Rhetoric since the inauguration has not only perpetuated a narrative that Donald Trump is not a legitimate president, but has also invoked fear as a would-be mandate that those of us who merely hear its words might be called to action. A productive dialogue has not been encouraged; rather, the left has focused on unilateral criticism and a hateful rebuke of Donald Trump.

I listened, incredulously, to the words Ashley Judd and Madonna selected for their speeches at the Women’s March the day after we, as a country, celebrated our peaceful transition of power — a hallmark of our democracy. I felt somewhat embarrassed by, at the very least, their lack of civility. The speeches suggested that Trump bathes in Cheeto dust, that he has traded a “Hitlerian” mustache for a toupee, and that we, the American public, must refuse “to accept this new age of tyranny,” in which “being uniquely different right now might truly be considered a crime.” Such incendiary and insulting rhetoric complements a dialogue that attempts to represent Trump’s presidency as illegitimate.

This type of rhetoric deliberately invokes feelings of mistrust, vulnerability and protest. Notwithstanding the value of a women’s march as an opportunity for dialogue and solidarity on behalf of shared views and values, remarks like these were a call to action to those who did not vote for our 45th president and to those inclined to join an ever-growing voice inspired by an insurgency. One need look no further than Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” to appreciate the collective action and antagonistic tactics at the core of the “not my president” agenda.

Here’s the problem: This proclamation of illegitimacy is not merely mythological — it further divides America, even though its advocates seek to assign sole accountability for divisiveness to Trump. Similar to Hillary Clinton’s comment that 50 percent of Trump supporters can be put in a “basket of deplorables,” the contention that Trump is not a legitimate president effectively questions the authenticity of nearly half of the American public who voted for him and for change. These Americans included decent people with diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs from varied cultures and races.

On “Meet the Press” two days after the inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, introduced the dubious concept of “alternative facts” to challenge reports that Trump’s inauguration was far less attended than Barack Obama’s. Sadly, both she and Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, remind me of the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” In contesting media reports comparing Trump and Obama’s inaugural attendance numbers or presidential approval ratings, for that matter, Spicer and Conway seem ready and willing to dispute the claims of illegitimacy, and in doing so, they make them appear relevant. Trump similarly appears to seek legitimacy in suggesting that he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud. However, instead of giving credence to skeptics of his popularity, he needs to remember that the results of the popular vote are irrelevant since in our system the Electoral College determines who wins the presidency.

President Trump and his advisers need not tune into the noise of insurgency if it insists on using foul, antagonistic language to spread unsubstantiated fear of tyranny or imminent loss of constitutional rights. When Bill Clinton beat Bush senior, when George W. Bush beat Clinton and when Obama took office eight years ago, a significant number of Americans saw their candidates lose, yet shared optimism, for social and economic progress was the basis, at least in theory, for offering hopeful support.

I dare say that public outrage on par with what we have witnessed since the inauguration of Trump would have been rebuked strongly by the media and many Americans had this occurred following Obama’s inauguration. Trump’s early executive orders to build a wall, rollback the Affordable Care Act and his most recent travel decree are evidence of not only his authenticity, but also of his embrace of his legitimate position.

Similarly, Trump’s most recent proffering of uniquely qualified Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and his deliberate and strategic selection of his cabinet reflect his legitimacy. Furthermore, the Electoral College proved his legitimacy by electing him as president. When interviewed on ABC on Jan. 24, Trump acknowledged his own belief that torture and waterboarding work, but unequivocally stated that he would defer to CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary General James Mattis on such issues. I ask you, if this does not resemble legitimacy, what does?

Sure, Trump’s own rhetoric has been, and likely will continue to be, incendiary. But, so too is the rhetoric — often hypocritical and inflammatory — of those who cling to identity politics and behave with antagonism. Messages like Judd’s and Madonna’s are proffered expressly to incite fear and to dampen optimism for economic and social change that prompted many Americans to elect Trump. Mutuality and collaboration are the way forward; alternative facts, by either the right or the left, are not.

President Trump is unquestionably a work in progress. Our democracy affords us with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. So, though I tire of the too often specious criticism of Trump and its hateful rhetoric, it will strengthen his resolve to deliver favorable results for all Americans. In other words, the endless protest and rebuke that I anticipate over the next four years will likely foster his execution of his vision — which got him elected. Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. So, for the sake of our great democracy, let’s agree on the mythology of illegitimacy. 

Nicholas Tomaino can be reached at ntomaino@umich.edu.

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