Donald Trump’s would-be coup has ended with a feeble surrender, as the outgoing ruler tacitly conceded that the transition to a Joe Biden presidency could begin. Of course, it’s unlikely that Trump ever had serious plans for squatting unlawfully in the White House. Not for the first time, his bark proved to be much worse than his bite.
False allegations of electoral fraud in the run-up to the presidential election were a good way for Trump to rally his base and legitimize voter suppression efforts. Once it became clear that Joe Biden had bested him anyway, the idle claims of fraud supplied Trump with an excuse for failure, and a way to generate ongoing cycles of paranoid entitlement among conservative voters — a useful rallying cry for 2022, perhaps.
However, this shambolic conclusion to a farcical presidency still contains some important lessons. Democratic Party supporters have been given a small taste of what things are like for left-wing movements in Latin America at any given moment. Time and again, we’ve seen popular left-wing governments south of the Rio Grande stigmatized by their conservative opponents with bogus claims of electoral fraud, in order to justify violent protests — and, in some cases, an outright coup.
We’ve also seen those claims of fraud handled with the utmost respect by the same media outlets that dismissed Trump’s allegations out of hand. Trump’s undignified exit should be an opportunity for those outlets to reflect and learn before they grant legitimacy to his Latin American counterparts once again.
The New York Times worked out a distinctive house style for reporting on Trump, to take account of his habitual mendacity. A few headlines from the aftermath of the election give us a sense of what this involved: “Trump’s False Election Fraud Claims Split Republicans”; “Election Officials Directly Contradict Trump on Voting System Fraud”; “Small Cracks Emerge in G.O.P. Support for Trump’s Baseless Fraud Claims.”
In all these cases, there was no question of the New York Times granting Trump’s claims a certain legitimacy simply because he made them. The same approach could be found in the paper’s subheadings, such as “President Trump has presented no hard evidence of voter fraud . . .” and “The president and his allies have baselessly claimed that rampant voter fraud stole victory from him . . .”
The Guardian followed a similar approach: “Trump cites Sunday Express article in support of false electoral fraud claims”; “Officials condemn Trump’s false claims and say election ‘most secure in US history’”; “Trump tweets that Biden ‘won’ — but repeats baseless vote fraud claim.”
So far, so good. Now, let’s consider the approach of the same media platforms when Bolivia’s right-wing opposition used claims of electoral fraud to justify the ouster of Evo Morales.
“The Only Remaining Option”
Such claims only concerned the size of the margin by which Morales had won the first round — everyone accepted that he was the most popular candidate — and, in any case, they were baseless. After a year in which Bolivia’s ultraconservative politicians governed without any popular mandate, cracking down brutally on the country’s social movements, their coup received a fitting verdict in the shape of a 55 percent first-round victory for the MAS candidate and Morales ally Luis Arce — the kind of triumph no Democratic Party standard-bearer in the United States has come close to emulating.
The New York Times couldn’t muster the same skepticism for Bolivia that it applied as a matter of course to Trumpian rhetoric. Here’s a typical story from just after the presidential vote:
President Evo Morales of Bolivia faced stinging accusations of election irregularities by international observers and violent protests in the streets on Monday as an updated tally of votes cast in the country’s presidential election appeared to give him a big enough lead to avoid a runoff . . . the accusations of fraud created a widespread sense that the president or his allies had worked behind the scenes to rig the vote.
When Bolivia’s electoral tribunal found no evidence of fraud, the NYT’s headline set the tone for its report: “Morales Averts Runoff in Bolivia, Officials Say, but Anger and Doubt Remain.”
After weeks of violent opposition protests, the Bolivian military ordered Morales to step down. Again, the NYT’s reporting held the MAS leader responsible for the crisis:
Bolivia’s military chief on Sunday called on President Evo Morales to resign, dealing what was likely a fatal blow to his efforts to cling to power in the face of widespread unrest over last month’s fraud-marred presidential elections . . . earlier in the day, facing mounting opposition from political rivals, mutinous police groups and outraged protesters, Mr. Morales called for a new election. It was an extraordinary concession in the face of mounting evidence of electoral fraud — but it appeared to accomplish little. Unappeased, demonstrators and opposition leaders renewed demands that Mr. Morales step down.
When the coup against Morales was complete, NYT readers were told that his resignation came “after unrelenting protests by an infuriated population that accused him of undermining democracy to extend his rule,” leaving the ousted president with no one to blame but himself: “By bending election rules and declaring victory after a disputed election last month, he provoked weeks of nationwide unrest that reached a tipping point on Sunday.”
The New York Times’ editorial board also decided to weigh in:
When a leader resorts to brazenly abusing the power and institutions put in his care by the electorate, as President Evo Morales did in Bolivia, it is he who sheds his legitimacy, and forcing him out often becomes the only remaining option. That is what the Bolivians have done.
British liberals took a similar view. The Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Patrick Wintour, found it “truly startling” when Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement denouncing the coup. His paper carried a political obituary for the ousted president with the following headline: “Evo Morales: indigenous leader who changed Bolivia but stayed too long.”
Its Sunday sister title, the Observer, published an editorial denouncing Morales for his refusal to endorse what it called “the properly constituted interim government.” Once again, it seemed as if there was only one person to blame for what had happened — and for what might yet happen — in Bolivia:
Morales’s claim that he was ousted by an old-style military coup is not justified by the facts. Democracy is still working in Bolivia, just. Now he has a responsibility to ensure that remains the case — and eschew any coup-making of his own.
“Inappropriate Statistical Techniques”
As the statement from Jeremy Corbyn shows, we don’t need the benefit of hindsight to see that this was indeed an “old-style military coup” with some shiny new packaging. Historian Greg Grandin drafted a letter in December 2019, signed by over 300 scholars, that condemned the New York Times editorial board for providing “Bolivia’s new unelected de facto rulers [with] much-sought-after international public support.”
Grandin’s letter directly tackled the allegations of electoral fraud made by Organization of American States (OAS) observers:
Areas that reported later — in particular those that are more rural and/or poorer — are on average much more pro-Morales than the general electorate. To imply strongly and repeatedly that there is something wrong with the Bolivian vote count because Evo Morales’s lead increased as later reporting votes came in is a serious misrepresentation. In fact, the data show that this is exactly what would be expected to happen. The New York Times editorial board should look at this publicly available data before accepting such demonstrably false claims.
It wasn’t long before the standard media narrative on Bolivia started to crumble. In February 2020, the Washington Post published an analysis of the OAS statistical claims that found them to be “deeply flawed . . . it is highly likely that Morales surpassed the 10-percentage-point margin in the first round.” By June, the New York Times itself had carried a report based on the work of independent researchers, showing that the OAS had “relied on incorrect data and inappropriate statistical techniques.”
The OAS responded to the Times article with an extraordinary diatribe, branding the paper as a lackey of Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro, and claiming that its reporting on Bolivia lay squarely in that tradition:
Today, it intends to deny the Bolivian People the possibility of electing a new president that is not Evo Morales in a new election. Obviously, we recognize the NYT’s right to lie, distort, and twist information, data, and facts, and to mix truth and lies as often as it wishes; recognizing that those rights are inalienable and essential to the exercise of freedom of the press and free speech, and we will certainly do whatever is necessary at all times to ensure the exercise of those rights. For the General Secretariat’s part, we will exercise with prudence our only right, which is to tell the truth and present the facts as they are.
The crude partisanship and Trumpian mentality of the OAS and its secretary general, Luis Almagro, may have come as a revelation to the New York Times when it suddenly found itself in the firing line of Almagro’s rhetoric. But observers of Latin American politics knew all about those political character traits long before the coup in Bolivia.
Of course, we now know that the coup against the MAS was a failure. But that was no thanks to the credulous liberals and centrists who helped launder the talking points of Bolivia’s authoritarian right. It was the exceptional resilience and maturity of the Bolivian social movements that enabled them to prevail against great odds.
There’s a lesson here, and not just for reporting on Latin America. Consider another US liberal publication that had no hesitation in using the word “coup” to describe Trump’s possible antics. Confronted with a real-life coup in Bolivia, the Atlantic ran a triumphant article by its contributing writer Yascha Mounk:
It was his loss of legitimacy among the majority of his own countrymen that forced Morales to resign yesterday. What he and some of his most credulous Western supporters described as a coup was in fact something very different: proof that Bolivians — like the citizens of many other countries around the world — resent arbitrary rule. The longer they have suffered from oppression, the more they have come to value the democratic institutions that are now threatened by populists around the globe.
Mounk’s article was published on November 11; by the end of the month, state security forces had killed at least twenty-three civilians and injured more than two hundred, inaugurating a year of violent repression that was intended to prop up an unpopular regime. The following sentences, bad enough when Mounk composed them, appear even more shameful in the light of what happened almost immediately afterward:
The Bolivian people have come out in great numbers to stop Morales from violently crushing their protests. As one of the most famous slogans of the Latin American left holds, El pueblo unido jamás será vencido: The people united will never be defeated.
Such ghoulish and gleeful rhetoric supports the freedom of the Bolivian people in much the same way that Derek Chauvin’s knee supported George Floyd’s neck.
All of this invites the question: What might the same pundits and platforms have to say if their country’s citizens voted for a president who didn’t have support from Wall Street and Silicon Valley — a leader who didn’t plan to stuff his or her cabinet with war hawks and corporate cronies? Would they be so anxious to press for a smooth transition if Fortune 500 CEOs weren’t urging the right-wing incumbent to make way?
If those circumstances were ever to be found in US politics, the only sure guarantee of democratic rights would be the same kind of social movements and mobilizations that saw off the Bolivian coup. Legacy media gatekeepers are unlikely to be of much assistance.