What Is a Coup D'Etat, and Is the U.S. 'Coup-proof'?

By: Joanna Thompson  | 

Myanmar coup
Anti-coup protesters hold banners and raise three-fingered salutes April 3, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar's military junta continued its brutal crackdown on a nationwide civil disobedience movement. Local media and monitoring organizations estimate that more than 600 people have been killed since the coup began in February. Getty Images/Getty Images

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military seized control of the country's government, ousting democratically elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The event sparked widespread resistance from the pro-democracy electorate, many of whom took to the streets to march in peaceful protest. They were met with violence from the military regime. To date, more than 600 people — including women and children — have been killed.

Political turmoil like what's happening in Myanmar is not new. But what occurred at a QAnon-affiliated event May 31, 2021 — Memorial Day — was. At the For God & Country Patriot Roundup conference in Dallas, former national security adviser Michael Flynn suggested a coup "should happen" in the U.S. when responding to a question from an audience member who asked "why what happened in Myanmar can't happen here."

A former U.S. national security adviser implying the U.S. military should overthrow the government shocked and concerned many, including Republican Representative Liz Cheney who condemned Flynn's comments on Twitter.

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A Blow to the State

The French phrase "coup d'état" literally translates to "blow of state" in English, likening forced political seizure to a physical strike against the government. It didn't enter the English lexicon until the late 1700s, coinciding with several major political upheavals in France.

Coups d'état differ from other forms of civil unrest — like war, rioting and revolution — in several ways. "Unlike civil wars, coups usually take place on one day," Brian Klaas, an associate professor of global politics at University College London and host of the Power Corrupts podcast, says in an email exchange.

He also points out that unlike revolutions, which tend to have broad majority support, coups are usually spearheaded by a small group seeking political power. Finally, they also tend to focus on an executive power, such as a president or a prime minister, rather than the entire governmental apparatus.

When most people think of a coup d'état they picture a violent military uprising: something like Chile's bloody overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973 or the 2012 revolt that cost an untold number of lives in Mali. And although the majority of these events do skew toward violence, not all coups involve bloodshed. Napoleon's 1799 capture of Paris, for instance, reportedly went off without a single death.

Let's examine some of the conditions under which coups d'état occur.

Chilean coup
Armed guards watch out for attackers as Chilean President Salvador Allende leaves the Moneda Presidential Palace during the military coup in which he was eventually overthrown and killed in 1973.
Photo by Luis Orlando Lagos Vázquez/Keystone/Getty Images

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What Brews a Coup?

So what leads to a coup? "If I'm being honest, it's very idiosyncratic from country to country," says Scott Anderson, a senior fellow with the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School.

Klaas agrees. "The drivers of a coup in a place like Madagascar are very different from those in Thailand, for example," he says, even though both countries are coup hotspots. But, he says, the general rule of thumb is that "political chaos and dysfunction make coups more likely."

The best coup predictor for any given country is whether that country has a history of them.

After gaining independence from Britain, Myanmar enjoyed 14 years of democracy before its first military coup in 1962. A procession of military juntas followed until 2011, when the country transitioned back to a representative quasi-democracy. However, the military, evidently dissatisfied with the most recent election results, snatched power back earlier this year.

Another predictor is a country's economic status. Generally, poorer countries tend to have more political unrest, which can lead a small, radicalized group to seek power. Four of the current top five most impoverished countries in the world by gross domestic product (Burundi, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Malawi) have all experienced coup d'état attempts in the last decade.

But it would be erroneous to assume that only poor nations are susceptible. After all, one of history's most famous attempted coups, the assassination of Julius Caesar, occurred near the height of the Roman Empire's power.

Deep political polarization can also precipitate a coup, especially if one group feels that their interests are being excluded in the election process.

military chain of command
One way experts say the U.S. is designed to be "coup-proof" is because of the military chain of command. There are checks in place if corruption enters the hierarchy.
U.S. Department of Defense

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Divided We Fall

So, with that in mind, could a coup d'état happen in the U.S.? Experts say it's improbable, though not impossible.

Coups rarely happen in what political scientists have termed "consolidated democracies," where democratic institutions are deeply and firmly entrenched. "The United States is a consolidated, albeit severely flawed, democracy," Klaas says.

Anderson says three major factors contribute to the United States' "coup-proofing." The first is an independent court system. By and large, U.S. courts are non-partisan and beholden to judge, jury and legal precedent rather than a particular political party. This holds true even for Supreme Court justices, who may be appointed directly by a sitting president.

Second is military chain of command. The president holds the highest rank in the military; as Commander in Chief, every general answers to them. And as an institution, respect for authority in the military runs deep.

But if corruption enters the hierarchy, there are still checks in place. Soldiers have the right to refuse orders that strike them as "palpably illegal." Furthermore, U.S. military personnel are not a completely homogenized group.

As of 2021, people of any gender, racial background, sexual orientation or political persuasion can — and are encouraged to — serve. Together, these (theoretically) ensure that one political actor or party does not achieve an unbreakable stranglehold over military power.

Finally, there's the sheer byzantine sprawl of the United States government. "We have a highly decentralized system," Anderson says, "it's actually fairly difficult to hijack the system, because you would need to hijack lots and lots of parts."

Some political scholars have argued that the 25th Amendment, which allows a sitting vice president to take over for a president who is deemed "unfit for office," could amount to a non-military coup under the right circumstances. Other individuals have argued on Facebook that the Insurrection Act of 1807 somehow provides a legal loophole that would authorize the former president to command the military — a claim that Anderson calls "complete nonsense."

But democracy needs to stay vigilant. Once the idea is in the air, a coup becomes marginally more possible, feeding the fears and false beliefs of a small group of extremists. That's why, as Klaas says, "Flynn's statement was extraordinarily dangerous."

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Originally Published: Sep 21, 2006

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