They are prepping the coup *now*
An authoritarianism expert on the signals
Hi, Ari here — Donald Trump tried to overthrow the government, and now he’s getting more help for next time.
That’s my piece today; if you like this newsletter please subscribe for the whole thing here:
The Sloppy Coup Gets More Organized
Right now, Donald Trump is going out of his way to endorse a slate of obscure local candidates in state races. These are people whose names he didn’t know before running for President, or for most of his presidency.
Trump was ignorant of how U.S. elections are operated, (even after winning the Electoral College in 2016). We know this, because when he blatantly tried to overthrow the 2020 election results, he combined a ferocious, amoral intensity (dangerous)… with a childlike ignorance of how elections are run, counted and certified (sloppy).
That’s why his attempted coup was both harrowing and disorganized—menacing in its intent, but futile in effect.
Among many examples, he appeared to literally believe that the Vice President could just “cancel” election results and magically declare his own administration re-elected. If Pence tried to say he could do that, it would have been an odd, embarrassing moment in the Senate, but of no legal effect.
The inauguration goes on, even if the outgoing Vice President is delusional.
Learning off the job
Now Trump is out of power and learning off the job, as it were.
He saw that while several of his improvised plans failed, there are local levers of authority over elections—states have election powers the Vice President does not—and he is trying to stack those offices with partisans who are on record backing his “Big Lie.”
Most states have relied on a tradition where Secretaries of State are largely nonpartisan. Indeed, ambitious people in both parties tend to focus on other offices for that reason. (Yet we’ve seen how many traditions hold up lately.)
Trump and many MAGA Republicans are now pushing candidates for these elections offices like:
An activist who attended the Jan. 6 Capitol demonstration
An extreme Republican operative who opposed the nonpartisan work by Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State to resist Trump’s calls to overthrow those results.
A lawyer who literally backed Trump’s effort to overturn 2020 results, who is now already acting Secretary of State of Texas.
These people are in offices that govern voting in advance, that can shape rules for who votes, and provide some authority and guidance for how votes are counted or tossed afterward.
Would these people really use or abuse their powers to overturn a future election?
Yale historian Timothy Snyder is an expert on authoritarianism. He speaks five languages and draws on international history to inform his scholarship, and his views of what the U.S. faces now.
His answer is yes:
We're looking people who believe in — or pretend to believe in — this Big Lie actually carrying out our elections. The problem with this, is that since these people have already claimed that ‘the other side cheated,’ that basically legitimates their cheating.
If you talk about the Big Lie now, you're basically promising to cheat the next time around.
While there are reasons to be measured, Snyder cautions against letting that minimize the public understanding of plotting for a coup that is already underway:
We should be thinking about this [next coup] as what is happening, and then ask ourselves, What can we do to prevent it?
[The plan is installing Big Lie backers] in important administrative posts, along with non-legal or extralegal reviews of the election [and] the states claiming for themselves ‘the right’ to ‘allocate’ electoral votes — against the wishes of their own people. Some combination of that is clearly in the works, alongside voter suppression, which has a long and dark history in our country.
Snyder told me he doesn’t view this as some kind of hypothetical, when it’s all out in the open. He says GOP leadership is now on board with taking a range of steps to install its next presidential candidate “without winning the election,” and the groundwork is “very consistent with everything Mr. Trump has ever said in 2016, 2020, and now.”
A failed coup is a trial run for a successful coup
Snyder also sees Trump as an authoritarian not only in training, but in a system that is all but inviting him to try again:
“What we know historically, is that a failed coup is a trial run for a successful coup. Usually, when you fail in a coup, something happens to you.
And Mr. Trump, nothing has happened to him.”
As humans, there is a common tendency to “hope for the best,” and put “the past” behind us.
As an expert on how authoritarianism works and grows, however, Snyder is using a different lens. It’s rooted in historical examples. That’s what makes him actually more concerned about a future Republican coup attempt, precisely because what once may have seemed tied to Trump the person is now spreading across the GOP electorate and several institutions:
We're now looking at a situation where, instead of just a person who makes the kind of disorganized attempt — relying on personal charisma and signals to his followers… we now have that person, plus a whole bunch of institutional machinery, plus a whole lot of time to plan.
Snyder sums it all up as follows:
The reason why I'd be more worried about 2024 than about 2020:
You have the person, plus the lie, which is new; plus the institutions, which are getting worse.
Facing a problem is usually essential to solving it.
If the above analysis is correct, if the evidence checks out, then understanding these facts is a first step to addressing them. Or, as the inventor Charles Kettering put it:
“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”
Then there is the larger project of actually blunting, preventing or punishing this plot and actions that would undercut American democracy.
I will try to take up that rather large topic in a future newsletter…
Do you share Prof. Snyder’s concern, or do you think he’s being alarmist? Tell me in the comments and I will respond to some of them:
P.S. You can see my recent Beat report on this and conversation with Professor Snyder here.
Thank you Ari for talking about this in a serious way. I agree that a coup is underway as we speak and I feel like nothing is being done to prevent it from happening. I thought it was illegal to attempt to overthrow a government and here we are. The DOJ must make an example. All involved should be tried for treason. Especially the ring leader. They did it in plain site! I watched it! The only way to stop these thugs is to lock them up. I look forward to your next article!! Thanks again Ari!!
Living in a red state, I totally agree with Professor Snyder's concern. The posts by people that I thought were decent and nice have begun to erode my faith in human nature. The people responsible for January 6 have to be held accountable or insurrectionists have won.