Opinion | What if There Wasn’t a Coup Plot, General Milley?

This month, the first crop of books about the end of Donald Trump’s administration has prompted speculation: Was the president plotting to remain in power through some kind of coup?

The question has arisen because the Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker report in their book “I Alone Can Fix It” that Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw the president’s postelection maneuverings in that light.

General Milley had no direct evidence of a coup plot. But in the days after Mr. Trump’s electoral defeat, as the president filled top military and intelligence posts with people the general considered loyal mediocrities, Gen. Milley got nervous. “They may try,” but they would not succeed with any kind of plot, he told his aides, according to the book. “You can’t do this without the military,” he went on. “You can’t do this without the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. We’re the guys with the guns.”

While some might greet such comments with relief, Gen. Milley’s musings should give us pause. Americans have not usually looked to the military for help in regulating their civilian politics. And there is something grandiose about General Milley’s conception of his place in government. He told aides that a “retired military buddy” had called him on election night to say, “You represent the stability of this republic.” If there was not a coup underway, then Gen. Milley’s comments may be cause more for worry than for relief.

Were we really that close to a coup? The most dramatic and disruptive episode of Mr. Trump’s resistance to the election was Jan. 6, and that day’s events are ambiguous.

On the one hand, it is hard to think of a more serious assault on democracy than a violent entry into a nation’s capitol to reverse the election of its chief executive. Five people died. Chanting protesters urged the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Mr. Trump’s call that he reject certain electoral votes cast for Joe Biden.

On the other hand, Jan. 6 was something familiar: a political protest that got out of control. Contesting the fairness of an election, rightly or wrongly, is not absurd grounds for a public assembly. For a newly defeated president to call an election a “steal” is certainly irresponsible. But for a group of citizens to use the term was merely hyperbolic, perhaps no more so than calling suboptimal employment and health laws a “war on women.” Nor did the eventual violence necessarily discredit the demonstrators’ cause, any more than the July 2016 killing of five police officers at a rally in Dallas against police violence, for instance, invalidated the concerns of those marchers.

The stability of the republic never truly seemed at risk. As Michael Wolff writes of Mr. Trump in his new book, “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency,” “Beyond his immediate desires and pronouncements, there was no ability — or structure, or chain of command, or procedures, or expertise, or actual person to call — to make anything happen.” Mr. Trump ended his presidency as unfamiliar with the office’s powers as with its responsibilities. That is, in a way, reassuring.

The problem is that Mr. Trump’s unfocused theory of a stolen election had a distilling effect, concentrating radical tendencies — first in his staff members and later in his followers nationwide. Rational voices exited his inner circle. After Attorney General William Barr told reporters that he knew of no evidence of widespread voter fraud, he was out. Rudolph Giuliani was in, along with a shifting cast of less stable freelancers, including the lawyer Sidney Powell, with her theories of vote-switching ballot machines and Venezuelan stratagems. Now the president was not only thinking poorly; he was also doing so with poorer information. That was the first distillation.

The effect of the president’s theory on disappointed voters was more complicated. Republicans had — and still have — legitimate grievances about how the last election was run. Pandemic conditions produced an electoral system more favorable to Democrats. Without the Covid-era advantage of expanded mail-in voting, Democrats might well have lost more elections at every level, including the presidential. Mr. Wolff writes that, as Republicans saw it, Democrats “were saved by this lucky emphasis; that was all they were saved by.”

Nor was it just luck; it was an advantage that, in certain places, Democrats manipulated the system to obtain. The majority-Democratic Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of a Democratic Party lawsuit to extend mail-in balloting beyond Election Day.

Whether the country ought now to return to pre-Covid voting rules is a legitimate matter for debate. But Mr. Trump’s conspiracy thinking produced another “distillation,” this time among supporters of the perfectly rational proposition that election laws had been improperly altered to favor Democrats. (To say that the proposition is rational is not to say that it is incontestably correct.) Those who held this idea in a temperate way appear to have steadily disaffiliated from Mr. Trump. By Jan. 6, the grounds for skepticism about the election were unchanged. But they were being advanced by an infuriated and highly unrepresentative hard core.

The result was not a coup. It was, instead, mayhem on behalf of what had started as a legitimate political position. Such mixtures of the defensible and indefensible occur in democracies more often than we care to admit. The question is whom we trust to untangle such ambiguities when they arise.

For all Mr. Trump’s admiration of military officers, they wound up especially disinclined to accommodate his disorderly governing style. Gen. Milley was not alone. One thinks back to such retired generals as the national security adviser H.R. McMaster and the defense secretary James Mattis, both of whom broke with Mr. Trump earlier in his term.

We might be grateful for that. But our gratitude should not extend to giving military leaders any kind of role in judging civilian ones.

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