The Surprising Popularity of Military Coups
News of the military coup in Turkey was dribbling in on Saturday afternoon when I was having lunch with a group of six friends in West Virginia. Suddenly, one person looked up from her salad and said, “If Trump gets elected, I’d support a military coup in this country.” At least one other person at the table seconded her opinion.
I was astonished. Since when had the “military option” become a viable political strategy in the United States? Maybe it was the ghost of John Brown or something in the drinking water out there near Harpers Ferry. Or perhaps the peculiar conjunction of Turkey and Trump had elicited what must surely be an unpopular sentiment in America.
Then I did some research. It turns out that the views around the table matched those of average Americans. According to a September 2015 poll by YouGov, nearly one-third of respondents (29 percent) “could imagine a situation in which they would support the military seizing control of the federal government.” That number went up to 43 percent in a hypothetical situation in which the government was beginning to violate the U.S. constitution.
Back in September, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to back the coup scenario. It would be interesting to redo the poll today, as voters begin to contemplate a Trump presidency. Consider, for instance, journalist and Bernie Sanders supporter Shaun King, who recently created a firestorm on the right when he tweeted, “If Donald Trump becomes President, you are fooling yourself if you think we’re far from having a coup our own selves. I’m dead serious.”
Trump’s rhetorical flouting of international and national laws has prompted many an unexpected speculation. In an interview with Bill Maher back in February, ex-CIA head Michael Hayden talked about Trump’s pledge to kill the family members of terrorists. Hayden said:
“If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act.”
“That’s quite a statement, sir,” Maher said.
“You are required not to follow an unlawful order,” Hayden added. “That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
“You’ve given us a great reason not to support Trump. There would be a coup in this country,” Maher joked.
Hayden said he didn’t mean to imply that the military would provoke “a coup.”
Indeed, many members of the military brass would likely resign rather than openly defy their commander in chief. As for the rank and file, they support Trump over Clinton two to one. But that doesn’t mean they’re particularly enthusiastic about the choice. According to a Military Times poll, “More than 61 percent indicated they are ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with Trump as the Republican nominee, including 28 percent of those who intend to vote for him.” It’s hard to predict from these statistics how the military would respond if a Trump administration began to shred the constitution.
But it’s not hard to predict how Americans feel about the military overall. Americans have long trusted the military more than any other institution in society. In 2016, according to Gallup, Congress achieved a 9 percent trust rating, the Supreme Court and the presidency 36 percent, organized religion 41 percent, the police 56 percent, and at the top of the list, the military at 73 percent. Only small business has ever approached the same level of trust as the military, according to the averages Gallup has collected over 43 years.
So, it’s no real surprise that, when given a choice, Americans would lean toward the military to safeguard their laws and their liberty. But before you start weighing the relative merits of accepting either Trump or the U.S. military going rogue – the former upending the constitution and the latter sticking up for it – let’s take a closer look at what just transpired in Turkey.
Keystone Kops Craft Kemalist Coup
When it comes to coups, the Turkish military should be the experts. After all, they’ve successfully executed 3.5 of them over the last half-century: in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997 (the last being a half-coup since the military, rather than intervening directly, pressured the government to resign).
It’s been nearly 20 years since this last half-coup, and obviously the Turkish military has gotten rusty after deviating from its once-a-decade routine. Last weekend, the coup leaders looked more like rank amateurs than seasoned pros. They failed to take out or otherwise neutralize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was vacationing on the Mediterranean coast at the time. They seized control of the least important state TV channel. They didn’t secure important government buildings. They told their supporters to go home and then fired on the civilians who did come out onto the streets. They seemed to have forgotten about the existence of social media. They weren’t even able to forge a pro-coup consensus within the military itself.
The attempt was so botched that it generated numerous conspiracy theories – that Erdogan had engineered the whole thing, that the president had heard rumblings and deliberately ignored them, that the Americans were somehow behind it all.
The truth is much more mundane. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have been weakening the military for more than a decade, systematically working to remove the military’s influence on government. They’ve used earlier coup rumors to go after military officers – as well as journalists and officials – supposedly involved in a “deep state” controlling Turkish politics behind the scenes. As a result, the Turkish military is a far cry from the all-powerful institution of the 1970s and 1980s.
I was convinced, after visiting Istanbul in 2013, that the military had become a spent force. At the time I wrote:
The AKP has effectively contained the Turkish military through judicial and constitutional means. The threat of a coup, so prevalent in modern Turkish history, has largely disappeared. Not only have constitutional changes and court cases reduced the power of the army, the Erdogan government has also come close to resolving the decades-long civil war with the Kurdish PKK. The end of this conflict would go a long way toward removing the military from public affairs.
But then the Erdogan government decided to initiate two wars: against the Gulen movement and against the Kurds. The Gulen movement, named for its leader Fethullah Gulen who currently lives in the United States, preaches a liberal variety of Islam and runs a number of schools worldwide. It was also a major supporter of Erdogan and the AKP. But Erdogan began to worry about the spreading influence of Gulen supporters in the police, the judiciary, and the government itself. They began to resemble the “deep state” that Erdogan wanted to extirpate. In late 2013, he turned against the Gulen movement. The Erdogan government subsequently accused Gulen of orchestrating the coup and has demanded that the United States extradite him.
Meanwhile, Erdogan was concerned that domestically the Kurdish minority stood in the way of greater centralized power in Ankara and that Kurds in Syria stood in the way of greater Turkish influence over the outcome of the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But taking on the Kurds meant ushering the military back into public life in Turkey. As Erdogan pushed for a new constitution to grant the presidency more powers and cracked down on any segments of society that might stymie his ambitions, he had to ensure that at least part of the military was on his side.
Some in the military were not happy with the bargain, whether because they disapproved of Erdogan’s power grab, the campaign against Gulen or the renewed conflict with the Kurds, or the AKP’s challenge to the Kemalist tradition, which respects a strict division between religion and state. According to the statement they released to the press, the coupsters offered to restore precisely what many in Turkey believe Erdogan has taken away from them: “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged.”
If they couldn’t count on the military closing ranks behind them, the coup leaders at least needed the support of the Turkish population. This wasn’t going to be easy, given that Erdogan’s party won around 50 percent of the vote in the last election. Even Turks who vehemently oppose Erdogan and would agree with the content of the coup statement did not believe that the military was the agent of their salvation. “The worst democracy is better than the best coup,” one Turkish liberal told The New York Times.
Having quashed the coup, Erdogan is moving quickly to consolidate his advantage by purging the military and the courts. The Turkish government has detained more than 7,500 people, including 2,800 officers and soldiers and more than 100 generals and admirals, and dismissed 2,700 judges and 9,000 civil servants. Most recently, the government suspended more than 15,000 educators and asked 1,500 university deans to resign. Call it a counter-coup, but it’s just an industrial-strength version of what Erdogan has been up to now for several years. In fact, for the government to act so quickly, it must have had lists of its targets drawn up well in advance.
That doesn’t mean that Erdogan planned the coup. It just means that sometimes your adversaries help clear your path to power.
Which brings us back to the Donald.
A Man, A Plan, A Coup
According to the aforementioned YouGov poll, 43 percent of Republicans could imagine the necessity of a military coup in the United States, rising to 55 percent in the event of constitutional violations. Those numbers look a lot like the kind of support Donald Trump enjoyed during the Republican primaries when a plurality, but not a majority, voted for him. Only when the primary season was coming to an end did his numbers rise above 50 percent among Republican voters.
It’s tempting to conclude that the same folks who approve of a military intervention into politics support Donald Trump’s intervention into politics. Trump is, in a way, a one-man coup. He is an outsider. He has contempt for the normal workings of democracy. As he has amply demonstrated in his dealings in the business world, he rules by fiat and by twisting arms.
But the mechanism by which Trump seizes power will not be a coup. For the moment at least, the ballot box still rules. If he manages to attain the White House in November, it will not because of the brilliant organizing of the Republican Party, which is divided, feckless, and craven. It will be because his adversaries hand him the opportunity on a platter.
I know Recep Tayyip Erdogan – well, not really – and Donald Trump is no Erdogan. But the Donald’s will to power is comparable. It’s up to Trump’s adversaries to prevent him from crowning himself president – or else there will be many more conversations next fall about the plusses and minuses of military coups.