In recent weeks, I have seen several stories in which those on the right claim that the FBI and/or Special Counsel Robert Mueller are conducting a “soft coup” against President Trump. Though some have used this rhetoric in the past, it seems that it has migrated recently to more mainstream voices on the right, including former officials, Congressmen, and popular talking heads.
In turn, we have seen the head of the popular conservative organization, Judicial Watch, ask on Fox News, “Do we need to shut down the FBI because it was turned into a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration?” Similarly, Fox News host, Jeanine Pirro, called for a “cleansing” at the FBI, saying, “It’s time to take them out in cuffs.”
This is a disturbing development for a couple reasons. First, though some on the fringes have used this kind of rhetoric in the past (e.g. think Infowars and the like), we are now beginning to see more mainstream right voices and outlets seriously allege that the top federal law enforcement agency and the Special Counsel’s office are engaged in a coup d’etat. This “mainstreaming” of such ideas will inevitably undermine the findings of the ongoing investigations into Trump-Russia collusion and the rule of law with them.
But it is also disturbing because fake coups have been used historically by authoritarians wishing to maintain political control and effect their own coup from within. In the current right-wing discourse, Trump is seen as legitimate because he was elected and any attempt to remove him, even through legal means, amounts to a “coup.” There is a dichotomy in this discourse between elected and coup. The implication is that those who are elected cannot possibly carry out a coup themselves, while any non-electoral means of removing them constitutes a coup.
But, historically, the relationship between elections and coups has been more complicated. In some of the most famous cases of the 20th century, historian Timothy Snyder reminds us that election of a single party sometimes precedes, or is combined with, a coup-from-within by that same party. In his recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, He writes,
Yet the democracies that arose after the First World War (and the Second) often collapsed when a single party seized power in some combination of an election and a coup d’état. A party emboldened by a favorable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might change the system from within. When fascists or Nazis or communists did well in elections in the 1930s or ’40s, what followed was some combination of spectacle, repression, and salami tactics — slicing off layers of opposition one by one. Most people were distracted, some were imprisoned, and others were outmatched. (pp. 27-28)
Likewise, he continues,
When Czechoslovak communists won elections in 1946 and then proceeded to claim full power after a coup in 1948, many Czechoslovak citizens were euphoric. (p. 36)
In an interview with Salon after President Trump’s inauguration, Professor Snyder warned that emergencies, including coups both real and contrived, have served as ready-made justifications for would-be authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power. In the interview, he said that “it’s pretty much inevitable that they [Trump and his supporters] will try” to use some kind of emergency to consolidate their power.
He even provided a timeframe for when this might occur. He said,
You have to accept there is a time frame. Nobody can be sure how long this particular regime change with Trump will take, but there is a clock, and the clock really is ticking. It’s three years on the outside, but in more likelihood something like a year. In January 2018 we will probably have a pretty good idea which way this thing is going.
It is noteworthy that we are seeing the mainstreaming of accusations of a coup d’etat by the so-called “deep state” against Trump pretty much right on cue. I would expect that if we see other indictments by Robert Mueller of Trump associates, White House officials, or family members in the coming weeks, we will also see even more rhetoric about a “coup” coming from voices on the right.
As Snyder reminds us, such tactics are not just a matter for historical curiosity but are still actively used by would-be despots today. In his February 2017 “Reichstag Warning” essay, he says,
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the July 2016 coup attempt—which he has called “terrorism supported by the West”—to justify the arrest of tens of thousands of judges, teachers, university professors, and to call for a referendum this spring that could give him sweeping new powers over the parliament and the judiciary.
When rhetoric of an ongoing “coup” migrates to more “serious” conservative political figures in the United States (e.g. respected GOP Senators), members of the White House staff, or Trump himself, then we will really need to worry.
I plan to monitor for such developments more closely in the coming weeks and months. I will post the results of that monitoring here. Let’s call the project, #CoupWatch. And let’s hope there’s nothing to see.