Donald Trump was destined to become even more authoritarian after being soundly defeated for a second time at the ballot box. It’s not his temperament to be a Cincinnatus or a George Washington, a leader happy to be relieved of the burden of power so he can return to domestic tranquility. Trump’s narcissism is ill-equipped to brook rejection. He also has very good legal reasons to fear that once shorn of the special legal impunity granted sitting presidents, he’ll be a ripe target for criminal investigation and prosecution.
There is no surprise in seeing Trump refuse to accept the results of last week’s election. He keeps insisting he’s the victim of a rigged game and has launched multiple lawsuits to overturn the results in swing states. Even worse, congressional Republicans have overwhelmingly either supported Trump or kept quiet. In the Senate, only a handful of senators have even acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory, and these are all figures who are on the fringes of the party’s politics: Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Ben Sasse.
Equally worrisome is the fact that Trump has launched a purge of high-ranking law enforcement, intelligence, and military officials. There are reports that he wants to fire FBI Director Chris Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel. CNN reporter Ryan Browne tweets, “Pentagon finally confirms near total decapitation of civilian leadership in the last 24 hours. Secretary of Defense Esper fired Monday, the top Pentagon Policy official, top Defense Department intelligence official, and chief of staff to the Defense Secretary all out today.” All these officials have been replaced by Trump loyalists.
Given both the election antics and the military purge, there are fears, sounded not just by the left but also by centrists, that Trump is trying to pull off a coup. David Sirota of The Daily Poster warns that “Donald Trump and his cronies are quite clearly waging a public-facing campaign designed to create the conditions for the Electoral College process to pull off a coup.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper made note of the fact that the White House “is firing top leaders at the Pentagon while the president denies the election results.” Ronald Brownstein, an eminently centrist liberal and senior editor at The Atlantic, asked, “Is it alarmist to note Trump is installing loyalists at the Pentagon precisely as he muscles virtually the entire GOP into either embracing his unfounded claims of fraud or at least refusing to acknowledge Biden victory? Biden is casually dismissing it all as irrelevant? Is it?”
Brownstein’s questions aren’t alarmist at all. Trump has the clear inclination and motives to push for a coup. As I argued before the election, if Trump does try to destroy American democracy, the left should organize and take to the streets. As a precautionary measure, unions and activist groups should have contingency plans for moment’s-notice mass mobilization.
Yet, while the threat is real, it is by no means certain. My colleague Elie Mystal has done an excellent job explaining why there is little ground to worry about Trump’s lawsuits, which are too absurd to be even dignified as frivolous. To overturn election results in several states, you would need proof of widespread voter fraud. To date, there is no evidence of that, as even Trump’s lawyers admitted in a Pennsylvania courthouse.
In a comprehensive investigation into voter fraud, The New York Times reported, “Election officials in dozens of states representing both political parties said that there was no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race, amounting to a forceful rebuke of President Trump’s portrait of a fraudulent election.”
One of the major cases cited by Republicans as proof of voter fraud has completely fallen apart. As The Washington Post reports, “A Pennsylvania postal worker whose claims have been cited by top Republicans as potential evidence of widespread voting irregularities admitted to U.S. Postal Service investigators that he fabricated the allegations, according to three officials briefed on the investigation and a statement from a House congressional committee.”
If Trump is having no luck in courtroom challenges, there is still the worry he can order the military to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. But this worry is notably ungrounded in evidence that the military would obey. In fact, senior officers resisted Trump’s demand to intervene against Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer.
Shortly before the election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and other top generals held an off-the-record meeting with television news anchors. According to Axios, “Milley told the anchors that the U.S. military would have no role whatsoever in a peaceful transfer of power.” There’s every reason to think the officer class would resist intervening on Trump’s behalf. And not necessarily out of a sense of honor or a commitment to the Constitution. The top brass know they preside over a military that is 45 percent nonwhite, so aligning themselves with a figure as racially polarizing as Trump could split the ranks. A more competent and palatable demagogue might actually get military support in a coup situation.
Trump’s purge of the military’s civilian leadership seems to be motivated by a desire to selectively declassify information in order to refute the Russiagate investigation. This might well be an abuse of power and could also, as some journalists claim, endanger national security. But it is very different than a coup. It is more accurately viewed as a cover-up.
With Trump, it is always important to keep an eye out not just for his outward bluster but also his interior motives. Aside from the cover-up, he’s also interested in keeping his con game afloat. He’s now raising hefty sums from his followers for a supposed election defense fund. But as Talking Points Memo reports, “In reality, there is no election defense fund; the donations are siphoned into a mix of various committees. Up until Tuesday, some of the money was being used to pay down the Trump campaign’s debt. As of Tuesday morning though, the formula was changed to funnel most of the money into Trump’s new leadership PAC called Save America.”
None of this is reason for complacency. Trump’s worrisome actions demand vigilance, rebuke, and congressional sanction. They do not, as yet, require that we panic. Now is the time to keep the powder dry. The triggering event that requires mass mobilization might come soon and progressives need to prepare. But there is nothing to gain—and a potential cost in exhaustion and wasted resources—in sounding the alarm too early.