Among the many hard lessons of the 2016 presidential election, perhaps the most salient is the erosion of Americans’ confidence in the institutions of national life. The election of Donald Trump was a rebuke not just to the leaders of the Republican Party but also to the entire political establishment.
At the same time, Trump is not immune to this erosion of confidence. He lost the popular vote, and will take the oath of office on Friday with the highest unfavorable ratings of any president in the past 35 years.
This is a big problem. Our political system only works the way it’s supposed to if we invest it with a measure of confidence. That’s why Georgia Rep. John Lewis’ boycott of Trump’s inauguration is so reckless and short-sighted. Over the long weekend marking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lewis told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd he won’t attend the inauguration because he believes Trump is illegitimate, and that “the Russians participated in helping this man get elected.”
In his typical fashion, Trump fired back on Twitter, saying—incorrectly—that Lewis’s district “is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested),” and accusing the 76-year-old civil rights icon of being “all talk, talk, talk—no action or results.”
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
By Monday, dozens of Democratic lawmakers had announced that they, too, would boycott Trump’s inauguration, many of them motivated by solidarity with Lewis. “For me, the personal decision not to attend Inauguration is quite simple: Do I stand with Donald Trump, or do I stand with John Lewis? I am standing with John Lewis,” said California Rep. Ted Lieu in a statement.
Some wouldn’t go as far as claiming Trump’s presidency is illegitimate, but instead justified their boycott as “an individual act.” Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark told the Boston Globe, “I support the peaceful transition of power, but I don’t feel that I need to attend the pageantry associated with and for this president.” California Rep. Barbara Lee was more blunt. “On Inauguration Day, I will not be celebrating. I will be organizing and preparing for resistance,” she said in a statement.
Delegitimizing the Opposition Is Dangerous
Of course, this isn’t the first time members of Congress have boycotted a presidential inauguration. As NRO pointed out Monday, it isn’t even the first time Lewis has boycotted an inauguration. (Lewis, along with other members of the Black Caucus, boycotted George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001 because they didn’t believe he was legitimately elected president.)
But lawmakers boycotting the peaceful transfer of power at a time of deep division in our country is part of a larger and more troubling trend. Celebrities have also been quick to adopt the rhetoric of “resistance.” Rosie O’Donnell called for martial law. Michael Moore said the election “should be voided” (but didn’t say how). A growing list of celebrity musicians have declined invitations to perform at the inauguration, while others will be there to protest.
This is a blatantly hypocritical posture. Back in October, when Trump foolishly suggested he might not accept the results of the election, it was considered a threat to democracy. Now, it’s an act of patriotism. Americans of all political stripes notice that kind of double standard, especially when the opposing party’s politicians are the ones doing it.
Beyond the hypocrisy is a more sinister trend, common to both sides, of routinely attempting to delegitimize the opposition. Trump first gave credence to Obama “birther” conspiracies back in 2011, and he kept at it for years. The notion that Obama wasn’t born in the United States is perhaps the ultimate form of delegitimization—not only is Obama not eligible to be president, he’s not even an American.
Trump’s not the only one guilty of promoting such conspiracy theories. During Obama’s first term in office, major GOP figures from Newt Gingrich to Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin, along with other Republican officeholders, made reference to Obama’s upbringing and place of birth. For a certain subset of conservative activists, it’s still a controversy. (Trump himself didn’t admit Obama was born in the United States until September of last year.)
Washington Warned Us About The ‘Spirit Of Party’
Given the stakes, it’s not sufficient simply to say that what goes around comes around, that Trump questioned Obama’s legitimacy and now he’s getting a taste of his own medicine. Lewis and his cadre of Democratic lawmakers believe they’re taking a principled stand for democracy by boycotting the inauguration. In fact, they’re undermining it. No matter how much you disagree with the president himself, the office of the presidency and the peaceful transfer of power are greater than any one man, and they deserve unambiguous endorsement by our elected officials—in fact, it’s their sworn duty.
Our Founding Fathers knew what a pernicious influence rank partisanship could be on the fledgling republic. In his farewell address, George Washington warned against what he called “the spirit of party,” and urged his countrymen to “discourage and restrain it.” Such a spirit, he said, “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Beyond these, there’s another grave danger Washington saw in the spirit of party—one that should resonate with us after an election in which Trump himself admits Russia tried to meddle: “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion.”