Trump’s election victory is legally valid, but his legitimacy is challenged

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von Hans Dembowski

Imagine Donald Trump’s name was Ali Ibrahim

In strictly formal terms, Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the USA in November. He was ahead in enough states to gain a majority in the electoral college. The international community must accept the validity of the procedures. Nonetheless, Trump’s legitimacy is challenged for several reasons. I’ll spell them out in a short thought experiment.

Let’s imagine Donald Trump’s name was Ali Ibrahim, and he had won the presidential elections of Pakistan or Nigeria. Let’s imagine, moreover, that he used fiercely Islamist rhetoric, slandered women, insulted minorities and even nudged his supporters to become violent during the campaign. On top of all this, let’s imagine that Ibrahim repeatedly promised to back off from a host of international agreements, casting doubt on a world order that has prevented global military conflict for more than 70 years.

  • What do you think western observers would say about the quirks of Pakistan’s or respectively Nigeria’s electoral law if it allowed Ali Ibrahim to win the election by getting 46 % of the vote, while his more moderate opponent got 48 %?  
  • What relevance would it have in the international arena that Ibrahim benefited from a hacking attack, which was carried out on his opponent’s party by spies from a powerful country with a history of trying to undermine western democracy? And would it matter that the information thus gained was spread by an internet activist who is holed up in the London embassy of a small Latin American country because he is facing law suits in various countries for publishing classified information and one in Scandinavia for sexual abuse?
  • And how would democracy-promoting agencies assess the fact that Ibrahim benefited from an unprecedented intervention of his country’s Central Bureau of Investigation in the election? It accused Ibrahim’s opponent of wrongdoing one week before the vote without any substantial evidence, only to withdraw those claims after a few days.
  • What would they say about the Pakistani or Nigerian media that shied away from discussing policy issues including global warming or universal access to health care, but spent the entire campaign discussing how awful voters’ choice was this year, with two terrible candidates? To keep this narrative of equivalence going, they only briefly dealt with Ibrahim’s many scandals (which included defrauding students of his private university and using his supposedly charitable foundation to settle other legal problems related to his business). At the same time, they kept obsessing about his opponent’s much smaller issues. Because of his great entertainment value, however, they gave Ibrahim much more air time, allowing him to spread his irresponsible messages.
  • And what do you think international anti-corruption campaigners would say about his vast but non-transparent business empire, into which he did not give any insights, refusing to release his tax returns as a well-established democratic convention would have demanded? Add to the picture that he initially promised to publish the information, but never did, which fits into a long track record of lying, shady deals and bankruptcies. And how do you think foreign media would comment on Ibrahim putting his children in control of his business empire, arguing that there are no conflicts of interest, since presidents, by definition, cannot have conflicts of interest? Wouldn’t they be writing about “crony capitalism”? And what would they make of the legislators of his party trying to abolish an independent ethics office right at the beginning of their new term and then attempting to rush through the approval of Ibrahim’s cabinet without the normal vetting?

Let’s face it. Very few people in the USA would consider Ali Ibrahim a legitimate president of Pakistan or Nigeria. So why should Pakistanis, Nigerians or anyone else consider Donald Trump a legitimate president of the USA?

I’d like to add three things:

  • My line of arguing is not anti-American. Many US citizens see things this way too. Here is the New York Times and here is the Washington Post. Never forget that Trump only won 46 % of the vote and has extremely low approval ratings.
  • Though Trump’s legitimacy is damaged, his election is legally valid. To quote the New York Times once more: “This president will have a lot of legal authority, which must be respected. But beyond that, nothing: he doesn’t deserve deference, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. And when, as you know will happen, the administration begins treating criticism as unpatriotic, the answer should be: You have to be kidding.”
  • The idea of comparing the US election to one in a developing country was first expressed by Afshan Subohi on our website in December. I felt the thought was worth further elaboration ahead of Trump’s inauguration next week.


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