An anonymous White House official’s “resistance” editorial in The New York Times has faded in the breakneck news cycle, but the debate it spurred in our forums continues: Is a coup ongoing in American politics?
A political scientist who studies authoritarian regimes, Natasha Lindstaedt, made the case that the United States is experiencing an “administrative coup,” a subtle form of takeover that doesn’t require tanks in the streets.
Round One: What’s in a Name?
Lindstaedt, a political scientist at the University of Sussex, laid out the criteria for an administrative coup. Members then pushed back with several rebuttals. As usual, we refer to them by their forum usernames. Here’s the edited exchange.
The argument: An administrative coup is different from a military coup, but it’s still a coup. The former is what’s happening in the White House right now.
A coup is essentially when there has been some sort of takeover by extralegal means so that nonelected leaders are the ones making decisions. The military is the most common source of coups, which we tend to think of as dramatic and sometimes violent events that have a clear beginning and end date. Administrative coups are lesser known and potentially more mundane. They denote that someone who was elected is, against their will, no longer de facto in charge of the country.
What’s revealed by the op-ed does differ from a military coup because the military did not stage a coup directly, the leader was not officially ousted from power, there was no use or threat of use of force, and no swift and sudden action took place in a span of hours. That said, there has been a seizure of power due to the total incompetence of the leader. These types of administrative coups happen at exactly the point when there is disarray and low levels of confidence in the leadership. They can occur within the same administration, and be carried out by individuals who share the same ideology as the leader. They do not mean there has to be an overhaul of the policies.
We are still learning more about administrative coups, but the key elements revealed by the op-ed and by Bob Woodward’s book are in line with what we know:
Nonelected individuals seize de facto power and start making decisions.
This takes place without the consent of the leader.
The process of taking power is extralegal and non-transparent.
It’s most likely done with the consent of law enforcement.
An announcement is made to the general public that this has happened.
For all intents and purposes, Donald Trump is being circumvented. The only decisions he is able to execute are those that the staff surrounding him agrees with. —Natasha Lindstaedt
The rebuttals: Even based on the definition of an administrative coup, that’s not happening, because …
There’s no need for a coup in the first place. “Your argument assumes Trump wants to run the country. There is little evidence that he really wanted to win the presidency. His daily schedule is stunningly empty of any governing time. He shows no interest in legislation or legislators. He appears to do exactly what he wants to do. What he cannot achieve is the transformation of reality by speech alone. Yet he appears to live by speech alone. No one ‘prevents’ him from doing; he alone shoulders blame.” —Donna
Something is happening, but we shouldn’t call it a “coup.” “Personally, I wouldn’t use the word. But whatever word is appropriate, if we can’t easily dismiss words like coup or constitutional crisis to describe the current executive branch, then we’re in a dire situation indeed.” —Jazzaloha
Round Two: How to Throw a Successful Coup
Assume for a moment that an administrative coup is ongoing. How effective has it been?
The argument: The coup is working. Trump has been actively restrained by members of his administration from acting on his preferred policies.
True, Trump appears to have no interest in the day-to-day monotony of governance, but he certainly appears to feel strongly that he is best suited to make key decisions.
Trump tweets what he wants to and makes statements that befuddle his staff and party, but for the most part, those around him have been able to prevent total catastrophe. Trump proclaimed that Vladimir Putin would be coming to the United States to visit in September, shocking his intelligence chief, Dan Coats. He then had to walk that back. He met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and who knows what they talked about. But despite that talk, U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula has not strayed from Trump’s inner circle’s priorities. Remember: If Trump’s express desires had been acted upon, there would be no U.S. troops in South Korea. But his advisers made clear that was not going to happen. The policies enacted by the Trump administration remain, in many effects, policies of the Republican Party, and when Trump has an idea that the Republican inner circle does not like, it can prevent him from action. —Natasha Lindstaedt
The rebuttals: Trump’s policies are only fettered by law.
Structural policy limits, not a coup, are keeping Trump from acting. “You might have a case for ‘administrative coup’ if Reince Priebus had been able to function as chief of staff with Rob Porter as the managing secretary. Both had GOP pedigrees. Both are gone. Trump’s executive orders are blocked by laws requiring congressional participation. In the case of the invitation to Putin, congressional leaders made it clear that Putin would not be welcome on the Hill. In the case of North Korean policy, you are correct about troops in South Korea remaining even though Trump wanted them out. But President Jimmy Carter wanted them out, too. Was there an administrative coup then? Or did reality just bite?” —Donna
Trump still gets his way in key policy decisions. “Trump wanted steel and aluminum tariffs and we have said tariffs. Trump wanted a Muslim ban and we have as much of a Muslim ban as the law allows. Trump wants to limit immigration and we are limiting immigration. The former economic advisor Gary Cohn, the former staff secretary Rob Porter, and the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson opposed and slow-walked some of what Trump wanted and they’re gone. Within the realm of executive trade authority, he is pummeling Canada and raising the stakes of a trade war with China. He has not been stopped in any case except by the limits of executive authority. The hypothesis of administrative coup rides on the idea of ‘preventing’ Trump from doing what he wants.” —Chris
Round Three: You Be the Judge
Which side has been more convincing? Do you believe a coup is taking place in American politics? Cast your vote.
Today’s Question: Jump in to vote: Coup or no coup?
What’s Coming: Friday, our reporter David Graham checks in from the front lines of the politics beat.
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