While many watched the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, with a mixture of amazement and horror, Edward Luttwak viewed the event with the cool, disdainful eye of a professional. A military strategist sometimes called “the Machiavelli of Maryland,” Luttwak is the author of a curious how-to book titled Coup D’État: A Practical Guide (1968). This manual, Luttwak assures readers, “can be compared to a cookery book in the sense that it aims at enabling any layman equipped with enthusiasm—and the right ingredients—to carry out his own coup.”
At least one aspiring usurper seems to have consulted this volume. Luttwak likes to tell the story of how, in the midst of a failed coup in 1972, Moroccan Gen. Mohammad Oufkir was assassinated with a copy of the book in his possession. (Skeptics might note that the anecdote would have been more impressive if Oufkir’s attempted ouster of the Moroccan king had succeeded).
Aside from the theoretical knowledge evinced in his book, Luttwak was also a firsthand participant in Donald Trump’s desperate attempt to hold on to power. On December 14, 2020, Luttwak was part of a group of Trump supporters appointed to the Defense Policy Board, a last-minute bureaucracy-packing appointment seen as a Trumpian effort—albeit a typically ill-conceived and ineffectual one—to gain control over the military.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on January 7, 2021, Luttwak gave a low grade to the “aborted insurrection” of the previous day. Like a professor dismayed by a student who had failed to learn anything, Luttwak claimed,
What happened was certainly not an attempted coup d’état, either. Coups must be subterranean, silent conspiracies that emerge only when the executors move into the seats of power to start issuing orders as the new government. A very large, very noisy and colorful gathering cannot attempt a coup.
Even if you don’t share Luttwak’s politics, it’s possible to agree with his basic assessment of January 6. Throughout the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, I described Trump as working toward a “clown coup”—an attempted subversion of democracy that was doomed to failure because there was no plausible mechanism for subduing the national government. One point I repeatedly stressed was that all evidence indicated that top military brass were actively resisting Trump’s attempt to turn them into a private army. Without necessarily ascribing to military leaders any commitment to constitutional norms, it was clear that they viewed Trump as an unstable buffoon. This frothing former reality-show host was not a man on horseback that any serious officer would risk their career supporting in an extra-constitutional power grab. (Subsequent reporting by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker in The New Yorker on the strife between Trump and the Pentagon has only bolstered this assessment).
The Pentagon is key, because any plausible path to a coup in the United States would require getting the armed wing of the state on board—both the military and a significant chunk of law enforcement. By riling up a mob to attack the Capitol, an act that led to the harming of police officers, Trump pursued a path most likely to alienate the very cadres that you need in order to seize state power by force.
But if Trump was too inept to pull off a real coup, can the same be said of all his political allies? There is mounting evidence that many on the right are taking lessons from the defeat of January 6 to plan the next coup.
On Thursday, Cameron Joseph reported in Vice that Blake Masters, Republican nominee in the Senate race in Arizona, told a GOP group last August that the military had to be purged. “Your entire general class, they’re left-wing politicians at this point,” Masters said. “It’s very hard to become a general without being some kind of left-of-center politician. I would love to see all the generals get fired. You take the most conservative colonels, you promote them to general.”
The idea of American generals’ being “left-wing” in any fashion is ludicrous, unless one believes that anyone who resists Trump’s attempt to subjugate the military to his personal whims is a leftist. More worrying, the politicization of the military by elevating a cadre of ambitious junior officers is what you’d do if you were planning a coup.
Luttwak’s guide to coups offers guidance on this very point. In that book, Luttwak advises any would-be plotter to make lists of junior officers who have been denied promotion. “Of course, colonels have always been prominent in military coups,” Luttwak wryly notes. These lean and hungry types will be excellent fodder, although Luttwak warns that colonels in particular can be hard to control.
The battleground of the coup is not the streets but the corridors of power. As Luttwak observes, the coup “operates in that area outside the government but within the state which is formed by the permanent and professional civil service, the armed forces and police. The aim is to detach the permanent employees of the state from the political leadership.”
If Blake Masters is dreaming of mobilizing junior officers as recruits in a right-wing makeover of the state, the Claremont Institute is focusing its energy on another key agent of state power, sheriffs. The Claremont Institute is the most ardently Trumpist of the think tanks on the right, the home of law professor John C. Eastman, a key architect of Trump’s legal strategy to overturn the 2020 election. The Claremont Institute has started a “Sheriffs Fellowship” to provide ideological training to sheriffs. A fundraising letter made public by Christian Vanderbrouk, a writer for The Bulwark, clarifies the ideological slant of the Sheriffs Fellowship. According to the letter, “One big thing that the riots, lockdowns, and electoral disasters of 2020 make clear is that America and our nation’s conservative movement needs a countervailing network of uncorrupted law enforcement officials.” The letter goes on to say that “the Sheriffs fellowship will play a central role in countering the perversion of the judicial system by which the revolutionary Left seeks to advance its totalitarian agenda.” Vanderbrouk places the letter in the context of other Claremont Institute documents trying to legitimize the 2020 attempted insurrection and future efforts to overturn election results. Vanderbrouk concludes, “The message is clear: do whatever it takes to crush your opponents and all will be forgiven in the second Trump term.”
In his newsletter “Unpopular Front,” John Ganz, a keen observer of the right, connects the Sheriffs Fellowship with two earlier far-right formations, the Posse Comitatus and the Constitutional Sheriffs movements, which both encouraged sheriffs to assert extralegal power over elected officials:
Claremont has adopted this rhetoric to connect itself to the currently-existing Constitutional Sheriffs Movement, which boasts hundreds of actual county sheriffs as its members. In doing this, they are seeking to accomplish two apparent goals of their organization: the extension of a network into far-right subcultures and the development of alternate, extra-legal power structures—and now, even armed ones.
It’s important to be measured about the threat: Aspirations are not inevitabilities. In late 2020 and early 2021, Trump clumsily incited his followers—leading to an aborted insurrection that generated real violence but never came close to achieving its goal. Current right-wing attempts to create incentives for power-hungry colonels and sheriffs are dangerous, but they aren’t guaranteed success. They demand vigilance rather than hysteria: The proper political response is to make the Republican Party pay for nursing this large seditionist faction. This has to be made a key election issue. Joe Biden’s speech on the dangers of MAGA Republicans was a good start and needs to be echoed by further warnings that the sequels to the 2021 insurrection are being planned right now.