The Return of the Presidential Putsch


Jan 11, 2024

Supporters of Donald Trump clash with police officers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021, photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

Supporters of Donald Trump clash with police officers in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021

Photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

This commentary first appeared in Newsweek on January 11, 2024.

On Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump launched what scholars have called a failed executive coup—also known as a self-coup—aimed to perpetuate his hold on power after losing at the ballot box. While this event captured the world, other presidential putsches across the globe have largely failed to garner similar attention. Three years later, we still know surprisingly little about the causes and consequences of this dangerous type of coup, despite their recent global resurgence.

Executive coups fall within the broader democratic backsliding or “autocratization” scholarly concepts, but have so far largely escaped careful analysis. After a brief lull, presidential coups are now back. Scholars differ on the specifics of how to define and count these coups, yet it is clear that a wide variety of countries have suffered from them as of late.

There have been nine executive coups over the past decade, according to the Cline Center at the University of Illinois. They define self-coups, or auto-coups, as “coups where the existing chief executive takes extreme measures to eliminate, or render powerless, other components of the government (legislature, judiciary, etc.).” Critically, these efforts must be irregular (extra-legal) and short-term. They also include situations “where the chief executive simply assumes extraordinary powers.”

Such events have taken place across a wide array of regimes and regions, including in El Salvador in 2020, Tunisia in 2021, and Peru and Pakistan in 2022. Overall, the Cline Center counted a total of 41 (30 successes, 11 failures) events over the 1951–2022 period.

What explains the return of the presidential putsch? Existing analysis offers little practical guidance. Scholarly work points to the importance of military support in shaping their success or failure. Others highlight the popularity of the incumbent (PDF), the character of the opposition response, and presidential (versus parliamentary) types of political systems.

Yet international and regional factors can also be critical. A provisional review of the record of self-coup events since 1990 (when robust anti-coup norms began) revealed that international responses have the potential to be determinative in shaping outcomes. This is especially so in new and semi-democracies that are susceptible to unified outside pressure.

International supporters of democracy must step up and provide more robust and consistent responses to executive coup attempts.

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Take, for example, the classic example of the self-coup that succeeded in Peru in 1992, versus the failed attempt in Gambia, in 2017. In Peru, scholars on the region have pointed to a lack of a unified outside response to oppose the coup, both from within the region as well as among international actors, as a contributing factor to its success.

In Gambia, in 2017, on the other hand, a regional military intervention eventually forced President Yahya Jammeh from power when, after he lost elections, he attacked the electoral commission and refused to leave office. This reversal would have been difficult, if not impossible, without coordinated action and pressure from outside powers.

What can be done to help reverse the current trend of self-coups? Many of the risk factors above—such as systems of government and patterns of civil-military relations—are structural, developing over decades or even centuries, and therefore offer policymakers little help on how to reverse this resurgence. In comparison, outside pressure is tangible and short-term, providing external actors with a lever to do something in real time to help counter this threat. International supporters of democracy must step up and provide more robust and consistent responses to executive coup attempts.

The United States, in particular, should not shy away from acknowledging its own struggles with democratic backsliding. While doing so it should help other countries learn from its experience, helping nations foster the growth of strong independent institutions that prevented the success of Jan. 6. The U.S. system was stretched, but did not break.

This is not to say that Americans are out of the woods yet. While U.S. institutions and democratic norms survived a major test, a host of reforms are needed to strengthen independent checks and balances to lower the risk of future executive coups on U.S. soil. A good place to start would be revamping the Insurrection Act. Currently, this legislation gives the president sweeping authority to deploy the military to quell domestic unrest in a way that could help facilitate another executive coup.

When faced with the next executive power grab globally, the United States and other like-minded democracies should consistently call a spade a spade, and work quickly in concert with other regional actors for strong coordinated action to reverse such events. In addition, the United States should rapidly deploy all the legislative coup restrictions that currently apply to military coups abroad, including the suspension of economic and security assistance. A failure to do so will only incentivize future aspiring autocrats to forego self-rule in favor of self-coup.

Alexander Noyes is a political scientist at the nonprofit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and former senior advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.

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