Legitimation Crises

Photo by Jörn Schubert | CC BY 2.0

Before long, we will be hearing a lot of talk about “legitimation crises.”  Thank Donald Trump.  Thank Benjamin Netanyahu too.

The problem with Trump is not that he lost the popular vote but won the election.  We can get over that.

George W. Bush lost the popular vote too, and but for five Republican Supreme Court Justices, he would probably have lost in the Electoral College as well.  For a while, this put the legitimacy of his presidency in doubt.  Unfortunately, this didn’t hobble him for long; even before 9/11, the mood had passed.

He was therefore able to go on to break the Greater Middle East and much else too.  The world would have been better off had more been made of the legitimacy of the way he got into the White House; letting the issue go, emboldened him.

Tweet by tweet, it becomes harder to deny that Trump’s ways of thinking and acting defy rational reconstruction.  Therefore, we cannot simply extrapolate from Bush’s case to his; Bush’s shortcomings were legion, but he was not out of control crazy.  It was therefore easier to set legitimacy concerns aside in Bush’s case than in Trump’s.  For as long as he remains President, they will always be with us.

Who knows what Trump will or will not do in these circumstances; the man’s behavior is too erratic to predict.  Even one of those preternaturally gifted profilers depicted in crime fiction and on television shows like “Criminal Minds” would be baffled.

This is why Trump’s presidency is precipitating a legitimation crisis of unprecedented proportions that could cause the world’s only superpower to become unhinged.

If the relevant measures are lethality and damage to world order and stability, Bush is still, by far, the worst President in modern times.  But give the Donald a chance.  He has already outdone George W. in laying siege to the most fundamental of the four freedoms Franklin Roosevelt spoke of, freedom from fear.  When it came to undermining that freedom, Bush and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, were no slouches, but they were angels compared to Trump.

This is why it is urgent that he be impeached or, if that is politically unfeasible, that he be caused to “self-impeach” either for vanity’s sake or for the sake of his and his family’s bottom lines.

Self-impeachment used to seem the more likely prospect, because Democrats are both useless and spineless, and because Republicans of all stripes thought that they could use his presidency to their advantage.  This could change as it becomes clearer to ever-larger swathes of potential Republican voters that the man ought to be carried off in a straightjacket.  Then leading Republicans could well decide that his continuation in office is more of a liability than an asset.   Stay tuned!

When Nixon saw the writing on the wall, he quit before the House of Representatives could formally impeach him; he removed himself from office.  As a real estate mogul and casino tycoon, Trump would run away from problems too, often finding ways to enrich himself in the process.  But that skill may not transfer.

Self-impeachment – cut and run — would be Trump’s least bad choice, but it now looks like that will only happen if his hard-core base turns against him.  If the polls are right, that isn’t happening.

Meanwhile, the man is too obtuse to realize that everyone who is not willfully blind knows that he is a dangerous buffoon.  He may even be deluded enough himself to believe what he says when he says that he is doing an outstanding job.

Astonishingly too, his brand and his daughter’s are still doing well.  Evidently, there are enough people out there with no taste, no shame, and enough money to keep those emoluments flowing in.

This is why our best hope for getting rid of the Trump menace now seems to be the GOP.

This could change, of course.  Trump is so plainly unfit for the office the Electoral College handed him – temperamentally, morally, and intellectually – that circumstances could arise that would cause a sizeable portion of the Trump base to defect.  The Donald isn’t have the man, or crook, that Nixon was, but, were that to happen, perhaps even he would see the writing on the wall.

Once the assumption that his governance is legitimate wanes sufficiently, he will no longer be able even to muddle through, as he has been up to now – with the help of House and Senate Republicans, a handful of Generals, and some moneymen.  When it comes to that, even he would have to wonder what the point is in staying on.

We do not hear nearly as much about it on cable news, but legitimacy is also an issue in Israel, the “ally” that our political class and their media treat, as best they can, as if it were America’s fifty-first state.

The Israeli government is, or pretends to be, obsessed with what it regards as efforts to “delegitimize” it.

But, unlike the legitimation crisis that the Trump presidency is triggering, that crisis is largely a fabrication of Israeli propagandists.

Their goal is to quash the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and, more generally, to suppress all but the most anodyne criticisms of the Israeli state.  The line they promote is that BDS poses an “existential threat” to Israel and somehow also to Jews the world over.

These are contentions that would hardly be worth taking seriously, except to debunk them, were we not on the brink of a real legitimation crisis that can be instructive to compare and contrast with the one that the Israelis go on about.


Palestinians have been vilified in the West for as long as they have struggled for national recognition; it hardly mattered that there was never much to vilify.

They had nothing to do, after all, with the war on European Jewry; that was a European affair.  There is therefore no reason of justice why they should have to pay for what Europeans did to Europe’s Jews.

Neither is there any reason of justice why the state of Israel should be the beneficiary of the sacrifices inflicted upon Palestinians.  Israel did not even exist at the time that the Judeocide was underway, and the harm that the Nazis unleashed befell Jews living in Europe, not Palestine.

Nevertheless, the state of Israel inherited a seemingly inexhaustible supply of moral capital.

It didn’t even have to spend any of it to take over and ethnically cleanse Palestine, at least not according to prevailing understandings in the West.  In effect, Israel got a massive inheritance and a get out of jail free card to boot.

Thank Zionist ideology for that; without it, it would make no sense to identify Judaism’s Holy Land with a Jewish homeland, much less to talk about Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people.”

In historically Muslim countries, and in most other parts of the world, public opinion has always tended to support the Palestinian cause.  Lately, though, as Israeli governments flagrantly squander the moral capital they still possess, Palestinian calls for justice are finally finding politically receptive audiences in North America, Europe, and Australasia.

This was bound to happen eventually.  But Israel’s rightwing governments have overplayed their hand so often and so egregiously that the process is at last no longer advancing at the glacial pace it was.

Founded twelve years ago in response to a call from leading organizations and figures in Palestinian civil society, the BDS movement, along with other expressions of solidarity with Palestinians struggling to end a half-century long Occupation, is therefore on the rise.

What BDS asks people to do, and forbear from doing, is utterly non-violent and morally unassailable.

Nevertheless, it disturbs even liberal Zionists at the same time that it puts the rest, the vast majority, in such a tizzy that it is hard to believe that they are serious about what they claim.

With the Netanyahu government leading the way, they are calling in every political favor they can in order to put the movement down.

They are also doing their best to intimidate BDS proponents.  In the United States and elsewhere, they focus especially on progressive activists in colleges and universities, much to the detriment of critical and rational discourse.

Their claim, again, is that the BDS movement poses an “existential threat” to the state of Israel by putting its “legitimacy” in jeopardy.


For political philosophers, political legitimacy has long been Topic A.

The general idea is that a state is legitimate if and only if its basic institutions and practices satisfy defensible standards.

Some of the standards that are proposed or assumed are so stringent that no actually existing state could ever satisfy them.  When this is the case, notions of political legitimacy may be of philosophical interest – for what they say, for example, about the forms and limits of political obligation or the nature of authority relations in the political sphere, but they are irrelevant from a real world political point of view.

In marked contrast, most philosophical accounts of legitimacy propose standards of such an anodyne nature that most existing states easily satisfy them.  Like philosophers generally political philosophers aim to provide rationally defensible accounts of what already is the case.  They are therefore more likely to be conservative than radical.

In any case, descriptive accounts of the ways that institutions come to be regarded as legitimate are of more direct political relevance than normative theories of political legitimacy.  This has been a topic of discussion in academic circles for more than a century.

Thus we know that charismatic leaders can sometimes legitimate institutional arrangements.  We also know that, for the most part, people come to accept the legitimacy of the regimes under which they live when and insofar as the politicians and bureaucrats who govern them conform to widely accepted expectations that accord with prevailing social norms.

Notwithstanding his belief in his own “wonderfulness,” Trump is hardly a charismatic leader, and his seemingly uncontrollable erratic style confounds ordinary expectations and social norms.  This is why a full-fledged legitimation crisis is brewing.

Israel’s real or purported problem with political legitimacy is of a different nature altogether.

The regime in place in Israel now would surely horrify leading figures from earlier versions of the Zionist project, but the internal stability of the regime is secure. For as long as the idea that Israel faces existential threats seems credible to most Israelis and Zionists abroad, this is unlikely to change.

Settler states in other times and places effectively eliminated the indigenous peoples whose lands they usurped – militarily or by disease or sometimes, especially in Central and South America, by intermarriage.   In the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the preferred strategy was outright elimination, coupled with physical separation, when necessary and feasible.

A British-only population policy was incompatible with economic development, however — and so, before long, slaves were imported from Africa and, in time, immigrants from Europe were permitted entry too.  For the past half-century or so, immigration from all over the world into the United States and the British Empire’s former “white dominions” has been so massive that many of the former targets of nativist animosities, “white ethnics,” get off scot-free in the Trump era.

Settler projects in lands inhabited by African peoples less susceptible to European diseases than Amerindians were less successful.

Palestine was more like South Africa or Algeria than the Massachusetts Bay Colony or Peru; and Palestine was part of a larger Arab and Muslim world that, unlike pre-Columbian North and South America, was rising, not fading away into oblivion.

Therefore there has never been a shortage of plausible existential threats to Israel – especially for a population that is predisposed to believe that the whole world is against them.  That deeply entrenched belief is factually incorrect nowadays, but eminently understandable in light of history.

Add to that a guilty conscience that, though largely unacknowledged, must surely register in the collective consciousness of Jewish Israelis who could hardly fail to realize, at some level, that the people whose land they have taken harbor grievances that are indisputably just.

Therefore even were a genuine peace somehow imposed on Israel/Palestine, it would probably take generations for the “existential” fears of Jewish Israelis to become politically inert.

It hasn’t helped that successive Israeli governments have done all they could to prevent the eruption of peace and that it would take an act of God, as it were, for this to change.

The West, especially the United States, could, of course, make Israel “an offer it couldn’t refuse,” just by refusing to subsidize ethnic cleansing in territories beyond the so-called Green Line, and by withholding economic, military and diplomatic support until all of Israel’s citizens enjoy the same social and political rights as Israel’s Jewish Herrenvolk.

Needless to say, the American government is not about to do anything of the sort.  Therefore, for all practical purposes, Israeli perceptions of existential threats are here to stay.

Even so, the vilification of BDS currently underway is so thoroughly out of proportion that it is hard to take it seriously.

Nevertheless, because its very existence drives home the point that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was never an unequivocally good idea, true believers in the Zionist cause do have reason to worry about BDS, along with other calls for justice for Palestinians – many of which have even more far-reaching implications.

There were compelling reasons why most people outside the Middle East thought that acceding to Zionist demands seemed like a good idea seventy years ago.  Back then, there were large numbers of displaced Holocaust survivors who could not easily be reabsorbed back into the devastated lands from which they had come.  Meanwhile, the United States and other intact and prosperous countries in North and South America and the Antipodes were unwilling to accept more than a handful of those displaced persons – thanks, in part, to lingering anti-Semitism and, in part, to Zionist finagling.

In those circumstances, where besides Palestine could the refugees go?

Outside the Middle East, public opinion – left, right, and center — looked kindly upon the Zionist project; even the Communists were on board.

And although the future of British, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonialism was already in doubt, and although nationalist ferment was already brewing throughout the Arab world, hardly anyone at the time fully appreciated how problematic the insertion of a European people into the heartland of the Middle East could become.

There was therefore never much doubt in the international community about Israel’s legitimacy – not, again, in the sense that engages philosophers, but in ways that matter in the real world.

Arab states objected – diplomatically and militarily — from Day One.  But this came to very little in the absence of an organized Palestinian national movement comparable to the one that Jewish settlers in Palestine had developed in the decades preceding independence.

What the Palestinians had instead were pan-Arabist notables claiming to represent their interests, and duplicitous governments in nearby Arab states, purporting to be their allies.  It would be some twenty years before Palestinians had a full-fledged national movement of their own.

Grudgingly, but incontrovertibly, the BDS movement has always accepted these understandings.  Realizing that the past cannot be undone, and cognizant of the hand they have been dealt, the delegitimization of the state of Israel is not and never has been on their agenda.

Quite to the contrary, they accept the UN resolutions that established Israel’s “right to exist” and subsequent resolutions confirming that position, and call only for the end of a half-century long occupation that is blatantly illegal according to that standard.

Even were BDS militants expressly to join those who call for Israel to become a state of its citizens, not just those who are Jewish, their aim would still not be to “delegitimize” the state.  It would only be to turn it off its ethnocratic track.  Ironically, this would cause Israel to become more like what its more progressive founders wanted it to be — a normal, liberal democratic and secular state.

The United States, another settler state, was once but is no longer an Anglo-majority country; before long, according to the Census Bureau, it will not even be a white-majority country.  But except in the minds of a few pro-Trumpian “alt-right” nativists, the United States hardly faces an “existential threat” on that account.

It is the same with BDS.  The movement is not asking for anything that would put the security and well being of Israeli Jews in jeopardy or for anything that would diminish their life prospects.  Neither are they calling for anything that would harm either the Jewish religion or the vitality of the Hebrew-speaking culture that Israeli Jews have forged over the past five or six generations.

BDS does not even put the idea of a Jewish majority state in jeopardy, provided Jewish Israelis would be willing to accept sovereignty over no more of Mandate Palestine than they had before the Six Day War.

There is nothing delegitimizing about that.  Indeed, this is what the “two state solution” is about.

Netanyahu and his co-thinkers still babble on about two states living side by side, but, thanks to them, that idea is now, for all practical purposes, a dead letter.

Something like it though, or confederative arrangements that accord Israeli Jews sovereignty over less of Mandate Palestine than most Israelis nowadays would like, could nevertheless still be implemented if the political will exists.

Thus the only existential threat BDS poses is to a bad idea that may have seemed like a good and even necessary idea to a lot of people half a century ago, but that plainly no longer is.  If that is a legitimation crisis, then bring it on!

It is nothing like the very real legitimation crisis that becomes worse each day that Trump remains in office.  Unlike BDS, Trumpian rule portends real, not imaginary, catastrophes on many levels — and literally does threaten “the world and all that dwell therein” existentially.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).