Is it a coup? In private, the president’s aides “have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing,” wrote an anonymous senior administration official in The New York Times last week. Our writers disagree on whether that constitutes a coup.
Today, Adam Serwer expands on why he doesn’t call it a coup, and we ask Natasha Lindstaedt, a political scientist who studies authoritarian regimes, to weigh in.*
Your turn: So is it a coup, or isn’t it? Make your case on our forums.
Longreads Bracket: Round Two
Last month, we set out to find the best piece of recent longform journalism. The winner: M. H. Miller’s “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me.” Now we’re looking for a whole new slate of contenders. What was the best piece of journalism published in August? Tell us here.
What Makes a Coup?
Last week’s anonymous op-ed provoked disagreement on our site. The Atlantic staff writers David Frum and Adam Serwer agree that the piece was “cowardly,” but diverge on a few major points: David uses the word coup to describe the resistance movement outlined in the article. Adam doesn’t. David argues that the op-ed represents a “constitutional crisis.” Adam calls it pure “public relations.”
Here’s an excerpt from David’s piece:
If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand. That duty may be risky to their careers in government or afterward. But on their first day at work, they swore an oath to defend the Constitution—and there were no “riskiness” exemptions in the text of that oath …
The author of the anonymous op-ed is hoping to vindicate the reputation of like-minded senior Trump staffers. See, we only look complicit! Actually, we’re the real heroes of the story.
But what the author has just done is throw the government of the United States into even more dangerous turmoil. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.
What happens the next time a staffer seeks to dissuade the president from, say, purging the Justice Department to shut down Robert Mueller’s investigation? The author of the Times op-ed has explicitly told the president that those who offer such advice do not have the president’s best interests at heart and are, in fact, actively subverting his best interests as he understands them on behalf of ideas of their own.
He’ll grow more defiant, more reckless, more anti-constitutional, and more dangerous.
And those who do not quit or are not fired in the next few days will have to work even more assiduously to prove themselves loyal, obedient, and on the team. Things will be worse after this article. They will be worse because of this article.
We asked Adam to respond, highlighting the points where his opinion differs from David’s. Here’s what he wrote:
My piece and my colleague David Frum’s diverge in two respects. One, which I will concede, is that many of the individuals in the current administration believe they are acting in the best interests of the country, despite, or perhaps even because of, their flawed chief executive. Frum thanks them for their contributions and tells them their service is valuable. I’m sure there are examples where this is the case—officials who help the country prepare for natural disasters or disease epidemics, people who are basically indispensable no matter who is in charge.
Where I would disagree with my colleague is in his characterization of bureaucratic infighting within the Trump administration as a “coup.” Coups seek to remove one government and replace it with another. The officials described in Bob Woodward’s book, and even the anonymous author of the Times op-ed, are seeking to maintain continuity. They are doing what they can to keep Donald Trump in office, even to the point of seeking to protect him from himself, or to protect themselves from him. They don’t want to see him impeached, removed by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, or otherwise driven from the White House. They want him to stay and be useful to the conservative agenda they are trying to pursue, one that would be harmed by Trump’s removal. And that’s why I don’t think there’s anything heroic about it.
A Coup is a Coup
For an outside opinion, we turned to Natasha Lindstaedt. She is a professor in the department of government at the University of Essex who studies authoritarian regimes. Her opinion on the op-ed: Its contents absolutely describe a soft coup within the White House. Here’s Natasha:
The stories from the anonymous op-ed, complemented by Bob Woodward’s book, are shocking for a democracy, but they’re commonplace in dictatorships. One important function of democracy is to filter out office seekers who can’t put the state’s interests above their own. In countries without competitive elections, however, individuals rise to power through violence, corruption, and other self-serving means. The dictator thinks of himself first and the state second—a situation that can be difficult for state employees. In those countries, the slightly more rational individuals who surround the dictator tell him what he wants to hear to his face, while quietly working to avoid disaster in secret. False reporting and sycophantic flattery is the norm.
In failing countries with dictators who are clinging to power, the only two options are to oust him or to work around him. In the latter stages of Robert Mugabe’s presidency in Zimbabwe, well aware that he was plunging the country deeper into chaos, part of the elite inner circle tried to circumvent him where possible. Officials worked to convince Mugabe to change his economic policies after the country was saddled in debt, as his inner circle regularly met with U.S. officials behind his back. When Mugabe seemed likely to lose an election in 2008, the military stepped in and forced his opponent out of the race. But the inner circle couldn’t maintain that strategy indefinitely. Mugabe seemed to be setting up his wife, Grace, to succeed him. And unlike in the United States, there was no hope that the president could be painlessly removed in the next election. That pushed the military to stage an actual coup. They denied this, of course, but a coup is still a coup.
In the traditional sense, a coup is the removal of a leader by extralegal means. It is usually executed by the military, but can come at the direction of elites who were not elected to the government. Though the intentions of those essentially executing the Twenty-Fifth Amendment without actually doing it may be genuine, as anonymously described in the Times, these officials are running the country without ever being elected by the public, as the military does in countless cases in the developing world. It’s still a coup in a sense. Just like in Zimbabwe, individuals within the government are seeing their prerogatives threatened and are taking matters into their own hands. Anywhere else in the world, we’d call a spade a spade.
Today’s Question: Is it a coup? We’re debating that question in the forums. Natasha will be joining us later this week to respond to the conversation.
What’s Coming: Wednesday, we’ll be diving into the books we’ll be reading in September: Political Tribes, by Amy Chua, and Florida, by Lauren Groff.
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- This article originally misstated Natasha Lindstaedt’s academic discipline; it is political science, not history. We regret the error.
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