False claims, legal challenges, denial: Is this a coup d’etat? | Analysis

By: - November 15, 2020 6:30 am

United States flags blow in the wind in Malibu, Calif. Getty Images

There are a lot of words that could be used to describe the 2020 General Election, but is a “coup d’etat” one of them? 

The Capital-Star reached out to researchers and political science experts to find out if the term could, or should be applied to actions and accusations by President Donald Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill and in Pennsylvania. 

Here’s what they had to say.

Is this a coup? 

“I don’t believe this is a coup,” Joseph DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pa., said, “usually, a coup is when you have a military takeover of the civilian government. This is not a coup yet.”

Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, agreed with DiSarro that describing Trump’s obstinance as a coup is premature. 

“I wouldn’t call it a coup,” Borick said. “A coup is clearly to transcend or take power by going around or above the law.”

Pointing to the Trump campaign’s myriad lawsuits in key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, Borick told the Capital-Star that the president pursuing his options through the proper channels – the court system – is not characteristic of a coup.

Trump lawyer tells MontCo judge he has no evidence of fraud, report

“If it’s through lawsuits that are challenging a process, and that’s playing out in the courts, that’s simply using the process to try and make your case, whatever that case may be,” Borick said. 

For Borick, the line between pursuing all the options available and a coup becomes what happens after the legal process is done and the courts have either validated the election results or overturned key decisions. 

“Once the legal avenues are exhausted – at that point – if Trump doesn’t go or tries to find means to circumvent the outcome, then you start moving into the realm,  where the word coup, I think, can be legitimately introduced,” Borick told the Capital-Star. 

DiSarro employed a baseball analogy to describe the courts: “You don’t argue with the umpire,” he said.


While evidence of fraud and wrongdoing to defend Trump’s legal challenges has been in short supply, the rhetoric surrounding the claims has been plentiful. 

State and congressional GOP lawmakers have been quick to jump on the president’s coattails, making claims of fraud and promising to audit election results, despite the lack of evidence to support these claims. 

Borick called the rhetoric about fraud in the 2020 election “nebulous.”

“Reading the cases, they seem more like political statements than legal challenges,” Borick said. 

That rhetoric is something to be concerned about, Borick told the Capital-Star,. 

“You’re undermining our institutions that are crucial to the republic if you’re going to do that, you better have a strong case to make, and not just because you want to or because you have a feeling,” he said. “You’ve got to have some evidence, you have to do that, you’ve got to be more careful on that. … I can understand the emotion, I can understand people don’t like the outcome, but the idea that you try to burn down the very institution that is at the core – so that’s not taking away your right to challenge, it’s not taking away your right to –  if you find something to bring it forth and try, but just because you feel it, doesn’t mean it is real.

“ … There’s a space there that people have to becareful of,” Borick continued. “Yeah, you might believe it and you might want to have it pursued, but at the end, once that is resolved, do you acknowledge that and move on? That’s the nature of our system and the value of it historically and that’s where, I think, you have to stop questioning.”

During a press conference on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that “there would be a smooth transition to a second Trump presidency.”

DiSarro laughed about Pompeo’s comments, saying,  “It would be unlikely that you wouldn’t have controversy until the courts act. You need the courts to aid in the transition of power.”


President-elect Joe Biden has said pushing past partisan rhetoric is going to be necessary to heal deep ideological divides. But for a conflicted country, that’s going to be a challenge, DiSarro and Borick agreed. 

“Democracy is more important than any other candidate or party. Period. “ DiSarro said. 

DiSarro said Biden could help bridge the divide with Republican lawmakers in Congress by appointing a Republican to one of the “big four” cabinet posts  – treasury, state, defense and justice, noting that this method was employed by Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Obama to achieve a smooth transition of power. 

While DiSarro is confident that American democracy “can weather the storm,” he said some changes to the election process should be considered. 

DiSarro, a self-identified Republican, said a standard set of guidelines from the federal government for the presidential election could help remove concerns over procedures and bias at the state level. 

“I know that many members of my party wouldn’t like that, but I’m just throwing it out there to be considered.” DiSarro said noting a constitutional amendment would be required to federalize elections. 

Pointing to the Voting Rights Act, DiSarro said that changes have been needed in our electoral process before, and they will be needed again. 

“I think there needs to be an examination of the system,” DiSarro told the Capital-Star. “I, for one, would agree with Jefferson that you need change in a democracy.”

Despite the needed changes, DiSarro said he believes the election drama will soon be over. 

“I think we’ll see a finality here soon,” DiSarro said. “I’m sure that after there is sufficient time for the judiciary to act, I think this matter will be completely resolved.” Although he could not say who’s side that would potentially favor. 

To those unhappy with the election results, DiSarro said, “ In two years we have another election coming up. You can voice your displeasure then.”

DiSarro referenced other disputed elections, such as the 2000 and 1876 elections, which were resolved peacefully.

“To quote Obama,” DiSarro said, “‘don’t bet against the United States.’”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.