Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Coup Next Time

New York Review of Books

In light of the final report issued by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Fintan O’Toole—who in 2020 diagnosed the impulses for paranoia and risk that define the Republican Party in the Trump era—asks “the most important question about the coup”: “why it failed. Or to put it another way: If you were planning a future coup, what could you learn from this one?”

This is not merely an academic exercise—O’Toole argues that an aspiring autocrat with more discipline and more commitment than Donald Trump could succeed where the former president failed, not with an armed insurrection but with a carefully plotted subversion of the integrity of the electoral process:

It is important for actual democrats to understand this. Dark fantasies about martial law and mass repression may deliver a certain masochistic thrill. Yet the lesson from the events of two years ago is that, spectacularly horrifying as it was, the attack on the Capitol was not the main event. It was a poorly conceived and (by Trump) badly led reaction to the failure of the much more feasible coup—which Trump just might have pulled off in November or December 2020.

Below, alongside O’Toole’s new essay, we have collected five pieces from our archives about Trump, democracy, and fascism.

Fintan O’Toole
Dress Rehearsal

Trump’s attempt almost two years ago to undermine the 2020 election reads today like a blueprint drawn for a future autocrat.

Fintan O’Toole
The Trump Inheritance

“Did Trump summon the mob or did the mob summon up Trump?”

Christopher R. Browning
The Suffocation of Democracy

“The most original revelation of the current wave of authoritarians is that the construction of overtly antidemocratic dictatorships aspiring to totalitarianism is unnecessary for holding power. Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term ‘illiberal democracy.’”

Umberto Eco

“Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)?”

Masha Gessen
The Autocrat’s Language

“Using words to lie destroys language. Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language. Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language. This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the journalistic trade: it is about the basic survival of the public sphere.”

Michael Ignatieff
Are the Authoritarians Winning?

“When conservatives win elections, corporate interests often take control. When progressives win back power, they only succeed in making the state more domineering. When conservatives are restored to office, they cut back. And so it goes, a continuing dynamic of political alternation that leaves the state unreformed and, worst of all, ever more intrusive.”

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