"What should we call the Sixth of January?" asked the historian Jill Lepore two days after the violent action at the Capitol that aimed to keep Donald Trump in the White House after his loss in the 2020 elections. "Sedition, treason, a failed revolution, an attempted coup?"
Almost one year later, we know a lot about the long and short-term planning that culminated in the violence of that day. We have ongoing investigations by journalists, researchers, intelligence and policing agencies, the Department of Defense, and the House Select Committee. We know something about who organized the Jan. 6 rally, who funded it, who participated in the breach of the Capitol, and what Trump did during those terrible hours.
Here's what we don't have: a consensus, even among Democrats and centrist and progressive media outlets, on what to call Jan. 6. And that's how it should be in a democracy with a pluralist public sphere.
Yet the lack of clarity about what to call Jan. 6 also reflects its status as a traumatic event that we still don't know how to process or speak about. It is tough to view the compilation video presented in February 2021 at Trump's second impeachment trial by Lead House Impeachment Manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). The sights and sounds of the participants' murderous rage can leave one speechless.
It is shocking to think that members of Congress, and even Mike Pence, the Trump loyalist vice-president, had to run for their lives that day. "Americans don't quite have the words to describe what's going on," reflected the historian Joanne Freeman in a Jan. 9 NPR interview. That's remained the case a year later.
As the anniversary of Jan. 6 nears, it's worth assessing the language we use to describe that historic event. As we'll see, some terms capture the scope of the operation and the circle of culpability better than others.
Some media outlets, including, CNN, call Jan. 6 a riot. This seems inadequate given the gravity of the target and the intended outcome. A riot can erupt anywhere, and often escalates from a small-scale, local clash to something much bigger. Jan. 6 started as big as possible, targeting the heart of American democracy, and involved non-spontaneous planning (including in War Rooms rented by conspirators at the Willard Hotel). Large numbers of active duty and retired armed forces members were involved in ground operations.
Although the word riot, from the Old French rioter, to quarrel, is associated with conflict, in English it can also denote something not so serious, or someone amusing, as in "she's a riot!" Here we can recall the initial efforts by the perpetrators and their allies to frame Jan. 6 as a riotous lark: a "normal tourist visit," to the Capitol, as Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) later put it (leaving out that he barricaded a door in a panic that day to keep the "tourists" from entering the House gallery).
The presence of "colorful" individuals like Jake Angeli, the shirtless spear-carrying "Q Shaman," directed media and public attention away from the trained professionals, giving the deadly enterprise of overturning U.S. democracy a cartoonish air. "We spend $750 billion annually on 'defense' and the center of American government fell in two hours to the duck dynasty and the guy in the chewbacca bikini," read one viral tweet that day.
Others, like NPR, use a weightier word: insurrection. Yet the Oxford Reference definition of insurrection as "a violent uprising against an authority or government" hardly sums up an operation launched by the head of state so he can stay in the job.
There's a better name for this genre of authoritarian action, which is designed to ensure continuity of rule: the self-coup, or autogolpe. (The Spanish-language origin of the word testifies to the frequency of coups of all kinds, many of them backed by the United States, in Latin America).
To be sure, Jan. 6 didn't fit the criteria of old-school coups, which were mostly undertaken by members of the armed forces or policing agencies. This is why coup expert Naunihal Singh, writing on Jan. 9, excluded it from that category. Yet Jan. 6 was undeniably an armed action which, as we've now come to know, included members from those exact constituencies.
"And what will it be called, looking back?" asked Lepore in her piece. In my opinion, only the word coup, which translates in several Romance languages as a "cut" or a "hit," conveys the subversive intention of the operation. Jan. 6 was a strike at the entire system of American democracy. It may have failed to keep Trump in office, but the collective wound it inflicted remains painful one year later.