The refusal of Donald Trump and his supporters in the media and Republican Party to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential election has taken an ominous turn. What at first could be discounted as the childish petulance of a sore loser is now morphing into the makings of a constitutional coup. The move is two sided, involving the de-legitimation of the electoral process as a foundational institution of the political system; and the hollowing out and/or partisan stacking of key agencies that otherwise would be the most resistant to that type of subversion. This is, in effect, sedition from within.
In the last days Trump has fired the Secretary of Defense and forced the resignations of key aides, including the DoD Chief of Staff and head of special operations and low intensity conflict. He has replaced them with craven loyalists, including Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, a former Army special forces soldier and recently Director of Counter-Terrorism at the NSC. Miller has an intense hatred for Iran and supports Trump’s efforts to immediately withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in order to re-deploy them on Iran’s Western flank, which in turn will be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump wants to wage on the Persian State. US military commanders object to both the withdrawal and to the lop-sided re-deployment, to say nothing of being drawn into yet another (senseless) war of opportunity.
Trump is rumored to be getting ready to fire the CIA and FBI directors. He has purged professional careerists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and replaced them with hyper partisans. He has politicised and promoted partisans and loyalists in the Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pace of this “purge and replace” process has quickened since Election Day. If he continues to do so, by Inauguration Day he will have cleared a path in the repressive apparatus of so-called “constitutionalists” in favor of loyalists.
The Miller appointment is also ominous because Acting Directors do not need Senate confirmation and one of the main missions of US Army special forces is to train indigenous militias in guerrilla warfare. Already there is speculation that his experience can be used to forge links between DoD, Republican-led state governments and various rightwing militia groups in the event that Trump’s refusal to abdicate turns into physical confrontations between his supporters and Biden supporters and/or local government security agencies. This puts pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and service branch leadership as to what they will do in the event that DoD lends its institutional weight and resources to the pro-Trump insurgents, egged on from within the Oval Office.
The Trump administration has already held a trial run of sorts when it comes to politicised domestic repression. A few months ago armed federal “agents” wearing uniforms without identification were sent into Portland to counter BLM protests. They were not invited by the mayor or the Oregon governor. They stayed for several weeks, making arrests, using batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, seizing people and removing them in unmarked vans to locations outside the city centre. They worked alongside the Portland Police, who in turn cast a blind eye on armed right-wing militants showing up to counter-demonstrate against the BLM crowds. It turns out that these unidentified federal agents were recruited from within the Border Patrol, ICE, Customs and other agencies overseen by DHS. They were removed from Portland when their activities were exposed in the media and were subsequently prohibited by several local jurisdictions–Chicago and New York among them–from deploying there in spite of Trump’s threats to “send them in.”
Then, of course, there was the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by National Guard and other federal security units against peaceful demonstrators in and around Lafayette Square in Washington DC. When DC based National Guard troops–many of them African Americans–baulked at repressing their fellow Washingtonians, Trump had supportive Republican governors supply National Guards from their respective states (National Guard units are commanded by state governors or, in the case of federal territory like the District of Columbia, by the president himself). He went so far as to stage a photo opportunity outside St. Johns Episcopal church adjacent to the square in which the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were paraded out and used as props (both Milley and Esper later claimed that they were unaware of what was going on when they were invited to join the president for a walk into the Square).
Trump has refused to allow Biden to receive the daily intelligence briefs that incoming presidents are normally provided. He has made no plans or engaged in the usual niceties of transitions between administrations. Instead, he has dug his heels in on the fraudulent election claims and in this he has been supported by (with a few exceptions) the Republican Party at all levels, rightwing media, and foreign despots like Jair Bolsonaro. Whether out of prudence or preference, the autocrats running China and Russia have remained silent on the issue.
If Trump is able to corrode the institutional apparatus by hollowing it out and stacking it with cronies, then one of the last defences against a full authoritarian take-over of the executive will have to be the courts. But Trump has the Bill Barr-led Justice department running cover for him, not only in cases involving his administration, his campaign or disputes with Congress, but even attempts to represent him in personal matters such as defence against lawsuits stemming from rape allegations dating back to his days as a private citizen. He has named over 200 judges to federal courts and has successfully placed three Supreme Court judges on the highest bench in the land. He is banking on them coming to his side when push comes to shove regarding the presidency. It remains to be seen if they will do so but the fact that it may even come to that is alarming of itself.
Opinion polls show that Republican voters are much less supportive of democracy as a construct and much more supportive of governments that cater to their policy preferences. That is to say, when it comes to democracy, for US conservatives it is all about deliverables. This is a variant of the old “trains run on time” argument made about Mussolini–that efficiency is more important than representativeness, equality or transparency when it comes to governance. It is this instrumental view of democracy–that it only works or is preferable if it works in one’s (partisan) favour–that under-rides popular support for Trump’s authoritarian moves.
The anti-democratic trend is visible world wide in both new and mature democracies, but in the US it has a distinctly partisan aspect to it. Normally anarchists, communists and assorted other Leftists would be the most opposed to what Lenin called capitalism’s “best possible shell.” But in the US it is the right-wing view that this political shell–bourgeois democracy–covers the work and policies of nefarious liberal elites. QAnon elevated the nefarious nature of elite behaviour into the realm of pedophilia and sex-trafficking in Deep State-operated circles, so the crazy is strong and runs deep on that side of the US ideological ladder.
That is what makes Trump’s moves more alarming than they should be under “normal” circumstances. There are a lot of people who welcome his sedition and in fact want to be part of it. For many it is a defence of the historical status quo that motivates them, heterosexist, patriarchical, racist, xenophobic and classist as that may be. For others it is just an opportunity for taking advantage. Whatever the motivation, this coalition of deplorables are ready, able and willing to join the Trump-led subversion of American political institutions. And they are here to stay whether he remains in office or not.
The danger of a US constitutional coup is compounded by the fact that many people in and outside the federal bureaucracy do not believe that “it can happen here.” For every MAGA maniac frothing about the Deep State, there are many reasonable others who believe that the US institutional foundation is too solid to be usurped or overthrown. They simply cannot grasp the notion that a coup can occur in the US, much less one that is carried out quietly, incrementally and from within the State apparatus. And yet for the entirety of his presidency, Trump has been preparing the ground for exactly that, using the justifications of “draining the swamp” and fighting the Deep State as the cover for his seditious intent.
That brings up the question about Republicans. Although it is widely understood that they at first thought that they could control Trump and bend him in their preferred image, by now they must realise that was a pipe dream. So the question of the moment is why do major components of the Republican Party and rightwing ecosystem continue to cling to him after the election and tie themselves to his attempts to overturn the results? Is it their desire to ride his political coattails? Or what he could do to them down the road? Is it fear of what his MAGA base can do to them now and down the road? Or are they sincere in thinking that the election was stolen (only where he lost) and that usurping the constitution and institutional foundations is justified by that circumstance even if it destroys the Republic?
It may pay for the GOP to remember that Trump was a Democrat before he switched to being a Republican ten years ago. It may pay for them to recall that he said that he switched because Republican voters were dumb and it was easier to dupe them. It may pay for them to remember that before he embraced evangelical Xtians he led a degenerate atheist lifestyle that has only been slightly tempered by his move into public office. It may pay for them to remember how he turns on those in their ranks who question his actions, and on Fox News when it stops blindly cheerleading for him. Because what that should tell them is that their loyalty to him is not reciprocal, and that his actions are based in personal self-interest, not principle or partisan conviction. That is the ultimate motivation for his sedition from within.
It may seem far-fetched, but of this the US constitutional coup could be made.