Alittle after 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, Donald Trump issued a victorious tweet that, unlike most of his other statements about the Presidential election, had a traceable relationship to the truth: “Wow! Michigan just refused to certify the election results!” In fact, the elections board of Wayne County, which contains Detroit, had deadlocked after its two Republican members claimed suspicions of irregularities. The crisis was over quickly, however; the board reversed itself and certified the results. In a public comment, a Michigan businessman, Ned Staebler, debunked the Republican members’ arguments and told them that “the Trump stain, the stain of racism . . . is going to follow you throughout history.” The address went viral, passing two and a half million views in three hours.
Democratic procedure had triumphed. Americans made fun of their President on Twitter. But something had changed. The unimaginable, once again, had happened—and even though it was quickly reversed, we now knew that it was possible. The next day, the Wayne County Republican commissioners asked to “rescind” their votes certifying the election results. According to Robert Costa, who has been reporting on the election for the Washington Post, the debacle in Michigan is consistent with the strategy of Trump’s personal election lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. “What they want—in MI, PA, NV, other states—is for the vote to not be certified,” Costa tweeted. “Their end game: try to force it to the House.” Giuliani and his team know that no number of recounts can give Trump the votes; their goal is to throw wrenches in the works. On Thursday, Trump invited Michigan Republican leaders to the White House, presumably to discuss ways to decertify election results, and Giuliani convened another unhinged press conference, in which he made a slew of false and bizarre claims about the election in Michigan and elsewhere.
Across a reassuringly wide political spectrum, observers hold that Trump’s refusal to concede the election results is not tantamount to a coup attempt. In the Washington Examiner, Timothy Carney wrote, “Trump is a con man, and his insistence that he can overturn the election is his latest grift.” In The Nation, Jeet Heer argued that, while Trump’s behavior is concerning, “it is very different than a coup. It is more accurately viewed as a cover-up,” adding that Trump is “interested in keeping his con game afloat.” My colleague Susan Glasser posed the question “Is it a coup or a con?” to a dozen of her smartest Washington sources, and they, too, tilted the needle closer to “con.”
They are probably right. Then again, we in the media don’t have a great record for recognizing coups when they are staring us in the face. One of the best critiques of American journalism, still taught today because it remains relevant a hundred years after its publication, is an essay by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, “A Test of the News,” which analyzed the Times’ failure to cover the Russian Revolution. But Russian journalists missed it, too. On October 25, 1917, my great-grandfather, Arnold Gessen, wrote a long article for Petrograd’s Birzheviye Vedomosti (Stock Market News)—the Wall Street Journal of its time and place. He had been serving as the paper’s parliamentary correspondent since the Russian parliament had been formed, twelve years earlier. Great-grandpa Arnold explained that the Bolsheviks ought not to be taken seriously, because they were a bunch of grifters with no political plan. His article was printed the following day—November 8, 1917, on the Western calendar—in what turned out to be the last issue of Birzheviye Vedomosti: it was promptly shuttered by the Bolsheviks, who had seized power.
“Con versus coup” might be a false dichotomy. A coup is a power claim made illegitimately, often but not always with the use of force, sometimes illegally but sometimes within the bounds of a constitution. A con is a mushy term: it can be a criminal act or simply an unethical one, perhaps just wily and manipulative. A con, in other words, is an illegitimate act of persuasion. A coup always begins as a con. If the con is successful—if the power claim is persuasive—then a coup has occurred.
You can see it better with failed coups. In August, 1991, the leadership of the Russian K.G.B. and some Politburo hardliners placed President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and declared themselves in charge of the country. On the second night of their coup, they held a press conference. Journalists who had for a few years enjoyed unprecedented freedom seemed to fall in line and accept the coup plotters’ power claim; they asked questions about, say, plans for rejuvenating the command economy. Then a twenty-four-year-old reporter named Tatyana Malkina rose and asked, “Do you realize that last night you committed a coup d’état?” Something shifted in the room. Journalists started bombarding the coup plotters with more combative questions, and the plotters themselves suddenly looked like lost, hungover men in ill-fitting suits. They ended the press conference, which state television had broadcast in its entirety, and in less than forty-eight hours the coup collapsed. We may never know what else was going on out of public view, but this is how many Russians remember it: the brave reporter in a frilly dress, the trembling hands of crooks and hustlers who didn’t believe in their own legitimacy, the end.
In July, 2016, a faction of the Turkish military attempted a coup. The government thwarted it within hours. The instant end of the coup was televised: people the world over saw tanks on bridges in Istanbul and immediately began speculating that the coup was merely a pretext for the larger crackdown that followed. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government arrested tens of thousands of people and fired many more, mostly on suspicion of belonging to the Hizmet movement, led by the émigré cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen denied that he had anything to do with the coup and suggested that it might have been staged by Erdoğan himself. Skeptics pointed to the holes in the coup plotters’ plans: they failed to secure total control of the media, they didn’t manage to arrest Erdoğan, they were poorly coördinated. Were they even serious? Similar conspiracy theories still circulate about the 1991 Russian coup: the plotters didn’t close the airports or turn off the Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s home phone. What kind of coup is that? A failed one.
Successful coup plotters don’t do everything right, either. No aspiring dictator can commandeer enough military power to be able to dominate an entire country that refuses to recognize him. No coup plotters can close every channel of communication and stop all movement. No one usurping power can force people to forget that different norms and expectations existed as recently as yesterday. What successful coup plotters do is con enough people into thinking that they have already taken power. No one can fully predict when such a claim will succeed or fail.
In the coup stage of his Presidency, Trump has continued to be Trump: he has shown no ability to plan or plot, but plenty of resolve and willingness to act. He fired military brass and the chief of election cybersecurity, Chris Krebs, for daring to contradict him. He garnered more than seventy million votes. He has showcased considerable power, in other words, but so far it doesn’t seem to be enough to persuade Americans that he will keep it. For now, Trump’s coup attempt seems doomed.
But, as is his way, Trump is succeeding even as he fails. His project all along has been to destroy the political order as we have known it. An overwhelming majority of Republican elected officials are hedging their bets on the coup attempt—whether in order to humor Trump or appease his base, they have neglected to recognize the results of the election. The Tuesday-night incident at the Wayne County election board showed that at least some election officials will do Trump’s bidding.
Meanwhile, Twitter, Trump’s favored channel of communication with the world, has tried meekly to address the issue of Trump’s lies. It did not flag Trump’s false claim that Michigan failed to certify the election. It has flagged other Trump tweets about election fraud by attaching the label “This claim about election fraud is disputed”—as if it were a matter of debate, as if election fraud in the U.S. were an observable phenomenon about which good people can disagree. Whenever Trump tweets that he won the election, Twitter adds, “Multiple sources called this election differently,” as though we didn’t know enough to say instead, “Trump lost.” Trump’s bad con continues to show how easy it would be to stage a good one. Then we would call it a coup.