A coup looking for a legal theory Skip to content

A coup looking for a legal theory

Trump followed a 7-point plan to try to overturn the 2020 election – in other words, to carry out a coup. And the coup attempt is still happening, and still a threat.

5 min read

According to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, coup conspirators count on being protected when that coup succeeds and they have taken over the government – or, in a “self-coup,” have remained in office by illegal means.

But if a coup attempt fails, then those conspirators can see their plans made public and their intent to overthrow a democracy exposed. That is what the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th insurrection is all about.

The history of coups and authoritarian takeovers informs us about the multi-pronged strategy Donald Trump and his conspirators pursued to invalidate Joe Biden's 2020 victory. They are still doing it all over the country, as evidenced by over 100 Republican “Big Lie” candidates and state officials winning their primaries at local, state, and national levels.

Trump's refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election creates the circumstances for actions that have always been typical moves by autocrats who are trying to avoid leaving office.

By purging his inner circle and bringing back far-right operatives such as Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon, Trump created a circle of hard-core loyalists willing to do anything to keep their leader in the White House.

As Trump explored a military option for “policing” ballot counting, he attempted the 21st century despot’s favorite trick of electoral manipulation. He alleged extensive voter fraud before and after the election, and pressured state officials, such as Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to “find” votes sufficient to overturn Biden’s win.

The “Big Lie” had traction because of the multitude of lies Trump and his allies told about Democrats’ criminality, rampant fraud, and trickery, and the president’s victimization by his enemies.

Thankfully for our democracy, at least 86 Republican and Democratic judges rejected his efforts to overturn state election results. Nor did most state election officials cooperate. Raffensperger, for example, taped his call with Trump, which was then leaked to the press, exposing the president’s machinations.

That is why, with the military and electoral options looking less viable, Trump’s extremist inner circle channeled early fascism and its credo of bringing about political change through violent action.

They called on militia members, white supremacists, and other extremists to come to Washington on Jan. 6 to “stop the steal” and rescue him. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 19 about the event. “Be there, will be wild! Our incredible journey is only beginning.”

Of course, once the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol began, coward Trump was nowhere to be found. He watched the violence unfold on television.

All those networks of coup planning will likely come into focus during the House committee hearings, as will Trump’s machinations: a takeover of government straight out of authoritarian history. This matters because Jan. 6 was an inside job, with Trump advisers, Republicans in Congress, his campaign, and donors among the organizers and participants.

Whether or not Trump runs for office in 2024, the time-tested methods of autocracy — electoral manipulation, violence, and attempts to politicize the military — are now part of the GOP playbook.

Nothing is off the table: Extremists might well view the failed coup as a trial run. “Next trip,” someone was heard to say.

The seven-point plan

The Vice Chair of the House Select Committee, Liz Cheney (R-WY) stated that Trump followed a “sophisticated seven-point plan” to steal the election:

1. President Trump engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to the American public, claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him.

2. President Trump corruptly planned to replace the Acting Attorney General, so that the Department of Justice would support his fake election claims.

3. President Trump corruptly pressured Vice President Pence to refuse to count certified electoral votes, in violation of the US Constitution and the law.

4. President Trump corruptly pressured state election officials, and state legislators, to change election results.

5. President Trump’s legal team and other Trump associates instructed Republicans in multiple states to create false electoral college slates and transmit those slates to Congress and the National Archives.

6. President Trump summoned and assembled a violent mob in Washington and directed them to march on the US Capitol.

7. As the violence was underway, President Trump ignored multiple pleas for assistance and failed to take immediate action to stop the violence and instruct his supporters to leave the Capitol.

“On the precipice of fascism”

In an Andrea Germanos expose in “Common Dreams,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has warned that the U.S. stands “on the precipice ... of fascism” and that the attack on the Capitol could happen again.

The hearings have revealed that “Republican members of Congress were seeking pardons before the insurrection, knowing what they were about to do” would be illegal.

Now “there is such a concerted ring-wing operation to try to convince everybody that [the Jan. 6 riot and attack] didn’t happen, that it wasn’t a big deal,” Ocasio-Cortez said. But, she stressed, “This was an attempted coup of the United States of America.”

She continued, “When former President Trump’s own people told him ‘No,’ he was going to fire every single person down the chain until he found even a coffee fetcher to overturn democracy.” All this, “so that he could retain power.”

The focus of the House Select Committee should be on the fact that “legally, structurally, institutionally, very little has changed. Virtually nothing has changed” of the behavior that led to the Capitol attack.

Speaking of Republicans, she noted “not only did they vote to protect it [insurrection], but they also encouraged it. ... So, we are on the precipice of fascism.” She added that “no law was ever passed to prevent this from happening again.”

Republicans, she said, “are pretending that this never happened, and if anything ... the Republican Party has only grown more supportive and defending of what happened on that day.”

US District Judge David Carter called the plan crafted by John Eastman and carried out by Donald Trump “a coup in search of a legal theory.” Carter then comments on Trump’s criminal exposure by stating that Trump “more likely than not” committed felony crimes.

And with the first full week of hearings for the House select committee's investigation now complete, a new ABC News/Ipsos poll finds:

  • Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe former President Donald Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the incident.
  • Six in 10 Americans also believe the committee is conducting a fair and impartial investigation.
  • Among self-described independents, 62% think Trump should be charged, and 61% think he bears a “great deal” or a “good amount” of responsibility.

And finally, retired federal Judge J. Michael Luttig — an attorney in the Reagan White House, a clerk for Antonin Scalia, and one of the nation’s most prominent conservative judges — told the Select Committee that Trump and his allies were waging a “war on democracy” on Jan. 6, 2021.

He called Trump a “clear and present danger” to American democracy today and tomorrow. “Our democracy today is on a knife’s edge,” stated Luttig, slowly and clearly.

Let’s pray this slow-motion coup will not become a runaway train that overtakes a legal theory.


Written by John Hames Alexander, a pseudonym for a long-time Kentucky educator.

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