When Coup Planning Becomes Public
Controlling the Flow of Information is Key Whether Your Coup Succeeds or Not
"There was a PowerPoint for the coup," tweeted the political analyst and former FBI Special Agent Asha Rangappa of the detailed plan hatched before Jan. 6 to keep Donald Trump in office.
Trump White House chief Mark Meadows turned the Jan. 5 presentation, titled "Election Fraud, Foreign Interference & Options for 6 Jan," over to the congressional committee charged with investigating Jan. 6 before he ceased to cooperate with the government. It instructs the former president and his inner circle how they can invalidate the 2020 election through bogus accusations of fraud and foreign interference sufficient to justify the declaration of a state of emergency on national security grounds.
I've done a lot of archival work with documents that remained classified for decades. I am fascinated not just with the presentation's propaganda slogans and fidelity to the old right-wing playbook (which I will discuss in next week's companion essay), but by its journey into the public domain.
Only a select few conspirators, Trump among them, were supposed to see this classic coup planning document. Yet the existence of our democratic justice and legislative system and free press brought it out of the shadows and into the hands of journalists, who made it available to the public, including on Twitter.
Controlling the flow of information has been crucial to building the personality cults of strongmen who come to power via coup --and equally important for damage control if, as with Jan. 6, the operation is unsuccessful.
Coups involve secrecy and speed. Their power lies in the element of surprise - the shock of the unthinkable happening, and happening fast. Coups are "coordination games," in Naunihal Singh's words: operations governed by the expectation that each participant will keep the secret and act in ways that advance the common goal of taking over the government --or, in an autogolpe, or self-coup, staying in office by illegal means.
The conspiratorial element of coups means we are not often privy to the details of their planning. If the coup is successful, it may become part of the origin story of the new national collective. Then a leader may release details about it to enhance his reputation for daring and bravery. This was the case with Muammar Gaddafi, who planned his 1969 coup for years and was its undisputed author.
What if the leader who comes to power via coup was the last person to come on board, either because of his cautious nature (Francisco Franco) or because the coup's instigators did not fully trust him (Augusto Pinochet)? Then it can take a long time for the truth to come out.
Pinochet joined the 1973 Chilean coup against Socialist President Salvador Allende, which was years in the planning, only three days before the event, and he waffled until he was given an ultimatum by other conspiring generals. He then quickly asserted his personal power and became dictator for 17 years.
Because the American government helped to create the conditions for this right-wing authoritarian takeover, we have ample (if often heavily redacted) CIA and other documentation (like the Chile documents at the National Security Archive). Yet we had to wait for Pinochet to leave office in 1990 to see coup planning narratives that are less Pinochet-centered and show the contributions of non-American foreign actors, like those from Brazil's own military dictatorship.
When coups fail, the government that survived the coup attempt might release details of the planning in order to turn public opinion against the plotters and justify whatever punishments are given.
This was the case with the 2016 coup against Recep Tayyep Erdogan, planned by Turkish military officers. Being a 21st century coup, though, the records of their WhatsApp group chat from the night of the operation also made their way to investigative journalists and then into the public domain. It was amazing to have that chat on hand when I wrote about that failed coup in Strongmen.
Jan. 6 was a self-coup, but it was also a rescue operation prompted by the strength of Trump's authoritarian personality cult. That's one reason why damage control by the faithful, like Meadows, has focused on removing the former president’s personal liability. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent has a good analysis of how Meadow's new book tries to exonerate Trump, even arguing that the former president was "mortified" by the assault on the Capitol.
The release of that PowerPoint, and reporting that retired Army Col. Phil Waldron, who was involved in its creation, met with Trump in the Oval Office on Nov. 25, shreds Meadows' claims.
But no matter: authoritarianism requires more vehement shows of loyalty when the cult leader is in trouble, even if everyone knows the claims about him are false. One day, when Trump has discarded him, Meadows can think about the many ways he was used.
In the meantime, we can think about the preciousness of our open society that still supports freedom of the press, accountability, and transparency --things that authoritarians who take power via coup swiftly eradicate. Without it, that PowerPoint, a document of treachery and subversion, would have never seen the light of day.