In the modern era, there have been few more spectacularly bungled attempts to wrest power away from the forces of history than the August 1991 plot to keep the Soviet Union from imploding.
The plan began inauspiciously enough: in a sweltering banya, lubricated by vodka and scotch, a half-dozen semi-nude apparatchiks and generals devised a scheme to force the General Secretary to step down, take the levers of power, save the empire and themselves. It was a debacle.
The USSR had already sacrificed its legitimacy at the time the plot was hatched. Soviet reformers had compelled Moscow to open its archives, revealing the deal with Nazi Germany that consigned the Baltic states to imprisonment inside the worker’s republic and exposing how the Soviet origin story wasn’t just a lie but the product of collaboration with its most vilified enemy. A new treaty to ratify the Union was on the table, and it would surely lead to the independence of many of its constituent republics. The game was already over, but the August plotters couldn’t see it. Not from the bottom of a bottle, anyway. All they could see was their power, their ideology—their very identities—slipping away.
Everything that could go wrong did. Confronted by the plotters, Mikhail Gorbachev refused to resign and was subsequently detained. The plotters took control of state radio and television but only replaced regular programming with Tchaikovsky on an ominous loop. None of the 200 targets they sought to arrest were detained. One, Boris Yeltsin, managed to rally anti-putschist Muscovites from atop the tanks that were intended to intimidate Soviet citizens but only galvanized them. The scene was somehow allowed to be broadcast on Soviet television, mobilizing much of the country in opposition. When the plotters appeared on Soviet television visibly inebriated, the dead-enders were exposed. The once fearsome apparatus of the state was a paper tiger. Gorbachev was released, two of the plot leaders shot themselves, and the rest were imprisoned. The Communist Party they sought to preserve was banned, and the USSR dismantled itself.
Compare this to what Donald Trump’s fiercest allies are trying to do now, and the August Coup looks brilliantly conceived and competently executed by contrast. If this is a “coup,” as an excitable sort has taken to calling it, it’s one of the dumbest in modern history.
For a brief moment on Tuesday night, one Democrat-heavy Michigan county board of canvassers deadlocked over whether to certify the election results that would hand the state’s electoral votes to Joe Biden. After two hours, amid a cascade of bipartisan criticism, the standoff was resolved, but not before the president and his campaign officials declared the naked power-grab a “huge win” for Donald Trump.
If reports are to be believed, this was all part of the plan. According to sources who spoke with the Washington Post, the Trump campaign’s last big idea is to force states to delay the certification of election results, paving the way for supposedly loyal Republican state legislators to disregard the vote and appoint their own electors. Think too long about it, though, and the plan quickly falls apart. Trump’s margin of defeat in Michigan is simply too large to be explained by shenanigans at the polls, and the state’s GOP legislators have already promised that they would not subvert the will of the voters.
But the plot doesn’t involve Michigan alone. According to Post reporter Robert Costa, people close to Rudy Giuliani (who leads the legal campaign to save the president from defeat) acknowledge that the election is lost if the votes are all counted. Their only hope now is to force states to avoid certifying their respective results, prevent Biden from achieving a majority in the Electoral College, and throw the presidency to the House of Representatives where, presumably, the Republican-led majority of state delegations would reelect the president.
The plan is as diabolical as it is nonsensical. It is somehow more disdainful of the conventions that have preserved American comity than even progressive schemes to pack the courts, destroy the character of the Senate, and add new states to the Union. At least those advocating such harebrained schemes acknowledge the institutional obstacles in their path. For Trump’s allies, the biggest impediment to achieving their objective—the votes of hundreds of thousands of Americans—are simply waved away.
The president himself has embraced an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that a voting equipment supply company rigged the election against him. Anyone who says otherwise—and they are numerous—is ignored or attacked. And when those voices of dissent come from within his own administration, they are summarily fired. The president doesn’t even bother to craft a cover story to justify his actions.
There is no persuasive effort underway. Indeed, public persuasion seems an afterthought. All you hear from the White House is Tchaikovsky on a loop.
None of this is particularly intimidating. It’s pitiful. What Trump is sacrificing amid these desperate efforts to cling to power is one of his best political assets: the perception that he is an effective pugilist in defense of what is his and, therefore, presumably a strong advocate for his constituents. That was only ever a matter of perception—Trump himself has confessed he’s more of a “whiner” than a fighter. But the president’s goal is to remain relevant within the party—a kingmaker ahead of 2022 and a resurgent force in 2024. The fiasco over which he presides only makes it easier for those Republicans who have to break from Trump and Trumpism to succeed him. Like the coup plotters, the Republicans mounting a hopeless last stand are sacrificing their legitimacy and honor in defense of a hill that is already overrun.
But that sort of tawdry politics can wait for another day. The impropriety of it all cannot and should not be ignored. Yes, Trump voters feel like it shouldn’t have gone this way. They think it doesn’t make any sense, and there is too much smoke in the air for there to be no fire somewhere—anywhere. But those feelings are the byproduct of a deliberate misinformation campaign. Far from being menaced by this subterfuge, Trump’s Democratic opponents can summon only embarrassment for the president.
There is no modern analog for the display Republicans are engaging in—no parallel to which the right can point and claim their actions are justified by the standards of decency Democrats violated long ago. This is new. And though it may soon become more dangerous than it is today, the flailing tantrum in which the president’s final phalanx is engaged isn’t frightening as much as it is pathetic.