Trump's generals who remain: Why there's reason to fear a military coup in the U.S.

Just the talk of a violent coup is enough to cause a mighty threat to our already fragile democracy

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 2, 2021 9:56AM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Michael Flynn   (Getty/Joe Raedle/Alex Wong/Salon)
Donald Trump; Michael Flynn (Getty/Joe Raedle/Alex Wong/Salon)

Back in 2016 when Trump brought former General Michael Flynn onboard his fledgling campaign, most people outside of military and national security circles had no idea who he was. And because very few people took the Trump campaign seriously, I don't think many cared. My first clue that we were dealing with a Strangelovian Jack D. Ripper character, however, was when Flynn appeared at the GOP convention and led the crowd in "lock her up" chants about Hillary Clinton. It was clear: He was afflicted with the right-wing disability called Fox News Brain Rot. So when Trump unexpectedly won his upset that November, one of the most unnerving of his early decisions was to make this unbalanced former general his national security adviser.

I wrote about Flynn several times in 2016, gravely concerned that such a man was being tapped for such a powerful post, noting that he was so far submerged in the right-wing fever swamp that he had practically grown gills:

Speaking to a gathering of young conservatives at Trump's Washington hotel, Flynn said, "I was with Dinesh D'Souza last night, and the other, for the young audience here, for the young ones here, I mentioned it to a couple of you, I was also with Milo Yiannopoulos. . . . See, a lot of people in here won't know who he is. I tag him on Twitter, you know, because he's a phenomenal individual, and I'm mentioning him tonight because he spoke alongside of me last night to another group of folks."

That was a week after the election. By that time, Dana Priest at the New Yorker had written a hair-raising profile of Flynn's descent into madness at the Pentagon and everyone knew he'd had some very odd interactions with the Russian and Turkish governments. Suffice to say that Michael Flynn was nutty from the get-go and the mere fact that he was once the director of the Defense Intelligence Intelligence Agency and then became the White House National Security Adviser should make all Americans question the quality of our national security system overall.

As we all know, Trump fired Flynn in the early months of his presidency before he realized he didn't have to play by any rules. But the reverberations of that firing led to the subsequent firing of FBI Director James Comey and eventually the Mueller investigation into Russian interference on Trump's behalf in the 2016 election. While Flynn was indicted, pleaded guilty and then reversed his plea, he was finally pardoned by Trump. And ever since Trump's election loss, Flynn's been calling for the military to take control of the government in one way or another.

Recall this from December 2020?

Trump was listening to Flynn during that period, along with other crackpots in his circle who enabled his delusional belief that he could somehow overturn the election. Over the holiday weekend, Flynn upped the ante and caused quite a stir when he attended a big QAnon event in Texas and responded to a questioner asking if there's any reason America can't have a military coup like Myanmar by saying, "No reason. I mean, it should happen here."

He later tried to say that the media had distorted his words and that he doesn't think there should be a coup, which is big of him. But he's not the only former military man in Trump's circle suggesting such a thing.

Former Col. Douglas Macgregor, the frequent Fox News guest who Trump first nominated as Ambassador to Germany and then dispatched to the Pentagon in the waning days of the administration, recently wrote a very provocative opinion piece along the same lines. And the idea of a Myanmar-style coup has been circulating for some time in QAnon circles, as CNN's Donie O'Sullivan has documented:

According to the NY Times' Maggie Haberman, "Trump has been telling a number of people he's in contact with that he expects he will get reinstated by August" and that "he is not putting out statements about the "audits" in states just for the sake of it. He's been laser-focused on them, according to several people who've spoken with him (as well as WaPo reporting a few weeks ago)." And Trump and Flynn's former lawyer, Sidney Powell, attending the same conference, said that she also expects Trump to be returned to the White House, although she didn't specify that it would be in August:

As far as I know, this is the first case of abject fraud and obtaining a coup of the United States of America. So, it's going to have to be dealt with. It should be that he [President Trump] can simply be reinstated, that a new inauguration day is set. (cheers) And Biden is told to move out of the White House. And President Trump should be moved back in.

There you have Powell seemingly stating that a coup already happened and that it would have to be "dealt with" which she doesn't explain. It sounds as if both she and Trump think these "audits" happening around the country will somehow give him back the White House which is even crazier than the idea of a military coup.

Flynn's comments caused quite a stir and for good reason. It isn't every day that you hear a former US Army general and national security adviser calling for a military coup d'etat against his own government. But even if you add his addled suggestion to the recent letter from a bunch of retired right-wing brass calling themselves "Flag Officers 4 America" complaining that the election was fraudulent and Joe Biden is a Marxist dictator because he reversed Trump's executive orders, their isn't any evidence that the military is actually interested in jumping on the QAnon bandwagon.

Still, that doesn't mean this talk isn't dangerous.

As we saw on January 6th, there are plenty of Trump followers who are willing to commit violence on his behalf. And we have Republican politicians all over the country using this new "lost cause" myth to create a system that will essentially enable legal coups going forward. The threat is dire enough that over 100 leading experts on democratic systems issued a frantic warning that unless the federal government acts to protect the electoral system, we may just lose our democracy for good.

They write:

The playbook that the Republican Party is executing at the state and national levels is very much consistent with actions taken by illiberal, anti-democratic, anti-pluralist parties in other democracies that have slipped away from free and fair elections."

It doesn't take a military coup to accomplish that. All it takes is for the Republicans to continue to pass laws that allow partisan hacks to overturn elections they do not win. And they are feverishly working to make that happen all over the country. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Fox News Michael Flynn Military Coup Sidney Powell