One way of interpreting Donald Trump’s latest bizarre statement is humorously. As my colleague Jonathan Chait suggests, the 45th president’s blunt claim that “an Election is my form of ‘Coup’” (in response to Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley’s confession that he feared Trump might attempt a military takeover after losing the election) may just be another poorly formed provocative thought from a disordered mind bent on the easiest available insult:
But you know what? There may be something deeper and not-so-casual in this remark. It is notable that, with one exception, Trump’s effort to stay in office past his constitutional expiration date was nonviolent, if outrageous, destabilizing, and encouraging to those prone to take the law into their own hands. Judges and politicians were his chosen instruments to overturn the 2020 election, and when he did resort to thugs, it was arguably in order to put pressure on the Republican pols he was trying to whip up into a serious effort to stop the confirmation of his defeat. We will probably never know whether the lethal intentions toward Mike Pence and other lawmakers that some January 6 insurrectionists harbored were shared by their instigator-in-chief. But in Trump’s own mind, he was simply battling to take control of a transition process whose legitimacy he had spent a very long time undermining. And it was likely his idea of a nonviolent “coup.”
Any way you look at it, though, Trump’s success in convincing a majority of rank-and-file Republican voters (as reflected in the professed views of a majority of their Republican elected officials and party leaders) to disregard the results of a presidential election that were confirmed again and again by every responsible set of eyes is arguably as dangerous as a straightforward effort to halt an orderly transition by military force. Once you stop an old-fashioned banana republic–style coup, you can mete out justice to the perpetrators and return political life to something approaching normalcy. But you cannot simply punish or easily heal the kind of breach of the social contract Trump and his MAGA bravos committed and are still perpetrating (for example, in the bizarre post-post-election audits like Arizona’s). That they will continue to perpetrate it until they regain power is the depressing and not very funny impression I took away from the raging former president’s very latest statement.