What the History of Coups Tells Us about Trump’s Refusal to ConcedeRoundup
tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, Coup
Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School and author of the new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Follow
Historically across Latin America, when constitutionally elected leaders were denied their legitimate mandate, there was just one word for it: coup. Just think of the emblematic cases of Salvador Allende in Chile (1973) and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) — both democratically elected leaders who were toppled by the military. In other cases, such as in Uruguay in 1973, Peru in 1992 and Venezuela in 2017, presidents decided to ignore the law and attempted to stay in power indefinitely via self-coup.
A coup against a democratic regime can be defined as any political action by state actors that aims to either maintain or take over power by unconstitutional means. In short, there is a coup when military renegades or democratically elected leaders suspend the democratic process.
This definition — and global history — is why Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat and his refusal to initiate a transition of power has alarmed so many, and led some to question whether a coup was in progress.
To be sure, Trump’s clumsy attempts to deny President-elect Joe Biden’s win already look to be failing. But his actions — denying and attempting to overturn the results of the election and getting top Republicans and Attorney General William P. Barr to indulge these dangerous efforts — are still symptoms of the fragility of American democracy at this moment.
And this is exactly why we should be talking about the history of coups: how they happened and, most importantly, how they have been stopped. Trump’s refusal to concede is an attack on the state and democratic government. While his actions may be dismissed as merely tantrums, the history of dictators in Latin America over the past century suggests the need to take this dangerous moment seriously.
In Latin America, there have been several political leaders and civil servants who betrayed their countries’ constitutions and democratic rule by launching coups. For example, conservative politicians in Argentina lost the 1928 presidential election and then supported Argentina’s first coup in 1930 led by General José Felix Uriburu, who wanted to permanently change the nation from a democracy to a new corporatist and dictatorial fascistic republic.
The Supreme Court, days after the takeover by Uriburu, officially recognized the de facto situation and legitimated the coup on extraconstitutional grounds: the stability and survival of the republic. The justices prioritized social order and political security over democratic legitimacy, setting up a legal precedent for future Argentine dictators.
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