The Coup at Home?

In an incredibly hyperbolic piece with the over-the-top headline “The Coup at Home,” NYT columnist Frank Rich draws an equivalence between the coup in Pakistan and the incremental decline of freedom in the United States in the name of counter-terrorism.

The gist of the piece:

The Pakistan mess, as The New York Times editorial page aptly named it, is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will not be so easily eradicated.

In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.

This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.

More Machiavellian still, Mr. Bush has constantly told the world he’s championing democracy even as he strangles it. Mr. Bush repeated the word “freedom” 27 times in roughly 20 minutes at his 2005 inauguration, and even presided over a “Celebration of Freedom” concert on the Ellipse hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It was an Orwellian exercise in branding, nothing more. The sole point was to give cover to our habitual practice of cozying up to despots (especially those who control the oil spigots) and to our own government’s embrace of warrantless wiretapping and torture, among other policies that invert our values.

Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly emulated by his Pakistani acolyte.

Now, I’m not going to argue that “we are at a time of war and thus, special circumstances dictate what happens.” Indeed, I broadly agree with Rich that we’ve sacrificed far too much freedom for far too little gain. I was against the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and find things that few others seem to object to, like government agents forcing me to undergo searches despite not having even a whiff of reasonable suspicion, clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment, in order to board a private airplane absolutely outrageous. I’ve consistently opposed torture, rendition, the declaration of citizens as enemy combatants, and all manner of steps taken in this war.

I’ve even argued that Musharref’s justifications for his actions parallel our own.

So, as far as Musharraf is concerned, all of these actions are part of the “antiterrorism efforts.” That’s why operating under the rule of law is essential for a free society: An unchecked executive can declare anything he sees fit cause for extreme measures.

But, please, let’s not pretend that our Republic is anything like Pakistan. President Bush has not canceled any elections. Indeed, he stood for and only narrowly won re-election three years ago and there’s simply no question that he’d have stepped aside had John Kerry picked up another few thousand votes in Ohio. His party lost control of both Houses of Congress a year ago and he forthrightly acknowledged the whoopin’ he took. When the Supreme Court strikes down his overreaches, he bows to their authority. Number of opposition leaders imprisoned: Zero.

As Dave Schuler aptly noted in a recent exchange, “a difference in degree is, indeed, a difference in kind.”

Bush is pushing the envelope on presidential power in a way that it hasn’t been done in quite some time (the last major war the country was involved in) but he has neither the aspiration nor the ability to become a dictator. America is much less free than I’d prefer, but we’re clearly a “free country” by comparison with virtually every other society in the history of the planet.

Similarly, the mess at Abu Ghraib and the questionable practices at Guantanimo aren’t in the same league as the outrages perpetrated by our enemies.

All that said, though, bad action on our part can be exploited by our adversaries. Cries of, “This isn’t any different than Abu Ghraib” or “But Bush does it too” may be intellectually dishonest but they’re quite effective for propaganda purposes.

Rich continues:

To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.

This is most apparent in the Republican presidential race, where most of the candidates seem to be running for dictator and make no apologies for it. They’re falling over each other to expand Gitmo, see who can promise the most torture and abridge the largest number of constitutional rights. The front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, boasts a proven record in extralegal executive power grabs, Musharraf-style: After 9/11 he tried to mount a coup, floating the idea that he stay on as mayor in defiance of New York’s term-limits law.

Please. Trying to change the law so that he could run in another free and open election isn’t quite the same as canceling elections and rounding up opponents. Moreover, he didn’t actually do it, right? More importantly, had he tried, we have multiple institutions in place that would have prevented it.

It’s true that wartime presidents push for more power and often get it. Similarly, wartime publics seem willing to give up a substantial measure of freedom. Bush didn’t invent this and the current era is hardly the first instance of this. The Founding generation gave us the Alien and Sedition Acts. Abraham Lincoln blatantly abused his power in ways inconceivable now and he’s on Mount Rushmore. Ditto Teddy Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, too, minus the Rushmore part. Generally speaking, a counter-reaction followed the wars, but not always.

Regardless, we have elections a year from now to decide who will sit in the Oval Office, fill all 435 seats in the House, and a third of the United States Senate. Two years later, we’ll have yet another congressional election and two years after that, another presidential and congressional cycle, and so on. If the public demands more freedom, they’ll get it. If not, they won’t deserve it.

That, ultimately, is the bottom line. It’s not our leaders who are the problem but rather the led.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, Supreme Court, Terrorism, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Plunk says:

    “our democracy has been so steadily defined down”?, “tried to mount a coup”? “our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior”?

    This isn’t merely hyperbole, is subversive to tell such lies. If anything is undermining our democracy it’s lies such as these that dig at the foundation of the trust our democracy rests upon. His position boils down to if it is not the way I want it then it is corrupt. An argument of adolescent scoundrels.

    The country is strong because we talk of such matters freely without fear of our neighbors betraying us to secret police. But Rich inflames the debate beyond what is reasonable. With the privileges of citizenship comes responsibilities as well. He is ignoring those responsibilities.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    While I don’t see things quite the way Frank Rich does, I think it’s important to point out that he does speak for some fraction of the electorate who really does believe that exactly what he says is what’s happening. What does that mean for the Republic? I doubt it’s anything good but I’m eager for someone more in tune with the spirit of times than I am to explain it to me.

    As to your complaint about

    …government agents forcing me to undergo searches despite not having even a whiff of reasonable suspicion, clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment…

    that’s something I think you need to think through, James. That’s of a piece with the decision to indemnify the airlines against the losses incurred as a consequence of their inadequate security procedures.

    The airlines had demanded that they be in control of security. They got what they wanted and failed miserably. Obviously, you can’t both reward them for their bad behavior and allow them to retain the responsibility.

    At the time I thought that the correct solution was to allow United and American Airlines to go down (as they surely would have), not indemnify them against their losses, and tighten their responsibilities. Congress disagreed with me overwhelmingly and bipartisanly.

  3. Hal says:

    It’s not our leaders who are the problem but rather the led.

    A post I largely agree with. However, I would point out that a non-trivial portion of the “led” are represented, in the mildest form, by Steve Plunk up above. Heck, Red State’s Paul Cella just had a post up on the 5th arguing for the reinstatement of the sedition act.

    Sure, it’s not Pakistan. But, likewise, because it’s not Pakistan, it would be naive to think that any coup – would one come about – happen in the same way.

    Which is kind of funny, because I’m pretty sure that the argument would be that because it doesn’t look like a coup in Pakistan (or where ever), it really isn’t a coup. Kind of like the argument that it isn’t a civil war in Iraq because it didn’t look like our civil war.

    Still, got to hand it to Steve Plunk. Looks like he’s looking for a new color for his shirt wardrobe.

  4. anjin-san says:

    This isn’t merely hyperbole, is subversive to tell such lies.

    Which lies are these? I only wish Bush had gone after Bin Laden with the same energy he has attacked the constitution with.

    No doubt Steve will be calling for sedition laws if he can ever get his lips unglued from Bush’s posterior…

  5. USA Patriot says:

    “…we’ve sacrificed far too much freedom for far too little gain.”

    What freedom have you sacrificed, exactly?

    And was it an outrageous violation of the 4th amendment to be screened at the airport before 9/11? Passenger screening started at airports many years before the takeover by the evil Bu$Hitler regime.

  6. James Joyner says:

    And was it an outrageous violation of the 4th amendment to be screened at the airport before 9/11?

    The government wasn’t doing the searching before 9/11. The 4th Amendment doesn’t apply to private companies and their security firms.

  7. USA Patriot says:

    So the government can mandate the violation of the Constitution as much as they want, as long as they contract it out to a private firm?

  8. Steve Plunk says:


    You can do better than mild insults and putting words into my mouth. Post something reasonable and well thought.

    I do not support sedition laws but I do ask public figures to be responsible. Rich fails us all with his nonsense.

    If a coup does in fact take place you can expect me to be at the front of the demonstrations but do any of you really think that is a possibility or are people just using the idea to incite more hatred? There’s not going to be a US coup. People like Rich need to grow up.


    Before making wardrobe suggestions put my comments next to Mr. Rich’s and see who is more reasonable. The guy’s a kook. He is talking fantasy because it serves his political aims. My pointing out his delusion is not a call for reinstatement of the seditions act.

    Rich’s comments wouldn’t be appropriate for a city council or school board, why should he incite readers with false claims of unconstitutional activity and overthrow of our government?

  9. Hal says:

    Steve, they’re *your words*. anjin-san didn’t put them there, you typed them out all by yourself.

    You’re not asking them to be “responsible”. You stated Rich was “subversive”.

    Might I point out the obvious? The whole point of free speech and not injecting the terms “subversive” is that opinions differ wildly. When you start painting things in the terms you have, you’ve crossed a very bright line, imho. You’re not just disagreeing. You’re invoking a very nasty and historically ugly POV which goes beyond a “difference of opinion” and enters directly into the area where I believe the constitution is quite clear about protection.

    As anjin-san asked, what lies and untruths are you accusing Rich of? It’s one thing to keep asserting this over and over again. It’s another to actually – you know – point out your disagreements. You took the low road and took the ad hominem attack and injected the rather unfortunate term “subversive”.

    You have your opinions about the man you’re welcome to have.

  10. umbrae says:

    (Interesting: The computer clicks ever since entering this site., & unprecedented icons appear in the word processing. Tone it down, guys. We know you’re watching.)

    Replying to Steve Plunk: The unelected, dishonest, court-appointed ‘president’ is a fascist (i.e., he lets corporations run govt policies). He has infested the admin with Iran-Contra felons & killed ca. 4000 Americans by his lied-for, violent overthrow/occupation of Iraq. He signed bills to destroy our form of govt (USAPA, Military Commissions Act, etc.) & called our Constitution QUOTE “just a God-damned piece of paper” UNQUOTE. He killed Americans by appointing prejudiced/inept people to the courts, EPA, FDA, FEMA, etc. He wastes $7+ billion each month on carnage in Iraq while Americans have no adequate healthcare, education, or jobs. And so forth. Try him for treason & war crimes, & treat him for his psychosis as well.

    A bloodless coup has already occurred: all 3 branches of govt are controlled by corporatists who ‘profit’ from war. It was abetted by control of the media/propaganda & the vote-counting. Another ‘terrorist’ incident in the USA will be an excuse to declare the bloody part – military law. Blackwater (his privatized military) & KBR concentration camps (reported in Marketwatch) are ready. The increased police brutality & military ‘exercises’ on the street are part of it too. Here is the coup as it moved forward & stayed the course:

    1) Invoke/create a terrifying enemy. 2) Create a gulag & military tribunals. 3) Develop a thug class (brutal cops, Blackwater, subsidized gangs, etc.). 4) Set up domestic surveillance; spy on fellow citizens. 5) Harass citizens’ groups (a little-known new law redefines peace & rights activism as ‘terrorism’. 6) Use arbitrary detention & release of people on lists (“Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that.” Soon only the admin will decide who can travel.). 7) Target key individuals; threaten them with job loss or death (the 8 fired attorneys, Wellstone, etc.). 8) Control the press. 9) Say that dissent = treason (or “subversive,” as Mr Plunk says) & criticism = espionage; label dissidents as enemies (as in USSR, Nazi Germany, & now the USA). 10) Suspend the rule of law. The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 lets the prez send, e.g., NY’s National Guard to enforce a state of emergency he’s declared in Oregon over the objections of the states’ governors & citizens. Strangers from another state are more likely to kill you. The rule of law in courts is long-gone with the so-called patriot act & the military commissions act of 2006.

    The admin pays ‘journalists’ for favorable articles (propaganda), & the Office of Special Plans & its toadies say it’s ok to lie to Americans. So, Mr Plunk, there’s no need to lie about Mr Rich. It’s already being done by people who are better paid than you. Vaterland SSecurity makes sure of it.

    Regardless of Pollyanna sycophants, we do worry about fascist neighbors yapping to secret police — because of tries at various youth programs & neighborhood spy networks, the illegal wiretapping, TIA blackbagged but still operating. (Hey — remember The Hitler Youth? The Young Pioneers? No? Then how about TIPS? Destroy your family. Rat on them for fun & profit. You’d love it).

    Historically, the administration that SPIES on its own citizens moves forward to control-freak (required ID, etc.) all aspects of life. It then stays the course by KILLING its own citizens. This is a historical fact. Don’t worry about “adolescent scoundrels,” Mr Plunk. The “First they came for….” will soon enough get to toadies as well as to Patriotic Americans. But we will prevail.

  11. USA Patriot says:


    You left out some – he killed JFK and Elvis, broke up the Beatles, and is the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

  12. USA Patriot says:


    For a private citizen to call Frank Rich’s crazy rant “subversive” is not ad hominem and doesn’t have anything to do with the constitution. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

  13. Hal says:

    For a private citizen to call Frank Rich’s crazy rant “subversive” is not ad hominem

    Um, no. It’s the rest of Steve’s attacks that are ad hominem.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Geebus. You apparently can’t read. Ad Homimen literally means “attacking the person” – i.e. *not* addressing the person’s arguments.

    Steve’s rant is precisely that: a pure attack on Rich – as a person – rather than an attack on anything Rich actually said. Therefore, ad hominem.

    Or, can you actually point to an argument Steve brought up about the substance of Rich’s piece?

    Oh wait. You’re just going to reply with something disparaging and classified as “witty” by the Freeper crowd.

  14. USA Patriot says:

    No, Steve’s comment was not ad hominem, it was directed at Frank Rich’s demented rant.

    I don’t know what the “Freeper crowd” has to do with anything; you must consider that to be a substantive comment.

  15. Hal says:

    No, Steve’s comment was not ad hominem, it was directed at Frank Rich’s demented rant.

    Wow, you really are a loon. That’s so wrong it’s impossible to even figure out how to respond to that statement.

    you must consider that to be a substantive comment.

    No, it was a disparaging remark.

  16. Hal says:

    Just to be clear, an ad hominem attack isn’t automatically fallacious. Steve’s entire argument is that he’s not just lying, he’s actually subversive and that he’s just a loon. anjin-san asked (and so did I) what exactly Rich is lying about. I added that simply calling someone a loon wasn’t a substantive argument (by saying that was simply an ad hominen attack) and he simply reiterates the falsehood of Rich’s piece as if it were simply self evident. It’d be interesting to hear him state an argument rather than just cast disparaging remarks around about Rich (which is all an ad hominem argument is, Dr. Patriot).

  17. Steve Plunk says:


    anjin-san said “No doubt Steve will be calling for sedition laws”. That is putting words in someones mouth. I never called for such laws or would I.

    An ad hominim attack is one in which the message is ignored in favor of impugning the author. My post directly dealt with the message and meaning of Rich’s rant. It’s far from ad hominim.

    It doesn’t make sense for you to speak of free speech but put limits on what I can say. My use of “subversive” was appropriate and reasonable. As a private citizen my condemnation of Rich’s words can never be a constitutional free speech issue.

  18. Hal says:

    Steve, it’s “posts” – plural. Your first post didn’t deal with the substance, other than simply discard it without addressing it. True, not an ad hominem attack, but then I never claimed it was such. Your subsequent posts, however, did largely contain ad hominem attacks simply attacking his character and disparaging the intellectual capacity of Rich by association.

    It’s hard to read my “November 12, 2007 | 01:08 pm” comment above and come away with the interpretation you have come up with.

    As to “directly dealing with the message and meaning”, where exactly would that be? As we’ve repeatedly pointed out, you’re just making assertions, there’s no argument. You “direct dealing” is simply labeling something a lie, which isn’t an argument, it’s simply assertion

    (insert Monty Python argument sketch here).

    It doesn’t make sense for you to speak of free speech but put limits on what I can say

    I’m not. I’m reacting to what you said by calling it repugnant.

    As a private citizen my condemnation of Rich’s words can never be a constitutional free speech issue.

    Never said it was. What I did say was that you represented the mildest face of a very nasty movement. And, as James said, “It’s not our leaders who are the problem but rather the led”, and that’s the point I was trying to make using you as an example.

    Shirt colors aren’t changed at the top – it’s a grass roots movement kind of thing.

  19. USA Patriot says:

    Hal comes out against using ad hominem where none was used, then says, “Wow, you really are a loon.”

    Hal says it’s out of bounds to call a comment “subversive” but it’s OK for Hal to call another comment “repugnant” and out of bounds – all while posing as a champion of free speech!

    Hal really needs a dictionary – he can look up ad hominem, hypocrisy, and (lack of) self-awareness.

  20. Hal says:

    Wow. I think I’m going to frame that comment.

    Top notch!