The headline in today’s paper proclaimed: “Trump rips inquiry as ‘coup’ attempt.” Ark. Democrat-Gazette, 12/18/19. The context is President Trump’s letter to Speaker Pelosi regarding the impeachment vote likely to happen today or tomorrow in the House of Representatives.
I’ve tried to avoid public pronouncements on the daily insults President Trump offers to western civilization. Besides, I’m not adept at creating clever memes, and it seems no one has time today for careful debate about weighty issues. Hurling insults and what-about-isms are the preferred modes of communicating. But this one can’t pass without comment.
A key to our participatory form of government is a common knowledge and understanding of the most basic provisions in our nation’s laws and Constitution. The federal courts have recognized that such knowledge is not common or understood by many citizens, and that lack of knowledge is a threat to our democratic republic. They have launched a civics education program and many federal judges have committed to outreach programs to teach basic civics concepts to students. In solidarity with that concern and those efforts, here is today’s civics lesson. It is objective, factual, and definitional. No opinion is offered. It requires no nuance or point-of-view. Today’s lesson is the definition of two important words: coup and impeachment.
A coup is short-hand for the French phrase coup d’ etat. It is a sudden and great change in government carried out violently or illegally by the ruling power. Compact Oxford English, New Ed. Classic examples of coups include Napoleon, Franco, Quaddafi, and Pinochet. All of those involved using military force to depose a civil government resulting in dictatorial powers concentrated in one person indefinitely.
Impeachment in this context is a remedy specifically provided in the Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4. Article 1, section 2 says the House shall have the sole power of impeachment.
By voting on articles of impeachment, the United States House of Representatives is taking an action specifically reserved to it under the Constitution. That is not a coup. A coup is sudden and great change in government carried out violently or illegally by the ruling power. Here, the only acts of violence are the rhetorical assaults by partisan zealots. Congressional action to impeach a president cannot, by definition, be a coup (an illegal act) where the power of impeachment is specifically granted to Congress by the United States Constitution.
So despite today’s headlines and the President’s misuse and abuse of the two words (impeachment and coup), the action the House of Representatives will take this week and any subsequent action by the Senate are not a coup. No matter how passionately one agrees or disagrees with the wisdom of impeachment, it is by definition not a coup.