Letter from Washington: America’s ambiguous interregnum
What Trump’s clumsy attempt to defy the election proves
Edward Luttwak’s Coup D’État: A Practical Handbook works like a cookery book. As Luttwak himself put it in the preface to the first edition, “It aims at enabling any lay person equipped with enthusiasm — and the right ingredients — to carry out his own coup; only a knowledge of the rules is required.”
What follows are 250 pages of strangely compelling instructions made all the more exhilarating by Luttwak’s use of the first person plural. We must seize the radio tower first. We must not forget the escape route through palace’s back entrance. That sort of thing.
Missing from Luttwak’s handbook, still in print after more than 50 years, is a mention of whether garden centres in suburban Philadelphia are good places to hold press conferences. Or a reminder that hair dye streaming down your cheeks as you allege the biggest crime in the history of American democracy isn’t a good look.
To some observers, the amateurishness of Donald Trump and his self-styled “elite strike-force team” of lawyers’ evidence-free attempt to overturn an unambiguous election result does not make it any less worrying. A clownish coup attempt is still a coup attempt, they argue. Never mind that Trump and co should have read their Luttwak before launching their clumsy attempt to “stop the steal”. Those who warned that the president would not go gently into that good night point at what he has done since election day and say “I told you so”.
Meanwhile, those who have always been sceptical of these warnings about Trump’s post-election shenanigans feel similarly vindicated. Look at the impotence of Team Trump’s actions, they argue. Away from the Trumpworld theatrics, the US political system is grinding through the gears, state officials are certifying election results and the country is getting steadily closer to the day when the removal men arrive at the White House.
For what it’s worth, Luttwak himself is in the more relaxed camp. “As the author of the standard work on the subject (Coup d’Etat, Harvard U Press+ 29 other editions in 24 languages) I can certify that Trump’s actions, however irritating, are not a Coup d’Etat. Of 187 Coups studied none included lawyers & all required serving soldiers. Hysteria,” he said in a tweet on Thursday.
The telling thing about this debate is that both sides — let’s call them the alarmists and the complacents — think events have proved them right. And, strangely, both sides really are right — it’s just that they are talking about different things.
The alarmists warned that Trump did not care about American democracy. That his narcissism would override any consideration for the greater good. That there were enough hucksters and sycophants around the president to indulge his fantasy of a stolen election.
They were right.
The complacents asked us to trust the system. They argued that the American constitution would mean Trump’s whims only counted for so much, and that it was beyond the power and competence of Trump to defy the will of the American people.
They too were right.
Hence the mixed emotions. The weeks since the election have revealed conflicting truths. The president of the United States wants to steal an election. That much is now beyond debate, and it’s an unsettling, depressing thing to have to acknowledge.
But the other half of the story is a lot less gloomy. After claims of the death of American democracy, the impossibility of conducting a free and fair election in the middle of a pandemic, the inevitability of violent intimidation at polling stations and crippling foreign intervention, the likelihood of armed clashes on the streets of American cities and the exploitation of that chaos by the president, the election itself was remarkably normal. And the ham-fisted attempts to overturn the result have all fallen flat thanks to public servants, many of them Republicans, whose job it is to safeguard American democracy, not indulge the fantasies of the president. Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell have proved no match for judges in Pennsylvania, state officials in Georgia and legislators in Michigan.
After an ambiguous election that delivered a clear Biden win without as full-throated a repudiation of Trump as many predicted, America finds itself in an equally ambiguous interregnum. It manages to be troubling and heartening all at once. It is a demonstration of the damage one man can do, but also its limits; confirmation of Trump’s malignancy, but also of America’s resilience.
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