Reinstatement, Coups, and the Ongoing Threat of Right-Wing Violence

by Neil H. Buchanan
Apparently, the turnaround time for the trade book market is roughly six months, as we are now inundated with high-profile publications that offer accounts of the end of the Trump presidency.  Mid-summer has typically been a news desert, even while Donald Trump was in the White House; but not this year.  Now, we are being invited not only to immerse ourselves again in the trauma of those four years, but we are being overwhelmed with previously unreported, stunning stories showing that things were even worse than we thought.

I am not going to try to keep the various books straight here, because readers can quickly and easily cross-check anything they find interesting.  In any case, I did read a book excerpt that lays the blame for Trump's election lies at the feet of a soused Rudy Giuliani on election night, with the soon-to-be-disbarred ex-mayor telling Trump simply to declare victory.  It is a bit much when the authors quote someone who bizarrely compares Giuliani to a "cool uncle ... in a Corvette," but it actually is believable that Trump would not have thought to do this without Giuliani's rantings.  Maybe the inveterate carnival barker would have come up with it on his own, but somehow I doubt it.

Does any of this matter?  An accurate historical record is important for all kinds of reasons, of course, and identifying everyone who is culpable for creating and worsening one of the worst stretches of American history is certainly an essential public service.  What about the future?  What might still happen, and can it be stopped?

Recently, as I was looking for a reference that I had included in an old Dorf on Law column, I came upon my column from December 22, 2020, seven weeks after Election Day and 15 days before Trump's incited insurrection.  The column reconsidered whether the increase in Trump's vote total from 2016 was as meaningful as it had at first seemed (definitely no), but what caught my attention was a note that I had written at the top of that column:
Note to readers: Before turning to my column for today, I want to provide a link to Professor Dorf's new Verdict column, which was published this morning: "Odysseus, Avocados, and Election Litigation Timing."  The column discusses yet another after-the-fact Supreme Court filing by the losing Trump campaign, with Professor Dorf focusing in particular on the doctrine of laches, which denies relief when a case was filed unreasonably late.  He also argues that the opposite doctrine, ripeness, should be loosened, for reasons that I encourage readers to discover by reading the piece.

I cannot resist adding a comment that is consistent with Professor Dorf's analysis.  The Trump team's current claim is that they are not too late because Biden has not yet been inaugurated.  Only then, they say, will it be too late.  But why should we take them seriously?  They spent the first five weeks after Election Day saying that they had plenty of time before the Electoral College's vote on December 14, at which point it would be too late.  Then they moved on to January 6, the day that both houses of Congress will formally accept the electoral votes.  Not even waiting until that failed, they now say that January 20 is the day.
I fully expect them to argue after January 20, however, that their inevitable further challenges are even more timely, because the country will at that point have a president who is -- in their fevered minds -- not legitimately elected.  No laches apply, they seem sure to argue, because every day under Not-President Biden is another day in which Americans must suffer the consequences of a China/Venezuela-inspired stolen election.  No day will be a drop-dead date for these people, and they will want to re-litigate this forever.
I offer the full quote here because it is impossible to understand the punch line in the third paragraph without remembering the sequence of Trumpists' arguments regarding timeliness.  In any event, I recall writing those words and thinking: "This is going to strike many readers as absurd, but so be it."
The logic all along had been that there was a date certain after which the insanity would stop.  First, it was Election Day itself.  Then, we realized that many states' laws prevented early and mail-in ballots from being counted as they arrived, requiring that they be held to be counted only after the polls closed on November 3, often with in-person ballots to be counted first.  (Florida, which has long relied on mail-in balloting for our superannuated voters, was an exception.)  That meant that an outcome would likely not be known until a few days after the 3rd.

Even so, the idea was still that there would be a day when it all ended.  As people soon adjusted to the post-voting reality of endless lawsuits, press conferences (including an infamous one near a dildo store), legislative hearings led by confused state politicians, and so on, the assumption was that the next big date would resolve things.  Certainly the last possible date would be Inauguration Day itself, right?

As I noted above, I realized at the time that my prediction would strike some readers as alarmist.  I was accustomed to that response, however, because I had been describing worst-case scenarios for years, many of which had unfortunately ultimately been proven accurate.  Given that I was already, depending upon one's sympathies, either a Gloomy Gus or a Cassandra, it seemed important to follow the evidence and logic, even if they would lead to conclusions that some people would reject out of hand.

I certainly have never claimed that all of my predictions were correct.  After all, I had been warning for years that Trump would never leave office and that the Republican Party would go along with his coup.  Thankfully, that did not happen, but we quickly learned that the system held together only because of the integrity of lower-level Republicans in key offices in state governments.  If the Georgia Secretary of State had not held firm, if the Republican House and Senate leaders in Pennsylvania had lost their nerve, if one Republican election commissioner in Michigan had said "What the hell!" and refused to certify votes, everything would have changed.
Indeed, if even one of those things had happened, the dominoes might well have fallen in other states.  My predictions of a bloodless coup -- predictions for which I was scolded even by some self-described liberals as being "over the top" -- would have come true.  Again, it was not because national-level Republicans took a stand that this did not happen.  Although the majority of Senate Republicans voted to certify the Electoral College results on January 6, they did so knowing that they could have abetted a coup only if the Democratic-led House joined in, which was not going to happen.

Again, this means that predictions of a bloodless coup turned out to be inaccurate only by the most improbable of circumstances.  I was happy to be wrong, but I was troubled that I had come so close to being on the money.  Trump was pushing as hard as predicted, and he almost pulled it off.
Moreover, those of us who warned that Trump's efforts could turn from bloodless to bloody were told that even the attempted overturning of votes through violence on January 6 was actually proof that the system was strong, because the insurrection failed: Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi were not hanged, Congress reconvened, and the criminal justice system began the essential but slow-moving work of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Even that all's-well-that-ends-well story leaves out the good luck that saved that day, such as the Capitol Police officer who cleverly led a murderous crowd down the wrong hallway.  As with all things related to the Trump presidency, those who tried to say that everything would continue to function because everything had functioned well until now resembled people who had fallen out of an airplane without a parachute and said a few seconds later, "See?  So far, nobody has died!"

One of the most harrowing stories that has come out of the spate of new books this month is Gen. Mark Milley's efforts post-January 6 to make sure that the Trumpists did not try again, on or before the inauguration on January 20, to commit a bloody coup.  Milley, the nation's top military officer (whom Tucker Carlson recently called "stupid" and "a pig," because Milley defended teaching military academy students about Critical Race Theory), reportedly likened Trump to Hitler and worried about a "Reichstag moment."

At a meeting of officers to set strategy for dealing with the threats on the 20th, Milley reportedly said: "Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power.  We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in."  And everyone who was paying attention at the time knew that until noon that day, Trump had the powers of the presidency at his disposal and seemed more than ready to abuse them.

Again, however, it did end, and it ended without further violence.  Trump is no longer president; and even though it now appears that it was an even closer call than anyone thought, the threat ended as soon as Trump was no longer president.  Right?

It is certainly true that Trump can no longer send troops in unmarked uniforms to abduct people off the streets.  He (probably) cannot create a false-flag operation.  My prediction back in December, however -- and again, this was when anything like January 6 seemed unthinkable to most people, and seemed at the very least not a given, even to pessimists like me -- was that the Trumpists would not view January 20 as the end of the line.  Whereas everyone else seemed to assume that, at most, Trump could (but probably would not) run again in 2024, at long last the fights over the 2020 election would finally end.

We have already seen that this is not true.  There was a brief flurry of claims by Trump's supporters that the true inauguration day was March 4 (based on the unamended text of the Constitution), which of course went nowhere.  Meanwhile, state-level Republicans are still trying to recount votes in swing states from the 2020 election, exercises that are no less dangerous for being farcical.

And for the last several weeks, not just Trump's supporters but Trump himself has been saying that he will be "reinstated" to the presidency sometime in August.  Drawing again from my block quote above from last December, Trumpists are arguing that their "challenges are even more timely, because the country [has] a president who is -- in their fevered minds -- not legitimately elected.  [E]very day under Not-President Biden is another day in which Americans must suffer the consequences of a China/Venezuela-inspired stolen election.  No day will be a drop-dead date for these people, and they will want to re-litigate this forever."
In the immediate sense, this seems not to matter.  Trump and his people can say anything they want.  Because he now lacks the power to act on his worst impulses, it is all hot air.  Even so, law enforcement is apparently taking seriously the idea that the concentration of interest among Trump's heavily armed cultists on this supposed reinstatement is not merely an amusing fantasy.  There are only so many times that people can be told that their side will prevail, then be told that they were prevented yet again from getting what they want by a corrupt set of elites, before the pressure cooker explodes.

General Milley was worried about "brownshirts in the streets" of America in January.  Because there is always a story with yet another new deadline on the horizon -- in some ways, the more outlandish the better -- that danger has not disappeared.  As I reiterated in my column yesterday, the Republicans have put together what seems to be an unstoppable plan to return to power in Congress in 2022 and thereafter.  (Whether they bother to wait until 2024 to dump Biden is an interesting question.)
In a recent column, Professor Dorf described that political path back to power as the Republicans' velvet glove, which he contrasted with the iron fist of Trump-inspired "insider violence."  I agree that the velvet glove would make it unnecessary for Trump's supporters to resort to the iron fist.  But I am not at all confident that there is enough patience in TrumpWorld to wait even seventeen and a half more months.  It might not take much to light that flame.