Coup d’etat in the internet age

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One of the first lessons I learned as a journalist came in 2012, when I was covering the scientific pace for the Cornell Daily Sun. I wrote the rare flowering of a Titan Arum, a giant Sumatran plant known as the Corpse Flower. (The plant smells of death when it blooms – a trait that attracts carrion-thirsty beetles and flies necessary for pollination.)

As I sat down to reflect through my garland, I tripped. “On Sunday March 18, Cornell’s corpse flower bloomed in …” Hmm, I thought. What time did it officially flower?

While studying the strange species, I discovered that its once-in-a-decade blooms are complex processes that take up to two days. Trying to determine exactly when the corpse flower “bloomed” revealed my own misunderstanding of the subject.

I remembered this revelation while reading about the horrific riots last week on Capitol Hill. On Monday, Fiona Hill, former national security adviser to President Trump, wrote in an op-ed for Politico that the actions of the commander-in-chief represent a coup, an assertion she does not make lightly.

At the start of his commentary, Hill points out people’s objections to the label “coup”. Some people claim the uprising was not a coup because Trump did not call on the military to interfere with Congressional certification of the 2020 elections. Trump did not invoke his presidential powers to support the insurrection (even if he prompted him), nor did he execute a secret takeover plot. Either way, the revolt was never going to succeed, right?

Hill skillfully parades these points. “These observations are based on the idea that a coup d’etat is a sudden and violent takeover involving clandestine plots and military takeovers,” she writes. “In contrast, Trump’s goal was to stay in power, and his actions were carried out over a period of months and in slow motion.”

The most reliable study of Rebellion remains the Romanian historian Edward Luttwak Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, published in 1968. As Luttwak observed, most successful coups are swift and armed. They often focus on eliminating opposition leaders, taking control of the media, and restricting people’s movements and speeches. The most agile usurpers seize power before anyone knows what happened.

The world has changed a lot since Luttwak wrote his mutineer’s Bible. The media landscape has been destroyed by the internet and hollowed out by tech giants, for example. Taking control of telegraphs and post offices or television and radio towers is not as easy or as efficient as it once was.

So what does a successful coup look like in this new decentralized media environment? How to bring about regime change (or entrench an old one) in a world where social media reigns and businesses can muzzle world leaders and disadvantaged communication services at will? Moreover, what will the coups d’etat look like when, one day, Me and the others are waiting, cryptographic technologies put content moderation decisions in the hands of members of the online community? I don’t know, but I suspect Luttwak main dish will need to be revised.

For Hill, Trump’s behavior is described as a “slow-motion” coup. Similar to Titan Arum, flowering did not happen all at once, it took place in stages over a long period of time. The riots on Wednesday made the stench of rot unworthy.

Robert hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com


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