A Very American Coup

W.J. Astore

All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.

Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?

A Very American Coup
Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You
By William J. Astore

(Originally posted on January 19, 2010)

The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.

It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.

Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces.  Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention.  Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.

Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.  Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize.  Their motto: take America back.

Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes.  Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations.  Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50.  Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance.  Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.

Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal.  A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.

Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action.  Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore.  As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns?  Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.

A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators.  Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold.  It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.

Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.  They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms.  Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?

A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed.  His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top.  The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory.  Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them.  A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.

It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act

Yes, it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?  Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:

1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets.  The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan.  We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer.  It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war.  It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.

2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint.  It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe

3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars.  If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture.  Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films?  And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda.  Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.

4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.

5. Let’s toughen up.  Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights.  Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.

6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort.  It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.

7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously.  They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading.  Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.

8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home.  The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.

9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged.  Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side.  Forget about God blessing America.  If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.

10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible.  Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution.  Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble.  The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state.  Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”    

That’s my top 10 things we need to do.  It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own.  But have faith.  Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times: 

“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s.  Pathetic!”

“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”

A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded.  A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.

Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline.  Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.

If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to. 

As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.

William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (wastore@pct.edu).  A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

23 thoughts on “A Very American Coup

  1. When other Americans are the biggest threat that we feel we face, the end result could very well be an authoritarian police state, justified, of course, in the (false) name of safety and security.

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    1. I don’t want a police state any more than any other thinking person does. I do believe we need to guard against over-the-top reactions. That said, I think it’s a false equivalence to assert that the peaceful, law-abiding, non-gun-worshipping section of the population is as bad as the right-wing crazies if they think the crazies are the enemy. There are essential differences between the two groups. The peaceful types hold public meetings to debate issues, they sign petitions, call their representatives, and stage lawful, non-violent protests against war, inequality, etc. They tend to be inclusive. Whenever I marched for a cause, we were happy to get all the warm bodies who’d join us. In contrast, the right-wingers preach hate, exclude various minorities, seek violent overthrow, and scorn peaceful solutions. In general, their stated grievances aren’t even legitimate. They may come from places of frustration, but they aren’t after compromise or rational resolutions. Ridding the country of all Blacks, Latinos, LBGTQ people, and nonbelievers is not an answer to anything, for instance. If the extremists could be reasoned with, they’d be the same as any other citizens with gripes, but when they live in alternate realities and will act in concert with their beliefs, they tend to prove themselves enimical to those of us just trying to get by without seeing the world blown up.

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        1. Reading lately about the attempt by the incumbent to turn over sacred Native American land at Oak Flat in Arizona to the Rio Tinto Group for a copper mine. The company has a history of destroying indigenous land, and would very likely do so in this latest depredation. In response, the tribes have filed lawsuits, made public appeals, and enlisted the aid of conservation groups. They have NOT, however, physically attacked or even threatened anyone. Given the history here, these are people with possibly the most justified grievance imaginable. And they know a thing or two about protesting, and what happens when you fight city hall. But yet….they’re seeking legal redress. They may not get it, admittedly. But at least they won’t be responsible for rioting and destruction.

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  2. Frighteningly prescient, Professor. And really, the rise of the Orange One isn’t at odds with your predictions: he may not BE a military hero, but we’ve seen how he’s wanted to use powerful members of the military to get his way.

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  3. Stunningly brief comments: 1.) Sarah Palin has to be deemed far too “sane” at this point to be adored by GOP today!; 2.) social media have provided communications opportunities to troops leaning toward extremist elements in the first place. Who’d-a-thunk FBI would feel a need to “vet” the troops assigned to protect a Presidential Inauguration?? (To say nothing of apparent need to mobilize all those forces?); 3.) the US Constitution fell victim to a bloodless coup with “The Patriot Act”; 4.) it is very telling that if there was to be a credible threat against traditional US way of governance, it would come from the extreme right, not an uprising of unemployed former labor union members or anyone we could reasonably call “left-leaning.” As there is NO threat of revolt from “the left,” I believe the great majority of high-ranking military officers will be disinclined to try to seize governance outright for the foreseeable future. But doubtless certain individuals would hanker for such an action.

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  4. A most passionate plea indeed!
    The oligarchy betrays their creation
    They exist on head games of synthetic mental manipulation. There’s rot in their copy of creation. They have betrayed existence by creating wealth based on scarcity; when creation has based vibrancy of all life based on the sacrifice of giving to manifest abundance.
    Giving freely creates a continuous flow of life giving energy to all created systems.
    Fear damns up the flow and spoils the environment with rotten outcomes!
    Oligarchs have nothing to be proud of; history will define them as broken souls who lacked the life giving force of altruism.
    They are the Synthetic Death Star that only shines in their looking glass. The mirror of truth calls them out for wasting the precious gift of this life.
    They are guilty of betrayal and should always be reminded of this fact. In person, in print, in art, and these judgements they should never escape until they turn from their selfish ways.
    We need to stop celebrating their position among us; these fear mongers must never be given the public’s praise.

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    1. Here’s a heap of shame
      For all you shadow elites
      Tomorrow your puppets
      Pass nuclear codes
      As if
      This is a normal exchange
      That democratic societies
      Should be engaging in
      If you are so special
      How come you negotiate
      Through the threats of elimination
      By unspeakable destruction

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I get these horrible feelings after spending too much time dwelling on the inequality that continues to mount. I wrote of my desire to get in the 1%’s
        Face after reading Rebecca Gordon’s piece at TomDispatch today. How these elites can feel comfortable about increasing their margins during times of national misfortune in every country during 2020 just bends my mind and perspective. Imagine getting a $700 billion budget and then another $690 billion in a stimulus package …
        Wouldn’t you think there was someone in the MIC that had the sense to say
        Thanks, but No Thanks…
        There are others who have greater needs. We’ll figure out how to tighten our belts for once.?????
        I find this position neither inspiring or something to be proud of…
        Time for a long walk in the Forest
        None of this makes any sense at present

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        1. It’s been reported–and I have no reason to doubt it–that quite a few large businesses received Fed. largesse under the program that was supposed to help smaller companies retain their employees (or at least a good chunk of them) during the pandemic-induced recession. Just tracing back all the threads, to say nothing of forcing the greedy companies to return those funds to The People (it is we who fund the Treasury, the gov’t on the whole, after all), looks like a very daunting task to me!!

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      2. Jumping the gun on an expected new commentary from Prof. Astore on Biden’s Inauguration: Not a bad speech on the whole, IMO, but as I anticipated, he’s going to close every speech with “And may God protect our troops.” Despite his claim in the official speech that the US will now seek “to make friends of enemies.” The emphasis on religiosity and idolizing the military just plays into the insane notion of “American exceptionalism” and is IMPROPER in what is supposed to be an officially SECULAR system of government. But it was to be expected, in keeping with tradition, so I’m not going to go to war with Biden over it. Not on his first day in office, at least!

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        1. The usual rhetoric, Greg. Great nation, good people, racial justice, unity, “secure” health care for all, but no real specifics. But at least it wasn’t Trump and American carnage.

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          1. With GOP still so strong in US Senate, and usually monolithic in their stance on legislation, it will be difficult to pass anything really “progressive.” One defecting, very-conservative Dem in Senate is all it would take to kill the effort. BTW, rushing as usual to post a comment, in my quoting of Mark Twain re: Theodore Roosevelt’s use of executive authority, I neglected to add that Twain said TR was EXTREMELY VAIN. So that was another aspect that brought the now-ex-POTUS to mind.

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          2. Also—and I could very well be proven wrong—despite his being a corporate tool, it seems as if there’s a real person in Joe Biden. Watching the inauguration coverage, I saw him make some gestures that seemed actually human. Of course, as he’s been in politics for decades, he’s probably instinctively aware of the cameras, so those gestures could have been calculated. I hope not.

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          3. I think Biden has tried too hard to tug on people’s heartstrings, bringing up personal losses in his family too often. A gloss of religiosity hovered over today’s proceedings. To be sure, he was following tradition. In my lifetime I am certain I will never see a POTUS inaugurated who eschews that stuff, who declines to have a bible on hand, etc. All that said, a show of genuine human emotion is welcome, in the wake of what we’ve been subjected to past four years. A vast improvement over someone whose emotional range was limited to different shades of hate!

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          4. The heartstrings thing, per my observation, was more the media’s doing. They did collectively dwell on it a lot. I didn’t notice that Biden particularly emphasized his past, but maybe I missed it.

            As for the religiosity, it appears that Biden has religious beliefs. Therefore, I don’t object to his swearing in using a Bible. I actually think it was kinda cool to use a 100-year-old family edition. And when he crossed himself at Arlington, I think it was totally unconscious, the automatic gesture of a man who follows a faith. The “Gpd bless America,” part, I could do without, but it’s almost de rigueur. If he’s trying for unity, he wouldn’t dare omit it.

            I’m not religious at all, and I object to having any kind of dogma shoved at me. I think there should be an absolute separation of church and state. But on the most important day of his life, I’d given Biden a pass for keeping to his beliefs.

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          5. Oh, absolutely! As I’d noted, Biden was upholding tradition. No POTUS, including Lincoln, “rumored” to be an agnostic, has dared pass on the swearing-in on a bible routine. (If Washington and other Founding Father early presidents eschewed this, I’m not aware.) But there’s a dandy irony in Biden’s Catholicism. I believe he’s flip-flopped over his career on abortion question. He has been severely criticized by elements within the Church of Rome-US Division for leaning “the wrong way,” from their perspective.

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          6. From what I’ve read, yes, Biden has changed his opinion on abortion. Whether that was from the Church’s varying nuances (Pope Francis’ ordering forgiveness for abortions while still saying the practice is wrong), from a broadening and growth in his personal philosophy, or merely political expedience, I have no idea.

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