Donald Trump’s pitiful attempts to cling to power have made a farce out of one of the key rituals of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. Trump refuses to concede, is flooding the courts with frivolous lawsuits designed to stop certification of the vote, keeps urging state legislators to intervene in the picking of electors, and is egging on street conflicts between his supporters and his opponents. All of this is dismaying and destructive to democracy, but unlikely to result in the coup Trump so clearly wants. The key institutions that Trump needs for a coup—the courts, the military, and Republican state legislators in swing states—are all resisting Trump’s cajoling.
On Sunday night, Trump tweeted, “I WON THE ELECTION!” Aspirational proclamations, even with all-caps and an exclamation mark, can’t change reality. Trump has lost the election.
But even as Trump’s performative coup is failing, a little-noticed news story highlights the fact that Trump’s threat to democracy goes well beyond his public antics. Behind closed doors, Trump is a very different figure from the aspiring Mussolini of his public pronouncements. Singularly ignorant of the mechanics of policy-making and the most intellectually incurious president in history, Trump is an easy mark for entrenched interests who want to manipulate him to secure their agenda.
Trump has outsourced almost all the consequential decisions of his presidency, perhaps nowhere more than in foreign policy. This has led not to the playacting coup that Trump is now pushing but to a genuine erosion of democracy.
On November 12, Defense One, a news site devoted to national security, published an interview with outgoing Syria envoy Jim Jeffrey where he boasted about using deception to thwart Trump’s attempts to draw back troops from the Middle East. A career civil servant who has held top positions in many administrations, Jeffrey is the embodiment of the national security establishment that has successfully commandeered foreign policy in the power vacuum created by Trump’s feckless leadership.
In December of 2018, Trump ordered the removal of troops from Syria. This led to pushback from the foreign policy establishment, with Defense Secretary James Mattis resigning in protest. Behind the scenes, military leaders and their allies in the government were able to make sure Trump’s orders weren’t carried out. “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal,” Jeffrey told Defense One. “When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”
But this policy achievement was built on lies. Trump was led to believe the United States had only 200 troops in Syria. In reality, more than 900 military personnel continue to be part of the mission. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey confessed. The real number was always “a lot more than” Trump thought.
Jeffrey is proud of his actions and believes that under Trump the American government has achieved a level of stability in the Middle East that eluded George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But this political achievement, even if one accepts Jeffrey’s goal to bolster Middle East autarchies, was built on lies that undermine American democracy. Trump, like him or not, was duly elected and sworn into office. The control of foreign and military policy by elected officials is essential. Trump, to be sure, bears much of the blame for this travesty. All presidents have to fight a recalcitrant bureaucracy, but Trump, because of his limited understanding of how policy is made and his unrivaled laziness, didn’t even bother to put up a fight. Presidents like Nixon and Obama have achieved foreign policy breakthroughs by outsmarting the national security establishment. Trump never lifted a finger to push for his goals.
The Trump era has been characterized by not just one coup attempt but rather a series of rolling coups—some by Trump himself and some against him. The coups that have empowered the national security establishment are especially worrying.
Bob Woodward’s Fear opens with a striking example of Trump’s weakness in the face of staffers whose true loyalty is to the national security establishment. In September 2017, Trump wrote a letter to the president of South Korea ending the free trade agreement the United States had with that country. According to Woodward, Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn and his staff secretary Rob Porter were extremely agitated by that letter, fearing it would endanger relations with South Korea. Woodward states as a matter of fact that “the American presence in South Korea represents the essence of national security.”
Worried about the consequences of Trump’s gambit, neither Cohn nor Porter tried to talk him out of it. Instead, Cohn simply pilfered the letter. “I stole it off his desk,” Cohn explained. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”
When other copies of the letter were produced, Porter stole those. The gambit was that Trump would eventually forget that he wrote the letter. This proved to be the case. The theft of the letters ended Trump’s attempt to use trade as a diplomatic weapon against South Korea.
According to Woodward, “It was no less than an administrative coup d’état, an undermining of the will of the president of the United States and his constitutional authority.” Woodward presents this coup as wholly admirable and necessary. He paints a glowing picture of Cohn (“6-foot-3, bald, brash and full of self-confidence”) and Porter (“6-foot-4, rail-thin…an organization man with little flash who had attended Harvard and Harvard Law School and been a Rhodes Scholar”). The narrative Woodward constructed is of brave government officials protecting national security from Trump’s worst instincts. Woodward glosses over the inconvenient fact that Trump was elected while Cohn and Porter were not. Nor is the national security establishment, which set the values Cohn and Porter adhered to, elected.
Trump styles himself as a populist champion fighting the “deep state.” In reality, the deep state, if by that we mean the permanent national security establishment, has bested Trump again and again. Trump’s own coups have failed; the national security establishment’s coups have succeeded.
Joe Biden is not likely to face similar coups, if only because he shares the values of the national security establishment. The more worrying legacy of Trump, however, is that some future president might want to actually do what Trump only promised: end the forever wars. This hypothetical future president will face a national security establishment that feels, by the precedents of the Trump era, that it has the right to bamboozle elected officials. Unless there is a reckoning with the national security establishment, American democracy will be at risk. That will remain true even after Trump leaves office.