What makes a president legitimate?

But the single biggest reason for the post-Bush legitimacy crisis involves the relationship between democracy and race. Bush was the last white president who entered the White House after winning a majority of the popular vote.

That meant Bush enjoyed both uncontested democratic legitimacy and the racial legitimacy that comes from being white in a country in which whiteness and political power have long gone together. Bush won the presidency in 1988 by overwhelmingly winning the white vote, something he achieved in part by linking Michael Dukakis to the specter of black crime. And in 1988—when whites comprised 85 percent of the American electorate—overwhelmingly winning the white vote was enough to ensure a popular majority.

Since then, the white share of the electorate has steadily declined. By 2000, it was down to 81 percent. That decline played a crucial role in George W. Bush’s failure to win the popular vote, which undermined his legitimacy. By 2008, the white percentage had dropped to 74 percent, which helped Obama defeat John McCain. But while winning the popular vote gave Obama democratic legitimacy, his blackness undermined his racial legitimacy in the eyes of many conservative whites. In 2016, the white percentage of the electorate fell to 70 percent—too low for Trump to win the popular vote, despite winning a large majority of white voters, a failure that has contributed to his own legitimacy crisis.