Friday, May 12, 2017

Slow-Motion Coup d'Etat


The abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey late Tuesday is the latest move in President Donald Trump's coup d'etat against the rule of law and constitutional democracy in the United States. When we hear the phrase "coup d'etat," we generally think of a sudden, decisive overthrow of an existing government. While such an effort is not beyond Trump, his ongoing effort is an example of what journalist Ole Dammegard has called a coup d'etat in "slow motion."

Trump's coup unfolds gradually, through an intermittent series of attacks on the basic values of the rule of law, the most important of which is that no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law. In this conception, power is always accountable to law.

Trump's aggressive moves come unpredictably, interrupting seemingly reassuring periods of normal politics and policy debates. He pushes against the norms and boundaries of our constitutional system, then seems to retreat or desist, only to push and probe again to find its weak points and vulnerabilities.

In his criticisms of "so-called" judges, in his efforts to call into question the legitimacy of judicial rulings which block his dubious executive actions, in his dismissals of Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney in Manhattan; Sally Yates, former acting attorney general; and now Comey, Trump has shown that he will tolerate no threats to his power and no efforts that might uncover its illegitimacy. And despite the premature reassurances of some commentators about the resilience of our constitutional system in the face of Trump's authoritarian tendencies, the slow-motion coup continues.

There are, I think, three basic elements of the unfolding coup d'etat:

First, the assault on language and meaning. Trump thinks he can say anything and then insist that his words do not mean what they clearly say. His language should be taken "seriously not literally," in the words of journalist Salena Zito.

As such, Trump could sign off on the Justice Department letter recommending that Comey be fired – a letter that flatly contradicted what Trump has said throughout the fall of 2016. The letter criticized Comey for disclosing the discovery of additional Hillary Clinton emails, 11 days out from the election and called it "a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do."

But Trump praised Comey for doing exactly that back in October. "It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they're trying to protect her from criminal prosecution," he said on October 31. "You know that. It took a lot of guts." He added, "I was not his fan, but I'll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back."

This is just the latest example of Trump's "words don't mean what they say" attitude toward language. Yet the rule of law depends precisely on the belief that words do mean what they say. In a constitutional democracy, public officials are bound by the words of the constitution, statutes and regulations. If we lose faith in the power of language to convey meaning, we lose faith in law itself.

Second, the assault on, but also the crafty use of, the media to change the public narrative. Much has been made of the president's claim that the media is the "enemy of the people." Less has been made of Trump's cagey use of the media. Firing Comey yesterday all but obliterated the attention given to Sally Yates's damaging testimony before Congress about the Russian connections of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The slow-motion coup unfolds as Trump both tries to intimidate the press and also prey on its vulnerabilities, its eagerness for the latest, attention-grabbing outrage.

And third, Trump values loyalty much more than legality. Bharara, Yates and Comey all ran afoul of that maxim. Each showed themselves to have a fierce devotion to the rule of law and to the ideals of independence and impartiality on which it depends.

It is now time to stand up to the unfolding coup. But the real work of doing so falls not to Trump's opponents, but to his allies, to Republicans in Congress. They must insist that words have meanings that can and must be taken seriously by looking beyond the flimsy pretext offered for the firing of Comey. They must not be distracted from the task of following up on Yates' testimony this week on Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Most of all, by doing both of those things, they will show that even in Trump's America, legality is still much more important than loyalty.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College. At Amherst he teaches courses on American law and politics including a course called Secrets and Lies. He is the author or editor of more than 90 books. His most recent book is entitled "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty."


  1. Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the soldiers gone?
    Gone to graveyards, every one
    Oh when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?
    Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the graveyards gone?
    Gone to flowers, every one
    Oh when will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

  2. Is this blog about the rv lifestyle? I think not.

    1. Hello unplugged, it used to be about the RV life style, but we don't travel physically anymore - for the time being. So our travels are in our and our neighbours society.

  3. So our travels are in our and our neighbours society.
    So another words there's nothing going on in Canada,,, How wonderful,,,

    1. Mr. Ed why so cranky? Can't even read a sentence right? It says "in our and our neighbour's....." In order to explain it to the most hampered means in both country's society.

    2. A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
      And no one can talk to a horse of course
      That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.
      Go right to the source and ask the horse
      He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse.
      He's always on a steady course.
      Talk to Mister Ed.
      People yakkity-yak a streak and waste your time of day
      But Mr. Ed will never speak unless he has something to say.
      A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
      And this one'll talk 'til his voice is hoarse.
      You never heard of a talking horse?
      Well listen to this: "I'm Mister Ed".

  4. Thank you Peter for opening up the dialogue (I sort of apologize for baiting you)
    Every day in the US we get bombarded with good bad and the indifferent news

    If you were an American citizen living in the US or Canada I could understand your rhetoric. however my take is you're a Canadian citizen
    with all the things facing Canada and it's Canadian citizens why is it your directing your comments (reposts) on the US political situation and not the Canadian political situation. Which affects you and your every day life. again every day we get bombarded with bad and indifferent news from every perspective
    Watch news on US tv is about as exciting as pulling three front teeth

    So when you re-post an article from your news source. or you give your opinion about Canadian situations it's refreshing to know that we are not alone in our neighboring problems when you posted an article about the nurses not getting back-and-forth across the US to work I never knew that, very interesting when you posted the article about the church workers trying to get to New Jersey also very interesting and enlightening about the border patrol issues when you posted the article about the flood in Quebec and surrounding area. Our three CEO are from Quebec and they couldn't believe that I even knew what was going on up there. so your article was very informative and interesting. In short
    With the oil ban on the north British Columbia coast The cost of the Canadian tariff on soft lumber, the solution to the abandon wind farms in Canada. The derailment of a Canadian train and the its infrastructure .the list could go on and on. if you're trying to enlighten fellow Canadians as to the problems in the US I could totally understand that but it doesn't appear that way. So that was the reason for my post to you
    And Richard C ? Please remember a horse has a thicker skin,I believe my comment was directed TO Peter.

    1. Sorry, Wiiilllbur,it's just that I appreciate Peter's insight and comments on the U.S,Canada,Germany and Norway. I appreciate your comments also as you have a right to your opinion just as I have to disagree.

  5. Well, well well. From our home it is exactly 5km into the USA. But it is around 90kms to mainland Canada, and before we even get there we do around 80kms through the US. So pls. don't come here and tell me that what ever is going on in your country is none of my business. With that said, the short geographical distance to the U.S. is not the main reason why I am focussed on the U.S,A.. No Sir, it is rather the fact that the U.S. is not just any banana republic, even though recently, it does look like one, but claims to be a leading world power. If you would follow my advice to start reading international press you would begin to realize that EVERYBODY in the whole wide world is focussed on the U.S.A. and your current crazy president. (I call him Rumpelstilsken)

    Regarding reporting about Canada, the political situation is calm, to the point of boring. We have no crazies in our current political landscape and natural disasters are, thank God, rare. If and when I find something to report from Canada I will do so, be asured of that. Meanwhile, you are free to ignore this blog until something interesting for you pops up. There are many blogs out there where you can read about what John and Lisa ate for dinner or who visted whom the day before yesterday. I will stick to matters of greater importance. Btw. it is very interesting that this blog is gaining popularity with Trump's cronies in Russia, or....maybe those are opponents of Mr. Putin.

  6. Well it's obvious you did not read my post to you. nowhere in that post did I say anything about doing your business
    So with that said, it's interesting to understand some insight about you, you're not a freethinker you have to < re-post > what other people have written. So feel free to ride someone else's coat tail,s.
    So make Richard C proud, come up with your own insight and comments to the worlds problems, that's a freethinker
    Good nite
    You to RCD


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