Trump's Pentagon Tantrum is Damaging, But Coup Attempt It Is Not | Opinion

Americans have rarely worried about the possibility of a coup in their country. Given that the last (known) serious military conspiracy was in 1783, which was even before the creation of the current constitutional system, they might be forgiven their inattention to this topic.

The newness of the idea of a coup has left us poorly equipped to discuss what President Trump is doing. Is Trump attempting a coup? No, but Trump's attempts to resist electoral transition are still deeply worrisome. He has refused to concede defeat, made patently false claims of widespread fraud, and his allies have even suggested that state legislatures could ignore the popular vote in their states, thus stealing the election. The director of the elections crimes branch in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section has resigned his position in protest after the Attorney General authorized investigation into "substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities." All of this will damage the legitimacy of democracy in the USA and across the world.

However, without the use of force (or the threat of the use of force) these attempts to retain power are something very different from a coup. Even the most bloodless coup attempt, including coups by sitting Presidents (what scholars call autogolpes, or self-coups) require the specter of state violence to force institutional change.

Luckily, it is extremely unlikely that the U.S. military would get involved in any dispute related to the election. In addition to the very strong norms against partisan intervention by the American military, there is the simple fact that the President and the top brass have a contentious relationship and Trump is as divisive a figure among military personnel as he is among civilians.

Trump has a low opinion of generals, allegedly calling them "suckers" and (a misogynistic word for) cowards. Nor has he much respect for military autonomy, pushing out Secretaries of Defense Mattis and Esper for repeatedly disagreeing with him, dragging Chairman Milley into a situation in Lafayette Square that grossly damaged Milley's reputation, and interfering with a variety of internal military affairs traditionally left to the Pentagon.

Although senior military members have been careful to be extremely respectful in public, there are indications that they are engaged in slow-rolling and misleading the President. Even if America had weaker norms binding the military, this President has done little to endear himself to the top brass, and they in return have little desire to support him.

In addition, although the President likes to claim that he has overwhelming support from the average member of the military, this is not the case. A poll by Military Times in August showed Biden with slightly more support than Trump, and while there are questions about the reliability of this poll, this result is broadly consistent with the exit polls showing that Trump received roughly half the military veteran vote in 2020. (While active-duty military have a number of differences from the veteran population, the similarity in the two results is supportive of a broad split in military attitudes.) Any significant action by a military actor to support the President against Biden would risk causing a major rift within the organization, and this is something military leaders wish to avoid.

What difference does it make whether this is a military coup attempt or a civilian autocratic power grab? It's the difference between getting your pocket picked or getting robbed at gunpoint. In both cases somebody is trying to take your wallet, but one is much less dangerous and easier to resist.

Without the looming specter of military force to back up Trump's gambits, his team's efforts can be fought in the courts and in the court of public opinion. As of now, judges have been unsympathetic to his legal claims. Further, GOP governors can be made to feel the consequences of suggesting that a majority of their electorate are illegitimate and can be disenfranchised.

So why is Trump replacing the top leadership of the Pentagon now, during the lame duck period of his presidency? This highly unusual move has caused a good deal of alarm. It is hard to know for sure, but we can rule out the idea that this is a sign of an impending coup, since military bureaucrats are rarely involved in the seizure of power. The outgoing Pentagon leadership were unlikely to be able to prevent a coup attempt and the incoming partisans are not going to be in a position to mount one.

If not a coup, then what is the reason for this shuffle in military leadership? Some believe that Trump is trying to cement his legacy, either by claiming a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan or by declassifying information about Russia that he believes will put him in a better light. Others believe that he is acting out of sheer spite and pettiness, lashing out at those he believes have wronged him.

My hunch is that he is sending a message to GOP politicians that he remembers and punishes his enemies in an effort to hold his coalition together as long as possible, either to save face or enrich himself.

I do not see a cleverly planned strategy to stay in office because this President has proved incapable of thinking more than one step in advance. He prefers to react rather than strategize. His current behavior, however dangerous, seems to be no different.

Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The opinions expressed are his own, and not those of his employer. He is the author of "Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.