In their series of televised hearings, Congress’ January 6 select committee insists the riot by Trump supporters, together with the scheme by some Trump advisers to keep him in office, constitutes an “attempted coup” against the American Constitution.
Was the early 2021 disturbance really an attempted coup d’état—or “a strike of the state”? Was it really an illegal rebellion to overturn the government? The word “coup” seems like a new and unwanted entry into America’s political lexicon. Coups are what happen to other countries, not us. Is this the beginning of a new, troubling era of American violence and instability, as some political scientists and others now suggest?
As I argued in these pages in May, American democracy is solid and predictions of a coming civil war overwrought. The abject failure of the January 6 scheme actually affirmed the strength of our democratic institutions; it doesn’t necessarily indicate a sign of decay.
Nevertheless, challenges to our constitutional order must be handled with firm resolve. History suggests democracies that lose their will to fight back probably are the most vulnerable to instability or authoritarian takeover.
Coups normally occur in countries with weak or nonexistent democratic institutions and traditions. Still, some examples of coups or other extraconstitutional efforts by presidents to stay in power might hold a few lessons for us. To repair the damage and ensure stability in future, we should focus not merely on punishing the perpetrators but addressing the root causes by restoring confidence in the American electoral system and better protecting our public institutions from political violence.
A Half-Baked Scheme
Calling January 6 a coup attempt has only slightly more credibility than calling the 2020 election outcome a “stolen” vote. After a month of public hearings, it is unclear that the January 6 committee has established that a comprehensive coup plot occurred. The main facts were well-known months ago, and they all demonstrated Trump’s efforts to arm-twist state election officials, pressure Vice President Pence and egg on a crowd to march on the Capitol: all actions that led to his impeachment on January 13, 2021.
We know that this Trumpian “coup attempt” depended on arcane procedures and “magical thinking” and was ill-conceived and poorly coordinated. One version by Trump advisers, called “Operation Green Bay Sweep,” required having the election declared in dispute by Congress, which would later allow congressional delegations to choose the president. Another idea by law professor John Eastman had Vice President Pence, tasked with presiding over the joint session to certify the electoral college vote, unilaterally throw out the electors of closely contested states. Part of the plan seems to have included some state Republican officials dubiously appointing alternative slates of electors. As it turned out, some Republican members of Congress did raise ceremonial objections to certification that never had a chance to succeed and were condemned by the Republican Senate majority leader.
For their part, the rioters appear as a wildcard. According to conspirator Peter Navarro, they ruined the scheme, which required orderly procedure. If Trump had purposely incited his supporters to violence—as the January 6 committee argues—then he might have misunderstood how the plan was supposed to work. The Justice Department is pursuing charges against more than 800 of the rioters, but only a handful are facing charges for seditious conspiracy. But without this riot, this whole plot just looks like a desperate attempt to muddle the election results—a corrupt scheme, but hardly a “coup attempt.”
In the end, the plot never stood a chance because it ran into solid walls of Madisonian checks and balances. Our courts, federal bureaucracy, the military and the states all sided with democracy and stability. Opposition came from Republicans and Democrats alike. Indeed, many members of Trump’s own administration have testified against the conspiracy.
Missing Some Essential Elements
Although the scheme could never have succeeded, the committee’s “coup” label for the plot probably will stick, given its widespread media and academic support. The University of Illinois’s Coup D’état Project believes the events of Jan. 6 meet the definition of an organized coup plot because, among other things, they represented a credible threat to our national leadership.
Other authorities might not agree. In his classic “Coup D’état: A Practical Handbook,” political analyst Edward Luttwak defined a coup as a small group attempting to take over the instruments of government, which this attempt was not. Based on his book and a review of multiple coup incidents, we find the January 6 “coup attempt” diverges from traditional coup attempts in notable ways.
First, what happened was not provoked by a national crisis. The only “crisis” was that President Trump had lost an election. Protests of this result lacked widespread active support. In 1992, Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori along with the military seized total power and ruled by decree, justified by the need to deal with a severe economic crisis and fight two violent terrorist insurgencies. At least in that case, there was an arguable crisis.
Second, there was no strong body of supporters for Trump’s actions within the government. Besides Trump himself, the only backers of the scheme were advisers like Navarro and Eastman who weren’t in charge of anything. Contrast this to Turkey’s abortive coup in 2016, after which Turkish authorities arrested tens of thousands of alleged conspirators in all sectors of the government and civil society. Even though this coup attempt failed abysmally, at least the conspirators realized they needed widespread support to pull it off.
And finally, there was no military support for the president. It is hard to find a coup attempt, successful or unsuccessful, that didn’t at least have some military units behind it, or at least not trying to impede it. For Trump’s plot, there was no possibility of declaring martial law or getting military support for such actions. To paraphrase a famous aphorism of political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the conspiracy had the Trump, but lacked the clubs.
Failed Plotters Might Later Succeed
All these missing characteristics may not suggest a coup, but that is not to dismiss its seriousness and the need for vigilance. One lesson is that a failed coup attempt doesn’t necessarily discredit the plotters; democracies soft on coup conspirators might ultimately suffer disastrous consequences.
In 1992, for instance, Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez, a Marxist with contempt for democratic institutions, launched a bloody coup attempt against Venezuela’s government. Remarkably, many Venezuelans fed up with an economic downturn and corruption made him a hero. In years past, Venezuela’s tough-minded democratic leadership had known how to handle coup plotters. By the 1990s, they had lost their resolve against enemies to their system. Rather than put Chavez on trial for treason, then-President Rafael Caldera pardoned Chavez and his cohorts, calculating the brash former officer would be tamed by participating in electoral democracy. Four years later, Chavez was elected president and, within a few years, had established a one-party dictatorship.
In 2006, Mexican presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refused to accept defeat and staged massive protests and a boycott in the legislature to discredit the country’s fledgling democracy. Mexico’s newly elected President Felipe Calderon feared cracking down on these challenges, even though Mexico’s electoral authority was independent and had been key in establishing the nation’s democratic transition in 2000. In 2012 Lopez Obrador lost again and repeated his attacks on the electoral authorities. By 2018, Lopez Obrador’s persistence paid off, and he won the presidency against a weak field of candidates. His willingness to delegitimize Mexico’s democratic institutions didn’t hurt his political career. Today, analysts still fret about the continuing damage Lopez Obrador has done to the country’s institutions and norms and even wonder if he’ll surrender power in 2024, as required by the Mexican Constitution.
Restoring Public Confidence
These examples come from much more fragile democracies than ours, but they do demonstrate the success some demagogues have had in undermining constitutional government.
The January committee aims to deliver enough evidence for prosecutions of the key conspirators, including former President Trump. Without prosecutions, it is unclear whether the committee’s investigation will finish Trump as a political force. Before the committee hearings, in one May opinion poll, Trump still led President Biden in a hypothetical 2024 rematch by two points, suggesting that a sizable number of voters are unpersuaded that it was a coup, or don’t care either way. Moreover, as of mid-June, the public is still divided about the committee’s results and whether Trump even committed a crime. And according to the Brookings Institution’s William Galston, most Americans still don’t see January 6 as a transformative event.
As this public ambivalence suggests, focusing exclusively on prosecutions may serve some good ends, but also would be highly divisive and insufficient to repair the damage from January 6. Public authorities must acknowledge that many Americans don’t regard our elections as secure. Faith in our electoral integrity has suffered twin blows from the Russian efforts to influence our election in 2016 and the inaccurate claims against absentee voting in 2020. In both cases, fears probably were overblown. But given that this whole January 6 event stemmed from an election dispute, we should establish a high-level bipartisan commission to investigate and make recommendations on electoral security, similar to what the Baker-Carter commission did in 2005. The public needs more assurance we can balance the twin goals of security and accessibility in elections.
Finally, one hopes that raised awareness of the events of Jan. 6 will in general lead to a greater awareness of political violence in America, especially violence against public institutions. From the urban riots in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd to the assault on the Capitol to the recent threats against Supreme Court justices, condemnation of political violence must be swift and bipartisan.
In addition, there must be a renewed effort to effectively protect our institutions from physical harm, particularly in the nation’s capital. One important takeaway from both the 2020 riots and January 6 was how uncoordinated authorities in Washington, D.C., were when handling security public disturbances. In a follow-up to the January 6 committee, Congress must address these severe deficiencies in Washington’s security responsibilities. Had public authorities acted more decisively against the unauthorized demonstration of Trump supporters, the tragedy at the U.S. Capitol probably would have been avoided, and we might not be having the January 6 hearings at all.