Is the Coup Happening?

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I wrote before the election outcome of the need to prepare for a possible coup by trump after his election loss and the need for a rapid decisive response if he attempted to seize power illegally. Is this happening? Could a blatant powergrab by a racist and misogynistic proto-fascist demagogue be just the culmination of the willingness of high-ranking Republicans and a rabid powerbase to go along with behavior after behavior we were deluded enough to believe could not happen here? It is not so implausible. The US government has long had the capability to interfere with the democratic process in other countries, facilitating the installation of autocrats and undermining a citizenry’s faith in the governing party and the processes of peaceful transition of power. Why not here? George Washington himself warned about Americans electing a president who would refuse to step down. But did anyone anticipate a Republican Party so willing to push the bounds of democracy?

trump has not only refused to concede — the tantrum of a petulant spoiled brat we might expect of him — but has also instructed the government to decline to provide the Biden transition team with needed resources. He told federal agencies to move ahead preparing his 2021 budget. And his spineless sycophantic followers are simply talking as if his defeat has not happened. Under fire from right wing media for not bolstering the evidence-free claims of the theft of the election and after meeting with Mitch McConnell behind closed doors, “trump’s Roy Cohn” William Barr instructed the Department of trump Justice to look into serious “allegations” of supposed voter fraud. And last night came Mike Pompeo’s matter-of-fact reference to the “smooth transition to the second trump administration”. If it wasn’t so ominous, it’d merely be ludicrous. 

Over the last few days of tweeting, trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Defense Dept.’s top policy official’s resignation was accepted. This massacre of top Pentagon officials will result in their replacement by trump loyalists and rabid conspiracy theorists, including a retired brigadier general known for calling former President Barack Obama a terrorist. The move has single-handedly swept decades of experience and stability out of the Pentagon. These actions and threats of future firing expose the national security apparatus (New York Times) to genuine instability and risk. The Washington Post and others spin this as a battle over “politicization of the military” but what does that mean? It raises the specter of plans for darker uses of a military under his grip, e.g. enforcing a declaration of martial law. After all, one of Esper’s crimes was refusing to deploy troops against American protesters on American soil, and he reportedly told the Military Times that “God help us” if his successor was “a real yes man.” Yet, there is no evidence that trump has the support of military leaders and good evidence that the Joint Chiefs despise him. Not to mention that he is held in contempt by the intelligence community and reviled by most Justice Dept functionaries. 

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And there is no evidence that trump thugs have prevented the vote count from proceeding smoothly and fairly. Election officials across the country steadfastly insist they are not seeing evidence of voter fraud. trump’s lawsuits are going nowhere given that the courts so far — except maybe SCOTUS — still work on the basis of evidentiary rules rather than as instruments of partisan wish-fulfillment. trump’s sole legal win so far has been to have election observers in Philadelphia allowed to get close enough to the vote count to see that nothing was awry. Furthermore, none of the legal challenges, even if upheld, would result in changing the outcome. The unsung heroes of the election, state election officials, just kept doing their jobs counting ballots. And, as Eli Mystal points out in The Nation, courts simply do not throw out counted votes. 

The media and the world community are treating Biden as the president-elect. There is a general consensus among many segments of American society that there is no route to a trump second term. Even Fox News isn’t echoing the stolen-election rhetoric despite Jared Kushner getting Rupert Murdoch on the horn. Notable Republicans — e.g. Chris Christie, Mitt Romney, and the governor of my state, Charlie Baker —  have been among those to congratulate Biden and pledge to work with him on a smooth transition. While we have not seen a wholesale rejection of trump’s effort to delegitimize the election and others including prominent Republicans have signed onto the trump delusion hook-line-and-sinker, they are individuals only. trump has not succeeded in coopting entire institutions. Much as he may intend to continue to operate a government-in-exile from Mar a Lago (or more likely the Caymans or somewhere else without an extradition treaty with the US) based on his denial of the reality of being thrown out of office, trump cannot govern without the machinery of government. Even if I have grown over the past four years to mightily distrust my own it-can’t happen-here incredulity, it seems like an impossible stretch to think he could consolidate a power grab.  Most recently, Richard Pilger resigned Monday night as head of the Justice Department’s election crimes branch, protesting Attorney General William Barr’s encouraging federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities. While this could be seen as evidence of how demoralized the Justice Dept is by being so blatantly used as a partisan tool, it is also an admirable stand. Even blocking the resources for the Biden transition comes down to the bottleneck of the misguided loyalty of a single government bureaucrat at the General Services Administration, not the collusion of the entire agency. The New York Times reports on growing discomfort at the law firms representing trump in election lawsuits about undermining the electoral process. And in private, trump advisors express pessimism about the prospects for success in perverting the election results (Washington Post). Internal dissension (NPR) is an important bulwark against coups.

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So the effort is likely to be pitifully ineffectual. As if we needed evidence, consider the Four Seasons press conference debacle (Vox) last weekend! More to the point is that those supporting trump’s narrative are far from unified in their goals. Some are simply in the thrall of trump’s primitive malignant personality and trying to spare him the agony of defeat (or spare them his narcissistic rage), although even members of his family are asking him to concede. Others may legitimately want to advance what they see as his political agenda if he were to remain in power. Difficult as it may be to believe, some remain duped into believing that a trump presidency is in their self-interest and that he cares about their welfare. The deeply anti-intellectual style of a segment of the American population predicates having their reality dictated to them rather than arrived at via active inquiry and being informed. If it wasn’t so ominous, it’d merely be ludicrous. 

Some may be duped into believing that upholding the democratic principle that we can contest elections mandates that we should, poisoning a significant segment of the electorate not only against the election results but against the electoral process. Some — evangelicals, post-teapartyers, etc. — may seek to facilitate the preservation of what they see as the “movement” ideology even if they find its figurehead to be execrable or irrelevant. Tribal racists and bigots may be motivated to undermine a democratic process which reflects  empowerment, inclusion and diversity. Some simply want to sabotage a Democratic presidency at all costs on principle, or Biden personally. For some it may be due to their inability to metabolize the prospect of a powerful woman, or a woman of color, as VP. 

And some politicians feel their own future personal political aspirations depend on not alienating trump’s redhat wingnuts or risking the infantile bully’s wrath. Columnist Will Bunch theorizes that Mitch McConnell, realizing that his power hinges on the outcome of the two January Senate runoffs in Georgia, knows the Republican incumbents will lose unless he gooses up his voters with outrage based on delusion and conspiracy theory rather than leave them demoralized and disempowered by trump’s loss. And even trump’s solicitation letters to raise money for the legal challenges to the election — from people he considers exploitable chumps and contemptible losers, as I have previously written here — acknowledge that the funds will really go to pay off the deep debt his campaign has incurred. trump may also simply be trying to set the stage for another presidential run in 2024… if he is not in jail. His remaining in power is probably the only way he could hope to avoid criminal conviction and imprisonment. It is likely that efforts based on so many disparate purposes will end up being at cross-purposes.

So if this is a coup attempt, it appears to be an erratic and farcically inept one destined to fail, albeit not without an unprecedented transition nightmare. As Bunch wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer,

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Watching the presidency of donald trump these last four years has been a lot like viewing a Hollywood horror flick, so you just know that right near the end of the movie — as the bruised, breathless protagonists breathe a sigh of relief over the corpse of his political career, the monster would pop back up one final time.

Trump’s refusal to accept that he lost the election will not go away when the last of the frivolous lawsuits is thrown out of court for lack of merit. Since he took office, he has always blamed “deep state” conspirators and “fake news” for his failures. Refusing to concede perpetuates the fiction that he is being forced from office precisely because he has kept the faith with his base, setting the stage for his continued dominance of the rabid right. Multiple sources have reported that trump sees the writing on the wall despite his continued refusal to concede. Reflecting a dawning realization that he leaves office in two months, he is reportedly talking privately about running in 2024. A top White House aide has reportedly said that he is only contesting the results as a form of ‘theater.” “Let me have the fight,” he is reputed to have said, even though it is not winnable. He has also allegedly started telling friends about his ambitions to start a media competitor to Fox News, which betrayed him by their honesty. 

The next stage is almost certainly going to focus on interfering with state certification of the election results and attempting to get Republican legislatures to send pro-trump delegations to the Electoral College on Dec. 14th in defiance of the popular vote. Trump would need to take at least three of the six key swing states (MI, WI, PA, AZ, NV, and GA). Democrats control most key state offices in these six states but Republicans control the state legislatures in five of the six. There is currently no clear legal authority to do so but Supreme Court Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have offered recent support for state legislatures’ right to set election rules. Some rabid state representatives have already hinted at appointing trump electors instead of Biden’s. With enough Supreme Court Justices behind them, they just might try it, especially if the “election was stolen” meme becomes so widely accepted that Republican voters demand action forcefully enough.

…[I]f we start to see certifications being delayed by the courts, or state legislators preparing serious efforts to appoint their own electors, then an attempt to steal the election from Biden could really be taking off.

said Andrew Prokop on Vox. Keep in mind that Mitch McConnell has reaffirmed that, while trump is within his rights to pursue legal options now, state certification of results and the Electoral College will settle things legitimately.

Has trump progressed from malignant narcissism to paranoid psychosis? I continue to insist we look at whether trump’s failure to concede his loss is evidence that his mental health has deteriorated to the point where he should be removed now by the 25th amendment process, sparing us this transition torture which functions either to salve his damaged ego and/or set the stage for his 2024 candidacy. Do we have the political will and the necessary support to do so? Unless I’m missing something obvious about why not, I remain flabbergasted at the lack of consideration of this available and reasonable option.

Barring that miracle, I won’t breathe a sigh of substantial relief until the trespasser is frogmarched out of the White House at the stroke of noon on January 20th. Yes, the American people have to be ready to take to the streets in massive numbers — and Saturday’s jubilant celebrations were an indication that they can do so — but now is not yet the time.

For the moment, we should be focused on continuing to celebrate trump’s dismissal, prepare for the Biden Presidency, begin to envision how a post-Orange Menace America will look, and figure out how to devote our energies to the healing ahead. Revel and heal while you can. Even barring the extremely dubious premise that trump will find a way to remain in office, we live in a country — if you can call it one country — in which, while 76 million people elected Biden, 71 million voted for trump, and believe his false statements that the election was taken by fraud. Some are convinced of the possibility of a civil war. Richard Kreitner wrote:

The United States never resolved the first civil war. The idea of a second civil war has been around literally since within months of the end of the first one. Too many Americans do not appreciate that fact… The issues that led to the first civil war remain in many ways unresolved. There is a massive reckoning over the country’s own history that has been long postponed. Resolving such matters is rarely peaceful. There are also foreign adversaries and other forces who are interfering in the election. All the elements for the story are present right now in America.

Even without an outbreak of armed domestic conflict, we will have to contend with a sort of rolling coup or quiet civil war given the grip that trump and trumpism will likely retain on the GOP, likely paralyzing control of one house of the legislative branch, control of many statehouses and consequent dominance over redistricting, and an abiding influence in the judiciary. And, even barring the extremely dubious premise that trump could find some way to remain in office, As Ezra Klein wrote in Vox

To say that America’s institutions did not wholly fail in the Trump era is not the same thing as saying they succeeded. They did not, and in particular, the Republican Party did not. It has failed dangerously, spectacularly. It has made clear that would-be autocrats have a path to power in the United States, and if they can walk far enough down that path, an entire political party will support them, and protect them. And it has been insulated from public fury by a political system that values land over people, and that lets partisan actors set election rules and draw district lines — and despite losing the presidency, the GOP still holds the power to tilt that system further in its direction in the coming years.

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Even if we dismiss the fervor of trump’s supporters as largely predicated on conspiracy theory, it looks like he has succeeded in making conspiracy theorists of the rest of us. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. 

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