Of Course it Was a Coup...
...And Recognizing that helps us shine a light on the murderous U.S. Empire
What is to be Done About Magical Thinking?
Four years ago, he won the U.S. presidency, and then lied that millions of votes for his opponent were, in fact, fraudulent. In subsequent years he routinely floated the idea that he would get more than the legally allowed two consecutive terms in office.
Once in power he continued to call on police and military and bikers to do violence on his behalf, just as he had during his campaign. Eventually, as the polls in 2020 turned against him, he said that he wouldn’t respect the election results if he lost.
Meanwhile, his federal agencies kidnapped and killed protesters on American streets and he asked his military advisors for options on how to hang onto the presidency after January 20, 2021, even if he lost the election. He then called secretaries of states, the people in charge of state elections, and threatened at least one should he not commit election fraud on his behalf.
After his election loss, groups of people, including major Republican donors, and Republican elected officials planned openly for months to meet in the nation’s capital to stop the certification of his opponent’s election.
He told this group to come to D.C. to do just that and when they arrived, he went out to see them with the help and coordination of the Secret Service, spoke to them, told them he’d never concede defeat and encouraged him to fight on.
His family echoed that call for battle. His personal attorney also spoke to the mob and called for “trial by combat.”
Then, the mob – its ranks we now know filled with active-duty police and military personnel flashing their badges and id cards - took the U.S. Capitol grounds and building, ushered in by Capitol police. On-duty police officers posed for photographs with the mob after they’d taken control of the Capitol as elected officials fled to bunkers for safety.
The heavily armed mob got into a firearm stand-off at the entryway to the House of Representatives and temporarily halted certification of the election of the 2020 presidential campaign winner.
After having sent Democratic and Republican officials running, the mob took over their offices. Some of the fleeing elected officials ran only after realizing that their office panic buttons had been ripped out from their offices, long before the mobs could reach there.
The mob used tactical military formations to enter the Capitol, and then followed and communicated specific instructions relating to floor plans and Congress members’ schedules over electronic headsets. In preceding days, we have since learned, Republican lawmakers had given some of these people tours of the Capitol.
The mob wanted to overturn the presidential election, and 147 Republican congress people formally voted to do just that. In other cities and states auxiliary groups of terrorists took to the streets and took over other government buildings, stealing and destroying property.
As was the case in D.C. most of them were subsequently let out peacefully and sent home or to their hotels to relax and regroup. The only terrorists killed in the government take-over and attempt to overturn the election either ran into drawn police guns intentionally, were trampled by their friends, or gave themselves heart attacks.
The F.B.I. and DHS refused to release reports on the planned capitol attack they knew was imminent, and once the take-over heated up and the relatively few Capitol police became overrun, their chief asked his bosses, the Sergeants of Arms of both the House and Senate as well as the Pentagon for back-up. They all refused the request for hours, until long after the Capitol had been taken and police officers had been assaulted and killed by the mob.
January 6th was just one piece of it, but the facts looked at honestly and on their own terms reveal a simple truth – the United States has undergone an attempted coup d'etat this past year. Yes, in many ways it was a stupid coup, but stupid coups are still coups.
Yes, it was a coup attempted by people in power trying to hang onto it, but that’s often the case with coups. In Spanish, the term for despots attempting to overturn popular will and hang onto power is “autogolpe,” or self-coup.
One of the most pre-eminent living American historians, the radical Gerald Horne, said simply of January 6th that it “will go down in history as being one of the most significant…attempted fascist coups.”
Referring to an Associated Press investigation into the identities of the January 6th mob, the historian and scholar of authoritarianism Ruth Ben-Ghiat said “though it is tempting to see them [the mob members] as extremists, militia groups, White power, they were Republican donors. They were Republican officials. There were military, there were law enforcement. So, this means the threat…is not outside our institutions only, it’s coming from inside.”
Furthermore, she said, the years-long rhetorical pattern that Donald Trump as candidate and then president set for encouraging violence fits into well-known 20th century models. “The Nazis allowed the violence to happen [and] actually instigated it,” she continued.
“This is this technique of lighting the match and already not addressing violence and egging on violence, and then letting it roll is a classic authoritarian maneuver.”
This was an attempted self-coup, autogolpe, by a sloppy president with authoritarian intent and policies. Of course it was.
Determining whether or not it was “successful” may take more time. The January 6th violence was aided by police and military rank-and-file, as well as the intentional negligence of the highest in command of congressional security.
The mob wanted to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election win and they did indeed manage to delay it for a bit with an armed stand-off. They also sent the supposedly most powerful leaders in the world fleeing for fear of their lives, and were mostly gingerly walked out the doors and down the Capitol steps afterwards with the literal hand-holding help of the same police who had let them in.
It might be tempting to say that the coup-attempt wasn’t successful because, after all, Donald Trump is now no longer in office and Joe Biden is the new president. Here’s another perspective – A couple thousand crazed people openly planned an assault on the seat of U.S. government power that they hoped would be a catalyst for a new Civil War, and overturn an election, tried it, injured and killed police officers in the process, and most of them got off with slaps on the wrist.
Sure, some of the mob members are now getting charged with crimes. What of the elected officials who supported them with intel, who helped them plan the assault with personal tours of the Capitol, or the 147 members of congress who literally went on record to support the coup and overturn the election?
What of the Sergeants of Arms and Pentagon leaders who refused pleas from the Capitol police chief for support as the building was being taken over? They are all getting away with those offenses.
Peaceful leftist protesters that same week in Georgia, and peaceful protesters in New York City congregating to remember Martin Luther King Jr. this week have already faced swifter, broader, more violent consequences, being beaten and arrested by police.
It can be tempting to laugh off or dismiss this self-coup attempt as failed, or to close the book on what it represents. After all, it was only a couple thousand people trying something so outlandish that they had virtually no chance of accomplishing.
The Beer Hall Putsch was also similarly initially dismissed. A couple thousand literal drunkards stormed German government buildings in 1923 in attempted coup.
They were turned back with relative ease and their leader was jailed. A decade later and that leader Adolph Hitler and those mob members, the Nazi Party, had solidified complete control over Germany.
Defining the term “coup” so narrowly as to only include things that only had a good chance of succeeding right away is a limited view that doesn’t use history as guide. There has been these past two weeks criticism from otherwise brilliant leftists about using the word “coup” to describe what Donald Trump has attempted for at least the past year.
Mostly, such critics seem annoyed that a mediasphere and public who are hardly ever concerned about coups because we’re usually the ones backing violent, anti-democratic coups in other countries to serve corporate interests, are only now discussing the phenomenon. They argue that calling this an attempted coup trivializes the term.
At best, that view correctly highlights the myopic hypocrisy of American exceptionalism ideology that refuses to acknowledge our systemic crimes on marginalized peoples. At worst, it appears to me to be useless cool-guy, “I was here first” conceptual territorialism.
Yes, the neoliberal establishment tries to co-opt terms, selectively care about issues, frame things incompletely and dishonestly. That doesn’t mean that we have to let them and denying simple realities here doesn’t add to our credibility in the effort.
Instead of looking for technicalities that can get us out of describing this as an attempted coup, or becoming too timid or blinded ourselves to use the term accurately for fear that the neoliberal establishment might pervert the meaning by selectively applying it only against their enemies, let’s take advantage of this renewed popular interest in coups and try to educate folk.
Let’s use this sudden mainstream interest in coups to explain to people that the type of terror they felt on January 6th, the fear, the anger, the uncertainty, is just a fraction of what is rained down on poor and Brown and Black and Yellow people all across the globe every day by the U.S. government in our names.
Let’s use this opportunity to explain what American empires is, and how it has come home, so that we might have a chance of ending its violence both abroad and here, all at once.