January 6th, 2021 is a day that Americans will not soon forget. The United States experienced an attack on its democracy as violent protestors stormed the Capitol, spurred by an unfounded belief that the election of the 46th President of the United States had been rigged. It is important to explore what this event means to a democracy in which the peaceful transfer of power is usually taken for granted. It has been suggested that the events of January 6th were tantamount to an attempted executive coup. Yet those who normally associate coups of any type with distant third-world countries, are reluctant to consider this a possibility that could happen at home.
To understand why people believe the January 6th event was an attempted executive coup, one must understand what needs to occur in order for an event to be classified as a coup to begin with. The Coup D’état Project at the University of Illinois’ Cline Center for Advanced Social Research defines a coup as meeting five distinct criteria. The first criteria requires there to be initiating actors. This criteria was met in the case of January 6th, as former President Donald Trump can be regarded as an initiator. When Joe Biden was fairly elected as the 46th President of the United States, Donald Trump was quick to disseminate the message that the election was rigged despite the lack of credible evidence. He continued to promote this narrative in the media and encouraged his followers to take action, prompting the protests that would follow. It was evident that Trump was doing this in an effort to hang on to power.
The second criteria is that the group targeted by the coup exercise control over national policy. The group targeted in this case were members of Congress who do in large part determine the nation’s policies. The rioters wanted the members of Congress to overrule the election which is why they stormed the Capitol, thereby satisfying the second criteria.The third criteria is that there be a threat to a leader’s hold on power. This was indeed the case as Joe Biden’s legitimacy as the next president was undermined. If the executive coup had been successful, Donald Trump would have remained in power and in effect changed the fundamental American ideal of respecting the results of a free and fair election.
The fourth criteria is that illegal or irregular actions take place during the event. This did happen as the rioters caused damage to property, injury, and even death, which is well-documented. Lastly, the fifth criteria is that the event be an organized effort. There were different types of groups protesting on January 6th. But while some may have been there to peacefully protest, information subsequently surfaced that some insurrectionists had carefully organized a plot to attack the Capitol, and that this plan was premeditated. Recently, the leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested and charged for his involvement in the insurrection.
The evidence suggests that events of January 6th meet the criteria for an attempted coup, and further analysis supports that it meets the definition of an attempted executive coup specifically, given the contributions of President Trump. In her piece, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Nancy Bermeo explains that an executive coup “involves a freely elected chief executive suspending the constitution outright in order to amass power in one swift sweep” (12). Even prior to the 2020 election, Trump began to lay the groundwork for future actions, publicly stating that any outcome that did not declare him the winner was suspect. He would go on to put pressure on Vice President, Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election and effectively hand the presidency back to him. Trump then incited the January 6th insurrection wherein a pro-Trump mob succeeded in disrupting the counting of electoral votes by a joint session of Congress as required by Twelfth Amendment to the Constutution, until later that evening. The article, “No, it’s not a coup — It’s a failed ‘self-coup’ that will undermine US leadership and democracy worldwide” by Charles Call cites some examples of executive coups where, similar to Trump, presidents have tried to forcefully hold on to power (and unlike Trump, succeeded). “Past examples include President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, who dissolved the congress and curtailed the independence of the judiciary in 1992. Guatemala’s President Jorge Serrano Elías was rebuffed by the military and economic elites after he dissolved the congress and the judiciary in 1993. More recently, President Evo Morales of Bolivia fled the country after he tried to claim, in contradiction to what international observers concluded, that he’d won election to a fourth term.” Given the peaceful transfer of power that has existed since the days of the Founding Fathers, it is unfathomable that a U.S. president could have potentially been in the same company as the leaders mentioned above who are often referred to as dictators.
To conclude, Donald Trump began undermining the integrity of the 2021 election since before the election. He later convinced his followers that the election should be overturned and encouraged them to do something about it. This can be seen in the speech he gave on January 6th just prior to the Capitol attack. He stated, “…We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I love Pennsylvania Avenue. And we’re going to the Capitol, and we’re going to try and give.” He made sure to tell the mob that members of Congress were the ones responsible and that they needed to do the right thing. “ Now, it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy. And after this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you, we’re going to walk down, we’re going to walk down.” Trump clearly set the target for the mob by saying this. Also, as he addressed his supporters he said, “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Not only did he encourage people to march down to the Capitol, he identified a clear target (members of Congress), and made sure to tell his supporters that they needed to fight in order to preserve the country, knowing that if they were successful, he might be able to retain power. It is therefore clear that given the complicity of President Trump, the January 6th incident was an attempted executive coup.
Bermeo, Nancy. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy. 27. 5-19. 10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Call, C. T. (2021, January 8). No, it’s not a coup – it’s a failed ‘self-coup’ that will undermine US leadership and Democracy Worldwide. Brookings. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/08/no-its-not-a-coup-its-a-failed-self-coup-that-will-undermine-us-leadership-and-democracy-worldwide/
Coup d’état project (CDP). Coup D’état Project (CDP) | Cline Center. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://clinecenter.illinois.edu/project/research-themes/democracy-and-development/coup-detat-project-cdp
Naylor, B. (2021, February 10). Read trump’s Jan. 6 speech, a key part of impeachment trial. NPR. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2021/02/10/966396848/read-trumps-jan-6-speech-a-key-part-of-impeachment-trial
Romo, Vanessa. “Enrique Tarrio, Who Led the Proud Boys, Is Arrested over the U.S. Capitol Attack.” NPR, NPR, 8 Mar. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/03/08/1085201623/enrique-tarrio-proud-boys-arrested-indicted-jan-6I.
“One Year since the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol.” The United States Department of Justice, 30 Dec. 2021, https://www.justice.gov/usao-dc/one-year-jan-6-attack-capitol.
“Electoral Count Act.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_Count_Act.