What the History of Coups Reveals about Jan. 6
It's not good news for our democracy
During the June 9 presentation of the findings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, I was pleased to hear the chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) refer to Jan. 6 as the "culmination of an attempted coup." Coups may be swift and surprising actions, but they are also the fruit of months or years of planning. This was the case with Jan. 6. Those terrible hours of violence were the climactic point of what Rep. Thompson characterized as "a sprawling multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the election."
It's helpful to consider Jan. 6 in the context of the history of coups as the hearings reveal more about its planning. Jan. 6 conforms in important ways to the dynamics of past such authoritarian actions.
Having written a history of authoritarian takeovers, I had no doubt on Jan. 6 about what to call the events we had just witnessed. Yet coups were something that were only supposed to happen elsewhere. Millions likely agreed with the U.S. historian Joanne Freeman when she reflected on Jan. 9 that "Americans don't quite have the words to describe what's going on." It took the New York Times editorial board another year to use the word.
Even today, as we watch new footage of those hours, and hear testimonies of those who lived them firsthand, it can be hard to digest how close we came to losing our democracy. Knowing that political assassinations are part of the coup process, I am haunted by the narrow escape from harm of many of our lawmakers that day. Representative Annie Kuster (D-NH) told MSNBC that she and others "pinned down in the gallery" avoided the violent mob's entrance by seconds.
We know that leaders engaging in "self-coups" or other authoritarian actions often purge non-loyalists from their own party and cabinet. This offers context for then-President Trump's statement that Vice President Mike Pence, who refused to interrupt the certification of Biden’s victory, "deserved" to be hanged--and for the sight of that noose on the grounds of the Capitol that day.
In that regard, the chilling remark of Senate President pro tempore Chuck Grassley on Jan. 5 that he, and not Pence, would be overseeing the Electoral College count because "we don't expect him to be there" is in the best coup tradition.
Because Jan. 6 failed to achieve its objectives, it might be easy to dismiss it as an amateur operation or underestimate its gravity. In fact, failure is normal in coup history. Of 471 coup attempts staged around the world from 1950 to 2000, half were defeated due to operational failures or lack of unity of purpose among participants. Even coup attempts involving senior military men, which have the highest success rate, can fall apart or deteriorate into civil war, as Spanish General Francisco Franco learned.
Although coups depend on clandestine planning, the idea that just a few conspirators can overthrow a government is mostly a myth. Even military coups often involve a broad swath of civilian elites who help to create the proper political and psychological climate for the coup and help the public to regard the government that comes out of it as legitimate.
This is important in considering the high number of Republican members of Congress who conspired in attempts to overturn Biden's victory and also facilitated the rally on Jan. 6 and the violence that came out of that. The presence of 57 GOP officials at that rally is another example.
When coups fail, those elites can be vulnerable, since there are always people who talk to the authorities to cut a deal to avoid criminal charges and engage in reputation rehabilitation. That is now happening with Jan. 6, as the hearings show.
Yet the United States is also in an unusually dangerous situation in that the party that conspired in the authoritarian takeover remains unrepentant and continues to spout the Big Lie that justified the coup (the need to "stop the steal" and restore Trump to his rightful place as president). That elevates the risk of a repeat action.
Jan. 6 also continues other coup traditions, such as the idea that the plot was "saving the country" from tyranny. This turns any violence that occurs during the coup into a patriotic and morally righteous intervention. We also have the recurrent theme of the coup as necessary to return power "to the people," even though its primary beneficiary was Trump.
Finally, the news from the June 9 hearing that Trump sought to reach the Capitol on Jan. 6, sending the Secret Service into emergency mode, makes perfect sense if you know that the most important moment of a coup is the pronunciamiento, when the new government announces it has restored order and justice to the country. Given that his leader cult inspired so many extremists to turn out on that day to save him, Trump had to be there to decree the start of the new Trumpian order.
Wherever and whenever they happen, coups proclaim that extralegal actions, including violence, are legitimate ways of moving history forward. Jan. 6 was no exception. The hearings of the House committee remind us of how extraordinarily fortunate we are that this coup attempt failed. Bringing the conspirators to justice, Trump included, is essential to protecting our democracy in the future.