Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

A Coup against President Trump? More Likely a Coup by Him

Ever heard of an ‘autogolpe’? Now is a good time to brush up.

Crawford Kilian 25 Jul

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

After winning one of the most implausible nomination campaigns in American history, Trump simply can’t be dismissed as a sure loser to Hillary Clinton. The worse he behaves, the more electable he looks.

If he does win, it will be like installing a whole new operating system in American politics. When Trump 1.0 boots up, the desktop will look very different, the menus will be alarming, and familiar keystrokes will produce bizarre results, no results at all, or crashes.

A year of mere denial of such a prospect has brought us to this point, so let’s drop denial and think through the possibility of a Trump presidency. What then?

Some observers have commented on alarming aspects of Trump’s personality. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal considers him a “sociopath”: A New Yorker article quotes him as saying, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” Online political commentator Ezra Klein explains why Trump’s nomination “is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.”

James Kirchick, a foreign policy wonk, has even said a military coup would follow as soon as President Trump ordered the U.S. armed forces to violate international law.

Stress reveals our true character, and at least some of the commentariat already see in Trump an existential threat to democracy. So they are already thinking about a military coup if that’s what it takes to restore the status quo.

The Wall Street Putsch

This would be quite a stunt in a country with two and a half centuries of military subordination to civilian governments. The closest the U.S. ever came to a coup was probably the Wall Street Putsch in 1933, when a handful of financiers tried to recruit Smedley Butler, a retired marine general, to lead a coup against then-new president Franklin Roosevelt. The general blew the whistle on them, the coup went nowhere, but no one was ever charged.

The financiers clearly saw FDR as an existential threat and were ready to sacrifice democracy to preserve their own wealth. In the following 83 years, no American has seriously argued for a coup (in their own country, at least) until the ascent of Donald Trump.

851px version of SmedleyButler.jpg
No thank you to coup: Retired marine general Smedley Butler blew the whistle on Roosevelt-haters in the U.S. business community who tried to recruit him to overthrow the newly-elected president in 1933.

But that was then and this is now. Could we really see the military take over the White House in the spring of 2017? I doubt it very much.

First, don’t put any trust in the U.S. military’s respect for law. After the Spanish-American War, American soldiers gained control of the Philippines by massacres and waterboarding. In the last half-century, American senior generals have:

Ready for dirty work

So I expect that President Trump would find himself in possession not only of the nuclear codes, but of a military quite prepared to do his dirty work right up to a nuclear war. At least they’d get to see what such a war was really like.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff might be Trump’s lapdogs, but other branches of the government will be less obliging. Not once, but twice, Americans voted for both Barack Obama and his sworn enemies, the insane-right Republicans who dominate (or simply cripple) the House and Senate. So Trump could win the White House while the Democrats win the House or Senate or both. They would certainly give Trump a taste of the medicine that Republicans have given Obama for the last eight years. (And a lot of unhappy Republican senators and representatives would stand with them.)

Or suppose Trump wins in a landslide while Republicans gain control of one or both houses. Even a Democratic minority could stymie a lot of legislation and take every new law to the courts.

We could also expect the judicial branch to frustrate Trump at every turn. Like Stephen Harper, he might ram through laws knowing they’d be overturned by the courts, just to show his base that he’d tried. And like Harper, he’d then criticize “activist judges” as saboteurs of his programs. Ask Stephen Harper how well that worked.

This is why the Founding Fathers installed checks and balances in their new system: they knew very well the country could be stolen by a smart demagogue, and they equipped in each branch of government a burglar alarm against intrusion from the others.

A coup against yourself

But governments can also trigger “autogolpes,” coups against themselves and their principles. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan may not have been behind the recent failed army coup against him, but he is exploiting it as happily as Adolf Hitler exploited the Reichstag fire and George W. Bush exploited 9/11. A crisis enables unprincipled rulers to seize new powers, and they relinquish them only at a terrible cost in others’ lives.

Off the top of my head, I can think of coups and regime changes instigated or encouraged by the United States in Panama, Guatemala, Haiti, Chile, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, Indonesia and South Vietnam. Indonesia alone cost an estimated 500,000 lives, perhaps many more.

The U.S. did nothing effective about the military dictatorship in Argentina or the genocide in Rwanda. Nor has it done anything about the ongoing horrors in North Korea, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the Horn of Africa, Zimbabwe and many other African countries, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

So President Trump would find himself in charge of a government with a long history of intervening in other people’s affairs, plus an enormous intelligence system experienced in the mechanics of running a coup. One way or another, a pretext could be found to trigger a crisis. Only a suspension of rights and freedoms would be able to resolve the crisis. And thereafter, more crises could be provoked or invented to keep the pot boiling.

Trump 1.0 will amount to a gigantic hack of the American operating system. Hit the keys for “redress of grievances,” and nothing will happen. Hit the keys for “Bill of Rights,” and nothing will happen... or the keystrokes themselves will bring government agents to your door, wanting to know what your problem is.

The only difference that Donald Trump will make to long-established interventionist government policies will be to apply them to Americans as well as to other nations.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll