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We Won't Know If It's A Coup Until It's Too Late, Will We?




This morning, Zeynep Tufekci, a staff writer for The Atlantic originally from Turkey-- a country that has suffered through multiple and varied coups-- wrote that Trump "is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering... Much debate has ensued about what exactly to call whatever Trump is attempting right now, and about how worried we should be. It’s true, the whole thing seems ludicrous-- the incoherent lawsuits, the late-night champagne given to official election canvassers in Trump hotels, the tweets riddled with grammatical errors and weird capitalization. Trump has been broadly acknowledged as “norm shattering” and some have argued that this is just more of his usual bluster, while others have pointed out terminological issues with calling his endeavors a coup. Coup may not quite capture what we’re witnessing in the United States right now, but there’s also a danger here: Punditry can tend to focus too much on decorum and terminology, like the overachieving students so many of us once were, conflating the ridiculous with the unserious. The incoherence and the incompetence of the attempt do not change its nature, however, nor do those traits allow us to dismiss it or ignore it until it finally fails on account of its incompetence."

Tufekci reminded his readers that "With just a few notable exceptions, Republican officials have met Trump’s lies with a combination of tacit approval, pretending not to notice it, or forbearance. In a recent survey, an alarming 222 Republicans in the House and the Senate-- 88 percent-- refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the presidency. Another two insisted Trump won. A few more have started speaking out, but what has finally taxed their patience seems to be anxiety that his antics may cost them an upcoming election for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia-- an instrumental concern about continuing to exercise power, rather than a substantive worry about the attempted election theft itself."

The two sitting Republican senators in Georgia refuse to condemn Trump's shenanigans. In fact, they both support whatever it is he's up to. If that's enough of a reason to help Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock replace them in the January 5 runoff, please click here and contribute what you can. "What makes this moment deeply alarming-- and makes Republicans’ overwhelming silence and tacit approval deeply dangerous, rather than merely an attempt to run out the clock on the president’s clownish behavior-- is that Trump’s attempt to steal this election builds on a process that has already entrenched minority rule around the country." He was talking about the corrosive effects of gerrymandering on any semblance of democracy. For example, "In Wisconsin in 2018, Republicans won a near-veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature with a minority of the votes in the state. That same year, Republican Governor Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection, and Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general were also defeated-- again, statewide offices resist gerrymandering. After the loss, the Wisconsin state legislature followed the same playbook as the GOP in North Carolina, rushing, in a lame-duck session, to take away crucial powers previously exercised by Walker. The lawsuits filed by Democrats were rejected by the Republican-dominated state supreme court. When voters try to contest gerrymanders or power grabs, many of the cases end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where lifetime appointments are made by the president but approved by the Senate. The Senate is so lopsided right now that 26 states containing just 17 percent of the U.S. population elect a majority of senators-- the smallest that proportion has ever been. That’s the people in the smallest 26 states. The Republican Party’s Senate majority in recent years has rested on its strength in these rural states. Barack Obama couldn’t even get a Senate hearing for his last nominee to the Supreme Court. Today, the United States has a House filled with gerrymandered districts, a Senate dramatically tilted toward rural states, some state legislatures controlled by electoral minorities or slim majorities who get to exercise power as if they were overwhelming, and a Supreme Court with three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. Is it any wonder that Trump thinks he can defy the results of the election and cling to power despite losing an election? Or that his party does not stand up for the will of voters?"


In 1851 Karl Marx famously modified Hegel’s observation that historical occurrences tend to repeat by adding that they may occur the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Marx was mocking Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte who had just seized power in a coup (or, in the interest of technical precision, an autogolpe), declaring himself emperor. Louis-Napoléon did indeed seem like a figure worth ridicule, but the well-heeled members of ruling classes often confuse lack of propriety for weakness.
Adolphe Thiers, a leading figure in the biggest political party that had backed Louis-Napoléon for the presidency in 1848, had persuaded his colleagues to support his candidacy, calling him a “moron” who’d be easy to lead by the nose-- “un crétin que l’on mènera”. Louis-Napoléon had already organized two failed coup attempts so inept that they were described as “beyond comedy.” When Bonaparte won the election, though, he had other ideas about how manageable he was. In 1851, failing to change the laws that would allow him to stay in power, he organized his third coup d’état, which was successful. Napoleon III reigned as emperor until 1870, remaking France in the process.
What starts as farce may end as tragedy, a lesson that pundits should already have learned from their sneering dismissal of Trump when he first announced his presidential candidacy. Yes, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits are pinnacles of incompetence, too incoherent and embarrassing to go anywhere legally. The legislators who have been openly pressured by Trump don’t seem willing to abide the crassness of his attempt. States are certifying their election results one by one, and the General Services Administration-- the agency that oversees presidential transitions-- has started the process of handing the government over to President-elect Joe Biden. If things proceed in their ordinary course, the Electoral College will soon vote, and then Biden will take office.
But ignoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious. President Trump had already established a playbook for contesting elections in 2016 by casting doubt on the election process before he won, and insisting that he only lost the popular vote due to fraud. Now he’s establishing a playbook for stealing elections by mobilizing executive, judicial, and legislative power to support the attempt. And worse, much worse, the playbook is being implicitly endorsed by the silence of some leading Republicans, and vocally endorsed by others, even as minority rule becomes increasingly entrenched in the American electoral system.
It’s not enough to count on our institutions to resist such onslaughts. Our institutions do not operate via magic. They do not gain their power from names, buildings, desks, or even rules. Institutions rely on people collectively agreeing to act in a certain way. Human laws do not simply exert their power like the inexorable pull of gravity. Once people decide that the rules are different, the rules are different. The rules for electoral legitimacy have been under sustained assault, and they’re changing right before our eyes.
We’re being tested, and we’re failing. The next attempt to steal an election may involve a closer election and smarter lawsuits. Imagine the same playbook executed with better decorum, a president exerting pressure that is less crass and issuing tweets that are more polite. If most Republican officials are failing to police this ham-handed attempt at a power grab, how many would resist a smoother, less grossly embarrassing effort?
Adding to the crisis is that many of the 74 million people who voted for Trump now believe that the election was outright stolen. They believe that they were robbed of the right to vote. How many of these supporters will be tempted to carry Trump’s claims about being cheated out of an election victory to their logical conclusion? Meanwhile, millions of people around the country are repeatedly experiencing that being a majority is not enough to win elections, or even if one does win, not always enough to be able to govern.
When Biden takes the presidential oath in January, many will write articles scolding those who expressed concern about a coup as worrywarts, or as people misusing terminology. But ignoring near misses is how people and societies get in real trouble the next time, and although the academic objections to the terminology aren’t incorrect, the problem is about much more than getting the exact term right.
...[T]he word coup may not technically capture what we’re seeing, but as Pablo Picasso said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” People are using the term because it captures the sense and the spirit of the moment-- its zeitgeist, its underlying truth.
Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt may well doom it this time. If the Republican Party, itself entrenching minority rule on many levels, won’t stand up to Trump’s attempt to steal an election through lying and intimidation with the fury the situation demands; if the Democratic Party’s leadership remains solely focused on preparing for the presidency of Joe Biden rather than talking openly about what’s happening; and if ordinary citizens feel bewildered and disempowered, we may settle the terminological debate in the worst possible way: by accruing enough experience with illegitimate power grabs to evolve a more fine-grained vocabulary.

This ran on the editorial pages of the Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star on Friday. I really wonder how many other Americans are concerned enough about what Trump has been doing to take any kind of action at all. Have you?




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