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.

Election Correction

Almost two years after a defeated president tried to undo the election he lost, Congress has made changes designed to make that kind of thing harder to do. Vox summarized the changes:

States must appoint electors in accordance with state laws “enacted prior to election day” — no mischief allowed after the fact. States have to set the rules of the game before the election, and can’t change them afterward.

The state’s governor has a “duty” to certify appointment of electors. But just in case an election-denying governor plans some shenanigans, … federal courts have oversight over these certifications, and creates a special expedited process by which courts can quickly hear challenges, which could then rapidly be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The vice president’s role in counting electoral votes is “solely ministerial.” He or she “shall have no power to solely determine, accept, reject, or otherwise adjudicate or resolve disputes” over electoral votes.

One representative and senator objecting can no longer break up the vote count — it will take one-fifth of both the House and Senate objecting for that to happen… If the House and Senate do separate to deal with objections, time to debate and vote on each objection is limited to two hours, so no indefinite delays.

The only permissible grounds for an objection are if the electors aren’t lawfully certified, or if an elector vote isn’t regularly given. And Congress must treat certifications from a state’s governor as conclusive except if courts say otherwise….

If some electoral votes aren’t counted for whatever reason, the majority threshold for winning the presidency falls [instead of remaining at 270 electoral votes, since in that situation, 270 would be more than a simple majority].

With a big enough majority, sufficient ingenuity and a lack of shame, future politicians might still find a way to put the loser in the White House. These changes will make that less likely,  but there’s a different, even bigger problem these reforms don’t address: the Constitution sometimes requires that the candidate who got fewer votes wins the election. From The Guardian:

Recent reforms to the laws governing the counting of Electoral College votes for presidential races are “not remotely sufficient” to prevent another attack like the one … at the Capitol on January 6, a member of the congressional committee which investigated the uprising has warned.

In an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation, the Maryland House representative Jamie Raskin … renewed calls echoed by others – especially in the Democratic party to which he belongs – to let a popular vote determine the holder of the Oval Office.

“We should elect the president the way we elect governors, senators, mayors, representatives, everybody else – whoever gets the most votes wins,” Raskin said. “We spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year exporting American democracy to other countries, and the one thing they never come back to us with is the idea that, ‘Oh, that electoral college that you have, that’s so great, we think we will adopt that too’”…

Raskin said the US insistence on determining presidential winners through the Electoral College [which allocates a certain number of votes to each state] facilitated the attempt by [the loser’s] supporters to keep him in power. “There are so many curving byways and nooks and crannies in the electoral college that there are opportunities for a lot of strategic mischief.”

Raskin [argued that the new rules] don’t solve “the fundamental problem” of the Electoral College vote, which in 2000 and 2016 allowed both George W Bush and D___ T___ to win the presidency despite clear defeats in the popular vote….

Many Americans are taught in their high school civics classes that the electoral college prevents the handful of most populated areas in the US from determining the presidential winner because more voters live there than in the rest of the country combined.

[Although] states determine their presidential electoral vote winner by the popular vote, [almost all] give 100% of their electoral vote allotment to the winner of the popular vote even if the outcome is razor-thin. Critics say that, as a result, votes for the losing candidate end up not counting in any meaningful way, allowing for situations where the president is supported only by a minority of the populace….

“I think,” Raskin said, “that the Electoral College … has become a danger not just to democracy, but to the American people”.

And therefore to the world.

He Tried to Pull a Mussolini

Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer asks what would have happened if the Cancer on America had made it to the Capitol on January 6th and what’s going to happen next:

The nation’s right wing — swelled by disgruntled military veterans and those with a penchant for violence — had grown increasingly restless that fall, with occasional street clashes between these reactionaries and anti-fascists on the left. Finally, the leader of the right bloc — a big man who strutted on stage, sometimes buffoonishly — massed his followers and urged them to march on the capital and fight for their country, even though in the end he didn’t march with them.

Instead, Benito Mussolini would get in a car and drive to Rome in October 1922, where he again met up with the throng of as many as 60,000 who’d marched there after the future dictator’s speech to them in Naples. This was the-now notorious March on Rome, and the intimidation of Italy’s ruling elites by this large, angry mob and its “strongman” leader worked beyond anyone’s wildest dream. By month’s end, King Victor Emmanuel III had ceded all political power to Mussolini and the fascists, who would not relinquish it for two decades.

Just four months before the 100th anniversary of what is now seen as the lift-off of modern fascism, we have seen in dramatic fashion how the concept and underlying terror tactics of Mussolini’s March on Rome never went away, but lived on to be modernized by a reality-TV star who’d faked his way into the White House and was determined to stay there.

Tuesday’s riveting testimony before the House Jan. 6 Committee by former D___ Trump White House insider Cassidy Hutchinson … revealed just how close T____ came to a true Mussolini moment: His own plan to “march” on the U.S. Capitol.

The now 26-year-old Hutchinson — deputy to T____’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, embedded in the then-president’s inner circle on Jan. 6, 2021 — testified under oath that T____ knew that his supporters were heavily armed when he exhorted them to march from a rally near the White House to the Capitol, where the ceremony to certify President Biden’s win was beginning.

… Hutchison confirmed prior suggestions that the 45th president had demanded to go to the Capitol, where he would have stood among Proud Boys and others launching a violent assault on democracy.

I’m the effing president — take me up to the Capitol right now,” T____ is said to have bellowed at the head of his security detail, as Hutchinson said was related to her that afternoon by Secret Service-connected deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato in the presence of that security head, Robert Engle. But the president was overruled by aides who insisted his security could not be guaranteed at or near the wild and increasingly violent melee.

To experts on authoritarianism — who’ve been some of the most reliable tour guides during the long, strange trip of America’s last seven years — T___’s scheme was an effort to create a legend, reassert his leadership, and reverse his embarrassment over losing the election to Biden by 7 million votes.

As Hutchinson was testifying, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the New York University historian who’d specialized in Mussolini and wrote the book Strongmen, tweeted that “of course T____ was trying to get to the Capitol. A coup leader must be there to bless the new order birthed by violence and be acclaimed as savior by the crowd.”

I reached out to Ben-Ghiat to follow up on this. She told me that Jan. 6 was essentially “a cult leader rescue operation,” in which T____ “prepped his followers for months to be outraged at their hero being robbed of what was rightfully his, and then summoned them to the Capitol to save America by saving him.” She had written recently that the moment T____ hoped to achieve — restoring his movement’s warped sense of justice and order — is what is known as “the pronunciamiento.”

June 28, 2022, was a devastating day for T____ … Over just a couple of hours, Hutchinson laid out a compelling case that he and his closest aides knew the potential for violence on Jan. 6 and knew that morning of dangerous weapons, yet still sought mayhem at the Capitol when the votes were to be counted. She showed how T____ not only had no real interest in calling off the insurrectionists but supported their chants to hang Mike Pence. Most aides, she testified, knew what they were doing was against the law, either from their in-house legal advice or the pathetic last-minute begging for pardons….

But … what if the Secret Service and other aides had indeed kowtowed to “the (expletive deleted) president” and driven him to the Capitol? How might that have changed the course of the attempted and ultimately failed coup that was underway?

… T____’s physical presence could have intensified the violence [and] prolonged it…. If that had happened, it might have been unsafe for Vice President Mike Pence and Congress to resume Biden’s certification. T____ might have declared the national emergency that the worst of his advisors had been urging.

Simply put, Hutchinson’s testimony showed how close … the American Experiment came to bursting into flames.

Which is why “what next?” is so important. Just how, exactly, will the slow-moving Justice Department of Attorney General Merrick Garland respond to the increasingly mapped-out-for-them case that T____, his lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, and others took part in a criminal conspiracy in fomenting the insurrection?

The Magic 8 Ball is very cloudy…. There are understandable reasons to fear indicting T____, which would surely heighten the partisan divisions in America…  But recent events, from political violence to a rogue Supreme Court that was molded by T____, suggest that unrest is happening, no matter what. The real pressure is not to keep a false calm but to do the right thing, with the future of America on the line. D____ T____ [and his co-conspirators] must be brought to justice.

What He Knew and When He Knew It

Charles Pierce of Esquire points out a big difference between the Watergate scandal and the attempted coup that led to January 6th:

As it happens, Tuesday was a kind of anniversary. On June 28, 1973, Senator Howard Baker, Jr. (R-Tenn) of the Senate Select Committee On Presidential Campaign Practices —the Watergate committee — began his questioning of former White House counsel John Dean, who had spent several days laying out with bloodless precision what would become known as “the White House horrors”. Baker asked the question that made him famous.

The central question at this point is simply put: What did the President know and when did he know it?

Nobody asked Cassidy Hutchinson that question. It was moot. The answer, as she spent Tuesday telling the committee, was “Everything” and “Immediately”.

The Insurrection Was Only One Step in the Attempted Coup

The radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court didn’t get a chance to overturn the 2020 election, although given how five Republican justices handed the presidency to George Bush in 2000, they might have been willing. 

It’s important to distinguish between the attempted coup and the January 6th insurrection. Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton advisor, explained the distinction on January 6, 2022, for The Guardian:

The insurrection was not the coup itself. It was staged as the coup was failing. The insurrection and the coup were distinct, but the insurrection emerged from the coup. It has been a common conceptual error to consider the insurrection alone to be the coup. The coup, however, was an elaborate plot developed over months to claim that the votes in the key swing states were fraudulent, for Mike Pence as the presiding officer of the joint session of the Congress to declare on that basis that the certification of the presidential election on the constitutionally mandated date could not be done, to force that day to pass into a twilight zone of irresolution, for House Republicans to hold the floor brandishing the endless claims of fraud, to move the decision to the safe harbor of the House of Representatives, voting by states, with a majority of 26 controlled by the Republican party, to deny both the popular vote and the electoral college vote to retain T____ in office, for protests to breakout at federal buildings, and for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to impose law and order.

Presumably, any gesture to forestall the coup by the joint chiefs would be communicated at once to T____ from his agent, Kash Patel, a former aide to far-right representative Devin Nunes), sworn enemy of the “Deep State”, embedded as chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, and presidential orders would be issued to countermand. The rally on 6 January – “will be wild”, T____ promised – was a last-ditch attempt to intimidate the vice-president with the threat of violence into fulfilling his indispensable role in the coup, to lend support to the Republicans objecting to certification, and to delay the proceedings into a constitutional no man’s land. …

The insurrection may also have been intended to provide a pretext for precipitating clashes with anti-T____ demonstrators, following the example of the street violence and multiple knife stabbings perpetrated in Washington by the neo-Nazi Proud Boys chanting “1776” on 12 December, and which would then be an excuse for invoking the Insurrection Act. In the criminal contempt citation of Meadows for his refusal to testify before the select committee investigating the US Capitol attack, the committee noted that Meadows sent an email the day before the assault to an unnamed individual “that the national guard would be present to ‘protect pro-T____ people’ and that many more would be available on standby”. From whom would “pro-T____ people” be protected?

In the midst of the attack, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, managed to reach a preoccupied T____, who was riveted viewing the unfolding chaos on television at the White House, closely monitoring whether the coup would finally succeed, taking phone calls from Jim Jordan and a host of collaborators, and fending off urgent pleas to call it off … T____’s first reply to McCarthy was to repeat “the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol”, according to the Republican representative Jaime Herrera Beutler.

McCarthy argued: “It’s not Antifa, it’s Maga. I know. I was there.” “Well, Kevin,” said T____, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” McCarthy inquired in an uncharacteristic display of testosterone that soon was replaced with his regular order of servility …. The absence of antifa, and McCarthy’s refusal in the heat of the moment to lend credence to the phantom menace, may have condemned any false-flag thought of invoking the Insurrection Act. Meanwhile, the bayonet-ready national guard idly awaited orders for hours to quell the actual insurrection. …

The coup was hardly T____’s full-blown brainchild. It was packaged for him. It was adapted, enhanced and intensified from longstanding Republican strategies for voter suppression. The coup was a variation on the theme from a well-worn playbook. T____ eagerly grasped for the plan handed to him.

More than a year before the election of 2020, in August 2019, conservative operatives in closely connected rightwing organizations began preparing a strategy for disputing election results. A “Political Process Working Group” focused on “election law and ballot integrity” was launched by Lisa Nelson, the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), heavily funded by the Koch brothers’ dark money syndicate, the Donors Trust. …

The investigative reporter Anne Nelson, in her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, describes the CNP as a nexus of “the manpower and media of the Christian right with the finances of western plutocrats and the strategy of rightwing Republican political operatives”.

A board member of the CNP, Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer at the center of a host of rightwing groups, assumed control over the Alec-originated project and moved it forward. Mitchell was instrumental in devising the blueprint for the coup. On 10 December 2020, 65 leading members of the CNP signed a succinct step-by-step summary of the completely elaborated plot that went little noticed except on the coup-friendly rightwing website Gateway Pundit:

The evidence overwhelmingly shows officials in key battleground states – as the result of a coordinated pressure campaign by Democrats and allied groups – violated the constitution, state and federal law in changing mail-in voting rules that resulted in unlawful and invalid certifications of Biden victories. There is no doubt President D____ J T____ is the lawful winner of the presidential election. Joe Biden is not president-elect. Accordingly, state legislatures in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan should exercise their plenary power under the constitution and appoint clean slates of electors to the electoral college to support President T____. Similarly, both the House and Senate should accept only these clean electoral college slates and object to and reject any competing slates in favor of Vice-President Biden from these states. Conservative leaders and groups should begin mobilizing immediately to contact their state legislators, as well as their representatives in the House and Senate, to demand that clean slates of electors be appointed in the manner laid out in the US constitution.

Mitchell was by then a T____ campaign legal adviser, with direct access to T____ and working on the Georgia challenge to the results.