My tentative inclination is to think the significance of January 6 is being overestimated by many folks. It seems that what really happened is that an incumbent President and his supporters were simply using a parliamentary maneuver, however cynically, to overturn the results of an election which they may or may not have seriously believed was stolen. Trump and the fringiest Republicans probably really believed this. Guys like Cruz and Hawley, probably not. While such maneuvers are unusual in US politics, they’re not by themselves illegal.
As for the invasion of Capitol Hill, what seems to have happened is a riot where protestors overpowered the police, who were only doing their jobs half-heartedly (which often happens in civil unrest, as incidents ranging from LA 1992 to Charlottesville 2017 indicate), and subsequently engaged in petty theft, vandalism, and ridiculous photo-ops.
I saw comparable violence at rock concerts and sports events in the 70s and 80s. The band is two hours late, the fans get pissed, the folding metal chairs start flying, fans climb onto the stage. Or two teams get into a fight, the ref calls the game, and the fans invade the field. Yes, someone was killed, but that’s what happens when a mob of people rushes the cops.
Can the use of a dubious parliamentary tactic by politicians combined with a riot by their supporters really be considered a coup attempt? Coups typically involve an in-house maneuver by high ranking or relatively high ranking government, intelligence, or military officials to depose the existing head of state and his immediate circle. By this standard, efforts by Pence, the Cabinet, or Congressional leaders (and those who pull the strings of these) to invoke the 25th amendment against Trump would come closer to meeting the definition of an actual coup. Although invoking the 25th wouldn’t really be a coup either, as it is a perfectly constitutional though rare maneuver.
Coups can take place when a head of state seizes extra-constitutional power for the purpose of shutting down the opposition. The strongest argument for a “Trump as coup instigator” position would be Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and inciting of the protestors to mob action. Such claims were used by the Nixon administration to prosecute the Chicago 8 in 1969 (notably, the Chicago 8 convictions were all vacated on appeal, although on the basis of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, not “innocence” per se). Such a “shouting fire in a crowded theater” charge would probably be dubious from a First Amendment legal perspective. And there is no immediately apparent evidence that Trump was seriously trying to dissolve Congress, the courts, opposition parties, the opposition press, and other constitutional entities in order to seize absolute or near-absolute power, or otherwise create an extra-constitutional government. The only President in US history that came close to achieving such was Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. In fact, Trump was rewarded for his “coup” attempt by being locked out of his social media accounts. Not exactly comparable to Hitler or Allende in their final moments.
Perhaps it could be argued that what happened was not a coup attempt but an attempted putsch. I’m not sure precisely where exactly the line would be drawn between a putsch and an ordinary riot, if there is such a line. A putsch is ordinarily defined as an attempt to violently overthrow the government. Maybe that was the intention of at least some of the rioters, but it seems for a riot to escalate into a putsch, the would-be insurrectionists would have to have at least some possibility of success, which was clearly not the case on January 6. A far worse incident occurred on March 1, 1954, when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on Congress, killing one Congressman and wounding four others. But this incident is considered to have been an ordinary act of terrorism, not a putsch. At no point on January 6 was the actual security of the state threatened, not by the wildest stretch of the imagination.
If January 6 was neither a serious coup attempt nor an attempted revolution, perhaps it could be considered a prelude to a civil war, which is more plausible because, if for no other reason, no one knows the future. But the riot at the capitol on January 6 was no more extreme than many of the riots that have occurred over the past six months, and not as extreme as some. It may seem more dramatic only because Congress rather than a Gamestop store or a local police precinct was the target. Civil disturbances related to electoral disputes are not abnormal by world standards. Violence is typically associated with about 20% of elections worldwide. January 6 seems to have been just another incident in the “Third Worldization” (normalization) of US society as the roughly three-quarters of a century that the US has been an unusually genteel, middle-class society passes.
Categories: Culture Wars/Current Controversies