Both the departure of Evo Morales from the presidency of Bolivia and the ongoing impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump have been called coups by loyalists.
Lest there be confusion on this point: I could be talking about either or both of them when I tell you: No, it’s not a coup.
President Morales sought an unprecedented (and arguably, though not demonstrably, illegal) fourth term in office, and the polls had him well in the lead before violent protests began. After several days of riots and attacks against government officials, the military sided with the protestors and Morales was forced to resign and decamp to Mexico along with his Vice President. His political allies and the next in the constitutional line of succession, the President of the Senate and the President of the Chamber of Deputies, also resigned fearing violence. As a result, the Senate opposition leader, Jeanine Añez, succeeded to the office and was sworn in as president on the 12th of November.
Thus spelled out, this has all the hallmarks of a coup. Military involvement; forced resignations; fleeing the country in fear for their lives — this has happened before in South America, and it will happen again. The pattern is more than familiar; it’s reliable.
And yet, there is one single factor that makes all the difference, that legitimizes rather than invalidates the unusual succession. Before the election, Morales had promised to abide by the judgment of election monitors from the Organization of American States. During the vote count on the 10th, there was reason to think that the results would force a runoff election in December. Then, publication of results was abruptly interrupted for 24 hours, and resumed with Morales well in the lead late the following day. Election monitors cried foul; opposition leaders called for riots — and Morales fled.
If in fact new elections are held, and soon, the interim presidency of Jeanine Añez will be legitimate. If they are not, this will be a coup — but not because of the departure of Morales; rather it will be improper the moment a decision is made to delay the elections beyond a reasonable date. Given the large amount of international attention focused on the process, it seems unlikely that Añez would be able to take such a step; likewise, one can assume that riots would commence if she tried.
There are those who would argue that the vote count will be substantially altered by the power of the transitional government; as Stalin is reputed to have said, “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes.” Which, regardless of the presence of international monitors, is quite true. Then again, it was also true under Morales; turnabout is fair play.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that Donald Trump is not the target of a political witch hunt. He’s one of the most hated people in the country; certainly his opponents are motivated at least partly from personal or political reasons. Were this not the case, so many votes would not be coming down along party lines. No, this is true; it’s obvious.
Let’s look at the metaphor a bit, however — a “witch hunt”. There was a time when completely innocent people were tortured, drowned, and burned at the stake for the crimes of being elderly, living alone, having a squint or a wart perhaps, but above all being thought strange or different. Such is our history, and it’s shameful.
But let us leave aside the supernatural and judge by deeds: If in fact there were a person who poisoned wells, spread plague among children and livestock, and levied powerful curses among the fearful populace, would they not indeed deserve punishment? In that sense, this is in fact a witch hunt, and Donald Trump is very probably a witch.
(NOTE: I mean no offense to my Wiccan readers unless they too poison wells, in which case the comparison is apt. But I consider that unlikely.)
Thing is, this is the way our justice system works. People don’t get arrested for committing crimes; they’re arrested because they are so foolish as to get caught. Most people convicted of murder confess; many are arrested at the scene of the crime. On the other hand, there are those who were arrested covered in the victim’s blood and holding the murder weapon who were not found guilty, whether due to a niggling technicality or, more rarely, because someone else did the crime. Most judges will tell you: People aren’t convicted for being guilty but for being stupid.
There’s another category we see in court: people who mouth off to police officers. Whether the person or their acts deserve respect, the badge demands it. If we don’t show it, we get arrested — because there’s something we’re doing that’s illegal. Complex as our present laws are, there’s always something. And law enforcement are experts; you’re not. The ideal moment to discover that it’s illegal to transport alcohol across county lines is –not– after you’ve pissed off a cop on an otherwise routine traffic stop. Didn’t know it was illegal, or that this lane drifts into another county for fifty feet? Too bad.
Donald Trump has done some very bad things in his business career; some of them were illegal. But his present crime is the presidential equivalent of mouthing off to the cops. And, as a result, he’s being tried for the same things everyone else is tried for: being arrogant, being stupid, being ignorant of the letter of the law, and above all for unwittingly confessing to something he had no idea (or care) was a crime.
After all, every president commits crimes during their tenure. Carter had Iran; Reagan had Iran-Contra; Bush bombed civilians in Iraq; Clinton… well, there’s a list; Bush II signed the Patriot Act; Obama used drone strikes against American citizens. None of them were good men. Let’s face it: The presidency isn’t a job that can be done by someone who is committed to doing only good.
And whether you support Donald Trump or you hate him, you can’t deny this: He’s not a good man doing only good things.
The Bottom Line
A coup is an extralegal transition of power at the head of a country. Evo Morales was forced to leave by a mob, but it was his own promise to abide by the word of election monitors that did him in. Trump is being impeached according to the rules and under the procedures proscribed by the Constitution; regardless of the rightness of the action and its motivations, it’s certainly lawful.