An American Military Coup? Why It Could Happen & Shouldn’t by Drew H. Kinney
In March, we published a piece analyzing the the prospects of a military takeover of American government by Drew Kenney, an expert in military takeovers. This month began with Politico publishing a piece entitled “Trump’s Generals Trying to Save the World. Starting with the White House,” coming days after The New York Times published a piece in the Sunday Review, “The Generals Can’t Save Us from Trump.”
Fox News observed that the “President turns to military men for counsel, order.” This has been ongoing theme punctuated with the promotion of John Kelley to Chief of Staff, who Trump turned to help revamp his administration, prompting the headline by Newsweek: “Donald Trump: A 71 Year Old Man Who Needs A Military General to Manage His Twitter Use.”
President Trump recently generated controversy in banning transgender people from the military and issuing his first pardon for political ally Joe Arpaio, releasing the details of both in a “news dump” late Friday afternoon. The Washington Post published a piece this weekend in which authoritarian scholars examined Trump’s pardon.
Trump’s political behavior, coupled with his popularity falling to all time low levels, are raising atypical questions and concerns surrounding the health of American democracy. With that in mind, it seemed apropos to highlight our earlier piece on the prospect of an American coup as scholars and journalists continue to try to make sense of this unusual moment in American politics.
American Military Coup? Why It Could Happen & Shouldn't
My doctoral dissertation investigates the puzzle of civilian statesmen's role in military takeovers. If civilian leaders endanger themselves by inviting officers into the political affairs of their country, then why and under what conditions would they take that risk?
Polarization raises the stakes of political defeat. For instance, one side of the aisle is unwilling to allow a ban on entire groups of people to enter the country. This, coupled with unfair elections, frustrate efforts to defeat opponents whose values are increasingly the polar opposite of one’s own.
It is the perfect storm. One is not willing to accept defeat because their value system is threatened, but peaceful means of opposition are blocked. They turn to extra legal means or at least contemplate them. This can take the form of press comments suggesting (or, “inciting”) coups or through active plotting between politicians and military officers.
The U.S. is polarized and, as far as electoral competition, one might have argued elections were competitive-authoritarian even before revelations of attempted foreign interference, FBI interference, and Donald Trump’s purported ties to Russia.
In the two months Donald J. Trump has been president the GOP has watched as the Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and General Michael Flynn wing of the Donald Trump White House bucked established norms and rules. This has included the unraveling of the international system, Steve Bannon’s intentionally ignoring the DHS’s opinion on the illegality of an Executive Order, Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council, and Trump’s continued use of an unaccountable private security force. The travel ban brought thousands into the streets and to the airports in protest. Trump attacked the subsequent court hearings and called those who presided over them “so-called judges.”
Republicans apparently still feel they can ride the wave of Trumpism, in spite of his low approval rating, and despite Steve Bannon’s loathe of the party. According to Gallup, Americans have lost faith in U.S. institutions, a portent of bad things happening to democracy. Worse still, the one institution the U.S. populace trusts is the military.
As a result of this gloomy situation, some liberal and conservative academics alike privately murmur about what the U.S. armed forces might—indeed, should—do in response to institutional moves within the White House aimed at consolidating power within a tight-knit circle. If impeachment isn’t probable, but American democracy and security are in grave danger—as Foggy Bottom’s professional class’ fear attests—then discussions of the military’s next move will follow.
Before the events of the last few months, writing this piece would be unthinkable. The GOP and especially the Tea Party hated Barack Obama, but one will be hard pressed to find an example of a newspaper or Republican leader urging a military coup.
That idea has now moved into the mainstream, albeit only slightly. Rosa Brooks, a scholar of civil-military relations and a former Defense Department official, wrote in Foreign Policy (re-printed in the Chicago Tribune) that there are at least four ways to remove Trump from the Oval Office, one of which is a military coup d’état (The others are 2020, Impeachment, and the 25th Amendment).
Carlos Muñoz then wrote a fairly sympathetic piece in the Washington Times on Brooks’ idea, though he noted that Brooks claimed it was one of the “only ways” to remove Trump. She in fact said it was one of three, and added this suggestion was unthinkable until this point in her career. A supporter of Trump in Breitbart was outraged at Brooks for the mere suggestion, but the response was a partisan defense of Trump, not a defense of American laws and democracy and a rejection of the coup as a political tactic.
None of this should be that surprising, given a September 2015 YouGov poll found 43% of Americans were likely to support a coup if a civilian government violated the constitution. Typically, in a country with robust rule of law like the US, the courts would handle that, yet this recent coup chatter occurred when the President had only recently criticized a judge over a travel ban—prompting some to declare the US is close to a “full blown” constitutional crisis.
Most people talk of impeachment, but the situation has already become so tense that editors of mainstream publications like the Tribune are willing to float the idea publicly. This serves only to make the notion of a coup d’état part of the normal repertoire of American politics.
This is only shocking because it’s happening in the US. Elsewhere, civilians in the media or government have openly suggested or plotted military interventions, like in Ecuador and in the Middle East, due to the divisive politics of the post-colonial era. Those who study civilian control of the armed forces assume politicians and the lay public prefer a garrisoned army. That is true when the stakes aren’t so high.
In the post-colonial Middle East, civilians like the Ba’athists Michel ‘Aflaq and Akram al-Hawrani actively plotted and participated in coups d'état in Syria. In Iraq, the Communist Party, Nasserists (partisans of Egypt’s vaunted Gamal Abdel Nasser) and Ba’athists conspired with military officers to implement their own programs. For those who still think it can’t happen here—like any authoritarian power grab—it can.
To be clear, the current contention is that the coup chatter is not surprising given the circumstances from a Political Science perspective that understands how coups develop. This is not an argument for an American coup d’état. That would be a sad, unfortunate day in American politics.
Officers are harder to remove from politics with each successive intervention, and the leading predictor of future coups is past coups. Once they’re in, they’re hard to get and keep out. Before the press floats this rule-breaking idea, it should seek to unite Americans to avoid such a crisis—even if it means violating a different code of norms, like standard journalistic rules.
Drew H. Kinney is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.