Is This a Coup? Introducing The Counter

I present my own essay on the dangers of the moment and a strong counterargument against it

One of the best ways to think through and sharpen—or abandon—an argument is to confront the best case against it. So I’m launching a feature of this newsletter: “The Counter.” The Counter an issue of Insight where I present to you someone else’s essay arguing against one of mine. I’m going to do my best to seek out the strongest, most coherent counterarguments I can find to publish. Of course, this is a process. I will engage “The Counter” in the comments and also in future newsletters. 

This will be an exercise in thinking out loud, together, and hopefully as analytically powerful and clear as I can muster—along with the readers of this newsletter.

(If you are interested in countering something I wrote: stay tuned. This will be a regular feature and contributors will, of course, be compensated).

The first “Counter” is about an article I recently wrote for The Atlantic, arguing that what Trump is trying to do right now is profoundly dangerous, especially since the Republican party leadership has mostly reacted with silence to tacit approval. It’s written by Maciej Ceglowski and his essay is included below, right after this introduction.

My Argument

I’m from Turkey—the land of coups—and like many people with such experiences, I know that they don’t come in a single flavor. I believe that the punditry is too stuck on finding the exact terminology and has too much faith in our institutions. Institutions, after all, are but people collectively deciding to act a certain way, and if people decide to do things differently, that’s what will happen. I also think many are conflating the ridiculousness of the attempt—which I concede, too—with unseriousness or lack of danger. In my essay, I argue that many people are ignoring the broader context: entrenchment of minority rule in this country, and the tacit or open support from the Republican leadership for what the president is doing. (And yes, if someone is trying to steal an election, silence is consent).

My piece opens with my experiences with coups in Turkey, and concludes by saying that acting like this is a coup—interpreted as a broad term that captures the zeitgeist, or the spirit, of the moment, even if a self-coup or an autogolpe might be the more accurate term—is the best way to start thinking about how to oppose the particular, peculiar form of democratic backsliding this country is undergoing. 

As I write:

Much debate has ensued about what exactly to call whatever Trump is attempting right now, and about how worried we should be. … Trump has been broadly acknowledged as “norm shattering” and some have argued that this is just more of his usual bluster, while others have pointed out terminological issues with calling his endeavors a coup. Coup may not quite capture what we’re witnessing in the United States right now, but there’s also a danger here: Punditry can tend to focus too much on decorum and terminology, like the overachieving students so many of us once were, conflating the ridiculous with the unserious. The incoherence and incompetence of the attempt do not change its nature, however, nor do those traits allow us to dismiss it or ignore it until it finally fails on account of that incompetence.

The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering.

I conclude by saying that recognizing the seriousness of the moment is the best way to ensure that we can address it as it deserves and avoid a scenario that’s even worse, one where we accrue “enough experience with illegitimate power grabs to evolve a more fine-grained vocabulary.”

You can read my full essay here.

And, below, Maciej Ceglowski counters, arguing that this was an ordinary election and that “This disconnect between what’s happening out in the country and the thunder and smoke on social media is part of a pattern we’ve been stuck in since 2016, when Trump became the presumptive nominee.” It’s well worth-reading as he’s making a strong argument—even though I obviously disagree with it! Plus, Maciej has spent a lot of time and effort over the last two elections fundraising for down-ballot Democratic party candidates—especially in rural areas—and has a lot of experience on the ground with the campaigns and the electoral process. He has traveled all over the country in this process, and has met with many candidates and participated in the campaigning process on the ground. That makes his counterargument especially important to take into account.

See you in the comments and future newsletters where the debate will continue!

The Counter:

This was the most ordinary of elections

By Maciej Ceglowski

The most striking feature of the 2020 election has been its ordinariness. At the height of a great pandemic, ballots were printed and sent out on time, mail-in voting was expanded and organized in those states that didn’t already have it, and Election Day itself passed without any of the drama we were warned to expect. There was no organized street violence, no internal sabotage at the post office, no black helicopters. Even the weather was great!

Things have gone just as smoothly after the election, though you wouldn’t know it from the Wagnerian levels of drama that have unfolded on social media and in the political press. Everywhere the votes have been counted, and where necessary recounted, again and again. The few petulant lawsuits Trump managed to file are being thrown out. And thanks to the courage and integrity of our election officials, none of the President’s despicable personal attacks on them has had any effect on the vote count.

Even though the tally was extremely close in five states, there were no organized attempts to doctor the result. Nothing so far has approached the confusion of 2000, let alone the open fraud of 1960, or the felonious artistry of the great stolen elections of our more distant past. Nor has there been any sign of foreign interference.

The closest thing we got to a Wikileaks-style information dump in 2020 was the release of poor Cal Cunningham’s G-rated text messages to his mistress, which may have put just enough voters to sleep to cost that man the North Carolina senate race. Otherwise, the chess masters in Moscow and Beijing seem to have put their feet up and decided to let America collapse on its own.

The ordinariness of this election is a tribute to the patriotism and dedication of the men and women who conducted it, most of them risking illness, and some of them risking their personal safety as they become the target of political attacks. They are the real heroes of this election.

But it’s important to point out that the only serious attempt to subvert a Federal election in 2020 has come not from Trump, but from a Democrat—Rita Hart—who is bypassing state courts and asking the House to overturn the certified, recounted vote in her Iowa congressional race.

Calling anything a “coup” in these circumstances—even if you search for just the right Inuit word to capture its nuance—seems a little extravagant.

This disconnect between what’s happening out in the country and the thunder and smoke on social media is part of a pattern we’ve been stuck in since 2016, when Trump became the presumptive nominee. Through the entire trajectory of Trump’s presidency—his assumption of power, his cabinet appointments, the Russia investigation, the Mueller report, impeachment, the census, the midterm elections, and now his peaceful departure from office—we have been warning each other that we might as well start ironing our brown shirts, because American democracy was just about done for.

But for a patient who has spent four years on life support, American democracy has been looking remarkably spry. All of the elections held during Trump’s tenure in office have been utterly ordinary.  When Democrats won the House in 2018, the President’s party relinquished control without a fuss. Now we’ve had a similarly smooth election in 2020. In a month’s time we’ll see the 44th peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected head of state.

And yet we kvetch. I don’t have any moral high ground to stand on here—I’ve been just as bad as the rest of you, prophesying doom for the last four years. But there comes a point after you’ve been pulling the fire alarm for a while when you have to pause and wonder where the flames are. 

It’s important that we admit that norm-breaking behavior by Trump in 2020, even his flagrant attempt to overturn the election, is not the same thing as his norm breaking when he first got into office. We’ve had four years to get the measure of the man. We know how the movie goes. He’ll rage for a while and it will be over.

The Republicans accepted this fact of life earlier than we did, and concentrated on achieving whatever political goals they could pull out of the chaos of his administration.   And so they got their tax cut, their Federal justices, and Supreme Court appointments.   When it became clear Biden had won the election, they made the correct, if not very noble, political calculation that they should just wait and let Trump sulk for a while. Like a lot of political calculations the Republicans have made in the past four years, this one was both enraging and accurate.

Zeynep argues that to dismiss the post-election theatrics because they are farcical misses the point—that Trump’s flailing, comical attempt at stealing the election sets the stage for a more competent politician to run the same playbook in the future, attacking and undermining a legitimate election. She argues that if we don’t hold politicians to basic norms of conduct now, we’re not going to have those norms when we need them most.

But the lesson I take from the 2020 election is a much darker one —that we are worrying far too much about how Republicans might steal future elections, and not enough about how they can win those elections outright. 

Consider that we came within a whisker of losing this election! Only the pandemic, which gave Trump a canvas broad enough to express the full scope of his incompetence, saved our hide. Not only did we fail to win a Senate majority (absent a double miracle in Georgia), but we came close to losing our majority in the House, which no one even expected could be in danger.

And the lower down the ballot you go, the more unpleasant the results. State house majorities that seemed ours for the taking in Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania instead got redder.  We couldn’t even flip two seats in the Minnesota senate, where Democrats control both the state house and the governor’s mansion, and Walter Mondale roams the earth.

We didn’t lose these state races because of gerrymandering, or lack of money, or any kind of Republican tampering with the electoral process. Our failure was political, and all the more inexcusable because it took place in a year when the opposing party had failed at governing so badly that it had racked up a body count. And still we couldn’t make the case.

As Zeynep points out in her essay, these newly-elected Republican legislatures will now have the opportunity to redraw Congressional districts based on the 2020 census. Even with no change in the vote, this redistricting process would net the Republican party a House majority in 2022. And we know from history that the midterm vote is likely to favor them. So not only can Republicans expect to win a House majority in 2022, but they have a fair shot at winning it with a plurality of the national vote. 

So my response to worries that a future, more competent Trump might try to steal an election is that we should be so lucky! The more likely, and frightening, outcome is that Republicans are about to win majorities, bigly, that will make this whole debate about entrenched minority rule academic. You don’t have to steal elections when you win.

The reaction of the Democratic Party to this debacle has been to congratulate itself and begin public infighting over what kind of policy proposals—progressive or centrist—should be sent to line Mitch McConnell’s wastebasket in 2021.  The Democratic house leadership (aged 82, 81 and 80 years old respectively) re-elected itself without opposition. So did the Senate minority leader, though there are doubts about his maturity and experience, as he has barely turned 70. The message from our party leaders is clear—a firm, liver-spotted hand will be on the tiller to steer us over whatever electoral cliff we are heading for in 2022. 

All this to say that we are not in a civic crisis, but a political one. While Zeynep is worried about saving American democracy, I’m more concerned that American democracy is about to hit us over the head with a blackjack.  

The warning signs of Republican electoral strength are clear, if we choose to see them. Of  the 11 Republicans to win a Democratic House seat so far, all are either women or minorities. The Republican Party, once it is rid of Trump’s personal toxicity and naked racism, has a chance to deliver what we’ve been promising for years—a multiracial coalition of the working class, except united around a nativist, anti-elite platform. 

There are two interacting dynamics that I find especially unsettling as we enter this post-Trump era. 

The first is the fact that American public life has bifurcated, and we now occupy two disconnected public spheres.

One of these spheres comprises the world of Fox News, talk radio, the Sinclair media empire, highly ideological local papers, and the Qanon stuff your uncle watches on YouTube.  The other sphere is the world most of us inhabit, the world of NPR, the New York Times, cable news, and what used to be called the mainstream media. 

These two worlds are aware of each other (this is not an argument about “epistemic closure” or “filter bubbles”), but in the same way that rival religions or sports fans are aware of each other. You don’t get to mix between them—you have to pick a side.

These worlds are also not morally equivalent. Helped along by Trumpism, the Republican public sphere has severed its connections with reality in a way that is not true on the Democratic side. They have also adopted transgressive political norms, including loathsome incitements to political violence.

A politician like Mitch McConnell could not have existed in the 1960’s—for all the deep ideological fissures in that era, there was still an institutional center that exerted normative pressure on national political figures, and his politics of cynical obstruction would not have been tolerated.  People in public life had to care what an establishment journalist like Walter Cronkite thought about them, even if they didn’t much care for Walter Cronkite. 

Americans in this era were like roommates—however much they hated each other, they still had to share a common space, and that forced some amount of compromise.

Today, each faction has its own Walter Cronkites, its own establishment, its own media, and not even objective crises like the pandemic or the climate crisis have the power to make these public spheres intersect. There is no longer any arena in which the two camps can do political battle on equal footing. There can be only dunking.

In this dynamic, we no longer live together like roommates, but like antagonistic neighbors, fighting over the property line, snitching on one another to the HOA, and snipping one another’s rose bushes in the night.

The lack of a unified public opinion removes all incentives for compromise. Indeed, compromise in this situation becomes a vice, not a virtue. You get points by blocking your ideological opponent, not by helping him.  

The split in public spheres also removes the ability to “float above the fray”, as journalists discovered to their chagrin during the Trump era, and as pollsters are beginning to discover now, when it is becoming clear that a big chunk of the electorate in the opposing faction just doesn’t want to talk to them. 

While we think of this split in public life as a recent phenomenon driven by technology, anyone who has lost a parent or grandparent to Fox News in years past can attest that it’s been happening for years. And indeed, a similar split in public life existed before the Civil War, when Southern and Northern public opinion separated to the point where a senator could be lauded by one section for nearly beating his colleague to death on the Senate floor. We haven’t gotten there yet (not that I wouldn’t pay large sums of money to watch Senate Deathmatch), but that split proved equally impossible to resolve within our political system, which is not equipped to handle this kind of an ideological chasm in the electorate. 

Which brings me to the other phenomenon I’m worried about, the legislative paralysis that has become a permanent fixture of our political life, and is a direct consequence of the schism in our public life.

Younger readers might not realize that Congress used to pass laws.  But just like one of those 70’s progressive rock bands that takes two decades to release its third album, Congress has gone from being a legislative body that could routinely churn out major legislation to one that struggles to even pass a budget. 

Harry Truman famously derided the 80th congress in 1949 as the Do-Nothing Congress. But compared to today’s congress, it was a hive of legislative activity. The Do-Nothing Congress passed both the Taft-Hartley act and the Marshall Plan. It passed 904 other public bills!  

Today we are legislatively stuck, It has been 30 years since the last major reform to our immigration laws, 12 years since we passed a health care bill, 22 years since the last (and only!) online privacy law was enacted, and we’ve gone 11 years without a Federal adjustment to the minimum wage. The only kind of bill that sails through Congress anymore is a military appropriation. Everything else bogs down.

The specific culprit here is the Senate, America’s most exclusive retirement home. When the framers designed the Senate to be a handbrake for American democracy, they did far too good a job.  No institution has inhibited social progress in modern America more than the U.S. senate. Consider that a minority of Senate Democrats successfully blocked civil rights legislation for eighty-two years, even during long decades when that legislation enjoyed overwhelming popular support.

I’m also not the first observer to point out that it makes no sense to have a democratic institution that treats California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, on an equal basis with a big rectangle of nothing like Wyoming.

Unfortunately, the Senate is the one institution that the Constitution prohibits us from amending, meaning we’d have to amend the Constitution twice over to be rid of it. Perhaps the best hope is to gradually turn it into a ceremonial body, like the House of Lords.

To make matters worse, as Zeynep writes, the Senate has a small-state bias that means the 26 least populous states (17% of the population) constitute a Senate majority. And  the urban/rural fracture in our politics has now lined up with this small-state bias in such a way we are almost guaranteed permanent Republican control of the body.. 

The combination of a fractured public sphere that punishes compromise and the pathologies of the U.S. Senate has led to a Congressional constipation so stupendous that the body now struggles even to confirm Presidential appointees, let alone pass laws.

And since our legislative branch is paralyzed, we have to resort to expedients like Presidential executive orders or Supreme Court rulings to serve as de facto legislation, which only makes the process less democratic.. 

All this is to say that a departing Trump is the least of our problems, no matter how much he roars and bellows, and that policing norms around his departure and around electoral legitimacy will do nothing to get us out of the political glue trap we are stuck in.

Zeynep and I like to joke that she compares everything to Turkey, while I compare everything to Poland.  My country doesn’t have a sumptuous coup tradition like hers does—maybe that’s why we disagree so strongly about the significance of Trump’s attempt to seize power by post-election sulking.  

But what we Poles do have is a cultural memory of our country slowly disintegrating in the eighteenth century because of this same kind of legislative paralysis. In the Polish case, the culprit was a parliamentary maneuver called theliberum veto, the right of any nobleman to object to any measure before parliament, dissolving the parliamentary session and nullifying whatever legislation had already been passed.  This self-destruct button was mashed so often, and with such gusto, that the phrase “Polish parliament” entered the Scandianavian languages as a synonym for legislative chaos. For our own country it meant a fall from power, crisis, then dismemberment and extinction.

All this is so unfair!  We are in the position of a man who has locked himself out of his apartment in his bathrobe, slowly realizing that he has no shoes, no ID, no money, no spare key, and that it is going to be a colossal pain to get back in there. The reality of how badly we are locked out of political power has yet to sink in, particularly since we’re savoring Biden’s victory in the presidential election.

The path out of this trap will be unpleasant. It requires turning down the drama, because it doesn’t advance our cause. It will mean learning to empathize with voters we have come to loathe, and competing for their vote on their own turf. It means playing by an unfair set of rules that will sometimes require us to win landslide victories just  to secure a bare majority. And it means staying united while finding ways to split the Republican coalition. 

In these circumstances, I understand the appeal of fighting to preserve political norms, and taking seriously threats (like coups) that are outside the American political experience. But Trump is done. He’s on his way out. And at some point, the constant warnings about a descent into authoritarianism become a kind of denial. We want to believe that what happened in our country is an aberration, a misstep, some trick of the light, and that there is a pathway back to more ordinary and humane politics.

But we had our chance to repudiate Trump, and we botched it. Now we’re stuck with his brand of politics, and we will have to find a way to defeat it at the ballot box, again and again, until we can amass sufficient power to fix our unjust political system. So far we have failed.