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the presidency

If All Else Fails, a Coup?

We are in the period of greatest unease, the 77 day interregnum between the election and inauguration with a defeated Donald Trump still president. Of one so beset by narcissism that he cannot tolerate losing, one who seeks vengeance for very slight, it was feared that he would lash out with acts of destruction that would throw the country into chaos and endanger the nation's security. Trump is on course to do exactly that.

Our companion article covers his attempt to use lawsuits and the courts to hold onto power by reversing president-elect Biden's victory. In parallel he is working his way through his enemies list in a campaign to seek retribution against anyone who has crossed him or intimated disloyalty.

First to go after the election was Mark Esper, secretary of defense, fired by tweet by a president not man enough to fire in person. After positioning military units should they be needed in D.C.'s Lafayette Park against protesters, he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley walked to the church for the president's photo-op, but both did an about face a few days later, Milley saying, “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics”. There's speculation that Milley would soon be let go. "Milley has run afoul of a faction of top Trump aides who are purging officials all over the government", said a Washington Post opinion column. CIA Director Gina Haspel might be cashiered as well for having obstructed Trump's wishes to have top-secret materials declassified that he believes would reveal wrongdoings in the Russia investigation.

Four senior civilian officials overseeing policy and intelligence at the Defense Department were fired or resigned. Trump's National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, is orchestrating a mission to remove the entire top leadership there and replace it with Trump loyalists. Replacing Esper as (acting) defense secretary is Christopher Miller, a former Special Forces officer seen as loyal to the president. Retired Army General Anthony Tata, a frequent Fox News guest known for anti-Muslim sentiments, replaced the Pentagon's top policy chief, James Anderson, who was forced out. Retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor has been hired as a senior adviser to Miller.

The question is, what's going on? Trump may be replacing the top leadership with those who will offer no resistance to his removing all troops from Afghanistan by year-end (an impossible logistical task on such short notice, by the way, except by leaving the Taliban all our weaponry and equipment, but didn't we once make that mistake?). That would be to satisfy a promise to his base not yet kept. Miller has been a critic of the Afghanistan war and in a 2019 interview with Fox News' Tucker Carlson, Macgregor said he would advise the president to get out of Afghanistan "as soon as possible". But Trump is commander in chief of all the military. He doesn't need to shuffle Pentagon leadership to give the order to pull out of Afghanistan. A number of voices have raised concerns that something altogether different is afoot.

trump before country

What if Electoral College members in enough states dutifully adhere to the votes of their people to verify Joe Biden as the new president. What if for that reason the election is not thrown to the House of Representatives to decide according to the 12 th Amendment. What if no court cases pass muster to be accepted for review by the Supreme Court?

The worry is that this is a president who has shown no concern for this democracy, who knows that millions are behind him, who will stop at nothing. Those shifts at the Pentagon. Is he stocking the leadership with people who think the Biden election is illegitimate and think a coup will save the country, keeping Trump as president for another four years? Consider the auguries:

Less than a handful of Republicans in Congress have spoken out to urge the president to end the lawsuits and accept the verdict of the people, starting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said about how states conduct the election, "we have to adapt to how states choose to do it", virtually an invitation to tamper with certification. In support of the president's actions, he said it's, "OK to complain about a particular system if you don’t like it". Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, whose committee labored to find dirt on the Bidens, says congratulations to Biden are premature

Why is Mike Pompeo and his wife off to seven countries in Europe and the Middle East (and at significant taxpayer expense). Still not acknowledging that Trump had lost, off he went to countries whose leaders had already congratulated Biden. What business would a lame duck secretary of state be able to conduct unless he thought he would be staying on? Is he secretly briefing our allies about a January surprise if all other of Trump's schemes fail? Is that far-fetched? Didn't he say after election results were clear that "there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”?

Timothy Snyder is a Yale professor of history and author of the often-quoted book, of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”. He knows what to look for. In an op-ed in The Boston Globe he cited further indicators, chief among them that a claim that an election is illegitimate is the standard self-justification of a dictator for taking action to remain in power. And here we have a president who lost an election saying instead that he won "by a lot" if we don't count the "illegal" votes that stole the election. He has been shouting in all-caps tweets for months to persuade his followers that the election would be "rigged". Snyder writes,

" The more you care about suppressing votes, the less you care about what voters want. And the less you care about voters want, the closer you move to authoritarianism."

The General Services Administration must certify that Joe Biden has won the election to make it the law of the land. The GSA chief, Emily Murphy, has refused to sign off, depriving the Biden team of funds for the transition. Trump has told all agencies not to cooperate with the transition. Is that according to a plan that there won't be one?

We'll know that when and if the GSA does sign off. If after that Trump continues his order not to cooperate, every senior official will have to choose between following the law or the president.

The time is propitious for a coup. Dr. Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Salon that "economics always contributes to the attempt to make a coup". We have an economy of pronounced inequality where the wealthy grow richer money while the lower income groups had until only recently made no headway for decades, then an economy struck low by a pandemic with job losses in the millions. This in a society split into two huge factions of fellow Americans who cannot tolerate each other's politics and cannot even agree on what is true. One recent survey showed that half of the country is dissatisfied with our political system.

Esber was fired because he resisted using the military against civilians. He would have been in the way of Trump calling upon what he has more than once called "my military". Trump has said, "I have the support of the police, the support of the military", as part of a boast of having the "toughest people" on his side who "don't play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad". That is Trump's mindset. The nation is in a state of turmoil and Trump may still be thinking, "Only I can fix it".

2 Comments for “If All Else Fails, a Coup?”

  1. I think if senior Senate Republicans don’t move to delegitimize Trump in the next couple of weeks, an attempt will be made to effect a coup, on or before Jan. 20. This will require martial law, ignite widespread violence and property destruction, and require a comprehensive national strike to end it. If no coup is staged, we are still facing political gridlock and societal schism on an unprecedented scale.

  2. Tony White

    Whew, that is frightening! I noted the similarities between Europe in the 1930s and the US today, but Trump’s recent appointments and purges and his conduct suggest that he will do anything to reverse the election and stay in power. Unfortunately, he has all the characteristics of a fascist personality and lacks respect for constitutional norms or our democracy.

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