So What About That (Self)-Coup?
Countering the counter
I know, I know, it’s becoming harder to counter that counter with anything other than this.
By any reasonable definition, this is no longer a peaceful transition of power. Not only did the person who lost the election refused to concede, he falsely claimed until the very end that he had won in a landslide. While asserting that he had the right to continue his administration rather than turn it over to the legitimate winner, the president gathered his supporters on the very date that his loss was to be certified and directed them to march on the seat of government to disrupt the process—and they certainly tried. Some may have been in ridiculous looking costumes but others had guns, Molotov cocktails, explosives, zip-ties for hostages, kevlar vests, helmets and other tactical gear.
There are reports that the president refused to authorize help from the National Guard and rebuffed desperate attempts by others in the administration to get him to make a public statement urging for this mob to retreat. He did not do so. The only videos the president posted during the event started with stating “yes I won and the election was stolen fraudulently” (paraphrasing since Twitter took them down very quickly) before doing a cursory “but go home and be peaceful” along with a declaration of his love for the insurrectionists. This is not a call to stand down at all. (If indeed he had won the election by a landslide, and the victory was stolen by a cabal, and a fraudulent president was about to be installed illegally, what else should people do?)
Consequently multiple people are dead and many are injured, and the legislators had to be evacuated or cower behind barricades and benches. One of the insurrectionists was killed by the police (while trying to climb through broken glass into an area where the legislators had gathered) and so far, one policeman has died (after being hit in the head by a fire extinguisher). Three others are dead: from being trampled and two medical incidents, one of them may involve the taser the insurrectionist brought with him going off, resulting in a self-tasing that led to a heart-attack.
Meanwhile, crucially, the same evening, after the Capitol was cleared, the legislators moved back under heavy military presence and… many of them proceeded to vote to throw out the results of the election. Eight GOP senators and 138 GOP representatives (65% of the GOP caucus in the House) still objected to the electoral votes being certified.
Stay with me because that’s the most important part. That’s the reason why this matters so much: not just because of how outrageous it is to have thousands of people overrun our Capitol, but because they had allies who shared their objective, strong allies, at every level of government from the executive to the legislative.
There was no pretense that this was about electoral processes, rather than who won the presidency. Representatives from Pennsylvania, for example, objected to the results of the presidential vote in Pennsylvania—the very votes that had seated them. To add to the blatant nature of the attempt, the voting process that allegedly caused the issue in Pennsylvania was put in place by its GOP state legislature. To the degree there was any attempt to pretend there was anything to this besides not liking the result, the key claim they raised was that Pennsylvania had unreasonably extended its voting period. North Carolina, however, had an ever longer voting period but GOP legislators did not object to that one at all. (The difference is left as an exercise for the reader).
Worse, this was a toned down attempt to overturn the election. There would have been more senators and representatives if the overrunning of the Capitol—and the resulting deaths—hadn’t embarrassed some of them or if the results in Georgia hadn’t changed the political calculation for them. (For example, Senate Loeffler, who lost her re-election bid, decided to withdraw her objection despite being an ardent Trump supporter and often echoing his false claims—she probably decided that this wasn’t how she wanted to go back to civilian life).
Imagine being escorted back to chambers like this, and still voting to overturn the election. (That’s Senator Josh Hawley right there in the middle). Yet, that’s exactly what they did.
Now, it’s true that this time, they knew it wouldn’t succeed. But given all this, it’s very difficult to argue that if they had a path, they would not have tried, or if they are not deterred, they never will again.
Hence we come to some crucial parts from the counter from Maciej Ceglowski.
It’s important that we admit that norm-breaking behavior by Trump in 2020, even his flagrant attempt to overturn the election, is not the same thing as his norm breaking when he first got into office. We’ve had four years to get the measure of the man. We know how the movie goes. He’ll rage for a while and it will be over.
The Republicans accepted this fact of life earlier than we did, and concentrated on achieving whatever political goals they could pull out of the chaos of his administration. And so they got their tax cut, their Federal justices, and Supreme Court appointments. When it became clear Biden had won the election, they made the correct, if not very noble, political calculation that they should just wait and let Trump sulk for a while. Like a lot of political calculations the Republicans have made in the past four years, this one was both enraging and accurate.
All this is to say that a departing Trump is the least of our problems, no matter how much he roars and bellows, and that policing norms around his departure and around electoral legitimacy will do nothing to get us out of the political glue trap we are stuck in.
In these circumstances, I understand the appeal of fighting to preserve political norms, and taking seriously threats (like coups) that are outside the American political experience. But Trump is done. He’s on his way out. And at some point, the constant warnings about a descent into authoritarianism become a kind of denial. We want to believe that what happened in our country is an aberration, a misstep, some trick of the light, and that there is a pathway back to more ordinary and humane politics.
I’ll conclude this counter-counter with this note. This clearly wasn’t just politics as usual, and not because of the mob that took over the Capitol. This was a trial run for a self-coup that could very well be tried in the future. An overwhelming majority of the GOP representatives in the house spent the day in lock-down and came back and promptly voted to overturn the election. In a future scenario where the election had come down to PA—for example if Joe Biden hadn’t very very narrowly won Georgia and Arizona by a total of about 23,127 votes out of total of about hundred-and-fifty million cast, or if Trump hadn’t just contributed to the loss of two senate seats in Georgia for the GOP, and thus the loss of the control of the Senate. It’s absolutely plausible to me that even more Republicans would have joined this blatant attempt to overturn the election and that their base would mostly have been fine with that. The (self)-coup train wasn’t something that was just for show; it just wasn’t close enough to work this time.
If anything, I think the mob action may make that a little less likely in the future because it exposed the blatant nature of the attempt to overturn the elections using extralegal means that appeared to fit procedure (senators and congresspeople spoke within their allotted time) while being completely illegitimate in nature. There is indeed more to say about this—being willing to overturn elections and expanding minority rule does not mean the said party also doesn’t win elections. In fact, that is a very common scenario of authoritarian or minority rule, combining blatantly anti-democratic forms of governance—structural minority rule like the senate, opportunistic ones like gerrymandering and kneecapping the powers of offices that have been lost, etc.—with outright antidemocratic moves, like using control of institutions to throw out results of elections.
I’ll conclude by quoting from a piece I wrote the day before the mob stormed the capitol and the legislators voted to overturn elections anyway.
…Having one party’s top presidential contenders competing to convince voters that they will be the best candidate to steal elections—because that is what they are offering to help Trump do—is a five-alarm fire for a democracy. It compounds our ongoing crisis, in which various aspects of our system that empower minorities either constitutionally or opportunistically have been used to create conditions in which an electoral minority can impose its will on the majority. States containing less than 20 percent of the nation’s population elect a majority of the Senate. The Republican Party has used its control of this chamber to capture the Supreme Court and the rest of the judiciary. Through gerrymandering and the uneven distribution of the population, the GOP does about 6 percent better in the median House district than it does in the national popular vote.
And the GOP also enjoys a significant advantage in the Electoral College, which elects the president, and thus controls the executive branch. …The attempt to undermine whatever victories an electoral majority can eke out is the logical next step of persistent and entrenched minority rule as well as a significant escalation.
But that’s not all that’s happening. A theater show is performative because the actors and the audience know it’s a performance. If a gun is hanging on the wall in a Chekhov play, we know two things: that it will go off by the end of the play, and that it must actually be a fake or unloaded gun, because it’s only a play. When a loaded gun is brought out in real life, the fact that the person holding it is incompetent or clownish doesn’t make that gun performative; it’s still a gun. When the president of the United States calls up electoral officials to threaten them, he’s leveling a loaded gun at our democracy.
So here we are. Yes, their aim wasn’t great, but the gun was loaded. Very loaded. And it’s not over. How we respond will determine what they’ll bring out next time.
Zeynep, please write about specific actions any of us can take. I respect that Insight is meant to be a community for deep thought, not a political platform. But I'm asking for suggestions, anyway.
I absolutely agree with your messages about underlying dynamics (averting repetitions of this disaster starts with understanding that yes, this is a coup; and whatever limited damage this time can't be counted on in the future). Changing thought and perception precedes changing what we do. Each of us who agrees with this can try to effectively persuade those outside one's bubble to see things differently. (A big lift!)
But for those of us who are already in agreement with you, what actions can we take?
Agreed that minority rule encodes all of this. I see plausibly effective opposition via
(1) the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/ which would, de facto, make POTUS elections dependent on the popular vote and
(2) Fair Vote https://www.fairvote.org/ which is currently focusing on Ranked Choice Voting.
What else? Those in agreement sit here, anguished. We must have a place to direct that energy.
Thanks to all who are at least trying to make sense of this.
Thank you for this piece.
We face a communication challenge unlike any I have seen in my six decades.
One of the scariest aspects of the past five years has been the gradual erosion of meaning in the language used by those who should be responsible for keeping things clear. The White House (from POTUS on down) has used the flexibility within language to help create the alternate universe (with its own "facts") that all the mob used to express themselves. My son is a translator (German -English - German) and he wrote about the confusion at the heart of the "take Trump seriously, but not literally" problem (in reference to Ezra Klein's recent piece in the NYTimes).
He wrote: "Over time, you get good at reading all sorts of signs about what's literal and what's metaphor/symbol/rhetoric/humor/irony. You actually get so good at it that you don't realize you're doing it (which is why you need Lakoff/Johnson to write books about it). But partly because of the internet, partly because of ads/marketing, partly because of hipster appropriation of academic thought, there's an awful half-ness about what's literal (cf. "literally"). And so all the horrible memes, all the "lock her up", all the "we need the second amendment in case we don't like our government" is this weird plausible deniability vortex in which it's the modern definition of literal: both literal and metaphorical at the same time, depending on what's advantageous to the speaker at the time. No wonder there's almost no way to talk to people on that side."
Orwell would have been squirming to hear those lawmakers in the Capitol and those trying to storm it (including, in my reading, some GOP trying to storm it from inside, as it were) both using the term "our Constitution!", as though it somehow magically wrapped them in truth.