As we gingerly rolled out of our beds earlier this week and reached for our phones, we found the hashtag #coup trending on Twitter and discussions of a potential American coup d’etat viral across social media.

A coup d’etat is the illegal overthrow of an existing government. Most coups d’etat are run by aspiring dictators or political and military factions opposing the government.

Can it be considered a coup d’etat if a nation’s leader simply refuses to leave office?

Theoretically, sure. Where a new government has been rightfully elected and it is time for the peaceful transition of power, a refusal to vacate the office can be considered a coup.

Why does a coup d’etat happen? The short answer is that we don’t know.

A crisis can be the catalyst for a coup d’etat. In 2020, we have endured multiple crises, including a global pandemic; seismic shifts in the economic prosperity and future prospects of the vast majority of Americans; and deep political uncertainty stemming from the publication of digital misinformation.

As for the question of which countries have had the most coups, Chile, Haiti, and Thailand. These three nations combined have endured very close to 100 coups.

If you’re one of the people responsible for making #coup a trending topic today and want to dive a little deeper, a good place to start your coup education is Wikipedia. They have a comprehensive list organized by nation. 

In fact, there have been so many coups in Chile that Wikipedia simply refers you to a separate page that lists Chilean coups d’etat over the past 300 years. It’s truly fascinating reading.

What about the United States? How many coups have we had?

First, the United States has always preferred the term “rebellion.” For Americans, rebellion has a connotation of freedom and democracy, while a coup d’etat is viewed as something done by others — violent people in faraway lands.

There have been around 30 rebellions in the United States since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. No, it had nothing to do with bacon. Sadly.

A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that the coup d’etat is becoming far less popular than it used to be. This may be in part because the success rate in actually pulling off a coup d’etat is way down.

Not all coups succeed: 328 attempted coups have failed in the 177 countries tracked by the center. In fact, the success rate of coup attempts has fallen over time. Only a quarter of the 24 coups attempted so far this decade have succeeded (including Zimbabwe’s, though the situation there is still fluid), compared with well over half between 1946 and 1969.

As to whether there could really be an American coup d’etat by President Trump refusing to leave office, I reflect back upon many trips to Santiago, Chile, I’ve been in the architecturally stunning buildings at the university that used to be the faculties in which brilliant scholars taught aspiring students.

In the 1970s, these were among the historically important buildings that became torture chambers following the coup d’etat of Pinochet that deposed President Allende.

Perhaps the two most important lessons for us from the 1973 Chilean coup are that the foundation for a successful coup is laid over months and years and that there was covert U.S. involvement in the Chilean coup.

While not the first or last time the U.S. has been involved in covert actions leading to regime change, what is interesting here is that many of our current coup theories also involve foreign involvement.

One imagines which powerful nations might be in favor of the current U.S. administration continuing for four or many more years, and which nations would actively and passive oppose the coup d’etat.

Sometimes it takes a perfect storm of profound societal unrest to bring about a coup and only history will tell if where we find ourselves today is such a tempest.