Tuesday, October 05, 2021


Last October, responding in part to an Atlantic essay by Barton Gellman titled "The Election That Could Break America," Ross Douthat wrote a column titled "There Will Be No Trump Coup." In a follow-up published today, Douthat concedes that Gellman got many things right, but insists, as he did a year ago, that Trump's ability to foment constitutional chaos had significant limits:
In hindsight, Gellman’s essay got Trump’s intentions absolutely right: He was right that Trump would never concede, right that Trump would reach for every lever to keep himself in power, right that Trump would try to litigate against late-counted votes and mail-in ballots, right that Trump would pressure state legislatures to overrule their voters, right that Trump’s final attention would be fixed on the vote count before Congress.

If you compare all those Trumpian intentions with what actually transpired, though, what you see again and again is his inability to get other people and other institutions to cooperate....

At almost every level, ... what Gellman’s essay anticipated, Trump tried to do. But at every level he was rebuffed, often embarrassingly, and by the end his plotting consisted of listening to charlatans and cranks proposing last-ditch ideas, including [John] Eastman’s memo, that would have failed just as dramatically as Rudy Giuliani’s lawsuits did.

Which was, basically, what my own “no coup” essay predicted: not that Trump would necessarily meekly accept defeat, but that he lacked any of the powers — over the military, over Silicon Valley (“more likely to censor him than to support him in a constitutional crisis,” I wrote, and so it was), over the Supreme Court, over G.O.P. politicians who supported him in other ways — required to bend or shatter law and custom and keep him in the White House.
To give Douthat his due, his argument really was "Trump will fail at this if he tries it," not "Trump is certain to go quietly," so on that level, he was mostly correct. (He predicted no mob uprising, and he admits that he was utterly wrong about that.)

Douthat now insists that Trump could win legitimately in 2024, but if he attempts another coup (as Robert Kagan and others fear) he'll fail again.
The Kagan thesis is that the Trump threat is existential, that Trump’s movement is ever more equivalent to 1930s fascism and that only some sort of popular front between Democrats and Romney Republicans can save the Republic from the worst. My thesis is that Trump is an adventurer of few consistent principles rather than a Hitler, that we’ve seen enough from watching him in power to understand his weaknesses and incapacities, and that his threat to constitutional norms is one of many percolating dangers in the United States today, not a singular danger that should organize all other political choices and suspend all other disagreements.
I don't know why so many commentators -- Douthat is far from alone -- continue to insist that "Trump is an adventurer of few consistent principles." The usual form this takes is a description of Trump as "transactional," as if he would happily have done deals with Bernie Sanders and the Squad if he thought it would get his name in the papers. Trump might have been ideologically fluid back in, say, the late 1990s, when he was considering a third-party run for president, but in the ensuing years Fox News ate his brain, as it ate the brains of many other white people of approximately his age. Trump is now a right-wing ideologue, period.

But Douthat's argument for not fearing a 2024 Trump coup comes down to the question of power. In his view, Trump won't have any:
... Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in any shape or form.... You can’t assess Trump’s potential to overturn an election from outside the Oval Office unless you acknowledge his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.
It's almost persuasive: Even when he was president, Trump couldn't get Republican states, a GOP-dominated Supreme Court, the military, or his own Justice Department to help keep him in power. He was stuck with Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. How will he pull this off in three years?

The answer is obvious, but Douthat won't acknowledge it. He writes:
The political payoff for being the Republican who “fights” for Trump ... — meaning the secretary of state who refuses to certify a clear Democratic outcome, or the state politician who pushes for some kind of legislative intervention — may be higher in three years than it was last winter. There could also be new pressures on the creaking machinery of the Electoral Count Act should Republicans control the House of Representatives.
But then Douthat says, Pay no attention to all of that. Trump screwed this up when he was in power. He certainly won't get it right when he's out of power.

But we're setting up a scenario in which Trump won't be directing the coup. Republicans in the states, in Congress, and possibly on the courts will be directing it. The laws that are being passed now are designed to create multiple scenarios under which Trump (or some other Republican) wins. The laws are designed to reduce the Democratic vote and then empower state legislatures to overturn election results, while audits in multiple states are intended to convey the message to the public that what you hear about vote totals from TV newscasters on Election Night is not to be trusted.

I have my doubts about the efficacy of the audits, which continue to look preposterous to non-Republicans. But the rest of what's being done in the states -- the curtailment of ballot access, the likely takeover of at least one large election board in Georgia, the inevitable poll closings and voter-roll purges in Democratic areas -- is meant to leverage Trump's talk about rigged elections to create the impression before a winner is declared that election results can't be trusted and would be overturned for good reason if they are overturned.

In other words, the next time, people with more skill than Trump could very well do a better job of coup-ing than Trump did. They'll create uncertainty from the start, which is what Trump failed to do. That's what we have to fear. That's what Douthat shouldn't downplay, because it's the biggest risk.

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