People really seem to struggle with the word “coup.”
During the impeachment ordeal of Bill Clinton, Democrats and their journalistic allies routinely denounced the effort as a “coup.” Some 20 years later, Republicans and their supporters called the impeachment of Donald Trump a “coup” as well.
Neither of these events was a coup. According to the dictionary, a coup means to overthrow the government, usually by force. It’s short for “coup d’état,” which is illegal. The impeachment power is laid out in America’s rulebook—the Constitution—in black and white.
In any endeavor—sports, law, business, chess, Dungeons and Dragons, whatever—it is axiomatically true that if you play within the rules, you cannot be breaking them.
But as silly as all the coup talk was, it at least had a certain superficial plausibility within the bounds of political hyperbole and poetic license. Impeachment was an effort to fire the head of state, after all.
You can’t say the same thing about the truly ridiculous accusation that Bernie Sanders is the victim of a coup.
CNN’s Jake Tapper referred to Joe Biden’s historic comeback on Super Tuesday as a “resurrection.” Marianne Williamson, a onetime contender in the Democratic primaries who now supports Sanders, responded with a Twitter rant.
“This was not a resurrection; it was a coup,” Williamson raged. “Russiagate was not a coup. Mueller was not a coup. Impeachment was not a coup. What happened yesterday was a coup. And we will push it back.”
Williamson’s coup blather (since deleted) was in a sense bipartisan. President Trump, whose desperation to run against Sanders instead of Biden sometimes gets the better of him, tweeted late Monday afternoon, “They are staging a coup against Bernie!” Shortly after that, he told reporters on the White House lawn, “It’s rigged against Bernie, there is no question about it.”
Now, my complaint here isn’t just that people are using words incorrectly, though that does vex me. It’s that they’re using the wrong words because they have the wrong ideas.
Trump’s use of the word “rigged”—one that Sanders loves, too—is illustrative. What happened with Biden wasn’t a “coup,” nor was it “rigged.” It was politics.
Democratic politicians and rank-and-file voters alike played by the rules and rallied to Biden. They did so partly out of ideological opposition to Sanders’ avowedly socialist agenda but mostly out of fear that Sanders would lose to Trump.
Regardless of the motivations, the important point is that no rules were broken. Heck, no norms, customs or traditions were violated. Rather, good old-fashioned politics made a comeback. Biden amassed some crucial endorsements. South Carolina’s African-American voters in particular rallied to the former vice president. Biden then used the momentum of a huge win there to leverage more endorsements and more African-American (and moderate) votes to run away with it on Super Tuesday.
Where’s the coup? Answer: Nowhere.
Indeed, it’s kind of amazing that many of the people who bemoan “white supremacy” are suddenly arguing that African-American voters are really the establishment’s enforcers.
Part of the problem with populism is the collective sense of entitlement that fuels it. Populists don’t like the rules when the rules don’t favor them. “Screw the rules, you owe us!”
When you feel entitled to something, it’s normal to think it’s unfair or illegitimate when you don’t get it. It’s like one of those family games of Monopoly that inevitably end in tears when one of the kids goes bankrupt and cries, “No fair!” But it was fair. The game wasn’t rigged; that was the game.
Sanders and his most ardent followers believe, in almost Marxian fashion, that capital-H History is on their side and that their “revolution” is their rightful destiny. But nobody owes them victory. In democratic politics you earn success by being better at the game. Sure, sometimes luck plays a role, but luck is part of every game—except maybe chess.
Sadly, the Sanders campaign is just one example of the sense of entitlement that runs rampant through our politics and our culture. From the Oval Office to college campuses to the Sanders campaign, people assume that everything should go their way, and when it doesn’t, it must be because the system is rigged. Not content with hating the players, they hate the game, too.
Photograph of Bernie Sanders by Alex Wong/Getty Images.