August 6, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The next time the GOP attempts a coup d’état, it won’t be loud. It will be quiet. It will be legal

The press and pundit corps should assume this in all political discourse.

The next time the GOP attempts a coup d'état, it won't be loud. It will be quiet. It will be legal

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I founded this newsletter, because normal people were not getting what they needed to be good citizens. I arrived at that belief, because it became clear to me, after writing about politics for long enough, that the Washington press and pundits corps don’t necessarily see the dangers normal people see. That’s because they are not normal. 

The press and pundit corps are overwhelmingly stocked with products of elite colleges and universities. This is acutely the case with the Ivy Leagues, from which ambitious students can jump directly to the Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the networks. (Josh Barro, a member of the Very Serious Debate Club, is a textbook example.) They are not normal, which is not to say bad. But because they were born to power, they tend to reflect power’s views, even as they claim to hold it accountable.

Former DOJ official Jeffrey Clark’s letter is now being codified by GOP-controlled states. This history is, or should be, the context for all future discourse on national politics.

Again, this is not to say bad. (Though it absolutely can be!) It is, however, to say that normal people are seeing things that people in power, and that people who come from power and sympathize with its views, are not seeing clearly. To give you an example, normal people might see that the GOP, up and down the party, has made lying central to its objective of ruling without democratic accountability. Members of the press and pundit corps, on account of knowing that lying is just something you do when you have power, don’t call it lying. They call it something else, like “political rhetoric.” Where normal people might see immorality and loss, they see word games.

This creates a problem for a republic. We depend on the press and pundit corps to give us good quality information. We need that information to make good decisions as participants in a democratic community dedicated to freedom, equality and the rule of law. But if the corps are not seeing the danger posed by a Republicans Party that acts more like a separatist movement than a good faith bargaining partner, citizens themselves might not be as alarmed as they should be about a separatist movement that is, as we speak, threatening to rend the world’s oldest federation of free states.

For this reason, we should celebrate when members of Washington’s press and pundit corps use language accurately depicting the dangers we are facing. We should encourage their colleagues to follow suit. Let’s all celebrate and encourage CNN’s Erin Burnett for calling the disgraced former president’s attempted coup d’état on January 6 by its name. Let’s also applaud MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and the Post’s Philip Bump. 

All three produced stories, based on original reporting by ABC News, that deepened our understanding of the failed insurrection. More importantly, by way of deepening our understanding, they have made clear that the Republicans already have a plan for stealing the next election. Yes, they have a plan. This is the next step in the evolution of the press and pundit corps’ vocabulary. “Failed coup” must lead to “planned coup.” We should build this presumption of a “planned coup” into our political discourse.  

It all begins with a draft letter written by a man named Jeffrey Clark. In the previous administration, Clark was then-acting head of the United States Justice Department’s civil division. Philip Bump’s piece in the Post is too good not to quote at length: 

Addressed to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and state legislative leaders, the draft letter dated Dec. 28 claimed that the department was “investigating various irregularities” in the presidential contest and that it had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” 

The stated recommendation was that the legislature “convene in special session so that its legislators are in a position to take additional testimony, receive new evidence, and deliberate on the matter”—something that the letter describes as “consistent with its duties under the US Constitution” as it pertains to the selection of presidential electors.

The letter went on to suggest that an alternative slate of electors—that is, electors for Trump—might be accepted on Jan. 6 should the legislature demand that happen. Understanding that Kemp had already risen to the defense of the results in the state, Clark claimed in the letter that the legislature could simply call itself into session to make that determination.

It was, in other words, a road map to overthrowing the will of voters. The amount of detail given to the mechanism for handing the electors to Trump was matched by the dearth of specificity about the alleged “irregularities” in the state.  

The attorney general at the time nixed the letter, but it seems to me a document that reasonably anticipates the future. Sure, I have not followed closely changes to state election law that Georgia legislators have made since the inauguration of Joe Biden. I have not followed closely changes made to state election law in a number of states. But from what I understand, they have all made arrangements for the state legislators to step in when state election authorities are not producing desirable results. It seems to me that each state has followed the thinking outlined in this letter by Jeffrey Clark.

Burnett, Hayes and Bump each stress something important to bear in mind. The January 6 insurrection was the most obvious attempt to overthrow a free, fair and full election. It was violent. It was noisy. It was broadcast live. It was also a last-ditch effort by an outgoing president who had exhausted every other option available to him. 

But what Burnett, Hayes and Bump don’t do, or do enough, is say this. That the GOP failed doesn’t mean it won’t try again. Burnett’s, Hayes’ and Bump’s stories suggest that if things had gone just slightly differently, we’d now be deep into Donald Trump’s second term. The coup next time won’t be an ear-clanging clown car wreck. It will be quiet. It will be legal. Jeffrey Clark’s letter is now being codified by GOP-controlled states. This history is, or should be, the context for all future discourse on national politics. If it isn’t, we’re back where we started—with corps not seeing what they must see in order to honor their constitutional obligation of informing the citizenry.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

10 Comments

  1. David Mikulec on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    “I founded this newsletter, because normal people were not getting what they needed to be good citizens. I arrived at that belief, because it became clear to me, after writing about politics for long enough, that the Washington press and pundits corps don’t necessarily see the dangers normal people see.”

    I can’t thank you enough for the information you provide. It’s invaluable!

    And growing up with local newspapers and Cronkite in the evening? Oh how I miss old school journalism. Or maybe I’m just getting old. 😉

    • John Stoehr on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

      I’m here for you!

  2. Chris on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    Thank you for your timely piece today regarding & explaining the state of journalism in our country, at least in D.C. I am just sick & tired of the media covering, quoting, and printing the words of the separatists! During the Civil War the separatist South had its own newspapers. Perhaps D.C. journalists, aka Northern journalists, should only cover Democrats?

    • John Stoehr on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

      You’re very welcome.

  3. abbyinsm on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    Will someone please drum it into Brian Williams’s head that going to Harvard does not mean you are smarter or more competent or insightful? Williams introduces every pundit with their university pedigree as if that gives them credibility. John, you have so perfectly articulated the actual meaning of a “prestigious” degree: it signals a foundation rooted in elitist culture.

    • David Mikulec on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

      I’ve met more than a few with a wall full of paper in frames, who didn’t know shit from Shinola. But you can’t tell them that. 😉

  4. dan tynan on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    I think the problem is that journalists inside the beltway are afraid of being seen as too extreme, paranoid, or captive to conspiracy theories. They have to characterize this radicalization of GOP power grab tactics as ‘politics as usual’, in part because otherwise they might seem naive or not jaded enough for their bosses, colleagues, etc. It’s more about professional reputation than professional responsibilities. We saw the same thing with the reluctance to brand The Former Guy’s constant lying as actual ‘lies.’ It took 3+ years for them to finally acknowledge that reality.

    Part of that is due to the frog-in-the-pot effect. We’ve seen dirty attack politics from the GOP since the early days of the Clinton administration. And the Republicans have been gradually turning up the heat ever since. So it does seem like politics as usual — until it isn’t. And then it will be too late.

  5. Gary Herstein on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    By the bye, the road map laid out here is very much of a piece with Levitsky’s and Ziblatt’s discussion in their book “How Democracies Die.”

  6. John Smart on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    I feel it’s worth stating here a reminder: We have useful ways of fighting back and overturning overturned elections….reversing authoritarian reversals… Never forget that. Moderates and liberals need to remember that WE ARE THE MAJORITY.

    Targeted boycotts and strikes can and will upend the fascists when the time comes. (We need to be less reliant on the knee jerk marches IMHO) I’ve felt for a long time the day of reckoning with the authoritarians was impending. We came close on Jan 6th – it WILL happen in 2022 – I’m sure of it. The good news is we’re not Germans – stolen elections en masse will – I presume – will get push back from the majority. We – the majority – should be talking about strikes and boycotts – and any other technique to ruin the Far Right’s plans.

    We need to remember to stay empowered. The GOP is doing this now because they’ve suffered no consequences. Let us plan their consequences.

  7. Bern on August 9, 2021 at 12:21 am

    I’m just diggin’ Jeff Clark’s cosmic Chinese thermometers…

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