One of the early lessons I learned as a journalist came in 2012 when I was covering the science beat for the Cornell Daily Sun. I was writing up the rare blooming of a Titan Arum, a giant Sumatran plant known as a corpse flower. (The plant smells like death when it blooms—a trait that attracts carrion-craving beetles and flies necessary for pollination.)
As I sat down to think through my lede, I stumbled. “On Sunday, March 18, Cornell’s corpse flower bloomed at…” Hmm, I thought. What time did it officially bloom?
As I studied up about the odd species, I discovered that its once-in-a-decade bloomings are complex processes that take up to two days to complete. Attempting to determine the particular time the corpse flower “bloomed” revealed my own misapprehension of the subject.
I was reminded of that revelation while reading about last week’s abhorrent Capitol Hill riots. On Monday, Fiona Hill, a former national security advisor to President Trump, wrote in an op-ed for Politico that the commander-in-chief’s actions represent a coup, a claim she does not make lightly.
At the outset of her commentary, Hill highlights people’s objections to the “coup” label. Some people argue the uprising wasn’t a coup because Trump did not call on the military to interfere with Congress’s certification of the 2020 election. Trump didn’t invoke his presidential powers in support of the insurrection (even if he did incite it), neither did he execute some secret takeover plot. Besides, the revolt was never going to be successful anyway, right?
Hill parries these points deftly. “These observations are based on the idea that a coup is a sudden, violent seizure of power involving clandestine plots and military takeovers,” she writes. “By contrast, Trump’s goal was to keep himself in power, and his actions were taken over a period of months and in slow motion.” Like corpse flower blooming, it’s a process.
The most authoritative study of the coup d’état remains Romanian historian Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, published in 1968. As Luttwak observed, most successful coups are speedy and armed. They often focus on eliminating opposition leaders, seizing control of the media, and restricting people’s movement and speech. The nimblest usurpers snatch power before anyone knows what has happened.
The world has changed a lot since Luttwak wrote his mutineer’s bible. The media landscape has been blasted apart by the Internet and hollowed out by tech giants, for one. Taking control of telegraph and post offices or TV and radio towers isn’t so easy, or effective, as it once was.
So, what does a successful coup look like in this new, media-decentralized environment? How does one establish regime change (or entrench an incumbent one) in a world where social media reigns, and where corporations can muzzle world leaders and out-of-favor communication services at will? Moreover, what will coups look like when, one day, as I and others expect, crypto technologies put content moderation decisions into the hands of online community members? I don’t know, but I suspect Luttwak’s pièce-de-résistance will need revising.
To Hill, Trump’s behavior qualifies as a coup “in slow-motion.” Similar to the Titan Arum’s blooming, this event didn’t happen all at once; the rot took place gradually.
Wednesday’s riots just made the reek unignorable.