Donald Trump almost got his coup. The Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol could have been even worse, with the mob reaching legislators or even Vice President Mike Pence. Beyond that, Republicans nearly took control of the House of Representatives in the 2020 elections, with Democrats ending up with a narrow majority of just five seats. As it was, 147 Congressional Republicans voted against certifying the electoral vote for Joe Biden on Jan. 6. If Republicans had controlled both houses of Congress during the certification vote, who knows what corrupt Republicans might have done to steal the election from Biden, the legitimate winner.
Democracy didn’t break, but it bent uncomfortably far. Understanding what worked and what failed can help with efforts to strengthen the American governing system in coming years. Here are three things that prevented Trump from snapping the system:
Prosperity. In the 2020 bestseller “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson draws disturbing parallels between Nazi Germany and modern America. In each society, a once-dominant faction lost stature, growing desperate for a way to reestablish itself. In Weimar Germany after World War I, rampant inflation and widespread unemployment stemming from Germany’s crushing war debt devastated Germany’s working and middle classes. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party drew power by exploiting the grievances of humiliated Germans, with Hitler effectively mounting his own coup in 1933 and becoming dictator.
White working-class voters are the core of Trump’s so-called base, and they, too are driven by a loss of stature as globalization and a digital revolution that devalues manual labor. Trump won the White House in 2016 by effectively harnessing that frustration and promising to do something about it. He appealed to these same grievances after he lost in 2020 by telling his base that their one, true champion—Trump—was being railroaded. The Capitol riot on Jan. 6 was in many ways an explosion of white working-class frustration, directed by Trump.
But there’s a huge difference between Germany in 1933 and the United States in 2020. Germany was a wrecked country when Hitler came to power, with unemployment around 33%. Many Germans felt all other efforts to revive their country had failed, leaving nothing to lose by supporting the Nazis. America, for its many problems, is fantastically prosperous and there aren’t that many people willing to blow it all up. Trump got 74 million votes in 2020, but his approval rating following the Capitol violence plummeted to a dismal 34%. Most Trump voters don’t support the overthrow of American democracy. It appears the bulk of the Capitol rioters hailed from extremist groups that are dangerous when organized in a surprise attack, but are nowhere near a political majority.
Economic distress might be driving some of those militants, but even during a tough downturn, the unemployment rate is a relatively low 6.7%. The housing market is booming and stocks hit new record highs regularly. A large majority of the American public has a stake in keeping the system intact. That’s a force for stability, but it could also cause new fissures in the future if there’s a Trumpian president amid a prolonged recession or depression.
Pride. Trump clearly tried to threaten and cajole state and local officials to rig the vote count in his favor in a handful of swing states that determined the election outcome. He found a few sympathizers who seemed willing to try, but mostly Trump encountered dogged opposition from election officials who seemed insulted that anybody, even the president, would tell them how to do their jobs or ask them to forsake their duties to help him. The harshest repudiation came from Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, a conservative Republican who held a series of detailed briefings in early January to refute Trump’s bogus claims about Georgia election fraud. Sterling indicated his preference for Republican victories in Georgia, but be he also expressed outrage at Trump’s implication that he and his co-workers failed at their jobs.
Again, Trump was asking people who had spent years or decades building a stake in the system to give it all up for him. Most didn’t see why they should. A smarter coup plotter would have tried to install lackeys at key points in the electoral system before the election, instead of trying to coerce civil servants after that fact. Even that would be tough, given how decentralized the U.S. election system is.
Professionalism. The U.S. military is a standout. Many Americans don’t realize the uniformed military has extensive procedures for resisting inappropriate involvement in civil matters, including the right, and in fact obligation, to disobey an unlawful order. Senior officers know better than anyone the lines they can’t cross if a politician tries to muster troops for domestic political purposes. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, knew Trump had used him after Trump summoned Milley to appear in combat fatigues with Trump as he marched across Lafayette Square in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., last June. Trump wanted the general there to send the message that he’d send U.S. troops into cities to quell BLM protests, if needed.
That turned out to be an early warning of how Trump might abuse his power if the election didn’t go his way. Milley later apologized for being on scene at Trump’s show of force, while also reminding troops in public statements that their duty was to the Constitution, not to any political leader. To further assure Trump didn’t try to abuse his power, all 10 former living defense secretaries publicly called on the military to stay out of the U.S. election. It did.
These pillars of American democracy held. What we don’t yet know is whether Trump weakened them or revealed vulnerabilities a more capable autocrat could exploit further. Better to strengthen these pillars than to test them again.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.