For the first time in modern American history, we’re having a serious discussion about the peaceful transfer of power. President Donald Trump has discussed not accepting the results if he loses (similar to his words in 2016), and given how 2020 has presented us with all sorts of “unprecedented” challenges, it got us thinking: What would the military’s role be during a disputed transition, and how would it all play out? Today’s Daily Dose aims to answer those questions, while also looking at how coups form in other democracies around the world. Nigeria, Africa’s largest nation and democracy, is now notably teetering on the brink.
Daniel Malloy and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editors
the military’s role
1. What’s the Scenario?
When a group of prominent Democrats and Republicans gathered this summer to war-game a disputed election, some of their scenarios involved Trump deploying the military domestically under the Insurrection Act — perhaps to maintain order during Election Day unrest or seize what Trump terms fraudulent mail ballots. But in some of their scenarios, the military refuses the order. In scenarios where Trump wins, Biden could also refuse to accept the results, claiming massive voter suppression and encouraging street protests. The Transition Integrity Project’s 22-page summation included this line: “Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results. Here recent evidence offers some reassurance, but it is inconclusive.”
2. Milley in the Middle
That “recent evidence” refers to the military’s reaction to Trump’s infamous walk through Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible at St. John’s Church during post-George Floyd protests in June, after government forces cleared protesters with tear gas. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, dressed in a camouflage uniform, was roasted as a political pawn for being photographed with Trump on the walk — and later said he “should not have been there.” And yet the Princeton grad and four-star Army general got the job in 2019 by developing a strong personal rapport with Trump, particularly over the Pentagon’s excessive spending.
3. Esper on the Edge
Trump’s relationship is notably more difficult with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, a former Army general. During this summer’s racial unrest, Esper told governors on a conference call they needed to “dominate the battle space” — a chilling choice of words when talking about American citizen protesters — drawing intense blowback from former military brass and experts, among others. Then Esper turned around and opposed the president on using the military to restore order, drawing a furious response from Trump— so much so that Eper’s days in the job seemed numbered. And yet he remains in power at the Pentagon, even as he bucks Trump on banning Confederate symbols and promoting an Army officer linked to his impeachment, while Trump derides him as “Yesper.”
“Stand back and stand by” were Trump’s cryptic words to the Proud Boys, a group of violent “western chauvinist” agitators, during the first presidential debate. From the militia members who plotted to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor to QAnon conspiracists who believe they can help Trump thwart a Satanist pedophile ring, the president has plenty of willing (and some heavily armed) allies scattered nationwide if postelection America becomes combative. They wouldn’t stand a chance against the full force of the U.S. military, but government authorities will be reluctant to use overwhelming force against fellow citizens. With violence on the left from antifa or others, one could imagine a sustained proxy battle breaking out in the streets over disputed vote tallies.
“When Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” said Michael Caputo, a public affairs official at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a September Facebook Live appearance. (Caputo has since taken a leave of absence from HHS “to focus on his health.”) Competing claims on the presidency at noon on Jan. 20, 2021, would essentially force the military to pick a side: Some of the Transition Integrity Project scenarios had Congress unable to sort out competing sets of electors and both sides claiming commander-in-chief powers (such as control of the nuclear codes) on Inauguration Day. All of a sudden, General Milley becomes the most important person in America.
6. Polling the Troops
While Trump holds a 10 percentage point edge among military-affiliated families, according to a Morning Consult poll, a Military Times poll of active duty troops in August found Trump narrowly trailing Joe Biden — and troops’ opinions of the commander in chief dropping substantially over his four years in office. It doesn’t mean strenuously apolitical soldiers would disobey a lawful order, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
when coups brew
The separation of the military from any executive decision-making power is a central element of modern democracy. Yet even robust democracies have flirted with coups and dictatorships.
In 1958, at the height of the Algerian War of Independence, French military leaders worried the country would withdraw from its North African colony. So theystaged a successful coup with war hero and former President Charles de Gaulle — an opponent of the then-elected French government — as their face. The dissident military leaders first grabbed power in Algeria and then the French island of Corsica, before President René Coty stepped down, allowing de Gaulle to return to power with authoritarian powers: aseven-year tenure and the chance torule by fiat for six months. But there’s a reason why countries that suffer coups often slip into a cycle of repeated military takeovers: Once the olive-clad leaders get a taste for power, it’s hard to keep them away. In 1961, four officers staged afailed coup attempt, again from Algeria — this time against de Gaulle.
A deadly cocktail ofAmerican interests and an angry Brazilian military leadership at the Cold War’s peak was too much for democracy to withstand in the Western Hemisphere’s second most populous nation. President João Goulart had upset Brazil’s military leaders in 1964 by backing rebel naval officers who wanted better working conditions and firing the navy chief.Backed by the U.S. — which was worried about Goulart’s left-leaning policies and was trying to destabilize his government — Brazil’s military leaders orchestrated a coup that led to a military dictatorship for the next 21 years.Hundreds died or disappeared during the dictatorship, and speech and school curricula were heavily censored.
You wouldn’t expect writers to wield anything more dangerous than a pen. But in Japan in 1968, right-wing author Yukio Mishimaformed a private militia called the Tatenokai, which swore loyalty to the emperor and the ideals of pre-democracy Japan. Initially, they weren’t seen as a threat by the government and were evenallowed to train with the nation’s military, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). But on Nov. 25, 1970, a few Tatenokai members led by Mishima briefly seized control of the JSDF headquarters and tried to convince soldiers to join them in an attempted coup. They failed, and Mishima committed seppuku, a ritual suicide.
The South American country had been viewed as a beacon of democracy and stability for four decades. But, by the CIA’s own declassified account, when left-leaning Salvador Allende won the 1970 election, President Richard Nixon’s administration decided to foment a coup. A key element of that policy involved weakening Chile economically to stoke protests. Then in June, a colonel surrounded the presidential palace with his tank regiment in a failed coup attempt. Just two months later though, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a successful coup, ending Chile’s democracy. He would oversee a reign of terror and brutality for 17 years.
Not everyone was happy when the country slowly embraced democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Four years later, military leaders led by Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero attempted a failed coup. They were arrested and convicted but released after just a few months. It was a mistake Spain would come to regret. Just two years later,Tejero plotted and executed another audacious attempt at a coup, entering Parliament with 200 soldiers and holding legislators hostage for 18 hours before they eventually surrendered after King Juan Carlos I ordered the army to take them on.
Unlike Juan Carlos I, Greek monarch Constantine II is remembered as a king who enabled a military coup against a democratically elected government. In the 1967 election, progressive former Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou was widely expected to return to power. Instead, a team of colonels grabbed power. Constantine II swore in the military junta that would eventually rule until 1974. It’s a stain the now 80-year-old king — who later claimed he had no choice — has since struggled to erase, even though the monarchy itself ended in 1973.
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The man who helped plan D-Day was one of America’s most admired figures after World War II, and was courted for high office by both parties (President Harry Truman wanted Ike as a running mate in 1948). As the 1952 election approached, a Draft Eisenhower movement formed in the Republican Party — with Eisenhower’s implicit blessing, as he served as Supreme NATO Commander — and he announced his plans to run in January 1952. He went on to win two terms as president and leave with a prescient and striking warning against the “military-industrial complex.”
The commander of the Union armies at the close of the Civil War was a reluctant politician. But the disastrous presidency of Andrew Johnson, whom Grant opposed on what to do about the Confederacy and Black civil rights, led to a public clamor for Grant to run in 1868. He won the Republican nomination practically by acclimation and went on to win two terms by landslides, presiding over Reconstruction.
Gulf War star and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was often talked up to run for president in the late 1990s, but he repeatedly passed on the opportunity and became George W. Bush’s secretary of state. David Petraeus, the scholar-warrior hero of the Iraq War for his counterinsurgency strategy, was courted via an intermediary by Fox News chief Roger Ailes to run for president in 2012. Petraeus declined, serving as President Barack Obama’s CIA director, until he resigned after an affair with his biographer came to light.
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It’s a three-step recipe to coup success. One, let a popular protest movement do the difficult work of uprooting a dictator. Two, allow a fledgling democracy to emerge. Three, leverage the weaknesses of that nascent political experiment to throw it aside and install yourself as president. Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used this method in 2013-14, establishing a new authoritarian regime not very different from the one of Hosni Mubarak that Egypt fought so hard to replace in the Arab Spring. Also in the 2014 batch of coup leaders is Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha, who used a domestic political crisis to grab power that he is now defending by cracking down on peaceful protests.
2. Tukur Yusuf Buratai
Hero or villain? Nigeria’s chief of army staff has been on the front lines of the country’s battle against Boko Haram, and he has survived direct attacks by the terror group since he was appointed to the job by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. Now Buratai’s in the line of fire from a different direction: Nigeria’s army Wednesday fired on protesters demanding police reforms, and reports suggest multiple people have been killed. Will this be a tipping point that further escalates calls for change — or does it presage a military taking on a greater role in Nigeria’s domestic politics? Don’t forget, Buhari himself was once a military general who first came to power in a 1983 coup.
3. Valery Gerasimov
Russia’s military chief is a man of myths. He was credited — in the West — with creating the blueprint for the successful military assaults that have enabled Moscow to grab Crimea, take control in Syria and more. One glitch: The so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” doesn’t really exist, according to the writer who coined the phrase in 2018. What’s not a myth? The extent to which President Vladimir Putin trusts Gerasimov. He has headed one of the world’s most powerful militaries — and the only one that can truly compete with America’s — since 2012, and picked Putin’s 68th birthday earlier this month to test-launch a new hypersonic missile.
The first female head of Slovenia’s armed forces, she’s the only current female NATO military chief. She might lead a small force — Slovenia’s military has 7,500 soldiers, compared to America’s 1.3 million active duty soldiers— but Ermenc knows the costs of war well. The London-educated officer joined the army in 1991, when Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia after 10 days of bloody conflict. Her soldiers are among those positioned in Eastern Europe to defend against Russian aggression.
India’s most powerful military leader in a generation, Rawat takes orders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and executes some of his more controversial policies — including plans to set up Xinjiang-style reeducation camps for Kashmiris. In 2017, Rawat gave an award to a soldier who had tied a Kashmiri civilian to his jeep and paraded him through a village.
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