The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not a coup. It’s not even a bad coup.


Georgia voting systems manager Gabriel Sterling speaks to the news media at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Dec. 7. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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President Trump’s efforts to nullify the results of the November election are generating some terminological debate. A few days after the election, Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote, “The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, is attempting a coup in plain sight.” A few days after that, Hamilton College government professor Erica De Bruin responded in PostEverything: “While the steps Trump and other Republicans officials have taken to discredit the results of the election are enormously damaging, they do not constitute a coup.” De Bruin argued that the definition mattered because “an accurate assessment of whether the United States is in the midst of a coup matters because the tactics that work to prevent successful coups are different from those needed to prevent other forms of authoritarian power grabs.”

It is now December, and Trump has persisted in his efforts to overturn the election. Indeed, if anything, he has grown more blatant about it. Over the weekend, my Washington Post colleagues Amy Gardner, Colby Itkowitz and Josh Dawsey reported that Trump called Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) “to urge him to persuade the state legislature to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state.” They accurately described it as the “latest brazen effort by the president to interfere in the 2020 election.”

At the same time, these efforts are proving to be more and more farcical. Indeed, on some level, Trump himself seems to know this. According to Axios’s Alayna Treene, Trump is musing about his exit from the White House: “A White House departure on Marine One and final Air Force One flight to Florida for a political rally opposite Joe Biden’s inauguration.”

So what are we to make of Trump’s post-election efforts? Coup or not coup? On Monday, Zeynep Tufekci wrote a widely read piece in the Atlantic about Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and came down very firmly on the “coup” side of the ledger. Bringing her experience of Turkish coups to the table, she acknowledged that Trump’s efforts have been unsuccessful. It would be wrong to laugh them off, however. Tufekci connects Trump’s efforts with the GOP’s recent pattern of entrenching minority rule: “The U.S. president 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.”

It is a foolhardy social scientist who takes the other side of a Tufekci debate, but the more the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts thinks about it, the less satisfying the “coup” description sounds. Furthermore, her column paints the GOP with too broad a brush.

Tufekci defines a coup as “the illegitimate overthrow of a sitting government — usually through violence or the threat of violence.” This corresponds with De Bruin’s definition as well as her observation that “while most coup attempts are … carried out with very little bloodshed, the threat of violence underlies all coups. It is that threat that distinguishes coups from voluntary resignations and other peaceful transfers of power.”

What is noteworthy about the last month has been the near-total absence of violence or mobilization toward violence. No organs of the state’s coercive apparatus have sided with Trump on any of his shenanigans, nor are they likely to. Last week, the attorney general publicly acknowledged the absence of any fraud that would warrant overturning the election results, making it next to impossible for any reprise of what happened in Lafayette Square over the summer.

To the extent that there have been threats of violence, they have come via social media to state officials. That merits unequivocal condemnation. Threats from random MAGA folks, however, are not the same thing as more-organized threats of violence that have been feared for most of the fall. These are, furthermore, threats that dissipate when exposed to the media’s glare. Indeed, what is striking to me has been the largely peaceful voting and post-voting political climate.

The other problem with Tufekci’s argument has been that the GOP has not exactly been in lockstep with Trump on this. It would be more accurate to say that congressional Republicans have been enabling Trump. Over the weekend, The Post queried GOP members of Congress to see whether they recognized Joe Biden’s victory and the results were … not encouraging. Pennsylvania’s GOP state legislators have acted in a similarly reckless fashion.

If there is a correlation, however, it is a simple one: The Republicans who have the most authority have also behaved in the most responsible manner. This starts with GOP-appointed judges. While one would presume that they would not rule for strictly partisan outcomes, it is 2020 and nothing should be taken for granted. For all the fears about the Federalist Society and conservative court-packing, Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein reported last week that “several of the most devastating opinions, both Friday and in recent weeks, have come from conservative judges and, in some federal cases, Trump appointees.” On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge (and George W. Bush appointee) Timothy Batten dismissed the “Kraken” lawsuit in Georgia, writing that the plaintiffs “want this court to substitute its judgment for two-and-a-half million voters who voted for Joe Biden … and this I am unwilling to do.”

Similarly, elected state officials have acted properly in the past month. Every state that went for Biden but had a Republican governor — most notably, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — has affirmed the electoral outcome for Biden. So has Georgia’s Republican secretary of state.

Key state legislators also have resisted Trump’s overtures. The Michigan GOP leaders who met with Trump made it clear that they would not act to overturn the election results; Arizona’s GOP legislators rebuffed Trump’s entreaties, as well.

Even executive branch officials have resisted Trump. After ascertaining the results, Trump Cabinet officials have, with a few hiccups, been welcoming to Biden’s landing teams. As previously noted, Attorney General William P. Barr squelched any talk of there being systemic fraud. Chad Wolf, Trump’s most lickspittle pretend acting secretary, refused to fire Christopher Krebs, making Trump do it himself. Even Vice President Pence subtly affirmed the legitimacy of the election results when he swore in Democrat Mark Kelly to replace Republican Martha McSally in the U.S. Senate.

To be clear, the takeaway from this is not to relax completely. However ineptly, Trump and his legal team are trying to overturn the results. The effect on GOP public attitudes is disheartening. Tufekci is correct to observe that the watchword is vigilance.

That said, what is happening is not a coup, or even an attempt at a coup. It is a ham-handed effort to besmirch the election outcome by any easily available means necessary. That is not good, but it is very different from Turkey’s myriad coups.

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The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)