Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle took to Twitter Tuesday afternoon to demand people stop referring to President Tinpot's clownish attempts to hold on to power as a "coup," because words mean things and apparently should never be used figuratively.

You know what that means! It is time for a splainer from a (literal, actual) doctor of rhetoric, and that (literal, actual) doctor of rhetoric c'est moi.

Let us begin with some rules of arguing: Calling Trump's bullshit con job a "coup" doesn't have to be absolutely literal, and it's unlikely anyone thinks using that term will "remedy" Trump's flailing attempts to abuse his power. "Coup" strikes me as a perfectly cromulent usage in this case, but McArdle complained it lacks precision, and lord knows one must never be imprecise on Twitter. Besides, she has a definition of "coup," and Trump's ongoing bumblefuckery, supported by pretty much the whole of the Republican Party, does not meet this definition:

McArdle's chosen definition, we'd add, is the one that comes up when you Google "coup," which strikes us as a tad lazy, not to mention not terribly convincing, even for the trite purpose of arguing from a dictionary definition.

Though if you're going to play that game, you should at least acknowledge there are additional meanings for "coup" beyond the fairly limited primary meaning of "coup d'état." My beloved American Heritage Fourth Edition includes this secondary meaning "A sudden appropriation of leadership or power; a takeover. a boardroom coup." Extend the time frame beyond "sudden" — there is actually a well-known term regarding "slow-motion coups" — and you've got Donald Trump's attempt, however inept and likely to fail, to illegitimately extend his stay in office.


Elsewhere in the Twitter thread, another reply points out a type of coup that may somewhat better describe what Trump hopes to achieve, even if he's not likely to succeed, citing Wikipedia's entry on the "self-coup" or "autocoup" (from the Spanish autogolpe), which may in fact unfold over a longer time and not involve bloodshed. In an autocoup,

a nation's leader, despite having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers not granted under normal circumstances. Other measures taken may include annulling the nation's constitution, suspending civil courts and having the head of government assume dictatorial powers.

That appears to tick a lot of Trumpian boxes, too, at least aspirationally.

But McArdle bravely resisted any attempt to suggest that it's far from "baseless" to worry that Trump is in the process of seizing power in a couplike manner, because words mean things and you will not vary from her preferred nomenclature. Another reply asked,

If Trump muddies the waters with frivolous "investigations", riles up the base, uses them to force R's in state legislatures to send competing electors in states he clearly lost and then wins in the House, would it be unfair to characterize that as a political coup?

McArdle was only willing to reply that would be "Antidemocratic," but "coups are usually violent." So as long as nobody's being shot down in the streets, it's merely an antidemocracy, or whatever the noun form of "anti-democratic" might be.

In another reply, McArdle explained that whatever is happening shouldn't be called a coup because Trump's people aren't really serious about any of this:

As the leaks make clear, everyone senior in the admin and the party understands this is going nowhere. They're humoring him. This is terrible. It' just not a coup.

She also said Trump's actions are

a face-saving move by a loser. An incredibly corrosive, destructive, and dangerous face-saving move that no responsible person should countenance. Also not a coup.

And so on; the gist of her argument is that it's somehow very inaccurate to call Trump's attempts to stay in power by denying and attempting to subvert the election's outcome a "coup" because it's just more Trumpy bullshit signifying nothing. And it's not sudden. And so far, he hasn't ordered the Guardia Nacional to surround Congress or ordered the roundup of dissidents; he's merely fantasized on Twitter about arresting Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton — oh, and actually called for Attorney General William Barr to hurry up and do it, as a normal president does. Besides, he's too incompetent to really pull off a wholesale takeover of government, so let's not call it a coup, or even an attempted coup. He's simply refusing to recognize that voters gave him the Goodbye Look.

Won't you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen?


McArdle's nitpicky insistence on the strict definition of coup discounts the value of using the term more figuratively, as reply after reply pointed out: Trump is taking some fundamentally anti-democratic actions, and it truly is unprecedented. The fact that he hasn't taken to wearing sunglasses and epaulets is beside the point: Coup has the right metaphorical heft to fit this situation, even if no folk singers are being dragged off to the national soccer stadium and tortured to death.

Beyond that, McArdle's attempt to play language cop has the overall effect of downplaying the seriousness of what Trump and his crew of thuggish jokers are up to — haha, a "smooth transition to a second Trump administration," it is to laugh. All they're doing is tearing down the fundamental institutions of democracy, so don't go calling it a coup until it's really a coup.

And if the heavily armed Trump fans move from threatening to murder people celebrating Joe Biden's election, and actually start shooting, that won't be a coup either, since the lone wolves won't be directly under Trump's command.

This has been a post from a doctor of rhetoric bitching about Megan McArdle.

[Megan McArdle on Twitter / WNBC-TV]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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