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Yes, What Happened on Jan. 6 Was an Attempted Coup
As examples of past coups amply demonstrate, what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was more than just a riot
By Andy Craig
Ever since the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a robust debate has ensued over what to call them. That there was a riot is obvious enough and generally uncontroversial. Referring to it as the storming of the Capitol also seems undeniably accurate. In a formal government setting, the House used the term “attack on the United States Capitol” in the official name of the Jan. 6 committee. This, too, is a reasonably neutral description.
With stronger terms, things start to get more contentious. At the heart of the matter is how one views the context of what happened at the Capitol during those climactic hours—not just what was done, but why it was done, and ultimately to what degree it should be seen as part of former President Donald Trump’s broader plot to overturn the election.
Two such controversial terms are terrorism—including “domestic terrorism”—and insurrection, both of which have generated debate. But beyond these labels lurks a more important and fundamental question: Was this an attempted coup d’etat?
Too Stupid To Be a Coup?
Writing for the Mercatus Center’s Discourse magazine, Michael J. Ard offers a reasonable case against calling Jan. 6 a coup attempt. Unlike some, he is not at all interested in minimizing or excusing what happened that day or how Trump incited it. Rather, his argument is that the whole affair was simply too disorganized, delusional and poorly planned to count as a real, serious attempted coup. As Ard puts it, “We know that this Trumpian ‘coup attempt’ depended on arcane procedures and ‘magical thinking’ and was ill-conceived and poorly coordinated.”
And indeed, it is undeniable that the entire effort from start to finish was a tragicomic absurdity, not a well-formed conspiracy with a realistic chance of success. It is also correct to point out that our institutions held, the Constitution did not succumb and the rule of law ultimately prevailed.
Compared to the typical “coup” attempts that come to mind when we use the word, there were no tanks in the streets, no military force seizing power, no junta of generals making political pronouncements, and no real success in enlisting any part of the government to act on the goal of keeping Trump in office by force. Under this dramatic stress test, America fared better than most countries have in comparable circumstances.
But none of those aspects, as such, really preclude the label “coup attempt.” To reach a conclusion on that, we must look at the goals of the plot, not the competence with which it was executed. In short, the riot at the Capitol cannot be considered in isolation.
What Is a Coup?
To start, we need some definition of a coup and thus what it means to attempt one. A reasonable starting point would be the extra-legal seizure of power. The end goal of a coup is placing some person or group of people in control of the state—specifically, people who would not otherwise be in that position under the uninterrupted operation of existing constitutional law. The two irreducible elements are the seizure of power and doing so unlawfully.
That, however, leaves things too broad. We do not speak of the American Revolution as a coup; it was a revolution. A coup takes place on a smaller scale, though the boundary is admittedly fuzzy. Coups are typically brief in time—hours, days, perhaps weeks at the most. And they are committed by a relatively small number of people at or near the seat of power. A coup is less about occupying territory, as one might in a war, and more about assuming physical control of the seat of government.
Most often, this involves the military, not just in acquiescing to the result but in actively producing it. Still, a military coup is not the only kind of coup. A palace coup, for example, might involve only the support of the palace guard. And a coup might not even involve those currently holding government offices at all, if we regard a putsch as a kind of coup, which it is usually reckoned to be.
Think of the young, politically marginal Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich or, on a larger and more successful scale, Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome. These were attempts—the latter successful, the former not—by organized groups acting outside of the existing state apparatus and normal legal process to forcibly seize the seat of power and unlawfully install their own leaders there. It is reasonable to regard such events as coups or attempted coups.
Blackshirts. Benito Mussolini and fellow fascists during the March on Rome in 1922. Image Credit: Illustrazione Italiana
Nor does a coup necessarily involve violence, though the threat of it is there, as it always is behind state power. This possibility is particularly relevant for the kind of coup we speak of when it comes to Trump: an auto-coup, in which an incumbent head of state leads a coup against the existing constitutional order. Such coups are often examples of a bloodless coup, though not always. Bloodless coups do happen and are generally recognized as still falling under the label “coup.”
One notable example of a bloodless coup is the 1889 coup that led to the abdication of Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II and the abolition of the Brazilian monarchy. In 1772, Sweden’s King Gustav III launched a bloodless auto-coup, effectively transforming the country from a constitutional monarchy to an absolute monarchy.
To sum up, the core definition of a coup involves a relatively small group of people—smaller than the scale of a democratic majority or a successful revolution—seizing power by extra-legal means. The active participation of the military, the use of violence, or the existence of a well-planned and plausibly viable conspiracy are additional factors that weigh in favor of applying the label, but the lack of any one of these things is not dispositive. Some coups are bloodless. Some coups don’t involve the active participation of the military. And some attempted coups are farces.
On that last point, the most relevant example might be the 1981 Spanish coup d’etat attempt, popularly known as “23-F,” for February 23, the date on which it occurred. On that day, a group of disgruntled Francoist mid-level officers attempted to disrupt the final steps of Spain’s transition to democracy—a peaceful transfer of power to the leftist opposition party, which had just won an election for the first time. During the formal election of a new prime minister, a small detachment of Guardia Civil troops seized the parliament.
The following hours unfolded as a somewhat comical hostage situation. Politicians mouthed off to their captors, mocking them mercilessly. The dysfunctional rebel leaders soon turned on each other in recriminations over their own poor planning. The entire scene inside the chamber was aired live on national radio via broadcasting microphones unwittingly left on. King Juan Carlos I, in full military regalia as commander-in-chief, soon went on television and unequivocally denounced the coup attempt. It collapsed shortly thereafter; the perpetrators eventually received lengthy prison sentences and that was that.
Democrat. Spain's King, Juan Carlos I, in 1975, six years before he helped stop an anti-democratic coup. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
23-F had some elements of a “coup” that were lacking on Jan. 6, to be sure—most notably, the active participation of elements, albeit fairly small minority elements, of the military. But the failed attempt still speaks to Ard’s main premise for rejecting the coup label for Jan. 6: 23-F was likewise a joke, poorly planned, utterly disorganized and with no real chance of success. It also happens to have targeted the legislature to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power, exactly like the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
There has never been any serious doubt that what happened in Spain in 1981 was an attempted coup, nor that any of the other examples provided above were coups, despite their departures from some of the most common elements of a coup.
It’s the Goal, Not the Competence
After the 2020 U.S. presidential election was over, and at the very latest, after the Electoral College had voted in mid-December and all of Trump’s court appeals had been exhausted, there was never any legal way for Trump to remain in power. It is this aspect of the events of Jan. 6 that makes referring to that day as a mere riot insufficient. “Riot” fails to convey the scope and gravity of the matter.
The United States did indeed suffer an attempted coup at the hands of the former president, but this coup attempt was not limited to what was done by the mob of Trump supporters at the Capitol. Rather, the entire effort to overturn the election was an attempted coup. Jan. 6 was its culmination but also the moment of its final failure, after which its leader admitted defeat and effectively surrendered, conceding that the lawful transfer of power would take place.
This broader understanding of the attempted coup even includes the hypothetical scenario in which Congress somehow sided with the objections made by Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and other dead-end Trump supporters in Congress to counting electoral votes from disputed states. This gambit might have observed the form of a legislative procedure—a hollow imitation of lawfulness. But it would have been entirely illegitimate and unconstitutional all the same, a violation of not only the statutory Electoral Count Act, but also, more importantly, the legitimate powers of Congress under the Constitution.
Such a hypothetical outcome would not have constituted a “non-coup” route to keeping Trump in power; it would have merely represented congressional complicity in a successful coup. Cruz, Hawley and the rest might not have committed a statutory crime in this attempt, but their actions were not lawful. In this sense, they, too, can be regarded as having participated in a coup attempt, even as they fled from the rioters who had been summoned to support it.
In the end, Trump did not succeed in ordering government agencies and the armed forces to forcibly keep him in power, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He refused to call on the National Guard to retake the Capitol, despite repeated pleas that he do so, delaying that action for several hours until the acting secretary of defense finally did it on his own authority. And Trump did attempt, repeatedly, to order the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to illegally and forcibly intervene on his behalf.
These orders were refused, but the agencies’ refusals to follow unlawful orders are the hallmarks of a failed coup—not proof that no coup was attempted.
However delusional, incompetent or doomed to failure it might have been, every action to keep the powers of the presidency in Trump’s hands past noon on Jan. 20, 2021, was part of an attempted coup. It is the seriousness of this goal, if not the seriousness of its execution, which makes it a coup attempt.
And that’s why what happened on Jan. 6 was no mere riot, nor just a protest that got out of control. Sure, the QAnon Shaman had no real plan to install himself at the head of the government when he was being a clown on the floor of the Senate. But that’s because the leader that the Capitol’s invaders did want to install was at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, watching it all unfold from the dining room next to the Oval Office.
The riot at the Capitol was only one piece—the final piece—of a failed attempt to overthrow the Constitution of the United States, directed by the president and aiming to install him as an unelected autocrat. Only speaking of it as an attempted coup properly conveys how serious that is and accurately describes what really happened.
Getting this right isn’t just semantics. It’s also crucial to how we respond to what happened. A mere riot does not lead to, for example, reforming the Electoral Count Act, the impeachment of a president or the reining in of unilateral executive power. But these are the kinds of responses, among others, that a well-ordered political system will take in the wake of an attempted coup.