Will Americans see another 'coup attempt' in 2024?

The idea is being rapidly normalised in a big section of US culture

Donald Trump and Gen Mike Flynn are still trying to delegitimise the US electoral process. AP Photo
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The words “coup” and “USA” traditionally only appeared together in works of fantasy and satire. But that's no longer the case. The theme of an American "coup" is being increasingly normalised in US discourse through the conduct and language of former president Donald Trump and his allies.

More than 100 days into the current Biden administration, Mr Trump – who is now reemerging from a period of relative isolation at his Florida resort – has yet to acknowledge either his defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 election or the legitimacy of his successor.

Mr Trump is struggling to be heard, particularly without his preferred Twitter platform. His dwindling band of aides pulled the plug on a much-ballyhooed Trump blog after only 28 days online, because few paid any attention to the incoherent postings. In retrospect, the brevity of Twitter imposed a useful discipline on Mr Trump's effusive tendencies.

Yet Mr Trump and his allies won't admit that he lost. The obvious corollary is that he actually won in November but, as he and his supporters insist, he was cheated out of victory by a massive, unprecedented fraud. There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever of this. There is, to the contrary, ample evidence that the election was particularly effective and clean, despite the pandemic and the biggest turnout in more than a century.

The latest fever-dream in Trumpworld is the inexplicable concept that some unimaginable something will happen that leads to Mr Trump being "reinstated" in office this August, or sometime thereabouts. Several of his backers have promoted this theory, and the former president seemed to refer to it in a recent public statement in which he vowed “we’re gonna take back the White House – and sooner than you think. It’s going to be really something special…”

Such an eventuality is not only fanciful, it could only be the result of a coup. There is no provision in the US Constitution for the "reinstatement" of any official. The only lawful way for a Republican president to replace Mr Biden is via the 2024 election. That’s it. Mr Trump cannot be "reinstated" through any normal constitutional or lawful process.

But The New York Times and numerous other major publications, reported the former president has been telling his visitors in Florida to expect his "reinstatement", along with those of former Republican senators David Perdue and Martha McSally for some reason, later this summer.

These themes were amplified when his first national security adviser, retired Gen Michael Flynn – who was pardoned by Mr Trump for lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian officials – openly endorsed a US coup.

At a QAnon conspiracy theory conference, Mr Flynn was asked why what occurred in Myanmar (pronounced by the questioner as “Minimar”) – obviously referring to the February 1 military coup in that country – couldn't be done in the United States?” “No reason,” he replied, “I mean, it should happen here.” Mr Flynn later denied he was suggesting a US coup, but he plainly was.

Delegitimising the outcome of the 2020 election and the US political process has become the main focus of Mr Trump's political reengagement and a guiding theme for many of his supporters. Their relentless propaganda against the US democratic system has borne fruit. A recent poll found that 53 per cent of Republicans, and one-fourth of Americans generally, believe that Mr Trump is the "true president".

This idea is the usually unarticulated subtext for a raft of Republican state-level efforts to restrict voter access and disempower non-partisan election officials. Even where, for example in Texas, Republicans won virtually every aspect of the election, highly restrictive anti-voting legislation is being adopted based on the false assertion that the 2020 election was marred by rampant fraud, at least elsewhere.

Indeed, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implied that Mr Trump would have lost Texas too, had he not successfully blocked efforts to mail postal ballots to all registered voters.

The insurrection at Congress on January 6 was certainly some form of extravagantly ineffective "auto-golpe" – a "self-coup" that Latin American strongmen used to keep themselves in power in the 20th century. Yet that deadly riot, which sought to prevent Congress from certifying Mr Biden's victory, might prove a long-term success, at least in laying the foundation for future violent disruption attacks.

The same applies to Mr Trump's numerous efforts to overturn the election results behind the scenes, most notoriously by pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" him non-existent votes he needed to win the state, reportedly saying: "Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break." Mr Raffensperger, like many other election officials in Republican-controlled states, has been disempowered since.

Anyone who thinks a coup following the next election is the stuff of fantasy isn't paying attention

There is every reason to believe Mr Trump, who remains in solid control of his party, is preparing to run again in 2024. And if, for some reason, he doesn't, any candidate imbued with his ethos and reflecting the current attitudes of the party would probably refuse to accept defeat.

A great deal of what Republicans have been doing, especially the state level, as well as in terms of rhetoric and ideas, has been centred on dismantling the administrative, structural and, above all, attitudinal obstacles to rejecting and overturning an unacceptable result.

An American coup, long the stuff of fiction, reared its ugly head but quickly collapsed after the last election. Mr Trump won't be "reinstated" in August, and Mr Flynn's Myanmar-style coup by the military won't happen either.

But all that misses the point.

What has been going on even before November 3, but especially after, is an effort to acculturate Americans to the legitimacy of extra-constitutional political interventions to make “wrong” things “right". Anyone who still thinks a coup in Washington following the next presidential election is the stuff of fantasy or conspiratorial paranoia simply isn't paying attention.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National