Is there any doubt that if Donald Trump had won the US election, sweeping all 50 states in a landslide, he would still have decried foul play? For half a century, the president’s reflex in the demi-monde of New York real estate has been to fire lawsuits first and ask questions never. “I’m like a PhD in litigation,” he assured the Republican faithful in 2016. His tactic has been to unfurl an infinite regress of legal entanglements that exhausts opponents, clogs legal channels, and muddles any defeat in a haze of uncertainty.
But regardless of the results of the 2020 election, it was unclear whether either the Republicans or Democrats would concede. “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances,” said Hillary Clinton, in a pointedly anti-democratic tirade, three months before the vote took place. In the run-up to 3 November, Steve Bannon likewise implored Trump to rev up the “narrative engine” of imminent victory. The rhetorical arms race has now reached a new stage, with elements on both sides accusing the other of enacting a coup d’état.
“A coup is under way,” writes the Yale historian Timothy Snyder, a leading tribune of the liberal Resistance, “and the number of participants is not shrinking but growing.” Meanwhile, on the right, the former talk-show host Geraldo Rivera has enriched the lexicons of political science with the concept of the “low-energy coup”.
The resort to such extreme vocabulary by the right is hardly novel. But that the US’s liberals such as Snyder, the journalist Anne Applebaum and the economist Robert Reich cannot stop themselves from speaking of coups suggests more is at stake than another lap on the Resistance merry-go-round. Some fresh haemorrhaging of political realism has happened that demands closer inspection before it is stanched with bromides about American decency prevailing over Trumpian evil.
Those who have argued that Trump is mounting a coup present themselves as the guardians of American exceptionalism. One of the mainstays of this exceptionalism is that, since its first contested election in 1796, the US has been blessed with the peaceful transfer of power, while the rest of the world, mired in civil wars and corruption, has looked on with awe and envy. To elevate Trump’s desperate antics to the level of a “coup d’état” reprises the presentation of him as the Kremlin’s puppet: the idea is that Trump is an un-American interloper, who threatens to reduce the US to the status of a banana republic where democratic dysfunction is the norm.
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Once this coup is put down, and Biden occupies the White House, so the Resistance logic goes, Americans can get on with the sublime business of being Americans. The curious irony with this view is that precisely by exaggerating the prospects of a Trumpist coup, while savouring its actual logistical hurdles, these would-be defenders of American exceptionalism have shown themselves to be willing to dispense with it. The more they run up the language of a mastermind plot to overthrow US democratic institutions – rather than cordon off Trump’s attempt to rebrand himself as a political martyr – the more liberal commentators make the US appear as a democratically challenged polity, a larger version of Thailand or North Korea, where everyone knows elections are carnivals of subterfuge.
The liberal confusion about whether to stick with this American-exceptionalism-in-peril story has made reading US newspapers a disorientating experience: in one column, news reports about Biden serenely assembling his cabinet; across the page, breathless analyses of Trump’s coup-in-progress, as if he were plotting in the White House situation room with pliant four star generals rather than having dead-end meetings with mid-level Michigan lawmakers.
More telling than Trump’s tactics has been the fealty of Republican leaders who fear an outraged tweet from the president as much as establishment liberal lawmakers dread being out woked by their younger colleagues. Mitch McConnell has apparently wagered that electoralism, which has served for two centuries as one of the most valuable planks of legitimacy for bourgeois states across the West, can withstand his party’s routine chicanery.
There are three basic definitions of a coup d’état. Each of them encompasses a radical breach in any democratic fabric. The narrowest definition is the most familiar: the stealth takeover of the state by a small, well-organised clique that presents its usurpation as a fait accompli before the previous regime can mount any defence.
The last example of this in Europe was the successful putsch by a group of far- right Greek colonels ahead of democratic elections in 1967, while perhaps the most dramatic postwar example was General Suharto’s overnight seizure of power in Jakarta in 1965. The phenomenon of the stealth military coup was meticulously analysed in Edward Luttwak’s 1968 classic “Handbook”, a pastiche of a military manual in which the author memorably catalogued the types of radio communiqué available to successful putschists: the Romantic/Lyrical, the Messianic, the Unprepared.
[see also: Leader: The last days of Trump]
The second type of coup is the juridical coup d’état, where through legal channels a group or leader is able to outmanoeuvre a democratic verdict. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Bush vs Gore election in 2000, in which an unelected judiciary determined the outcome of a contested Florida vote tally, approaches this definition. But the closer fit would be the legal plot in 2015 against the then Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, who was swiftly impeached by a group of corrupt government officials who feared their own exposure.
Finally, there is the more recondite, expansive conception of coup put forth by the French polymath Gabriel Naudé in the 17th century: the coup as the surreptitious founding of a new order, seemingly ex nihilo, without the consultation of any public. For Naudé, a coup did not necessarily involve the dispossession of a previous regime, but rather the sudden suspension of all norms and laws, in order to revise the basis of political rule. Naudé gave the examples of the founding of Islam in the seventh century, and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.
The only American instance in recent years that could plausibly meet Naudé’s criteria would be chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker’s “shock”, an anti-democratic measure, taken suddenly and more or less by stealth in 1980, which inaugurated a new economic order that effectively inverted the Keynesian status quo with regard to unemployment and inflation.
Faced with Trump in his presidential twilight, US liberals have mostly confined themselves to the first two definitions – the stealth and the juridical. As for the first, Snyder’s vision of the country accelerating “towards violence” and the wider sense that Trump’s recent mass firing of Pentagon officials heralds the makings of an actual military coup d’état, does not pass muster.
The US military establishment, not to mention the intelligence services, is in stubborn opposition to Trump, thwarting him at every stretch in his last-minute attempt to draw down troops from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. (Most recently, James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, has admitted, to the cheers of the Beltway establishment, that he systematically misled the president about US troop numbers in Syria).
Nearly the entire US mediasphere is also in opposition to Trump, seeing fit to cut away from his live speeches on television, in gimmicky displays of responsibility. Even Fox News has experienced a mini-legitimacy crisis since the election, with segments of the organisation turning on the president.
The juridical coup d’état at first seems more plausible. It would make sense for Trump to turn to the most reactionary US institutions – the courts – to do his bidding. But as the constitutional expert Jack Goldsmith has laid out, the legal attempt to overturn a series of certified state elections indicates naivete more than cunning. The judiciary will not sacrifice its own legitimacy in the service of a hopeless rescue mission.
The more reasonable worry of US liberals is that Trump will remain in view as a “pretender president”. But this is more of a problem for the Republican Party. Rather than a split-off sectarian, Trump is a parasitical creature, who unifies much of his Republican host, and who will reside as long as possible inside it.
Trump is too weak to take the presidency, but still too strong to be rivalled in the leadership of the party. There are any number of seemingly more competent and ruthless young Republicans to take his place, such as Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley. But their faux-dignity and young-fogey bearing may only take them so far: it cannot be underestimated how much Trump’s celebrity and wounded amour propre were what made him so popular in the first place.
In the future it should be possible to better appreciate the symbiosis of Trump and the Weimar-crying liberals, whose mutual antagonism boosted ratings on both sides. The evolution of a figure like Timothy Snyder is instructive: first he warned that Trump would lead directly to fascism, then his alarmism peaked with his campaign to protect the magic of Christmas from the president, then he entered an epiphanic patch, when after having sepsis of the liver he wrote poignantly in the New Statesman about the need to reimagine US healthcare, and now, finally, he reverts to the original posture: Trump as a putsch-plotting fascist.
The trouble with Trump – his one basic consistency – is that he disappoints all who either feared or welcomed him as a threat to the US establishment and its elites. Rather than expose liberal weakness, he has produced the opposite: a show of liberal power, soaked in righteousness, along with a welcome distraction from having to think what a Biden administration actually means, as the Resistance makes way for Restoration.
[see also: The struggle for America’s soul]
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump