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Opinion: A coup or not a coup?

November 20, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
It’s nearly Thanksgiving and this year, because of COVID, I won’t be across the table from my extended family enjoying good food and even better conversation. But it’s a given that if I were, a good chunk of the discussion would center on the current political situation, and whether or not we should be using that scary c-word in my headline to describe it.

I think, to many Americans, the word “coup” seems alarmist and excessive when describing what is happening — after all, there are no tanks rolling down U.S. streets, and we are no more visibly militarized than we were before the election.

But, as a member of my extended family, Simanti Lahiri, reminds me: there are types of coups which involve neither tanks nor military.

Simanti Lahiri. (Courtesy)

Simanti, who serves as the program coordinator of student civic engagement at Rutgers University-Camden and sits on the board of Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, has a doctorate in political science, with a specialization in the politics of South Asia, social movements, contentious politics, democracy and nationalism. Which, she jokes, has made her high anxiety for the past five years.

“I don’t think we are leading up to what a lot of people think of as a coup d’état,” she told me when I first asked her about it Nov. 11. “I don’t think we are going to have tanks on the street or things like that. The U.S. military generally would not be for that, at least not most of leadership.”

“But there are other kinds of coups, and so the closest to what we are seeing I think would fall into the category of an ‘executive coup’,” she added.

Simanti defined that kind of coup in basic terms for me: An executive coup is one in which a legally elected executive uses illegal means to stay in power. When I spoke to her on Nov. 11, she said that since Trump was still using legal measures (lawsuits, recounts) to challenge the results of the election, she was hesitant to describe what was happening in the U.S. as a coup, even an executive one.

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Since then, Trump has widened the scope of strategies he’s using, clearly seeking to overturn the results of the election. So much so, in fact, that high-ranking members of his administration, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have publicly referred to his “second term” as a fait accompli.

By midday Nov. 19 — after Michigan’s Republican election canvassers had flip-flopped several times about certifying the state’s election results, creating space for speculation that if the certification were held up long enough, the state’s Republican legislature might be tempted to disregard the actual vote to nominate their own slate of electors — Simanti started describing it as an attempted executive coup.

“But also,” she added, “this is where federalism actually works in our favor, because Biden would still win without MI. Basically, we are only saved by the incompetence of the Trump administration.”

Yesterday, the official GOP Twitter account gave its imprimatur to spurious claims of a Trump “landslide” victory being advanced by the president’s proxies. (AP reports that of the total 155 million votes cast in the election, nearly 80 million were cast for Biden.) But other moves the president took yesterday were even more alarming for those of us on “coup watch.”

Last night, Simanti emailed me: “I’m upping this. So far he had stayed, basically, within the law, but now that he’s calling all MI Republicans to the White House, it’s a full executive coup attempt.”

Meanwhile, the news media has been wildly inconsistent about how to define the political reality we’re living. Sometimes it’s a coup, sometimes not.

On Nov. 7, Vox said Trump was attempting one “in plain sight.” On Nov. 11, the Washington Post said nope, not one, get real. But a mere seven days later, there was WaPo’s editorial board, using it in a full-bore, compound headline. And on the same day, Nov. 18, The Guardian wondered if it was possible for Trump to stage one and still somehow stay in office?

Having grown up in Guatemala, under regimes that routinely engaged in promissory and executive coups (not to mention the occasional full-on military coup), I’ve had fewer compunctions about using the term, even early on. On Nov. 10, I edited, and Generocity published, a guest column with the headline, This is how coup d’états begin, written by a Philadelphia immigrant greatly alarmed by what he was seeing in his adopted country.

But I do listen to other journalists’ wisdom on whether the word is too inflammatory to be useful as a descriptor in news stories.

In editors’ meetings with Technically Media‘s CEO and journalist, Christopher Wink, and editors, Julie Zeglen and Stephen Babcock, there have been reasoned arguments both pro and con using it — and we even had a brief flirtation with the idea of adding an “unconference” conversation about the topic at the Klein News Innovation Camp, which was held recently.

But I’m lucky enough to have two brothers who are also news editors (plus, brilliant), and while one of them is precluded from offering comment by the news organization he works for, the other was willing to give me his assessment about whether journalism should be using the word coup to describe what’s happening.

Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. (Courtesy)

Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush most recently served as faculty for the bilingual journalism program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, but prior to that he served in top editorial positions at Impremedia, El Diario La Prensa, Fox News Latino, Time Americas, and Time magazine’s Latin America edition, among other publications.

Significantly, in addition to being a journalist, Alberto has undergrad and grad degrees in political science from University of Pennsylvania and Yale, respectively. There may be no other person whose assessment on both the journalistic and political fronts I trust more.

“I don’t think that the word coup is apt for this odd situation,” he told me Nov. 18. “Somewhere between tantrum and obstruction, between the authoritarian impulse to cancel all things we don’t like and the richie-rich habit of buying and bullying their way into whatever they want, that’s the never-never land we now inhabit. Compared with that, sending in the tanks — a la ‘coup’ — seems refreshingly old-fashioned and above-board.”

What, then, is journalism’s obligation given what is happening?

“Mass communication in the United States is in decline — more poorly funded outlets, fewer veteran and beat reporters, less time and money for in depth coverage,” Alberto said. “Mass mis-communication, and by that I mean paid advertising and propaganda masquerading as fact — including slander and shame-faced lying — on the other hand, is experiencing a boom.”

“At the same time, there are fewer and fewer spaces left in American life that do not contain commercial ads, and fewer and fewer moments in which we are not bombarded with messages, opinions, and calls to action,” he added. “I do not think that this is a coincidence. I suspect that Americans now feel that they are ‘sold’ news reality the same way as they are sold detergent or a car. There are no facts, just how we feel about them. This effect is aggravated, I think, by the decreased budgets of newsrooms. The fewer the reporters, the fewer new facts and original stories. When all outlets report the same events, the only way to differentiate yourself is by the emotional spin attached.”

So, if this is not a coup, what is Trump doing?

“I honestly don’t know what he thinks he is setting up,” Alberto told me. “It may be simply that he earnestly believes that he was robbed. Perhaps he is preparing the ground for another presidential run, planting seeds of anger and grievance which he intends to harvest in four years. More catastrophic, to me, is the realization that 70 million Americans watched his incompetent carnival act for four years and voted for more of the same.”

And really, if there can be no consensus about using the word coup, we should at least be able to achieve consensus about the reality that prompts us to think about using it.

We are kept from our shared Thanksgiving tables because our COVID infection rates have escalated so precipitously while the president — who has never been proactive, really, about the pandemic — single-mindedly works to upturn election results in which neither fraud nor malfeasance can be found.

One man’s inability to work around his ego has contributed to us watching (along with the rest of the world) in horrid fascination as the fabric of our democracy shreds around us.

We know who is responsible. And even if we can’t exactly pin down what we should call it, it’s our duty — as journalists and American citizens — to make sure that those who are running the shredders are removed from power.

January 20 can’t come soon enough.



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