There will not be a peaceful transition of power between the 45th and 46th American presidents. The country’s leaders and its leading institutions—the traditional ones, not the Trump ones—spent four years promising that transition, despite everything Donald Trump might say to the contrary. It was the safe, secure alternative to other, more confrontational courses of action, the fallback plan when congressional subpoenas, judicial oversight, and even impeachment turned out to be toothless: Let the voters decide, trust the Constitution, and this will pass.
No matter how this administration eventually gives way to the next one, the promise of a peaceful transition has already failed. It failed on live video, over the course of hours. The president told his supporters he would never accept the results of the election he lost, he urged them to go to the Capitol to support him, and they complied. Trump’s loyalists stormed in on the official counting of the electoral votes, forcing the legislators to break it off, hide under their desks, and then flee the building. The invaders looted souvenirs; police shot a woman dead.
The Trump era (and American history, of which it is a part) has been defined by a stubborn, fretful failure to call things what they are. Bribery, ethnic cleansing, kidnapping, murder—surely the president didn’t really do these things. He couldn’t have meant them that way. Not seriously, or not literally.
Seriously, literally, actually: On Jan. 6, at the president’s direction, the constitutionally scheduled process for the transfer of power was interrupted by violence. By night, police had cleared the building, and Congress set out to try again.
In the meantime, the National Guard was called in for additional security—but not on the president’s orders. By the account of the secretary of defense (or the acting secretary, in the preexisting shambles of the Trump administration), the decision to deploy the guard was made in consultation with Vice President Mike Pence and the leaders of Congress.
This was not a minor distinction. Earlier in the day, Trump denounced Pence to his followers after the vice president, preparing to oversee the Electoral College count, publicly denied that he had the power to personally reject the votes, as the president claimed he did, because he wanted him to do it. Trump kept attacking Pence on Twitter even after the vice president had been taken underground by the Secret Service to escape the president’s mob.
That is: Confronted with this split between the president and the vice president, the military rejected its constitutional commander in chief and sided with Pence. It was the reasonable thing to do, with political violence spinning out of control in the nation’s capital.
From the home stretch of the campaign through Election Day and beyond, as Trump made ever more false and fantastic claims of election fraud, and pursued ever more outlandish theories of how to overturn the results, there was a running debate about what exactly would qualify as a “coup.” Animating it all was a sense of condescension and unreality: A coup is a thing that happens in other, more backward nations, often with our help. Coups are not the sort of thing that could happen here (even if, historically, they did).
Technically, the coup experts pointed out, if Trump did seize another term, the correct term would be autogolpe, not coup, since he would simply be an existing president extending his own rule, rather than an outsider overthrowing an incumbent. This was clever in a way that missed the entire point: The United States isn’t ruled by a president, but by an agreement about how the office of president is filled, through elections, on an established timetable. A president of the United States who stays on after losing an election would automatically become something else.
Donald Trump and his Republican supporters have been playing with the idea of that something else for long time. It has been tawdry and stupid, with Four Seasons Landscaping and sweaty hair dye. But as the Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva wrote early in the process, coups look stupid until you understand they’re real. Trump and his lackeys have been attacking the election that defines the presidency, telling their supporters that it wasn’t legitimate, that the other side’s votes didn’t exist. When the mob reached the Capitol, Republican lawmakers were in the middle of saying so in their official capacity, delaying the official count to make speeches about how Biden could not possibly have won, how Trump had bigger rally crowds, how some power greater than the officially tabulated and certified votes of the states was what they really believed in.
And then the doors broke down and the glass shattered and the power that their president kept invoking was loose in the halls of Congress. The Constitution was on the run, and the armed forces had a decision to make. The answer to a coup was a countercoup. Inauguration Day may still come on time, and the voters may see Joe Biden sworn in as president. But it won’t be because the system survived.