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?