When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week described the bribery and fraud charges filed against him by the country’s attorney general as “an attempted coup against a serving prime minister,” more than one commentator noted that the rhetoric felt awfully familiar. President Donald Trump has denounced the ongoing impeachment inquiry in Congress as a “coup” against him, a theme that was dutifully picked up last week by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, including ranking member Devin Nunes and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who described the process as a “publicly announced and proclaimed Democrat coup.”
If these are coups, then the word coup, like fake news or political correctness, has lost any useful definition beyond “something bad that my political opponents do.”
Coup means strike or blow. A coup d’état, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “sudden and great change in the government carried out violently or illegally by the ruling power.” The inquiries into Trump and Netanyahu have not been violent or illegal and certainly not sudden. If anything, the Netanyahu case has been agonizingly plodding. In the U.S., impeachment wouldn’t even result in a change in government: If Trump were removed from office, Mike Pence would become president, not Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton.
Not all cases are so clear-cut. Former Bolivian President Evo Morales has denounced his removal from office after the military called for him to step down as a “coup.” Many international observers, particularly on the left, agree with that assessment. When pressed about the description by skeptical Univision host Jorge Ramos last week, Bernie Sanders said: “At the end of the day, it was the military who intervened in that process and asked him to leave. When the military intervenes, Jorge, in my view, that’s called a coup.”
But Morales’ critics, who include much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, counter that his removal was not a coup but the result of mass protests in response to his ramming through a constitutional amendment to allow himself to run for a fourth term after earlier losing a popular referendum on the topic, as well as a disputed election that an Organization of American States report said showed “clear manipulations.” “In fact,” argued the conservative Peruvian-Spanish writer Álvaro Vargas Llosa, “it was Morales who tried to engineer a coup” by rigging the election. As civil society activist Jim Shultz writes, “The end of Morales’s historic presidency has the quality of one of those inkblot tests in which everyone sees what they want to see.”
Whatever claims to democratic legitimacy Morales’ opponents may have had after his removal, they’ve quickly vanished as dozens of pro-Morales protesters—mainly indigenous Bolivians—have been killed, and the country’s unelected interim president, rather than simply acting as a caretaker until new elections can be held, has moved quickly to roll back the socialist former president’s policies. A country that was slowly becoming a left-wing dictatorship is now rapidly becoming a right-wing one. It’s fair to call this a coup, though that shouldn’t exonerate the government it overthrew.
The events in Bolivia feel reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the United States and the Soviet Union frequently backed coups (about six per year from 1960 to 1990) against left-wing and right-wing civilian governments throughout what was then called the Third World—including in Bolivia. This type of classic coup—military officers seizing power from a civilian government and suspending constitutional rule—has become less frequent since the end of the Cold War. (That doesn’t mean leaders aren’t still terrified of them. One possible reason for ISIS’s rapid conquest of much of Iraq in 2014 was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s paranoia about a possible coup had led him to intentionally weaken his own military.)
The more common type of coup these days is what is sometimes referred to as a self-coup: elected leaders gradually eroding democratic institutions to seize more power for themselves, as in Venezuela, Hungary, or Turkey. While these “self-coups” have always existed, modern authoritarians tend to work more slowly and give their power grabs at least a semblance of political legitimacy. This makes it harder to determine what is and isn’t a coup and overall has made the term less useful.
The confusion between coups carried out against a leader and coups launched by a leader was on display during the impeachment hearings. One of Nunes’ main pieces of evidence was a 2017 tweet by the lawyer of the Ukraine whistleblower that said “#coup has started” after the firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. But the tweet was clearly not calling for a coup against Trump; it was accusing Trump of carrying out a coup by seizing control of the justice system. Nunes may have simply stopped reading after the word coup.
Even as traditional coups have become less common, the term remains a political lightning rod whenever it is applied. That’s because coup implies illegitimacy: beret-wearing colonels seizing the airwaves and establishing a junta. We like to think they are totally distinct from revolutions in which the masses rise up against an autocratic government. But the line is usually not so clear. While effective, mass protests can almost never oust governments on their own; they need help from the security forces and the leader’s inner circle. Heads of state like Bashar al-Assad and Nicolás Maduro have remained in power amid massive protests because their security forces and core allies remained loyal. Leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Omar al-Bashir, and Robert Mugabe were not so lucky—abandoned by their own security forces amid mass uprisings. Does that mean they were the victims of coups? They might have a case. It shouldn’t garner them any sympathy.
Defining coups is also a legal question in the U.S., where the law requires the government to cut aid to countries where the “duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.” This law is why the U.S. government has repeatedly bent over backward to avoid describing military takeovers in U.S. allies—in Egypt for instance—as coups even when they clearly are. The ironic effect of this is that U.S. leaders seem to be denouncing everything as a coup except for the things that are. Congressional Republicans are attacking Adam Schiff for leading a coup even as they openly advocate for Venezuela’s military to overthrow the country’s president.
This might all be low-stakes semantics if the threat of coups weren’t used by leaders for such dramatic and damaging political purposes. Turkey is currently detaining tens of thousands of people—and has previously detained hundreds of thousands—with alleged links to an attempted 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In this case it was the quashing of the coup that was a dramatic attack on the country’s democracy and constitutional order—which is why the migration of terms like coup and deep state—another long-standing Turkish tradition—into American political rhetoric is so troubling. Trump’s congressional critics are being accused of an attack on the country’s constitutional order for their attempts to enforce it. Netanyahu’s copycat act shows that other governments are taking note.