What Trump’s Coup and America’s First Coup Have in Common

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, President Trump invited an unspecified number of Republican lawmakers from Michigan to the White House, including the state senate majority leader. The topic of their planned visit on Friday was not publicly disclosed, but the context gives obvious clues. Trump has spent weeks trying to overturn the results of the November 3 election, which Joe Biden won, and has recently complemented the feeble efforts of his legal team with direct appeals to GOP legislators in swing states, whom he is pressuring to seat pro-Trump electors to override popular will and give their Electoral College votes to the president.

The slapdash efforts of the White House belie the consistency of their rationale. Trump will not admit defeat, and so has attributed the election’s outcome to fraud perpetrated by anti-Trump administrators in large Democrat-governed cities, especially those with Black-majority electorates like Detroit. Underpinning this gambit is a belief that Black votes are fundamentally disputable — meaning their results are conditional and, when doing so is politically advantageous, reversible. If the president is attempting a coup d’état, as is apparent, then its basis is strikingly similar to that of the United States’ only other documented coup. From the New York Times, citing a 2005 report ordered by the North Carolina state legislature:

[On] Election Day, Nov. 9, 1898 … Democrats [in Wilmington, North Carolina] regained power [from the biracial Republican government], according to historians largely by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating Black voters to keep them from the polls. Not waiting for an orderly transition of government, a group of white vigilantes demanded that power be handed over immediately. When they were rebuffed, in the words of the report, “Hell jolted loose.”

The mob — which the report said grew to as many as 2,000 — forced Black leaders out of town; dismantled the printing press of a Black-owned newspaper, The Daily Record; fired into the homes of Blacks; and shot down Black men in the streets.

Estimates of the number of Black deaths are as high as 100, state officials said, although they add that there is no way of truly knowing.

At first glance, these events are dissimilar in most relevant ways. Though both hinge on illegal power grabs, the 1898 coup attempt — which was successful — entailed mass murder in the name of accelerating the results of an election, however dubious its outcome. Today’s events are less settled. Nobody has been murdered in Trump’s bid to retain power, which has yet to achieve its stated goal, and so far it involves decelerating and eventually overturning the result of an election, rather than consummating it prematurely. But both share an underlying philosophy. Black voters may have realigned behind the Democratic Party in the 122 years between these two incidents, but the Republican Party representing the interests of conservative whites has not erred in treating their votes as conditionally legitimate — nor has it stopped deploying means both legal and extralegal to discount them.

Mob posing by the ruins of The Daily Record. Photo: Library of Congress

It’s not a coincidence that across such an enormous time gulf, and under such disparate circumstances, the two closest examples Americans have experienced to a coup were pursued by white-supremacist factions who saw their path to success in treating Black votes as optional to recognize. They accomplished this in part by associating the Black people who cast them with corruption and fecklessness. According to The Atlantic, a capsule biography of Alfred Moore Waddell, the former congressman who led the 1898 coup in Wilmington, misrepresents that year’s violence as a corrective to biracial misrule by Republicans:

The Democrats and most white citizens of the State feared a return to the corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans as had been experienced during reconstruction in the late 1860s. Waddell led white Wilmingtonians in their effort to shut down a racially inflammatory black newspaper, and then became mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican regime had resigned.

Today’s effort flows from the same precept. Trump has directed most of his ire regarding the Michigan results at Detroit, which, at nearly 80 percent, is the Blackest big city in America. “In Detroit, there are FAR MORE VOTES THAN PEOPLE,” Trump tweeted, baselessly, on Wednesday. “Nothing can be done to cure that giant scam. I win Michigan!” He added on Thursday, again without basis, “Voter Fraud in Detroit is rampant, and has been for many years!” Outlandish though these proclamations may be, they have come perilously close to achieving their desired outcome. Initially, the two Republican members of the four-person canvassing board in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, refused to certify the election results. They reversed course under tremendous public pressure from Black constituents. (The Republicans later asked that the certification be rescinded, to no avail.) It remains to be seen what, if anything, Trump can convince their counterparts at the state level to attempt after they meet with him at the White House.

The conduct of Michigan Republicans is also consistent with the electoral aims of the GOP more broadly, which have sought to compensate for the party’s unpopularity by winnowing the electorate in its favor, typically by making it harder for Black and poor people to vote. It constitutes a key theme of Trump’s reelection campaign, which has involved rousing white fears of housing integration by pointing to the alleged defects of the populations who would do the integrating. This has proven especially salient in metropolitan areas like Atlanta, whose former white-flight suburbs and surrounding counties went from staunchly Republican for years to voting overwhelmingly for Biden this election largely on the strength of migration patterns that brought more Black, Asian, Latino, and progressive white residents to the region. The failure of segregation to work in Trump’s favor played a key role in losing him Georgia, a first for a Republican presidential candidate since 1992. It has not, however, stopped him or his party compatriots from refashioning their demagoguery around Black city-dwellers integrating white suburbs into demagoguery around their fraudulent votes undermining white interests. The dynamics are as flexible as they are durable.

Taken collectively, these parallels are an apt distillation of one of the major themes animating American politics since Black people first secured the franchise following the Civil War. There are few perceived losses for whites at the ballot box that the aggrieved will not blame on Black fecklessness or fraud. Trump’s ability to capitalize on this dynamic, albeit with inconclusive results, is less a testament to his unique grip on the Republican Party than the resilience of this message across generations. Americans might’ve seen it coming. And given the trend that it continues, the circumstances under which any forthcoming coup is attempted should be easier to foretell.

What Trump’s Coup and America’s First Coup Have in Common