The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The coup didn’t work’ is not a reassuring argument

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Sept. 25, in Perry, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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Donald Trump’s effort to hold power past Jan. 20, took two forms, one acute, one chronic. The acute attempt began and ended on Jan. 6, when a mob of supporters called to Washington by Trump and nourished on his false claims about election fraud beat their way into the Capitol and halted, if only temporarily, the final counting of the electoral votes cast in 2020.

But that violence was dependent on the chronic effort, those false claims of fraud. That push began even before Trump was a figure in national politics, sitting as an undercurrent to decades of Republican rhetoric and motivating a number of efforts to limit access to voting. In 2016, Trump amplified the claims before Election Day, out of an obvious concern that he would need an excuse for a loss. That he won was little deterrent; he formed a commission aimed at proving fraud was rampant (with the immediate goal of raising questions about his popular-vote loss). It collapsed due to a combination of ineptitude and an utter lack of rampant fraud.

When 2020 rolled around, Trump invested far more energy in promoting false claims about fraud than articulating any second-term agenda. Even after he lost, it was apparently more important for him to try to challenge the voters’ preferred outcome than to, say, actively fight the coronavirus. There was a brief period after Jan. 6 when Trump’s nonsense about fraud receded somewhat, but that was just a lull: He continues to amplify utter nonsense about fraud, finding receptive audiences in the Republican base and with Republican elected officials.

Considered now, in this moment and with Trump out of power, it’s easy to frame all of this as something of a lark, a historic aberration from a president who made such aberrations a hallmark of his presidency. It’s easy, if not tempting, to shift the past 12 months into a weird gray zone that isn’t representative of where the country is. This is particularly true, it seems, if Trump’s House-Republican-driven policy agenda largely aligns with your own.

So we get essays like this, from Bloomberg Opinion’s Ramesh Ponnuru. In his piece, “U.S. Election Coups? Really? Let’s All Take a Deep Breath,” Ponnuru, who is also an editor at the conservative National Review, assures America that what occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 election was that the overheated rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats was proved false.

“Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to admit the shocking truth about 2020: The U.S. election system performed well,” Ponnuru writes. “Both parties made irresponsible statements during the campaign that eroded trust that it would be conducted fairly. President Donald Trump warned that mail-in ballots were not secure, and Democrats that they would not be counted.”

This is the first paragraph. You should be able to spot the problem already, though: Democrats feared ballots would not be counted because Trump was actively trying to prevent them from being counted. There was a concerted effort to backstop election officials out of concern specifically that Trump’s accusations aimed at keeping ballots from being counted after Election Day would be successful. In other words, Trump and his allies threatened to undermine the election, and everyone else worked to ensure that this didn’t happen — and then when it largely didn’t, Ponnuru equates concerns over what Trump was doing with what Trump was doing.

“Republican state legislators have been trying to change voting procedures in the name of deterring fraud, and Democratic legislators in Washington have been pressing for big changes of their own to rescue what they say is a democracy in crisis,” Ponnuru writes at another point, as though those things are equivalent. One is using unproven nonsense amplified by Trump for political advantage by making it harder to vote. The other is pointing to efforts to make it harder to vote as a rationale to make it easier to vote — again, for perceived political advantage, but an advantage born of letting more people vote in a democracy.

At the heart of Ponnuru’s argument is the idea that everyone is overreacting to what Trump did. We’ve seen this repeatedly on the right, with Republicans expressing far less concern about the acute threat on Jan. 6 than they did several months ago and offering almost no opposition to the chronic dishonesty about election fraud. As part of this revisionism, there’s constant policing of how people talk about the post-election period.

Ponnuru, for example, pooh-poohs the idea that Trump came close to succeeding in staging a coup after his election loss. He wasn’t all that close, he insists, shrugging at things like a Trump lawyer drafting a memo that argued for setting aside the law to declare Trump reelected, an effort he dismissed because Vice President Mike Pence didn’t take that advice.

“It would have been another blow to the health of the American political culture if he had gone along,” Ponnuru writes, as though this is equivalent to a failure to shake hands at a State of the Union address. Saying that a sitting vice president’s unfounded challenge to the results of an election is a “blow” to the health of political culture is like saying that being hit by a bus is an impediment to crossing the street.

The essay is useful in that it shows how even increasing threats to the democratic process can be rationalized. Analysis from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden shows how the Republican Party has been increasingly embracing an illiberal approach to democracy over the past several decades, walking away from a commitment to respect the will of the electorate.

Doing so requires people suggesting that concerns about what’s happening are overblown.

A more clear-cut example can be found in columns from the New York Times’s Ross Douthat. Last October, shortly before the election, he wrote a column in which he declared that Trump posed much less of a threat to the country than people thought. It was titled, “There Will Be No Trump Coup.”

Douthat walked through a variety of ways in which Trump wasn’t as successful at autocracy as other autocrats, the sort of reassurance that is entirely unreassuring when you step back and look at it from a few feet away.

“One can oppose Trump, even hate him,” Douthat wrote, “and still feel very confident that he will leave office if he is defeated, and that any attempt to cling to power illegitimately will be a theater of the absurd.”

In June, Douthat revisited the theme, less sheepishly than one might have expected. This time, the title was, “Are We Destined for a Trump Coup in 2024?” He did admit that he was a bit off the mark in October, writing that “it’s easy for me to see why the alarmists felt vindicated — given the violence itself, the absurd lengths to which Trump’s fantasies extended and the scale and seriousness of ordinary-Republican belief in his narrative of fraud.” Sure, some vindication there.


“Since Trump really is likely to be the Republican nominee in the next election, it’s worth taking alarmist scenarios seriously, in case next time turns out worse,” he continued. “But taking them seriously doesn’t mean treating them as some kind of certain doom.”

After all, only a few officials actually tried to help Trump overturn the election. Yes, he tried to do this thing, but, at least this time, he didn’t get all of the help he wanted. (That, we already know, would have been quite a blow!) That this didn’t happen “does not make the worriers unreasonable,” Douthat wrote — “it just makes their we’re all doomed attitude seem extremely premature.”

Presumably we will get another essay next year letting us know when Douthat no longer views it as premature to fear the imminent collapse of the American experiment.

Debates over whether this was a coup attempt or whether Jan. 6 was an insurrection or if the proper term is autogolpe or whatever are beside the point. The point is that Trump tried to do this, actively and forcefully, and that its failure does not mean that the crisis has passed. We can return to an admittedly overplayed thought experiment: How would we have looked at this in 2014? If, in 2014, I had told you what happened from October 2020 to today, would you have seen this as simply another partisan squabble? Or might you have considered that something more worrisome was underway?

On Monday morning, Trump’s former press secretary was interviewed on ABC News. She did not seem to think that Trump no longer poses any threat to America.

“I want to just warn people that once he takes office — if he were to win — he doesn’t have to worry about reelection anymore. He will be about revenge. He will probably have some pretty draconian policies that go on,” Stephanie Grisham said. “There were conversations a lot of times that people would say ‘that’ll be the second term,’ meaning we wouldn’t have to worry about reelection.”

That would certainly be a blow to the country, but let’s not be overly premature in drawing attention to it.