Each year, I come home to the United States for an extended break over the Christmas holiday. Ordinarily it’s a time to relax, recharge, and spend some quality time with family. But this year a dark cloud is hanging over my visit.
I’m from the New York area, so it’s no surprise that people here are still feeling a sense of shell shock about November’s election result. But this isn’t the same disappointment people felt during the George W era. This isn’t about politics. There is a palpable sense of anxiety and fear in the air. Nobody knows what’s coming next.
There is a sense that everything people thought they knew about their own country has suddenly evaporated. More than one person has described the feeling as being one of a “living nightmare” that they still expect to wake up from. Someone else told me that the sudden shock of having the world you thought you knew come tumbling to the ground gave him “the same feeling as on September 11th”.
A year ago, people here in New York still thought America was exceptional, immune to the disorder seen in other parts of the world. Now, people have woken up to a world in which a megalomaniac nationalist, who erects golden statues in his own honor and wraps himself in a cult of personality, has become president of the United States through an election manipulated by Russia.
“We’re Ameristan now,” one friend observed. “We’re no better than a Central Asian dictatorship, or a banana republic.”
The biggest topic of conversation is now ‘what’s coming next?’ Many people I've talked to here think Trump will be impeached by the Congress within the next two years, because the Republican leadership is as afraid of him as the rest of us. The leadership sees him as too much of a liability and will wait until his poll numbers fall below 20% to pounce, goes the theory. Then Vice President Mike Pence would become president – someone the Republican leadership is much more comfortable with.
I, however, am not so convinced. Trump is a master of manipulation and no matter how bad things get, he will probably be able to keep something around 40% of the American public believing that what has gone wrong is not his fault. We’ve seen throughout the campaign that nothing sticks to him, and allegations of gross misconduct only embolden him. It would be an enormous risk for the Republicans to try to take him on, and they know it.
Democrats have become completely powerless, both as a result of their electoral defeat and through their characteristic cowardice over the past two months. President Obama has pretty much rolled out the red carpet for Trump, a courtesy to which Trump has responded with further abuse. The Democratic Party will be largely irrelevant over the coming two years, and the Republicans are the only political force that can stop Trump.
But there are non-political forces as well. I believe that Trump’s undoing may come from a place that seems counter-intuitive: the military.
This might not seem the most likely source of opposition to Trump. After all, the US military is overwhelmingly Republican and many of the rank-and-file are strong Trump supporters. But among the military leadership, the situation is far more complicated.
The joint chiefs of staff - the leaders of the US Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and National Guard - are the most powerful military leaders in the country. They are led by a chairman, currently Joseph Dunford. These men take their jobs, and US security, very seriously. So what happens if their commander-in-chief puts that security in jeopardy?
Let’s set the scene:
Trump is the first president in US history with no political or military experience prior to taking office. He has little foreign policy knowledge and, far more worryingly, seems to have no interest in acquiring any. He is turning away the state department’s attempts to give him daily intelligence briefings, saying he already knows everything he needs to know.
Following revelations from the CIA that Russia manipulated the US election in order to get Trump elected, the president-elect has gone on the warpath against his own intelligence service, saying he doesn’t trust them. He is known for being erratic and taking rash decisions on a whim.
Trump is taking office at a time of unprecedented global volatility not seen for 25 years (or, some would say, 70 years). The world is a tinder box at the moment. The Syrian civil war is having ramifications well beyond its borders. Megalomaniac nationalists are in power across the globe, from Russia to Turkey to America to the Philippines – and perhaps soon in France. The era of peace and security enjoyed in the Western world since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has undoubtedly fallen.
Into this global chaos steps a man who has casually asserted that he’s not interested in maintaining the NATO military protectorate over Europe. At the same time, he is very interested in building more nuclear weapons and using them. Even before assuming office, his aggressive tweets toward China have previewed what now seems an unavoidable conflict with the world’s emerging superpower.
What happens if Trump orders the generals to do something they view as directly against the security interests of the United States – or the future of humanity?
While there are some checks and balances on the US president when it comes to domestic policy, there are almost none when it comes to foreign affairs. This is not the way the US government was designed, but it is the way it has evolved over the past half-century.
If Donald Trump wants to nuke Finland, Donald Trump can nuke Finland. There is no way for the Congress, the courts, or anyone else to legally stop him. But there are extra-judicial ways to stop him. The generals can refuse, and use the military to depose the US president.
Ameristan – just another country
It doesn’t have to be an absurd example like nuking Finland. What if Trump orders a military attack on nuclear-armed China for no good reason? What if his “secret plan” to get rid of ISIS is mass slaughter of all Muslims in the Levant? Or what if the most dangerous decision he makes is actually inaction – for instance refusing to protect the European Union in the (not unlikely) event of a Russian invasion?
In such a flash crisis, impeachment is not an option. It’s a process that takes many months at a minimum – and by then the world could be in a full-scale nuclear war. The only ones who can protect the American people in such an instance are the generals.
It’s a protection the American people might be primed to accept. The US Congress currently enjoys a 7% approval rating in the US. The incoming president has 32% approval. The judicial branch has a 42% approval rating, and only 32% of Americans say they trust the US media. But the military? 74% of Americans say they have full confidence in the military. It is the only trusted American institution left.
Of course, the idea of a military coup in the United States at first seems ludicrous. America has never had one in its 250-year history. But that in itself is unusual. The United States’ neighbors to the South are certainly no strangers to coups. Nor are countries in Europe, Asia or Africa. It is the lack of coups in the US that is strange. Why should America be so different from the rest of the world?
Even before the turbulence of 2016, a surprisingly high number of Americans said they might support a coup. A YouGov survey in September 2015 found that 29% of Americans could imagine supporting a military coup in Washington, while 41% said they could not. This was before the humiliating blow dealt to American democracy in 2016.
Of course, ‘coup’ isn’t a very nice word. In recent history we think of the coup in Egypt in 2013, which removed a (possibly dangerous) democratically-elected Islamist president to the delight of liberal Egyptians, only to replace him with their own very familiar brand of military tyranny. Or we think of the failed military coup in Turkey earlier this year, whose failure has resulted in a brutal crackdown by the country’s democratically-elected strongman president Erdogan. It's not something Americans should want to emulate, right?
But coups can have good outcomes as well. Think of the military coup that took down the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. They imposed temporary military rule while Portugal developed a new constitution. Then the military voluntarily relinquished power to allow the new democracy to start.
Could something similar happen in the United States? American democracy is undeniably broken. This is widely acknowledged, but US democratic structures are so broken that they can’t even be used to fix themselves. There is little hope that any of these structural problems - such as the electoral college, the filibuster, two-year congressional terms, and politically-controlled redistricting just to name a few - are going to be fixed by the institutions themselves.
We find ourselves in a situation where many Americans have given up on Democracy. Why should they continue to believe in it, when there is no way to conceive that these problems are going to be solved under the current governing system?
So what if the US military removed the president and temporarily suspended democracy in order to hold a constitutional convention? Would that be the only way to give the breathing room to fix these seemingly intractable problems? It worked in Portugal, why can’t it work in America?
I’m certainly not advocating for a military coup. But this is the world we’re living in now. It’s a world of new possibilities which would have seemed crazy to even think about a few years ago. We are living in a new era in which old presuppositions about American exceptionalism are very clearly no longer valid.
If other countries can have coups, so can America. And with the US military left as the only trusted American institution, the United States is perhaps the most likely country in the developed world right now to see a military overthrow of the government.