Not a Coup Attempt

But, still very bad.

“#USAxAUS” by White House is in the Public Domain

There is a legitimate question of what to call Trump’s ongoing attempt to undercut US elections. Much of academic Twitter (and a not of non-academic Twitter), for example, has erupted in a debate over whether it is a coup or not (or, more accurately, a coup attempt).

Along these lines, Matt Bernius asked in a comment in a thread yesterday:

Question — and I feel like this is one that James and Steven have answered before — to fit the textbook description, do “coups” need to have a military component? I seem to remember the answer is “yes” but I wanted to confirm.

And if the answer is “yes,” then what is the proper terminology for one party overturning the results of an election through quasi-legislative and judicial means?

To answer the coup portion, I will turn to several political scientists, all asked this question by Mother Jones: Is This a Coup? We Asked a Variety of Humane, Thoughtful People and Also Henry Kissinger (as the title suggests, they asked a lot of people, I am focusing here on the political scientists’ answers, all of whom are from people I at least casually know or know by reputation).

Let’s start with Naunihal Singh who wrote a definitive book on the subject:

I do not think it is a coup attempt, although I do worry that we are seeing an illegitimate attempt to resist the peaceful transfer of power to the winner of the election. What’s the distinction I’m drawing? Who is involved and how they resist. Any coup attempt, especially the bloodless ones, involve either the use of force or its threat by security forces.

[…]

So the TLDR is not a coup, but still bad for democracy.

Steven Fish, from UC Berkley, who studies democracy and autoritarianism:

I have little doubt that Trump and his acolytes would love to carry out a coup, but the ingredients aren’t all there, at least not yet. You can have all the affidavits and briefcases you want, but without the agencies of coercion (military, CIA, FBI) behind you it would be hard, if not impossible, to stage a successful coup. Trump may install loyalists at the heads of these agencies, but opposition to his machinations is strong and growing among the top-ranking officers, prosecutors, and other officials. Given the Keystone Cops routine we have seen from Trump and his “team” so far, I don’t see that changing.

Michael Coppedge, from Notre Dame, who has long studied democracy in Latin America:

I don’t consider this a coup. You could call it an “attempted presidential coup”—an attempt by an elected president to govern in a way that violates the rules of democracy. 

Laura Seay from Colby College and an expert on the Congo:

I don’t think this is a coup or an autogolpe, at least not yet. For it to be a standard coup d’état, we would have to see Trump mobilizing the military or a police force to do his bidding. We don’t see any indication of that yet, even with the changes to civilian leadership at DOD. I think it’s highly unlikely this would happen, given that most if not all of the general officers would be very hesitant to carry out an illegal order even if it came directly from the SecDef or the President. Even if it did, we don’t have evidence that the rank and file troops would be willing to go along with it. In looking at what we know about military voting so far, Trump seems to be pretty unpopular among the armed forces, likely because he’s spent so much time bashing them. 

An autogolpe attempt is more likely, but I don’t see that happening yet, either. For an autogolpe, the president needs to use the weight of the government and its institutions to prevent Biden from taking office. He would have to render Congress fully under his control or irrelevant. 

I would add: autogolpe would still imply the support of the military, even if they aren’t deployed.

To return to a quote from Singh: “The TLDR is not a coup, but still bad for democracy.” I concur with this assessment.

Trump is trying to mostly use the legal means we have in place to combat voter fraud, election irregularities, close elections, and disputed slates of electors.

That is to say: going to court, having canvassing boards scrutinize results, asking for recounts, and so forth.

The problem is: there is no evidence of fraud nor irregularities and the issue of recounts is the domain of the law, not fits of pique by the loser.

To be clear: I am not trying to minimize what he and his “lawyers” (scare quotes seem appropriate) are doing. The good news about almost all of this is the actual actions undertaken are not outside the scope of established processes.

The part that is especially troubling is inviting Michigan lawmakers to the White House to try and persuade them to seat a different slate of electors. This is an attempt to subvert the election, but even if it is based loosely in the constitutional fact that state legislators set the method for selecting electors. But like most things Trump does, he doesn’t understand the actual process/details of that process, such as the fact that the law about how electors are allocated is already in place, and that you can’t change it now, ex post facto. While one can spin some convoluted scenarios that would result in chaos over Michigan’s electors, I don’t think them likely enough to even try and game plan them out.

So, what should we call what Trump is doing? I cannot think of a political science term of the same type as “coup” to provide. To me, the best description is simply an attempt to subvert democracy, plain and simple.

I have not given this a ton of brain time, so I may be either forgetting a salient example, or that example may be from a part of the world I don’t know as well, but I can’t think of a good historical incident that matches what we are seeing.

I can think of cases of electoral fraud, such as Colombia in 1970 when it looked like the opposition candidate was going to win and overnight some, shall we say, statistically unlikely returns came in so that the right candidate won. Likewise, in Mexico in 1988 when the system allegedly crashed during counting and then the ruling party’s candidate managed a miraculous win.

In neither case was there an incumbent on the ticket, as in both cases presidents were limited to one term, and there are a host of other factors in those two examples I won dive into now.

Indeed, these scenarios are weird mirror universe versions of Trump, as he is alleging that he (the head of government!) is the victim of that kind of chicanery (i.e., actual manipulation of the votes), instead of being the one pulling off such a fraud. Also: he has presented not one iota of evidence.

In scenarios in which direct manipulation of vote tallies it is typically the ruling party that uses its power to subvert state institutions to perpetuate the needed fraud. Trump is the sitting president basically saying that the whole of the government is out to oust him, from the precinct-level to his own Department of Homeland Security.

It is actually quite bizarre and perhaps unique (although I have this nagging feeling I a missing a good example).

The only actors who are helping him from within government are elected officials, such as McConnell. And that help has only been rhetorical (which doesn’t excuse it or make it unimportant). They are giving him partisan support, but not using governmental power to do so (this important, but again does not excuse what they are doing).

Note:

  • Zero evidence of the military or security forces being willing to keep him in power.
  • Zero evidence of bureaucrats at the most local levels, the state level, or even in terms of relevant federal agencies using their power to help Trump gets the votes he needs. Even that lame help from Barr, damaging though it was, wasn’t really much help. The behavior of the two Republicans in Wayne County is the closest we have come thus far.
  • The courts have rejected basically all of the claims of Team Trump (I can’t find a definitive tally, but I recall seeing something like 29 losses and 1 win and IIRC, the win was a minor one).

Again, I am not downplaying or defending, just walking through what is, and is not, going on.

The most fundamental problem here is that Trump and his team are undercutting trust in the electoral process and also undercutting the incoming administration all in ways that further erode our democracy, damage basic governance, and deepen polarization.

The political science concept at play here is the importance of losers to gracefully accept legitimate defeat in a democracy. This is sometimes called the “loser’s consent.” The behavior of losers is central to democratic health because it is acceptance of the will of voters and of the legal mechanisms of the system and also an acknowledgment that there will be another competition at the next election.

The issue of losing is so fundamental that Adam Przeworski, in a very influential 1991 book, Democracy and the Market: Political and economic reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America, defined democracy as “a system in which parties lose elections” (10).

He focuses on losers because in democracy there is the hope for the loser to win at some point in the future, which incentivizes participation in the system even after a loss (and helps perpetuate and deepen perceived legitimacy). Note that losers in civil wars, games of thrones, or military coups don’t have any hope of future winnings, save by violence.

Trump’s willingness to undercut democracy and make millions of people distrust elections is telling those people that they may have to abandon democracy and resort to violence to regain a share of power in the future. That is unequivocally dangerous.

When elected officials like Lindsay Graham say things like “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” he is signaling that a) the current loss is not real, and b) future competitions are not going to be fair. And while he would no doubt state that the “change” he wants is in the law, the signal he is sending is that something has to be done if some vague changes aren’t instituted. This can lead to radicalization.

If some Trump supporters were already willing to risk a serious accident on a Texas interstate before the election by swarming a bus with trucks, how much more will people of that mindset act out if they believe the election was stolen and that Republicans may never again be allowed to win?

Again: not a coup attempt, but a dangerous journey into damaging key aspect of democratic governance.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Democracy, Democratic Theory, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. sam says:

    Well, then, let’s call it a puoc: A bassakwards attempt to undo an election, featuring multiple actors operating HUA.

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  2. Jon says:

    But he does rely on the implied threat of violence from his brown shirts (Oath Keepers, 3-percenters, Proud Boys, etc. etc.). For this reason it strikes me that leaning on specific use of state “military or security force” is whistling past the graveyard. These groups may not be part of the State but they certainly seem to be part of the GOP which, at the very least, gives them a quasi-official veneer.

    Given that it is hard to come up with a word *other* than coup for this maybe implies that, well, coup actually might be the right word. Just because it is poorly organized and, so far, apparently not working doesn’t change that. Also, the fact that we have the phrase ‘military coup’ kinda implies there are non-military ones. I think we’re just biased, as Americans, against the concept of a coup in America because coups are things the happen elsewhere.

    I’m not saying that this is for sure an attempted coup, just saying I don’t think it is that clear it isn’t.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think Edward Norton got it right on Twitter.

    Trump is a criminal and a coward, which is not a good combination. He’s terrified, and with good reason. He’s trying to bully and bluff his way out of legal and financial jeopardy. This has always been his M.O.. He needs Biden to pull a Gerry Ford, but if Biden does, Biden is finished with much of his own party.

    What we have here is the criminal head of a cult of personality, plus weak and frightened legislators, who have dug themselves a deep hole and are now flailing around to find an escape route. There’s no deep thought here, just fear. Trump is terrified. His enablers are terrified. Nothing they’re doing makes sense because fear (feel free to quote me on this) is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

    So, I agree this isn’t a coup or an autogolpe, this is Thelma and Louise beginning to realize they’re fucked and have no choice but to drive the Thunderbird off the cliff.

    Pardon everyone, resign and make Pence POTUS on condition he pardons Trump, then GTFO of the country. Still the best advice for Trump’s end game.

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  4. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    It may be the best advice, but will he take it?

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  5. Jon says:

    I’d also add that we have the concept of a soft coup, defined by wikipedia as:

    A soft coup, sometimes referred to as a silent coup, is a coup d’état without the use of violence, but based on a conspiracy or plot that has as its objective the taking of state power by partially or wholly legal means, in order to facilitate an exchange of political leadership – and in some cases also of the current institutional order.

    Sounds more than a little familiar.

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  6. Modulo Myself says:

    America has always stepped into save the hides of feeble authoritarians being chased out by their own people. The GOP is basically the dominant party of a 3rd world country being run by Washington after this has happened. Trump was waiting for somebody bigger to help him, but there is nobody bigger than this fading empire. In many ways, he’s as Christian as most of the Christians in America.

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  7. @Jon:

    But he does rely on the implied threat of violence from his brown shirts (Oath Keepers, 3-percenters, Proud Boys, etc. etc.). For this reason it strikes me that leaning on specific use of state “military or security force” is whistling past the graveyard.

    He willingness to use rhetoric that might activate such groups and/or, as I noted, lead to the radicalization of citizens is worrisome and important, but not the stuff of coup-making.

    It is, perhaps, fomenting terrorism or encouraging insurgency, or maybe just criminality, but you aren’t going to stay in power through such mechanisms.

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  8. @Jon: Such an action still assumes the tacit support of security forces. Most coups are, in fact, bloodless. But the threat of bloodletting is a known quantity.

    Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru was bloodless, but it could only happen because everyone knew he had the military and other security forces on his side. Why else would Congress go home and then let Fujimori hold a referendum on a new constitution?

    It wasn’t because of some vague threat about non-state violence (indeed, Peru was still involved in a guerrilla war at the time). No, it was the threat of state violence that allowed the outcomes in question.

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  9. @Michael Reynolds: I concur and I think the criminal paradigm is more instructive of his behavior than coups or the like.

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  10. Jon says:

    So then, assuming arguendo that Trump does manage to convince enough state legislatures to overturn what appears to be the will of their voters and send a Trump-friendly slate of electors to the EC thus ensuring he stays in office, what would we call that?

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    I’m not disputing anyone. I just want to note that I see this now more in terms of performance. Trump is staging a performance, the meaning of which is “I didn’t lose”. He can’t stand the thought that he lost. It casts him into a deep, dark, pit. Therefore he needs another story, and he’s rich and powerful enough to drag a lot of people along with him and perform along with him.

    And if he can make lots of people scared that he might, he “wins”. He will feel he has the upper hand, and this keeps him safe. I’ve observed this kind of thing before in people who don’t have quite so prominent a job. I’d feel sorry for the guy if he weren’t president and wrecking everything around him while doing this.

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  12. @Jon:

    So then, assuming arguendo that Trump does manage to convince enough state legislatures to overturn what appears to be the will of their voters and send a Trump-friendly slate of electors to the EC thus ensuring he stays in office, what would we call that?

    My snarky answer is: a magic trick. It would hard enough to do it in one state, and he would have to do it in several to stay in office.

    If he could persuade one state to do this would be in a full constitutional crisis.

    If we are just positing scenarios, that could become a coup if, say the national guard is called out oin Michigan to protect the alternative slate of electors and then the military is called out in DC to surround the Capitol to guarantee the votes are counted the right way.

    All of that is so unlikely as to not be worth the time to consider.

    The reality is that IF Trump could convince enough states to swap electors, which I don’t think he can do that in any state, we end up spending December with court battles and street protests.

    From there much would depend on how a variety of people reacted. Could it eventually lead to a coup? Yes, but again, well outside the range of the likely.

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  13. grumpy realist says:

    Given the commentary we’re starting to see come out of the usual suspects (WSJ, etc.), I think the feeling is now “all right, we’ve given you enough time to come to grips with you losing the election. Start living up to the rules of the game–which means leaving without continuing to throw a hissy fit.”

    Once big business starts yammering at the Republicans about how Trump’s self-indulgence is destroying everything I suspect you’ll see an instant switch.

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  14. Jon says:

    I think the likelihood of it working is separate from what it is. I find it highly unlikely he’ll succeed, although I will admit that his long history of failing upwards keeps me from being certain.

    But *what* is happening is not the same thing as the likely outcome. Saying that this is a group of criminals is descriptive of who is acting and explanatory of why they are acting how they are, but not what they are doing. I’m not trying to be contrary or posit outlandish scenarios, just trying to grapple with the process. To that end, I tried to figure out how we’d describe this a year from now, or 10 years from now, if it actually succeeded but came up blank.

    And with that, apologies for derailing a thread and/or making it about me. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about! I’m gonna go play outside now since it is a gorgeous gulf coast November day, and we don’t get enough of those.

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  15. @Jon:

    But *what* is happening is not the same thing as the likely outcome.

    That is totally fair. I guess I would say that pontificating, even in public, about an act is still several steps away from that act. If someone has a meeting and maybe talks about how one might go about robbing a bank they haven’t committed attempted robbery yet.

    Enjoy the day. I am about to go do the same.

    Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!

    And BTW, that is always a high compliment in my book!

    Thanks.

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  16. Paine says:

    It boggles the mind that we even need to have this discussion. In 2016, Clinton conceded the day after the election was warmly welcomed into the White House by Obama a few days a later. Four years later I’m getting lessons on the difference between a coup and a autogolpe and which is more applicable. How far we’ve come…

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  17. Jax says:

    @grumpy realist: The most enjoyable part of my day yesterday was reading that Powerline blog where he came to the conclusion that Trump’s lawyers are idiots, the Tucker Carlson bit telling his lawyer to put up or shut up on the “very serious evidence of electoral fraud”, two National Review articles extremely critical of his behavior since losing, and the Washington Examiner editorial telling him to kick rocks, it’s over.

    They’re turning on him, even if the base isn’t yet.

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  18. Gustopher says:

    I did not want to have to learn the word autogolpe.

    He has dispatched federal thugs into cities to crack down on protests before — poorly trained prison guards from around the country in Washington DC. And then we have the Proud Boys and the like. Why do people assume it doesn’t come to this? All the pieces are there.

    Why do people assume Trump will go medium far in subverting democracy, but stop short? Does that seem like him?

    ——
    Autogolpe sounds like some kind of sex act that might be popular with people who have been staying home way too much because of covid.

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  19. Scott O says:

    Can we call it inciting a civil war? I don’t know how many Trump supporters/Republicans believe this stuff but those that do would be fully justified, in their minds, overthrowing the government by any means necessary. Won’t happen but those people will harbor a white hot hatred for Democrats.

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  20. reid says:

    @Paine: And, of course, Trump is complaining that the opposite happened, that he didn’t have a clean transfer of power. (To the extent that that happened, it was his own fault.) I know I’ve also seen people claiming that Clinton didn’t concede and disputed the election for four years. I don’t know if this is projection or a conscious attempt to lie to make Trump look reasonable, but it’s always astonishing how such falsehoods are believe by so many people.

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  21. drj says:

    What we are seeing now is a (not entirely) serious coup attempt.

    As @Jay L Gischer notes, it is – at this stage – mostly performative.

    Still, if this half-assed attempt would somehow appear to have legs, the usual suspects – Trump first and foremost – would be on board with this motherfucker.

    It’s precisely that aspect that genuinely worries me.

    It is not serious – yet.

    But lots of stuff that never was quite serious to start with (Vince Foster, Benghazi, Trump’s presidential run) somehow did end up making a real-world impact.

    So no, it’s not a coup with tanks on the streets and all that jazz, but it’s also not “not-a-coup.”

    I’m not sure what to call it, but saying “it’s not a coup” understates what is going on, I think.

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  22. gVOR08 says:

    If we have a sales tax, it’s about to expire, and we’re asked to renew it, is that a new tax? I’ve seen conservatives of my acquaintance tie themselves in knots over that question. I regard it as a silly semantic exercise, but they’re conditioned to hate new taxes, so it matters to them.

    If I walk into a bank, hand the clerk a note that says “Open the vault and giv me all the mony, I have a gub*.” and I drop it so it shatters on the floor, being a cheap squirt gun, am I guilty of attempted bank robbery? Yes, despite the incompetence and failure. If the clerk says, “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” I may still be guilty of attempted armed robbery, but not bank robbery, even if I thought I was in a bank. Intent establishes a crime even if I fail. But at some level of ineptitude intent becomes a so what. Is my sales tax renewal a new tax? Is this a coup? I don’t know. I don’t even care. There’s no question what happened. There is some question of intent, but that is really a question of what Trump’s plan is, and “Trump’s plan” is a category error. We’re debating whether a certain word fits what one hopes will be a unique situation. If we ever see this again we can call it a “Trump coup”.

    The relevant questions are:
    – Will Trump retain power. No.
    – Has Trump committed a crime in this coup or whatever it is? Probably not, but that could change depending on additional information, say details of his conversation with the MI legislators.
    – Can Trump continue to raise money on this? Sadly, yes.
    – Wil this hurt the country? Already is. Just saw a poll saying 70% of GOPs say Biden wasn’t fairly elected.
    – Will GOPs continue to foment and try to profit from a Stolen Election myth? Yes.
    – Are there lessons we should learn and actions we should take to prevent whatever this is in future? Absolutely.

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  23. drj says:

    I should add that I’m 99.9% certan that if the election outcome hinged on a single state, this clown show wouldn’t be a clown show anymore. Some serious players would be seriously testing the waters.

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  24. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    …Biden to pull a Gerry Ford…

    So, Biden to pardon him.
    But surely until Biden is president he has no power to pardon?
    So Biden to promise a pardon.
    But would such a promise by Biden the citizen bind Biden the President of the United States?

    In other words, the second he has finished swearing the oath, turn to Trump and say “Suckerrr!”

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  25. JohnSF says:

    @grumpy realist:
    I noticed Peggy Noonan who had been “OK, let’s humour him, what harm can it do?”, has switched to “Enough, already. Knock it off, fools.”

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  26. @drj:

    So no, it’s not a coup with tanks on the streets and all that jazz, but it’s also not “not-a-coup.”

    It matters, if you want treatment, if you have cancer or liver failure or whatever two examples you think best fits.

    I’m not sure what to call it, but saying “it’s not a coup” understates what is going on, I think.

    Let me return the OP:

    When elected officials like Lindsay Graham say things like “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” he is signaling that a) the current loss is not real, and b) future competitions are not going to be fair. And while he would no doubt state that the “change” he wants is in the law, the signal he is sending is that something has to be done if some vague changes aren’t instituted. This can lead to radicalization.

    If some Trump supporters were already willing to risk a serious accident on a Texas interstate before the election by swarming a bus with trucks, how much more will people of that mindset act out if they believe the election was stolen and thatn Republicans may never again be allowed to win?

    Whatever Trump is doing now, in terms of the election, is going to definitively be gone at 12:01 eastern time on 1/20/21.

    If we then breath a sigh of relief that the “coup” didn’t happen we will be fools to not have really focused on what damage was caused, and how.

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  27. @drj:

    I should add that I’m 99.9% certan that if the election outcome hinged on a single state, this clown show wouldn’t be a clown show anymore

    This is going to sound like I am being a jerk, but that is not my intention: yes, if conditions were different, the assessment would be different.

    If this was a 2000-like scenario, we would be having a different conversation, although exactly what it would be would depend on the details.

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  28. Kathy says:

    We need a portmanteau of “coup” and “tantrum.”

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  29. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It matters, if you want treatment, if you have cancer or liver failure or whatever two examples you think best fits.

    I understand what you are saying. It’s just that it might be a distinction without a difference.

    Because I am convinced that if Trump and McConnell (or Cotton, if you prefer) could, they would.

    I’m not sure that the (reasonable) assessment that this time they can’t , makes a material difference.

    I might be overly pessimisti (<- a real possibility), but I don't see a realistic off-ramp for the GOP.

    if conditions were different, the assessment would be different.

    If this was a 2000-like scenario…

    I think it would be foolish to ignore the degree to which anti-democratic rhetoric has ramped up in the past 20 years.

    Ignorance is generally not absolute. Sure, we don’t know what will happen, but that doesn’t mean that the most likely scenarios aren’t based on recent history or precedents.

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  30. @drj:

    I think it would be foolish to ignore the degree to which anti-democratic rhetoric has ramped up in the past 20 years.

    I agree. Indeed, as you likely have noticed, I haven’t ignored it all.

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  31. @Kathy: If I said that I hope it isn’t a clumsy portmanteau, does anyone get that reference?

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  32. Scott O says:

    If someone looked up portmanteau 20 minutes ago on the Google machine and subsequently gets clumsy portmanteau does that count as 1? Asking for a friend.

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  33. Ken_L says:

    Australia faced a similar semantic challenge on November 11, 1975, when without warning (but after weeks of government gridlock) the Governor General dismissed the prime minister with a majority in the House of Representatives and invited the leader of the opposition to form a minority government on condition he immediately called an election. It took many, many years for the bitterness and anger to subside and for confidence in our parliamentary democracy to return. It’s extremely unlikely either party would act the same way today.

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  34. Teve says:

    @Gustopher:

    Why do people assume Trump will go medium far in subverting democracy, but stop short? Does that seem like him?

    I wouldn’t trust Donald Trump to successfully toast a Pop-Tart. Pulling off a coup is right out.

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