Author’s note: I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on extra-legal campaigns to usurp power, but neither am I a completely unqualified bar stool-patriot here to mansplain tyranny. I am a retired 35-D. That would be an Army Intelligence officer, for those who are unfamiliar with the designator. That required many long days studying Counter Insurgency (COIN) doctrine, coups, insurrections, revolutions, and uprisings. I taught a university course on foreign policy, and I have also lived and worked in many countries where, shall we say, less-than-peaceful transfers of power were the norm. The United States is currently undergoing a direct challenge to its system of governance, and though the crisis is not yet fully resolved, a historical analysis is warranted.
Any campaign to take or hold power over a government has the same objectives: a monopoly on the use of force, physical control over key infrastructure, international recognition, and legitimacy. In a free and fair election, or uncontested succession, those four objectives can be met automatically. When a political faction decides to pursue extra-legal means to seize power, they must give attention to these areas, and their eventual success or failure depends on how well they do in each. Failure in any area presents its own unique, and potentially fatal, challenge to the party seeking power. Without control of the use of force in society, the insurgents can be arrested or killed by those who do have that power. Without key infrastructure, opposition forces can more easily resist, and a counter-narrative can be disseminated. Without legitimacy, resistance to the coup will persist and the usurping government will be unable to perform the functions of government e.g. collecting taxes, funding the military, providing services. Without international recognition, foreign invasion becomes all the more likely, whether due to concerns about legitimate government, stability, or merely opportunity, when a government is already disorganized and weak.
First, control of the use of force in society. Typically, this means the military and the national security forces. The difficulty of this task increases immeasurably with the size and complexity of the forces. Obviously, one general in a small island nation with no large state police force or navy is a lot easier to corrupt than a country with hundreds of millions of citizens, many branches of service, and rival bases of power. Direct control of a sizable component is preferable, although a small component combined with neutrality from the larger forces can also be sufficient. If the military and security forces of the government remain neutral, militia groups, mercenaries, or even armed mobs can be used to secure the monopoly on violence needed to reach this objective.
Second, physical control of key infrastructure. Here, we mean traditional infrastructure, mass transit, rail hubs, airports, ports, borders and bridges, as well as the power grid, the water supply, government ministries, the internet and the media. If an insurrection can halt both internal and international movement of the population, resistance is much less likely to reach a sufficient mass. Supplies, weapons, and information can not be shared. Opposition can not regroup in a nearby foreign country only to return. Control of the internet and the media, or least a complete shutdown, deprives the government of the ability to coordinate a response, or of the world at large to understand the situation and perhaps intervene.
Third, the most abstract objective, legitimacy. This objective is in the realm where political party backing is essential. All but the most-fringe political parties come with a supportive constituency, personnel familiar with the bureaucracy required by large organizations, and a media arm. Any faction or organization seizing power invariably claims one of three things: A. We are the rightful rulers here by law, (See France, 1789) B. We are the rightful rulers here by earlier law that has been subverted by the former rulers and we are simply restoring the old ways, (See Putin, Vladimir) or C. We are here by virtue of superior force and are justified in our actions by your many misdeeds and will now give you a new government (See U.S. and Germany/Japan circa 1945)
Once a coup decides on a legitimizing story, they must sell it, first to the country they are trying to seize, then to the rest of the world. This must include strong arguments both for why the old regime was illegitimate as well as why the current transition had to be unusual, even violent. Reassurances must be continual that the new government is firmly in control and that governmental services will not be interrupted. Reassurances will take the form of whatever is locally necessary. If the country has a long history of democracy, the reassurances will be that democracy has prevailed. If the country was once militarily dominant in the area, the message will be that the old regime was weak and that the strong days of martial glory are back. Identifying aggrieved segments of the population and exploiting those grievances is an essential tool in generating legitimacy.
Finally, the international community must be given heed. The uniform decision of Europe after the French Revolution was to declare war on France. The Confederacy’s best chance for success in the American Civil war would have been European recognition and aid. The Iranian Revolution led directly to the Iran Iraq war. Assets are held in foreign banks. Foreign governments can fund rebel armies for decades, or they can supply aid and recognition for an instant boost to legitimacy.
So how does the Trumpian Coup measure up, historically? First, a few caveats. Unlike many historical examples, President Trump was already in power and was seeking to hold on to it. This led to an ever-changing objective and a disastrous lack of focus that we will address later. Second, the United States as the world’s oldest democracy with one of the most diverse populations and largest military, is the extreme example in most of these categories. There is simply nothing analogous between trying to control the Praetorian Guard in ancient Rome and, say, the USAF Strategic Air Command with the power to end all life on earth.
To the first objective then, the United States military made it clear throughout President Trump’s term that they would not be a part of dismantling American democracy. Trump never served in the military and had no long-standing base of support within it. He was openly critical of the high command, and although sentiment of the rank and file is notoriously difficult to assess, by design, it does appear that numerous comments about POW’s like John McCain, Gold Star families, immigrant and trans soldiers, and military sacrifice in general, whether true or not, built a higher-than-average resistance to the Commander in Chief within the armed forces.
Mr. Trump also had an antagonistic relationship with both the intelligence community and the FBI. The FBI, in particular, was frequently accused of being a part of the “Deep State” conspiracy against the President, and the agency’s unwillingness to investigate personal grudges for the President earned his criticism repeatedly. Military advisors who were privy to some of the President’s questionable conduct, such as private discussions with Russian President for Life Putin, or the extortion scheme against the President of Ukraine, spoke out and cooperated with government investigations.
It seems clear that the Armed Forces were not overtly or wildly supportive of the President, and, in fact, current and past leadership, both military and civilian, stated that they would not be a part of any extra-legal election maneuvering. As stated above however, neutrality can be sufficient if other objectives are met.
Some members of the police, ICE, the Department of Justice, and the Secret Service showed a willingness to participate in the President’s more unusual plans. The mass movements in some parts of the country such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, immigration reform, or efforts to “Defund the Police” were taken as threatening in many conservative areas and were used by Republican politicians to both increase the government response against those groups and to justify the actions of any counter-groups.
Additionally, citizen-members of militias and gun-rights groups were among those most supportive of the President. Again, a coup does not require unanimous support of every person with a weapon in order to succeed, just widespread neutrality and a sufficient core of armed support. Castro landed in Cuba with no more men that could fit in a small boat. As events in Washington D.C. this week illustrate, the President has more than a small number of followers willing to take direct action on his behalf.
Control of key infrastructure in a nation of 330,000,000 spread over a third of a continent is nearly impossible. Strangely enough, if the global Covid19 Pandemic had been worse, and the Trump faction in America had not been on the individual liberty side of the liberty vs public health struggle, the United States could have been effectively shut down during the 2020 election. With businesses and schools closed, the military deployed in the streets for security, and even more fear about public gathering, President Trump could have been strongly positioned for a more-effective coup.
However, as the pandemic played out quite differently in reality, the campaign and the coup were unable to take full advantage. Resistance to public health restrictions and fatigue set in early in the summer. Republican resistance to government guidelines and rules was far higher than for Democratic voters and independents. Efforts to hinder the USPS and mail-in voting were started too early and telegraphed. Economic relief and a vaccine began to be associated more with the opposition party than with the President.
Efforts by the President, throughout his term, to restrict immigration and reshuffle the international order in terms of trade and alliances, can be viewed as attempts to control key infrastructure and influence world opinion, but they are, at best, tertiary concerns when compared to physically controlling the nation’s airports and media in terms of a coup.
In considering the struggle for legitimacy, as far as the attempted Trumpian Coup in concerned, this objective is both where he made the most progress, but also where he suffered his biggest failure. The unique failings of the American Electoral College system started Donald Trump off with a legitimacy deficit before he even took office. Losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump ascended to the Presidency with a need to solidify control of the Republican party and the loyalty of his political base far beyond that of traditional candidates. Indeed, his combative relationship with the federal bureaucracy, painting them as a Deep State conspiracy, was part of a long-term effort to legitimize his Presidency and explain everything from his popular vote loss to his impeachment.
President Trump’s ability to deliver on some campaign promises such as conservative judicial appointments and the 2017 tax cut, combined with his ability to motivate the Republican base to punish Republican office holders he deemed insufficiently loyal enabled Trump to successfully transform the Republican party and purge almost all its anti-Trump elements. When he began his reelection in earnest, there was no question that the party would stand by him in every way.
Here, however, is where the lack of focus from the campaign and the lack of discipline from the candidate came to unravel his plans. The Republican party in 2020, literally had no program and adopted no platform on which to run. What ended as a failed coup, began as a reelection campaign. If it seems as though the Trump campaign tried everything to secure his reelection, it is because they did; it was all simply done poorly and after other things had failed. The problem, born of necessity, is that you cannot effectively plan for one contingency if you are wholly convinced that it will never happen.
If you expect to win an election legitimately, you don’t have to steal it. If you successfully steal an election, you don’t need to turn to the courts to try to overturn it. If the courts install you into power, you don’t need to turn to your allies in congress and state legislatures. If they invalidate the results, you don’t need to organize street protests. At every step, Trump did not see reality clearly. He expected to be successful and did not lay the groundwork for his next move. Consequently, his next moves were often late, desperate, and increasingly haphazard.
As President Trump and his supporters proved in the last two months, they were completely willing to engage in fraud, physical violence, and disinformation. He had the universal support of the Republican Party apparatus and the right-wing media. He had partial support of the judiciary and at least the possibility of non-intervention from the Armed Forces. He had incumbency and several ongoing crises to exploit. Had he set his mind directly toward an extra-legal path to staying in power, early on, and stayed with it the outcome might have been much more dire.
Imagine, stricter Covid19 restrictions in place during the fall campaign and fully supported by the President. Falsified “evidence” of fraud conspiracies in the swing states, and an expanded federal presence to combat “fraud”. A sudden suspension of the USPS when early voting started, when it would have been too late to address. Organized riots in democratic strongholds across the country on election day, just like in the Capitol Building on January 6th. A semi-competent yet equally immoral President could have easily suppressed several hundred thousand more votes in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada, then legitimized the whole thing afterward in the courts and sent the media about calling for healing and reconciliation.
In the final estimation, this coup can receive no higher grade than a D. It was largely improvised, only ever half-committed to, and so poorly executed that it never had more than a ghost of a chance. Let us speak plainly though, this was an attempt at a coup. Donald J. Trump lost a free and fair election and then set about trying to remain in power, illegally. It began with false claims about fraud, progressed to lawsuits and pressure to overturn the state results, and finally to mob violence. When identical things have happened in foreign countries, historically, they have ended in firing squads. We hardly need more violence in this country, but treason and sedition are treason and sedition no matter how comically inept the perpetrators may be. The legal repercussions must be swift and severe.