It Took a Near Coup From the Military to Stop Trump’s Coup
If Biden and the Democrats don’t get it together, the next assault on our democracy will be even uglier and there may not be a next time after that.
The revelation that it took a military intervention from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to avert a soft coup by President Trump should terrify you.
According to excerpts from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s forthcoming book, Peril, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “was certain that Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election” and agreed with Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that he was “crazy.” So as Trump raged about how the election had supposedly been “stolen” from him, Milley single-handedly called a top-secret meeting of senior military officials in the Pentagon’s war room to deter Trump from launching nuclear weapons or a military strike.
That’s a stark reminder of the perilous state of our democracy, where the GOP has become so beholden to a nihilistic death cult indulging in conspiracy theories and violent insurrections that one of our few remaining guardrails was a potential military coup. I agree with Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council and White House staffer fired by Trump, that this is an “extremely dangerous precedent” because Milley “violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military.”
As thrilled as I am that Trump wasn’t able to steal power after losing the election, if our future choices come down to “right wing coup” or a “military coup to prevent a right wing coup,” we are fucked.
According to the book, Milley took an “oath” from the military officers that he, and others, would be involved if Trump ever considered giving a nuclear order or a military strike. He also made two secret phone calls to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, four days before the election and the other two days after the January 6th insurrection, to assure him that the United States would not attack China.
Milley’s fears about how the commander in chief could lash out in his final days were shared by CIA Director Gina Hapsel, who was worried Trump might attack Iran and, according to the book, warned Milley, “We are on the way to a right-wing coup. The whole thing is insanity. He is acting out like a six-year-old with a tantrum,” after Trump refused to concede the election.
Milley allegedly took these bold steps to ensure accomplishing the single goal of having a peaceful, democratic transfer of power on inauguration day. "We've got a plane with four engines and three of them are out. We've got no landing gear. But we're going to land this plane and we're going to land it safely,” he said, rationalizing his actions.
The only problem with this analogy is that in our democracy we entrust elected officials, and not the military, to fly the plane. When the military takes control of the cockpit, that’s usually referred to a coup, something the United States has frequently supported in foreign countries and almost inevitably leads to brutal authoritarian leaders, the suppression of dissent, the silencing of the judiciary, and a dismantling of a representative government based upon the will of the people in favor of an oligarchy. Basically, the opposite of a functioning democracy.
Our history in supporting coups is rich and voluminous, and it has always been justified as advancing American interests, such as the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvadore Allende in Chile, which brought in the bloody rule of General Augusto Pinochet. There’s also my parent’s home country of Pakistan, whose young democracy has spent several decades under military rule, including the reign of General Zia Haq in the ‘80s that ushered in a period of “Islamization” that increased radicalization and was especially detrimental to women’s rights, but, hey, he was helping America fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, so it’s all good.
Or if that sounds like old history to you, look at last weekend in Guinea, where American Green Berets were training 100 local soldiers in a special forces unit led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya, who took part in American military exercises and was an ally of the 83-year-old president, Alpha Conde, until he wasn’t and decided to overthrow him with the help of those soldiers. Nonetheless, the United States has condemned the coup and denied having any knowledge of it. Regardless, I’m sure Col. Doumboya and his forces thank us for our investment.
According to Peril, and earlier Trump’s last-days tell-alls that Milley also dished to, he and other leaders were concerned Trump would go “rogue,” and judging by Jan. 6, the Big Lie, the “election audits” around the country, and recent revelations about how Trump pressured the Justice Department, they were absolutely right.
The military was forced into such a dangerous, unprecedented role because the GOP and the conservative movement has nearly abdicated all its responsibility to democracy, fair governance, the truth, or playing by the rules. The institutions and guardrails will only hold and contain dangerous actors like Trump if the people entrusted to support them remain committed to the democratic project.
And Republicans who know Trump is a menace care more about power than they do about democracy or decency. According to Peril, Sen. Mitch McConnell was so worried that a phone call from President-elect Biden would unhinge Trump that he wanted Senator Chris Coons to tell Biden not to call. Yet McConnell still voted against impeaching Trump and refuses to reign in racist GOP members, like Rep. Paul Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who support the white supremacist “replacement theory” and supported the Jan. 6th insurrection.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who called Trump a “race-bating, xenophobic, religious bigot” in 2015, and, according to Peril now says Trump is a “very damaged team captain” is still golfing with Trump and sucking up to him in public.
Vice President Mike Pence, the world’s greatest masochist who abandoned all semblance of shame and honor in subservience to Trump, asked Dan Quayle if there was any way to avoid certifying the election and placate Master Trump. Quayle, to his credit, did his part to help save the nation by replying, “I do know the position you’re in. I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power." But Pence, too, has remained a loyal GOP foot soldier even after Trump tells him “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing” and even after Trump’s supporters tried to lynch him.
These Republicans know better. They just don’t care. They will follow where the base leads as it becomes ever more radicalized and weaponized in an absolutist pursuit of minority rule and the implementation of white Christian supremacy. Last month, a Trump supporter was arrested after threatening to bomb the Library of Congress. This Monday, a man with machetes and white supremacist literature was arrested trying to attack the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Members of Congress are cheering on a hoped-for Jan. 6 sequel scheduled for Sept. 18 in defense of violent insurrectionists, including Ashli Babbitt, whom they have glorified as a “martyr.” Law enforcement is now bracing for potential violence from the alleged party of law and order.
Another problem that needs to be addressed is how all this monumental information and reporting was withheld by authors to promote their books. Why are all these “brave” generals and former enablers speaking up now, and where were they when it mattered before the 2020 election?
I don’t have any faith in the incestuous Washington DC and NYC press class to rehabilitate and reform, because, after all, there are books to sell, cable appearances to be gained, and access and sources to be nurtured. But for the rest of us, we should be able to see and speak clearly by now. We know how this will end if the GOP comes to power again. Jan. 6 was simply a sneak preview and a rough draft of the inevitable clash the majority will have with a radicalized minority willing to use violence to capture power and control. As former Trump strategist Brad Parscale says in Peril, “[Trump] had an army. An army for Trump. He wants that back. I don’t think he sees it as a comeback. He sees it as a vengeance.”
We need an emboldened citizenry and Democratic Party willing to face Trump and that peril head on. This means strengthening voting rights, abolishing the filibuster, countering right-wing disinformation, with Biden and Democrats flexing every ounce of their power to take down an obstructionist minority that has no interest or desire to play by the rules or participate in a pluralistic democracy.
This is what could stave off a right-wing coup. If not, I suppose our only hope is that the military swoops in to save the day, even if that comes at the cost of our democracy.