Friday 13 November 2020

A Very American Coup?

Deconstructing American Democracy: The joy manifested on American streets over the weekend, as the news of Joe Biden’s victory spread, may soon be transformed into incandescent rage. Worse, any mass protest action in support of President-Elect Biden will, almost certainly, be answered by the mobilisation of President Trump’s own supporters – many of whom will arrive on the streets heavily armed. Widespread civil disorder and loss of life is likely to follow.

IT IS MY earnest hope that by the time you read this column, its speculations have been refuted by the facts. If they have not, then we are on the threshold of a very dark period of American history.

Let us begin with an important historical precedent.

In the summer of 1974, the US Secretary of Defence, James Schlesinger, made it very clear to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the American armed forces that any order from the Commander-in-Chief, President Richard Nixon, to deploy US troops on the streets of the nation’s capital should not be obeyed unless countersigned by himself.

Nixon’s Cabinet had become so alarmed by the behaviour of the President, that Schlesinger’s extraordinary intervention was understood to be both prudent and responsible.

Fast-forward 46 years to 2020. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, defeated in the General Election by his Democratic Party opponent, Joe Biden, is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge his loss. Worse, the President is claiming that the election has been stolen from him by means of wholesale electoral fraud. Accordingly, Republican Party lawyers have begun filing lawsuits in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania. Their purpose? To prevent the certification of voting tallies from traditionally “Democratic” counties.

It can only be assumed that the political effect of such a blatant attempt to thwart the will of the American electorate will be inflammatory. The joy manifested on American streets over the weekend, as the news of Biden’s victory spread, will, in an instant, be transformed into incandescent rage. Worse, mass protest action in support of President-Elect Biden will, almost certainly, be answered by the mobilisation of President Trump’s own supporters – many of whom will arrive on the streets heavily armed. Widespread civil disorder and loss of life is bound to follow.

If the President’s behaviour during the Black Lives Matter protests is any guide, Trump will seek to quell such widespread violence and disorder by ordering the US armed forces onto the nation’s streets.

Until Tuesday morning (NZ Time) the only institutional obstacle to such a course of action being followed was Trump’s Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper. Secretary Esper had reacted with dismay to the deployment of federal law enforcement personnel – including military police – to drive protesters from Lafayette Park so that the President could walk the few hundred metres separating the White House from St John’s Episcopal Church in safety. On Tuesday morning, however, the President removed that obstacle by sacking Secretary Esper and replacing him with the Director of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, Christopher Miller.

By Tuesday afternoon, rumours were sweeping Washington that Esper’s dismissal was about to be followed by the sacking of FBI Director, Christopher Wray, and CIA Director, Gina Haspel.

At the time of writing, both of these key law enforcement and national security officials still held their jobs. If, however, they have been sacked and replaced by Trump loyalists, then, by the time you read these words, the President of the United States will have effectively decapitated what his most fanatical supporters – the followers of the mysterious “QAnon” – call the “Deep State”.

In the eyes of these deluded Americans, their President will have struck a blow for freedom and decency, and they will be looking forward eagerly to his next move: the arrest of senior members of the Democratic Party – including, no doubt, President-Elect Biden and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris. If this is what transpires, then the method in the madness of the QAnon conspiracy theory will, finally, be revealed.

To those watching in Moscow and Beijing, Paris and Berlin, Canberra and Wellington, however, the nature of the events unfolding in the United States will be understood very differently. Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern will know exactly what they are looking at: a steadily unfolding coup d’état – its every step retrospectively justified and validated by a lame-duck Republican President and a lame-duck Republican Senate.

If this is the way events have unfolded since Tuesday afternoon, then only one force in American society possesses the strength to defend the US Constitution and uphold American democracy: the armed forces of the United States.

This time, however, they will not be able to rely upon the Secretary of Defence to make the necessary intervention. This time they’ll have to do it themselves. 

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 November 2020.


petes new write said...

Maybe, maybe not. Trump, I feel, will run out of time.As soon as Biden is signed up, as they say, as the legally elected president, he will need to have Trump arrested for treason, or whatever he is guilty of. Biden will have to mobilise all the functions of state to support his new presidency.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

My confidence in the American Constitution, which were shaken both by the election of Trump and by his ignoring it in many instances, has been somewhat restored. I don't think Trump is attempting a coup. Particularly as the head of the army has said a is going to keep it out of politics. I think all this hooha is simply Trump keeping his base in a state of agitation so they will send him money, so he can pay off some of his huge debts. After all, the money train has pretty much stopped. And given that New York is almost certainly going to indict him for some form of tax evasion, he and other members of his family are thankfully going to end up in jail – we hope. But as somebody said recently, as long as poor white people in the states see themselves with no future, and under threat by minorities, they are going to be susceptible to populists like Trump. Because being beholden to large donors, left-wing parties can do no more for the working class these days then tinker around the edges. Mind you, in the US that gives them a lot more flexibility than it might here, if only for something like Medicare for all which most developed countries have something akin to anyway. If some of these populista are genuine left of centre politicians, that might be a good thing. But just at the moment, most of them seem to be considerably to the right of centre. Populist, neoliberal, racist.

David Stone said...

Trump and his supporting representatives are seeking to have some issues they have with the election examined by the legal system of the US. I don't see any suggestion of them seeking redress anywhere else. The article seems to assume that redress by appealing to the law is not a valid remedy to a perceived corruption of their democratic process. I submit that it is an essential part of the democratic structure. If the courts find fault it should be remedied. If they don't find fault on a scale large enough to require re running some poles then the apparent winner will become the next president. And Trump will be disappointed like many before him and go back to his day job like anyone else.
The suggestion is made elsewhere that the spate of sackings is about de escalating occupations in Syria and Afghanistan while he still can, far more than staging a ridiculous coup at home. If he was looking for an inspired last hurrah it would be to pardon Julian Assange. That would get him a certainty for the next presidential in 2024 if he is still standing up.

Brian O'Brien said...

here is one other force that can stop Trump - the judiciary. Not one of his campaign's lawsuits has been upheld; none will be, since their lack of substantive merit is glaringly obvious. If there is to be serious constitutional crisis, it will come about by one or more state legislatures simply ignoring the popular vote and appointing Trump's nominees as electors. At that point, intervention by the Supreme Court would be required. How would they vote? I suspect that a constitutional coup of that sort would be too much for even Trump's appointees to stomach. They would overrule the rogue legislatures, and then ...

Geoff Fischer said...

This is a crisis which could have been avoided if the political class had paid attention to the dangers inherent in the secret ballot. But the secret ballot has become essential to their hold on power, so fraud and allegations of fraud will be the order of the day for both left and right throughout the western "democracies" for some while.
And don't say that it can't happen here. It will be far easier to carry out a coup under New Zealand's system of non-constitutional monarchy that it will be in the United States.
The open ballot is the only form of election consistent with genuine and transparent democracy.