Nov. 8, 2016, and was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2017. But, according to CNN’s Van Jones and Fox News’s Chris Wallace, Trump “became president” after his Feb. 28 speech to Congress. And, according to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Trump “became president” after launching airstrikes on Syria on Thursday night.
It matters when Trump “became president” because to a lot of people, he was never a legitimate political leader. A recent GenForward poll suggests that the majority of young adults in America view Trump as an illegitimate president. “Though Trump has legal legitimacy, he totally lacks political legitimacy,” Nancy Altman and Ira Lapu wrote in a Dec. 2016 Huffington Post article.
This explains Zakaria’s appraisal that Trump became more legitimate after the Syria airstrikes. As Zakaria said, “President Trump recognized that the President of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms, does have to have this broader moral and political purpose.” Trump’s recognition of international norms has, in some people’s eyes, made him more like past presidents, and therefore more legitimate.
However, not everyone saw the airstrikes as “presidential”. In a Facebook post on Friday, Dan Rather, a former CBS anchor, wrote that “The number of members of the press who have lauded the actions last night as ‘presidential’ is concerning. War must never be considered a public relations operation.” Rather continued that war is “not a way for an Administration to gain a narrative.”
It seems, though, that gaining a narrative of legitimacy is something that matters a great deal to Trump and his team. Trump “has this deep fear that he is himself not a legitimate president,” author Michael D’Antonio told Politico. D’Antonio also said that Trump’s fear of being illegitimate is one of the reasons why he tries to delegitimize America’s intelligence community; it could also easily be a reason why he has continually tried to delegitimize Barack Obama, from accusing him of wiretapping Trump Tower to blaming him for the situation in Syria.
Trump’s legitimacy could be called into question primarily by the fact that while he won the electoral college, he did not win the popular vote. More people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump. As well, the countless controversies that have plagued Trump and his administration—accusations of sexual assault, refusal to release his tax returns, collusion with Russia…shall I go on?—could also contribute to the view that Trump is illegitimate.
The legitimacy Trump may have gained from his February speech to Congress is very different than that gained from last week’s airstrikes. Early polls suggested that viewers approved of Trump’s speech to congress, although many people also remarked that the bar for Trump to succeed was set very low. “Donald Trump read from a teleprompter and wore a nice suit, and suddenly he’s ‘presidential’?” wrote Emily Atkin for the New Republic.
There are certainly many people who saw Trump as presidential the moment he assumed the title (or even the moment he announced he would run in the election). But there are many others who still do not see him as presidential. The critiques of journalists that certain events represent the moment Trump became president are a fascinating insight into the way Trump is viewed by the people he is supposed to represent. Because, if even a small amount of Americans do not view Trump as a legitimate president, what does that say about the state of democracy in America?