The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Trump’s ‘coup,’ everyone is waiting for someone else to act first

There’s lots of dangerous rhetoric, but few people have stepped forward to do anything illegal

Sidney Powell, right, speaks next to Rudolph W. Giuliani during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

What if they held a coup and nobody came?

President Trump has made clear that he believes the election was rigged — somehow — and has called for its reversal. He’s been joined by a chorus of supporters: not just ordinary Trump voters but some members of Congress, including Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) — who has said the results in Georgia and Pennsylvania were the result of “flawed election systems” and wants his colleagues to reject President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) have suggested they might join that effort. Meanwhile, former national security adviser Michael Flynn has pitched the idea of imposing martial law, in several states, to rerun the election, first on Newsmax and then, according to reports, to Trump in the Oval Office. Overall, these efforts have been widely described as an “attempted coup.”

But what is most striking about this attempted coup, at least so far, is that almost nobody has actually done anything. Instead, nearly everyone involved in the coup has asked someone else to do something. Trump met with Michigan’s Republican state legislative leaders to suggest that they overturn the results there, and made similar appeals by phone to Republican state legislative leaders in Pennsylvania, and to the governor of Georgia. He’s phoned Tuberville, too, and has filed dozens of lawsuits in state and federal courts across the country. And he has whipped his followers into a frenzy, asking them to “stop the steal.” But these are all requests that someone else take action. Trump has not summoned the military, attempted to seize ballots or otherwise used the power of the presidency. (The idea of deploying the military was quickly dismissed when broached by Flynn at the White House, according to The Washington Post.)

The same is true for other Republican officials. State legislators in Pennsylvania called on their federal congressional delegation to reject Pennsylvania’s appointed electors. But they took no votes or other steps of their own. Georgia’s state legislators demanded that state elections officials respond to imagined voter fraud in their state. But aside from holding hearings — more words — they did nothing. Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, called for their secretary of state to resign over fictitious voting irregularities. But they did not so much as introduce a single piece of legislation regarding the election. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made calls to officials in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, attempting to cajole them into throwing their states’ elections to Trump. But all he did was pick up the phone. The attorney general of Texas, joined by attorneys general from 17 other states and more than 100 Republican members of Congress, filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to throw out the results in four states won by Biden. But this request, like virtually all of Trump’s legal entreaties, was tersely declined.

A Trump pardoning spree could actually be good for democracy

Even Trump’s rabid followers have barely been persuaded to stir from their keyboards. For all the vitriol online, violence or disruption of the election mostly failed to materialize. Perhaps the most dangerous and important incident was a gathering of armed protesters around the home of the Michigan secretary of state, during which the protesters shouted through megaphones — illegal acts under Michigan law. But this example is as notable for its rarity as for its outrageousness. Mobs with guns didn’t show up at polling places or vote-counting centers, much less start shooting. Disruptions of normal election processes were minimal. One pro-Trump rally turned violent (four people were stabbed), but Trump’s supporters have otherwise largely contented themselves with hurling invective and — demanding that someone else do something.

In fact, genuinely illegal, unconstitutional or anti-democratic actions can almost be counted on one hand. Two Republican members of the Wayne County (Michigan) Canvassing Board initially voted not to certify their county’s vote count, in defiance of state law, before reversing themselves. One Republican member of the Michigan State Board of Canvassers similarly abstained from certifying the vote. In several states that voted for Biden, Republican electors cast meaningless, symbolic votes for Trump. Trump supporters made online death threats against election administrators in several states — which should not be minimized. There was the incident at the house of Michigan’s secretary of state. But nearly every official who was exhorted to “do something” about the election simply refused. This coup was staged in an echo chamber, and all it did was echo.

Words can be powerful. The demands made, and falsehoods spread, by Trump and his supporters could resonate for years. In a deeply polarized country, the precedent of asserting that one’s opponents can win office only through fraud is a dangerous one. The episode also proved that a demagogue’s effort to stay beyond his term would be cheered on by the potent right-wing media. But words are primarily powerful when they spur others to action, and here they did not.

What should we make of the fact that so many were willing to talk about overturning the election and so few were willing to do anything about it? It is possible that the coup failed because, to succeed, it would have required concerted anti-democratic action by many people spread across at least three states: Trump would have needed to flip the result in some combination of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. This presents a problem of collective action: No one wants to stage a mutiny unless they’re confident other mutineers will follow. So perhaps if a smaller number of people had held the power to undermine American democracy, they would have done so. (Of course, the six Republican-appointed justices of the U.S. Supreme Court passed on the opportunity.) Even Brooks’s quixotic effort to challenge the electoral count would require majorities in both the Senate and the Democrat-controlled House to prevail and thus has no chance of success.

It is also possible to view this election as a dry run for a future coup. Maybe Republicans were testing the waters and, having learned that they can speak openly about subverting the will of the voters without serious consequences, might take more direct action next time. Four or eight years from now, once Republicans have internalized the idea that elections are rigged and law is illegitimate, they may behave more aggressively.

But the most important lesson from this experience is that, at least for the moment, fear of actually defying the law, or the will of the voters, still exerts great force. Talk is cheap (and constitutionally protected!), as Trump has proved time and again. Anyone with two thumbs and an Internet connection can rail about rigged elections and illegal votes. But actually violating the law, defying the constitution, or reversing a state’s election results is an entirely different matter. Few people were willing even to approach that precipice; fewer still stepped over it.

Why? Some individuals were likely deterred by fear of legal consequences; others might have feared harm to their reputations if they broke the law; and still others simply believed that following the law was required and could not bring themselves to do otherwise.

At times it has felt as though the only constitutional provision still being honored is the First Amendment, which protects the right to utter lies on Twitter and file implausible lawsuits in federal court. But for all the reckless talk, we should not lose sight of that fact that essentially everyone chose to comply with the rest of American law as well.