While many watched the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with a mixture of awe and horror, Edward Luttwak viewed the event with the cold, disdainful gaze of a professional. a military strategist sometimes called “Machiavelli of Maryland”, Luttwak is the author of a curious instruction book noble Coup d’état: a practical guide (1968). This manual, Luttwak assures readers, “can be likened to a cookbook in that it is intended to enable any layperson equipped with enthusiasm and the right ingredients to pull off their own coup.”
At least one would-be usurper appears to have consulted this volume. Luttwak likes to tell the story of how, in the midst of a failed coup in 1972, Moroccan General Mohammad Oufkir was assassinated with a copy of the book in his possession. (Skeptics might note that the anecdote would have been more impressive had Oufkir’s attempt to overthrow the Moroccan king been successful.)
Aside from the theoretical knowledge evidenced in his book, Luttwak was also a first-hand participant in Donald Trump’s desperate attempt to cling to power. On December 14, 2020, Luttwak was part of a group of Trump supporters. fixed to the Defense Policy Board, a last-minute bureaucratic appointment seen as an effort by Trump, albeit typically ill-conceived and ineffective, to gain control of the military.
writing in The Wall Street Journal on January 7, 2021, Luttwak gave a low grade to the aborted insurrection of the previous day. Like a teacher dismayed by a student who had learned nothing, Luttwak stated:
What happened was certainly not an attempt coup, either. The coups must be silent, underground conspiracies that surface only when the enforcers move into the seats of power to begin issuing orders as the new government. A very large, very loud and colorful gathering cannot attempt a hit.
Even if you don’t share Luttwak’s politics, it is possible to agree with his basic assessment of January 6. In late 2020 and early 2021, I described Trump as working for a “clown coup,” an attempted subversion of democracy. that was doomed to failure because there was no plausible mechanism to subdue the national government. One point I repeatedly emphasized was that all the evidence indicated that the military brass were actively resisting Trump’s attempt to turn them into a private army. Without necessarily attributing to military leaders any commitment to constitutional norms, it was clear that they viewed Trump as an unstable buffoon. This irate former reality TV host was not a horseman any serious official would risk his career by supporting in an extra-constitutional power grab. (Subsequent reporting by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker in the new yorker about the dispute between Trump and the Pentagon has only reinforced this assessment).
The Pentagon is key, because any plausible path to a coup in the United States would require having the armed wing of the state on board, both the military and a significant portion of law enforcement. By encouraging a mob to attack the Capitol, an act that caused police officers to be harmed, Trump went down a path that would likely alienate the very cadres he needs to seize state power by force.
But if Trump was too inept to pull off a real coup, can the same be said for all of his political allies? There is mounting evidence that many on the right are taking lessons from the January 6 defeat to plan the next coup.
On Thursday, Cameron Joseph reported in Vice that Blake Masters, a Republican candidate in the Arizona Senate race, told a Republican caucus last August that the military had to be purged. “His whole class general, they’re leftist politicians right now,” Masters said. “It is very difficult to become a general without being some kind of centre-left politician. I’d love to see all the generals fired. You take the most conservative colonels, promote them to generals.”
The idea that American generals are somehow “leftists” is ridiculous, unless one believes that anyone who resists Trump’s attempt to subjugate the military to his personal whims is a leftist. More worryingly, politicizing the military by raising a cadre of ambitious junior officers is what you would do if you were planning a coup.
The Luttwak coup guide offers guidance on this very point. In that book, Luttwak advises any would-be conspirator to make lists of junior officers who have been denied promotion. “Of course, colonels have always been prominent in military coups,” Luttwak notes wryly. These skinny, hungry guys will make excellent fodder, though Luttwak warns that Colonels in particular can be difficult to control.
The battlefield of the coup is not the streets but the corridors of power. As Luttwak observes, the coup “operates in that zone outside the government but inside the state that is made up of the permanent and professional civil service, the armed forces and the police. The objective is to separate the permanent employees of the State from the political leadership.”
If Blake Masters dreams of mobilizing junior officers as recruits in a right-wing makeover of the state, the Claremont Institute is focusing its energy on another key agent of state power, the bailiffs. The Claremont Institute is the most ardent trumpist of right-wing think tanks, the home of law professor John C. Eastman, a key architect of Trump’s legal strategy to nullify the 2020 election. The Claremont Institute has started a “Sheriffs Fellowship” to provide ideological training to the bailiffs. A fundraising letter made public by Christian Vanderbrouk, a writer for the bastion, clarifies the ideological bent of Sheriffs Fellowship. According to the letter, “One important thing made clear by the riots, shutdowns, and election disasters of 2020 is that America and our nation’s conservative movement need a compensatory network of uncorrupted law enforcement officials.” The letter goes on to say that “the sheriff’s community will play a central role in countering the perversion of the judicial system through which the revolutionary left seeks to advance its totalitarian agenda.” Vanderbrouk places the letter in the context of other Claremont Institute documents attempting to legitimize the attempted 2020 insurrection and future efforts to overturn election results. Vanderbrouk concludes“The message is clear: Do whatever it takes to crush your opponents and all will be forgiven in Trump’s second term.”
In his bulletin “Unpopular Front,” John Ganz, a keen right-wing observer, connect Sheriffs Fellowship with two earlier far-right formations, the Posse Comitatus and the Constitutional Sheriffs movements, which encouraged sheriffs to exercise extralegal power over elected officials:
Claremont has adopted this rhetoric to connect with the current Constitutional bailiffs movement, which counts hundreds of royal county bailiffs as members. In doing this, they seek to achieve two apparent goals of their organization: the extension of a network to far-right subcultures, and the development of alternative, extralegal, and now even armed, power structures.
It is important to measure yourself against the threat: aspirations are not inevitable. In late 2020 and early 2021, Trump clumsily incited his supporters, leading to an aborted insurrection that spawned actual violence but never came close to achieving its goal. Current right-wing attempts to create incentives for power-hungry colonels and sheriffs are dangerous, but they are not guaranteed success. They demand vigilance instead of hysteria: the proper political response is to make the GOP pay for taking care of this large seditious faction. This has to become a key electoral issue. Joe Biden’s speech on the dangers of MAGA Republicans was a good start and needs to be repeated with more warnings that the aftermath of the 2021 insurrection is being planned right now.