Scenarios for a soft coup
I’m trying to think more about the future and ‘intercept trends’ in my professional life, and the habit has bled over to my personal / political life. These are scenarios that I think could result from the crisis of succession in the presidential election. I haven’t assigned likelihoods.
This document isn’t comprehensive, I’m not an expert in any of these areas, am seldom right, and nothing here should be read as advocating for an outcome.
This is just me thinking about what might happen and what happens after that.
Standard of evidence for electoral fraud. Given the serious consequences of disputing an election, and given that the court transcripts I’ve seen are all some judge saying ‘have you seen fraud? your law license is mine if you lie’, we may decide as a society to develop a clearer rule for what is an unsubstantiated claim in these cases.
Could be a bright line rule developed by the courts. If by legislation, this happens after the current crisis is resolved.
No digital voting system. The voting sysem is more secure than its worst detractors think, but not as secure as a system designed by serious people in the 21st century.
The ‘fraud’ argument seems to be devolving to ‘we have no evidence of large-scale fraud, but the system needs to be investigated’. That might lead one to conclude ‘investigated and replaced with something better’.
I think that doesn’t happen – I think a digital system leads to changes in accessibility of voting and increases turnout, and to innovations like rank choice voting, which is status-quo-destroying and benefits neither major party.
Georgia runoffs. The current disputes appear to be about the presidential election but none of the court challenges are plausible. They’re getting thrown out. Maybe the RNC strategy here isn’t ‘appease T’ or ‘coup via courts’ but rather ‘groundwork for georgia’.
Georgia has 2 senate runoffs in january which will decide control of the senate. If the flurry of effort in december contributes to a senate victory in january, that’s a successful strategy by the republicans.
You’ll float too.
Presidential re-runoffs by states. If there’s an ongoing dispute, states could hold runoff elections, not for ‘who should be the president’ but ‘who is the president’. Note this is the question EMTs ask you when you hit your head. This could happen without direction by a federal agency or law, and I doubt the federal government gets away with armed opposition to voting of any kind.
Governors are the execute of their state and hold a fair amount of operational power. If 30 governors say ‘our people have spoken’, it could settle the issue. Or it could lead to a hot or cold secession scenario. But I don’t think anybody’s in a hurry yet to fire bullets.
Appointing new electors. I’ve heard rumblings that Lindsey Graham wants this, then tried to watch the video and couldn’t catch where he says that. At worst he’s saying ‘we do this on condition of widespread fraud’, not ‘do it no matter what’. I don’t see it happening. It would be such a crisis of legitimacy to ignore tha popular vote.
Not sure of the consequences for faithless electors (I think there’s recent supreme court jurisprudence strengthening these laws), but even if it’s just a fine it lets you say ‘they broke the law’.
The next election. If a president occupies the oval office in january who is perceived as grossly illegitimate by a majority of voters, how does that affect midterms / 2024? Hard to say. I think some questions are: (1) will dirty tricks be repeated, (2) will rules by changed, (3) if rules are changed, will they be more or less fair? I don’t have an opinion yet on any of those.
Supreme court. No opinion on which way they decide or whether a case even gets up to them. If they side with T without a strong merits argument, the court vastly amplifies their power and leeway. If they rule against T, with or without merits, republican voters and insiders rethink their long-term strategy re the courts.
Recounts. Seems like state elections boards / SOSes are enforcing their rules fairly. That said, avoid sore-loserism when it’s costly and dangerous.
Extended standoff. It’s not obvious that this situation has a natural time limit of EOY or inauguration. Even with no shots fired, we could remain at a slow boil for months. In that case, expect increased political participation by everyone in an attempt to rebuild our decayed local institutions and power structures.
9/11 sequel. Saw a bill clinton interview decades ago saying ‘we were tracking UBL and would have prevented 9/11 if not for the handoff of power’. And remember, Bush v Gore was a thing in 2000. Does a rough transition this year (regardless of who ends up in charge) create a similar dropping of the ball?
China. Have seen some weird, maybe-only-screenshot responses by chinese state media. Like a people’s daily quote tweet saying ‘HaHa’ to a T tweet saying ‘I WON AND BIG’. Or saying ‘fucking maas’ when a german official talked about partnering with B to oppose beijing.
From a domestic policy standpoint, they’ll split the difference between (1) ‘look at how much more stable our system is’ vs (2) ‘we believe in noninterference in these cases’.
T’s after winning 2016 took a call from Tsai Ing-Wen. Not clear if he understood the message he was sending. (If yes, he did a good job of not saying the quiet part out loud). B does understand the relationship between Taiwan + China and his reaching out to them would send a much louder signal. If he does it, likely not until his position is more secure.
Seizing digital platforms. Vast groundswell of ‘section 230’ chatter. Parler + newsmax trending in the app store(TM). Precedent with tiktok probably isn’t useful, but at least shows T’s intent. (Now tiktok is saying the US govt has forgotten about them and isn’t responding to their requests).
Perception by T or his base that online social platforms are unfair to them or distort the truth could lead to attempted seizure of these platforms to change how they police discourse. Not sure what that looks like or whether it succeeds.
The spoils system. T signed an executive order very recently increasing the number of jobs in the federal government which are appointed / at-will rather than hired competitively on the market. (Recent bribe, swindle and steal podcast covers this topic in detail if you’re interested). If B takes the white house, he’ll have a choice whether to revoke it or not. (Or to appoint his people and then revoke it). Appointments are subject to congressional advice and consent so it may be too much work to remake the civil service.
Rehire quitters. Would be an interesting move for a B administration to rehire any federal employee who quit on principle in the last 4 years. The theory here is (1) they were approved once so it’s a quick way to rebuild the civil service, and (2) whether or not you agree with their principles at least it’s a sign they have some.
Impeachment. The democratic house was silly IMO to impeach only once. Creating a pipeline of impeachments for many elected officials could flesh out the process and case law and turn this into a tool for responsible government. Doesn’t only have to be presidential. There are a zillion public officials who may be judged by history to have interfered with elections (after this all shakes out).
Self-pardon. Plausible. No case law, may not stick.
Tucker Carlson. He seems to be the bellwether for the beliefs of the republican base. Most recently he’s pointing in the direction of ‘not enough documented fraud to change the result, but if we’re going to die for our country we need a reliable system with zero fraud’. That line will evolve as he both leads and follows his viewers.
Criminal or other penalties for B or T. None of the T campaign’s legal action over the voting system has gone anywhere. Wisely or unwisely, B has avoided responding in kind.
If elected, B will have to decide whether + how to punish his predecessor or fellow travelers. This kind of revenge is non-pretty because it appears partisan, but holding the highest office-holders accountable is a shot in the arm for rule of law. Given that there are numerous lawsuits proceeding against T at all levels of the justice system, it would be hard at this point for him to avoid appearing in court.
B has another option which is to take no legal action, but declassify documents which end T’s political career (assuming such docs exist).
Nicknames in politics. I hope we take a break for a while.
In a constitutional crisis, people who carry guns for a living and drive jets may have to decide who to listen to. What does that look like?
Which branch. Not sure in what context the army gets brought in. One possibility is that there’s an international incident, B + T give conflicting orders, and the army has to decide who to listen to. A more serious one is that someone invades us.
More than the army, the sharp end of an electoral conflict comes to the secret service. I wish I could interview an ex-director or historian of the secret service and ask them what analogous situations exist in history for a disputed election. Does the secret service protect an ex-president from the new one? ‘Trial by conflict’ between the two candidates isn’t an effective way to settle disputes but would certainly produce the primetime ratings we all desire.
Is claiming to be president a crime? Misusing the seal is I think. Other than that, how do you arrest a false pope?
Occupation vs shots fired. Couple of flybys of population centers, some mobile artillery rolling up to the statehouse / city hall. I don’t think you have to use your bullets to make this point.
Governors and military bases. In theory the chain of command goes to the president but in practice military bases are located within states. In a secession / civil war scenario, how does that play out? If you’re a governor and you don’t control the squadron of F-18s down the road from your house, that’s probably a liability.
Desertion. Do active duty military refuse to attack americans or deploy on american soil? Depending on circumstances, it could be consistent with their professional code of conduct. (I’m not an expert in this area). Expect the phrase ‘any order / any legal order’ to come up a lot from armchair generals.
People are using the word coup. It’s not exactly the right word for the current elected ruler seizing power, but is there a better one?
History seizes on points of weakeness to create change. I feel reasonable saying that this month isn’t not that.
I read a Brett Devereaux blogpost saying ‘not many cases of democracies reverting to authoritarianism in modern history’, but ancient history provides a large set of samples. It’s unlikely we’ll have an outcome that isn’t broadly mappable to an episode from greece or rome, which isn’t to say that we can know in advance which episode.
I wonder if this devolves to two sides believing something really hard, and the side that believes the hardest, and most convincingly, wins.
However this crisis of succession shakes out, when it’s over, it will feel like waking up from a dream. Many of our beliefs, and particularly our beliefs about what other people believe and how our system works, will evaporate. Speaking truth to power gets a lot easier when the power is gone.
People will reconcile. People who you think can’t be forgiven will be forgiven. They were living their truth, at the time, and as the truth changes so will your ability to engage with them and work with them.
Regardless of intent you’d be surprised by what turns out to not be unforgiveable. Whether this is a good thing or not, it seems to be the case in the long term. Societies need to get over things. Look at Argentina.
If you think you know how you’ll feel next year, with a potential effective covid vaccine and certainly some kind of change in leadership, write it down and set a 3-month reminder. Email me when the alarm goes off.