Letters From an American

How to Plan a Coup

How to Plan a Coup

Soldiers guarding Lincoln Memorial on June 2, 2020. (Photo by Martha Raddatz / Twitter)

September 14, 2020

Today’s big story is the growing threat of violence on the part of Trump loyalists in the administration, including the president himself.

On September 10, Trump’s friend and adviser Roger Stone appeared on Infowars, the show run by the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Convicted of lying to Congress and tampering with witnesses before they testified concerning the ties of the 2016 Trump campaign to Russia, Stone publicly asked Trump to commute his sentence and, in exchange, promised to campaign for him.

Stone was a political operative for Richard Nixon—he famously has a picture of Nixon tattooed on his back—and was a business partner of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, now also a convicted felon. Stone calls himself a “rat-f**ker” — a term used by Nixon insiders to describe electoral fraud and dirty tricks — and was an instigator of the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that shut down the recount of ballots in Florida in 2000.

In July, Trump commuted Stone’s 40-month prison sentence, and now, apparently, Stone is holding up his end of the deal.

On Jones’s show, Stone said, without evidence, that widespread voter fraud meant that the only legitimate result of the election would be a Trump victory. (Remember: voter fraud is a myth.) He claimed that the ballots in Nevada were already “completely corrupted” and that they “should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state,” especially the ones in Clark County, which leans Democratic. He suggested that former Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) should be arrested.

Stone said that Trump should form “an Election Day operation using the FBI, federal marshals, and Republican state officials across the country to be prepared to file legal objections and if necessary to physically stand in the way of criminal activity.” Trump should also, he said, consider declaring martial law and then using that power to arrest Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, “the Clintons” and “anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity.”

On the next day, September 11, right-wing talk show host Mark Levin said that Trump “will have to… put down the enemy” after the election, using the Insurrection Act, which permits the president to use the military against citizens to stop civil disorder and rebellion. “The enemy is antifa, the enemy is Black Lives Matter, and the enemy is anybody that is going to use rioting, arson, looting, violence against our country to try to overthrow our country,” he said. “Those are traitors. That’s treasonous.” He continued, “It wouldn’t be hard to put down these punks…. They run around in masks because they’re frauds. They cover their faces because they’re frauds. They don’t want you to know what they are and who they are.”

On Saturday, in an interview with Jeanine Pirro on the Fox News Channel, Trump defended the police killing of Michael Forest Reinoehl, a man who identified himself as an anti-fascist and who is suspected of killing a pro-Trump far-right activist in Portland, Oregon. Reinoehl told a reporter for VICE that he acted in self-defense before the man stabbed him and a friend. Shortly after that interview, police shot and killed Reinoehl in a parking lot. The police maintained he pulled a gun on them, but a witness says Reinoehl was walking, holding a cell phone and eating a gummy worm, and the police fired without identifying themselves.

Trump, at least, seemed to think it was a deliberate killing in which officers took the law into their own hands, and he approves. He told Pirro: “This guy was a violent criminal, and the US Marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Then he spoke approvingly of a backlash against alleged left-wing violence in the cities. “You will see a backlash the likes of which you haven’t seen in many, many years.”

Yesterday, Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services who has tried to dictate how the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on coronavirus, went on an unhinged rant in a video on Facebook, accusing the CDC of having a “resistance unit” of “seditious” scientists who were permitting Americans to die so they could harm Trump’s reelection campaign

Caputo urged his listeners “If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.” He said that Trump is on track to win in November, but that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will stoke violence rather than conceding. “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. Caputo claimed that the Trump supporter killed in Portland, Oregon was “a drill” for what was to come. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing…. [T]here are hit squads being trained all over this country” to stop a second Trump term, and they were, he said, “going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going.”

Caputo noted that the pressure of his job had harmed his physical health, and his “mental health has definitely failed.” After his video had been viewed more than 850 times, Caputo shut down his account.

The escalating language of violence indicates that the Trump team thinks it is going to lose the election. Others appear to think that, too: Georgia Senator David Perdue has recently begun to distance himself from the president in his own reelection campaign.

For my part, it just makes me sad. This rhetorical pattern echoes the strategy of southern Democratic leaders in 1860, when they knew they did not have the numbers to win the upcoming election fairly. They kept opponents from the polls, jiggered the mechanics of state elections, and warned white voters that, if Abraham Lincoln were elected, he and his dangerous radicals would destroy America. As their calls for violence escalated, they promised supporters that if it came to a fight, weak and frightened northerners would run away.

Even so, when Lincoln won the 1860 election, most southern whites were content to see what he did before they picked up their guns. But southern leaders were unwilling to live in a country they did not control, and declared they were going to create their own country, based in human slavery, even before Lincoln took office. In the ensuing war, ordinary Confederate soldiers learned the hard way both that northerners would not run away, and that their leaders cared about protecting the economy, not them.

It sounds poignantly familiar.

But it is unlikely to come to armed conflict this time around. The economic interests of the country are not divided regionally, and for all the bluster at the national level, state governors are largely staying quiet. We are more likely to see sporadic violence from groups of unorganized thugs, spurred by leaders’ rhetoric and by Nazi-adjacent QAnon rumors of a Satanic cabal, exactly as the repressed threat assessment from the Department of Homeland Security said. This scenario played out in August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly killed two people and wounded a third as he “policed” the city with a militia group.

But even this is not a given. We know that the Trump campaign plans to launch legal fights across each vital state to challenge votes for Biden, but Shane Goldmacher at the New York Times today explained that Biden has now also assembled a big new legal operation overseen by Dana Remus, Biden’s general counsel on the campaign, and the brilliant Bob Bauer, former White House counsel for President Obama. Their team plans not only to defend Biden’s voters, but also to restore trust in the country’s electoral system.

Said Remus: “We can and will hold a free and fair election this fall and be able to trust the results.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.