Trump and a Lesson in How Coups Fail

On October 1, 1988, Harry Barnes, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Chile, sent an alarming cable to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. Chile was four days away from a national referendum that asked whether General Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power in a bloody coup in 1973, should be given a mandate for another eight years. What was unclear was how Pinochet, no adherent to democratic norms, would react if he lost. “Pinochet’s plan is simple,” Barnes wrote in the cable, which was declassified and published years later, through the efforts of George Washington University’s National Security Archive. “A) if the ‘Yes’ is winning, fine: B) If the race is very close rely on fraud and coercion: C) If the ‘No’ is likely to win clearly then use violence and terror to stop the process.” The problem, for the Reagan Administration, was that it looked as if “No” would indeed “win clearly,” which meant that, as Barnes observed, “the third option is the one most likely to be put into effect with probable substantial loss of life.” The U.S. had helped Pinochet come to power and abetted him for years; if he had clearly won the referendum, the Administration’s reaction would likely also have been Option A: “fine.” Perhaps, to its shame, it would also have tolerated Option B. Option C, though, represented more trouble than it wanted.

Elections are powerful things. The message they send is not subtle: someone won, someone lost. In this country, if they are very, very close—close enough for things like “hanging chads” to be a factor, as they were in Florida, in the 2000 Presidential race—you can get wrapped up in a Supreme Court case, with prominent lawyers, such as Theodore Olson and David Boies, on opposing sides. Perhaps, if Donald Trump’s reëlection bid had really just come down to a county or two somewhere, he might have been able to generate enough uncertainty to sell his version of Option B to his supporters—and maybe even to some swing voters—as a legitimate effort to obtain a recount. In countries without free elections, fraud and coercion regularly do make a difference. But that’s not the country we have, as Trump is learning, and it’s not the election we had. Joe Biden clearly won. There is no respectable way to argue otherwise, which is the main reason that Trump’s version of Option B looks so clownish. (Incompetence is also a factor.) Instead of Olson declaiming on federalism, as he did in 2000, there was a Trump-team press conference in which Rudy Giuliani, once the mayor of New York, looked like a wind-up junta member while another lawyer, Sidney Powell, spun conspiracy theories so wild that even the President’s campaign has distanced itself from her. The President’s actual lawsuits have failed to gain traction; a federal judge in Pennsylvania, in dismissing one case, described it as legally sketchy and filled with “speculative accusations.”

The absurdity should not obscure how extreme the President’s actions have been: when Trump summoned state legislators from Michigan—a state that Biden won by about a hundred and fifty thousand votes—to Washington, he was clearly trying for Option B-style coercion. On Monday, Michigan certified Biden’s win in that state, anyway. (On Tuesday, Pennsylvania and Nevada did, too.) On Monday evening, Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, finally put through the paperwork to give the Biden transition team access to government resources. She notified Biden in a grudging letter that noted, “The actual winner of the presidential election will be determined by the electoral process detailed in the Constitution.” Trump said that he’d told her to go ahead, and that the acknowledgement didn’t mean that he was conceding anything. On Tuesday morning, he referred, in a tweet, to “the stench of the 2020 Election Hoax.”

A bumbling, bitter Option B is bad enough for the country, and the acquiescence of most national elected Republican officials is a disgrace. Still only a handful have congratulated Biden or criticized Trump, with only a few more—including, on Monday, Senators Rob Portman and Shelley Capito—pushing for Biden to be given transition resources. (As my colleague John Cassidy noted, many local Republican officials, such as Georgia’s secretary state and any number of county clerks, have acted more forthrightly.) They have encouraged scorn for election results. The question for those officials is how they can be so sure, in this election or another, that Trump or one of his successors won’t reach for some version of Option C—“violence and terror to stop the process.”

They might look at what staved off Option C in Chile in 1988. A large factor was that people with power were willing to speak out about what they did not regard as acceptable. That included American and British diplomats and military liaisons, who told their Chilean counterparts how damaging it would be for their relations with Chile and for the country’s reputation if the referendum result was not respected. The night of the election, Pinochet still tried to make a move. The government suddenly stopped announcing results that localities were releasing—though workers for the No campaign kept track of them—and Pinochet summoned senior military officers to a meeting. On the way in, Air Force General Fernando Matthei spoke to reporters, who crowded around him with cameras and microphones. “It looks like ‘No’ won,” he said. “To me, at least, that’s already clear.”

Matthei later said that he thought it was important to speak publicly and quickly, to make it plain to Pinochet what was and wasn’t possible. (The footage of Matthei’s encounter with reporters is included in “No,” a movie, from 2012, about the referendum and the No side’s creative advertising campaign.) The truth can be hustled away, after all. Another document collected in the National Security Archive gives an account, via the Defense Intelligence Agency, of what happened when Matthei went into the meeting. Pinochet was angry. He wanted extraordinary powers, and he had a document ready for the officers to sign to give them to him. He wanted to use the military. He still thought he could win.

“At this point Matthei stood up to be counted,” according to the intelligence report. “Matthei told Pinochet he would under no circumstances agree to such a thing. Pinochet asked again for special powers and again Matthei refused saying he had his chance as the official candidate and lost.” It still wasn’t over; Pinochet made the same demand to others—“tension in the room was so high at this moment that . . . Sergio Valenzuela, the secretary general of the government, collapsed from what turned out to be the first stage of a heart attack.” They turned Pinochet down, too. This time, in Chile, the vote was the vote. These men had been part of a junta, not heroes of democracy; it was the No campaigners and the voters who stood in line that day who had taken the real risk. It may have been sheer pragmatism that caused them, finally, to accept reality, do their jobs, and tell a delusional, dangerous man that it was time to stop believing in his own lies. Today, in this country, most Republicans in the U.S. Senate can’t even manage that.

We are a long way from Chile. That country was coming back from years of dictatorship, while we appear, with this election, to have turned away from a hazardous path. The transition is proceeding. Our institutions, from courts to state authorities, are holding up. And yet Trump is still tweeting about how the election was stolen. What options are the people around him telling him he has? One, reportedly, is that he might want to run for President in 2024.


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