No, We are Not Living Through a “Coup Attempt”

One consequence of social polarization in American politics has been an increase in public accusations of “coups” and “treason.” This trend is not exclusive to the Right .“Social polarization” a concept coined by the political scientist Lilliana Mason, involves increasing animosity toward the opposing party and its supporters as well as increasing social distance from those identified with the other party. A paradigm example of social polarization is the declining fraction of people who would be comfortable with their son or daughter marrying someone in different political party. Social polarization also involves feelings of contempt for one’s political opponents and a tendency to see them as enemies.

There has been plenty of analysis leading up to the recent US election about how Trump might contest the results or refuse to concede. We now know some of these concerns were well-founded: despite no evidence of widespread fraud or malfeasance, Trump and his campaign have tried to undermine the legal vote count and cast doubt on the election’s integrity. His campaign has adopted a legal strategy of throwing out ballots unfavorable to Biden and a media strategy to represent the election as stolen from Trump. I accept this factual premise and find it deeply troubling.

However, it is a profound mistake to characterize the Trump campaign’s actions over the last several days as a “coup” or a “coup attempt.” My objection to Ezra Klein’s choice of words is not, as people say, mere semantics. Calling it a “coup” is inaccurate and needlessly inflammatory. And like many cases of moral overstatement, it shows a lack of understanding of how bad coups actually are.

To illustrate how inaccurate and misleading the label “coup” is, consider how Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky begin their recent book How Democracies Die (pp. 8–9):

At midday on September 11, 1973, after months of mounting tensions in the streets of Santiago, Chile, British-made Hawker Hunter jets swooped overhead, dropping bombs on La Moneda, the neoclassical presidential palace in the center of the city. As the bombs continued to fall, La Moneda burned. President Salvador Allende, elected three years earlier at the head of a leftist coalition, was barricaded inside. During his term, Chile had been wracked by social unrest, economic crisis, and political paralysis. Allende had said he would not leave his post until he had finished his job — but now the moment of truth had arrived. Under the command of General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s armed forces were seizing control of the country. Early in the morning on that fateful day, Allende offered defiant words on a national radio broadcast, hoping that his many supporters would take to the streets in defense of democracy. But the resistance never materialized. The military police who guarded the palace had abandoned him; his broadcast was met with silence. Within hours, President Allende was dead.

Ziblatt and Levitsky is the paradigm example of a literary genre worrying about creeping authoritarianism in the United States under Trump. As the authors immediately note, however, the 1973 Chile coup is precisely the wrong model for understanding the main threats to democracy today:

This is how we tend to think of democracies dying: at the hands of men with guns. During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns…. More recently, military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. In all these cases, democracy dissolved in spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion.

But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.

Coups are swift, decisive, and violent. They are also outside the legal process. By contrast, Trump’s allegations of fraud and calls to stop the count have elicited tepid support from the GOP and have all been framed as legal challenges. The features of a coup, moreover, do not capture threats to democracy that involve using democratic institutions, the courts, and the press against themselves.

The “coup” label is also needlessly inflammatory as well as analytically misleading. Under polarized conditions, we should be extraordinarily careful before describing the legal and media strategy of our political rivals as a “coup.” Labeling something a “coup” entails the use of extreme measures to resist it. If a group attempts a coup against a legitimate regime, for example, you may use violence to resist.

Finally, there is a subtler cost to the casual use of freighted terms like “coup” or “traitor.” As with the wider phenomenon of moral grandstanding, it leads to cynicism about moral discourse and difficulty distinguishing appropriate moral indignation. This makes public discourse and identifying true examples of injustice more difficult.

EDIT: Daniel Drezner and Erica de Bruin explore further problems with describing Trump’s response to the election as a “coup.”

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.