In an appearance on Fox New’s Hannity, Donald Trump continued to escalate his attacks on any attempts at oversight of his administration. Trump, in a lengthy rant about the Mueller Investigation, stated “This was a coup. This wasn’t stealing information from an office in the Watergate apartments. This was an attempted coup. Like a third world country. Inconceivable.” Trump, of course, has criticized the Mueller Investigation before. But since the release of Special Counsel Mueller’s report, his rhetoric has skewed more and more authoritarian. While some may be tempted to dismiss Trump’s words as empty threats, they have a deeper, more sinister meaning. Words, just like laws, have power behind them. And by calling an attempt at oversight of his administration a coup, Trump is appealing to authoritarianism.
Trump, in this moment, is evoking an us vs. them mentality. Its his administration vs. the liberal elites/Robert Mueller, and the list goes on and on. He is essentially claiming that any challenge to his legitimacy or any attempts into conducting oversight are in themselves partisan and illegitimate. This rhetoric is certainly not new to Trump, nor is it new to other authoritarian leaders around the world. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro alleged that efforts by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to call for new elections and install himself as an interim president were part of a U.S. backed coup. While the circumstances in these two countries are certainly different, evoking the concept of a coup in response to challenges of legitimacy is a way of eroding the people’s confidence in government institutions. It becomes a way that a leader can refuse to acknowledge any efforts to conduct oversight, bring change, or place restraints on their power. Calling something a coup makes that thing an existential threat to that nation.
In What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller argues that rhetoric like the kind used by Trump in this case can be a powerful tool. Müller asserts that, “Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say, while not having power themselves; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition. The populist core claim also implies that whoever does not really support populist parties might not be part of the proper people to begin with.”  In calling the Mueller Investigation a coup, President Trump is asserting that there could never have been legitimate grounds to conduct any kind of investigation to the conduct of himself, his staff, or the actions of his campaign. He is saying that the president is beyond reproach and that only partisans not actually trying to represent the people would stop to such a tactic. This has potentially devastating consequences for the United States both now and as we continue to move forward.
It is certainly fair to argue that there may be political reasons behind how the investigation and subsequent release of the redacted Mueller Report were handled on both the left and the right. However, it has been established in the courts that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller was legally appointed. The release of the report was executed in conjunction with Trump’s appointed Attorney General, William Barr. Moreover, oversight and accountability are critical to the foundation of American democracy.
In calling the Mueller Investigation a coup, Donald Trump is setting a dangerous precedent. It’s very possible that future presidents could behave similarly and attempt to portray any act of oversight and investigation as treason. One must also consider the possibility that some of President Trump’s more ardent supporters–those who believe in conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the existence of a Deep State plot against Trump–would feel compelled to act in the fact of this so-called coup to overthrow the President of the United States. As Müller notes, “Populists in office continue to polarize and prepare the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. ”  With this latest escalation, Trump is preparing his base for a similar apocalyptic confrontation with all those who would seek to challenge his legitimacy and his actions as president.
Words have power. And while President Trump has never exactly been careful with his, he must be particularly cautious with how he addresses and reacts to attempts at government oversight. Otherwise, he runs the delegitimizing further vital government institutions like the F.B.I, Congress, the Justice Department, and more. If these institutions are not allowed to perform their most basic functions and conduct investigations into potential wrongdoing, they will become toothless and our country will be at even greater risk. Donald Trump is not the first president to face an investigation or the specter of impeachment. However, in this increasingly politically polarized, we must do all we can to preserve our institutions of democracy and accountability. Otherwise, we run the risk of further democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism, a few tweets of anti-democratic rhetoric at a time.
Academic Sources: Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Ch. 1.  Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Ch. 2.
Photo “Trump-War-Media-1.” Creative Commons Zero license.
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