When Coups Come Home

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a news conference about lawsuits contesting the results of the presidential election at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday Nov. 19, 2020. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When Coups Come Home

"As the solution to every foreign election that didn't turn out the way the American government wanted it to was a coup, so when the American election didn't turn out the way the American government wanted it to, the solution was an attempted coup."

"Whoever fights monsters," Nietzsche warned, "should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." But as America went "abroad, in search of monsters to destroy," ignoring the advice of John Quincy Adams, she lost the struggle not to become a monster.

In fighting terrorists, America adopted the tactics of terrorists. As every foreign problem was solved with soldiers, imagination atrophied and domestic problems, too, began to have soldiers turned on them. So peaceful protesters in Washington felt the deployment of Trump's troops.

But, perhaps, most shockingly, as the solution to every foreign election that didn't turn out the way the American government wanted it to was a coup, so, habituated by years bereft of other solutions, when the American election didn't turn out the way the America government wanted it to, the solution was an attempted coup. In going abroad to fight monsters, America became a monster. And the coup came home.

The modern American coup is a silent coup. No longer carried out by ships and planes, by guns and bombs, the modern American coup comes dressed up as democracy. America's coups are disguised as mass movements in the streets or constitutional movements in the parliaments.

These coups have several variations and several stages. Sometimes they cynically exploit representational democracy, and a minority in the voting booth becomes an impressive looking mass movement in the streets. A minority that could not bring about change in the voting booth makes a case for change by impressive looking mass movements in the street. But, large as their numbers in the streets may be, they are the same minority that lost the election in the voting booth. A mass minority protesting in the streets may produce a cry heard more loudly around the world than a silent majority in a secret and sound proof polling booth.

This strategy was tried in Iran 2009 and again in Venezuela in 2013 and Ukraine a year later. A variant of this strategy was employed again, successfully this time, when Mohamed Morsi was elected by the people of Egypt. And when the monster slayer became the monster, it was tried by Trump in 2020. Habituated into knowing only one way to deal with undesirable outcomes of elections, Trump turned from monster slayer into monster and attempted a coup at home. So far, the first strategy hasn't worked. The "Million MAGA march," which White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany claimed had more than a million marchers, became "hundreds of thousands" in Trump's tweets and then only "thousands" in media reports. But the familiar silent coup strategy was attempted and may still be attempted again.

Sometimes the silent coup masquerades as the constitutional workings of parliamentary democracy. So Honduras' Manuel Zelaya, Paraguay's Frederico Franco, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and, perhaps most recently, Peru's Martin Vizcarra, were all removed in coups that could not be recognized as coups because they looked so much like the carrying out the legal obligations of constitutional democracy. In Ukraine, both strategies were employed as part of the plan to remove Viktor Yanukovych.

Most recently, this second strategy has taken the form of removing a victorious government by falsely insisting on electoral irregularities. This version of the strategy took its most important test drive in the recent Venezuelan elections. Trump has tried this strategy too. In Venezuela, despite monitors from around the world certifying the elections as fair, the U.S. consistently supported opposition claims of fraud and refused to recognized the winner of the election. The U.S. pressed this strategy in Maduro's first election victory, though the election was certified as fair by no less than 150 electoral monitors from around the world, including the Carter Center.

When coups are the only way you know to solve undesirable elections, by habit and lack of imagination, they become what you reach for when your own elections become undesirable. So, Trump, once again, went from slaying monsters abroad to becoming the monster at home and repeatedly insisted on voter irregularity in the face of certification to the contrary. In the most recent Venezuelan election, monitors said that they "have not observed any element that could disqualify the electoral process." They "emphasize[d] that these elections must be recognized, because they are the result of the will of the Venezuelan people." As Carter had previously claimed that Venezuela's election process is "the best in the world," a joint statement issued by federal bodies that oversee elections and that include people from Trump's own administration has called the U.S. election "the most secure in American history." Like the mass protests in the streets, the silent weapon of voting fraud fired only silent blanks for Donald Trump. But the familiar silent coup strategy was attempted.

The most striking similarity between the silent coup strategies used by the U.S. when it goes "abroad, in search of monsters" and the silent coup strategy unleashed at home is Trump's primary and most frequent claim: that later ballots that were slower to come in or to be counted should not be counted at all.

That strategy is striking because it is precisely the strategy employed in the most recent U.S. supported coup that removed Evo Morales from office in Bolivia. As Trump would claim that he was clearly winning after the "legitimate" early votes were counted and then "inexplicably" lost after the "illegitimate" later votes were counted, so the majority U.S. funded Organization of American States would fraudulently declare that voting irregularities were sufficient to reverse the Bolivian election because of a pattern of reporting that showed a "hard-to-explain change" in the voting trend in Morales' favour between the termination of the earlier preliminary count and the reporting of the later official count.

But as in America, so in Bolivia. The "hard-to-explain change" was not hard to explain at all: it was the result of simple geography, not nefarious fraud. Voting in Bolivia is all manual. So, rural districts take longer to report, and their results are included later. Morales dominates in the poorer and more indigenous rural areas. So, while opposition votes came in early, Morales' votes came in later. Trump's "hard-to-explain change" is no harder to explain. The necessary ballots were not suddenly found, and the election was no more stolen than Bolivia's. Just as slower counts brought in Morales' rural and indigenous votes, so slower counts brought in Biden's mail in votes.

Each of the strategies deployed by Trump to overturn a democratic election and cling illegally to power is a strategy perfected in experiments with America's new generation of silent coup. A silent and defeated minority moves from the ballot box to the street where it takes on the disguise of a mass popular movement; claims are made that the election should be overturned because of electoral irregularities; and the call is made to stop the count because late results are illegitimate. When you deal with a problem in only one way for long enough in the way you treat your enemies abroad, that one way eventually becomes the one way you possess to deal with your enemies at home. Be careful fighting monsters... lest you become one yourself.

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