Can Trump really stage a coup? Experts weigh in on whether it's possible

Professors and pundits have a few theories on whether President Trump is serious about refusing to leave office

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 10, 2020 8:18PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

For the first time in history, an incumbent president is refusing to concede after clearly and indisputably losing a presidential election. That's making observers, citizens, and experts nervous that Trump may be preparing to stage a coup of some sort, or perhaps call again on his supporters to commit violence to sustain his rule. 

Though it sounds alarmist, such happenings are certainly not unprecedented in the global arena; the United States frequently interferes with the Democratic process in other countries, and often undermines it in order to provoke a coup or make a citizenry lose faith in a governing party, as US interests did in Bolivia last year. What is more unprecedented is for such a thing to happen in the United States. We've certainly had bitter and controversial presidential elections, including, infamously, in 2000Moreover, the Founding Fathers prophesied this happening: as my colleague Matthew Rozsa noted, in early American history George Washington warned against Americans electing a president who'd refuse to step down.

But in a historical first, Trump is the first president to flat out refuse to concede, leading some to believe he's setting the gears in motion for a coup d'etat. Since the election was called on Saturday, Trump has tweeted baseless claims that there's a pathway to invalidating counted ballots. In addition to his refusal to concede, he's pushed to fight the election results with evidence-free lawsuits. 

As Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic before the election, the possibility that Trump might not concede was a prophecy that turned out true. "We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the Electoral College but Trump refuses to concede," Gellman said, noting that there are "endless happenstances in any election for lawyers to exploit."

Now that we find ourselves one week post-election, there are various opinions about what Trump might do, and what is actually possible for him to do given his limited political power. Here's what experts are saying about the potential for a coup. 

While a coup may not be imminent, some fear Trump's baseless election lies are eroding faith in democracy

Some political scientists are arguing that rather than a coup, we should be more concerned that Trump's baseless claims erode faith in democracy. Such moves are often the first step in a longer process towards a future coup — a kind of death spiral for democracy.

In an article in the Washington Post, political scientist Henry Farrell said Trump's baseless claims about voter fraud "corrode American democracy." In part, Farrell writes, because when Trump's followers and supporters believe his claims, they are saying they don't believe in our democracy. That's borne out by polling: A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found 70 percent of Republicans say they don't believe the 2020 election was "free and fair," an alarmingly high percentage.

As Farrell wrote:

"They will think that the game is fixed so that they have no opportunity of winning. In a worst-case scenario, this can lead to accelerating democratic breakdown. If the people on one side believe that democracy is systematically rigged against them, they are unlikely to submit to the democratic process and may instead turn to other means to protect their interests. This may, in turn, provoke a spiral of retaliation and counter-retaliation."

Farrell points to an interview he did with political scientist Adam Przeworski, who said: "Regulating conflicts by elections is then self-enforcing."

"Violence and other costly forms of conflict are avoided by the mere fact that the political forces expect to take turns," Przeworski told Farrell. "Yet this mechanism fails when the short-term stakes in an election are too high or when the opposition sees no chance to win according to rules."

A coup won't happen because the courts will save us

In The Nation, Elie Mystal, who covers the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics, writes that yes Trump is trying to overturn  the election, but is not likely to succeed. The main reason is that none of Trump's lawsuits provide evidence of voter fraud.

"Trump's claims that his poll watchers were not allowed to watch the counting of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania is flatly untrue, and his lawyers have had to admit in court that they were allowed in the room," Mystal writes. "They've been reduced to arguing that their poll watchers were not close enough, which, whatever. The remedy for that is to move them closer, not throw out tens of thousands of votes."

As Mystal explains, none of Trump's flawed claims would result in the courts throwing away counted votes because that "is not something that courts do."

In fact, what Mystal argues is that the Trump campaign is going to put America through 70 days of turmoil all in the name of a grift.

"These lawsuits purportedly challenging the election are a huge money-making opportunity for the Trump campaign," Mystal writes. "If you read the fine print on the new fundraising e-mails Trump's campaign is sending out to supporters, they say that '60 percent of contributions' will go toward retiring campaign debt."

But as Mystal notes, if Trump launches "a full-scale coup d'état and uses the military to keep him in power" then yes, we'd be at war.

Yet as Salon columnist Amanda Marcotte opined, Trump's attempted coup appears disorganized, as he clearly doesn't have the support of generals. Marcotte likened it to a "clown show."

Coups are one thing, but what about a civil war?

It's important to remember that an estimated 71 million Americans voted for Trump, and 76 million voted for President-elect Joe Biden. Our country remains just as divided, if not more so, than in 2016. But research shows that such divisiveness isn't enough fodder for a civil war. As the Washington Post explained, while Americans are at odds with each other civil wars usually happen when "the state is weak." In other words, when both the country has high poverty rates and it lacks the law enforcement and military capabilities to control armed rebellions.

Others are less optimistic that a civil war isn't on the horizon. Salon's Chauncey DeVega recently interviewed Richard Kreitner, who writes for The Nation. "The United States never resolved the first civil war," Kreitner said. "The idea of a second civil war has been around literally since within months of the end of the first one. Too many Americans do not appreciate that fact." He continued:  

The issues that led to the first civil war remain in many ways unresolved. There is a massive reckoning over the country's own history that has been long postponed. Resolving such matters is rarely peaceful. There are also foreign adversaries and other forces who are interfering in the election. All the elements for the story are present right now in America.

Theory: Trump is just playing to get out the vote for special elections

Trump is trying to keep his base engaged for political reasons, some political scientists suspect. However, claiming voter fraud falsely still undermines democracy.

"By all appearances, yes it looks like Trump is trying to reverse the outcome of elections that by all accounts had equal monitoring of ballot counting by Republicans and Democrats, and in states where the Chief Election Officer is a Republican (GA, NV)," Wendy Schiller, chair of Brown University's political science department, told The Boston Globe. "As unrealistic as these efforts are, they are a direct attack on the fundamental system of elections."

The appearance of what Trump is doing matters most to the GOP, Schiller argues.

"Everything Mitch McConnell is doing and saying is about keeping the Trump voters enraged enough to get out in full force for those Senate seats," Schiller wrote, referencing the upcoming runoff elections for both Senate seats in Georgia. 

Paul M. Collins Jr., a professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, agreed that Republicans are trying to keep their supporters engaged and angry to leverage the base for whatever Trump is planning for next.  

"They see them as a way of delegitimizing the Biden administration and the electoral process itself," Collins told The Boston Globe. "I think they believe this will help maintain their base of support, whether for a potential 2024 presidential run or to help the president succeed in whatever other plans he has after January of 2021."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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