‘This Must Be Your First’

Acting as if Trump is trying to stage a coup is the best way to ensure he won’t.

Donald Trump
Win McNamee / Getty

Updated at 5:39 p.m. ET on December 7, 2020.

On the evening of September 11, 1980, my mom was approached by a neighbor who held rank in the Turkish military. He told her to stock up on bread and rice. “Oh, another coup,” she immediately groaned. The neighbor was aghast—he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone what was coming. But my mom, of course, had immediately understood what his advice must have meant. Turkey is the land of coups; this was neither the first nor the last coup it would face.

Over three decades later, I walked up to a counter in Antalya Airport to tell a disbelieving airline employee that our flight would shortly be canceled because the tanks being reported in the streets of Istanbul meant that a coup attempt was under way.* It must be a military exercise, she shrugged. Some routine transport of troops, perhaps? If so, I asked her, where is the prime minister? Why isn’t he on TV to tell us that? Another woman approached the counter. “This must be your first,” she said to the young woman behind the counter, who was still shaking her head. “It’s my fourth.”

I told the airline employee that we were not getting on that plane, destined for the Istanbul airport, which I knew would be a primary target. The other woman and I nodded at each other, becoming an immediate coup pod. I went out to secure transportation for us—this airport was not going to be safe either—while she and my 7-year-old son went to retrieve our luggage. “His first too,” I said to her.

In political science, the term coup refers to the illegitimate overthrow of a sitting government—usually through violence or the threat of violence. The technical term for attempting to stay in power illegitimately—such as after losing an election—is self-coup or autocoup, sometimes autogolpe.

Much debate has ensued about what exactly to call whatever Trump is attempting right now, and about how worried we should be. It’s true, the whole thing seems ludicrous—the incoherent lawsuits, the late-night champagne given to official election canvassers in Trump hotels, the tweets riddled with grammatical errors and weird capitalization. Trump has been broadly acknowledged as “norm shattering” and some have argued that this is just more of his usual bluster, while others have pointed out terminological issues with calling his endeavors a coup. Coup may not quite capture what we’re witnessing in the United States right now, but there’s also a danger here: Punditry can tend to focus too much on decorum and terminology, like the overachieving students so many of us once were, conflating the ridiculous with the unserious. The incoherence and incompetence of the attempt do not change its nature, however, nor do those traits allow us to dismiss it or ignore it until it finally fails on account of that incompetence.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t developed linguistic precision to put a name to it all—not just to what’s been happening since November, but to the processes within which it’s embedded. That’s dangerous, because language is a tool of survival. The Inuit have many words for snow—because their experience demands that kind of exactness. (The claim had been disputed, but the latest research affirms it.) “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it. It’s a matter of life or death,” the linguist Willem DeReuse told New Scientist.

In Turkish, we do have many different words for different types of coups, because our experience similarly demands it. For example, coups that are attempted through threatening letters from the military are called memorandum coups. A 2007 attempt is commonly referred to as the “e-coup” because the threatening letter from the military was first posted on the internet. (The one before that, in 1997, is often referred to as a “postmodern” or “soft” coup.) We know the difference between military coups that start from the top and follow the military chain of command and those that do not. The term autogolpe comes from the Spanish partly because there have been so many such attempts in Latin America.

The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering.

Maybe in other languages, from places with more experience with this particular type of power grab, we’d be better able to discuss the subtleties of this effort, to distinguish the postelection intervention from the Election Day injustices, to separate the legal but frivolous from the outright lawless, and to understand why his party’s reaction—lack of reaction—is not just about wanting to conclude an embarrassing presidency with minimal fanfare. But in English, only one widely understood word captures what Donald Trump is trying to do, even though his acts do not meet its technical definition. Trump is attempting to stage some kind of coup, one that is embedded in a broader and ongoing power grab.

And if that’s hard to recognize, this might be your first.

On Tuesday, Gabriel Sterling, the Republican who serves as Georgia’s voting-system implementation manager, appeared at a press conference. Voice shaking, he talked about how the home of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—his boss—had been targeted after the president once again baselessly claimed that there was massive voter fraud in Georgia and called Raffensperger “an enemy of the people.” Sterling called on the president and the state’s two Republicans senators to condemn threats of violence against election workers.

That scene itself was unsettling. But when, just a few hours later, Trump retweeted Sterling’s plea with a shrug and a reassertion of his desire to steal the election, the situation turned profoundly frightening. “Rigged Election,” the president wrote. “Show signatures and envelopes. Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia. What is Secretary of State and @BrianKempGA afraid of. They know what we’ll find!!!”

With just a few notable exceptions, Republican officials have met Trump’s lies with a combination of tacit approval, pretending not to notice them, or forbearance. In a recent survey, an alarming 222 Republicans in the House and the Senate—88 percent—refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the presidency. Another two insisted Trump won. A few more have started speaking out, but what has finally taxed their patience seems to be anxiety that Trump’s antics may cost them an upcoming election for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia—an instrumental concern about continuing to exercise power, rather than a substantive worry about the attempted election theft itself. (It should be noted that there have been conservative voices who have responded with the appropriate fury, but that few are elected officials or leaders of the GOP.)

After Sterling spoke in Georgia, a local TV station asked the two Republican senators running for election in the January runoff for comment. But instead of offering straightforward denunciations, both issued perfunctory condemnations and then used the opportunity to continue to fan doubts about the process. “Senator [David] Perdue condemns violence of any kind, against anybody. Period,” his campaign said. “We won’t apologize for addressing the obvious issues with the way our state conducts its elections.” The other senator’s campaign took a similar line. “Like many officials, as someone who has been the subject of threats, of course Senator [Kelly] Loeffler condemns violence of any kind. How ridiculous to even suggest otherwise. We also condemn inaction and lack of accountability in our election system process—and won’t apologize for calling it out.”

What is it that the Republican leadership is hoping will pass without too much comment, solved by the ticking down of the transition clock?

Let’s run through it—and this is not even all of it. Every day adds more.

The president has repeatedly and baselessly claimed that the election was stolen from him, and continues to do so daily. He is, effectively, charging that election officers around the country are involved in a dangerous conspiracy and that the incoming president is the leader of this illegal attempt.

The president and his key allies have repeatedly called for Republican state legislators to steal the election for him by appointing new electors who will support him instead of backing the winner of the state’s electoral votes.

The president, who has the power to appoint judges for lifetime appointments, and who has appointed nearly a third of federal judges on the crucial circuit-court level in the United States—more than any other president in recent history at this point in their presidency—has asked the courts to throw out valid votes wholesale, especially in cities with minority voters.

Right after the election, a legal adviser to the president stated on national television: “We’re waiting for the United States Supreme Court—of which the president has nominated three justices—to step in and do something. And hopefully Amy Coney Barrett will come through.”

The president’s high-profile allies are holding rallies where supporters are chanting “Lock him up!,” calling for the imprisonment of Georgia’s Republican governor, who is opposing his attempts to steal the election. (Georgia conducted two thorough recounts of the votes and found that the margin by which Trump lost the election holds.)

The president personally called the two Republican canvassers in Wayne County, Michigan, and then both signed affidavits attempting to rescind their certification of the vote in that state. They had earlier tried to block certification of votes from Detroit, providing a glimpse of what could happen if a more competent president tried to steal an election.

The president has amplified messages that call for people to “fight back hard” against the allegedly stolen election.

The president’s election lawyer said that “the entire election, frankly, in all the swing states, should be overturned, and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump.” She has since been dismissed from his team, but he has not publicly repudiated her statements, and she continues to make similar statements.

Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser—a powerful post—who was just pardoned by Trump, has amplified calls for the president to suspend the Constitution and hold another election (an exercise presumably to be repeated until he wins).

The president summarily fired Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the Department of Homeland Security, because he vouched that the election was not stolen.

Joseph diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, said that Krebs should be “taken out at dawn and shot.” (DiGenova later said that the statement had been “made in jest.”)

Before the election, the president pressured the attorney general to investigate his opponent and his son, after being impeached for pressuring a foreign state to announce its own investigation into his opponent’s son.

The president also fired the chief of the Pentagon, along with other top officials. These dismissals remain unexplained, but Trump was reportedly infuriated at the defense secretary’s opposition to using active-duty military troops against protesters in U.S. cities—portending what he might have liked to do, even though his incompetence has meant that he hasn’t found a way.

What makes this moment deeply alarming—and makes Republicans’ overwhelming silence and tacit approval deeply dangerous, rather than merely an attempt to run out the clock on the president’s clownish behavior—is that Trump’s attempt to steal this election builds on a process that has already entrenched minority rule around the country.

In North Carolina, where I live, only three of the state’s 13 representatives in the House were Democrats after the 2014 congressional election, despite Democrats getting 44 percent of the vote. In 2016, the Democratic Party’s vote share in the state increased to 47 percent, but still only three representatives were Democrats. In 2018, Democrats won an even larger share of the vote—48.3 percent—but still had only three representatives. In 2019, North Carolina’s blatantly gerrymandered district maps were finally struck down by the Supreme Court. And so, this year, the Democrats managed a meager increase in representation—five representatives out of 13—despite again receiving 48 percent of the vote.

Who draws these grossly unfair maps, which are typical of others across the country? The state legislatures, which themselves are often elected using maps that reflect unrepresentative gerrymandering. In North Carolina in 2016, for example, the Republicans won a veto-proof supermajority in the state House of Representatives—obtaining more than two thirds of the seats—despite winning just 52 percent of the vote. Statewide races cannot be similarly gerrymandered, though, and that year, North Carolina voters elected a Democratic governor and attorney general. In response, the lame-duck legislature rushed to take away key powers from those offices. They succeeded. The general assembly then used its veto-proof majority to override 23 of Governor Roy Cooper’s 28 vetoes in the first three years of his term, rendering one of his key remaining powers effectively useless.

In Wisconsin in 2018, Republicans won a near-veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature with a minority of the votes in the state. That same year, Republican Governor Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection, and Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general were also defeated—again, statewide offices resist gerrymandering. After the loss, the Wisconsin state legislature followed the same playbook as the GOP in North Carolina, rushing, in a lame-duck session, to take away crucial powers previously exercised by Walker. The lawsuits filed by Democrats were rejected by the Republican-dominated state supreme court.

When voters try to contest gerrymanders or power grabs, many of the cases end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where lifetime appointments are made by the president but approved by the Senate. The Senate is so lopsided right now that 26 states containing just 17 percent of the U.S. population elect a majority of senators—the smallest that proportion has ever been. That’s the people in the smallest 26 states. The Republican Party’s Senate majority in recent years has rested on its strength in these rural states. Barack Obama couldn’t even get a Senate hearing for his last nominee to the Supreme Court.

Today, the United States has a House filled with gerrymandered districts, a Senate dramatically tilted toward rural states, some state legislatures controlled by electoral minorities or slim majorities who get to exercise power as if they were overwhelming, and a Supreme Court with three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. Is it any wonder that Trump thinks he can defy the results of the election and cling to power despite losing an election? Or that his party does not stand up for the will of voters?

In 1852, Karl Marx famously modified Hegel’s observation that historical occurrences tend to repeat by adding that they may occur the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Marx was mocking Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte who had just seized power in a coup (or, in the interest of technical precision, an autogolpe), declaring himself emperor. Louis-Napoléon did indeed seem like a figure worth ridicule, but the well-heeled members of ruling classes often confuse lack of propriety for weakness.

Adolphe Thiers, a leading figure in the biggest political party that had backed Louis-Napoléon for the presidency in 1848, had persuaded his colleagues to support his candidacy, calling him a “moron” who’d be easy to lead by the nose—“un crétin que l’on mènera.” Louis-Napoléon had already organized two failed coup attempts so inept that they were described as “beyond comedy.” When Bonaparte won the election, though, he had other ideas about how manageable he was. In 1851, failing to change the laws that prevented him from staying in power, he organized his third coup d’état, which was successful. Napoleon III reigned as emperor until 1870, remaking France in the process.

What starts as farce may end as tragedy, a lesson that pundits should already have learned from their sneering dismissal of Trump when he first announced his presidential candidacy. Yes, the Trump campaign’s lawsuits are pinnacles of incompetence, too incoherent and embarrassing to go anywhere legally. The legislators who have been openly pressured by Trump don’t seem willing to abide the crassness of his attempt. States are certifying their election results one by one, and the General Services Administration―the agency that oversees presidential transitions—has started the process of handing the government over to President-elect Joe Biden. If things proceed in their ordinary course, the Electoral College will soon vote, and then Biden will take office.

But ignoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious. President Trump had already established a playbook for contesting elections in 2016 by casting doubt on the election process before he won, and insisting that he only lost the popular vote due to fraud. Now he’s establishing a playbook for stealing elections by mobilizing executive, judicial, and legislative power to support the attempt. And worse, much worse, the playbook is being implicitly endorsed by the silence of some leading Republicans, and vocally endorsed by others, even as minority rule becomes increasingly entrenched in the American electoral system.

It’s not enough to count on our institutions to resist such onslaughts. Our institutions do not operate via magic. They do not gain their power from names, buildings, desks, or even rules. Institutions rely on people collectively agreeing to act in a certain way. Human laws do not simply exert their power like the inexorable pull of gravity. Once people decide that the rules are different, the rules are different. The rules for electoral legitimacy have been under sustained assault, and they’re changing right before our eyes.

We’re being tested, and we’re failing. The next attempt to steal an election may involve a closer election and smarter lawsuits. Imagine the same playbook executed with better decorum, a president exerting pressure that is less crass and issuing tweets that are more polite. If most Republican officials are failing to police this ham-handed attempt at a power grab, how many would resist a smoother, less grossly embarrassing effort?

Adding to the crisis is that many of the 74 million people who voted for Trump now believe that the election was outright stolen. They believe that they were robbed of the right to vote. How many of these supporters will be tempted to carry Trump’s claims about being cheated out of an election victory to their logical conclusion? Meanwhile, millions of people around the country are repeatedly experiencing that being a majority is not enough to win elections, or even if one does win, not always enough to be able to govern.

When Biden takes the presidential oath in January, many will write articles scolding those who expressed concern about a coup as worrywarts, or as people misusing terminology. But ignoring near misses is how people and societies get in real trouble the next time, and although the academic objections to the terminology aren’t incorrect, the problem is about much more than getting the exact term right.

Alarmism is problematic when it’s sensationalist. Alarmism is essential when conditions make it appropriate.

The boy who cried wolf is a familiar parable. But what of the boy who saw an approaching wolf scared off by a thunderstorm and decided that he didn’t need to worry about wolves, instead of readying himself for its return? Fortune favors the prepared; catastrophe awaits those who confuse luck with strength.

In Turkey, the leader of the 1980 coup, the one that my mom had been warned about, was Kenan Evren. He was a military-academy classmate of many who had taken part in a particularly incompetent coup attempt in the early ’60s that failed spectacularly—its missteps included tanks being accidentally sent to a neighborhood in Ankara at the wrong time. But the coup Evren led many years later was anything but farcical: Hundreds of thousands were detained, and more than 100 were tortured to death. A new, restrictive constitution was enacted, under repressive conditions. The failure of multiple attempted coups in the ’60s was not a reason to dismiss the risk of a subsequent coup—but a warning that such an effort might well succeed in more competent hands. Indeed, there was a “memorandum coup” in 1971, which resulted in a change of government after the military issued threats, and the full military takeover in 1980.

So, yes, the word coup may not technically capture what we’re seeing, but as Pablo Picasso said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” People are using the term because it captures the sense and the spirit of the moment—its zeitgeist, its underlying truth.

Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt may well doom it this time. If the Republican Party, itself entrenching minority rule on many levels, won’t stand up to Trump’s attempt to steal an election through lying and intimidation with the fury the situation demands; if the Democratic Party’s leadership remains solely focused on preparing for the presidency of Joe Biden rather than talking openly about what’s happening; and if ordinary citizens feel bewildered and disempowered, we may settle the terminological debate in the worst possible way: by accruing enough experience with illegitimate power grabs to evolve a more fine-grained vocabulary.

Act like this is your first coup, if you want to be sure that it’s also your last.

*A previous version of this article misstated the amount of time between 1980 and 2016. It is over three decades, not two.