COMMENTARY

Don't look past Trump's coup attempt: This is a dark moment in American history

Trump's attempt to overturn the election has failed. But the larger plan to subvert democracy is working perfectly

By Chauncey DeVega
Published December 11, 2020 7:00AM (EST)
 U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the first presidential debate against former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the first presidential debate against former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Imagine the following: There is an arsonist in your neighborhood. He has tried dozens of times to set fire to buildings, including schools and hospitals. The arsonist keeps failing because he does not know how to start a proper fire.

There is a mad bomber loose in your neighborhood. He puts explosives in mailboxes, in packages on the street corner, in public bathrooms and on people's front stoops or back porches. When the bombs "explode" they shoot out confetti. On other occasions the bombs simply make a loud noise. Is the bomber "only kidding"? Is he incompetent?

There is a man who keeps trying to rob banks. But he cannot write a legible ransom note. When he tries to verbally demand money from the teller, he gets nervous, starts mumbling, is scared and runs away.

The police and other law enforcement agents would pursue such a person with great diligence. If that person was eventually apprehended, he could not claim incompetence as a defense. Attempting to commit a crime is a crime in and of itself.

Donald Trump is a political criminal. He is attempting a fascist coup against American democracy and the American people. That Trump and his gang have technically not succeeded in no way means that he and they are innocent of their crimes.

Moreover, the fact Trump has publicly announced his plans to stay in power by any means necessary, however stupid, illegal or ineffective his scheme may be, also does not make him innocent of committing major crimes against the democratic order and the rule of law.

There are too many examples to count.

After losing to Joe Biden in the 2020 election by at least 7 million votes, Donald Trump has encouraged the crime of insurrection by his supporters, including armed paramilitaries, to keep him in power.

Trump's agents (most notably, now-pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn) have publicly called for a military coup to keep the Trump regime in power against the will of the American people. Trump has continued to purge senior officials deemed to be "disloyal" from their positions at the highest levels of the national security state. Trump is also placing loyalists in other positions throughout the government in an effort to sabotage the incoming Biden administration.

Trump, his attorneys and other agents are engaging in a campaign of intimidation against Republican officials who have performed their public duties by certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump's attorneys have also repeatedly abused the legal system with increasingly ludicrous attempts to find some way to nullify the presidential election.

Over the weekend, Trump's lawyers tried appealing to the Supreme Court with the extraordinary demand that votes in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania should be thrown out, allowing the state legislature to appoint a slate of Trump electors. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

On Wednesday, 17 Republican state attorneys general filed briefs in support of a suit filed by the Texas attorney general that seeks to have all the electoral votes from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin rejected because of "voting irregularities." Biden won all those states, but all have Republican-majority legislatures that would presumably appoint Trump electors if the election results were declared invalid. To state the obvious, no such "irregularities" in favor of the Democrats exist. By all legitimate accounts, this election was conducted fairly.

On Trump's attorneys and their role in abusing the law and subverting democracy, the Atlantic's Quinta Jurecic writes:

But even though the worst has not come to pass, Trump and his team are doing lasting damage to American democracy as the president struggles to come to grips with the reality of his loss. And yet, these lawyers and officials will likely face no real consequences for their actions — and if they do, those repercussions will not be enough to address the scale of the problem. …

Trump and his legal team's various efforts are an affront to democracy, the most essential principle of which is that losers at the ballot box accept their defeat. And judges have not been gentle with Trump and his allies in court. "Come on, now!" a Michigan judge admonished the Trump campaign over a sloppy effort to stop votes from being counted. In a crucial decision that denied an effort to halt certification of Pennsylvania's vote, Judge Matthew Brann wrote that the Trump campaign had presented the court with "strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations … unsupported by evidence." The judge went on, "Our people, laws, and institutions demand more."

Trump himself has committed the crime of sedition by attempting to nullify the results of a democratic election in which he was defeated. Trump's coup is part of a much larger pattern of political crimes. Those include vast corruption, likely collusion with a hostile foreign country during the 2016 election, attempted extortion against the president of Ukraine with the goal of damaging Biden in the 2020 election, stochastic terrorism and other political violence, a negligent response to the coronavirus pandemic, and betraying the president's oath of office.

In response to Donald Trump's ongoing coup, many among America's political class, specifically the fourth estate and other "mainstream" opinion leaders, choose to mock Trump's assaults as being "stupid" and "cartoonish." In effect, the country's chattering class is counseling the American people: "Move along — nothing to see here."

Trump's coup attempt has been widely viewed as a distraction rather than an existential threat to the country's democracy — or as a test run for a future coup, when a closer election will be more vulnerable to an attempt by Republicans or other American fascists to overturn democracy.

A featured essay by the Daily Kos writer "Hunter" summarizes this:

The [Republican] party continually tests which democratic norms can be dispensed with, and have been successful at dismantling many or most. The push to overturn the results of a presidential election, and specifically to do so by nullifying the actual votes and tasking loyalist state elected officials [to] create new ones, has very little chance of being successful this time, based on these states and these claims.

That does not mean that the party will not lend its weight to similar calls to overturn a future election. It does not mean that, in a Republican Party that continues to aggressively purge itself of the insufficiently sycophantic, it will with certainty run afoul of local officials unwilling to lend their own names to the effort. It does not mean that every collection of party lawyers and provocateurs will be as incompetent. There will be those that analyze these fraud claims not to discredit them, but to determine how they can best be made more compelling. And the movement of out-and-out imbeciles, Americans who pride themselves on believing hoaxes while condemning expertise, only continues to grow.

Almost on cue, Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday that the 2020 election should be overturned, claiming it had been "rigged" against him.

There have been a range of misguided and wrongheaded reactions to Trump's coup attempt, and those reactions are doing the work of normalizing and enabling his political crimes.

The average American is exhausted by the Age of Trump and his pandemic. Many people, understandably, want it all to stop. Exhaustion breeds passivity and surrender, but fascism must be confronted at every turn. Disengagement normalizes and encourages fascist and other authoritarian movements.

The mainstream news media is already normalizing the Republican Party's campaign of obstruction against President-elect Joe Biden by reverting to its default frame of "both-sides-ism." All of this is seen as "politics as usual," and the result of "polarization" and "division," rather than as part of an ongoing, slow-motion coup and a long-term strategy to undermine American democracy.

The hope peddlers and other members of the Church of the Savvy continue to underestimate, distract from and downplay the fascist-authoritarian attacks by Trump and his allies. On Tuesday, Nate Silver — a veritable high priest of that church — posted this on Twitter:

"SCOTUS will steal the election for Trump" is one of those takes that was popular (for different reasons) both among a certain type of liberal and on the Trumpy right and obviously doesn't look too good in retrospect.

To deny the reality of Donald Trump and his movement's assaults on democracy and the rule of law is a dangerous manifestation of the "organized forgetting" common to societies that have experienced fascism and authoritarianism.

It is difficult for political elites to confront the actual harm done by the fascist or authoritarian leader, not to mention the level of historical reckoning and the concerted effort to change that is required to prevent such a regime from emerging and taking power in the future.

Why? Because those same political elites are financially, professionally and personally invested in a return to "normal." They are parasites and symbiotes who feed on "normalcy."

Such voices in America's political class are already engaging in organized forgetting as they try to reframe and rewrite the realities of the Age of Trump.

Their fictions include the narrative that Trump is not a "real" fascist and that because his agents were too stupid or too bumbling to execute a coup, it was never a real danger. There are associated fictions: The country's institutions have shown themselves to be "strong"; the "rule of law" stopped Trumpism; the American people voted to jettison Trump and his entire movement; those who have said the country was under siege by fascism and authoritarianism were self-serving "alarmists."

Circulating and believing such fictions all but ensures that American fascism in a more sophisticated version will emerge and take power, sooner rather than later.

Donald Trump and the Republican Party's coup attempt and broader war on democracy are an example of the normalization of political deviance. This is an important marker on the road to American fascism and authoritarianism.

There are several dimensions to this process: Anti-democratic behavior is increasingly normalized. Elections which Republicans do not win — and more specifically, in which white right-wing Christian extremists do not win — are judged to be illegitimate. The very idea of free and fair elections is replaced with an understanding that some votes — those cast by and for Republicans and right-wing extremists — mean more than others, and specifically those of urban and coastal Democrats and nonwhite voters.

Political violence is acceptable and normal if committed by Republicans and other factions of the white right against progressives, anti-fascists or other targeted groups. Violence in the reverse — which rarely occurs, even in self-defense — is deemed to be "terrorism".

Right-wing political violence is justified by a political logic where authoritarians perceive themselves as "real patriots" who are "protecting the nation" against "enemies of the state." They stand for "the people," meaning that those they attack are the enemy Other.

In a healthy democracy, violence is the near-exclusive monopoly of the state. Authoritarians and fascists break through that barrier by granting their followers the right to commit violence against their designated enemies. As we have seen, Trump's unofficial paramilitaries and other street thugs are threatening the lives of elected officials who refuse to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election.  

Social scientists and other researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that political polarization in the U.S. is asymmetrical: Republicans have become far more extreme and drifted steadily to the right making reasonable compromise with the Democratic Party in the interests of the common good difficult, if not impossible.

To that end, today's Republican Party behaves more like a hostage taker or political crime syndicate than like a responsible actor in the give-and-take of democratic government. The party's leaders and voters have almost officially embraced authoritarianism and other anti-democratic values.

As political scientists have recently shown, today's Republican Party has more in common with right-wing extremist parties in Europe than with centrist mainstream political parties. Research shows that Trump supporters and other Republican voters are hostile to democracy as a concept, very willing to embrace authoritarianism to ensure the continued dominance of white people, and increasingly support fascistic and authoritarian leaders and policies as a way of imposing their will on other Americans.

Despite the feigned dismay of too many observers and commentators, Republican elected officials and other leaders will not abandon Donald Trump and his movement in this extraordinary moment. Why should they? After all, they agree with him, endorse his policies and fear his voters.

Writing at the Washington Post, columnist Brian Klaas explores that relationship:

These dynamics, which might seem like abstractions, help to explain why so many Trump voters are not only willing to go along with Trump as he tries to overturn the results of a democratic election that he lost — they're actually willing to punish Republican politicians who don't indulge Trump's despotic whims. It's clear that elected Republicans — who largely refuse to answer basic factual questions about the winner of the presidential election — know that their voters are authoritarians. And they are catering to them.

In the aggregate, Donald Trump, the Republican Party and their supporters are part of a fascist and authoritarian movement whose strategic goal is to tear down multiracial democracy, and by doing so to prevent implementation of the types of progressive social and economic policies favored by most Americans.

Donald Trump will almost certainly leave office on Jan. 20, when Joe Biden becomes president of the United States. But Trump will not disappear as a force in American life and politics, despite how political elites including the mainstream news media are trying to convince themselves and the public otherwise.

America's democracy is a house built on top of a sinkhole. Donald Trump, his successors and followers and their movement will continue to burrow beneath it, trying to make the whole structure collapse. On top of that rubble they hope to build not a shining city on a hill but an ugly monument to white supremacy, Christian fascism and kleptocratic depravity.

If such an outcome is to be avoided then the reality of Trump's ongoing coup attempt must be confronted. The immense damage inflicted by his regime must be assessed and repaired. His collaborators in the American fascist project must be confronted and repudiated. If that can happen, we can perhaps save the nation.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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