Did I speak too soon?
I am rarely accused of being a pollyanna, but earlier this week I took some guff from nervous friends on the progressive side (NB: a redundancy; I don’t have any “conservative” friends left) for writing that we as a nation had avoided a coup, albeit narrowly. This despite the fact, ahem, that I said in the second sentence of that essay that “the danger is not completely past.”
Deep breath, everybody.
I do still think we have avoided a self-coup by Trump. We need to act like it. We should not signal even for a moment that we will stand for any attempt to subvert the will of the people as expressed in the election.
That does not mean Trump and the GOP are not trying, or that we should not pay close attention to their efforts, or not push back against them. There is a legitimate debate going on as to how serious those efforts are, and how dangerous even a “merely performative” questioning of the peaceful transfer of power is. But this much is clear:
We ought to serve notice to the Republican leadership and Trump’s other enablers (because there’s no point talking to Donald himself) that we will not stand for any of this bullshit. Their efforts should be laughed out of hand, treated as the farce they are, and given no serious consideration as genuinely capable of retaining Trump’s hold on power, even as they are rightly condemned as a long term danger to the health of the republic. The more we act like they might be able to get away with this, the more they will believe they can, and the more they will push it.
And here is our ace in the hole:
We all saw the fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall-style global outpouring of joy at the defeat of Donald J. Trump over the weekend. I submit to you that any attempt by Trump and his enablers to steal this election will be met by a similar outpouring in the streets…..but not one where people are dancing to Kool & the Gang (or Nipsey Hussle).
Imagine all those folks angry.
The question before us right now is: how real is that danger?
MULTIPLE CHOICE TEST
Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark that “despite the lawsuits and cable bloviating, Trump has no chance of overturning the actual outcome of the election.” He means on legitimate grounds. There is no legal rustication for what he wants: no widespread fraud, no irregularities, nothing.
We all know why Trump is doing what he’s doing anyway. But why is the GOP abetting this lost cause? (I guess they do like those, though.)
The conventional wisdom is that there are three possibilities:
- Humoring Trump, to avoid offending “the base” in the interest of their own electoral future, while waiting for the inevitable endgame
- Keeping that base gyrated for the all-important January 5th Georgia runoff that will decide control of the Senate (perhaps in conjunction with #1 above)
And, finally, and most worryingly:
3. Actually trying to overturn the election.
(It is also very possible that the White House may have no strategy at all, and is simply flailing from one desperate ploy to another. Oh, also: the Family Trump is using this self generated crisis to squeeze more money out of its gullible base and put it straight into its grubby little pockets.)
But it’s all still scary and destructive no matter which option is operative.
The first possibility presumes that the current Republican obeisance to Trump’s claim of a stolen election is merely performative. That venal, self-serving cynicism is itself despicable, of course, even if it does not go so far as an actual coup d’état. But, worse, as Masha Gessen has written, is the fact that “performative” collusion with authoritarianism is the first step on the path to the real thing.
As to the second option, Senate Majority Whip John Thune R-SD, said the quiet part out loud:
We need his voters. And he has a tremendous following out there. Right now, he’s trying to get through the final stages of his election and determine the outcome there. But when that’s all said and done, however it comes out, we want him helping in Georgia.
Which brings us to Option #3.
Admittedly, there have been some worrying moves that smack of a putsch. Bill Barr authorized a specious investigation into alleged election fraud, causing his top election fraud investigator to resign. We also learned that it wasn’t just one rogue GSA administrator refusing to do her job in formally authorizing the transition process, but that the orders came directly from the top, as the Trump White House “instructed senior government leaders to block cooperation with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team.”
Then there was firing of SecDef Mark Esper, the movement of other Trump loyalists into key positions at the Pentagon and US Intelligence Community (the DNI is already a Trump stooge), and perhaps above all, the outrageous remarks of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked whether the State Department will cooperate with the Biden transition, who replied, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
If were still an intelligence officer, which I used to be, and saw this happening in some Third World backwater, I’d put that country on our hotlist and prepare to respond to an imminent establishment of unchecked power by the ruling junta.
This is what we mean by “self-coup,” referring to duly elected heads of state who have illegally refused to cede power, or tried to…..and Wikipedia’s page for the term already includes Donald Trump (with a Roger Maris-style asterisk….for now).
The WaPo’s James Hohmann put it well:
Imagine being a diplomat in another country, sending a cable to Foggy Bottom about what’s happening….Unpopular leader won’t accept election defeat. Parliament not challenging him. Defense minister fired, replaced by loyalists. Justice minister weaponizing law. Etc. Foreign minister insisting that there will be no transition, even in the face of other countries congratulating the opposition leader. Etc, etc, etc.
It’s easy to see when it happens elsewhere, harder to fathom here at home.
DUTY HONOR COUNTRY?
Pompeo’s words were especially outrageous and alarming. Pressed later by Fox’s Brett Baier to clarify whether he was being serious, this walking disgrace to the West Point Class of ‘86 deployed his usual stream of smirking bullshit, saying “We’ll have a smooth transition and we’ll see what the people ultimately decided when all the votes have been cast,” adding, “We have a process, Bret. The Constitution lays out how electors vote, it’s a very detailed process.”
This allusion to “electors” speaks to one of the key fears: that having lost the vote, and soon the recounts, and with his legal strategies all being rebuffed, Trump’s last play will be to try to get Republican-controlled state legislatures to disregard the will of the people and send pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College in December. As I noted in my last post, right wing banshee Mark Levin, who commands a weekly audience of 7 million on the very mainstream Westwood One radio network, has called for that very thing. A Republican member of the Wisconsin state legislature recently did likewise.
As my very wise friend Tom Hall says, “I mean, they keep telling us what they are doing.”
Esper’s removal, in conjunction with other moves in the DOD and US IC, certainly could be the prelude to installing an even more compliant SecDef who would put the power of the Pentagon behind Trump in the event that he pulled something like that, given that it would almost certainly result in massive protest.
Then again, his firing might have been mere vindictiveness. Esper was such a toady that his nickname was “Yesper”; a low point was his role in the St. John’s Church debacle. Yet he did stand up to Trump on a few matters, like the renaming of bases currently honoring Confederate generals, and in his blunt (if belated) rejection of the idea of deploying the active duty military to suppress domestic dissent. Trump might have wanted him gone the same way he shitcanned the slobberingly loyal Jeff Sessions the day after the midterm losses.
David Ignatius has speculated about a third possibility, one that is far more laughable, but still ur-Trumpian: an effort to fill the national security apparatus with loyalists who, in the final weeks of his term, will declassify information about the 2016 election that will aid Donald’s ongoing obsession with proving that Putin did not intervene on his behalf….even if it means compromising highly sensitive US intelligence sources and methods. That would not surprise me a bit.
I don’t know which of these scenarios we’re dealing with. Trump may not even know. But to be honest, I’m a little more concerned than I was on Monday. And in all of them, once again, we are left shaking our collective head at the willingness of so-called conservatives to sell American national security down the river to appease the ego of a deranged game show host.
RISE OF THE INVERTEBRATES (AGAIN)
In that regard, I will cop to one big error last week: underestimating the craven willingness of Republicans to go along with Trump’s madness. (You’d think by now I would have learned my lesson in that realm.)
In my defense, this latest Vichyite phenomenon was slow in building……which is precisely my point is saying now that we should show no fear and not let these cretins think they can bully their way into an autogolpe. The more we signal that we’re worried, as opposed to ferociously warning their asses off, the more emboldened they will be.
Let’s imagine that in the absence of Mark Esper, the president actually deploys active military troops into key cities to seize the ballots after unfounded accusations of fraud. Here’s the thought experiment: what would the Republican Party do?
Which Republicans would push back? Would Republicans resist the use of armed force to influence the results of an election?
Are you sure? Who? Mitch McConnell? Ted Cruz? Lindsey Graham? Ron Johnson? Kevin McCarthy? Nikki Haley?
Bonus question: If this happened, would Trump’s approval rating go up or down among Republicans?
Bill Kristol writes that while Trump is unlikely to succeed in such an endeavor, we’d be foolish to completely disregard the chance that he might: after all, he has surprised the hell out of us before.
Are we 100 percent certain this doesn’t soften the ground enough so that what seems almost unthinkable now becomes thinkable? Are we 100 percent certain the state legislature in, say, Georgia, won’t start considering things that now seem outside the realm of the possible? And if the unthinkable actually happens in Georgia, are we certain that it could not then happen in Wisconsin? And Pennsylvania?
(W)ith more compliant figures in charge of (the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community) “information” might be revealed or plots “discovered” that help legitimize not allowing the process to move forward to an Electoral College vote that would yield power to Joe Biden?
Keeping up with this almost-all-Bulwark edition of this blog, Jonathan V. Last writes:
The only reason we believe Biden will become president is because we believe that his advantage is too big for Trump to succeed in overturning the election. We think that the rule of law will hold not because it is inviolable, or because both sides are committed to it, but because the results create too tall a burden on the would-be autocrat.
But we need not stand around speculating about alarms and alarm systems. We have agency. If prominent Republicans and influential conservatives take the threat seriously, and speak and act against it, they can harden our institutional and civic defenses against any such threat. A little alarmism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Complacency in the defense of democracy is no virtue.
I say we don’t wait for “prominent Republicans and influential conservatives” to take the lead, as their recent track record is pretty goddam shitty, Kristol’s own Lincoln Project excepted.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN, WESTERN ANNEX
In the spring of 2000, my wife Ferne and I went to Japan for six weeks to make a documentary about sumo wrestling. While we were there, we went to the offices of the newspaper the Tokyo/Chunichi Shimbun to visit the photographer Kenzo Sato, Ferne’s old boss from its New York bureau. When we arrived, Sato was with a dapper, elderly little Japanese gentleman in a coat and tie. He introduced us, we exchanged very formal but unremarkable pleasantries, and made plans to meet again later.
After we parted, our Japanese co-producer, Yoshi Muto, said to us excitedly, “Don’t you know who that was?” Ferne and I looked at him blankly. “That was Hiroo Onoda!” Yoshi said. Still we looked at him like we were doing impressions of Takeshi Kitano.
Onoda, we were soon informed, was the last Japanese soldier to come out of hiding after World War II, having spent 29 years on a small island in the Philippines, still waging a one-man guerrilla campaign, believing the war had not ended. As a young photographer, Sato had taken the famous picture of Onoda when he finally emerged from the jungle to surrender.
That was in 1974.
Onoda’s story is incredible. We later met him and Sato for dinner, and he agreed to let us make a documentary about him—Werner Herzog, naturally, already held the fiction film rights—but it didn’t come to fruition. Onoda is also a divisive figure in Japan (or was; he passed away in 2014). The right sees him as a paragon of all that was glorious about Japan, which she has lost, in the conservative view; the left sees him as an example of everything that was wrong with the country, and where that fanaticism tragically led her. But the man himself was remarkably serene, gentle, apolitical, and philosophical; I suppose you have to be, in order to do what he did for almost 30 years.
The Republicans who refuse to admit Trump’s defeat are reminiscent of Onoda and the handful of other Japanese dead-enders like him, except for two things:
First, despite fighting for a loathsome cause, Onoda himself had deep and abiding principles.
And second, Tokyo wasn’t still giving him orders.
Oh, and one more: there wasn’t any chance—however slim—that the Empire of Japan was going to suddenly come back and win the war by cheating the system.
SAVING FACE, AND THE SPRAY-TAN THAT’S ON IT
It gives me hope to know that the Biden team—reflecting why we voted for this guy in the first place—is made up of adults with deep governmental experience, and has prepared for all these scenarios, including this one. (The Transition Integrity Project also wargamed this precise turn of events.)
But at a certain point, if the obstructionism continues, it will begin to have severe practical consequences, along with the constitutional dangers it inherently poses, and the long term damage to a commonly accepted belief in the peaceful transfer of power. Among those problems are grave national security instability in the always fraught time of administrative handover, and the handicapping the federal government from carrying out mission critical tasks going forward—in the middle of a pandemic.
The smart money still says that the GOP is mostly posturing (though the smart money has been wrong before). Once the lawsuits fail and the election results are certified, Republicans will put on an Apache dance of grumbling, but ultimately use that as cover to accept the results without looking like they’re defying Trump or caving to the libs.
Writing in The Week, Bonnie Kristian suggests that Trump himself may do the same thing.
Kristian argues that Trump, with his eggshell-fragile ego, needs some sort of psychological cover to allow him to face the inevitable, and an excuse to leave office with his self-image as a “winner” intact, if only in his own mythology. Hard to do when you got beaten like one of Keith Moon’s tom toms, but MAGA Nation has shown an infinite capacity for believing 2+2=5.
Losing in court, by contrast—such as a judge’s order forcing the GSA to begin the transition process—could give Trump that psychological cover. “Pushing the Biden transition team to sue for access to the executive branch makes a lot of sense in this framework,” Kristian writes. “It lets Trump tell a story in which he goes down swinging: He leaves only because a very biased, horrible, Democrat judge makes him go.”
How incredibly pathetic is that, that our glorious 244-year old republic is teetering over the whims of this deranged, narcissistic manchild? Not exactly a new phenomenon over the past four years, but one that is reaching its apotheosis.
WASHINGTON 2020 IS THE NEW MANILA 1986
So we are walking a fine line here, folks. On the one hand, GOP refusal to acknowledge that it lost the presidential election is unconscionable, unacceptable, and gravely damaging to the republic. On the other hand, let’s treat it as the nothingburger it is and not give the claim any credence. Joe Biden is the President-Elect and Kamala Harris the VP-Elect: period dot, end of story. Starve their dishonest claims of oxygen and move forward with the transition.
But even if we do avoid a coup, the long term damage of this charade is likely to be severe, and mind-boggling.
Charlie Sykes writes that a new poll shows that “70 percent of Republicans now say they don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair, a stark rise from the 35 percent of GOP voters who held similar beliefs before the election.” That does not bode well for our future. In fact, it plays right into Putin’s strategic goal of “feeding the narrative that American democracy is no longer legitimate.”
This is not just about Joe Biden. The long-term implications will be a corrosive undermining of faith in the American system. This is the final, but perhaps the greatest of Trump’s violation of norms, shattering centuries of bipartisan understanding of the necessity of maintaining faith in democratic systems in the peaceful transfer of power.
In case you think this is an overstatement, the reality is that tens of millions of Americans now will believe that the next president is illegitimate because the election was stolen.
Along with the right to vote, the peaceful transfer of power is probably the most fundamental principle of representative democracy (making the Republicans two for two in their attacks on the bedrock of our republic). Even if Trump’s behavior—and that of the GOP that supports him—proves to be nothing more than a charade ahead of his inevitable departure, it is still appallingly destructive. In fact, it might be—along with the kidnapping and caging of children, and the obliteration of “truth” as a common metric—the worst and most damaging thing he has done. It’s a strong field.
Aaron L. Friedberg, an international affairs professor at Princeton, and Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, write:
The ability to transfer power peacefully is a singular achievement of our political order. Its success depends on the confidence that people have in the fairness of the electoral system. With millions of Trump’s followers believing his charges, that confidence has been placed in jeopardy, setting the stage for truly dangerous confrontations in the short term and potentially shattering much of the nation’s faith in our system of government over the longer term.
If, on December 14th when the Electoral College meets (or January 6th, when Congress certifies the results) this photo of Hiroo Onoda proves mistaken as a metaphor, if it turns out it should have been a snap of Ferdinand Marcos and his followers, it will be a dark day for this once-proud republic.
But I will remind you that Marcos, like most despots, eventually fell, thanks to the power of the people.
Photo: Kenzo Sato, 1974
6 thoughts on “The GOP’s Performative Fanaticism (That’s All It Is, Right?) Is Still Insanely Dangerous”
Great (though scary) analysis, Bob. Even the most benign of his Republican enablers’ motives (seeking to ride Trump’s voter base to their own electoral triumphs in the future) is extremely dangerous and could veer out of their own control. I recall exactly such a thing happening in a small European country in 1933-34. Can’t remember the name, but it didn’t end well there. One additional aspect of our current situation that I’d be very interested in your opinion on, given your particular knowledge and experience, is the expected actions of our in-uniform military commanders should Trump and his cabal of civilian toadies (plus hard-core Congressional supporters) simply refuse to vacate the presidency on inauguration day, claiming that a fraudulent and unconstitutional seizure of power by Democrats was being attempted (regardless of what any “Democrat” judges say) and they have to, themselves, protect the Republic. Will the military follow the sitting Sec. of Defense’s orders to surround and protect the president in the WH and fire on the protesting crowds? Or will they march into the WH and escort the president and administration out under arms, following the orders of the new Commander in Chief on that day? Or will they stand by and do nothing, allowing the matter to get resolved in the streets, between protesting crowds and fanatical militias? And what person or persons in the uniformed military would decide on its course of action in this scenario, and would the military be of one mind on this? I have to believe conversations on this topic are occurring right now in the highest levels of the military. It seems incredible in our country, but the uniformed military may, indeed, need to be the ultimate arbiter of this election (through action or inaction). It always has been in other countries when the governing regime faced a crisis of legitimacy. Bullets can overcome lies and the truth alike. Whether it likes it or not, the military will have to take a stand.
Thanks Walter. Your question is a crucial one, for sure. I wrote an essay about this a few weeks ago; it’s here: https://thekingsnecktie.com/2020/09/15/dont-count-on-the-military-to-save-our-democracy-thats-not-its-job/
The short answer is that I don’t see the Pentagon going along with any kind of shameless power grab…..which at this point is the only kind Trump has available. I was far more worried before Election Day, when the possibility still existed that he might be able to make a plausible case that he won, either b/c a) it was sufficiently close, or b) through truly criminal electoral fraud that gave him cover to claim a legitimate win. Since neither of those things happened, I would say the real danger has passed.
That is b/c the military’s default position is “do no harm.” The US armed forces are so conditioned to stay out of domestic politics that in any given scenario they will almost always choose inaction over action—a la the famous “trolley problem”—irrespective of who it favors. That is breaking on behalf of democracy in this case (I think), though it might not always be so.
Trump’s only play at this point would be to get state legislatures to ignore the popular vote and appoint a pro-Trump slate of electors, an act so egregiously anti-democratic that I think other forces would stop it without need for the military to intervene. (And that’s a good thing, b/c they’re not geared to do so.) Likewise in the scenario you describe, where he makes no substantive argument for remaining in power, but simply refuses to vacate the Oval Office, I think US Marshals and/or the Secret Service would be charged with removing him after Biden’s inauguration.
The balance would tip if the GOP leadership decides to fully back a self-coup, but for all their posturing, and as infuriating and destructive as their behavior has been in abetting Trump’s refusal to concede thus far, I am increasingly confident that they’re not going to do that when push finally comes to shove. After all, the GOP retained its Senate majority, pending the results of the twin runoffs in GA on Jan 5—the day before Congress affirms the Electoral College. I don’t think Mitch & Co want to be embroiled in a Civil War-level insurrection while trying to hang onto control of the upper house.
The scary part is, if circumstances were only slightly different, and they had less to lose by joining in a coup, and higher odds of success, I have no doubt they would do so. The question of what the military would do in that scenario—and whose orders they would consider legitimate and choose to follow—becomes much more worrying. (And you are quit correct in speculating that the ranks might not speak with one voice, creating a whole different set of problems.)
In any event, I am quite sure this is being discussed at the highest levels, even as we speak.