Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Coup That Wasn't Really

Many are calling the storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6th by a violent mob an attempted coup by President Trump.  There is a certain logic to this, in that Trump told the crowd that he needed them to pressure congress and Vice President Pence in order to win the election and that, "if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore."  That crowd proceeded to storm the Capitol, violently assaulting the Capitol Police, and even reached the Senate chamber (though not till after lawmakers had been successfully evacuated to a safe location.)  

But it's also a bit odd to call it a coup.  A coup, after all, is an attempt to usurp control of the government by means of military force.  And yet, what the mob which attacked the Capitol did (whether it was anticipated and intended by Trump or not) is not an action which could have resulted in Trump maintaining control of the government past Biden's scheduled inauguration on January 20th. It's perhaps a very slight exaggeration to say that the recognition of the electoral votes by the Vice President and Congress is a purely ceremonial moment, but it's certainly not a point at which the result of the election is in question.  Even if the mob had somehow taken the Vice President and key legislators hostage and compelled them to vote Trump the winner, that would in no way have changed the outcome of the election.  The election is administered by the states.  At the point that the state legislatures certified their electoral votes, the election was for all intents and purposes over.  Trying to intervene at the point that Congress recognized the votes would be like trying to use force to make the person in charge of presenting the medals after an Olympic event to give the gold to the second place winner.  Even if successful, there is no reason why the world would go on to recognize anyone other than the first place winner as having been victorious.  

This points to what would have to happen for a coup to actually be successful.  Why would a mob which temporarily seized control of congress not be able to simply rule the country and install whoever they wanted as president?  Because the overall machinery of the US government, including its ability to use force, is still loyal to our constitutional form of government.  If a violent mob took possession of the Capitol and streamed out via their phones a video of their leader proclaiming "I am the captain now!" from the Senate chamber, we'd simply send in a SWAT team, clear them out, and return to our previously scheduled constitutional republic.

For a president to actually seize power coup, he'd need to be backed by both a military and a governmental bureaucracy that was willing to obey him even if he was remaining president in violation of the law.  This is why would-be strongmen cultivate generals and state officers and make sure that those officials are loyal to them over the normal processes of state.  

Were a president to try to seize power via his backing by crowds, he would need the crowds to be both willing to fight the state's power structure and capable of overcoming it.  How easy that would be depends greatly on how willing the military and governmental elite are to change the structure of government.  This means that countries which are already suffering a massive loss of confidence are most easily subject to toppling by angry crowds.  Think, for instance, of the collapsing USSR.  When crowds in the satellite countries which the USSR had long occupied rose up and occupied key installations such as radio stations and government buildings, the military often proved unwilling to engage in the mass killing it would have taken to dislodge the mob, and the local civil service was willing enough to shift their allegiance away from a form of government already seen as illegitimate and failed.  Countries with a long history of unelected government also often have military leaders and officials who are ready to get behind a leader with the backing of populist crowds.  In the US, I would argue, our military and civil servants are probably some of the most attached to the current system of government of any country in the world.  And Trump in particular did the exact opposite of endearing himself to the military and civil service.  No one in those careers was thinking, "Wow, I'd really be willing to risk everything to keep Trump in charge rather than letting the duly elected new president take office."

But I'm really not sure that Trump realizes any of this.  Twitter and big rallies brought him the presidency, and the fact that he won in 2016 despite polling and elite consensus seems to have given him and his movement confidence that these same tools could keep him in power.  

The deepest problem with the Trump presidency is, paradoxically, also what will keep him from being able to successfully remain in power contrary to law: he really doesn't seem to understand how the state works.  

Trump did figure out elections in some instinctual way that people need to do a lot more thinking about.  He saw that you can in fact win without getting bogged down in the defensive, lawyerly non-statements in which politicians so often communicate.  He also saw that you can kick over a lot of what a political party claims to stand for if you figure out how to appear to the tribal sense of a critical mass of its supporters.  

But at the same time Trump has never seemed particularly clear on how our constitution structures the state, nor on how large organizations in general work.  Yeah, he's run the Trump Organization (as his conglomeration of family businesses is called), and he's popularized his management of that through The Apprentice, but although the amount of money controlled is fairly large the number of people is pretty small and ruled primarily by fiat and personal loyalty.  That's how he's tried to run the government too, and the result has looked a lot like a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

I suppose we're lucky that Trump isn't someone who understands how to set the stage for a coup.  I don't see much evidence that it's any kind of integrity that's holding him back.  So someone might ask why it's worth writing about how this wasn't at all close to being a successful coup if Trump and the crazy periphery of his supporters thought they were in fact doing something that could alter who serves as president for the next four years.  Isn't that close enough to a coup to merit the name even if their methods were not capable of achieving their aims?  But I think it's worth considering because I think that if we want to protect and maintain our republic it's important to understand how it works at a basic level.  On both sides of our political spectrum there are too many people right now who don't seem to understand how basic elements of our government works: how elections are conducted, what the various levels of government (city, county, state, federal) do, how policing operates, the separation of powers, etc.  We'd do well to better understand those things and how to work the changes we want to see within those structures lest we allow our frustrations with our inability enact change lead us to gradually destroy the state which has served us for so long.

No comments: