Wednesday night's Capitol siege wasn't strictly a coup attempt; but it's not over either

These days, democracies tend to collapse from piecemeal backsliding that falls short of the technical definition of a coup but is often ultimately more damaging

The New York Times January 08, 2021 06:35:01 IST
Wednesday night's Capitol siege wasn't strictly a coup attempt; but it's not over either

A member of the mob of Donald Trump supporters carries the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building. By Erin Schaff © 2021 The New York Times

Do the actions of President Donald Trump and some of his supporters — including Trump’s effort Saturday to bully Georgia’s secretary of state into overturning the results of the state’s vote in the presidential election, and then yesterday openly inciting a mob that then attacked the US Capitol — constitute a coup attempt?

If the question is whether those actions are as gravely serious as a coup, the answer is yes, said Erica de Bruin, a political scientist at Hamilton College who has researched coups for more than a decade.

But the violent, anti-democratic attack on the Capitol does not fit the technical definition of a coup, even though the president incited and encouraged it. That matters, experts say, because different actions are required to prevent this type of attack from harming democracy.

A coup is an illegal attempt to take power through force or the threat of force, usually involving at least a faction of the military or formal security forces, though sometimes they are backed by paramilitaries or other armed groups.

That is not what happened in Washington yesterday.

Although some of the people that stormed the Capitol were armed, they do not appear to be part of any organized military or rebel organisation. And while Trump encouraged his loyalists in his capacity as a leader of their movement, he did not try to call the military to their aid or otherwise use the formal powers of the presidency to help them, said Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College whose research focuses on coups.

But that is not the end of the story.

These days, democracies tend to collapse from piecemeal backsliding that falls short of the technical definition of a coup but is often ultimately more damaging. A clear pattern has played out in countries around the world, including Turkey, Russia, Hungary and Venezuela, in which leaders come to office through elections but then undermine norms, gut institutions and change laws to dismantle any restraints on their power. Eventually, their countries become dictatorships in all but name.

Yesterday’s attack and Trump’s encouragement of it fit well within that category. And to combat that kind of anti-democratic backsliding requires different tactics than would be used against a coup.

“We know how to prevent coups,” said de Bruin, who literally wrote the book on how to do so. “We have a whole set of actions that international organizations, military officers, individuals can use. But we know far less about how to prevent anti-democratic actions.”

A coup either succeeds or fails, usually within a few hours. Stopping anti-democratic actions like Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol requires political engagement over time. Legal remedies like arrests and impeachment can help. So can political remedies, like political parties cutting off money to those who participate in anti-democratic actions, and party elites speaking out against it.

Subtler responses are also important.

“Authoritarian leaders are desperately afraid of ridicule because so much of their power comes from social connectedness,” Singh said, and treating them as if they are respectable reinforces that power.

But, he said, treating Wednesday’s attack and Trump’s support of it with the “ridicule and umbrage it deserves” is a way to undermine any suggestion of legitimacy or authority.

Some senior Republican officials did that yesterday. For weeks after the election, Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky and majority leader, had remained silent about Trump’s spurious claims of electoral fraud. On Wednesday, he said on the Senate floor that overruling the voters would “damage our republic forever.”

Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah and a former presidential candidate, was even more outspoken.

“We gather due to a selfish man’s injured pride,” he said when the chamber reconvened after the attack, “and the outrage of supporters who he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection incited by the president of the United States.”

But the response was far from uniform. In Congress, 147 Republican lawmakers, including eight senators, still voted against certifying the results of the election. One was Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who had been photographed earlier that day giving a closed-fisted salute to the crowd of Trump’s supporters, many of whom later participated in the attack on the Capitol.

De Bruin cautioned that coups and democratic backsliding are not mutually exclusive and in fact could reinforce each other.

“Of course, coup attempts happen in the context of violent protest,” she said. “That makes them more likely.”

Amanda Taub c.2021 The New York Times Company

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