Stephen Gottlieb: To Prevent A Coup – Strengthen The Military Spine | WAMC

Stephen Gottlieb: To Prevent A Coup – Strengthen The Military Spine

Aug 4, 2020

Two weeks ago, I commented about Jefferson’s fear of a presidential coup. Last week I spoke about using nonviolent methods to prevent a takeover by the incumbent president, who told Chris Wallace on Fox that he might not leave the White House if he loses the coming election. Afterward, I expressed my concerns and showed a copy to Ian Shapiro, a friend and polymath who’s done brilliant work on both foreign and domestic policy. He sent me back a portion of a new book of his on economic insecurity, The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It. I quickly realized we were approaching the same problem from different angles. Insecurity makes people want to believe that Trump is leading them to better days. I’ll return to that next week. And the campaign itself will help protect us against a presidential takeover.

The Army is a crucial player in any takeover. Here, military tradition is stanchly against political activity and devoted to defending the Constitution. There would be a great resistance at all levels to using the military politically, especially to end politics by takeover. And because the military contains a large cross-section of America, we all influence it. Military diversity makes it harder to unite on unauthorized, unpopular activities in conflict with American military tradition, especially if they depend on secret planning.

But presidential takeovers in other countries force us to the sobering realization that a perverted commander-in-chief can pervert the military, given enough time. That makes all the work we’re doing to prepare for this election crucial to prevent White House treason – even though he’s talked about it openly. Concerted opposition to Trump and to takeovers, expressed in a vigorous campaign, make it less likely that the military will participate in a coup.

But outside the military, Trump has been constructing other forces which respond to him – using the National Guard, border guards and other armed federal agents in Portland[1] and elsewhere to stir up trouble where peace had reigned. Even more serious are the private militias that conduct their own training with their own arsenals. The great bulk of domestic terrorism has come from those groups. Instead of fidelity to the Constitution, they aim at violently defeating American government in order to achieve undemocratic aims in conflict with the Constitution and the law. Some American elections have been overturned by force of arms.

Unreconstructed admirers of Civil War secessionists would gladly reverse the results of the Civil War. Guns and racism have become closely entwined. Gun shows and private militias confront us with a plethora of racist and conspiracy theories making the point.[2] Their treasonous impulses fuel my strongest objections to gun rights today – guns are not being used for self-defense but for calculated murder, intimidation and political takeover.[3]

Trump’s outrageous racism and complements to racist killers are obvious efforts to get those armed but irresponsible groups behind him, ready to function as a palace guard to keep him in office regardless of the election. Private militias, like gangs and criminal cartels are dangerous because they oppose democracy, are divorced from national values, and expect to gain from violence. Instead of respecting peaceful demonstrations, they’ve spawned provocateurs in places like Portland, to give Trump an excuse for shutting democracy down. They and their standard-bearer in the White House must be stopped. And we have to keep up the fight for government of, by, and for the people.


[1] Washington Post Blogs, A violent send-off on feds' final night at Portland courthouse, July 31, 2020 Friday 12:07 AM EST

[2] John A. Wood, THE PANTHERS AND THE MILITIAS (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002); Kenneth S. Stern, A FORCE UPON THE PLAIN: THE AMERICAN MILITIA MOVEMENT AND THE POLITICS OF HATE (Norman: U. Okla. Press, 1997); Southern Poverty Law Center, “Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City,” http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/terror-from-the-right (visited Jan. 23, 2014).

[3] Stephen E. Gottlieb, Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics 173-77 (NYU Press, 2016).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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