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This Is Not a Coup

To call Trump’s presidency a “coup” is to deny America’s long tradition of abuse

Trump signs an Executive Order
Trump signs an Executive Order. Photograph by Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty.

This is not a coup. Don’t get me wrong; I completely understand the desire to call what is happening right now in the U.S. government exactly that. This is an issue a friend recently raised, and one in which writers across the academic and professional spectrum have taken a particular interest. Even Michael Moore has chimed in (or, I should say, tweeted). Several authors have written excellent rebuttals as well, contesting the use of such terminology on technical grounds. Yet much like the debate over whether or not Trump is a fascist, these discussions interest me less than the conditions they grow out of. I say this not in an attempt to trivialize the situation— quite the opposite. Instead of focusing on whether our nation is undergoing a coup, I ask that we consider its history and how Trump and his administration fit within it. After all, if a state of siege is all you have ever known, Trump’s actions are far from anomalous.

I choose not to call what is happening right now a coup, at least not yet, because of what I have seen in my research and personal experience. I have examined the inner workings of coups from multiple sides, what has gone into orchestrating, sustaining, and fighting them. I have witnessed this in the present throughout Latin America and the Middle East, and felt frustrated by the failure of the United States – from citizens to government officials — to acknowledge or care about some of these issues because they were happening in “faraway,” understudied, and often misunderstood regions of the world in real time. There was no historical distance through which people could look on these events and lament what “could have been” or wax poetic about what we “should have done.” Instead, the nasty reality of interventionist U.S. foreign policy was happening on the watch of politicians that so many held an affinity toward due in large part to the Buzzfeedification of political discourse. Instead of talking about human rights violations, the general public and the infantilizing mainstream press preferred to focus on politicians’ nice outfits, cute photos with babies, and fun musical numbers. I get it; it’s easier and far more pleasant than the truth.

Seeing the truth was also a bit difficult considering a corporate or military stranglehold on government was something that couldn’t ever happen here – or so some thought. This concern was certainly not something this nation’s economically and racially comfortable population lost much sleep over. It was not the rising incidents of police brutality, extrajudicial drone murders, or deportations that set off their alarm bells. On the contrary, it was the prospect of being governed by a president so unstable that they, too, could be affected that made them consider using “coup” to characterize a state that, at least to date, continues to avoid directly harming the very people opting to use the term in their panicked Medium posts in the first place. Depending on one’s status or place in the world, the actions Trump’s administration has taken thus far make up the status quo, not an aberration thereof. Only now are a few coming to terms with what marginalized groups have long recognized – not necessarily by way of some sophisticated political or historical analysis, but through targeted suffering repeatedly silenced in the interest of maintaining the comfort of others.

Amid these moments of cognitive dissonance – worsened of course by the blatant monstrosity of Trump’s campaign and subsequent rule that provide a significant foil to presidencies of recent history – we as a nation have also managed to ignore the expansion of executive powers. Since Clinton, and well into the administrations of Bush and Obama, war powers (just as one example) have been consolidated more and more in the executive branch, cutting out the middleman and minimizing any checks and balances by the judicial and legislative branches. The process of dismantling the institutions meant to represent us was helped along by ancient written relics of the racist, classist, and elitist forefathers that keep rearing their ugly heads, their skeletal fingers reaching into the present like grim reapers of our alleged democracy. Yes, I’m talking about the Electoral College, which is one of the many reasons we find ourselves where we are with President Trump.

But the problems I see Trump flaming are not in any way isolated to his administration. It feels more severe because it is happening all at once and with a type of arrogance that the nation is no longer conditioned to in governance. We are used to a tortuously slow incrementalism that does not shout when our rights are being taken away but whispers it as we sleep, so when we awake, we are confused about what we have heard.

In an effort to counter the disorientation President Trump has caused for some, former Wall Street executive Amy Siskind, president and co-founder of the New Agenda Foundationsuggests regularly keeping track of what is happening. Without getting into how Siskind herself contributed to the economic misery that left some permanently disoriented, I will say that this is an idea I actually like (though, given, she admits it’s someone else’s). Activists Kiran Opal, Michael Oman-Reagan, and I recommended doing something similar during the primary and general elections as history was being disfigured in the interest of one candidate or another. This practice, in other words, is one in which we should always engage and should continue to do going forward. We must keep our center as truth continues to lose meaning and the world feels like it’s spinning out of control.

But in referring to what is happening as a “coup,” we lose that balance by ultimately dismissing what has been going on all along. We fall back into the trap of calling this “Trump’s America,” a term that commits to an ahistorical overshadowing of the hatred, violence, and cruel austerity that has befallen poor people, people of color, immigrants, women, and countless others for hundreds of years in this nation and well into the present. Trump’s behavior is not unique, I would argue, but exaggerated. In fact, many of Trump’s political views are well in line with what Tea Party Republicans and their voters have advanced for years, not to mention the forefathers whose Constitution so many desperately cling to now without recognizing that the document was never meant for all of us. We should not and cannot make Trump the start of our collective understanding of the present at the expense of acknowledging this nation’s dark history. If we truly want to resist Trump(ism), we first must honestly confront how we got here.

Correction: Amy Siskind is not a “political analyst” as the author previously stated, but the president and co-founder of the New Agenda Foundation who has discussed politics for several news publications like the Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, and news networks like Fox. In 2008, Siskind supported Hillary Clinton for president. Upon Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary, however, Siskind went on to endorse the Republican ticket of John McCain and his vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She worked with Carly Fiorina, then an adviser to the McCain campaign, to encourage Clinton supporters like herself to vote Republican. She has since become a detractor of Keith Ellison, whom she has insinuated is a homophobic anti-Semite.

Written by Wendi Muse

Wendi Muse is a Writer for Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter @MuseWendi.

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