A coup against a democratic regime can be defined as any political action by state actors that aims to either maintain or take over power by unconstitutional means. In short, there is a coup when military renegades or democratically elected leaders suspend the democratic process.
This definition — and global history — is why Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat and his refusal to initiate a transition of power has alarmed so many, and led some to question whether a coup was in progress.
To be sure, Trump’s clumsy attempts to deny President-elect Joe Biden’s win already look to be failing. But his actions — denying and attempting to overturn the results of the election and getting top Republicans and Attorney General William P. Barr to indulge these dangerous efforts — are still symptoms of the fragility of American democracy at this moment.
And this is exactly why we should be talking about the history of coups: how they happened and, most importantly, how they have been stopped. Trump’s refusal to concede is an attack on the state and democratic government. While his actions may be dismissed as merely tantrums, the history of dictators in Latin America over the past century suggests the need to take this dangerous moment seriously.
In Latin America, there have been several political leaders and civil servants who betrayed their countries’ constitutions and democratic rule by launching coups. For example, conservative politicians in Argentina lost the 1928 presidential election and then supported Argentina’s first coup in 1930 led by General José Felix Uriburu, who wanted to permanently change the nation from a democracy to a new corporatist and dictatorial fascistic republic.
The Supreme Court, days after the takeover by Uriburu, officially recognized the de facto situation and legitimated the coup on extraconstitutional grounds: the stability and survival of the republic. The justices prioritized social order and political security over democratic legitimacy, setting up a legal precedent for future Argentine dictators.
In other Latin American cases, courts were not enablers, and instead, coups were legitimated by conservative and anticommunist parties that controlled the national legislatures. Following a defeat at the ballot boxes, these conservatives consolidated and seized power within governing institutions to then advance unpopular and unequal policies.
For example, in Brazil in 1964, conservative politicians, including the majority in Congress, supported a coup against elected president João Goulart. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet led a coup against the legitimately elected Allende, overtaking the government by force in 1973. The dictator immediately dissolved Congress but conservative parties supported the coup. The United States supported both of these coups as part of its Cold War anti-leftist crusade.
There were also cases of Latin American elected presidents who executed auto-golpes (or self-coups) through the implementation of emergency laws when they were facing democratic impediments to their power. For example, in Uruguay, President Juan María Bordaberry decreed a state of emergency to install a civic-military regime to face the tupamaros guerrilla insurgency in 1973. In Peru in 1992 right-wing populist Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress to enact controversial security and economic changes by executive decree. In 2017, in Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro shut down Congress to rule without checks on his power. In these three cases, elected civilian governments morphed into dictatorships through the manipulation of legal procedures and technicalities.
In most cases, the press and certain sectors of the population either condoned, supported or normalized these seizures of power while others remained apathetic about the demise of democracy and/or fearful of the ongoing repression and terror.
But there is also an important moment in the 1980s that provides us with a civic template for the present: a moment when a coup failed because citizens united to defend democracy.
After the bruising experience of the dirty war from 1976 to 1983, democratic governance was restored in Argentina. When President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín was elected in 1983, Argentines and their government decided to investigate crimes committed during the dictatorship, hear testimony of survivors and create a truth commission to research their crimes and eventually provide evidence to prosecute them.
Anti-democratic forces did not want to recognize the legitimacy of the new democratically elected government. They worked to interrupt these trials and pursued a coup. In early 1987, renegade soldiers attempted to topple the Alfonsín government by mobilizing troops.
The media also played an important role. The main newspapers, radio and television channels reported and criticized the illegal actions of the coup plotters and defended the democratic system.
And so too did state institutions including Congress and the majority of the armed forces and the police, who sided not with the wishes of rebel coup leader Col. Aldo Rico but with the constitution. The result was neither a violent overthrow of government nor a manipulation of the law to undermine the way democratic institutions functioned. Rather it was democratic participation on display: citizens peacefully protested and defended democracy on the streets instead of being passive and apathetic when the military tried to take over.
Latin American history teaches that whether a coup becomes serious and succeeds may depend on how democratic institutions, media and citizens respond. If we ignore or normalize even timid or rhetorical coup attempts, the authoritarian testing of the waters for a coup could become more serious.
Trump admires dictators and autocrats, but although he has degraded American democracy, our institutions, media and citizens have presented barriers to his power grabs. And now, Americans have voted him out of office.
But in defeat he is edging away from being a typical right-wing populist and toward being someone who poses a dire threat to democracy. Other such leaders have bitterly accepted electoral results and left the government, from Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel in 1999 to Viktor Orban in Hungary in 2002 and Silvio Berlusconi In Italy in 2006.
Trump’s refusal to concede and initiate a peaceful transition to the Biden administration places our institutions at risk. While Biden almost certainly will assume office on Jan. 20, Trump’s behavior — and Republicans and media allies refusal to condemn it — is how anti-democratic developments start. This is why it is critically important that citizens and institutions exercise vigilance and refuse to take democracy for granted.