Shock Events and Coup Attempts
Where Will January 6 Lead America?
“We’ve shot four people…Everything’s fine,” Turkish Maj. Muammar Aygar texted his fellow officers on WhatsApp the night of July 15, 2016. Their military coup to remove Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power was proceeding as planned - until Erdogan called CNN Turk, demanding to speak on air. As anchor Hande Firat held her IPhone up to the camera, the president's small and badly-lit image conveyed his precarious situation. Erdogan asked Turks to "go to the streets" to save him, and by dawn, the coup had failed. “I’m closing the group," Major Mehmet Murat Celebioglu texted the other conspirators. "Delete the messages if you want.” Luckily for posterity, not all of them did.
“[T]his uprising is a gift from God,” Erdogan declared a few days later, and the state of emergency he announced let him accelerate his autocratic agendas. He purged the military, but also rounded up Kurds, followers of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen (Erdogan blamed the coup on the exiled cleric), journalists, and more. By summer 2017, the state had suspended or fired over 150,000 civil servants, arrested over 50,000 from the military, judiciary, and police, closed 3,000 schools and universities, and seized over 600 businesses.
Welcome to the shock event – a grave incident that often prompts states of emergency. Shock events can lead to crisis time in democracies, too, with heightened security measures lingering long after the danger has passed. We still live with the American security state that developed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
For authoritarian-minded leaders, shock events spark cycles of power consolidation and political repression. The temporary state of emergency can become permanent, as when the 1933 Reichstag Fire gave Adolf Hitler, recently appointed as German Chancellor, a path to suspend freedoms and cement his authority. Knowing how to capitalize on calamity, whether you had something to do with it or not, is an essential strongman skill.
Coups are the quintessential shock events. Most remove leaders, although in "self-coups," leaders seek to stay in office by extra-constitutional means. Those who carry out coups often pose as saviors of freedom, but such actions account for 75% of democratic failures globally since 1945.
Former president Donald Trump's January 6, 2021 was a jolt in this tradition. The assault on the Capitol aimed to keep him in power by interrupting the Electoral College certification of Joe Biden's victory. It was the final hit of a presidency that from the start used psychological warfare and threat as it sought to transform government into an anti-democratic tool. Tellingly, the first-hour enablers of this agenda, from Roger Stone to Steve Bannon to Gen. Michael Flynn all had a role in its denouement four years later: they promoted the rally that preceded the armed attack.
"Get used to it....Shock to the system. And he's just getting started," Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway tweeted a week after the 2017 inauguration, referring to the new ban on individuals from some predominantly Muslim countries entering the United States. Implemented without warning to maximize chaos for civil servants and travelers alike, the measure let Americans know, if they didn't already, that this presidency differed from those before it.
So did the administration's flooding of Washington DC with military and law enforcement operatives in May-June 2020 as part of its response to the Black Lives Matter protests. The presence of thousands of National Guard troops and large numbers of others in uniform, some of them unidentified, evoked a military coup. And so did the volume of arrests and beatings of protesters and journalists in Washington DC and in other cities.
Trump's refusal to accept the results of the November 2020 presidential election plunged America into a fresh crisis and set the stage for exceptional actions, as I observed in a Nov. 19 video. Over the next two months, Trump sought to use electoral manipulation, pressure on state election officials and, finally, physical force, to keep himself in power.
Coups proclaim extralegal actions to be legitimate ways of moving history forward. Jan. 6 was no exception. Trump was voted out before he was able to wreck democracy. Yet he has traced a path to autocratic governance if the Republicans recapture the White House in 2024. Trump and his GOP allies have decided that any means are justified to get to power and stay there. Shock events may well be part of our political reality for years to come.
Naumihal Singh, Seizing Power. The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (Baltimore, 2014), 3.
Coupcast (Datasets and Forecasting): https://www.oefresearch.org/activities/coup-cast
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, 2005).
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (1922) (Chicago, 2005)