We are not Seeing a Soft Coup in the Trump Admininstration

As problematic as some of what we know about the internal workings of the White House may be, it isn't a coup.

In the rapid-fire nature of our current news environment, I am late to the game in talking about the anonymous op-ed in the NYT and about the initial revelations in the new Woodward book. Still, my initial (but not blogged) reaction to the op-ed remains the same today:  if a member of the administration believes anything like the following then they should resign and hold a press conference detailing their concerns:

The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

[…]

That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.

The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.

Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright.

The essay really confirms what has been discussed from the first days of the administration, that the “adults” (defined as careerist who understand politics and policy, unlike the president and his cronies) would have to manage the president.  Go back and look at coverage of any of the generals in the cabinet (Mattis, Kelly, McMasters) and one will see a raft of such arguments.  It is one thing to think that there are bureaucratic bumper guards in place, it is another to write that one is “thwarting” the President of the United States.  Again:  I think that the person who wrote this piece, if they are sincere about their views, should resign and go before the cameras and report that the president is, in fact, acting erratically and may be unfit for office.  Staying in place and telling the world “don’t worry, we’ve got this” is not appropriate.

In my opinion the author is a conservative ideologue who is self-justifying why they are working for this president, despite his rather obvious shortcomings. Indeed, the piece just reflects the bargain that many Republicans made when backing this president:  the hope that he would, despite his immense baggage, do what they wanted policy-wise.

However, none of this is a coup, soft or otherwise (despite a number of declarations in the wake of op-ed).

To that point, Naunihal Singh, an expert on coups, wrote the following this week at The Monkey Cage:  Steven Bannon is wrong. The White House ‘resistance’ is the opposite of a coup.

Americans were rightly startled last week by Woodward’s reporting here at The Washington Post and the anonymous “resistance” op-ed at the New York Times. Together these revealed that senior Trump administration officials are working to implement Republican policies while preventing President Trump from carrying out what they see as impulsive, poorly considered and contradictory decisions.

But even if all this is true, efforts by high-ranking administration officials to subvert the president’s wishes would not constitute a coup of any sort, even a soft or administrative one.

Not all undemocratic subversion of authority is a coup. Using the wrong term obscures a key point about this “two-track presidency”: It is intended to prop up the president’s administration rather than tear it down, which makes what we’re seeing the opposite of a coup.

That point is key:  this is not about removing Trump from power; it is about keeping him in power.  If the op-ed writer’s allies wanted Trump out, then they would not be so dismissive of the 25th Amendment (which would also not be a coup if used, as it is a constitutional remedy to an unfit executive).

Yes, it’s shocking to hear that the president’s own staff may be actively working to frustrate his intentions. But the events we’re reading about can also be understood as an extreme form of a fairly common tug-of-war among members of an administration. And, yes, that includes even the president. Assuming reports are accurate, we are seeing a more extreme form of what political scientists call the “principal-agent problem” that inhabits each stage of the executive branch.

A principal-agent problem results when somebody delegates a task to somebody else, but the subordinate doesn’t fully agree with the supervisor about how the task should be performed — and the supervisor can only imperfectly see whether the subordinate is carrying out the instructions.

Just because the president is at the apex of the executive branch doesn’t mean he can simply issue orders and have them carried out without question. He’s simply not omniscient or omnipotent enough to ensure that everybody is moving in lockstep to support his aims.

Because leaders have limited information and time, they delegate. Delegation allows them to rely on others’ expert opinions without needing to acquire that expertise themselves. It enables them to have somebody else implement a policy, freeing them from doing it themselves.

However, delegating also allows subordinates to manage their bosses, as well as the other way around. It is not uncommon for subordinates to answer questions with the information they believe their boss needs to know, rather than the information that the boss had asked for. By framing choices to include some options and exclude others, they can shape the menu of options available to a leader.

Subordinates can also shape how a policy is implemented by exercising their own discretion. This is most classically done by “slow rolling” or delaying implementation, hoping that circumstances change.

[…]

while definitely a form of subversion, none of this constitutes a coup. Rather, these are standard bureaucratic bargaining moves taken to an extreme.

Anyone with any managerial experience, either in a direct role or as an observer thereof, will recognize this.

Noting that it is not a coup is not to say that the behavior we are seeing is not problematic.  What is shows, however, is the degree to which the president is over his head in terms of both understanding and managing government affairs (but this is hardly news). Really, in many ways this is what was to be expected when a highly inexperienced person with a profound lack of understanding of government is elected to office:  that person is going to have to rely on others, and is highly likely to be managed by others.

And, of course, another way that this is not a coup is that Trump is still getting quite a bit of what he wants (see, e.g., tariffs).  That he has been derailed from some impulsive notions (pulling out of the South Korea free trade agreement or assassinating Assad) is hardly removal from power. But another way:  it is not unusual for members of an administration to try and manage the president and his decision-making.  It is just that it rarely takes on this kind of methodology. Quite frankly, if the Cohn/South Korea story is true that say far more about the mental state of the president (he can be dissuaded from a major policy decision simply by removing a piece of paper from his desk?) than it is evidence of a soft coup.  To re-iterate:  this all about keeping him in power, not removing him.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. 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. teve tory says:

    interesting comment from Ed Brayton:

    Maybe I’m being naively optimistic, but I have a feeling that Trump may end up losing not only his presidency but his entire financial empire. I think Cohen, Weisselberg and Manafort may be able to connect him to enough serious financial crimes — tax evasion, bank fraud, money laundering — that the entire thing may come crashing down. And all because of his ego. He could have just kept to himself, kept being a rich man doing business and it’s unlikely he would have been caught. But he couldn’t stand that Obama made fun of him and that prompted him to run for president, where he somehow stumbled into a win. And now it may cost him everything. The only question is how much of the country he destroys before that happens.

    I’m not saying I’d bet on this happening without some odds, but it won’t shock me if that happens. I think he’s been astonishingly corrupt for a very long time and with Cohen, Manafort and Weisselberg cooperating, it may all end up coming out.

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  2. matt bernius says:

    To re-iterate: this all about keeping him in power, not removing him.

    Yes. And beyond that, it’s about keeping a specific verify of Rupublicanism in power.

  3. Gustopher says:

    Trump is a really crappy manager.

    Anonymous is a self-aggrandizing twit who has delusions of saving the republic by selectively ignoring the crappy manager, and trying to make the crappy manager look bad.

    The NY Times chose to give this twit a platform.

    The more I think about this situation, the more I think it’s just boring office politics with someone acting out in public (and being given a huge platform). Anonymous is probably just a huge drama queen.

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  4. MBunge says:

    By this standard, NOTHING would qualify as a coup until you actually use physical force to displace a President from office and refuse to allow him to return to his duties. But arguing “it’s not a coup because the President hasn’t been shot” or “it’s not a coup because the military hasn’t seized the White House” is kind of stupid, isn’t it?

    This is the same kind of intellectual decadence and poor citizenship that we saw from the people who melted over George W. Bush handing Michelle Obama a piece of candy at John McCain’s funeral. “Yeah, he may be responsible for a foreign policy disaster that got hundreds of thousands people killed for no good reason. Sure, he may have authorized spying on Americans without the use of warrants. Of course, he may be responsible for U.S. forces torturing prisoners. But did you see how he did that completely normal thing? How can anyone be mad at him after that?!?!”

    Mike

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  5. matt bernius says:

    @MBunge:

    By this standard, NOTHING would qualify as a coup until you actually use physical force to displace a President from office and refuse to allow him to return to his duties.

    Correct. At least in terms ofa hard coup.

    Words have actual meanings.

    Even if we look to the meaning of a soft coup, this case doesn’t fit.

    Glad we can agree on that.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MBunge:

    By this standard, NOTHING would qualify as a coup until you actually use physical force to displace a President from office and refuse to allow him to return to his duties. But arguing “it’s not a coup because the President hasn’t been shot” or “it’s not a coup because the military hasn’t seized the White House” is kind of stupid, isn’t it?

    Ummm no, but everything you said in the above quote is.

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  7. @MBunge:

    But arguing “it’s not a coup because the President hasn’t been shot” or “it’s not a coup because the military hasn’t seized the White House” is kind of stupid, isn’t it?

    This is not the argument. The argument, which is pretty clear, is that this is not a coup because it is not an attempt to remove and replace the president through extralegal means. It is, instead, an attempt to prop up the president and keep him in power. As Singh notes, this is the very opposite of a coup.

    Slow-walking decisions in the hope that your bosses doesn’t notice that his orders aren’t being carried out, or that he will forget entirely that he gave the order, is not a coup. It certainly isn’t removing your boss from being your boss.

    As the Singh piece notes, the only coup in which the head of government remains in power is a self-coup, as happened in Peru under Fujimori.

    BTW: in most coups, the head of state/government isn’t shot, and violence is not necessarily deployed.

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  8. @MBunge:

    By this standard, NOTHING would qualify as a coup until you actually use physical force to displace a President from office and refuse to allow him to return to his duties.

    BTW, that is the basic definition of a coup: forcibly removing the head of government/state from power through extralegal means (save, as noted, a self-coup as in Peru wherein Fujimori basically fired congress and tore up the constitution with the help of the military).

    You are ranting that I, and others (including a guy who wrote what may be the definitive book on the subject), are saying that a word ought to be used to mean what it means.

    Note that I said, more than once, that Anonymous ought to resign–I am not defending the behavior.

    And BTW, if Bush’s torture policies bother you (they should, and they bother me), then where is your outrage over the child separation policy that the president you constantly defend is perpetrating?

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  9. And, BTW: the dysfunction in the White House, to include Anonymous and whatever Woodward has reported, are all ultimately Trump’s responsibility. So what are you so upset about?

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I *think* his point is everyone is aweful, and because of that Trump, and Trump isn’t great, but he is no worse than anyone else, and actually he is kinda better because he isn’t an expert (as big headed experts got us into this mess) and he ran a successful campaign (but screw all those other people who ran successful campaigns), and he has more money than you do how dare you critique him and did I mention that I am way smarter than you Mr P(oser).(big)H(eaded).D(ick… I was going to try to work in expert but you were not worth my extra smart analysis).

    (Aside, I kinda sorta remember MBunge saying he worked at a radio station that used to run Limbaugh… If that’s the case it explains a lot. If my memory is dodgy on that, i apologize)

  11. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Anonymous is a self-aggrandizing twit who has delusions of saving the republic by selectively ignoring the crappy manager, and trying to make the crappy manager look bad.

    Making the crappy manager look worse.

    And to paraphrase Sheldon Cooper, he did not try, he succeeded.

  12. de stijl says:

    To most Trump supporters expressing dissatisfaction or dissent with how this administration conducts itself is ipso facto encouraging a coup.

    MBunge would deny that, but that it is his basic argument.

  13. de stijl says:

    Re: Anonymous

    Your duty is to serve the President. I hate this President and want to thwart him at every turn, but you are honor-bound staff. If you cannot ethically serve, you must resign.

    Trump is a disaster, and hopefully an outlier never to be repeated, but he was duly elected. Fucking with institutional norms in this manner will have massive downstream effects that we cannot imagine.

    Political appointees should resign if they disagree with the President. It is unethical to remain in post if you disagree with his policies.

    In this instance it may be advisable, but it is still utterly unethical. You were hired to serve Trump and Trump’s agenda. If you can’t do that, quit. If you want to thwart him, it is your responsibility to do it publicly and to announce it and to resign publicly and explain why you resigned.

    If you are a political appointee, it is your duty to comply, or to resign; resist *publicly* and loudly if you want to (I implore you to, actually). But their is no ethical midpoint between those two.

  14. de stijl says:

    You don’t even need to resign.

    Explain why you disagree, identify yourself, tell how you plan to encourage leaders to change the policy.

    If they fire you, you know they are not going to support you.

    Slow-walking, or thwarting the will of the President is wrong.

    Likely, it comes from a place of desiring that future Republicans will hopefully be insulated from Trumpism, which is not going to happen. I assumed an ethical response which is demonstrably wrong – Anonymous objects to Trump because Trump will harm future Republican electoral chances. There really is no ethical choice involved – it’s all transactional.

    Imagine an albatross wearing a fourteen metric ton toxic collar poisonous to the touch – that’s Trump. Remember W in 2006 and 2008? Trump will be that in November this year and in 2020. Your attempt at inculcation will obviously fail. You cannot save this from the inside.

  15. Lounsbury says:

    @de stijl: Wir müssen die Meckerer ausrotten unverzüglich!

  16. de stijl says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Wir müssen die Meckerer ausrotten unverzüglich!

    “We must destroy the complainers immediately!”

    Is there a context to that?

  17. de stijl says:

    This should be a twitter thing, but what are the best bro-rock songs of the the early aughts that are actually good songs?

    ( I have to process this so this no particular order)

    Bonus ur-track (late 90’s so it don’t count)- New Radicals, You Get What You Give

    Len, Steal My Sunshine (the bro part is stupid but with a great beat) but the girl vocals are so fucking awesome

    MGMT, Time To Pretend So trippy great!

    Jimmy Eat World, The Middle Great song no matter the era / style

    Bowling For Soup, Girl All The Bad Guys Want A lot of this love is from Phineas and Ferb (they won an Emmy!), but I still really love BFS as a band.

    Wheatus, Teenage Dirtbag/ I know. I know. Wheatus is shite and the video is boorish and stupid, but this is catchy AF when Mena Suvari chimes in. I quote her verbatim to this day.

    None of this great music, but it definitely captures the time. (Actually, The Middle is pretty great. Bowling For Soup always rocks as does MGMT, and the Mena Suvari bit is awesome, and the girl bit of Len kicks ass+mr. robot connotations.) All right, I’ve changed my mind, some of this is really great music.

  18. de stijl says:

    I forgot how good Jimmy Eat World Sweetness is. That’s a good song. Any era, any style.
    https://youtu.be/ROatPGGMvXg

    Should The Killers be considered an early aughts bro band?

  19. de stijl says:

    Is Jimmy Eat World just a mainstreamed version of Archers Of Loaf?

  20. Tyrell says:

    What we are seeing on some of the main stream “news” and from some opportunist politicians media is an unrelenting push to “bring Trump down”. This is not only inappropriate and dishonorable, it is against the tradition and principles of this country. Shameful.
    The people are against it.
    “Help wanted, start immediately!”
    “Jobs here – please apply”
    “New construction way up”
    “Mill reopens after years of closure”
    People I hear from and talk to are optimistic and upbeat. The best economic conditions in years.
    My wife’s health insurance cost actually went down!

  21. de stijl says:

    I totally spaced Andrew W.K. Party Hard which is goofy and stupid and horrible and atrociously awful and I FUCKING LOVE IT!!

    https://youtu.be/WccfbPQNMbg

    I have to look this up – is it early aughts? Yes, 2001! It qualifies. YASSS!

    I forgot how stupid fun this is really loud. I kinda wanna go to a bachelor party now and drink 19 beers.

  22. de stijl says:

    @Tyrell:

    Thanks, Gomer, for the news from Mayberry. When is the next German American Bund meet-up?