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April 25th, 2017

Insight

After Turkey, an American coup?

Glenn Reynolds

By Glenn Reynolds

Published July 20, 2016

There was an attempted military coup in Turkey and --- unlike many previous coups there --- it failed, though at the cost of scores of deaths. But while the aftermath looks ugly for Turkey, and for Europe, it has also led some to wonder: Could a military coup happen in the United States?

And not just wonder, but in some cases, seemingly hope. At least, Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King was anticipating a coup in the United States should Donald Trump be elected president. But could that really happen?

Military coups in the United States have been the centerpiece of such thrillers as Fletcher Knebel & Charles Bailey's Seven Days In May, and Edward McGhee's underrated The Last Caesar. But, as I argue in a recent paper on the subject, a military coup in the United States faces some pretty significant constitutional and political barriers. The coup against Turkey's Erdogan failed because he began preparing to defeat one as soon as he took office. But a coup in the United States would probably fail because the Framers prepared for one when they wrote the Constitution.

A coup is different from a revolution or a civil war. A coup d'etat, according to Edward Luttwak's influential treatise, consists of "the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder."

This is distinct from civil war, in which large segments of society are mobilized against one another. In the classic coup d'etat the nation wakes up one morning to hear that the political leadership has been arrested or co-opted, while the radio and television stations are under the control of the new regime. The civil servants go to work as usual, just following orders from a new batch of superiors. In the face of such a fait accompli, few are inclined to resist, particularly if, as is usually the case, the old regime wasn't overly popular anyway.

The appeal of a coup is thus that it is comparatively inexpensive and bloodless, compared to a civil war or a revolution. The government gets new leaders, and the nation plugs along.


Though coups are very common worldwide, we've never had one in the United States. Some of that is our political culture. We think of coups as things that happen in other, lesser nations --- banana republics. But it's also because a coup would be very hard to pull off in the United States.

In a coup, a relatively small number of plotters seize key institutions --- the Presidential Palace, the state radio stations, the Defense Ministry, etc. --- and then plan (or hope) to bring other actors to their side with promises of power or riches. But in the United States, the key institutions are widely dispersed.

Not only is the federal government divided into three branches, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, but government in general is divided between the federal government and the states. And the 50 states, with governors, capitals and significant military forces of their own (the National Guard, the distinct State Guards, various law enforcement, etc.) are a very significant threat to coup plotters. Many would resist, and a plan that brought them all along wouldn't be a coup but wholesale revolution.

In addition, the United States has a broad and diverse media operation --- there's no state broadcasting company to seize, and there's lots of social media and Internet communication to deal with. (Even in Turkey, Erdogan was able to bypass the coup perpetrators' control by using Facetime.)

And, of course, we have an armed citizenry, which, were it to stir, would be more than a match for whatever forces the coup plotters might muster. And, given how rapidly Turkish Erdogan supporters turned out into the streets, American citizens might be expected to do the same sort of thing.

As the Federalist Papers said, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." The Framers made that hard to do, and in so doing, they made a coup in the United States much more difficult. If we want to keep things that way, we should continue to follow their approach.

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself and is a columnist at USA TODAY.

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