Why Did Trump’s Coup Fail?

Graphic by Cassandra Devereaux

By David Sole

The very real danger that former President Donald Trump would attempt a violent coup to stay in power following his electoral defeat has been confirmed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.

Milley is quoted extensively by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in their new book “I Alone Can Fix It.” Milley was appointed to the nation’s highest military position by Trump and sworn in on September 30, 2019.

CNN.com reviewed an advance copy of the book on July 14. Some of the revelations follow:

“Milley was so shaken that … Trump and his allies might attempt a coup or take other dangerous or illegal measures after the November election that Milley and other top officials informally planned for different ways to stop Trump…

“Milley and the other Joint Chiefs discussed a plan to resign, one-by-one rather than carry out orders from Trump that they considered to be illegal, dangerous or ill-advised.

“Milley viewed Trump as ‘the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose,’ the authors write, and he saw parallels between Adolph Hitler’s rhetoric … and Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

“’This is a Reichstag moment,’ Milley told aides …. ‘ The gospel of the Fuhrer.’

“Ahead of a November pro-Trump ‘Million MAGA March’ to protest the election results, Milley told aides he feared it ‘could be the modern American equivalent of ‘brownshirts in the streets,’ referring to the pro-Nazi militia that fueled Hitler’s rise to power.

It was clear that Trump was building up momentum for months prior to the November election to challenge what was becoming clear – that he would lose to Democratic candidate Joe Biden. General Milley only confirms what many feared, and some progressives tried to prepare for, the possibility of a violent overthrow of the capitalist “democratic” government.

As early as September 30, 2020 the online newsletter Fighting-Words.net printed “A Call to Create People’s Committees to Defend Democratic Rights” in the spirit of a united front against fascism. The proposal specifically called for labor unions to start popularizing the idea of a General Strike and the formation of units prepared to confront fascist bands in the streets.

In the following weeks several central labor bodies (Rochester, NY, Seattle, WA among others) did call for a general strike if Trump tried to seize power. This did get some notice in the national media. However the highest levels of the American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) refused to support the local calls. In Michigan a leading member of the state AFL—CIO told this writer “we don’t want to anger the Republicans in Lansing with that kind of talk.”

And where was the leadership of the Democratic Party during all of this? They certainly were aware of Trump’s threats to overturn the election by force, but prepared no mass action in case Trump carried out his threat, which he did on January 6th. They then responded with the Constitutional impeachment framework, which they knew was futile.

Congressmen Eric Swalwell and Benny Thompson then launched legal suits against Trump using the “Ku Klux Klan Act”, enabled by Section 3 of the Reconstruction era 14th Amendment.. These lawsuits would prevent Trump  and other “insurrectionist” politicians from continuing in office and ever holding office again. But Pelosi and Schumer have offered no support at all to their efforts.

A grass-roots community organization based in Detroit, the Moratorium Now Coalition, picked up the idea and mass distributed a “Call to Organize People’s Committees … to Defeat Trump’s Plan to Steal the Election.” Even in this group a struggle broke out with ultra-left forces who thought it didn’t matter what happened between Trump and Biden as it was “just a squabble among the ruling class.” The majority of the organization, while not giving support to Biden, did believe that confronting a fascist threat did matter, that Trump’s campaign to disregard the votes of millions of oppressed and working people would lead to the destruction of all the hard-won gains of the union and Civil Rights struggles.

Moratorium Now later issued a “Call to U.S. Military Personnel to Refuse Illegal Orders.” This leaflet was ready to distribute in case Trump sent troops into cities to back a coup.

Progressive forces in Michigan did unite in the formation of Michigan Action Councils that met through October online (the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing). Eighteen Action Councils were established around the state which discussed opposing Trump’s threat to not abide by the election if he were defeated.

The Detroit Action Council had many meetings of over 100 progressives from many organizations, including several unions. Rallies and marches were held. These demonstrations, however, were always scheduled far from the site of ballot counting in downtown Detroit where ultra-rightwing Trump supporters gathered and threatened to disrupt the official count in the days following November 3.

A demonstration was held on November 7 when it was clear that Biden won the national election, as well as Michigan. The Detroit Action Council didn’t meet again or prepare further mass actions after this, revealing that the top leadership did not really grasp the threat. It was precisely in the months following November 3 that Trump and his minions amplified their false claims and presented the greatest fascist danger. This peaked in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

So what did prevent Trump’s coup from succeeding? This question is important. For no one should believe that the racist, fascist, anti-union forces have been decisively defeated in the United States. It isn’t just a matter of Trump, the individual, but broad sections of the populace as well as military and police forces and ruling class elements who have no hesitancy to impose a fascist-style regime.

Perhaps General Milley and others in the top ranks of the armed services did plan some forms of resistance. But the snail pace response of the National Guard and other Pentagon brass to the seizure of the Capitol on January 6 shows that many at the top would just as well go along with Trump and a coup.

During the Vietnam War there were organizations inside the military and veterans organizations that had mass support of the rank and file soldiers who opposed the war. This ultimately made it impossible for the military machine to continue the imperialist aggression. This does not exist today.

The trade union leadership has deteriorated to the point where it can barely protect the living standards of its own membership. With notable and laudable exceptions, the union movement did not step forward to utilize its still considerable strength to stop Trump and his forces.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which rocked the country for over a year after the brutal police murder of George Floyd has mainly focused on local issues of police misconduct. It has not, as of yet, come together as a nationwide political force.

The socialist and revolutionary parties did not play much of a role to mobilize resistance to a fascist Trump threat. In the past even small militant revolutionary groups have played a role much greater than their number would suggest possible.

Trump’s success before, on and after January 6 broke on several fronts. First, Donald Trump himself was a coward. He had been slinging bombastic lies to his followers for months. They gathered around him in Washington, D.C. on January 6. He whipped them up and called on them to march on the Capitol with him. Then he ran and hid inside the White House, leaving them to their fate.

This might not have been fatal to the coup. But Trump’s supporters were and are a diverse crew. They have no unified program or organization. Even the most military minded of them are in different organizations. They were not able to coordinate decisively on the ground, even though they did come close to seizing the Senators and Representatives.

Most of all, an overthrow of the government was not welcomed by the largest sections of the ruling class. Wall Street bankers and corporate heads have been getting much of what they want in the way of tax breaks, relief from environmental and safety regulations and military support for their imperialist interests overseas. They were not facing a crisis in class relations where their class interests could only be saved by brutal military means. The political system has been working quite well for the rich and powerful. Trump’s adventure was not attractive to them, at this time.

The CNN book review did, however, make one mistake. They wrote “… for the first time in modern US history the nation’s top military officer … was preparing for a showdown with the commander in chief because he feared a coup attempt …” This statement is inaccurate.

In the political crisis of the U.S. Civil War, General George McClellan who served as head of the Army secretly plotted with others to oust President Lincoln in a coup. This did not take place, and McClellan was replaced.

In 1933 retired Marine Corp General Smedley Butler testified before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that Wall Street businessmen had approached him to lead a coup to oust President Franklin Roosevelt. The mass media dismissed this and no one was ever prosecuted.

More recently there was a fear that President Richard Nixon would try to use the military to stop his impeachment. It was later revealed that the Secretary of Defense notified all military commanders to refuse orders from their Commander in Chief if those orders were not co-signed by the Secretary. This was not legal, but the ruling class was making sure that Nixon would not be able to stay in office via a coup.

This “democratic” government (what Marxists call “bourgeois democratic” because it is run by and for the capitalist class with only the thin trappings of rights for the masses) is based on exploitation and oppression of hundreds of millions of people in this country and billions more abroad.

Defending the few “democratic rights” granted to the masses is necessary but only insofar as it gives us some room to build a revolutionary movement that can and will overturn the capitalist economic system, end exploitation and institute a socialist system. Then the vast wealth of this country and the world will be used for the benefit of the many instead of enriching the few.

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