Sunday, May 21, 2017

Are Trump's troubles the result of a "soft coup"? (1 of 2)

I first recall coming across the term "soft coup" (golpe suave or golpe blando) in connection with the impeachment of Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo in 2012. This report from Aljazeera gives an account of the outster of Lugo, Paraguay's Forgotten Coup 12/26/2013. The article is accompanied by this video report, People & Power - Paraguay's Forgotten Coup 12/25/2013:

An earlier report closer to the event from Aljazeera's Inside Story also describes the ouster and whether it should be considered a coup, Paraguay: Impeachment or political coup? 06/25/2016:

El Universal (Ecuador) gives credit to Gene Sharp for coining the "soft coup" term back in 1973. (Un politólogo de EE.UU. planteó el término de ‘golpe de Estado blando’ 12.06.2014)

Sharp is a political scientist whose name is not so well-known in the United States as it seems to be in Latin America, where the left generally regards him as the designer of a regime change strategy commonly used by the United States to undermine governments it considers inconvenient or otherwise undesirable by using means other than overt force. This CNN reports celebrates him, Gene Sharp: A dictator's worst nightmare by By Mairi Mackay 06/25/2012.

I've seen the term "soft coup" also applied to the overthrow of the Honduran government in 2009. But that one also had military involvement: "In 2009, a group of Honduran politicians and military officers staged a coup and removed then-President Manuel Zelaya from office and from the country." (Tracy Wilkinson, A Honduran coup comes full circle Los Angeles Times 04/27/2017)

Not incidentally, the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed clear diplomatic approval of both the Honduran and Paraguayan coups, "soft" or not. The Administration also showed sympathy for the "soft coup" in Brazil in 2016 against President Rousseff. (This Confirms It was a Coup: Brazil Crisis Deepens as Evidence Mounts of Plot to Oust Dilma Rousseff Democracy Now! 05/25/2016; Ben Norton, “Parliamentary coup”: Impeachment of Brazil’s President Rousseff hands power to corrupt, unelected right wing Salon 08/31/2016; Genaro Oliveira, Brazil's 'soft coup' is not the end of a lively democracy New Zealand Herald 09/01/2017)

The circumstances of Rousseff's ouster fully justify Genaro Oliveira's characterization, "From whatever side it's viewed, the impeachment process was never about seeking justice or upholding democracy. It has always been a judicial farce masking a nasty power dispute between elite political factions."

I don't have a problem using the "soft coup" term to describes Lugo's removal from office in Paraguay in 2012 and Rousseff's in Brazil in 2016. Because both were politically and democratically illegitimate actions that nevertheless took place within established legal procedures. The actions resulted in a significant change in the national government leadership and its policies in a way that fairly obviously ran contrary to the democratic decision of free elections.

I have some reservations about how far the usage of the "soft coup" idea can go. On the one hand, it usefully distinguishes between coups accomplished by force and violence and those which achieve an illegitimate change of government without the use or imminent threat of violence. On the other hand, we could have an interesting discussion about the extent to which the implicit or explicit threat of violence is at work even in the case of the "soft coups." And while it's arguably preferable to achieve illegitimate aims through nonviolent means, the consequences of a "soft coup" could be every bit as destructive as a more traditional version in which the military rolls tanks into the street and demands that the legal government resign.

Whether or not we consider Honduras 2009 as "soft" or not, the change of government took place without armed clashes between pro- and anti-government forces. But this description makes it sound a lot like the traditional military coup, "In the first military coup in Central America since the end of the cold war, soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the capital, Tegucigalpa, early in the morning, disarming the presidential guard, waking Mr. Zelaya and putting him on a plane to Costa Rica." (Elisabeth Malkin, Honduran President Is Ousted in Coup New York Times 06/28/2009) But the upshot of the coup in practice has been a vast increase in criminal violence in Honduras, which has increased pressure for Hondurans to flee to Mexico and the United States.

It's also important to remember that military coups typically have major cooperation among civilian politicians and private players. Two examples that come readily to mind are the coup in Chile in 1973 and that in Argentina in 1955.

And a "soft" coup can also have problematic international assistance. (Helene Cooper and Marc Lacey, In a Coup in Honduras, Ghosts of Past U.S. Policies New York Times 06/29/2009)

Now the term "soft coup" is turning up in discussion of President Trump's pretty certainly impeachable offenses. In this MSNBC 11th Hour report, a Wall Street Journal reporter uses the term, Eli Stokols: Donald Trump Is Facing Something Like A Soft Coup D'état 05/19/2017:

Eli Stokols uses the term in a seemingly descriptive way to talk about how Trump critics internal to his Administration as well as the press and external political critics are undermining Trump's Presidency over the Trump-Russia scandal. But "coup" obviously carries an implication of illegitimacy.

Legitimacy is a critical factor here. And by any sensible perspective, there are substantial reasons to believe that there are serious instances of wrongdoing that may well amount to the kind of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that would justify impeach of the President under the Constitution.

The drama (and melodrama) of the Trump-Russia scandal has eclipsed the issue of violating the emoluments clause that was much discussed during the transition. (Mark Joseph Stern, High Crimes and Misdemeanors Slate 01/04/2017) But given how the Trump Family Business Administration approaches the business of the Presidency, that in itself is a substantial problem that should be formally and thoroughly investigated. Just this weekend, we had the odd coincidence of Saudi Arabia committing $100 million to a fund established by First Daughter Ivanka Trump, during the same foreign trip in which Saudi Arabia agreed to a $110 billion arms deal with the US. (Jen Hayden, On same weekend as record-breaking arms deal, Saudis announced $100 million donation to Ivanka fund Daily Kos 05/21/2017) Admittedly, $100 million is less than one percent of the amount of the arms deal. But I'm pretty sure it's big enough to count as an emolument if it otherwise meets the technical requirements of the term. Ivanka's husband also played an important role in arranging the arms deal. (Mark Landler et al, $110 Billion Weapons Sale to Saudis Has Jared Kushner’s Personal Touch New York Times 05/18/2017)

Trump's defenders insist there is no "evidence" of serious misdeeds by Trump. But that begs the questions of whether there are concerns substantial enough for Congressional and criminal investigation of some of these major incidents. While it's true that we don't have the full documentation for the intelligence community's January report on Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the public record, it's hard to see how any government would make every detail of such a finding publicly available. But it's certainly reason for Congress and investigative agencies to understand it thoroughly. And if the four intelligence agencies whose consensus that report represented just concocted the conclusions, that would be something that urgently needs to be uncovered, as well!

And it sounds highly likely from what is in the public record that Trump himself was involved in obstruction of justice in the Trump-Russia investigation, especially with the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And Trump's first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was working as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey last year. And given the warnings we know that Trump and his transition team received from senior officials about Michael Flynn before Trump named him as National Security Adviser makes it look reckless at the very best to appoint him to that post with the top-level security clearance that comes with it.

Given Trump's flagrant lack of concern about conflicts of interest, it will not surprise me in the least that we'll eventually learn at lot about dubious financial entanglements of the Trump family business with Russian interests.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I'll look at left and right versions of the "soft coup" framing on Trump's Constitutional problems.

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