Well, here it is. The loudest democracy in the world has an infantile celebrity refusing to concede the presidency.
In his final weeks in office, Donald Trump is acting more and more like a tin-pot, banana-republic strongman: stacking key departments, sacking his defence secretary, replacing staff with loyal acolytes, hiding in his palace and refusing to allow the machinery of democracy to work.
But does it amount to a coup, or is this no more than a case of being a sore loser?
Put a fork in them, the election is almost done.
Understand what happens next with our best ever discounts.
Fear-mongering or crucial coverage?
The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan questions how media organisations are supposed to cover whatever it is that’s going on in the White House.
How do you cover something that, at worst, lays the groundwork for a coup attempt and, at best, represents a brazen lie that could be deeply damaging to American democracy?
Dangerous is right. As Barton Gellman writes in The Atlantic:
Our electoral system was not built to withstand a sustained assault on its legitimacy. We are capable of defending it, but that is a collective enterprise.
Autocracy by any other name
Borrowing teachings from Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, The New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen describes Trump’s behaviour in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.
Trump’s current “attempt” stage means autocracy is still preventable or reversible, by electoral means.
A breakthrough occurs when it’s no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully because the structure of government has been transformed.
These changes usually include packing the constitutional court (the Supreme Court, in the case of the US) with judges loyal to the autocrat; packing and weakening the courts in general; appointing a chief prosecutor (the attorney-general) who is loyal to the autocrat and will enforce the law selectively on his behalf; changing the rules on the appointment of civil servants; weakening local governments; unilaterally changing electoral rules (to accommodate gerrymandering, for instance); … For all the apparent flailing and incompetence of the Trump administration, his autocratic attempt checks most of the boxes.
Gessen’s colleague David Rohde agreed, writing:
The president’s actions since election day are unprecedented … His chances of succeeding appear low, but it is important to state that the president of the United States is attempting to carry out a coup.
If Trump attempted to overturn Biden’s win, it would be a historic move, historian Sean Wilentz told The New York Times.
It would be an act of disloyalty unsurpassed in American history except by the southern secession in 1860-61.
Similarly, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy, again speaking to The New York Times, said the move put Trump in poor company.
Trump’s behaviour is without precedent among leaders in Western democracies … Even in military dictatorships, the dictators more often than not honour the results of elections and they retire if they lose them.
Speaking to The Guardian, University of California law Professor Richard Hasen said any attempt to ignore the result of the election would be “a naked, anti-democratic power grab”.
Could it be a legal coup?
In Meanjin, Alistair Kitchen outlines how using legal recourses can still constitute a coup.
When the Bolivian military ‘asked’ Evo Morales to resign, no law was broken. When Jeanine Áñez, a lowly politician from the Bolivian hard right, stepped into the vacuum and took control of the country, no law was broken. Nonetheless, it was a coup — a coup overturned only by a mass political movement of socialists who forced a new election to be held a month ago, and then won in a landslide. The lesson of history is simple: it is in the spaces between the law that democracy can seep away.
Speaking to The New Daily, University of Melbourne’s US political analyst George Rennie was a little more optimistic.
I don’t doubt if Trump could, he would mount a coup … The truth is he can’t. For all its flaws, the US is still something like a nation of laws. The system of checks and balances is still in place … The armed forces, the secret service, are beholden to the constitution.
If the country continues to follow the rule of law, I see no plausible constitutional path forward for Trump to remain as president barring new evidence of some massive failure of the election system in multiple states.
Passivity supports a coup
Other analysts stressed lawmakers must step up to prevent any coup attempts, with Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder writing:
Poorly organised though it might seem, it is not bound to fail. It must be made to fail. Coups are defeated quickly or not at all. While they take place we are meant to look away, as many of us are doing. When they are complete we are powerless.
You need supporters … and competence … for a coup to occur
A lack of intervention could cause a coup — but first, you’d need to have a team of supporters willing to ignore, or support, the autocratic regime.
As Gellman writes in The Atlantic: “Trump will use every means at his disposal to maintain a grip on power.” That qualifier, “at his disposal,” is important.
It marks a distinction between wishes and commands that Trump can expect to be carried out … To move the government, Trump needs to know where the levers are and how to control them. In practice, this means persuading other people to operate the machinery on his behalf. Some of those people would balk at certain kinds of orders … The ultimate check on Trump’s power to meddle in the election is the same as it has been throughout his term in office: whether he can bend subordinates and institutions to his will. The record on that is mixed.
As Ross Douthat in The New York Times writes (unkindly but perhaps not incorrectly):
Our weak, ranting, infected-by-COVID chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks.
Or, as talk show host Jimmy Kimmel put it:
We may soon find out the answer to the question: can a coup be pulled off by people who spell it c-o-o?