Edward Luttwak is a military historian, defense consultant and geopolitical grand strategist who has advised world leaders on security and strategy. The author of more than a dozen books, he has published on modern warfare, the winners and losers of “turbo-capitalism,” the strategy of the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, the rise of China. Luttwak first rose to public prominence with Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, written in 1968 while he was working as an oil consultant in London. The book, praised at the time by John le Carré and Eric Hobsbawm, was republished with a new preface by Harvard University Press in 2016. Speaking over the phone on January 7th, we discussed what originally drew Luttwak to the subject of coups, how we would know if we were going through one today, and how to separate reality from rhetoric in remembering what happened at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.
JON BASKIN: Do you remember, when you first saw the attack on the Capitol unfolding a year ago, what your thoughts were?
EDWARD LUTTWAK: The way I saw it was this: Four years previously, a certain fellow had become president of the United States, whereupon a very large part of the U.S. establishment simply said, we don’t recognize the election. They refused to cooperate with him, refused to acknowledge him. That was certainly the case with Pelosi and Schumer. And a lot of journalists, media people, commentators would say, “I don’t recognize this election.” A lot of people in the legislature refused to accept the election. A lot of people in the media felt entitled to attack without reservations, whatever was done. I mean, he gives a State of the Union speech and Nancy Pelosi tears up the speech in front of the TV cameras. And none of the media said that this is a low-level barroom-politics gesture unworthy of any elected representative of the people. No, not at all! And this was just one of countless insults. So the people who did want Trump to be the president felt absolutely outraged immediately after the election.
Then what followed was the entire thing with the Russia accusation, and the Russia investigation paralyzed the administration, as it slowly went through, ending with the finding that no member of the Trump campaign had done anything illegal. When this unqualified exemption was issued, the media ignored it, or denied it, or said, “We need to investigate more.” All this behavior generated a great deal of anger among his supporters. They finally got the guy who reflects them to win the presidency and the establishment refuses it. They have lived through presidents chosen by the other side, which they had to accept. I don’t recall other presidents being denied the way Trump was. So Trump’s supporters built up enormous anger and on January 6th a lot of that anger was vented.
JB: Since that day there’s been this debate, especially among intellectuals and journalists, about whether what happened was an attempted coup or not. What do you think?
EL: It was a very big event, no doubt. But in addressing this anniversary of this event, the first thing is to remove the very blatant and obvious political mud thrown on top of the truth. And the mud basically is to grossly exaggerate the import of what happened, or to treat what happened in a partisan context. What’s happening today is that the Democratic leadership is attempting to make large legislative changes with a very tiny majority. It’s doing all the normal things, presenting legislation and so on, except it is doing it in a very undemocratic spirit. January 6th was the opposite of that. Because it was the mob that attacked a building. That building, however, is the actual heart of a functioning democracy, which is the legislature. So, January 6th was an extreme attack. But it was not a coup d’état. Because a coup d’état is not a demonstrative action, where you go around shouting obscenities and doing noisy things, or even terrorizing Nancy Pelosi. It’s a thing where you have figured out the control levers of the system and how you can physically dominate them. A coup d’état on January 6th would have taken place by mobilizing, directly or indirectly, the National Guard, troops, FBI or whatever, in order to impose these components of the state and to use them for the purposes not of securing the state but of seizing control of the state. That is what a coup is.
JB: What would it look like if someone really was attempting a coup in America?
EL: In any place in the world, a coup d’état has to give you the physical means of control. So first of all you’d seize the Pentagon. Trump supporters would have seized the Pentagon with a band of dissident generals. It is easy enough to replace the chairman of the Joint Chiefs with somebody else. You can find a four-star somewhere and take control of the military. And the military in turn would take control of subsidiary structures like the FAA, for stopping flights and all the rest of it. That is what a coup would have looked like.
You don’t attack a legislature to do a coup, you attack a legislature to punish lawmakers you don’t like. Many legislators have been attacked by mobs. For example, there was an attack, just a couple years ago, against the Romanian Parliament because at midnight, they were trying to legislate a law that corruption could only be prosecuted if it was more than let’s say $100 million; they wanted an exemption for a powerful lawmaker who was about to get nabbed. People found out in Bucharest and they surrounded the legislature. You attack the legislature to do exactly what the January 6th people were trying to do, which was to find Nancy Pelosi and terrorize her.
JB: How did you get interested in coups d’état?
EL: After I graduated from the London School of Economics in 1964, I was appointed to the extremely new and extremely ambitious University of Bath to help start an economics department. So I graduated in 1964, and in September of that year I and another unknown are asked to set up an economics department at the University of Bath. Said university department is now considered one of the top economics departments in Britain. I don’t claim credit for that because I was only there a couple of years. But I was enjoying all this, and had a girlfriend who was a French model in Paris. Since I was on an assistant-lecturer salary, I would fly to Paris and France with their postal flight, which left after midnight and landed at 5 a.m. or something because it cost ten pounds. On this flight, I met a guy who was former this and former that, and he ran the petroleum consulting in the most prestigious building in London. We had a long conversation on the plane, at the end of the conversation he hired me. So I left Bath and got this highly paid job as a petroleum consultant. The National Iranian Oil Company of Iran, and others, were the customers. We did both analytical stuff and political consulting, and I was a political consultant. Therefore I dealt with the coup of Beirut people, the ousted chief of Syrian military intelligence in Beirut. I’m a Francophone, I speak French, I dealt with all these other characters. And I was flooded with information about coups.
Because at that time, there were many coups. Especially in Syria there was a whole series of them. I used to hear about past coups, current coups, possible coups. That was the basis of the book. Basically, the book was a deep immersion in ongoing politics, with particular attention to the Middle East.
JB: What made you decide to write the book as a “handbook”?
EL: Well, what happened was that I had a girlfriend called Mimsy Farmer, and we went to all the parties in London. And Mimsy wore a dress made out of white cotton netting. So the nets overlapped but people could glimpse at her, which was the general idea—she was a Hollywood starlet. And a guy called Oliver Caldecott, who was the chief editor of Penguin, had to be able to gaze through her net. So in order to do so, at least, he approached me at the party and insisted I write the book for Penguin. And I had just read Curzio Malaparte’s book called Coup d’État, so I said, “I’m going to write a book called Coup d’État,” but Malaparte’s book was actually an essay on Mussolini. I was going to write a handbook—how to do it. And I could do it since I was immersed in the mechanics of coup-making, from the people I was dealing with at the consulting office. Because that’s what they were talking about nonstop: you know, in the Lebanon bars, in the Beirut bars.
JB: In your book, you make the case that coups were how a lot of power changes took place at the time. It was much more common than it is now.
EL: They did indeed. And my goal was statistical calculation of the back, listing of coups. That was a period of coups.
JB: Why do you think there are fewer coups now?
EL: Well, they dried up. If I say this, it will sound very immodest. But one reason they dried up is that I, by writing it as a handbook, demonstrated to what degree it was a mechanical process. A mechanical process that was activated by mechanical means and could be stopped by mechanical means. For example, if you made sure that any highly mobile unit of the army was either under the command of your son or nephew, or as remote as possible from the capital city, that will safeguard you from the sudden seizure. If you have to have a national security command, make sure you divide it by Army, Navy and Air Force with three different headquarters under three different offices, in physically separated buildings. And things of that sort. In other words, coups are carried out in a series of mechanical steps, recruiting one unit and then neutralizing the others through various technical means, you know, by sending them off on goose chases, interrupting them, blocking one particular bridge prevents a whole. Therefore, governments were able to reverse engineer it to prevent coups.
One of the coup people in the Philippines, for example, told me that they actually use my book to reverse engineer it, to prevent more coups.
JB: It seems like a country like America, with all the different branches and the different intelligence agencies, they’re sort of already engineered—right?—to make it very difficult for a coup to be successful.
EL: Yes, the fact that this is a confederation of fifty states is very critical. The National Guard is controlled by the governor. But the fundamental reason why a coup can’t work in the United States is because if you seize the White House and you seize the Oval Office, if you picked up the phone and started issuing orders, unless you had been recognizably elected into that position, people would just ignore your phone calls.
JB: You emphasize in your book that coups are more likely in places where less of the population pays close attention to politics. But in America a lot of people pay attention.
EL: An essential condition to make a coup successful is that the nature of the country, the nature of the population—let’s say the population of Sierra Leone—will be passive. They are the background, the passive background, the population, and you do the coup against another group of power-capable people.
But there’s no need to catalog all the reasons because any subset of them is sufficient. And one of the factors is that people in the American military are not a docile mass. They themselves are educated, and understand very well the structure of government, and the concept of legitimacy and all the rest of it. You can’t pick up a phone and say, I am General Blogs, I order you to take your tank battalion and move over and seize the White House. The military chiefs are immediately going to disobey any such order. And so will anybody else. Whereupon the people in the White House will basically be sitting there with dead telephones.
JB: So you are saying January 6th was not, in itself, a coup, or even an attempted coup. And I think a lot of people would agree with that. But some of those people, I’m sure you’ve seen the articles, think there is a sort of slow-motion coup that could be happening since last year, which was kicked off by the Capitol riot.
EL: By who?
JB: Well, that targets the state legislatures, for instance, and tries to get them the power to manipulate the election results.
EL: What do you mean a coup? Nobody’s seizing state legislatures. What the Republicans are doing is they are running for office. They are trying to win in one state legislature after another.
JB: But they are threatening to change laws, or to take advantage of loopholes in existing laws, that could give the legislature power, more power over certifying elections.
EL: Yes, but they are doing so through existing state constitutions. To describe this as a slow-motion coup is naked partisanship. It’s an abuse of the language to describe a coup when a political party decides to win elections.
The Republicans don’t want to lie down and die. But the actual coup—the actual attempted coup that took place was to use the FBI and then the Mueller investigation to block the elected president of the United States. From the moment Trump was elected, there were officials in the FBI, and eventually enough people in Congress and so on, to have an investigation going on that paralyzed the president, and by the way had the effect of enabling Mattis to block Trump’s intent of disengaging from Afghanistan. That was a real attempted coup, except that the modalities of it were perfectly legal. That Steele thing caused the whole investigation of the Trump campaign for being subservient to Putin and financed by Putin or whatever it was—complete rubbish. Anybody who knew anything about Russia knew the whole thing was a zero.
However, they pulled it off because the media were sympathetic. They did not denounce it. And that is what was expressed on January 6th. The delegitimization of Trump caused profound anger by people who had long felt excluded from the political process, and finally had their own type of barroom ideal becoming president.
JB: But even if we acknowledge the rage that caused the mob that day, it wasn’t just them. Trump did also try to decertify the election, right?
EL: Oh, yeah. You mean at the end?
EL: Having had his own election delegitimized, right, he tried to. He tried to interfere with the count on the grounds that, in various places, there were irregularities and the answer is there are always irregularities. When Nixon lost to Kennedy, he lost by a very small number of votes. And those number of votes were generated not far from where are from where you are from [Chicago].
JB: Right, in the cemeteries.
EL: Credible evidence was brought to Richard Nixon that Cook County, Chicago has manufactured the votes that defeated him. Nixon decided to do nothing about it. Twelve years later, he becomes president. Trump, faced with that situation, had to act like Nixon did. He did not. He tried to get, not illegal means, but he called on people who tried to recount ballots and all that kind of stuff. The fact is that he lost by a very small margin, as Nixon did, and if he had won, he would have won by a very small margin. He lost by a small margin and he questioned the outcome.
Nixon pretended he didn’t know—everybody in America except Richard Nixon knew that the Cook County machine had enabled Kennedy to win. Nixon pretended not to know. Trump could not bring himself to do that, because his election had been challenged and repudiated by the establishment, the American establishment.
From my perspective, Trump’s big problem, his big failure, is that, having gone through this experience, he failed to immediately use antitrust, to go after the institutions that were delegitimizing his rhetoric. He should have unleashed antitrust against Facebook, Google and all these people. Have we forgotten antitrust? For instance, he should have unleashed antitrust in regard to Boeing, which somehow has been allowed to become a monopoly manufacturer of passenger planes, thereby sliding into predictable mediocrity and ruining a huge American industry. But he didn’t do that, because he didn’t have that kind of programmatic mind. He has a barroom fighter’s instinctive, low-level kind of mind.
The quality of his mind should have prevented him from winning. The reason it didn’t was because his competition was so weak.
JB: You’ve mentioned that a serious attempt at a coup would have to begin with seizing the Pentagon. What do you think about the op-ed from a few weeks ago in the Washington Post by the three retired generals about the polarization and anger in the military? They seemed to suggest that while in 2020 there was not enough pro-Trump sentiment in the military for a coup to happen, the situation could be different in 2024.
EL: The article by the three generals was absurd, and it was absurd that the Washington Post would run it. These were not four-stars. They were not three-stars. It was two two-star generals and one one-star, whatever. There are more than a thousand flag officers, out of a thousand there’s always a few flakes. They were flakes. The fact is that in the military, a gun fitter can have a Confederate flag, if he feels like it, on his bedroom wall. Does it mean anything whatsoever in terms of his conduct? The answer is no. Because this conduct is not regulated by his political views. It’s regulated by a very tight set of instructions.
The military has always been center-right, as in any known society. And within the center-right, there is a right. And within that right there is a more extreme right. Does it make a difference? No. When the Mississippi National Guard, during the school stuff in the civil rights period, had units sent in to safeguard black kids going to school—it didn’t make any difference if it was the Louisiana National Guard or the New Hampshire National Guard, they followed the rules.
JB: If you had been an adviser to Biden, say after January 6th, how would you have dealt with what had happened? How would you have advised him?
EL: If I had been an adviser to Biden, who I know quite well, I would have not been able to tell him—just say it was an outburst of anger caused by the way my fellow Democrats behaved four years ago. He couldn’t say that. It was simply politically impossible. I think what Biden could do politically, he did. He did not inflame. But he could not tell the truth on January 6th, the truth is that you made a lot of people very angry. And the anger, now that they’ve vented their anger, let’s move on. He couldn’t do that.
Photo credit: Tyler Merbler, Selfie (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)