REPRISE: Rehearsal for a coup d’état? Violence in American cities and “the chaos president” (Updated July 17, 2020)

Updated July 17, 2020

Today we republish an article first published on May 31 and revised on June 2, 2020, on the issue of whether President Trump’s deployment of federal forces in Washington, D.C. represents a testing of boundaries or a rehearsal of elements of a coup d’état. Today the Washington Post published an article about Trump’s “little green men” running around Portland in unmarked vans and camouflage uniforms with no identifying information, picking up people off the street.

The account is reminiscent of the death squads in El Salvador in the 1980’s, and the abductions carried out by the CIA in George W. Bush’s first term, kidnappings which were euphemistically called “extraordinary renditions”. Op-ed articles today by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post and Scott Martelle  of the Los Angeles Times underline the significance of these events. Steve Vladeck analyzes the legal issues involved and the legal authorities under which the forces may be operating in detail, identifying critical legal issues and questions which call out for answers.

The use of unidentified forces in unmarked vans in Portland and earlier in Washington, D.C. is also reminiscent of the playbook Vladimir Putin used in the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

See

1) Ryan O’Connell, “Come November, a U.S. coup d’etat? Could Donald Trump call out the U.S. Army again, after losing the November election?. Salon, June 12, 2020

2) Katie Shepherd, ‘It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them,” Wahington Post, July 17, 2020 (6:58 a.m. EDT).

3) Ruth Marcus, “What’s happening in Portland shows Trump is ignoring the Constitution — and attacking America,” Washington Post, July 17, 2020 (1:19 p.m. EST).

4) Scott Martelle,”Opinion: Federal agents deployed by Trump spirit away protesters. What country is this?” Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2020 (11:47 a.m.)..

5) Steve Vladeck, “What the Heck Are Federal Law Enforcement Officers Doing in Portland?” LAWFARE, July 17, 2020, (4:17 PM).

 

***

Rehearsal for a coup d’état? Violence in American cities and “the chaos president”

Originally published May 31, 2020, revised June 2, 2020

Good historians and the best journalists with years of experience have an extraordinary skill: exceptional pattern recognition ability.

They are able to look at a wide and complex array of information and to discern what among the mass of reports  and developments is truly significant, what is salient, what truly stands out. They are able to connect the dots. And by a process which involves intuition nurtured by years of experience as well as logic, they are able to see patterns.

In doing so, they are able to draw lessons from previous experiences which fit a given pattern, and even anticipate the range of possibilities for future developments. Their anticipations or intimations about the future are never simply true or false, but often provide critical checklists with which to monitor the direction in which events are flowing.

In a similar manner, drawing on years of experience as an amateur historian (best undergraduate Senior Honors Thesis in History at Stanford University) and chronicler and analyst of political events in many countries, the Observer is noting a certain pattern of events in the United States which raises grave questions of national concern.

Looking at the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the violence in major American cities since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Monday, May 25, 2020, the pattern of President Donald J. Trump’s lawless and authoritarian behavior over the last three and a half years and, more specifically, the manner in which he has fanned the flames of violence in America while evidencing darker motives, the Observer is struck with the following question:

Are we witnessing a dress rehearsal for a coup d’état by Donald Trump and his allies?

Such a coup could be launched to prevent his having to turn over power to a successor as a result of the November 3, 2020 election, or even earlier as a result of impeachment by the House of Representatives and a vote to remove him from office by the Senate of the United States.

Why the House of Representatives is not pursuing a new impeachment inquiry given Trump’s broad range of unconstitutional and lawless behavior, notwithstanding the wholly predictable failure of their first attempt based on two narrow grounds related to the Ukraine, is beyond understanding.  It could and should be the subject of separate articles by many people.

***

Could the violent riots and looting underway in many American cities provide an opportunity for or itself be a rehearsal for an unconstitutional takeover of the government by Trump and his supporters?

Before this possibility is dismissed as fanciful, the reader should consider the following facts:

1. There is clear evidence of coordination in launching the violent attacks attendant to demonstrations in major U.S. cities.  Computers in Minnesota’s state network of computers, and those of Minneapolis, for example, were subjected to large-scale denial of service attacks beginning on Thursday May 28, if not earlier.

2. A significant percentage of those arrested in the Minneapolis area (20-45% according to reports) were from outside the city. Many arrived in cars and trucks filled with rocks and other materials. A number of them were wearing some kind of black uniform.

3. While the racial break-down of arrestees has not generally been disclosed, there are reports that many of them were white right-wing extremists. Calls apparently went out on right-wing websites and social media for them to converge on areas where peaceful demonstrations were planned. On Sunday, President Trump made an appeal for his followers to converge on the White House Sunday evening: “MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE,” he tweeted.

4. The President and the Attorney General have loudly proclaimed that the violence was caused by ANTIFA and other leftist groups, without offering a single shred of evidence to support their claims.

5. The President has himself fanned the flames of violence with incendiary statements, such as “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”; and statements that “vicious dogs” were ready to set upon demonstrators at the White House, and that the youngest, boldest, and most eager Secret Servicemen were being sent to the front lines.

6. The President has made no major public speech or statement condemning the George Floyd homicide, or seeking to calm the exalted spirits which exist in many disparate locations throughout the country.

Timothy Snyder, in his brilliant little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Penguin, 2017), has described how authoritarians came to power in Europe in the 20th century.  His book is full of lessons for the present.

In Germany, where Adolf Hitler became Chancellor through lawful means and in accordance with the constitution in January, 1933, Snyder describes how the burning down of the Reichstag (the Congress) in March, in a fire which Hitler blamed on the Communists but whose origins hasve never been determined, led to overwhelming Nazi majorities in elections for the Reichstag later that month. When the new congress convened, it promptly adopted an Enabling Act which gave Hitler unlimited powers. Hitler immediately began using these powers to silence and eliminate opponents and all sources of opposition in the country.  Chaos and fear opened the door to tyranny. It all happened very quickly.

For anyone who had studied Hitler’s actions and trajectory, none of these developments should have come as a surprise.

Similarly, if Donald Trump were to use the coronavirus pandemic and riots in American cities as a pretext for sending in the U.S. military (which he has already threatened to do), no one who has studied his behavior should be surprised.

Race is an extraordinarily explosive issue in the United States. Trump has blown dog whittles or more to white right-wing racist extremists. He has threatened violence.  Race is an issue that is so fraught that, tapping into primordial fears and unconscious motives, it can be manipulated to move millions of people to violent and irrational behavior.  Hitler, with his lies and propaganda, brilliantly used the Jews and the Communists as means to wreak his demonic will upon the world.

Trump has a similar brilliance at using massive lies and propaganda to achieve his political ends.  With Hitler, he shares one overriding characteristic:  an utter disregard for the truth.

Depending on how this dress rehearsal turns out, if that is what it is, Trump may in the future have both the means and the opportunity to launch a coup d’état in the United States.

This could happen if he loses the November election, claims fraud and refuses to turn over power, and sends millions of his supporters, many armed, into the streets; or even earlier if he seeks to call off or postpone the November elections on the grounds that the Covid-19 risks are too great, given the advancing ravages of the pandemic.

The temptation for him to resort to such extremes may be growing, as his prospects for winning a fair election recede. Over 104,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 in the last three months. By November, the number could easily exceed 200,000, and probably will.  40 million Americans are out of work.  The real economy, notwithstanding a stock market buoyed by hopes and illusions, is in free-fall.

One big question is out there: Has Russia helped fan the flames of violence by coordinating activities, including by carrying out denial of service attacks on Minnesota’s government computers?  If it wasn’t Russia, who was it?

Ordinarily, the FBI and other intelligence agencies would be fully engaged in investigating these and related questions. Whether they are now in a position or have the will to do so, under Attorney General William Barr and the Trump loyalists who now head the intelligence agencies, is highly dubious.

Worth recalling at this juncture is the fact that Steve Bannon, Trump’s former (and perhaps current) close advisor, who is brilliant if in an evil way, has long been a great fan of Vladimir Lenin, who succeeded in bringing the Bolsheviks to power in Russia in 1917 amid incredible chaos.

President Trump is a chaos president.  The current chaos serves his ends.

Could Trump attempt to launch a coup d’état in the United States?  Absolutely.

Whether he could succeed is a question whose answer is up to all of us, particularly those in the military, the National Guard, and in police forces around the country–and those who command them.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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