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Trump’s Foreseeable Coup Attempt

American exceptionalism lulls us into thinking that what has happened in other countries cannot happen here.

As a last-ditch attempt, he could call his MAGA warriors to take to the streets with their deer rifles and assault weapons. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As a last-ditch attempt, he could call his MAGA warriors to take to the streets with their deer rifles and assault weapons. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has a clear path to staging a coup in late December and early January, one that just might succeed. The stakes are so high that even one chance in one thousand should be taken seriously. Several commentators have called some of his actions over the last six weeks seditious, as they are; but they do not seem to think that they have a chance of succeeding. 

Trump went through a ragged dress rehearsal with Attorney General Barr. He urged Barr to arrest President-Elect Joe Biden and to confiscate the voting machines for several states. Barr demurred; but his resignation effective December 23rd opens the possibility that his replacement might do it. The acting attorney-general, Jeffrey Rosen, would not do it; but Trump has a pliant, intellectually deranged, morally confused agent, Sidney Powell. After Rudy Giuliani expelled her from Trump’s legal team for her bizarrely incompetent performance, Trump invited her into the White House as an advisor. She reportedly advocated the seizure of the voting machines. If the paper ballots were also seized, almost all of the evidence of the election result could be questioned yet again. Having Biden arrested on trumped up charges is within the realm of possibility.

In the event any attempt is made to seize power, we should be very worried whether the soldiers in our new all-volunteer army correctly understand the distinction between obeying the orders of the man who is their commander-in-chief and staying true to their oath to uphold the ideals of the US Constitution.

What could interfere with Trump’s plan? Theoretically, the House could use Trump’s public statements to impeach Trump. Even if the House had the stomach for another impeachment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could delay the proceedings. And even if the trial in the Senate were miraculously go to a vote, the moral cowards in the Senate could acquit Trump, so fearful are they of Trump’s voters.

Theoretically, Vice-President Mike Pence could proceed to activate the 25th Amendment. Could, but would not. He has been Trump’s lapdog from the beginning, with the twist that he is the one drooled on. So cowardly is he that he plans to leave for Germany on January 6th to avoid being at the inauguration. Even if his wife could cajole Pence into acting, it is unlikely that Pence has the skill to muster a majority of the Cabinet to declare Trump incompetent. Wilbur Ross would sleep through the meeting; and Betsy DeVos might be away urging her brother to assemble former members of Blackwater, a company of mercenaries. 

In the White House, Trump is taking counsel from Sidney Powell, who had been part of Trump’s election defense team before Rudy Giuliani dismissed her. She is morally and intellectually deranged, a favorite of subscribers to QAnon. But that does not mean that she is stupid or inept at what it takes to succeed in our corrupted political system. High intelligence is not required to upend the January 20th inauguration. 

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The best chance at blocking the coup would be for one or more states to file suit to stay the action of arresting Biden or confiscating voting materials. This is to put a great deal of faith in the efficiency of the court and even more faith in the moral judgment and integrity of these six justices: John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Comey Barret. They would not have to cast a vote in favor of the seditious acts; they could simply not act.

Let us suppose that Trump’s efforts to have Biden arrested and to seize voting materials were to fail.  

As a last-ditch attempt, he could call his MAGA warriors to take to the streets with their deer rifles and assault weapons. Violence in the streets would justify declaring a state of emergency, nationalizing the Army National Guard, and, following General Michael Flynn’s suggestion, imposing martial law. If more fire power were needed, Trump could nationalize the Air National Guard too. 

Two final and sobering points. First, we should keep in mind that our democracy has already outstripped its ancient role model, classical Athens, in years without disruption by an extremist coup bringing into dictatorial power either one charismatic leader or a small group of the tyrannically minded. Second, in the event any attempt is made to seize power, we should be very worried whether the soldiers in our new all-volunteer army correctly understand the distinction between obeying the orders of the man who is their commander-in-chief and staying true to their oath to uphold the ideals of the US Constitution.

The possibility we have described sounds fantastic, even to us; but we live in an age of unleashed possibilities. Sad to say, as the Chinese do, “these are interesting times.”

Al Martinich

Al Martinich

Al Martinich, a leading expert in the life and philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, is a retired Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor of Philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.

Tom Palaima

Tom Palaima

Tom Palaima, a MacArthur fellow and professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin, has long taught and written about the human experience of war and violence.

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