Setting the Stage for a Future Coup

Two years after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, while we wait for more conspirators to be indicted, it’s worth considering why the coup failed and how a future coup might succeed.

Fintan O’Toole writes for the Irish Times and teaches at Princeton. His article for The New York Review of Books is called “Dress Rehearsal”. Here are some selections (the whole article is worth reading — it’s behind a relatively porous paywall):

To understand the attempted coup that culminated in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it is useful to go back to D___ T___’s immediate response to the election he actually won, in 2016. The head of his transition team, Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, presented T___ with a detailed plan for the transfer of power to his incoming administration. It was literally trashed. As Christie recalled…  “All thirty binders were tossed in a T____ Tower dumpster, never to be seen again.”

T____ didn’t want an orderly transition to his own presidency, let alone to Joe Biden’s. To a raging narcissist a plan is an impertinence, a Lilliputian restraint on the inspired instincts of a giant. But for a seditious conspiracy (or what the House inquiry has characterized as an “insurrection” in its recommendation of charges that should be brought against T____) to succeed, a plan is imperative. T____’s fundamental problem was that his putative second transition was every bit as cack-handed as his first.

Two years on from January 6, the most important question about the coup is why it failed. Or to put it another way: If you were planning a future coup, what could you learn from this one? From the evidence accumulated by the House of Representatives inquiry into the attack, two aspects of this failure are obvious. Too many Republican officials in crucial states refused to subvert their own elections. And what we might call the institutional right—D____ T____’s appointees to the judiciary and the Department of Justice—did not support the conspiracy. Yet the most important factor may be one that is much more intangible. At its heart was T____’s political persona…..

In his 2004 book T____: How to Get Rich, the ersatz mogul set out his rules for success. One was “Be a good storyteller. People like stories, and they’ll remember them.” Another was:

In business—every business—the bottom line is understanding the process. If you don’t understand the process, you’ll never reap the rewards of the process…. Part of the process is doing your homework. You have to know what you’re getting into first.

In the business of staging a coup, T____ violated both these rules. He never managed to settle on a good story. And he did not do enough homework to understand and master the process of retaining the presidency after a clear electoral defeat.

A coup, in this context, does not mean tanks on the streets, helicopter gunships strafing public buildings, thousands of people rounded up by soldiers, and a junta of generals or colonels addressing the nation on TV. On the contrary, the story that needed to be told by the plotters of 2020–2021 was not the overthrow of democracy, but its defense. T____, as his chief of staff and co-conspirator Mark Meadows put it …, was merely seeking “to uphold the democratic process.” In any conceivable future coup, this will again be the necessary narrative. We won, they are stealing our victory, we need to take extraordinary measures to defend democracy.

It is important for actual democrats to understand this. Dark fantasies about martial law and mass repression may deliver a certain masochistic thrill. Yet the lesson from the events of two years ago is that, spectacularly horrifying as it was, the attack on the Capitol was not the main event. It was a poorly conceived and (by T____) badly led reaction to the failure of the much more feasible coup—which T____ just might have pulled off in November or December 2020. He lost that opportunity because he could not create the necessary heroic drama—the one in which he was not sullenly subverting the presidential election but selflessly upholding its real results.

In fashioning of this drama, T____ had one great advantage—five years of preparation. He had, from the start of his run for the Republican nomination, insisted that “our system is absolutely, totally rigged.” Before both the 2016 and the 2020 elections, he refused, on this basis, to commit to accepting the declared results. There was never any real doubt that if he lost in 2020, he would refuse to concede defeat. We know from the House committee hearings that T____’s announcement on election night that “frankly, we did win this election. . . . We want all voting to stop” had been planned well in advance…. On election day, T____ discussed … an earlier memo [that] laid out plans for the president to demand that only the votes tallied by the end of that day should count.

This was the essence of the coup. What is remarkable, however, is the absence of any real plan to enforce it. Here is the first of T____’s misunderstandings about the nature of his own power. It was not feasible for any president simply to order all voting to stop. What was important to the plot was that, having laid down this marker, T____ and his fellow plotters follow it up by creating and sustaining a story in which any vote not counted by his arbitrary deadline was illegitimate. They failed to do this because T____ stupidly believed in his own fictional creation—the mogul from The Apprentice whose orders will be obeyed unquestioningly by subordinates. It is clear from his subsequent reactions that T____ genuinely believed that those minions would include his attorney general, William Barr, his own federal judicial appointees, and the Supreme Court on which he had created a solid right-wing majority.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this institutional obstruction left T____ with no options other than the final desperate maneuvers of January 6, when he tried to get Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election results and sent an armed mob to attack the Capitol and intimidate the members of Congress. To understand what Trump could have done instead, it is necessary to revisit a long meeting at the White House on the evening and night of December 18, 2020. This episode is easy to dismiss because it was described as “unhinged” and because the proposals aired at it were called “nuts” by [January 6th committee witnesses]. These characterizations are accurate. Yet the meeting matters for two reasons. The first is that it immediately preceded T____’s fateful decision to summon his followers to Washington on January 6. The other is that one of the ideas put forward at this meeting would be of great interest to any future conspirator….

Yet somewhere amid this craziness was the nearest thing the whole plot ever got to a potentially viable plan to overturn the election. Essentially, T___ would appoint [Michael] Flynn as [the leader] of a military-led operation to oversee a hand recount of votes in the six most narrowly contested states:

General Flynn drafted a beautiful operational plan for such a mission. One signature from the President and the whole thing would roll. The teams would be created from the right National Guard Units, the right directives to each…

[Sidney] Powell, meanwhile, would be appointed as special counsel, with powers to seek out and prosecute those responsible for the gigantic electoral fraud….

The most basic requirement was to create a public narrative in which [a] foreign power was identified [as behind the fraud]. Since there was no actual evidence, the plotters were free to invent whatever tale they wanted. Given that T____ had decided months before the election that he was going to claim victory regardless of the actual votes, there was plenty of time to prepare a dossier full of charts and figures and fake “intelligence.” (Think Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.) But the conspirators were like a dog chasing a flock of pigeons—they ran so excitedly after so many targets that they could never catch hold of any particular one….

Having seized control of the voting machines through some kind of military task force, there would then be a live TV event in which all of the paper ballots in the six most contested states would be counted in front of the cameras…. By appearing to commit to conceding defeat if no discrepancies were found, T____ could pose, as he had to do if a coup were to succeed, as the defender of American democracy. It goes without saying that, under Flynn’s watchful eye, discrepancies would have been found … just enough in each state to flip the election.”

Most importantly, there would be a public drama, an elaborate spectacle of “democracy” in action. It is not hard to imagine how T____s enablers in the media would sell this show: Why are the Democrats afraid to see what the paper ballots say? The mechanics of this performance remain obscure. How were “discrepancies” to be created? What would the Supreme Court have done? To have a chance of success, the plan would surely have to have been put into effect much earlier—well before the Electoral College met on December 14 to confirm Biden’s victory.

Yet [the plan had] the germ of the right idea. The best way to steal a presidential election would indeed be through a staged display of democratic process backed by elaborate precooked “evidence” of foreign conspiracy and amplified by Fox News, social media campaigns, and other media. This is the upside-down shape of a successful American coup. Democracy is destroyed by the enactment of its protection. Conspirators succeed by foiling a “conspiracy.”

The author then discusses the former president’s violent rhetoric and the events of January 6th.This is how the article ends:

In the 187 minutes between the end of T____’s speech [on January 6th] and the time he finally called off the mob, he seems to have lost all sense of the relationship between words and actions, between incitement and murder. He sat at the head of the table in the private dining room off the Oval Office watching the mayhem on Fox News. His reaction to the chants of “Hang Mike Pence” was relayed by [Mark] Meadows to [Pat] Cipollone: “You heard him, Pat, he thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” Around the time that members of Pence’s security detail were making what they thought might be their last calls to their families, T____ sent an incendiary signal to the attackers, tweeting, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.”

T____, at that point, was implicitly providing a mandate for murder. But this could no longer really be called an attempted coup. Neither T____ nor his fellow plotters had the slightest idea what they would do after Pence, and presumably members of Congress, of both parties, were murdered. This was not a plan for the seizing and holding of power. It was a dark fantasy of personal revenge. Oddly, T____sent that tweet at the moment he really accepted that he was a loser—that unbearable realization made it necessary that someone be sacrificed on the altar of his humiliation. When even that became impossible, there was nothing left to do but cancel the whole show.

If it happens again, it will probably not happen like this. The pilot episode was a disaster because it had no coherent script, too many ham actors, too weak a grasp on the difference between gestures and consequences. But there is much to learn from it. Next time, if there is one, the plot will be much tighter, the action less outlandish, the logistics much better prepared, the director more competent. And the show will be called Defending Democracy.