Was the January 6 attack on the US Capitol a stand-alone or a warning?

As the United States turns its attention to the presidential race in 2024, experts are asking whether the Capitol riots could lead to a successful overthrow of the US government in the future.

The violence of January 6, 2021, was a failed plot and could serve as a template for yet another coming, according to New York University professor and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Ruth Ben-Ghiat.

“January 6 was a deeply radicalizing event, and therefore this is the failed coup that could spawn a successful coup,” she says.

Whether the January 6 violence – or Trump’s efforts to topple the outcome of the November-January 5 election – constituted a coup is still a matter of controversy.

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Was the January 6 attack on the US Capitol an attempted coup?

Basically, a coup is a sudden, illegal takeover, whereas a revolt is defined as a case of revolt, revolt or opposition to civilian authority or an established government.

Professor Ben-Ghiat says that our idea of ​​what a coup looks like may need to be changed to keep up with how a coup plot could take shape in a modern, sophisticated democracy like the United States.

“In a way, the authoritarian playbook is being renewed – so you do not have one-party states now that are shutting down for elections,” she said. “Today you come through elections, and then you manipulate elections to stay there. So the way we view coups, in a way, needs to change.”

“In Guinea or in Myanmar, these [coups] were, they are recognizable. We need to think more creatively about these other ways – and we can still call them coups – that people are going to stay in power illegally. “

The self-coup time

Just after 1 p.m. on the day of the attacks, Donald Trump ended an hour-long speech at his Red America meeting.

“We are fighting. We are fighting like hell, and if you do not fight like hell, you will not have a country anymore,” he told the crowd.

US President Donald Trump raises his fist while speaking at a January 6, 2021 meeting.
Questions hang over what happened in Trump’s White House during the election and inauguration of his successor. (Reuters: Jim Bourg)

Within an hour, protesters had streamed past police protecting the U.S. Capitol building.

One week after the uprising on January 13, the US House of Representatives accused Mr. Trump for inciting violence on January 6, an unprecedented second indictment of the president’s misdemeanor issued by the lower house under Mr. Trump’s four years in power.

Ten members of Mr. Trump’s own party joined the Democrats in issuing him a formal reprimand, making it the most two-part presidential trial in American history. He was later acquitted by the Senate, which lacked a two-thirds majority to convict him.

Dr. John Chin, co-author of the Historical Dictionary of Modern Coups d’Etat, says: “For me, January 6 was actually just a coup d’etat before January 6 – not the event itself. For me, the interesting coup policy happened. Between November 2020 and 5. January.”

There are many questions about what exactly happened in Trump’s White House in the period between the election and the inauguration of his successor, Joe Biden.

First is the audio recording of Donald Trump’s call to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on January 2, 2021, in which he says, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.”

A note written by former Trump lawyer John Eastman was published by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa last year. The Eastman memo, as it has become known, sets out an unprecedented plan to persuade then-Vice President Mike Pence to undermine the Constitution and throw the 2020 election result out on January 6, when Congress met to count state electoral votes.

What has proved more controversial is the December 18, 2020 meeting of the Oval Office, where Trump reportedly discussed seizing voting machines and declaring a national emergency in an attempt to overturn the election result.

“Part of the difficulty of studying coups lies in understanding when they fail, because we do not know the whole universe of cases when they fail,” says Dr. Erica Frantz, co-author of Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes.

People are scaling a wall at Capitol Hill in Washington DC
The January 6 uprising lacked coordinated military involvement.(Reuters: Leah Millis)

Researcher Edward Luttwak’s landmark work, Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook, compares a coup to the unarmed martial arts judo, in that “the planners of the coup must use the power of the state against its political masters.”

While images of tanks rolling through the city streets may pop up when we think of a coup, the last 30 years have seen many leaders retain power through what is known as the coup or presidential coup.

“Since the end of the Cold War, people have used more subtle tactics to consolidate control and subtly steal the election instead of directly doing so,” says Dr. Erica Frantz, co-author of, Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes.

Also known as an auto coup, this is the type of grip that Professor Ben-Ghiat says Mr Trump was trying to orchestrate.

“This was technically a coup,” she says. “That’s when someone’s in the office and they’re trying to stay there.”

Although regardless of the type of coup, military consent – or at least ambivalence – is integrated into any attempt to seize power.

“A coup necessarily involves the military – either directly or indirectly,” says Dr. Monty G Marshall, Director of the Center for Systemic Peace.

“The military has to support a shift in executive power when that change is outside the constitution or out of the ordinary procedures. Sometimes a sitting president can seize power, but they still need the support of the military to do so. effectively. “

Dr. Frantz says the Capitol Hill riots do not qualify as a coup, in part because there was no organized military involvement.

“I do not think it was a coup because we did not see members of the military on board this – this was a bunch of dissatisfied citizens coordinating with a losing party to launch this effort,” says Dr. Frantz.

Warning signs

International observers monitoring the 2020 US election have described it as “competitive and well-managed”.

But, they have also said, “uncertainty caused by late legal challenges and lack of evidence allegations of electoral fraud created confusion and concern among election officials and voters”.

Since the 2020 election, state and federal judges have rejected more than 50 lawsuits filed by then-President Trump and his allies challenging the results.

Sir. To this day, Trump has continued his PR offensive, claiming that the 2020 election has been tainted by widespread fraud. Despite the fact that there is no evidence to support his claims, an increasing number of Republicans appear to be taking him at his word.

U.S. Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger stands outside the U.S. Capitol
The events of January 6 were unprecedented in modern American history.(Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)

According to an Axios / Ipsos poll released in November, 58 percent of Republicans believe that there was a significant fraudulent vote in 2020 and that these fraudulent votes changed the outcome of the election. 38 percent said they believe the election in America is usually fair, down from 61 percent in 2019.

Dr. Monty Marshall, who works in the U.S. government’s political instability task force, says unresolved political issues, such as the 2020 election, could accelerate the anchoring of factionalism, which is linked to political instability.

“What we have found is that fractionality is a very, very strong indicator of regime change, but it is also a minor indicator of political violence,” says Dr. Marshall. “The possibility of increased political violence in the United States is our biggest concern.”

Political instability and regime change are also more widely associated with a failure of democratic practices in government, according to Dr. Chin.

“Autocracies are certainly more prone to coups than democracies in general,” says Dr. Chin.

“Before Trump, the idea that a place like the United States could have a coup [was] totally unthinkable. You would not even have a nightmare about that.


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