Jan6: The American Gulag
grarpamp at gmail.com
Wed Aug 10 20:19:37 PDT 2022
"Coup" Means Whatever The Regime Wants It To Mean
In the immediate aftermath of the January 6 riot at the US Capitol,
many pundits and politicians were eager to describe the events of that
day as a coup d'etat in which the nation was "this close" to having
some sort of junta void the 2020 election and take power in
The headlines at the time were unambiguous in their assertions that
the riot was a coup or attempted coup. For example, the riot was “A
Very American Coup” according to a headline at the New Republic. “This
Is a Coup” insists a writer at Foreign Policy. The Atlantic presented
photos purported to be “Scenes from an American Coup.”
This general tactic has not changed since then. Just this month, for
example, Vanity Fair referred to the January 6 riots as "Trump's
attempted coup" Last month, Vox called it "Trump's cuckoo coup."
Moreover, anti-Trump politicians have repeatedly referred to the riot
as a coup, and "attempted coup" has become the standard term of choice
for the January 6 panel.
At the time, it was obvious that if the riot was a coup at all, it
failed utterly. Thus, the debate is now over whether or not it was an
attempted coup. On January 8, 2021, I argued the riot was not an
attempted coup. Now, 18 months later, after months of "investigation"
and testimony to the January 6 committee, we've learned new details
about the events that occurred that day. And now I can say with even
more confidence: the January 6 riot was not an attempted coup.
It was not an attempted coup because it simply wasn't the sort of
event that historians and political scientists—the people who actually
study coups—generally define as a coup. Even the Justice Department
admits that virtually all of the rioters were, at most, guilty only of
crimes such as trespassing and disorderly conduct. Among the tiny
minority of those charged with actual conspiracy—11 people— they
lacked any sort of institutional backing or support that is necessary
for a coup attempt to take place.
Nor is this just some meaningless debate over semantics. Words matters
and definitions matter. This should be abundantly clear to anyone in
our current age of debates over what terms like "recession" or
"vaccine" or "woman" mean. In fact, the use of term "coup" has been
thoroughly weaponized in that outside academic circles it is employed
largely as a pejorative to discredit political acts designed to
register discontent with a ruling regime or to oppose a ruling
coalition. For many, the term coup is now used increasingly to
describe political acts one doesn't like. But if the term "coup"
ultimately means "political thing those bad guys did" then it ceases
to have any precise meaning at all. But, the use of the term in this
way does explain why so many pundits and politicians routinely use the
term to label their opponents coup plotters. It's basically name
calling, and really only tells us about the user's political leanings.
What Is a Coup?
In their article for the Journal of Peace Research, “Global Instances
of Coups from 1950 to 2010: A New Dataset,” authors Jonathan M. Powell
and Clayton L. Thyne provide a definition:
A coup attempt includes illegal and overt attempts by the military
or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting
Although the terms "military" and "coup" are routinely employed
together, Powell and Thyne emphasize military involvement at early
stages is not necessary:
[Other definitions] more broadly allow non-military elites,
civilian groups, and even mercenaries to be included as coup
perpetrators. This broad definition includes four sources, including
[a definition stating that coup] perpetrators need only be ‘organized
factions’. We take a middle ground. Coups may be undertaken by any
elite who is part of the state apparatus. These can include
non-civilian members of the military and security services, or
civilian members of government.
Moreover, it is not necessary that violence actually be used. The
presence of a threat issued by some organized group of elites is
This definition is helpful because there are many types of political
actions that are not coups, even if the intended outcome is a change
in the ruling regime. The definition offered by Powell and Thyne is
useful because it avoids "conflating coups with other forms of
anti-regime activity, which is the primary problem with broader
For example, popular uprisings that force ruling executives from power
are not generally coups. Intervention by a foreign regime is not a
coup. Civil wars initiated by non-elites or other outsiders are not
Why the Jan 6 Riot Was Not a Coup
In the case of the January 6 riot, the rioters had no institutional
backing, no promises of help from elites, and no reason to assume they
had access to any coercive tools necessary to seize and hold control
of a state's executive apparatus. Nor was Donald Trump even in a
position to promise such things. As noted by Elaine Kamarck at the
we now know that Trump did not even have the support of his own
family and friends nor his handpicked White House staff. To pursue his
plans, he had to rely on a close group of advisors known as “the clown
show” led by Rudi Giuliani, a pillow manufacturer, and a dot-com
millionaire—none of whom was in government and none of whom controlled
the most important “assets” (guns, tanks, planes etc.) needed to take
over a government. In contrast to most successful coups in history,
Trump had no faction of the military, no faction of the National
Guard, and no faction of the District of Colombia Metropolitan Police
at his disposal.
In other words, the rioters had no avenue to calling upon any faction
of the state or group of elites to secure backing. Kamarck continues:
As we learned in some of the most recent hearings, it was Vice
President Mike Pence who was in contact with the military and the
police, and most importantly, the military and the police were taking
orders from Pence not Trump, the commander in chief!
Given that Trump didn't attempt to actually attempt to secure any
government agency to secure power for himself, we can guess Trump knew
no branch of the federal government was about to step in to illegally
secure an extension to his tenure as president. We can never know for
sure what Trump was really thinking on that day, but even if Trump
sought to encourage a group of protestors to somehow put pressure on
Congress—even if by violent means—that's not a coup. It's a popular
The Bolivian "Coup": The Anti-Morales Protestors in Bolivia
The protests that followed the 2019 elections in Bolivia provide an
interestingly similar case to the January 6 riot and demonstrate that
it's often quite debatable as to what constitutes a coup.
As the Bolivian election neared its end on October 24, sitting
president Evo Morales began to claim victory. Numerous opponents,
however, claimed Morales's supporters had engaged in electoral fraud.
Both sides refused to accept the results of the election, and protests
and riots soon erupted across the nation. Morales and his supporters
accused the opposition of staging a coup. The opposition accused
Morales of the same. Or, more precisely, they accused Morales of
attempting an "autocoup"—autogolpe in Spanish—in which Morales was
attempting to hold on to power via illegal means.
Ultimately, Morales ended up resigning after he failed to maintain
control over the police and military. High ranking officials from
those institutions "recommended" Morales resign, and Morales did so
soon after. Morales went into exile and Mexico and the opposition
became the de facto governing coalition in Bolivia.
There remains no agreement, however, as to whether or not the actions
of either side in Brazil constituted a coup (or autocoup.) Morales's
supporters—mostly leftists—refer to the political crisis following the
election as a coup. Those who are convinced Morales did indeed lose
the election refer to his efforts as an autocoup. But many also refer
to the events as a popular uprising.
For many, the situation in Bolivia in 2019 remains ambiguous, and we
can see how it shares many elements in common with the events
surrounding the January 6 riot at the Capitol. It began with claims of
election fraud, and ended with a group of protestors attempting to
pressure congress to change the outcome. This is not fundamentally
different from the popular uprisings in Bolivia, except that in the US
the outcome was never really dubious. There was never really any doubt
as to whether the Pentagon would he helping Trump push through an
autocoup. Trump never had any real reason to believe he could hold on
to power, even with 900 mostly unarmed protestors trespassing in the
"Coup" Now Means "Thing I Don't Like"
The Bolivia situation also helps to illustrate how the term "coup" is
used selectively for political effect. The fact that Morales's leftist
supporters are generally those who favor the use of the term to
describe Morales's removal from office is no coincidence. Those who
support one side say it's a coup, while the other side does not.
We see the same dynamic at work in the US, and we should not be
surprised that the media has rushed to apply the term to the riot.
This phenomenon was examined in a November 2019 article titled “Coup
with Adjectives: Conceptual Stretching or Innovation in Comparative
Research?,” by Leiv Marsteintredet and Andres Malamud. The authors
note that as the incidence of real coups has declined, the word has
become more commonly applied to political events that are generally
not coups. But, as the authors note, this is no mere issue of
splitting hairs, explaining that “The choice of how to conceptualize a
coup is not to be taken lightly since it carries normative,
analytical, and political implications.”
Increasingly, the term really means "this is a thing I don’t like."
It's clear the January 6 panel in Congress, and countless anti-Trump
pundits use the term in this way to express disapproval and also to
justify regime crackdowns against pro-Trump opponents of the regime.
It's easier to justify harsh prison sentences for a disorganized group
of vandals if their acts can be framed as a nearly successful coup and
therefore a threat to "our democracy." Moreover, if the situation were
reversed, and if protestors invaded the Capitol to support a leftwing,
pro-regime candidate, we can be sure that the vocabulary used to
describe the event in the mainstream press would be quite different.
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