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. 

Looking Beyond 2020, Have Some Republicans Found Their Next Leader in Another TV Personality?

‘When Republicans look at the wreckage that came from their decision to make Trump their leader, the conclusion some are coming to is that what they need is just a better TV personality: someone plays on the same grievances and resentments, but might be a little more competent if given the most powerful job in the world….’

— Paul Waldman writing in The Washington Post

Waldman thinks this is a sign of how broken the Republican Party is, but that doesn’t mean the next demagogue wouldn’t be elected any more than it did Trump. What’s that saying about a populace getting the President it deserves? That will be as true in 2024 as it was in 2016.

If Trump is defeated in the fall, it will not be because of the failure of the appeal of his ideology but rather his colossal imbecility and massive ineptitude in applying it. Don’t expect the Republicans to repeat that mistake, but it would be foolish to expect them to turn away from divisiveness, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Pundits’ reports of the demise of the GOP, of its inability to continue to compete any longer in a two-party system, are absurdly fanciful.

The massive Black Lives Matter uprising, for example, has provoked a massive backlash, as manifested in both the banal — BLM lawn signs being stolen in the middle of the night — and the terrifying — launching cars into crowds of protesters, mocking the deaths of black men in police custody.

And morbidity and mortality statistics are confirming how many Americans are willing to endanger everyone around them by eschewing mask-wearing and social distancing because it tramples on their god-given right to freedom and stupidity.

Therein lies a mentality — and an incredibly widespread one at that — ripe for the picking.

Covid-19 Can Persist at Least Several Months

Interesting article by one of my favorite science writers, Ed Yong, in The Atlantic starts out as a review of the “long-haulers” whose Covid symptoms don’t get better as expected. As an aside keep in mind that this does not mean that symptomatic people are still contagious, i.e. shedding virus. One of the big things we still don’t know about this disease are which symptoms come directly from viral devastation of various organs and which from the resultant immune response from the body.

But the interesting part of the article for me is Yong’s mapping of long-haul Covid infection to so-called medical gaslighting — the profession’s downplaying of patients’ physical complaints as being “all in their head” or caused by stress, especially in women and, as Yong points out, in communities of color. There is a long history of mysterious illnesses — most notably chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis in the UK) and fibromyalgia — of unclear causes, debilitating chronic symptoms, and no clear treatments.

Clusters of ME/CFS have followed many infectious outbreaks and even those medical professionals who take them seriously and do not dismiss them as purely psychiatric syndromes may be forgiven for failing to recognize that they probably cannot be reduced to being merely longterm or chronic variants of their mother diseases. Long ago I wrote a book chapter on controversial syndromes on the medical-psychiatric borderline. I focused on chronic fatigue syndrome and was guilty as charged myself, reviewing the data that it was essentially chronic Epstein-Barr virus infection. And in recent years I have lectured and taught about what some of us have described as chronic Lyme disease. Not that I am any kind of expert on these conditions. In fact, that is exactly the point — that this should be in the domain of the immunologists or infectious disease specialists rather than the psychiatrists. It is too soon to see if my non-psychiatric colleagues will begin sending post-Covid patients to us to treat postviral syndrome symptoms as if they are “just” emotional reactions.

Dealing with a novel medical condition which the world had never seen even six months ago should humble healthcare providers by highlighting how much we operate in the realms of mystery and ignorance. On the front lines, the dizzying pace of refining our approach in the face of such a moving target has been unprecedented. The unfortunate cases in which Covid infection appears to simply not go away may actually help us to finally realize that there may be a common syndrome affecting some with systemic infectious diseases. Much as we have stopped diagnosing or teaching about chronic Epstein-Barr, we should perhaps stop considering entites like “chronic Lyme” or “long-haul Covid” to be distinct entities and acknowledge the commonalities.

Several teams of investigators are already planning studies of Covid infection survivors to see if any become ME/CFS patients. A unifying conception would help stigmatized patients and might actually point the way to elucidating underlying mechanisms that might facilitate therapeutic interventions, And, established as having real, albeit complicated, causes, maybe psychiatrists like me should stop considering them to be in our province, the province of “all in the head”, at all? Mental health providers are going to have their hands full as it is helping with the devastating neuropsychiatric and emotional consequences of this pandemic.

As Yong concludes:

Perhaps COVID-19 will … galvanize an even larger survivor cohort. Perhaps, collectively, they can push for a better understanding of neglected chronic diseases, and an acceptance of truths that the existing disability community have long known. That health and sickness are not binary. That medicine is as much about listening to patients’ subjective experiences as it is about analyzing their organs. That being a survivor is something you must also survive.

Trump’s Impeachment Provokes a Deeper Descent Into Demagoguery

Dana Milbank observes in The Washington Post:

‘Trump’s impeachment provoked him to descend still deeper into the depths of demagoguery. His impeachment-night campaign speech — just over two hours long — was an alarming blend of instability and rage….’

I would add that it appears to be not merely a descent into demagoguery but into mental instability. Even with the vanishingly slim odds of conviction and removal from office in the Senate, perhaps as his decompensation proceeds the Amendment 25 Section 4 process for removing a President when deemed too disabled to discharge his functions will become more possible?

Soros and Koch Brothers Team Up to End US ‘Forever War’ Policy

‘Besides being bilionaires and spending much of their fortunes to promote pet causes, the leftist financier George Soros and the right-wing Koch brothers have little in common. They could be seen as polar opposites. Soros is an old-fashioned New Deal liberal. The Koch brothers are fire-breathing right-wingers who dream of cutting taxes and dismantling government. Now they have found something to agree on: the United States must end its “forever war” and adopt an entirely new foreign policy.

In one of the most remarkable partnerships in modern American political history, Soros and the Koch brothers are joining to finance a new foreign-policy think tank in Washington. It will promote an approach to the world based on diplomacy and restraint rather than threats, sanctions, and bombing. This is a radical notion in Washington, where every major think tank promotes some variant of neocon militarism or liberal interventionism. Soros and the Koch brothers are uniting to revive the fading vision of a peaceable United States. …’

Via The Boston Globe