COMMENTARY

How close did Trump come to attempting a military coup? Much too close

Trump's erratic behavior undermined his desire to seize power. Those who come next won't make the same mistakes

By Chauncey DeVega

Published June 29, 2021 9:01AM (EDT)

Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Mike Flynn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Mike Flynn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

At the present moment, American democracy is like a tightrope walker attempting a crossing during a howling storm, and without a net. That democracy has thus far "survived" the Age of Trump and his regime's and allies' assaults — including an all-too-real attempted coup — is something like the luck enjoyed by fools and drunks. Joe Biden may now be president, but the perilous tightrope walk continues. Safety appears to be in sight, but that is a dangerous illusion: Most lethal falls during a tightrope walk happen during the last few feet when the performer believes they are safe.      

The flood of "revelations" about the Trump regime's attempts to overthrow American democracy continue.

Contrary to what the professional smart people with their "view from nowhere" and too many other members of the chattering classes have claimed, the dangers of a coup perpetrated by the Trump regime were not exaggerated or hysterical, and most certainly were not symptoms of "Trump derangement syndrome." The danger was clear and obvious for those who were paying attention to reality as it is, and not as others wished it to be.  

What do we now know? (And should have known already?) Donald Trump and members of his inner circle wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act in response to last summer's protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd.

As reported by CNN, Trump longed for the U.S. military to "crack skulls" and "handle" the protesters with great force. He reportedly wanted the United States military to "beat the fuck out" of the protesters and even "shoot them." When told that such violence was illegal and inappropriate, Trump then suggested that the military could shoot protesters in the legs instead. 

It appears that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper were able to stop Trump from ordering U.S. troops to act out his violent, psychopathic fantasies

ProPublica recently obtained emails revealing that the violence by Trump's followers on Jan. 6 by Trump's followers was predictable and in no sense unexpected. In their new reporting, Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien explain that they interviewed "more than 50 people involved in the events of Jan. 6" and reviewed months' worth of private correspondence: 

Taken together, these accounts suggest that senior Trump aides had been warned the Jan. 6 events could turn chaotic, with tens of thousands of people potentially overwhelming ill-prepared law enforcement officials.

Rather than trying to halt the march, Trump and his allies accommodated its leaders, according to text messages and interviews with Republican operatives and officials.

In other words, nothing about the coup attempt was spontaneous or random. It was part of a much larger plot and conspiracy previewed by Trump's repeated attempts to invoke the Insurrection Act during the George Floyd protests and other moments of his presidency. In addition, many questions remain unanswered about the Trump regime's embedding of its supporters in key national security positions and the military's delayed response to the Capitol attack. Let's not overlook that Trump did in fact want the National Guard deployed on Jan. 6 — to protect his followers as they gathered earlier in the day before marching on the U.S. Capitol.  Moreover, in a December 2020 Oval Office meeting with Donald Trump and other members of his inner circle, the disgraced former general and national security adviser Michael Flynn supposedly even went so far as to suggest that Trump should impose martial law in order to remain in power following his defeat by Joe Biden. 

When viewed in the context of the Trump regime's and Republican Party's broader campaign against American democracy, it appears obvious (except to the most self-deluded observers) that using the Insurrection Act would have provided an avenue for Donald Trump to remain in power — past the end of his constitutional term, and perhaps indefinitely.

In that unimaginable scenario, the military would have been used as an occupying force against the American people — or more specifically against people in the largest metropolitan areas, where supporters of the Democratic Party are concentrated. A state of national emergency would have been declared, and the 2020 elections postponed or canceled. Would the military have obeyed Trump's orders? There is no way to know; it's possible it might have fractured into competing factions, as would the public at large. The result could well have been widespread disorder and violence, even a second American civil war.

In a new essay at the Washington Monthly, Daniel Block outlines one such scenario:

All of this raises a serious question: Could the United States experience prolonged, acute civil violence?

According to dozens of interviews with former and current government officials, counterterrorism researchers, and political scientists who study both the U.S. and other countries, the answer is yes. "I think that the conditions are pretty clearly headed in that direction," says Katrina Mulligan, the managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and the former director for preparedness and response in the national security division at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The insurrection on "January 6 was a canary in the coal mine in a way, precisely because it wasn't a surprise to those of us who have been following this."

"Unfortunately, I think it's a heightened risk," Janet Napolitano, the former secretary of homeland security, told me. As evidence, she cited the Capitol attack, as well as "the rhetoric that's being exchanged on social media, and just the number of groups out there that are organized and don't seem reticent about using violence."

Scholars of conflict differed in their estimates of how much violence might erupt, from sporadic terrorist attacks to a sustained insurgency. Individual assaults could be successfully handled by local and state police, but they could also easily escalate into a broader conflagration requiring federal involvement and inspiring copycat attacks. Experts also listed a wide range of potential targets, from Democratic politicians and institutions affiliated with minority groups to city halls and state government buildings. …

But officials and researchers overwhelmingly agreed on the main source of the threat: the radical right.

Autocrats, fascists and authoritarians are generally obsessed with loyalty and fear betrayal by their many "enemies," real or imagined. One way that such rulers obtain and consolidate power is by focusing on the military, the police and other agencies granted a monopoly on lethal violence by the State. Authoritarians like Trump believe that such a monopoly should be controlled by them alone, as the personal embodiment of the State. To that end, military and law enforcement are to be loyal to the Great Leader personally, not to the country, the nation, the written Constitution or the public.

As seen during his revenge tour performance on Saturday in Ohio, Trump is now attacking Gen. Milley and other senior military leaders as "weak." The ostensible reason for those attacks is that during his recent testimony before Congress, Milley declined to parrot right-wing lies and other disinformation about the academic paradigm known as "critical race theory."

But the fundamental reason why Trump is targeting Milley and other national security leaders is because they stood up to him, and opposed his efforts to use the military as a personal weapon in service to his coup and his egomaniacal fantasies. Trump also believes that by attacking senior military officials for "disloyalty" and "betrayal," he can provoke dissent among supposedly "loyal" enlisted personnel.

In an essay at the Washington Spectator, George Black explains how former military officers and retired members of elite military units are organizing right-wing paramilitaries. Their purported goal is to "save" American democracy from the "socialists" and "liberals" by using violence against a government that has supposedly been taken over by "the enemy." Black's essay merits being quoted at length: 

 The biggest risk here is not that we fail to understand what happened in the past and breathe a sigh of relief that American democracy dodged a bullet. It's that we don't recognize what some have called a process of "ongoing incitement." The main significance of January 6 is that it failed. But failure is a learning experience, and those who propelled the insurrection are determined not to fail again. In that sense, the storming of the Capitol was not a culmination: it was one event in a sequence, even a dress rehearsal, just as the invasion of the Michigan State Capitol by armed militants last April can be seen as a dry run for January 6. …

The gutting and takeover of the [Republican] party has progressed in plain sight since January 6, embodied in the state-level drive to curtail voting rights and driven by the zeal of the two-thirds of Republican voters who have embraced Trump's Big Lie of a stolen election. The advance of the "cutting edge" — the military veterans of the Vietnam era and their present-day acolytes, however, has been less visible, though no less real. Perhaps the most important, though scantly reported, manifestation of this has been the emergence of a new group of retired officers called Flag Officers 4 America — "flag officers" meaning generals and admirals.

Black continues with a discussion of a veteran-centered far-right organization called 1st Amendment Praetorian, which says it is committed to violent resistance. He quotes one former Special Forces officer saying, "If you vote your way into socialism, you have to shoot your way out."

This new organization ... has much in common with the Oath Keepers — the invocation of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam as the starting-point of the global anti-American conspiracy incarnated in the Democratic Party and the Deep State, the vow to defend the Constitution "against all enemies foreign and domestic," and the special role of elite units of the military. The group's leader, Robert Patrick Lewis, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, says that the group was founded last October and provided security and intelligence, including the high-tech surveillance of protesters, to a string of Stop the Steal, MAGA, and other "patriot" rallies in the weeks following the election. By January, it had organized a security detachment for retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — who helped raise funds for the group — and Trump's lawyer Sidney Powell. It performed this function at a Memorial Day weekend rally in Dallas where Flynn mooted the idea of a Myanmar-style military coup in the United States. What comes next, according to the group's website, is a "Coalition to Defend America" event in Palm Beach, Florida, on July 4 and the formation, together with "constitutional sheriffs," of grassroots "resilience groups, training them to free the oppressed."

Like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, 1st Amendment Praetorian is wedded to the idea that small numbers of highly trained individuals can move mountains. The key, Lewis says, is the unique organizational structure of the Special Forces, the 12-man Operational Detachment Alpha, which is "trained and equipped and operates under the knowledge that one ODA of 12 Green Berets can take down an entire nation."

What should be done now to expose the full extent of the Trump regime's betrayal of the country and the larger neofascist movement's escalating attempts to overthrow multiracial democracy?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is creating a select committee to investigate the events of Jan. 6. It is customary for such committees to have subpoena power, which should be used to compel testimony from members of the Trump regime, the Republican Party, the right-wing propaganda disinformation news media and other Trump allies and agents. While not as powerful as a bipartisan commission, a select committee could certainly be useful for creating a public record of the events of early January and the Republican Party's role as apparent co-conspirators in the coup and the Capitol attack.

The House select committee's investigation should be complemented by journalists and civil society organizations who are also working to uncover the full truth about Jan. 6 and the threat to American democracy embodied by neofascism and right-wing extremism — and the individuals and groups who fund and support them. Perhaps patriotic millionaires and billionaires will step forward to finance their own independent investigation of Jan. 6 and the far-right plot against American democracy. 

Those opinion leaders and other public voices who enabled the Trump regime and its attacks on democracy by denying and otherwise downplaying the threat of his coup should be held accountable. They must be forced to confront and explain their logic and behavior. In a moment of imminent crisis many of these voices — especially those I have termed the hope peddlers and professional centrists — in the mainstream news media failed on a grand and tragic scale to fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. They do not appear to have learned the correct lessons from those failures.

But perhaps the most important action to take in response to the escalating war on American democracy is to organize and commit to a national plan of resistance. To do that, we must accept that the neofascist threat is real, vast in scale and getting worse. Like the man on the tightrope facing storm winds, America's democracy is literally hanging on for dear life. If the fatal fall comes, it will not be a surprise. That makes it no less a disaster.


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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