Coup or No Coup? Conceptualizing the Capitol Attacks

Note: This is a guest post. Thank you to Matthew for the opportunity to once again contribute to Fruits and Votes, even for an unconventional post like this that does not deal with fruits and only tangentially mentions votes!

The events of January 6 at the US capitol were so shocking and unfamiliar to most Americans that experts’ reactions and understanding varied widely. Although many in the media settled on calling it an “insurrection” or a “riot”, academics’ interpretations seem to have run the gamut. Understanding the storming of the capitol as a “forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework”, Paul Musgrave referred to it as a “coup d’état”. Likewise, Amy Austin Holmes called it a “coup from below”, using terminology that characterizes at what level in the state security forces or society an overthrow attempt originates.

Other scholars pushed back against this interpretation. Erica de Bruin, Jonathan Powell, and Naunihal Singh all argued that the violent and anti-democratic attack does not fit the technical definition of a coup, since rioters did not appear to be part of any organized military or rebel organization. Clarifying his position in The Monkey Cage, Singh argued that “it is the involvement of state security forces that critically separates a coup attempt from an assassination, an invasion, an insurrection or a civil war”.

I agree with these scholars that it wasn’t a coup d’état attempt—at least in traditional sense of the term—but not necessarily for the same reason. After an extensive survey of the academic literature in a 2011 article in The Journal of Peace Research, Powell and Thyne  summarize the roughly consensual definition of a coup as “an illegal and overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive”. Much discussion subsequent to the capitol attacks has focused on a) whether the attempt was “illegal and overt” and b) focused on the absence of a military role. Nonetheless, it is clear that the objective was not to unseat the incumbent but to keep him in office despite having lost an election. Trump himself brazenly attempted to do this on January 2, when he pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to allow him to surpass Joe Biden’s total in that state.

Instead, my immediate reaction to the events of January 6 was that they resembled something that has happened in Latin America and a handful of other places that goes beyond mere “insurrection”: an autogolpe, or “self-coup”, in which a chief executive attempts to render powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers. In a conventional coup, some actor targets the chief executive; in a self-coup, the chief executive targets the legislature.

Other comparativists who study Latin America seem to have made the same observation: Max Cameron, Jennifer McCoy, and Javier Corrales, among others, all found that Donald Trump’s encouragement to protestors to take action against certifying the electoral college vote reflect an autogolpe attempt, or at least the early stages of one. Cameron would know; his 1998 Journal of Democracy article on self-coups in Peru, Russia, and Guatemala may be the seminal article on the topic.

It should be noted that Cameron adds a caveat to his classification of the capitol attack, adding, “all that was missing was the intervention of the armed forces”. However, if Powell and Thyne define the perpetrators of a conventional coup d’état as “the military or other elites”, than it follows that Republican politicians unwilling to vote to certify electoral college votes and encouraging protestors to enter the capitol building qualify as “other elites”.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that the terms autogolpe or self-coup suggest they are subtypes of coups, when it seems more likely that they refer to a discrete class of event.

In an e-mail exchange with Matthew, I said that I think Marsteintredet and Malamud (2019) do the best job of anyone at describing the conceptual differences between these terms in their article “Coup with Adjectives: Conceptual Stretching or Innovation in Comparative Research?”. They argue that while there are many ways to walk down the ladder of abstraction with coups (“coup d’état”, “military coup”, “democratic coup”, “non-democratic coup”, “neoliberal coup”, etc.), they see the term “autogolpe” as walking up that same ladder. They write:

Reminiscent of Naudé’s definition from the seventeenth century, the modern self-coup or autogolpe is a more troublesome concept. Although illegal and supported by force or the threat of force, and also perpetrated by state actors, the autogolpe—which has also been called a constitutional or a presidential coup (Helmke, 2017; Roberts, 1995; Varol, 2017: 30)—changes the target from the head of government to other state institutions such as congress or the judiciary.

After more discussion, they conclude that to avoid conceptual confusion, a more appropriate term may be “incumbent takeover”, a term used by Milan Svolik to refer to leaders who use their democratic mandate “to underminekey tenets of democracy, most often by abolishing or manipulating elections”. In fact, Svolik specifically refers to Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru in 1992 as a quintessential example of an incumbent takeover. At the same time, Marsteintredet and Malamud recognize the auto-golpe or self-coup has gained academic ground and is referred to regularly in the press. 

Ultimately, I think “insurrection” is a far more apt description than “attempted coup”. But as evidence continues to emerge about the high degree of coordination before the capitol attacks as well as the targets of those attacks, I think “self-coup attempt” and certainly “incumbent takeover” better capture the process.

What do others think?

6 thoughts on “Coup or No Coup? Conceptualizing the Capitol Attacks

  1. I am afraid I am somewhat reminded of the tweet that a coup can only happen in France, and in other countries the term sparkling authoritarian takeover must be used.

    In any case I suspect in time we will know the military, or at least the upper reaches of the Pentagon, were involved.

    The capitol was cleared by a scratch force of DOJ, FBI, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Virginia State Troopers and Virginia National Guard commencing at 4pm. The only Pentagon-controlled personnel involved where 154 DC National Guard who arrived at the Capitol, by the Pentagon’s own timeline, at 5:40 pm. The capitol was declared clear of insurrectionists at 6pm. The Pentagon actively sought to prevent Maryland National Guard and Virginia National Guard entering the District and both governors are still demanding to know why that was.

    The first request to the Pentagon for assistance, again from their own timeline, was at 1:34. 1:34—5:40 is an unconscionable delay when the congress and the 3 members of the line of succession not directly appointed by Trump, were at risk.

    The inaction of the Pentagon is incomprehensible and they actually admitted to untruths in their timeline. They criticise the mayor of the District, at one point in their timeline, for not specifying exact numbers of troops required, as noted by Newsweek (boldface in the original):

    1:34 PM: Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy has a phone call with Mayor Bowser in which she requests permission to use National Guard forces. DOD says that she asked for “an unspecified number of additional forces.”

    The comment by the Pentagon is clearly intended to shift responsibility when it is not Mayor Bowser’s responsibility to know how many soldiers are needed.

    I will be completely unsurprised if the acting secretary of defence and other high officials of the Pentagon eventually find themselves before a court on charges of sedition.

  2. Interesting idea of walking up conceptual ladder, which makes sense to me. The reason I continue to consider it an attempted self coup, though, was not only inciting the insurrection itself against a vote in Congress, but the 2 – month effort to illegally overturn the results of the election and thus extend his own power. Trump was attempting to use the courts and state legislators against ayate election officials and the voters themselves , and then attempting (with shocking success) to bully Republican National legislators to vote against those same actors. All to extend Trumps power against the will of the people

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking commentary.

    I like the argument made by Marsteintredet and Malamud. An autogolpe or self-coup is an attack on features of the democratic regime rather than the government itself. It typically involves the undermining of the legislature and/or the courts by the executive branch rather than a change in government. Since such assaults change the constitutional order, the Democratic Charter uses the phrase “an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order” instead of “coup.”

    The argument by Svolik is useful—it is important to distinguish coups from incumbent takeovers. Perhaps self-coups are subtypes of incumbent takeovers. But the term self-coup implies what the incumbent is taking over: the powers of independent branches of government.

    Regarding Jan 6, an autogolpe would have occurred had Trump used the storming of the Capitol as an excuse to declare martial law, followed by an investigation and eventual nullification of the election result and an extension of his term. My impression is Trump, in his frantic efforts, was not thinking that far ahead. Moreover, such a process would have been unimaginable without some kind of military backing.

    Here is another commentary that uses the self-coup concept:
    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/

  4. I think we have come to a point (if it has not already been the case for a long time) that “coup d’etat” or “coup” in folk usage is just a general term for usurpation of a government or constitutional system in one ‘blow’ (hence: ‘coup’). In that terminology, “self-coup” definitely isn’t walking ‘up’ the ladder, but down it. And even if we define ‘coup’ more narrowly, I don’t think that contradicts the conception of a self-coup as a separate, mutually exclusive concept. Adding adjectives to a word doesn’t necessarily define subcategories, it can also define separate categories (e.g. ‘semi-presidentialism’ is not a category of ‘presidentialism’). Moreover, self-coup implies a sense of speed which is arguably absent in “incumbent takeover” (maybe I’m in the minority, but it wouldn’t seem strange to me if someone said that Hungary and Poland are recent examples of incumbent takeover – but I don’t think anyone would say there are examples of a self-coup).

    None of this is to endorse any definition in particular – only that it may be harder to overcome current terminological trends in this particular area.

  5. A thing that rarely is said when the “coup” issue is discuted is that perhaps even the tweets of Trump inciting Pence to ignore the votes of the disputed states could be considered, by themselves, a coup attempt.

    About the distinction of “coup” and “self-coup”, I wonder if the historical meaning of “coup” was not exactly “self-coup”; I have the idea that the name was popularized mainly to refer to the “coups” of the Bonaparte family (then, the French) who were self-coups.

    • I always thought the ‘original’ coup d’etat was the coup of 18th Brumaire (1799), which was indeed led by Bonaparte I. He was an officer at the time, deposing France’s collegial executive, the Directory; so that was definitely a plain coup, not a self-coup. Wikipedia says that the first known published appearance of the term in English is from 1802.

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