The Steps to the Unthinkable: Republican Support of a Trump Coup

by Neil H. Buchanan

Ever since Donald Trump became more than a punch line, his dictatorial and more generally anti-constitutional tendencies have caused some of us a great deal of concern.  As I wrote in a column two weeks ago, I am among the people who have been metaphorically running around with our hair on fire for the past three years, warning that Trump's buffoonery and incompetence are no brake against his willingness to ignore and destroy the rule of law.

The response to this warning has been, to put it in one particularly grandiloquent phrasing, that the American system's majesty and genius make it stronger than any one man.  Even if Trump wants to be a king, the system is strong enough to stop him.

Trump and his minions obviously take that argument at least somewhat seriously, which has led them to vilify the supposed "deep state" of people in the system who stand in their way.  Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, for example, recently rejected Jake Tapper's description of "experts in your administration" and instead sneered that they were merely "career staffers."  Why, after all, should we trust some people merely because they have spent their careers learning about the issues on which they advise presidents?

This is of a piece with Newt Gingrich's efforts in the 1990's to eliminate expertise from congressional committees and move all decision-making into the Speaker's office, based not on evidence but partisan politics.  Ignorance, in some instances and for some people, truly is bliss.

Still, I do concede that merely because the Trump people are acting like a wannabe junta, it is possible that they will be stopped in their tracks.  I strongly doubt it, as I have argued frequently; but until now, I have not worked through the steps of how our supposedly resilient system might crumble in the face of a man and a party bent on seizing absolute power.

One extreme version of a Trump coup would be a refusal to leave office after losing the 2020 election.  In fact, he mused in October 2016 about rejecting the results of that upcoming election, but many people dismissed that as merely a "Celebrity Apprentice"-style cliffhanger.  ("Will Donald Trump refuse to accept losing to Hillary Clinton?  Stayed tuned to find out, after these words from our sponsors!")

My concern has been that, now that he is actually in the White House and has the nuclear codes, Trump will simply declare that his reelection loss was illegitimate.  Agitating from the outside after a loss in 2016 is far different from hunkering down in 2020 -- especially from a man who openly talks about having the military, the police, and Bikers for Trump on his side.

But again, the people who laugh off warnings like mine as mere alarmism calmly assure us that such a thing can never happen.  The distance from here to there is simply too far, and our system will make it impossible to traverse that field of carefully constructed obstacles.  The challenge, then, is to describe how we could get there without simply saying, "It could happen!"

The simple fact, of course, is that we have already witnessed an enormous number of steps that have moved us inexorably closer to seeing Trump seize power illegitimately (without opposition from his party).  Every supposed bridge too far has been easily crossed, the most recent being the Republicans' collapse in the face of Trump's declaration of a national emergency and his subsequent misappropriation of funds that Congress had enacted into law (a law that Trump signed).

It is true that Senate Republicans have recently pushed back a bit against some of Trump's most extremely unqualified nominees, including Herman Cain and Stephen Moore and a few others (including Kris Kobach, who has a zombie-like ability to return from the political dead).  Even so, much of that opposition involves odd situations such as a potential nominee who once personally crossed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with McConnell having a notoriously long and unforgiving memory.

Moreover, the push-back is only hypothetical.  We do not know what would happen if Trump simply said that the Senate has to vote Moore and Cain and the others through.  Republicans first said that declaring a national emergency was unacceptable, but then they let it happen.  And the opposition even to Cain at this point involves merely four Republican senators -- enough to sink the nomination 51-49, but not exactly a rising up of the party's caucus in the upper house to show its independence from their would-be king.

The larger point is that it is wrong to frame this question as: "Would Republicans be OK with Trump saying that he refuses to accept losing the election?"  The right way to look at it is: "Given all of the steps that we have already seen Republicans take in the direction of giving Trump anything he wants, how many steps are there left before we reach post-constitutional tyranny?"

Long before Trump's emergence, the Republican Party has been, in the famous phrasing from Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, "dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."  Their successful effort to dump California Governor Gray Davis in 2003 was an especially vivid example of insisting on a do-over simply because they lost the general election.  Republicans are willing to believe that Democrats are evil incarnate, which means that there is a deep well of anger and hatred that would allow Trump to say that he (and they) had been cheated in 2020.

But it was the relatively short-lived flap over a change in Senate rules last week that finally brought into focus what McConnell and the Republicans will say when they are finally faced with the obligation to tell Trump to accept his loss and go away.

The specifics of the rule change at issue are not important here (having to do with the number of hours of debate permitted for the Senate to consider presidential nominees), because McConnell finally made it clear just how far he is willing to go in justifying power grabs.  (Note: Exactly two Republicans voted against the change, including only one of the people who hold themselves out as constitutionalists and only one Senate institutionalist.  But faux-moderate Susan Collins voted yes, as did retiring Senator Lamar Alexander.)

In a back-and-forth with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor, McConnell bluntly said of Schumer, "he started it!"  McConnell was conflating the immediate issue with the abandonment of the filibuster in considering executive and judicial nominees.  Although pearl-clutchers like Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described the Democrats' step in that process in 2013 as a "naked power grab," it was anything but.  (And please, let us not even begin to talk about Democrats who actually buy the "but it's true that we started it with Bork" line of nonsense.)

At each step in the process, the Republicans have escalated their power grab, such that in 2013 the Democrats essentially were left with two choices: either allow McConnell and his colleagues to continue to hobble the other two branches of government, or take the minimum step possible to allow a president to nominate qualified people to serve in public office.

The warning at that point was that the Democrats' move would embolden McConnell to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees as well, to which people like me responded, "What, you think he's not going to do that whenever its convenient, no matter what Democrats do now?"

And that was the most fascinating piece that fell into place in McConnell's grade school taunting of Schumer, because his argument went a big step beyond "You guys started it!"  Specifically talking about the Republicans' blockade of Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, McConnell actually said that he knew "for absolute certainty" that Democrats would have done it first, if they had had the chance.

So it is no longer, "You did something, and I'm retaliating," but "I thought of something that I could do, and if I thought of it you might, too; so I'll do it to you first."  How is that different from Democrats saying that they knew McConnell would kill the Supreme Court filibuster?  Quite simply, McConnell had given every reasonable observer mountains of evidence that he was willing to abuse the rules of the Senate for partisan gain.

But the Garland blockade was truly different.  No one -- but no one -- ever imagined that the Senate could simply refuse even to give a hearing to a president's nominee to the Court.  And when McConnell's explanation was so embarrassingly weak ("The people should decide"), everyone assumed that the blockade would eventually yield out of pure embarrassment.  But McConnell is incapable of being embarrassed.

Which brings us back to Trump and the 2020 elections.  Between now and then, the Republicans will take steps to prepare people to believe that the Democrats are stealing the election.  They will not need to announce late on election night, "We lost fair and square, but we're not leaving!"  They will say, "We warned you about this, and now we have no choice but to save America by preventing that closet socialist Joe Biden from becoming president."

And McConnell?  He will surely say that, if the Democrats had had the chance to declare an election null and void, they would have done it first.  It is not, you see, that he wants to undermine the Constitution; but he would rather destroy it himself than let people he hates destroy it without his help.