Map showing coups in Africa

Is a Trump Coup on the Cards?

An outsider’s cautionary view

Hello from Africa.

We have coups here. Sometimes overt, sometimes stolen elections.

I’ve even been the target of one on a petty scale. I was in the leadership of a very small party that won two seats in South Africa’s national parliamentary elections and one of our MPs stole the party to benefit from government funding for parties represented in parliament.

I thought I would look for some informative pictures and did a Google image search on “Mugabe losing election poll watchers social media”. What I got was a bunch of pictures of both Mugabe and Trump.

As an outsider who has viewed many coups I hope I can add some insight to what is going on in the US right now.

I outline the basics, Coup 101 if you will, relate that to what President Trump is up to now and give some warnings about what our experience in Africa tells you to look out for.

But first some reassurance: a successful coup in the US is very unlikely. There are too many checks and balances for it to be likely to succeed. The real danger is in undermining confidence in the system at the very time when social cohesion is vital to control a raging pandemic.

So what are the basics of orchestrating a coup?

First, what you are attempting flouts legality so you need to focus the mind of anyone who may be offended by that on the other side. The classic trick is to accuse the other side of whatever malfeasance you’ve already committed or nefarious tricks you have in mind. This is deflection. Claim that the other side is doing what you’re doing.

Second, you need to provoke the other side into over-reacting so you can claim to be “restoring order”. This is recoil. Make the actions of the other side work for you.

Finally, you need control of means of applying force that you can legitimize by the previous steps. This is not worthy of a name: get there and it may as well be game over.

Let’s start with deflection.

From early on in the campaign. Trump has been asserting (as many will tell you, without evidence) that mail-in ballots are subject to massive fraud. If this was a legitimate concern, what would you do?

To minimize chances of fraud, you’d make sure that the time to process and check mail-in ballots was maximized. These two steps do this:

  • ensure that the mail system works as efficiently as possible
  • ensure any state legislatures under your influence remove any legislated obstacles to processing mail-in ballots as early as possible

What actually happened? Trump appointed a crony as Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, and he has been accused of sabotaging the mail system to slow the arrival of mail-in ballots and has been the subject of lawsuits (not always successfully) forcing rapid processing of ballots. While DeJoy denies these charges, there is no evidence that he has done the opposite: ramped up capacity to ensure mail-in ballots arrive as fast as possible.

In three states where mail-in ballots were a major factor, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, state legislatures refused to change state laws that prevented early processing of mail-in ballots.

None of this is conclusive evidence that Trump planned to steal the election but it is stronger evidence that he did than the evidence that the Democrats stole the election.

What is the evidence that the Democrats stole the election? Unsubstantiated or sporadic complaints don’t count. Republicans control enough levels of government in states that Biden won narrowly that a cover up is not plausible.

Add to this his eagerness to cement the right-wing majority in the Supreme Court and you do not have a picture of a president trying to ensure a level playing field.

Therefore deflection is the best conclusion, based on the evidence. Trump lost; he is trying to accuse the other side of malfeasance that is a better fit to his own actions.

On now to recoil.

Protest 101: make the other side over-react. Then bystanders become protesters. This works for all causes, whether from the left or the right.

Trump has not for nothing been spending much of the last four years demonizing Antifa, a cause that wouldn’t exist without fa — fascism, to spell it out in full. His rabble-rousing tactics post-election are designed to trigger (another favourite word of the right) angry counter-protest. If that turns violent, he has fulfilled a prerequisite for “restoring order”.

So: how to counter this?

The anti-Trump side needs to focus on the fact that they have won.

Wrestle with a pig in the mud, and you are playing its game.

Trump can rail and rant all he likes but, without solid evidence, he has nothing that will stand up in court. Not even a court system stacked with right-wing judges.

While countering his protests in numbers is the right way to assuage anger, it only feeds into his narrative. With the rampant surge in Covid-19 cases, do you want to be near a raging unmasked mob?

I am not sure if anyone will heed this but the best answer to Trumpian protests is to ignore them. To do anything else risks inflaming the situation even further and playing to his strength: promoting and profiting from chaos.

He lost. That is what counts to his opposition.

Finally: could it happen? And by this, I mean an extra-legal seizure of power, not the extremely long shot that Trump could overturn the elections in the courts, which so far have shot down every attempt at applying Twitter law in real courts.

In the Trumpiverse, anything is possible but an actual coup is unlikely. While Republican Senators have shown that the evolution of the backbone about 500-million years ago somehow passed them by, they are not the main roadblock to Trump seizing power.

First, he would have to subvert certification of elections and no state government is playing along with this. Even if an election is not certified, there are numerous arguments as to why a Republican state government in a swing state is not going to overturn the popular vote. But we can stop at the fact that Republican state legislatures in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have denied that they would go along with such a plot.

All he is really left with is the “restoring order” ploy. This is of course a good reason not to deploy angry counters to his protests but even if no one heeds my advice, this is not likely to happen. Trump cannot command the military to act against his own people and this has been made clear more than once. At state level, he could deploy the National Guard and he has limited capacity to deploy federal forces (remember Kenosha?).

However, unlike in a tinpot dictatorship, he cannot call together the heads of the armed forces and order them to put down a popular insurrection.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley has put this as clearly as possible: “There’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election. Zero. There is no role there.” He goes on to say that the US is the only, or possibly one of a few, countries where the military swear allegiance to the constitution. I am not sure how accurate this is; South African military code of conduct is explicit about this as well as the nonpartisan nature of the military, for example.

In short: no matter how much Trump behaves as if he is orchestrating a coup, it is extremely unlikely that he will get away with it. And if you want proof that he doesn’t expect to get away with it, consider rushed moves like pulling troups out of Afghanistan 5 days before inauguration. Why would he do that if he expects a second term? The real risk is stoking up division just when the country needs a unifying strategy to take on the Covid pandemic and to deal with deep divisions over issues like systemic racism.

The Biden-Harris presidency has a daunting task on its hands even without this. Yet the fact that Trump is trying to destroy the country on his way out ought to be a wake-up call to those who held their noses to back him. This group, maybe, is salvageable. What really boggles the mind is Covid cases who so strongly believe everything the Dear Leader says that they would rather believe they are dying of lung cancer (so says Jodi Doering, ER nurse). South Dakota, unsurprisingly, according to the COVID Tracking Project, leads the nation in hospitalizations per capita.

US states: currently hospitalized per million people (captured 21 November 2020)

My advice to Biden and Harris? Study the principles of Aikido. Make the actions of the other side work for you; do not reinforce their points of difference but find ways to get them closer to you.

And Republicans? Backbone? Spine evolved over 500-million years ago? If you dismiss science when it’s inconvenient you can dismiss this one too. With pretty similar consequences when reality catches up with you.

I am a computer science associate professor and work in bioinformatics. I promote sustainability, do science communication and campaign for human rights.