I began working on this a few days back, when there still seemed to be a dark and possibly effective plan for Donald Trump to overturn the election results. I stand by the premise that Trump has only one path to power now that he’s lost the election, though the likelihood of an armed revolution to facilitate a second, presumably lifetime, Trump presidency, seems even more remote to me than a day or two back. I originally wrote this piece by way of reassurance to any of my anxious fellow citizens who might stumble upon it.
Trump is a cruel, vindictive, unconstrained bully who rules by fear and intimidation. The terror he instills is real. People who work for him, and the members of his party, do his bidding, no matter how irrational, as much out of fear of his vindictiveness as for any other reason. When I began writing this many sensible people were still quivering in fear of Trump’s wild threats — hundreds of Trump lawsuits that would overturn vote counts, flying monkeys, Supreme Court, Proud Boys, rogue Republican state legislatures sending Trump electors in states Trump lost (after claiming undocumented fraud that never happened), the Klan, Steve Bannon’s zombie armies, the Insurrection Act and massive riot squads enforcing martial law, ramped up mass murder by COVID, and God knows what else the desperate madman has up his sleeve.
It pained me the other day to hear Jane Mayer, the brilliant investigative journalist, very worried about the unformed, fantastical idea of Trump’s 6-3 Supreme Court somehow installing Trump in an open quid pro quo that would make the installation of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush by a partisan 5-4 majority seem morally and legally high-minded. WNYC journalist and host Brian Lehrer shared her fear and added a few of the Trump-related terrors that keep him up at night.
A few words of a hopefully calming nature:
At the risk of sounding mean, violent overthrow of the legally elected government of the Unites States of America appears to be the only card left in Donald Trump’s arsenal if he is truly determined to stay in power as the first US dictator. His evidence-free, long-shot lawsuits have all been thrown out as baseless, he continues to spend millions on an army of second rate lawyers huffing and puffing in the courts, but that effort has come to nothing. The results of the election are clear, margins literally too big to rig, even if Trump could count on a sufficient number of corrupt, ideologically pure right wing judges to rule in his favor. The legal game is pretty much over, and Trump himself seems to know it.
Violent overthrow looks like the only scenario in which Mr. Trump has anything like smiling Mike Pompeo’s version of a smooth transition to a second Trump term, taking the oath on a Bible held by John Roberts, (or Amy, or Brett, or Neil), on January 20, 2020. To do that he will need to have literally overthrown the elected United States government by force in the next few weeks. Trump is probably game for rivers of American blood flowing in the streets, if it means he wins, but even terror of the ferocious lame duck winner might not be enough to motivate even his most fervent bootlickers in Congress to back that extreme anti-democratic play.
After lawful ballots are re-counted and unlawful ballots discarded, (as all of Trump’s backers insist be done, in spite of no evidence of electoral fraud that could change the result anywhere — see Election Officials Directly Contradict Trump on Voting System Fraud ), when the vote totals we know right now, plus or minus a few hundred ballots, are again tallied and officially certified, we will know for certain what we know for certain right now: Mr. Biden won the presidency, by any count you like and in an orderly election with no evidence of more than the usual, sporadic 61/138,000,000th of the vote that is shown to be fraudulent. Even if this election had been marred by 10 times, even 100 times, as much voter fraud as the 61 Heritage Foundation-documented instances from 2016, it is still only a drop in the ocean and would have no effect on the results anywhere.
Trump has no legal option left after his decisive loss. He has decisively lost virtually all his tens of millions of dollars of voting-related cases in every state. Sadly, the Supreme Court will almost certainly not be able to find grounds to intervene and overturn so unquestionable an election result, particularly when every lawsuit contesting the results has been tossed. For all Republican states Trump lost by irrefutable margins to declare massive fraud (without any evidence), overturn their state elections and send Trump Electors to the Electoral College would provoke violent outrage nationwide, and internationally. That outrage would be justified in a democracy after the overturning of an fair election, by a man proclaiming himself dictator. It would likely provoke civil war, leading again to the one path that remains to Trump: violent overthrow of the elected government of the United States .
I’m hoping somehow, and against all odds, that for the first time in Trump’s life, cooler heads prevail before he makes another willful, titanically stupid decision (written a couple of days back). A decision to unleash war on your own country rather than concede defeat would be about the worst made by the erratic, headstrong president, in a very competitive field of very bad decisions made over the course of a life of unlearned lessons.
Trump has never been accountable for any of his disastrous mistakes, which is what makes him so irrationally confident of his infallibility. He seems depressed now, and more distracted and disorganized than usual. He has been publicly silent for several days now, multiple news cycles. It is hard to imagine that he’s consulting with a crack team of five-dimensional chess masters about how to pull off a historic bloodless coup d’etat.
I can even understand that, facing the legal jeopardy and the real prospect of a prison term once he leaves office  the drama-loving Mr. Trump may feel that he’s willing to go down defiantly, in a glorious hail of traitors’ bullets, rather than admit he lost an election. After all, it’s not merely the election he has lost (something that statistically happens to 50% of candidates, there’s no shame there), or his present immunity from most prosecution (a real threat to him) –admitting defeat would destroy his childish conviction that he is a “winner”, a “killer” not a “loser” (his vicious father gave him this brutal choice early on — killer or prey). Conceding defeat would signal the end of his record-setting 74 year winning streak during which he was a 100% winner.
Trump might be willing to go out like Scarface, but would enough of his devoted followers be willing to die for a Trump dictatorship? I think not. I see no sign that tens of thousands, or even hundreds, or dozens, are willing to take up arms and die for the man they voted for.
To carry out a full-scale military coup he would need more than the willing obedience of inexperienced men chosen for their willing obedience, after Trump’s recent purge of anyone demonstrating the slightest principle besides personal loyalty to Trump, the American version of the old Führereid (Führer Oath) .
Trump demands absolute loyalty, which has become a mark of his party — McCain and Romney are both widely hated, since voting against Trump, as “traitors” by other Republicans. While his loyal enablers constantly provide the required unctuous adulation, no matter how humiliating Trump’s asks are of them, Trump is not assured of the undying loyalty of the military (who he has repeated mocked — the troops are suckers, dead ones are losers, most of the top generals are morons — along with our intelligence agencies, whose leaders he has publicly compared to Nazis). He literally decapitated Defense Department leadership in his rage at losing an election. Like the great patriot he is.
To carry out an actual military coup, under the Insurrection Act, with martial law and all the trimmings, he would need the active participation of our top generals in carrying out this violent overthrow of the duly elected US government — for the benefit of one man and his children. Trump would need a military willing to open fire on the massed majority that voted him out of offie. His success in an actual, not rhetorical, violent coup d’etat would be an extreme long shot. Call me a dreamer, but I don’t see it.
His only move in life is to “double down”, but in this case, even he can see how disastrous (and humiliating) for him a failed military coup would be. Besides, he can’t be sure the military would actually fire on masses of peaceful protesters, their fellow citizens, even if he declared them enemy combatants.
There is terror terror threat Trump has been hyping — private “militias”, the kind of violent freelancers who plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, try her for “tyranny” and behead her. Even if Donald wanted to let slip these dogs of war against his own people, assuming I’m right about the problematic military force option, where do the troops to carry it out come from? Will these unregulated militias enforcing their Second Amendment rights be enough? Doubtful.
Barr commands a few thousand armed men, Bureau of Prisons anti-riot squads, ICE forces and the like. Trump and Barr could, theoretically, invoke the Insurrection Act against an imaginary insurrection, why not? Say they do. His obedient new lapdogs in the highest echelons of the Defense Department can order the generals to advance, but it’s hard to see even these sycophants ordering troops (leaving aside that these civilian appointees cannot directly order troops to do anything, in a military hierarchy) to fire on fellow Americans to defend an illegal presidency and initiate actual American dictatorship. Harder still to see the career generals, admirals and so forth ordering the required massacres.
I don’t think Mr. Trump presently has quite the private army troop strength he wants among his private sector supporters. He does not have a solid 3% (the participation rate of citizens often cited as sufficient to defend against an insurgency) of the military-aged population organized, disciplined armed and ready to lay down their lives for the cause of Donald Trump. Millions of his followers love him, some devoutly, but not enough people love him enough that they are ready, tomorrow, to die for him. (In fairness to them, very few of those of us who hate Trump would be wiling to die standing against him, if it came to machine guns vs. peaceful crowds).
Even small groups of this violent type of Trump supporter did not turn out at polling places to intimidate voters and to suppress anti-Trump voting, as Mr. Trump menacingly promised would happen — where suspected Democrat polling places would be very, very carefully watched by strong men with guns, particularly in “anarchist jurisdictions” where names would be taken and lists made for reprisals afterwards.
We should be clear. Mr. Trump has so far excelled in everything every other dictator has to do before seizing power: brazenly and repeatedly lie to the public, have top underlings repeat the lies until they are accepted by millions, attack then swiftly and brutally punish contradiction of the lies, vilify the media and fact checkers of all kinds, abolish all laws as applied to the regime. That’s Dictator 101 and Trump gets top marks in all that.
Remember, though, most of the time actual dictatorship, beyond violent rhetoric and gloating over the helplessness of one’s enemies, involves physical confrontation in the streets, violent repression, followed by a violent civil war with many dead in the street on both sides. A Trump revolution, can only succeed if the forces of the State are unquestioningly loyal to the would-be dictator.
If I was a betting man, I’d have my money on the integrity of dedicated civil servants who have served many administrations, long-time, idealistic State Department and Department of Justice workers, the career military; generals and hundreds of law-abiding judges of unshakable integrity (take one example, Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan, 42 year-old Trump lifetime appointee who took 138 pages to ream Trump’s evidence-free voter suppression lawsuit dozens and dozens of times in dismissing it ) . I’d bet against a Trump dictatorship in 2020, though that’s not saying there won’t be blood on the streets anyway — or an Ivanka dictatorship down the road.
Loyalty is a virtue, and we should give good people the benefit of the doubt, because they are good people. That said, unquestioning tribal loyalty, especially to an unscrupulous leader, is a fearsome thing. Particularly when that loyalty is to a dangerous person armed with the most deadly weapons known to humans, the leader of the most powerful entity on the planet.
All said, though, I don’t see the zombie hoards showing up, heavily armed and ready to give their lives, to usher in the Trump dictatorship. Call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Related question: is Bill Barr truly up to supervising that apocalyptic bloodbath, assuming he could get sufficient numbers of American government employees to die for the cause of Donald Trump as dictator?
Former Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen is already a federal prisoner for his criminal conspiracy with Individual One– Mr. Trump — who gave the illegal orders Cohen followed — though Trump will get a prophylactic pardon for this, and all other federal crimes.
“I swear by God this holy oath, that I will render to Adolf Hitler, Führer of the German Reich and People, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, unconditional obedience, and that I am ready, as a brave soldier, to risk my life at any time for this oath.”
Judge Ranjan went into great detail explaining why each claim by Trump and the RNC had to fall, as a matter of law, on the merits, for lack of evidence. I see the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office has already posted a PDF of the decision on its website.