President Trump's Wednesday refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election has exacerbated all the worries raised by his trolling about serving an unconstitutional third term. No American president should dally with declining to cede power rightfully lost, and anger over the president's comments is justified. But panic, fortunately, is not.
I understand fears about dissolution of democratic norms and the apparently nonexistent floor in the cravenness of Republican officials in Trump's thrall. But Trump lacks two necessary things for the coup attempt some of his critics anticipate, and those deficiencies reassure me greatly.
The first is competence. As my colleague Damon Linker has ably argued, the president is very good at exercising rhetorical power, but he is very bad at actually doing things, because he is deeply incompetent. He cannot plan. He certainly cannot keep a secret or keep his story straight.
The second is the absolute loyalty of the military Trump would need to retain the physical seat of power. If he had strong support among active-duty service members, it would still be quite a leap to say they'd help make him a dictator. But Trump doesn't even net a positive approval rating from U.S. forces anymore. An August survey by Military Times found half of active-duty troops disapprove of Trump, while just 38 percent support him. A plurality of current service members said they plan to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a marked divergence from military voting habits in elections past.
For all he speaks of "my generals," Trump is even less popular among the officer corps, whom he'd need to organize the military behind his cause. Indeed, as The New York Times reported Friday, Pentagon leaders have already publicly and privately considered the prospect of Trump attempting to involve them deciding the election. "In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law, U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military," Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month. "I foresee no role for the U.S. armed forces in this process."
Trump is, in short, no Napoleon, and the American military is not going to give him a coup.