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Artillery Row

Could there be a dark end to America’s constitutional crisis?

Coup talk, whether or not it is admitted as such, is plainly in the air at both ends of the spectrum

“Could there really be a coup in this, the world’s greatest democracy?” the ambassador of a mid-sized European country asked me over dinner at one of Washington’s private clubs last week. I could only answer with a solid “yes,” for it is, indeed, possible that a “coup” or something like it – for if it succeeded only a brave and bold few would dare call it a “coup” – could possibly be the resolution of America’s deepening constitutional crisis.

Coup talk, whether or not it is admitted as such, is plainly in the air at both ends of the spectrum

Having flown up to the nation’s capital from Palm Beach earlier that day in a plane two-thirds filled with MAGA-hat wearing Trump enthusiasts traveling to convergent rallies in support of the president, talk of a coup did not sound as absurd as it might have sounded a year, a month, or even a week before. Upon take-off and landing, my fellow passengers cheered for many more years to the Trump administration, just days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shocked much of the world by announcing that he expects “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Several Republican state governors have publicly stated that they will not obey Biden administration lockdown orders to combat the continuing pandemic; the governor of Mississippi threatened to secede from the union, as his and other Southern states did in 1861, even if he could not properly spell “secede.”

Trump’s opponents, meanwhile, rely on the mainstream press and increasingly partisan social media to ignore or dispel any and all legal challenges to the projected election results – often even before they know what those challenges are, – while using prominent media platforms to float increasingly hysterical arguments to tempt, cajole, or shame Trump into conceding the election. Conservative commentators have termed such efforts, combined with earlier actions by the administrative-managerial caste, a “soft coup,” but a coup, nevertheless. The latest desperate gambit, trending on Twitter as I write these lines, implores Trump’s cabinet to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution and legally remove the president from office for being in some way “unfit.”

Coup talk, whether or not it is admitted as such, is plainly in the air at both ends of the spectrum. Numerous federal agencies, including some vital to national security, are refusing to facilitate the transition to a Biden administration. Biden’s campaign is seeking legal avenues to compel such a transition. Threats of violence, fears of civil war, and discussion of possible law enforcement measures against Trump and Biden, respectively, are all on the table and openly discussed.

These personnel moves are highly unusual for outgoing presidents

I am aware of game theory people who predict a ten to fifteen per cent chance of a coup occurring, but it is clear that Trump will pursue any legal path to victory to avoid the extreme and potentially risky step of a Staatstreich against his opponents. On the Saturday before Election Day, the president even thanked the Supreme Court in advance for what he clearly expects to be a partisan ruling in his favour by its Republican-appointed supermajority, which is both wider and more conservative than the court that handed George W. Bush victory in the disputed 2000 election. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed or are in preparation to challenge vote counts and certification in crucial swing states.

Trump’s lead attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has stated that his legal strategy essentially rests on getting a decisive case or series of cases before the Supreme Court, where Trump is likely to prevail in an expected political vote.

The Trump team’s new star attorney Sidney Powell created a social media sensation last Friday when she promised to “release the Kraken,” not in the literal form of the destructive sea monster of Greek myth popularised in the film Clash of the Titans, but in what she promises will be massive evidence of voter fraud in the swing states, where a shift of perhaps just 80,000 votes would be enough to secure Trump another Electoral College win. Other observers, myself included, see an unconventional albeit constitutionally sound path to victory via a contingent election, in which the result will be determined by the Republican majority of state delegations in the House of Representatives.

It is far from certain that Trump’s dream team of right-wing lawyers, phalanx of conservative jurists, and legions of Republican loyalists will all fail him. If that should happen, however, his only peaceable option would be to leave office voluntarily on 20 January 2021 and then face near-certain prosecution on possible criminal and civil charges, private litigation arising from a variety of potential claims, and likely ruinous debt collection on hundreds of millions of dollars in loaned capital, much of it personal. If any incident, dispute, or emergency could be invoked to suspend the constitutional transfer of power, it is not beyond reason to suggest that he or his opponents could use it to force an armed solution to decide the election.

A coup from above could well succeed

Exactly what form that solution would take is anyone’s guess, but signs are already in place. Last week Trump sacked his Defence Secretary Mike Esper, whose major offence had been disagreeing that US military units should be deployed to control racial unrest after the killing of George Floyd earlier this year. Esper’s successor Christopher Miller, an ex-Green Beret with National Guard and military police experience, might well have fewer scruples about deploying troops to contain such unrest, as would a number of other new Defence Department officials around him, all of whom are believed to be firm Trump loyalists.

On 18 November Miller announced that for the first time in history US Special Forces would no longer report to civilian chiefs but to him directly. Trump has also fired the head of cyber security in the Department of Homeland Security, just days after that official publicly stated that the recent elections were “the most secure in American history.”

Washington is rife with speculation that the purge will continue, with the directors of the FBI and CIA at the top of the list. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s senior military commander, has publicly stated that the US military will not be directly involved in election matters, but has not said that it would refrain from involvement in security matters resulting from political or social chaos.

These personnel moves are highly unusual for outgoing presidents, who rarely make major policy shifts in the final “lame duck” months of their terms. But they could be quite beneficial to a president who faces losing office in a hotly contested election and may have no other way to stay.

What of the opposition? Mass demonstrations for and against Trump could easily happen if push comes to shove, but as long as the military and security services remain reliably in favour of stability, or “law and order,” as Trump frequently tweets, a coup from above could well succeed. Trump holds all the advantages of incumbency, including his constitutional role as commander-in-chief and a highly professional military ethos that respects and will almost certainly obey the established chain of command, especially under Miller at Defence.

Biden has the mainstream media, which about 70 per cent of Americans do not trust, as well social media and tech companies, which are presently under vigorous Congressional investigation and, in some cases, anti-trust prosecution. He also has a popular majority of voters, heavily concentrated in large coastal cities.

Over one-third of Democrats say they support at least some amount of violence to impose their political views, but most do not and those who do are almost totally unarmed and dispersed rapidly when confronted by federal agents in the summer racial protests.

Fatigued by the pandemic and exhausted by the social unrest that has already taken place, they are scarcely willing to risk their lives in any significant numbers over suspect voting machines in Wisconsin or mislaid ballots in Georgia.

Whether grim prophecies of democratic doom will come true remains an unknown and will depend on a great many factors that are only now emerging, but the betting man should not exclude the possibility.

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