President Donald Trump’s stupid attempt to pretend he did not lose the 2020 election felt, at first, like the natural march of his id. He couldn’t admit he lost. So he didn’t. A dust-up of paperwork and “stop the steal” chants followed. Republicans were muted, at first. It would all end—I thought—in a fit of sound and grift, signifying nothing.
Then, seemingly all at once, Republicans got on board: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Trump “100 percent within his rights” to push voter-fraud claims. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised a “smooth transition” to a second Trump term. Fox News ignited its agitprop engine, with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham all promoting lies about mass voter fraud. Rudy Giuliani waved some pieces of paper at a camera. Attorney General Bill Barr authorized Justice Department lawyers to openly investigate voting “irregularities,” causing the person at the agency in charge of doing just that to resign. Georgia’s two Senate Republicans demanded the head of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican—reportedly at Trump’s behest. A poll found that 86 percent of Trump voters said that Biden “did not legitimately win the election.”
What was this? Wised-up commentators said it was all theater, a ploy by Trump to pay down campaign debt and a way for Republicans to keep the base riled in advance of Georgia’s January runoff elections, which will determine control of the Senate. But as we have seen again and again during the Trump era, political theater has a way of becoming real. The fantasy of a big, beautiful wall turned into a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Should we be calling these gestures at a power grab, however small and venal their motives, a coup? A self-coup? What would a coup look like in this country, anyway? Was the word itself—and the vivid history it evokes—distracting us from the likelihood that an American coup would be accomplished not with tanks in the street but with briefcases and affidavits and “normal” processes?
Over the last couple of days I put those questions to a number of people with diverse expertise—historians, scholars of coups, some folks with firsthand experience subverting the will of the people. Their unedited responses are below. I’ll add more to the pile as they come in. (If there’s someone else I should ask, let me know.)
Dr. Josef Woldense, a professor of African and African-American Studies who studies elite politics and authoritarian regimes:
Just as a warning, my answer is not a straightforward one. This is not because I’m trying to evade your question, but because there are multiple issues embedded in the question.
Is “this” a coup? Before discussing the semantics of using the term coup, let me start with what I see as the core issue. Is what we’re seeing from Trump tantamount to say, a basketball coach demanding that referees revisit a potentially erroneous call against their player? Or a tennis player disputing an out of bounds call and demanding the chair umpire to revisit the decision? In short, are the current events just an innocuous feature of electoral competition?
The answer is no. What Trump is disputing is not whether the votes were counted properly. Instead, the dispute is over the very idea of him ever losing. Starting with Hilary Clinton, Trump made his dictum clear: If I win, it is despite you cheating and if I lose, it is because you cheated. In this world, the very possibility of an opponent beating Trump simply doesn’t exist. It is erased from the world. Challenging the veracity of the ballots is just an exercise of making that world a reality.
So where is the value in using the word coup? Well, it signals what we are currently witnessing is a deliberate attempt by regime insiders to marshal state resources to unseat the incoming ruler. The specific state resource that is being invoked—e.g., US AG, courts, electoral commissioner, state reps, etc.,—is incidental to the broader project of bringing about the world where Trump prevails in power. No matter what.
If your goal is to raise the alarm about a potential hostile takeover orchestrated from within the regime, then sure, use the word coup (or self-coup). I would caution you from invoking scholarly research, because then, the word coup will take on a more precise meaning that is likely to be at odds with what’s happening here. Nonetheless, more than the term itself, what is crucial is to highlight the common thread, the Trump dictum and the means by which he and his allies try to make it a reality.
Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief and author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq:
What is happening in Washington now cannot be a coup for two reasons. First, it hasn’t happened yet. We may be seeing preparations for a coup, but no action yet. Second, a coup is by definition staged by a person or group that is out of power, as a means of gaining it, so no one in power can stage a classic coup. There is, however, the concept known in Spanish as the “autogolpe,” roughly translated as “self-coup.” This is an action taken by a person who is in power in order to stay there, usually by manipulating or destroying institutions that enforce democratic legality.
When President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, for example, brought Nicaragua’s Supreme Court under his control and then ordered it to rule that the constitutional ban on presidential re-election was invalid, and then used a submissive Supreme Electoral Council to certify his victory in a contested election, that was an “autogolpe.” It’s a two-step process: first you corrupt institutions, then you use those corrupted institutions to extend your stay in power. In an “autogolpe,” the forms of democracy are used to undermine democracy. Americans might want to familiarize themselves with this concept.
John le Carré, author of great spy novels and a former MI5 and MI6 agent, via a publicist:
Many apologies but le Carre isn’t available for the below.
Naunihal Singh, author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups:
I do not think it is a coup attempt, although I do worry that we are seeing an illegitimate attempt to resist the peaceful transfer of power to the winner of the election. What’s the distinction I’m drawing? Who is involved and how they resist. Any coup attempt, especially the bloodless ones, involve either the use of force or its threat by security forces.
What is going on now appears to be something else, a different form of damage to democracy, involving civilian actors. It is starting with damage to democratic norms through the willful denial of the election outcome and the disparagement of its processes. It may continue into a blatantly illegitimate but still legal series of efforts to obstruct the handover. I worry that the GOP may even attempt illegal efforts to have electors in the Electoral College ignore the popular vote.
But all of these remain on the civilian and peaceful side of the spectrum and can be remedied in kind. Courts, protests, pressure. And this is all very important if we are to protect our democracy. But I don’t think it will spill outside that realm.
I also don’t think that the absurd and worrisome last minute replacement of top Pentagon bureaucrats is a precursor to a coup; you don’t mount a coup with bureaucrats. I do worry that it is bad for the institution and may be a sign that the White House is trying to force something through (revelation of Russia information) that the Pentagon has been resisting.
So the TLDR is not a coup, but still bad for democracy.
Dr. Steven Fish, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in democracy and authoritarianism:
You raise a good point—an American-style coup might look different than what has happened in other countries. Indeed, Trump and Senate Republicans have gotten away with all kinds of corrupt power grabs over the past 4 years, but the election changes everything.
I have little doubt that Trump and his acolytes would love to carry out a coup, but the ingredients aren’t all there, at least not yet. You can have all the affidavits and briefcases you want, but without the agencies of coercion (military, CIA, FBI) behind you it would be hard, if not impossible, to stage a successful coup. Trump may install loyalists at the heads of these agencies, but opposition to his machinations is strong and growing among the top-ranking officers, prosecutors, and other officials. Given the Keystone Cops routine we have seen from Trump and his “team” so far, I don’t see that changing.
Republicans, for their part, are continuing their juggling act, trying to placate Trump, not piss off his base, and hold on to the moderate/suburban voters they need to win the Senate runoff elections in Georgia. While they are mostly lining up behind him, it is a lackluster effort at best. They got what they needed out of Trump’s presidency—it appears they are now ready to see the back of him—they just can’t say the quiet part out loud.
All that said, this is a deeply disturbing and dangerous turn that violates democracy everywhere, on every level. On the one hand, Trump’s grandiose plans notwithstanding, we can characterize this move as an embarrassing exercise in denial and a desperate attempt to keep the MAGA adulation—and donations—flowing. It also will allow Trump to selectively declassify whatever information he wants to try to discredit the Russia investigation and Obama once and for all—something Barr failed to do before the election.
But some are speculating, with good reason I think, that Trump wants to control ( “cover-up”) whatever information the agencies have on him. On an even darker note, security experts are openly concerned that Trump, an easily manipulated, angry man with a lot of debt and suspect connections to antagonistic foreign governments, is making it easier to access—without interference—America’s most sensitive (and valuable) national security information. Trump does not need a “coup” to make all this happen, and as you point out, the term may confuse the issue and make it harder to respond effectively.
One more thought that may go beyond your original question but I think offers a bit of context…
For all the time we spend trying to figure out what Trump is up to, the truth is that he’s probably not all that clear on it himself. He’s not big on strategy— he acts/reacts based on the obsession/grievance of the moment. More importantly, when he’s knocked down, Trump’s go-to move is to hit back as hard as he can, to push every button and cross every line, whatever it takes to throw opponents off balance and emerge a winner from the ensuing chaos. That is where we find ourselves now.
That said, all his efforts to overturn the election will likely fail, and there are signs that he knows this, but even if he’s not able to hold on to the presidency, the threats/turmoil may yet allow him to come out “on top.” I mentioned some of the possible “wins” for Trump in my earlier message, but his aggressive attacks, and the resulting tumult, also seem to be bringing some wavering Republicans back in line and consolidating his control of the Republican party. This is no small thing. It would offer him a seat of power beyond 2020 and position him (or one of his kids) for 2024. It will also provide an ongoing source of money—and perhaps even some protection from investigations.
That’s about as strategic as Trump gets. I guess you could say that at least this offers him an offramp, so to speak, a face-saving reason to leave (without having to concede) but the damage he’s inflicting is incalculable.
Lt. Col. Oliver North, the guy who trafficked arms to Iran in the 1980s and used the proceeds to support the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua (while also facilitating the Contras’ trafficking of cocaine into the United States):
Henri Barkey, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, whom Turkey falsely accused of helping plan a failed 2016 coup:
Having lived through a number of coups and accused of organizing one, this is not a coup. That is to say, Trump may want to have one along with some of those surrounding him, but he lacks the institutional backing to execute it. Are there folks out in society that would back him, of course. They would justify it on the grounds that the Dems cheated. Still, even most die-hard supporters in the Senate would not go that far because it is an unpredictable path; not only would they probably not succeed but the price they would pay and the Republican Party would be enormous if incalculable.
This does not mean that Trump will not push every single button he can. Pull troops out to create a conflict w/Biden and the establishment, he may even engage in military action, but nothing will help him to succeed.
To have a successful coup, the institutions of a state—not the individuals—have to have been weakened or corrupted. Institutions have been under attack in the US but they have yet to buckle. Individuals is another matter. I am sure you can find a spattering of Congress folks or Senators approving an overturn of the election results.
The most he can do is claim he won, never accept the loss and still go back to civilian life and conduct a guerrilla war through Twitter in an effort to return in 2024.
Dr. Michael Coppedge, a professor and political scientist at Notre Dame who has studied democracy in Latin America:
I don’t consider this a coup. You could call it an “attempted presidential coup”—an attempt by an elected president to govern in a way that violates the rules of democracy. However, at this writing I do not believe it will be a successful attempt. It is indeed dismaying, even scary, that so many top Republican legislators are humoring Trump about election fraud. This will make it harder for many Trump voters to accept the real election outcome, and it increases the risk of political violence. I am also concerned about unwise and dangerous decisions Trump may make in the next two months. However, I expect that by January 20, practically all national and state Republican leaders will accept Biden’s victory and civil servants will ensure a transition. Fraud cases will not be taken seriously by this Supreme Court even if they make it that far.
Dr. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, who continues to haunt the American political landscape like some boneless ghoul:
Dr. Manisha Sinha, a historian of the Civil War and abolition:
Trump’s refusal to concede in the recent presidential election enabled by the Republican Party leadership does feel like a slow-moving coup. The question is whether our institutions and electoral process are strong enough to withstand this assault on democracy. Make no mistake, if Republicans in Washington DC think they can get away with it, they would support Trump in an all-out coup as they have done before through allegations of treason and corruption.
The only way this can be prevented is a united democratic front that puts up a strong resistance to the frivolous legal challenges and the more ominous inciting of the unhinged elements within the GOP by Trump and his thugs in government. Most Americans, including Trump’s voters, have accepted the outcome, a Biden Harris victory. I suspect Trump will leave office like he came to it, gracelessly and without any decency. The larger question will be how to defeat the authoritarian, anti-democratic GOP, which after all is the other major party in a two-party system.
The last time a political party supported an antidemocratic, proslavery coup was after Lincoln’s election in 1860, with the honorable exception of the War Democrats, the nineteenth century version of the Lincoln Project. It was a long haul before the Democratic Party reinvented itself from the party of slavery and white supremacy into a progressive political party. I suspect the Republican Party today that denies all facts and reality and bears a distant relationship to the truth will be incapable of doing that and will continue to pose an existential threat to American democracy for the foreseeable future.
The Organization of American States, which helped legitimate the 2019 Bolivian coup that ousted President Evo Morales:
Dr. Asef Bayat, a sociologist who has studied Arab revolutions:
I cannot find any other word to describe what is unfolding except a “coup attempt.” Certainly, it looks like it—what we have seen around the world. My only counterargument is this—precisely because it is so similar to a coup, it might not actually be one in essence. I mean, it may have the appearance of a coup but the intent might be different. How? That the guy cannot see that he has lost; wants to say to his base that I really did not lose but the Democrats stole it. And Republicans go with it, because they are afraid of him and especially because they want to keep his support base for 2022 and 2024.
Dr. Laura Seay, a political scientist who has studied the Democratic Republic of Congo:
I don’t think this is a coup or an autogolpe, at least not yet. For it to be a standard coup d’état, we would have to see Trump mobilizing the military or a police force to do his bidding. We don’t see any indication of that yet, even with the changes to civilian leadership at DOD. I think it’s highly unlikely this would happen, given that most if not all of the general officers would be very hesitant to carry out an illegal order even if it came directly from the SecDef or the President. Even if it did, we don’t have evidence that the rank and file troops would be willing to go along with it. In looking at what we know about military voting so far, Trump seems to be pretty unpopular among the armed forces, likely because he’s spent so much time bashing them.
An autogolpe attempt is more likely, but I don’t see that happening yet, either. For an autogolpe, the president needs to use the weight of the government and its institutions to prevent Biden from taking office. He would have to render Congress fully under his control or irrelevant. It’s hard to see Pelosi and the Senate Democrats agreeing to any such arrangement. He would also have to stop John Roberts from administering the oath of office, get the Secret Service to not forcibly remove him from the White House, and convince the CIA and DOJ rank and file (including at the FBI) to do his bidding. It’s not completely outside the realm of possibility, and I have no doubt Trump will try more shenanigans as he gets more desperate, but he would need a lot more people to go along with him than just his appointees to even mount an autogolpe attempt, much less be successful at pulling one off. Given how much most civil servants seem to loathe him, I don’t see him being able to raise that level of support. And of course we have to add to that that the minute he tries anything, the streets would fill with protesters.
What Trump is doing right now is the opposite of autogolpe-esque behavior. He’s been going through the courts to dispute election results, which is legal and proper. He is losing there, which is also legal and proper given the lack of evidence for his claims. I am far more worried about his attempts to delegitimize the election, which are unlikely to keep him in office but could very easily mobilize some of his supporters to engage in violence. They’re living in an information environment that in no way prepared them for Trump to lose and are likely not to know anyone who voted for Biden, so of course they think Biden’s win is fraud. How we stop that violence is of much greater concern to me at the moment.
Chris Mullin, the Labour politician and journalist who authored the novel A Very British Coup:
Much as I enjoy a good conspiracy, I don’t see any sign of a coup underway. Not that Trump wouldn’t try, if he could get away with it, but US institutions seem robust enough to prevent it. Coups are for other countries (Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Chile, Cambodia…) not home soil. This is not to say that there are not other problems: the founding fathers seem to have bequeathed a nearly dysfunctional political system—not to mention guns. One in which winning the popular vote by three or four million is no guarantee of victory and a Senate that is barely functioning—I read somewhere that the Republicans need around 40 million less votes than Democrats to control the Senate. Is that true? Boy, you’ve got a problem. Also, not a good idea to allow supreme court justices to soldier on into their dotage. Our top judges are obliged to stand down at 75. There’s a similar rule for the College of Cardinals. Time the US caught up.
Charles Koch, planet-killing tycoon who underwrote minority rule in America but now feels sorta bad about it: