Quincy, Ca. (Special to Informed Comment) –
During the Presidential campaign, some very respectable voices expressed concern that the current administration might be planning a coup against the Constitution. Now hope of peace prevails even though intransigence at the top and a closing window of opportunity should, logically, intensify concerns. Is the threat of a coup just another rhetorical ploy, or is there meaningful evidence of danger?
The question is urgent because of a generally overlooked wrinkle in recent events. Mr. Trump has moved personal loyalists into many senior positions and, oddly, continues to do so after the election. He fired his Defense Secretary and, less noticed, fired the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. It is not every week that two officials with major oversight of the nuclear arsenal are replaced. In context with his refusal to recognize any election he does not win, should we be alarmed?
The test is not whether we could obtain a conviction in a court of law, and the answer cannot leap from one’s opinion of the particular leader. The question is, “Do the facts show the risk at such a level that strengthening countermeasures is justified?” The answer should come from comparing the situation to known patterns of coups, and reasonable judgment of the situation.
The basic book on the subject is Edward Luttwak’s (now somewhat dated) Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook. Much of that slim volume does not apply, since it is meant to cover a large range of countries, and especially those most prone to coups. In the broadest terms, fully developed countries are unlikely targets, but Luttwak deems them vulnerable when there is: 1) an economic crisis with prolonged unemployment; 2) a long, unsuccessful war; 3) chronic instability in a multi-party system. He cites France in 1958 as an example. The US fits the first two, not all three.
On the other hand (and, again, broadly), Luttwak is primarily speaking of what might be called replacement coups against the existing leadership, rather than “autocoups.” In the latter, leaders already in charge of a country overthrow the basis of their legitimate authority in order to keep control. Such positioning is a major advantage. The project depends upon overthrowing the norms of government, but from within its structures. Examples include France in 1851, Russia in 1993, and Venezuela in 2017. Further, whether achieved by confrontation or by slow maneuver, overthrowing democracy to install a dictatorship in democratic trappings is now the rising global trend. The Philippines, Turkey, and (most prominently) Russia all fit this description.
As to the finer details, Luttwak holds that the most important preparation is to subvert some (usually small) element of the forces of order, and do so well in advance. Military or paramilitary units are eligible. Police are seen as not reliable, since they are too deeply connected to society, making them liable to refuse participation, or reveal the plot.
With time, though, a police agency can be retooled as paramilitary and segregated from social bonds and norms. Militarization of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the largest police force in the country, over the course of recent years seems to match this prescription. Their union endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016 on the grounds that he was the only candidate opposed to an “establishment” that had “betrayed the country,” already advertising disloyalty. Since then, they have been repeatedly tested for willingness to break American norms in their treatment of families, redeployment for crowd control, and attempts at anonymous detentions.
The military itself has been given illegal orders on several publicly known occasions. It has consistently refused to obey them. In November of 2018, Mr. Trump sent federal troops to stand on the Mexican border, predicting an invasion and threatening deadly force. Obedient to the Posse Comitatus Act, Defense Secretary (and former Marine general) James Mattis announced that the troops would only be supportive of law enforcement, would not be armed, and would not undertake law enforcement duties.
Later, when tensions were high with Iran, Mr. Trump went out of his way to threaten bombing of cultural sites, which would have required the military to obey him in committing a war crime. The military announced it would not be attacking cultural sites. Earlier this year, Mr. Trump had the 82nd Airborne mobilized to intervene in Washington, DC crowd control. Defense Secretary Mark Esper (former paratrooper with a PhD) blocked the confrontation, publicly denying that there were grounds for invoking the Insurrection Act.
Efforts to trade out the norms of national service for standards of political loyalty have also shown little progress. Denigrating Gold Star families and war hero John McCain have not won widespread support. Pardoning convicted war criminals has not faired much better.
According to Luttwak’s formula, this means the US military would have to be “neutralized” which, in his use of the word, just means that they must be put in such a position that they hesitate to oppose a coup until it is too late. One way to do this is to hobble or confuse the authority of key positions in the hierarchy. Here there is a plausible fit. The replacement of Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense violated the law in two ways. The appointment of the current Department of Homeland Security head has been declared illegal in a court of law, and significant decision and actions invalidated. The positions of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and also for Intelligence are both in similar condition, with political loyalists in “acting” or “performing the duties of” status.
As to intelligence operations, Luttwak expects coup makers must be largely defensive. Even if partially discovered, government security will hesitate to act until it can discover an entire plot, so each potential participant must be given only limited knowledge of the plan and its adherents. However, he regards it as an especially fortunate opportunity if one can infiltrate an intelligence agency. Obviously, this is a major difference between replacement coups and autocoups, which can appoint sympathetic or passive leadership of the agencies from above. After the Russia scandal, the administration purged the national intelligence and policy apparatus, often replacing experts with political loyalists.
At this point, it must be said that the empirical signs of coup preparations are significant, not overwhelming. But politics is not like physical science. When a list of characteristics is partially satisfied in physical sciences, one proposes a new study or runs an experiment. Politics requires judgments be made and explicitly identified as such, because we need to reach some useful conclusions before the actual test comes. Two judgments are relevant. First, is there sufficient motive and capacity for an autocoup attempt despite the questionable odds? Second, is there any mechanism that might improve the odds?
No need to psychologize the President about motivation. Mr. Trump certainly has motive for staying in office, because his immunity from prosecution expires when he leaves and he can expect to face criminal and civil charges. The strength of the case against him is seen in the sentencing memo for his former attorney, Michael Cohen, in which a co-conspirator is identified as, “Individual-1, who at that point had become the President of the United States.” A President can pardon others for federal offenses, but pardoning himself is unlikely to be upheld. He has no power over charges under state laws, and state investigations are well under way.
Notice how this alters the significance of the 2024 presidential race. If Mr. Trump could not run, his accusers might well decide to spare the country the pain of seeing a former President in the dock. Plaintiffs with cases against him might write off their losses, and prosecutorial discretion might favor dropping criminal cases. But Mr. Trump can run again. Those with a case to make against him face the prospect of allowing various statutes of limitation to lapse, then standing by, helpless and complicit by sin of omission. Mr. Trump cannot bank on mercy
Aside from motivation, one can question Mr. Trump’s personal capacity for such a program. By all accounts, he truly is as mercurial a person as he appears to be. His strengths are his audacity, deft operation of celebrity, and self-confidence. But there is some merit in the opposing view that he also has learned to use his erratic inclinations to advantage. Reinhart Bendix once observed, in his classic Kings or People, “Arbitrariness is an instrument of rule, for it provides the ruler with an effective test of instant obedience by large numbers of subordinates, even if it fails to accomplish any other end.” Through this mechanism, Mr. Trump has repeatedly found, and bound to himself, more long-range thinkers who are competent in navigating systems and people. Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, Steven Miller, Steve Bannon, and William Barr are past and current examples.
Hypothetically, there could still be inhibitions against damaging the institutions of democracy. Given the administration’s willingness to damage basic mechanisms like the Census Bureau and the Postal Service, such hesitation is not a factor of input here.
Still, the overall likelihood of success for a takeover should be inhibiting. The military remains loyal to the constitution and now has extensive practice adhering to the law despite illegal orders. There is no sign of significant corruption in the Secret Service, which has statutory duties the President cannot override. Congressional Republicans have shown they are still keen enough on patriotism to punish Russia despite the President’s wishes. Partisanship in the country has not altered the dedication of Republican election officials and Republican appointed judges to upholding the law and the spirit of democracy.
Given these circumstances, available countermeasures to an autocoup seem adequate. In a sufficiently urgent emergency, the Secret Service could, for instance, declare the CBP a threat and get military backup in a showdown. If Congress chose to suspend rules and expedite procedures, it could probably impeach and remove a President in half a day. Because these countermeasures are clear, known, and likely to be effective, and because the relevant institutions still have legitimacy in the eyes of the public, the wise plotter would not try it in the first place. Of course, Mr. Trump constantly gives signs of over confidence, but that is a weak basis for expecting dramatic misbehavior in the face of likely defeat.
So, now, is there any tool or device that could change the probability of success in the face of such impressive counterweights? Historically, the most effective means to sweep away moderate resistance and loyalty is a well-timed atrocity. Luttwak recommends refraining from cracking down on extremist opponents after a coup, counting on their violence to justify cracking down on everyone else. But exploiting an outrage as a play to gain power in the first place is a standard device in the history of authoritarianism and political violence.
Mr. Putin’s rise above the nascent post-Soviet system can be dated from the siege and disaster at Beslan. Ferdinand Marcos used the Plaza Miranda bombing of an opposition party as an excuse to start the march to martial law in the Philippines. Such events are so useful that they are sometimes undertaken as “false flag” provocations, as when Italian right wing forces bombed rail transit and then masqueraded as leftists when they claimed responsibility. For that matter, anti-government revolutionaries also like the tactic of provoking atrocities. Regis Debray and Carlos Marighella advocated terrorism on grounds that the government backlash could be exploited politically.
While it is possible to provoke Iran, North Korea, or street protesters to provide an excuse, the novel factor here is that Mr. Trump is in a position to raise fear at a nuclear level. This leads back to the illegal appointments of Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security. He also fired the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and eliminated that agency’s independent status. Even if all these new appointees are honest and loyal, they have only just arrived in their posts, and their tenure in them is uncommonly fragile and tentative. Their first instinct will be to believe and support, creating a shade of plausibility that could lead others to hesitate in the required manner.
Presidents do not actually need the upper hierarchy to launch on preset targets, though retargeting or use of tactical nuclear strikes is more involved. But the political usefulness of any violent outrage is not dependent upon the actual level of damage. Even a complete fabrication might work. What matters is the credibility of the accusation, and who can plausibly be blamed. Marcos was able to use the Plaza Miranda bombing to crackdown on the very party that had been attacked. But decades later, when he had opposition leader Benigno Aquino assassinated, no one believed that anyone but Marcos was responsible.
While the case for a coup is not conclusive, the risks are now too towering to ignore. And that is why this “connect the dots,” speculative essay is worth writing and worth reading at this moment – before the planes hit the buildings, as it were. Exploiting outrages depends on credibility, autocoups depend upon hesitation of a system to insist upon its own survival, and Donald Trump depends upon repeatedly leaping two outrages beyond what anyone expected.
Not this time. We have seen it too many times now. By reading this, you are prepared to evaluate an act of terrorism, a nuclear lie, or even a nuclear crime, and understand who the criminal must be, if such a thing comes to pass. Your understanding is our defense.
Bonus video added by Informed Comment: