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Feature 11.02.2020 11 minutes

How Trump Survives a Coup

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And how our form of government survives with him.

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When the first American edition of my Coup d’État: a Practical Handbook was published in 1969, the United States was in great turmoil. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations had grown increasingly aggressive—a process culminating in the Kent State demonstrations of the following year, during which beleaguered National Guardsmen in imminent physical danger killed four and wounded others in self-defense, as multiple courts unambiguously determined.

The publisher’s press agent had no trouble at all lining up media interviews. These I handled as best I could, having just arrived in the U.S. for the first time and being greatly ill-prepared for the peculiar nature of American provincialism. It is not that Americans do not know about foreign lands—countless individual Americans know more about individual foreign countries than any collection of Europeans—but rather that they share a peculiar belief that political experiences of any sort anywhere else in the world are irrelevant for the United States, because the United States is…different.

So interviewers kept asking the same question in many different ways: “Could a coup d’état happen in the U.S.?” I would always answer by pointing out that every political system has a breaking point, and if that happens the armed forces are inevitably the residual legatee, especially if recently victorious and therefore confident, or else recently defeated and therefore resentful.

There matters would have rested but for an accident of fate. I was looking forward to leaving New York after a week, unimpressed by its disrepair and inhibited social life and with much to do in Paris, when I was suddenly invited to proceed to Washington, D.C. to work—illegally, on a tourist visa—for two preeminent personalities, Paul Nitze and the formidable Dean Acheson, architects between them of the entire structure of American foreign and defense policy.

It was quite early on in my illegal labors that I learned I had been entirely wrong in believing the United States was also potentially vulnerable to a coup d’état. It was not. I discovered the American political system does not have a breaking point, and that the armed forces cannot therefore become its residual legatee. What made me see my profound error so quickly was the work I was doing for Acheson and Nitze, who had set up the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy to argue the case for the Safeguard ballistic missile defense system soon to face a vote in the Senate.

It sounds technical, but it was not: in a red-hot political atmosphere, with huge anti-war demonstrations succeeding one another, the grand notable Acheson and the strategic wizard Nitze were defying the intellectual consensus of the time, the editorial opinion of the quality press, and the anti-defense tsunami in Congress triggered by the Vietnam war, all to demand billions for a weapon many viewed as not just useless but very harmful, because it would undermine deterrence.

The political debate was vehement, but when I went with Acheson to Capitol Hill for his testimony before the Committee on Foreign Relations all were extremely courteous and, while there were pointed questions, there were no sneering undertones or dismissive comments. No one questioned Acheson’s motives: he supported Safeguard, his Congressional critics did not, and the arguments pro and con were debated.

It was then perhaps that someone explained to me the mysterious filibuster. Nothing to do with the original filibustiere, or free-ranging pirate, it was rather the right of senators to hold up the Senate’s business with non-stop talk to deny a majority vote they would lose: senators tolerated the practice because in a democracy, a majority’s mild preference for A should give way to a minority’s much more intense preference for B out of a decent respect for one’s fellow citizens.

CIA Director Richard Helms was a key witness. Uninspiringly, he reviewed the positions of the other nuclear powers, with the Soviet Union predictably opposed, and the French surprisingly vehement—their small missile force could be entirely neutralized by ballistic missile defenses. His testimony was not important, as it turned out, but it did allow me to see that everyone presumed the CIA to be impartial as a matter of course.

The Washington Post and the New York Times wrote editorials against Safeguard, but their op-ed pages were open to pro-Safeguard opinions—including those of members of our committee. This too differed from my experience with the British and Italian press, a party press in which each newspaper reflected just one point of view.

All this at least suggested that the American political system was stabilized by unwritten norms that imposed moderation. But it was a chance encounter with Earl Warren Burger, newly-appointed Chief Justice and average-tier visitor to Dean Acheson’s Sandy Springs farm, that was decisive.

I asked Burger straight out if there was any politics in the Supreme Court. I started by mentioning Italy’s equivalent Cassazione court, in which different judges belonged to different “currents” of Left or Right. Burger’s answer was that he had been appointed by Nixon, others had been appointed by Democratic Presidents, and everyone had political opinions, but the Court was above the political fray and its judgements would never be questioned on political grounds. I think it was Acheson who said words to the effect that the Court was the backstop to the entire political system.

Matters had not changed when I returned to the United States some years later, in time to see my 1969 impressions strongly reinforced by the bipartisan handling of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s orderly resignation. Congress was certainly a far more sedate place of political debate than the rowdy House of Commons I had observed from the gallery more than once.

Since then, however, everything has changed. Each one of the crash-barriers and backstops of the American political system has been undone. Once again, therefore, I must avow error and change my verdict: yes, the American political system too does have a breaking point—and yes, the armed forces could be left as its residual legatee.

In the Fray

In contrast to the rigorous impartiality of the government officials of 1969, even amidst the furious national debate on Safeguard, it is now proven fact that several linked individuals within the FBI—up to the Deputy Director Andrew George McCabe—mislead the FISA court to depict Donald Trump as a Russian “asset,” i.e., a Moscow-controlled individual and real-life “Manchurian candidate.”

It is also recorded fact that CIA Director John Brennan, plus his superior, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, publicly suggested that Trump may be a Russian asset operating under Putin’s direction, while simultaneously testifying in closed sessions with Congressional committees that no such evidence existed. Of Richard Helms’ rigorous impartiality there was no trace left, as McCabe, Brennan and Clapper became examples of envenomed partisanship.

As for the wider congressional picture, the scenes of 2019 and 2020 would have been unimaginable in 1969—from Nancy Pelosi contemptuously tearing her copy of the State of the Union speech before the TV cameras, to the habitual description of Trump as “subservient to Putin” by senators and congressmen. They might well believe what they say, but only if they have no understanding whatever of geopolitics—a very complicated thing to be sure, but not for its simplest and only relevant rule: do not quarrel with China and Russia at the same time. (Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo visited Putin several times and invited him for a full-dress visit complete with a home stay at the family house down in Yamaguchi prefecture—not because Abe is pro-Russian or a Russian asset, but because it makes sense for a Japanese prime minister to detach Russia from China.)

Most serious, however, is the ongoing intimidation of the Supreme Court: only three Senators have publicly declared that the newly elected president should appoint more judges to overturn the moderate majority. But of the three (Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren), one is now the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate.

That is highly relevant because it is the expressed opinion of the leaders of the Democratic establishment—enunciated by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton—that Biden should not concede victory to Trump under any circumstances, i.e., regardless of the number of votes that he might win. Those are words which would have been simply unimaginable in the past; now they do not even arouse much furor when spoken.

If therefore election-night ballot counting, or the belated counting of mailed-in ballots, fails to yield the required number of votes for Biden in the different states, thus requiring an appeal to the courts that would quickly reach the Supreme Court, the latter must do its duty and side with Biden, on penalty of being diluted with new appointments. Such is the logic of the Democrats’ party leaders.

There is an obvious procedural obstacle along the way. Biden’s election, with or without a majority of the electoral votes, cannot be assured by a packed Supreme Court, because only a sitting president can appoint judges to the Supreme Court.

But two retired lieutenant colonels, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, have found a remedy. (Nagl was known till now as the true author of the inordinately long, rebarbative, and repetitive counter-insurgency manual attributed to generals Petraeus and Mattis—hundreds of pages written to elide the simple fact that insurgents must be out-terrorized, as every empire has done throughout history.)

Nagl and Yingling obviously agree that Biden must win the 2020 Presidential election, understandably so because that is certainly the opinion of the American establishment as a whole—from the Silicon Valley aristocracy to the New York Times, from the Boston academic mandarins to the fixers, chancers, and cotton-wool-brained actors of the entertainment industry. The Nagl/Yingling remedy for the Trump problem, i.e. his role as an obstacle to Biden’s accession to the Presidency, is contained in their open letter to General Mark A Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In it, they write that Donald Trump is “actively subverting our electoral system and threatening to remain in office in defiance of our Constitution,” concluding that “the once-unthinkable scenario of authoritarian rule in the United States is now a very real possibility.” The reasons adduced are these: “Mr. Trump faces near certain electoral defeat,” an outcome which “would result in his facing not merely political ignominy, but also criminal charges [sic, but unexplained: espionage for Putin?].” What is more, add the authors, “Mr. Trump is assembling a private army capable of thwarting not only the will of the electorate but also the capacities of ordinary law enforcement” (emphasis added).

Then comes the injunction to General Milley: “when these [sic] forces collide on January 20, 2021, the U.S. military will be the only institution capable of upholding our Constitutional order”—an action that requires General Milley to enter the White House with a sufficient number of troops to overwhelm the secret service contingent on duty, remove Trump, and install Biden…or perhaps, directly, Harris, should the commotion be too much for the long-serving Senator from Delaware.

What follows is a bit of an anti-climax in which the two officers list Trump’s culpabilities. “More than 160,000 Americans have died from COVID 19, and that toll is likely to rise to 300,000 by November”—rather likely actually, but if that is the criterion, then the Belgian, British, Italian, Spanish and Swedish Prime Ministers should all be booted out, given that each of those countries recorded a comparable number of deaths per capita.

More statistics follow, in the minestrone style of the Nagl manual, culminating in the prophecy of the Economist, which estimates Biden’s chances of winning the election at 91%—not the place, Nagl and Yingling must have determined, to cite the OSD/DoD study for Andrew Marshal of the Economist’s forecasting performance over two decades (much less than 50% of even bets, and much less than those of London’s mass-market tabloid Daily Mirror).

The urgent question at hand is begged by a claim that the authors slip in without any trace of evidence: “Mr. Trump is assembling a private army capable of thwarting not only the will of the electorate but also the capacities of ordinary law enforcement.” That claim about the non-existent “army” is the key to the actual Nagl/Yingling plan, which must also be the Clinton & Co. plan: if the electoral result fails to win the White House for the pre-ordained 46th President Biden, the “intersectional” demonstrators and window-breakers who have served as the Democratic Party’s troops in countless demonstrations from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Oregon, will assemble once more around the White House, but this time in serious numbers—perhaps the high hundreds of thousands, doubtless helped on their way by the doings and non-doings of Democratic office-holders in myriad towns and cities—in order to overwhelm utterly “the capacities of ordinary law enforcement,” thereby forcing General Milley to intervene with the necessary number of troops.

At that point, in theory, he could award the Presidency to Trump, disregarding the near-unanimous media messages that will be reaching his troops, but Nagl and Yingling do not even take that possibility into account.

I have never been a barrister in a British court, a job in which the highest skill is to elicit self-accusations from hostile witnesses. But in this case, the “tell” was right there in the phantom-army clause.

While the Nagl/ Yingling private army intended to overwhelm “ordinary law enforcement” to keep a defeated Trump in the White House is safely non-existent, there is the non-imaginary danger of a mob seizure of the White House to expel a victorious Trump. His chances may only be 0.09% (as the Economist opined), but even that is too high a proportion for the extremists who are now influencing an entire American political party who will accept nothing above 0.0%.

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