Mr. President, I am an expert on coups. This is not a coup. And lying to your supporters about that isn’t just wrong; it’s also dangerous.
Political scientists define coups as “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive.” It’s not just that impeachment is not a coup; it’s that impeachment is the opposite of a coup in about every way imaginable.
Coups are illegal. Impeachment follows the law. Coups tear up constitutions. Impeachment is established by Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Coups are extrajudicial. Impeachment emerges from the House Judiciary Committee. Coups are lightning-quick attacks that rely on the element of surprise to catch the leader off guard. Impeachment is a slow, methodical and publicly known process built on painstaking evidence-gathering. Coups are secret plots. Impeachment hearings take place in the arena of public opinion. Coup plots are hatched by men with guns. Impeachment is being overseen by a woman with a gavel.
In short, the brazenness of Trump’s Orwellian inversions of the truth with his “coup” claims are enough to make Big Brother blush. But his rhetoric could also incite violence.
I’ve interviewed generals, coup plotters and presidents toppled by coups in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. They are extraordinarily destructive events. Economies collapse. People get tortured. Whether coups succeed or fail, they create cycles of purges and retribution that inevitably lead to wider bloodshed.
Because coups cause such turmoil, even alleged plots can cause chaos. Because genuine coups are planned in secret, it’s easy for a dictator to invent a coup plot as a pretext to discredit his rivals and get rid of his enemies. A few years ago, I met with a group of ex-army officers in Tunisia who were falsely accused of plotting a coup attempt in 1991. The entire event was fabricated so that the dictator at the time, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, could purge political opponents and crack down on those who dared to speak against him. The wrongly accused soldiers were collateral damage. They endured beatings and torture. They are real victims. Trump is not.
Thankfully, Trump’s wild and false accusations about “coups” in the United States aren’t likely to end with Democrats undergoing torture. But some Trump supporters, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, have repeatedly called for “purges” of what they call the “deep state.” More recently, Hannity has called impeachment a “Soviet-style impeachment coup attempt,” a contradictory jumble of words that shows him to be as reckless as he is ignorant of history.
Invoking the language of serious political violence cannot be done lightly. A messaging strategy that conflates legitimate and lawful congressional oversight with an illegal military putsch makes violent conflict more likely.
Falsely describing impeachment as a coup is likely to fuel Hannity-style debunked “deep state” conspiracy theories circulating in pro-Trump circles online and on the airwaves. Such conspiracy theories have already sparked real-world attempts at violence.
But the “coup” theories are particularly absurd because much of the evidence underlying the impeachment inquiry has come from Trump’s own White House. The summary memo of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president was released by the administration. Some of the damning evidence has come from Gordon Sondland, whom Trump handpicked as an ambassador after Sondland donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee. And the latest testimony — which alleges that there was a clear quid pro quo and that key words were deleted from the summary memo of the phone call — comes from a military officer who is still employed at the White House.
In fairness, Trump is not the first person to wrongly call impeachment proceedings a coup. In 1998, when Bill Clinton was impeached, several House Democrats (including Jerrold Nadler, the current chairman of the House Judiciary Committee) called Republican-led proceedings “a partisan coup d’état.” They were wrong.
But Trump’s rhetoric is more dangerous now because it’s not an isolated incident. For the past several years, Trump has repeatedly condoned, incited or encouraged political violence. Falsely claiming that constitutionally mandated oversight of his alleged criminality is a form of serious political violence against him is another form of incitement, because it primes his supporters to think of appropriate remedies in terms of political violence.
I’ve seen the same tragic story of coups and failed coups during my field research from Thailand to Togo to Zambia to Tunisia to Madagascar and Ivory Coast. I know what a coup is. And impeachment, Mr. President, is nothing of the sort. Stop using such dangerous propaganda before someone gets killed.