Donald Trump's military coup didn't (quite) happen — but it was much closer than we knew

The military's top general thought he might have to save the country from Trump. Nothing about that is good news

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 16, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark A. Milley (R) listens while US President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on October 7, 2019. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark A. Milley (R) listens while US President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on October 7, 2019. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever more damning revelations about Donald Trump's regime began first as a trickle, then became a persistent leak, eventually a torrent and are now seemingly a tsunami.

For more than four years, many prominent public voices continued to deny that Trump led a neofascist movement that posed an existential threat to American democracy. Too many Americans, to protect themselves from trauma or to evade personal responsibility for their inaction or indifference or passivity, have also consistently denied the dangers of Trumpism.

Even after Trump's attempted coup and his followers' attack on the U.S. Capitol, public opinion polls suggest that tens of millions of Americans would prefer to throw the horrors of Trumpism and the events of that day down the memory well

That will not save them from the reality of what has happened, and is still happening, as Trumpism, the Jim Crow Republican Party and the white right escalate their assault on American democracy and freedom.

The proverbial flood waters are getting higher with each set of new "revelations" about the last days of the Trump regime.   

On Wednesday, CNN published excerpts from "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year," the forthcoming book by Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker. A lengthier excerpt followed in the Post on Thursday. CNN's explosive report focused on the possibility that Trump contemplated a military coup:

The top US military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, was so shaken that then-President Donald Trump and his allies might attempt a coup or take other dangerous or illegal measures after the November election that Milley and other top officials informally planned for different ways to stop Trump, according to excerpts of an upcoming book obtained by CNN.

The book, from Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, describes how Milley and the other Joint Chiefs discussed a plan to resign, one-by-one, rather than carry out orders from Trump that they considered to be illegal, dangerous or ill-advised.

"It was a kind of Saturday Night Massacre in reverse," Leonnig and Rucker write. ...

Milley felt "growing concerns," the report continues, that Trump had placed loyalists in positions of power after the November 2020 election, replacing both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr. He feared these personnel moves "were the sign of something sinister to come":

Milley spoke to friends, lawmakers and colleagues about the threat of a coup, and the Joint Chiefs chairman felt he had to be "on guard" for what might come.

"They may try, but they're not going to f**king succeed," Milley told his deputies, according to the authors. "You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI. We're the guys with the guns."

In the days leading up to January 6, Leonnig and Rucker write, Milley was worried about Trump's call to action. "Milley told his staff that he believed Trump was stoking unrest, possibly in hopes of an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military."

Milley viewed Trump as "the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose," the authors write, and he saw parallels between Adolf Hitler's rhetoric as a victim and savior and Trump's false claims of election fraud.

"This is a Reichstag moment," Milley told aides, according to the book. "The gospel of the Führer."

Ahead of a November pro-Trump "Million MAGA March" to protest the election results, Milley told aides he feared it "could be the modern American equivalent of 'brownshirts in the streets,'" referring to the pro-Nazi militia that fueled Hitler's rise to power.

CNN's report also suggests that after the events of Jan. 6, Milley feared an attack on the presidential inauguration, telling senior military and law enforcement leaders: "Here's the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they're boogaloo boys, they're Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II. We're going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren't getting in."

Those public voices, myself included, who spent the last five or so years warning the American people about the dire threat embodied by Trump and his movement, were frequently dismissed as hysterical, or as suffering from "Trump derangement syndrome." At this point, almost every such warning and prediction about the Trump regime has been proven correct.  

The hope-peddlers, stenographers of current events, professional centrists and other "mainstream" voices who remain more invested in maintaining a veneer of "normalcy" than in telling the truth have yet to publicly apologize or make amends. Such acts of contrition and humility will likely never come. That's one big reason among many why the mainstream media has lost so much of its public trust and legitimacy.  

As author and commentator Jared Yates Sexton wrote on Twitter this week, "Weird how we were all telling you Trump was going to try a coup and everyone was like that's reactionary and unreasonable and hysterical and now it's clear the entire military thought so and people still aren't going to listen."

Elizabeth Mika, psychotherapist and contributor to the bestselling book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," also used Twitter to reflect on these latest revelations:

He can't possibly win, they said. He is just a clown, they said. Every politico is narcissistic, they said. He will have good advisors, they said. People around him will contain him, they said. Our institutions will hold, they said. It can't happen here, they said ...

"I Alone Can Fix It" describes a nightmare scenario — one that does not bode well for the future of the country's democracy. America's military leaders at the highest level were preparing to actively defend the country from an outlaw president, his Republican co-conspirators and their neofascist followers. It's entirely possible that American democracy was saved on that occasion by Gen. Milley and his colleagues who put the good of the country over loyalty to Donald Trump and his confederates.

But this sets a dangerous precedent for civilian rule, when the possibility arises that military leaders refuse a president's orders and are seen by the public as defenders of democracy — and in the worst-case scenario as a type of Praetorian guard, able to defy or overthrow elected leaders at a whim. Any "democracy" where such decisions become normalized — and are welcomed by the public — is in practice an autocracy, or eventually a military dictatorship.

America's political institutions did not "hold" in the face of the Trump regime's many assaults. If anything, Donald Trump's attempt to overthrow American democracy was sabotaged by his own incompetence and stopped by a few courageous individuals.

As prominent never-Trumper Tom Nichols warned on Twitter, these revelations should serve as a "reminder that American institutions were not designed to deal with a sociopath backed by a sizable vote in Congress."

In the end, mass resignations by America's military leaders and high-ranking civilian Pentagon officials might not have been enough to stop Trump's coup or prevent the establishment or creation of an authoritarian regime. Trump loyalists in the military and across the national security state might have deployed their own forces, the military might have splintered into factions and the country could have descended into civil war.

In all likelihood, most Americans would have done nothing in response if Trump had ordered troops into the streets to nullify the 2020 presidential election — and his millions of followers, of course, would have celebrated.

Many questions remain.

Where is the truth commission tasked with exposing the many crimes of the Trump regime and its allies? Where is the broad investigation by the Department of Justice into the Trump regime's numerous crimes? What will Joe Biden do in response to these new revelations. How deeply complicit were leaders of the Republican Party in plotting or planning a coup? How can America's political institutions be improved or restructured in order to protect the country from the next would-be authoritarian leader?

And what else will we learn that we do not yet know? 

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is certain: if there are no severe consequences for the Trump regime's ongoing assault on American democracy, or for its other crimes, that will offer both permission and a blueprint for future fascists and other types of demagogues. They will learn from the Trump regime's tactical and strategic errors, and will not repeat them.


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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