Opinion

Trump's coup d'emotion

The president and his lackeys don't want power so much as the emotional gratification of winning

Late Monday night, the official Twitter account of the Arizona Republican Party shared a tweet from Ali Alexander, a professional activist raising money on the lie that he will keep President-elect Joe Biden from being inaugurated. "I am willing to give my life for this fight," Alexander wrote. "He is," @AZGOP commented. "Are you?" A little while later the account posted another, similar tweet, which has since been deleted. "This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something," it said, pairing a quote from the Rambo franchise with a brief video clip.

The Arizona GOP is not alone in these theatrics. Radio host Eric Metaxas, once known as an evangelical public intellectual who interviewed serious thinkers, said in a late November show that he'd "be happy to die" in the "fight" for Trump's retention of power, a fight in which he claimed God is on his side. It's hard to say how common this sort of thing is among rank-and-file Trump supporters — some research suggests expressions of belief that Trump won are better understood as an enthusiastic show of support than a statement about reality — but this Jacobite make-believe clearly has an audience.

It also has perceived validation in the "coup" language used by some of Trump's critics. For diehard Trump fans desperate to believe they are "warriors" in an existential battle for the soul of the country or some similar pablum, seeing talk of a Trump's "coup attempt" may help sustain the fantasy: We're really doing it — even the other side has to admit it!

That is not to suggest "coup" decriers are somehow responsible for these pantomimes of a willing walk to the firing squad so Trump can prevail. If the question is, "Who started it?" the answer is obviously Trump himself.

Nor is it to say that the "coup" description lacks advantages. Though its suggestion of violence is imprecise, it's not obvious English has a better option. In Turkish, as Zeynep Tufekci explained in a cogent piece at The Atlantic, there are "many different words for different types of coups, because our experience ... demands it." Turks speak of "memorandum coups" and "e-coups" and "postmodern coups," each illustrated in their recent history. We have no comparable experience here, and therefore no comparable vocabulary. Insurgency, insurrection, mutiny, putsch, rebellion, revolt, revolution, sedition, treachery, treason — none are quite right.

But also not quite right is denying, as Tufekci did, that words which can encourage these martyrdom daydreams are worthy of our attention. "Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology," she said. "Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we're facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt may well doom it."

The problem with this strategy is that, for Trump and his would-be cannon fodder alike, this whole exercise is substantially about feeling over fact.

This is part of the feebleness of Trump's campaign to un-lose the election. Tufekci collates the most noteworthy things the president and his allies have said or done in this project, and it's almost entirely talk: He tweets and badgers local officials; they chant about locking people up, harangue in interviews and press conferences, and then file lawsuits making more conservative claims about voting irregularities which nevertheless go nowhere.

Just two items on the list had any real consequence: the firing of Christopher Krebs, formerly director of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, for declining to go along with Trump's claims; and Trump's call to two Michigan officials, who then sought to reverse their certification of votes from the county that includes Detroit. But Krebs' unjust dismissal hasn't impeded the presidential transition, and Michigan certified Biden's win shortly after the attempted reversal.

Trump and his backers say they're trying to retake the White House (and maybe sincerely think there's some chance they can). But what they're actually getting here is emotional gratification (and money). Trump wants to be able to claim victory and whine about the supposed abuses he's suffered even more, I suspect, than he wishes to have the responsibilities of the presidency for another four years. These supporters imagining themselves valiantly dying in a God-ordained fight for Trump's reign are enjoying their delusion. They're having fun play-acting heroism online; they don't truly want to die.

And if the feeling is an (unadmitted) end unto itself, and the terminology feeds the feeling, then the terminology does matter and could even contribute to a recurrence of this — well, whatever it is. A "Twitter sedition," perhaps. A "felt putsch." A "coup d'emotion."

The "frightening substance of what we're facing" is significantly in what some large number of our fellow citizens want to feel. We've focused on possible institutional consequences of Trump's failing legal challenges to the election, but millions of Americans' enjoyment of this charade of heroics and intrigue is a threat to functional governance, too.

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