The French word coup refers to a strike or blow, something sudden and quick. Whatever it is that has been happening in American politics since the media projected Joe Biden’s election victory last Saturday feels like the opposite of that.
For days now, Americans have been in a state of limbo. President Donald Trump has not conceded. His administration refuses to allow the formal transition process to begin. Yet he hasn’t quite made a move to seize a second term, beyond filing a few feeble lawsuits and eliciting some disconcerting statements from senior administration officials.
Nonetheless, the word coup is in the air, as it becomes clear that Trump and the Republican Party are more than willing to use extraconstitutional means to overturn the results of the election—an outrageous situation even if they have almost no chance of success. The word coup has been stretched in recent years to the point that its meaning has become pretty fuzzy. (Trump, for example, inaccurately called his impeachment a “coup”.)
I’m normally all for asking how we would describe U.S. political events if they happened in another country, but in this case, I don’t think we should lose sight of how strange and uniquely American (or at least uniquely Trumpian) our current situation is. What Trump is doing doesn’t resemble most “coups” in the past. Still, we can learn some lessons from those past events.
Technically, what Trump is doing is more like a “self-coup” or autogolpe—when authorities use extraconstitutional means to remain in office or seize more power—rather than a traditional coup d’état, which is when a government is overthrown and replaced. But as political scientist Erica De Bruin wrote for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Trump’s actions don’t really fit either definition. Coups almost always involve some degree of military power:
While most coup attempts are carried out with very little bloodshed, the threat of violence underlies all coups. It is that threat that distinguishes coups from voluntary resignations and other peaceful transfers of power.
Because coups involve the threat of violence, they are difficult to carry out without the backing of the most powerful coercive institution of the state—which explains why the vast majority of coup attempts involve the regular military.
Thankfully, one thing Americans can still count on is a military that mostly stays out of civilian political contests.
There are closer parallels to leaders who, rather than launching a coup, simply ignore elections results they don’t like, such as Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko, who claimed a very dubious landslide victory in elections in August. Lukashenko has faced months of unprecedented mass protests, though for the moment, still seems unlikely to lose power.
In a New York Times news article, the very existence of which is a measure of how bad things have gotten, Andrew Higgins writes, “Among the anti-democratic tactics Mr. Trump has adopted are some that were commonly employed by leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia—refusing to concede defeat and hurling unfounded accusations of electoral fraud.”
The difference is that Trump isn’t actually presenting evidence of fraud—real or fabricated—that would come anywhere close to overturning the election. And thankfully, he’s also not in a position to use state violence to force officials, courts, or the media to change the result for him. This isn’t to defend Trump’s actions—he probably would use these tactics if he could—but to point out that so far, at least, he’s not doing the things that have previously helped authoritarians successfully overturn elections.
Even if what’s happening in the U.S. right now isn’t really a coup, Trump’s actions have a similar corrosive effect on the country’s political culture. We can take the warning signs from other countries’ histories. Political scientists have identified a phenomenon known as the “coup trap,” in which countries that have experienced coups in the recent past are more likely to have more of them. The “political culture of a country suffers serious erosion in the wake of a coup,” wrote political scientists John Londregan and Keith Poole in 1990.* “Once the ice is broken, more coups follow. And once the structure of civilian authority and constitutional procedures are torn down, many years are required to rebuild them.” Examples of coup traps include Thailand, which has had more than a dozen military coups over the past century, and Turkey, which saw three coups between 1960 and 1980, a “postmodern” coup in 1997, and a failed coup in 2016 that led to a massive government crackdown on its opponents. Mali, which in August suffered its second military coup in a decade, is another.
Republicans are drawing up a playbook that won’t soon be forgotten. Trump and his allies have identified vulnerabilities in the system—the willingness of courts to challenge late-arriving ballots, the role of state legislatures in setting election law, the fact that the outgoing administration can simply refuse to start the formal transition process—that could be more effectively exploited if the election were closer or the people in power more competent.
What Trump is doing is unprecedented, but it’s also setting a precedent.
Correction, Nov. 13, 2020: This post originally misspelled John Londregan’s last name.