Did a CU prof almost spark an American coup d’etat?

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In August 2020, John Eastman published an op-ed in Newsweek suggesting that Kamala Harris might be unqualified to be vice president because her parents weren’t U.S. citizens when she was born. Harris was definitely born in Oakland, California but Eastman has a very fringe view of the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause. Trump and his campaign surrogates used this racist “birtherism” to attack her. However, many legal scholars of various political stripes were outraged by Eastman’s claims.

We found out that Eastman was a visiting CU Boulder scholar of conservative thought and policy. He was on leave from Chapman University where he was a tenured constitutional law professor.

On January 6, Eastman was a speaker at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on the National Mall.

“We know there was fraud,” Eastman told the crowd that would soon become a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol. “We know that dead people voted.”

Eastman had penned an elaborate memo for Trump on how to overturn the election.But according to election officials of both parties, the 2020 election was free and fair. Joe Biden won both the popular and Electoral College vote. It wasn’t even close.

On January 4, Trump, Pence and Eastman met in the White House. Trump urged Pence to listen to Eastman. Pence was ambivalent but was under a great deal of pressure to obey Trump. He consulted a number of prominent conservative Republicans who didn’t think much of the seditious memo.

“This was a coup conducted by the president—against his own vice president and the Congress,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the January 6 committee, told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post. “We are actively investigating both the organization of the bloody insurrection and the planning of the coup against American democracy. Both of them were attacks on the constitutional order.”

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer outlined Trump’s brazen public acts:

“1. Trump tried to pressure secretaries of state to not certify.

2. Trump tried to pressure state legislatures to overturn the results.

3. Trump tried to get the courts to overturn the results.

4. Trump tried to pressure Mike Pence to overturn the results.

5. When all else failed, Trump tried to get a mob to overturn the results.”

Serwer asks, “Imagine if Pence had gone along with Eastman’s absurd plan and a mob had been present at the Capitol to help enforce the decision and menace lawmakers who tried to oppose it—then what?”

In an analysis for ‘Media Matters,’ Eric Kleefeld details how right-wing media outlets (such as Fox News and Newsmax) served as a platform to spread lies and propaganda during each of Serwer’s five steps. He argues, “Without that right-wing information bubble, Trump’s coup could never have even been attempted.”

Matt Gertz of Media Matters reports that the ABC, CBS, and NBC morning and evening news broadcasts have virtually ignored the Eastman coup memo. CNN and MSNBC have covered the story extensively but the national networks have larger audiences. Interestingly, the only national network broadcasts to mention the memo were the late-night variety shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers.

A coup was thwarted but the threat to democracy is still there. “You could look at 2020 as the nadir of American democratic processes, or you could look at it as a dress rehearsal,” argues Rick Hasan, a professor of law at UC Irvine where he is the co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center.

He told Politico, “The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election. People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts.”

He is alarmed at not only the voter suppression bills passed in Republican-dominated states but “election subversion” which “is not about making it harder for people to vote, but about manipulating the outcome of the election so that the loser is declared the winner or put in power.”

The Brennan Center for Justice has found that “state legislatures across the nation have taken steps to strip election officials of the power to run, count, and certify elections, consolidating power in their own hands over processes intended to be free of partisan or political interference.”

Senate Democrats have introduced “The Freedom to Vote Act” which deals with these attacks on democracy. It is a good beginning.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.