Since the anonymous letter condemning Trump was published in the New York Times, I’ve seen several takes suggesting Trump is the victim of a coup. The giveaway that this claim is utterly spurious is that it is being advanced by loony pseudointellectuals like Steve Bannon. Unfortunately, it is a view that has also been advanced by otherwise sober individuals.
To be clear, this is a coup. This is also a coup. A letter in a newspaper is not a coup. The important element in both scenes I’ve linked to is not that they occur in Germany. Rather, it is that they involve the forcible overthrow of a regime or government through extralegal means. This is the only acceptable definition of a coup. After all, if we define coups simply as an instance in which someone in the government does something at odds with the senior leadership’s wishes, we would be suffering from coups every day. But this is obviously an absurd interpretation. What is actually happening in the Trump White House is an extreme case of the principal-agent problem. There is a rich literature on bureaucratic politics and the ways in which different organizations and individuals in the government vie for influence and control over policy, and I recommend reading some of it if you have not already. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, certain elements of the military ignored explicit orders from the White House. And in the leadup to the Iraq War, the DoD created its own internal intelligence “think tank” to bypass the CIA, thus allowing the administration to ignore inconvenient information coming out of Langley. These are more egregious examples of the principal-agent problem, but petty insubordination and infighting are standard within any government. Obama also suffered from this problem.
Rose McDermott has addressed this issue explicitly, writing that “If advisers are aware that others are substantively affected by the manner and order in which options and messages are presented, they might easily manipulate information in such a way as to elicit from others the choices they themselves favor.” The root of the problem is that the agents – those tasked with executing the principle’s orders – have privileged information due to their closer proximity to particular issues. For example, Trump (allegedly) has his own views on, and understanding of, NAFTA, but Robert Lighthizer is the one actually doing the negotiating. Thus, Lighthizer both has more “on the ground information” and more influence over the negotiation process, allowing him to selectively interpret Trump’s wishes and also control the information flowing back to the Oval Office. This phenomenon is inevitable in a delegative system like the U.S. government, and it happens to every president. However, it is more of a problem in the Trump White House for two reasons. First, Trump is uniquely unqualified and uninformed about even basic issues. Thus, he is much more easily manipulated than an experienced and savvy policymaker. Second, he has taken exceedingly extreme policy positions, increasing the distance between himself and his agents. This is a very troubling situation, but it still is not a coup.
If this were a coup, the people responsible for the leaks and anonymous letters would be actively trying to replace Trump, but they aren’t. Indeed, the NYT letter explicitly rules out the use of the 25th amendment, and it praises many of Trump’s policies. More importantly, though, these comments have come not from the bureaucracy (what Trump likes to call the Deep State) but from Trump’s own appointees. They, unlike civil servants, are in power only as long as Trump is. Thus, they very obviously are not trying to remove him from the presidency because, if they did, they would also lose their power and influence. What is happening is certainly concerning, as it suggests that there is no coherence to Trump’s policymaking. However, it is absolutely not a coup, so please do not define it as such.