Could there ever be a coup — that is, an overthrow of the government through military or political action — in the United States? As Venezuela is poised to become the first country — in this hemisphere, at least — to be the scene of a coup in nearly a decade, as reported by The Inquisitr, it’s a question worth considering. This is especially true in light of the divisive political climate in this country, one which has, at times, resulted in violence.
As it turns out, there isn’t a quick and easy answer to this question. The line between coup, revolution, and civil war is pretty thin. So, depending on your definitions, there have already been two coups in the U.S., once from 1775 through 1783 and again from 1861 through 1865.
Could there be a third?
The military absolutely does not wield political power
Most of the recent coups in modern history have involved, to one degree or another, military factions seizing or consolidating power. Such was the case in Niger, where, in 2010, soldiers stormed the capital. These forces arrested a president with designs of becoming a dictator.
That’s not going to happen in the U.S. — at least, not without a complete institutional failure of the military’s chain of command.
Speaking to Cracked, Colonel David Couvillon explained that military personnel — officers especially — are taught from day one that it is not their job to mix their work with politics.
“It’s ingrained… you’re not the brownshirts, you’re not the Gestapo, you’re not the kempe thai, or any of the other strong-armed people… [in] the military, um, the posse comitatus rules are golden. They adhere to those consistently.”
Posse Comitatus, in this instance, refers to laws passed following the Civil War that prohibit the military from upholding domestic laws.
But what about an armed civilian rebellion?
With a military takeover of the government all but out of the question, is an armed civilian rebellion within the realm of possibility?
Certainly, and in fact, small-scale armed rebellions have taken place in this country, even in the past few years. Look no further than the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. There, in 2016, armed anti-government protesters took over federal property and held it for a few weeks.
The “rebellion,” such as it was, was peacefully put down by law enforcement, rather than by the military. There was only one death — one of the occupants was shot and killed when he allegedly reached for a firearm.
Three years after a militant, anti-government group took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an Oregon symphony offers music as healing.
???? Grab your headphones. You'll want to hear this. https://t.co/Al5TvF1DSs
— OPB (@OPB) April 27, 2019
But what if, for example, a similar armed conflict took place in a populated area, rather than a remote government building?
So far, it hasn’t happened, although there have been a couple of instances in recent memory that may have come close.
For example, there was Charlottesville, Virginia’s “Unite The Right” rally in 2017. This rally saw thousands of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, many of them armed, descend upon the city for two days of protests. Those protests ended in one civilian death, that of a counter-protester who was killed when a member of the alt-right drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Fortunately, the situation was put down without either side firing shots at one other, or at law enforcement.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) April 26, 2019
Similarly, the National Guard was called to the city of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. There, they were charged with helping to put down large-scale riots in the St. Louis suburb. Again, no shots were fired, and unlike Charlottesville, the Ferguson unrest ended without any deaths. The body of one activist protester was found at the scene, but his death was considered a homicide — and is not believed to have been the result of having been killed by troops or by law enforcement.
Perhaps a bloodless coup?
Affecting an overthrow of the government through peaceful means is not out of the question. India gained its independence from Britain largely through non-violent methods.
Here in the United States, such a movement would require massive mobilization not seen since the civil rights movement — or perhaps even the Civil War. And is there the political will in the U.S. to make it happen?
So far, the answer appears to be a resounding “no.” The largest protests to have taken place in the U.S. in recent years were the 2017 and 2018 anti-Trump Women’s Marches — which brought out between 3.2 million and 5.2 million people, depending on varying estimates — per The Washington Post.
If an event, such as the passage of an intensely unpopular law or the election of an intensely unpopular president, were to predicate another such protest — perhaps on an even larger scale — it’s theoretically possible that a bloodless coup could be started.
However, a bloodless coup requires those in power to realize that holding power puts them on the losing end of the cost-benefit analysis, and to agree to step down peacefully. Since nothing of the sort has ever happened in the United States, it’s impossible to look to history for a precedent.
Coups are generally predicated by tension between military factions, tension between ethnic and/or religious groups, or the result of protest against dictatorial rule.
So far, here in the U.S., the military is as unified and stable as it’s ever been, and that is unlikely to change. The tensions between the right and the left in the U.S. run deep, but not nearly as deeply as they do between belligerent ethnic or religious groups like in, say, Rwanda or Yemen. And though Donald Trump is an unpopular president — one who has made some moves that seem dictatorial, such as declaring the free press the “enemy of the people” — so far, he is nowhere near to being the textbook definition of a dictator. He has not caused large-scale protests that have shut down entire cities and have lasted for weeks or months, such as took place in Egypt in response to Hosni Mubarek’s dictatorial rule.
Long-story short, it would take a series of failures in our military, political, and social infrastructure before a anything resembling a coup might take place. In other words, a coup in the U.S. is extremely unlikely, but is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.