Oh, It’s A Coup All Right– They’re Just Really Bad At It.

After the Associated Press called the election for former Vice President Joe Biden, most other news organizations– including, eventually, Fox, fell in line. Raucous celebrations commenced across the country, and many Americans breathed a sigh of relief. A few days later, the administration’s refusal to concede an election they lost– by nearly five million votes- is kind of getting old. Beyond tiresome, it’s dangerous. This was further highlighted when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a notorious thug and Trump apologist, said that he anticipated a smooth transition– to a second administration of President Trump. After three and a half years of constant gaslighting by a fundamentally incompetent administration, we have become inured to the daily duplicity and the pervasive chaos– to the point that we can’t even formulate meaningful resolve about the issue.

Perhaps this is because there, in fact, isn’t resolve. While many Republicans have thrown their support behind the president, alleging that yes, there is indeed voter fraud, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots, many others have similarly said no, Mr. President, I’m sorry to say this, but you, sir, are wildin’. You are out of pocket. It is time to settle down. And stand down. (But… not “stand by,” as the president said to his right-wing extremist militias). State governments and local elected officials are pushing back on claims of voter fraud, so this indicates schisms within the Republican party itself. But when Congressional leadership like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Mitch McConnell, a truly odious trio indeed, buy into the president’s crackpot allegations, it becomes a bit less relevant that the Secretary of State of Georgia doesn’t agree with the president.

Detroit riot police at the ready for what would soon become a substantially violent conflict with protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement, May 2020.
The Media’s Role

In this case, the media’s role should be to relentlessly hammer at the paper-thin foundations of the allegations of voter fraud while refusing to allow the normalization of the administration’s rejection of American democracy. Many media outlets, perhaps confused by the President’s affinity for lying, have basically allowed the absurdity of this to become, well, normal and therefore pretty much okay. Interestingly, if you look at media coverage of Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini from the 1920’s and 30’s, the tone is one almost of amusement. You know, as if to say, “oh, these silly scoundrels with their brown shirts, they’re not even serious!” Tens of millions of deaths later, one is left to wonder what a different media role might have played in the run-up to the Second World War. The differences between then and now could not be more stark, of course. In the United States, we have at least vaguely functional infrastructure. While there are issues, we don’t have the same problems that plagued Weimar Germany– like hyperinflation or a completely precarious economy built haphazardly atop the ruins of the last big war.

Bread, Circuses, and Federalism

But this isn’t a bread and circuses thing. We have court systems that sort of work. Trump continues to lose legal battle after legal battle in them. Today, we heard that the ACA will likely remain entirely intact, even with three new Trump-appointed justices. We have some semblance of federalism that ensures that for every federal action, there is a state reaction, and so on down to the county and municipal level (the law of conservation of bureaucracy? or something).

However, it isn’t exactly tinfoil hat shit to point out that Trump just this week fired Mark Esper, who had opposed Trump’s proposed use of military personnel in domestic law enforcement. Does he want a yes-man in that position? Yes. Is it entirely unreasonable to suggest that Esper’s replacement could conceivably buy into the President’s proposal to deploy military personnel on US streets? Four years ago, I would have said that was nuts. But after the now-notorious Lafayette Park photo op, you know, I don’t even know.

What should you do?
  • Call your elected officials. Demand that they state in no unclear terms that, well, this shit is fucked. Remember that government begins at the local level. So, start with your city, your town, your state representative or senator. Contact your federal representation. Use this tool from Common Cause to do it!
  • Be prepared. No, I’m not telling you to stockpile ammo, because I’m not a crazy person. But I am telling you that you should be ready for a pretty dark winter, between the possibility of a broad protest movement and a pandemic that has been, by all assessments, worsening every day, with 60,000 Americans hospitalized as of my writing this. (That number is going up every week by around 15% at this point, if my napkin math is right). It’s still hard to get PPE and a number of hospitals are running out. It’s already pretty grim in the western states. Mask up. Wash your hands. Drink plenty of water and get plenty of sleep. Don’t go to giant indoor events. Or, you know, really, any indoor events.
  • Organize. Talk to your people. Build coalitions. Talk to new people. Build productive relationships to share information and resources. Social networks are everything. And accountability is easiest at the individual level. So, make sure you’re holding your people accountable, and vice versa.
Don’t Panic!

Also: important to say this, but don’t panic. It’s a strange time, but the world isn’t going to end. In all likelihood, most things are probably going to be ok, even if it takes awhile. But we can’t get much done if we sit back and fret about it all day. And now is not the time to normalize crazy stuff. It’s the time to figure out how we’re going to beat this– both COVID and the current departing administration, if it turns out they do want to make this harder than it needs to be. And hopefully, we can come out more resilient in the end.

As one member of the Twitterati put it: Can you imagine this coup attempt if they were competent?  No, I really can’t. And I don’t particularly want to. The stumbling actions of a presidential administration that has struggled to enact even basic policy make it unfathomable to even consider what the use of violence to maintain power would even look like. It is the role of the media and of the American people to not let it get that far.

Detroit riot police in a cloud of tear gas deployed in a heavily residential portion of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, August 2020.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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