In early November, at the start of the bullshit lawsuits and the “stop the steal” chants, I began wondering: Is this a coup? Donald Trump’s fight to overturn the election may have been sloppy and fatuous and entirely self-interested, but why should we think an American-style coup—or self-coup—would be anything but? Why wouldn’t it start as a joke and end in disaster? And in any case coups aren’t as exotic as we might want to believe. From even the most basic knowledge of the history of my home state of North Carolina, I knew coups had happened here, only to be purposely wiped from the historical record.
So I put the question to a variety of thoughtful historians, scholars, and writers, as well as some people who have launched a few coups of their own (like Henry Kissinger and Oliver North): Does Trump’s challenge of the election result constitute a coup? The responses varied. You can read them all here.
As insurrectionists took to Capitol Hill this morning, I began emailing everyone again to ask the same question. Is this a coup? As I get responses, I will post them below.
Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief and author of Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, who in November said it was not yet a coup but we could be seeing “preparations for” one.
My friends in other countries have repeatedly assured me that there can never be a coup in the United States because there is no American Embassy here.
Naunihal Singh, author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, who sent the following (which he also tweeted):
Some thoughts on what we are seeing, why it is not a coup, what sort of bad thing it is, and what might make it a coup attempt.
First, yes we have been seeing an effort by Trump to remain in power, using various means. And yes, what we saw today was Trump supporters using force to disrupt a democratic transition. But think about what we didn’t see – he didn’t use any of the security forces, just rabble.
In the call to the GA Sec of State, he tried to convince and cajole the other man to “find” votes, but he didn’t use state power to force him to do so. Today we see citizens who support Trump engage in illegal activities to try to keep him in power, but no state security forces.
Why am I hung up on this distinction? Because (a) he is operating as the head of a movement rather than the head of state and (b) these gambits are still very weak and easy to defeat. The GA call was leaked. Police forces can deal with this rabble. A coup would be different.
I mean, heck, police forces have dispersed far larger groups of protesters all over America. They have used far more force against peaceful protesters. Or people not engaged in criminal activity. And they have enough force to deal with this crowd. As does the national guard.
Earlier reports that the DoD may have refused a request for support did worry me. Not because DC needs the National Guard to deal with these guys, but because we do not want the military to do anything that tacitly supports this mob.
In fact, that is one way we might see a coup/autogolpe. If there was mass protest in support of Trump (armed or unarmed) and the military refused to stop the protestors as they took over and seized power. This is what many revolutions look like. The Arab Spring worked this way.
But there will be no Trump Spring or Trump Revolution with an accompanying coup where the uniformed military determines who will be in power by refusing to stop mass action. We are nowhere near that. And there are plenty of tools to deal with the current scenario.
The police can deal with this small group of violent individuals. They can also deal with their ringleaders. And we can respond politically (and legally) to punish those who were responsible for the situation. Even where there is no legal penalty, there should be a social one.
We should focus on the threat, the actors who are engaging in violence, their organizers, their moral supporters, their inspiration, and deal with each one accordingly.
What is this? It looks like sedition to me, although I am not a lawyer. Treat it as such.
And added in his message:
The gist of it is that it is not a coup because he is not using the state’s authority, he’s using his position as a leader of a movement. The latter is a much weaker position from which to attempt to remain in power / seize power. The different diagnosis suggests a different method for addressing the problem.
It is an attempted coup forget all the fancy words like an autogolpe. A woman has died it was an insurrection to disrupt the democratic process. These are our modern day secessionists and Confederates. They must feel the full weight of the state’s punitive arm!
Laura Seay, a political scientist who has studied the Democratic Republic of Congo, who believed it was not a coup “yet” in November:
I don’t think this is a coup attempt, both because neither the military nor other organized armed forces are involved, and because the people involved don’t seem to be attempting to take control of government or any other institutions (ie, transportation infrastructure or telecommunications systems). All they have tried to do (and accomplished) is stopping one branch of it from functioning for an afternoon. This is a serious sign of democratic decline, it is an insurrection, and it is sedition, but it does not meet the technical definition of a coup.
Chris Mullin, the Labour politician and journalist who authored the novel A Very British Coup, who thought Trump might try if he “get away with it but US institutions seem robust enough to prevent it”:
An attempted coup by Trump perhaps, but as I said before US institutions are sufficiently to resist. The judges, the military, the police, most senators and congress members have in the last analysis all come down on the side of the constitution. In the end the rule of law will prevail. Which is not to say that the scenes at the Capitol aren’t truly shocking. Trump and those who continue to pretend that the election was rigged have been playing a very dangerous game.
Dr. Josef Woldense, a professor of African and African-American Studies who studies elite politics and authoritarian regimes:
I stick with my previous comments. Nothing that happened since has swayed me otherwise. In fact, it only cemented my position on Trump and his supporters.
Here is what he said last time:
Just as a warning, my answer is not a straightforward one. This is not because I’m trying to evade your question, but because there are multiple issues embedded in the question.
Is “this” a coup? Before discussing the semantics of using the term coup, let me start with what I see as the core issue. Is what we’re seeing from Trump tantamount to say, a basketball coach demanding that referees revisit a potentially erroneous call against their player? Or a tennis player disputing an out of bounds call and demanding the chair umpire to revisit the decision? In short, are the current events just an innocuous feature of electoral competition?
The answer is no. What Trump is disputing is not whether the votes were counted properly. Instead, the dispute is over the very idea of him ever losing. Starting with Hilary Clinton, Trump made his dictum clear: If I win, it is despite you cheating and if I lose, it is because you cheated. In this world, the very possibility of an opponent beating Trump simply doesn’t exist. It is erased from the world. Challenging the veracity of the ballots is just an exercise of making that world a reality.
So where is the value in using the word coup? Well, it signals what we are currently witnessing is a deliberate attempt by regime insiders to marshal state resources to unseat the incoming ruler. The specific state resource that is being invoked—e.g., US AG, courts, electoral commissioner, state reps, etc.,—is incidental to the broader project of bringing about the world where Trump prevails in power. No matter what.
If your goal is to raise the alarm about a potential hostile takeover orchestrated from within the regime, then sure, use the word coup (or self-coup). I would caution you from invoking scholarly research, because then, the word coup will take on a more precise meaning that is likely to be at odds with what’s happening here. Nonetheless, more than the term itself, what is crucial is to highlight the common thread, the Trump dictum and the means by which he and his allies try to make it a reality.
Henri Barkey, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who said in November that “having lived through a number of coups and accused of organizing one, this is not a coup”:
It still is not a coup attempt; to call it a coup the events including the violence would have had a chance of success. We know that they did not have a snowball’s chance in hell. At best, we can call it an attempted insurrection by an unruly and leaderless mob. Even Trump knows there was no chance of success; all he was trying to do is set the stage for 2024, but in my view he destroyed that stage.
Dr. Asef Bayat, a sociologist who has studied Arab revolutions, and called it a “coup attempt” when last asked:
This does look like a “coup attempt,” but American style. What we have seen in the past few weeks are attempts by someone to hold on to power extra-legally. First, through hoping to get sympathetic courts to rule in his favor, then to pressure and intimidate state/local officials to “find” votes for him, then pressuring the Vice President to disallow certification of Biden’s win, and then, today, January 6, by inciting a mob to violently disrupt and deny certification of the next president. To me these attempts look like a coup. But it is American style, in that there are established and independent institutions whose logic of operation dejects extra-legal and transactional mode of taking or holding on political power. So, Trump pressures Georgia’s secretary of the state to “find” votes but the official refuses because that there are simply no other votes to find. This logic of operation subverts Trump’s claims and pressure. On the other hand, unlike many conventional coups, this “coup attempt” lacks coercive/military force at its disposal, at least so far, and consequently does not have enough teeth to cut. Finally, this peculiar coup attempt might be able to deny legitimate power to a legitimate constituency (Biden administration), but it is not clear how and if at all it can secure power to the coup-maker.