Insurrection, Coup d’état, Revolution: Know the difference

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[Originally published May 10, 2022. Updated: July 3, 2022.]

 

I denounced the insurrection on January 6th. I did so on the day, and I do so now. Regardless what the protestors may have initially intended, the resulting violent assault on the U.S. Capitol — including violent assaults on law enforcement officers — turned them into insurrectionists. Regardless their self-proclaimed patriotism, the actions of those who committed violence were despicable and deplorable.

Despite the garb and gear on display, many months of investigation have shown that the mob contained  about the same percentage of veterans — people who have sworn to defend the Constitution — as is found in the general population. I find it of some comfort that the rioters contained a lot of pretend soldiers out on a pretend mission, yet I still find it unfathomable that anyone who had sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States could violently breach its Capitol.

Many years before his 2016 election, I declared former President Trump unfit for office. Few things he did in office proved me wrong. immeasurably crude, even when implementing effective policies, was the best Trump could ever muster as president. But did Trump, after his election defeat, orchestrate an attempted coup d’état with the goal of remaining in office?

What I am exploring herein is one about words and terms — specifically the words insurrection, coup (herein, unless further modified, to mean coup d’état) , and revolution. It is not to be construed as an attempt to mitigate or lessened Trump’s series of insidious, reprehensible, and possibly illegal actions that Trump undertook as he clearly lashed about trying to find a way to prove that he had won the 2020 election. Typical of Trump, he accepted no other argument ,  conclusion, or judgment than his own that the election had fraudulently denied him a second term. There is no doubt that by January 6th, the last hope of the Trump’s toxically quixotic quest to retain power misguidedly focused on obstructing the largely electoral certification of President-elect Biden.

 

Trump explored way to challenge and change the certification process, he encouraged protests he thought might sway the outcome, and pressured members of Congress and his own Vice-President (who procedurally and ceremonially presided over the process) to change the outcome.

 

Whether Trump did so out of a sincere belief that he was the rightfully elected President on called to preserve the legitimacy of government and Constitutional integrity, or whether his actions were the illegal acts of a petty potential tyrant engaged in orchestrating a criminal conspiracy are now matters of partisan taste and may one day be matters of fact for a jury to decide.

 

But that argument is beyond this essay.  Words count, and I will argue below they count for important reasons.

 

Accordingly, it is fair to ask whether the insurrection itself was a coup, and/or whether it was a component of an attempted coup.

I will argue herein that the January 6th attack on the Capitol was certainly an insurrection but, absent needed elements for a coup described below,  was not a coup. I will also explore whether the January 6th insurrection could be considered an instrument or component of a coup.

The insurrection tarnished the cherished American tradition of a peaceful transition of power. I will also explore why the facile application of the term coup further harms America.

Insurrection, Coup d’état, and Revolution

An insurrection is simply a violent uprising against an authority or government. It transcends protest. As such, that the term has been vasty underused in recent years is now a topic set aside for another essay.

There is, however,  no universally accepted definition of the term coup d’état). No definition of a coup is definitive, unproblematic, and all are subject to personal or political bias.

Accordingly, the term is best defined by its historical use in the news and in scholarly literature. The term is also subject to modification by adjectives that describe type of coups which contain some, but not all, of the traditionally accepted elements of a coup.

Because there is no definitive argument one can mount that the events of January 6th did, or did not, constitute an attempted coup, we are left to semantics and contextual arguments based on the legality of underlying actions.

Like facts, however, semantics count. In practice toward others (e.g., in determining when a coup has taken place elsewhere, the U.S. has narrowly defined what constitutes a coup. Our relations with other countries often depend on how we characterize their changes of power. We may, for example, suspend aid to nations run by leaders who come to power by what we deem a coup. Our European allies follow similar practices. In determining whether January 6th as an attempted coup or part of an attempted coup, I argue that we should apply the same standard to ourselves as we do others.

Coups resulted in a seizure of power and change in leadership of state. Historically, coups have ranged from actions by a small group to wider military efforts to displace an existing government. The mechanisms ranged from direct displacement at arms to displacement following seizure of critical infrastructure or government processes.

Many coups are acute and rapid. In fact, the term coup is French meaning “stroke” a fluid or rapid motion. Some coups take place more slowly vias a series of events (Hence the need to modify some coups as “slow motion coups”).

[I] The necessary elements of a coup.

Coups share many of the same elements that define revolution (a change in the form of government), rebellions, civil wars, a putsch, and other forms of governmental change, but the traditional definition of a coup d’état includes the following three elements: A coup or coup attempt is an (1) ILLEGAL attempt by (2) the military or others holding office or in the STATE apparatus to (3) unseat the SITTING executive.”

All three of these constitutive elements are necessary to classify an event or series of events as a coup.

Accordingly, the insurrection itself can’t be considered a coup. A coup is performed by actors within or belonging to the state. Accordingly, a coup may only be executed by the military, a legislature, the judiciary, or members of the bureaucracy (a deep-state coup). There is no evidence yet present that anyone so classified DIRECTLY participated in the trespass and violence at the Capitol and this is precisely why the House Committee is trying to tie Trump or and other members of the government to the events of January 6th.

Moreover, the insurrection itself was not a coup  because a coup changes or attempts to change an existing government or head-of-state and Trump was already the sitting president.

 

 

In a more general sense, the first element, that of LEGALITY of actions, is key to understanding whether the insurrection was, perhaps, a component of a coup, but questions of legality and illegality can’t be judged by the one-sided prosecutorial proclamations and prime-time presentations being made by the blatantly partisan House Committee investigating the January 6th insurrection.

Extraordinary political pressure applied while disputing an election  outcome may be unwarranted by underlying facts, and such pressure and related actions may be unethical, unprecedented, and even deplorable, yet not rise to being illegal.

Although not part of the three essential elements of a coup, where there is a constitution there is also commonly at least a suspension of the constitutional order. This criterion distinguishes a coup from legal procedures of removal allowed in democracies (impeachment, popular recall, vote of no confidence, court orders, etc.).

Congress certification of the 2020 election — an official process government — was certainly was certainly briefly interrupted by the January 6th insurrection, but there was never a suspension of constitutional order in the United States.

[II] Coups with adjectives (adjective coups)

Events that may not contain all the tradition elements of a coup — or highlight some unique aspect of a coup — may be described as coups with adjectives. The adjectives modify or add something to the essential criteria defining a coup.

There are now “constitutional coups,” “electoral coups,” “judicial coups,” “parliamentary coups,” “self-coups,” “slow-motion coup,” “soft coups,” “parliamentary coups,” and more.

Lugo in Paraguay, Rousseff in Brazil, Zelaya in Honduras, Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua are all examples where facts need to be carefully parsed to determine whether their removal from office was the result of a legal process or form of coup. For example, was Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff removed from office via legal impeachment or a coup?

While most coups are acute and quick events – indeed term coup itself in French means “stroke” (i.e., a fluid or rapid motion) — slower evolving coups with many components that unfold over time are now often described as “slow motion coups.”

As before, a coup is an action or blow against an existing administration. If acts are illegal and the perpetrators are part of the government or military, but the beneficiary is the sitting president (i.e., Trump) while the target is a president elect (i.e., Biden), then the events constitute a self-coup (also called an autogolpe or incumbent take-over).

Some contend that Trump’s action constituted an electoral coup, but that term is traditionally reserved as the use of elections as a tool to illegally keep or change power.

[III] The illegality element of a coup is critical

When we talk about the appropriateness of the use of the term coup, we must consider whether we are applying it specifically to the events of January 6th, or, as the House Committee is doing, casting the events of the insurrection as part of larger coup or self-coup attempt by Trump (e.g., the House Committee’s seven-point presentation).

What the current January 6th House Committee evidence presented shows — and it must be strongly noted that the current presentation is akin to a prosecutor’s opening statement where facts are both blatantly cherry-picked and, more importantly, not yet subject to rebuttal and cross-examination — was that then President Trump, from the time of his election defeat in November 2020 to January 6th was actively seeking a way to contest his election defeat with the intent to stay in office.

In an essay published in Politico just days after the insurrection, Fiona Hill argued that the January 6th insurrection was an attempted “self-coup.”

Hill correctly asserted that there’s a standard coup checklist that analysts use to evaluate coups. To successfully usurp or hold power, coup-plotters need to “control the military and paramilitary units, communications, the judiciary, government institutions, and the legislature; and mobilize popular support.”

While Hill needlessly dissected many of these facets in tortured paragraphs , she consistently ignored the key element of illegality. Once again, as above, extraordinary political pressure applied while disputing an election outcome may be unwarranted by underlying facts, and such pressure and related actions may be unethical, unprecedented, and even deplorable, yet not rise to being illegal.

I have yet to see a persuasive argument that Trump’s belief that he was a victim of election fraud, or his overtly false declarations related to his beliefs were illegal per se.

Hill did, however, correctly point out that some of the elements people commonly associate with a coup, especially “the idea that a coup is a sudden, violent seizure of power involving clandestine plots and military takeovers” did not preclude considering Trump’s actions taken over “a period of months and in slow motion” to be form of self-coup to “keep himself in power.”

I also think Hill was correct in observing that “Maduro perpetrated a self-coup in Venezuela after losing the 2017 elections.”

Following his election loss, Trump remained Commander-in-Chief until noon on January 20, 2021. As Hill alleges, Trump may have regarded the military to be his “Pretorian Guard,” but that did not make them so. The military consistently pushed back on matters about concerning what constituted legal orders and the proper role for the military to play in matters like quelling violent U.S. protests and riots. The military also played no part in the January 6th insurrection, not even tacitly. While tactical-looking paramilitary uniforms seemed to be plentiful in news coverage, analysis of the crowd and those subsequently charged show that the percentage of those insurrectionist who were veterans with real military service and training only slightly exceeded the percentage found in the general population.

Given the prevailing power dynamics, harangued state election officials and other form of political intimidation may have moved Trump’s actions closer to illegality, but whether they crossed the line remains an open question. Whether, for example,  Trump’s actions in Georgia and other places to recount or scrape up votes to change the election were illegal has yet to be decided.

While Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin met in December 2020 and passed “alternate” slates of electors claiming that Trump won their state. These were merely sent to Congress (and the National Archives). There is no evidence of a coordinated plan by government officials or agents to, via naked force or intimidation, push the adoption of these “alternative” slates on January 6th.

Many claim that Trump’s pressuring of Pence to not certify elector’s slates — or to perhaps accept alternate slates — perhaps trips closest to criminality. The record is clear that Trump pressured Pence, but whether such pressure rose to criminality is not as clear.

The constitutional independence of the Vice President (he is not technically subordinate to president, nor is he in the chain of military command). This would be important if, as Hill alleged, President Trump “ordered” then Vice President  Pence to block the formal election certification process because the President has no such authority. Nor did Pence have the Constitutional authority to block certification.

Refusal to honorably concede for the good of the country, as Al Gore did in 2000, would have required a patriotic gear Trump consistently lacked. But refusal to concede is not Constitutionally mandated or illegal.

 

Although arguably harmful to the republic in other ways, Trump’s persistent attempts to discredit “mainstream media” were not illegal. Nor was the exercise of his presidential authority to appoint questionably qualified or partisan judges (an act par for the course in any administration). Nor was it illegal for Trump to hope that a legally appointed judiciary and Supreme Court might side with him in election disputes. Thankfully, as Hill points out, with regard to election fraud, the judiciary consistently ruled otherwise.

I agree with Hill’s contention Trump’s actions amounted to “stress testing the U.S. democratic system” and I agree with Hill that the president’s actions and falsehoods “shattered America’s democratic norms, exacerbated its political divisions and put people’s lives at risk.”

Regardless, a self-coup is not a traditional coup — it does not contain all the essential elements of a coup — but rather a subtype of a coup where those who are part of the government perpetrating illegal acts do so to retain power.

If the critical element of illegality is ever proved , I would probably agree with Hill that Trump perpetrated an attempted self-coup with the intent to stay in power.

[IV] If not a coup or self-coup, did Trump participate in a fraud or otherwise criminally obstruct the election process?

If the DOJ were so disposed by the evidence, prosecutors might find an easier time charging a Klein Conspiracy fraud under US Code Title 18 Sec. 371. The key question would then become whether Trump’s efforts to pressure Vice President Pence rise to obstruction of an official proceeding.

That’s tough because Pence openly rejected such pressure.

In fact, the very fact Trump clung to — and still clings to his false belief that the election was stolen may be mitigating in that it makes it harder to prove intent to obstruct rather than Trump simply exercising the broad powers granted a President.

The House Committee knows this, and so what they are trying to present is a case where Trump was willfully blind to the truth he lost. That’s also very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

[V] If not a coup, then what was January 6th?

The terms “riot” and “violent protest” are woefully insufficient terms to describe January 6th. At a minimum it was an insurrection. I would not want to see it cast as a “rebellion,” “revolt,” or “uprising,” because I would argue could be construed as casting those involved as somehow heroic or even patriotic. It was neither.

Did January 6th contain acts of sedition? Sedition is an “incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority.” For the vast majority of participants in the events of January 6th, the violence of the insurrection was not preplanned, and their participation was, in fact, spontaneous. For those reasons most have been charged with lesser counts. Some insurrectionists, however, have been charged with more serious felony counts, including seditious conspiracy.

While most of participants in the insurrection did little more than illegally trespass, some participants committed inexcusable assaults on law enforcement officers, some issued criminal threats, some either stole or destroyed government property. Some have already been convicted of felony obstruction of government.

No shots were fired by the insurrectionists,  but the evidence is persuasive that some participants in the insurrection advocated and carried out planned violence. The insurrection put people — including government officials and elected member of Congress– in fear of their lives or safety. There is also testimony that some extremists planned to murder government officials, but directly tying Trump or anyone in government directly to the violence on January 6th insurrection has, however, proved a steep legal hill that the evidence thus far is unable to climb.

In the events leading up to January 6th and on the day itself, I think it is fair to argue that Trump — not for the first time — used irresponsible and self-serving rhetoric that functionally and morally makes him responsible for the insurrection. At this point, however, no “smoking gun” or indisputably clear evidence exists that ties Trump or other members of the government directly to planned violence.

I would also argue that no fair lay contextual reading of Trump’s speech on January 6th rises to criminal incitement, but whether Trump illegally incited insurrection requires some contentious legal analysis best left to others better qualitied in interpreting the relevant statutes and applicable case law,

[VI] What the January 6th insurrection was not

The January 6th insurrection –as horrendous as it was — is also subject to partisan hyperbole. Moreover, the  presentation of unrebutted and cross-examined evidence about the events of January 6th by the House Committee still leaves us with an insurrection, not a coup.

The insurrection wasn’t the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” that dubious distinction belongs to the Axis forces of WWII.

The insurrection wasn’t as deadly or destructive as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, dozens of riots (some facilitated/instigated/promoted by foreign agents and extremists that are functionally domestic terrorist groups), a slew of mass shootings, etc.

The insurrection did not — as chairman of the Jan. 6 committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, farcically claimed — come “dangerously close to succeeding” in compromising “American democracy.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s claim that the insurrection threatened “self-governance” is equally ludicrous.

The insurrectionists did not claim themselves to be a new government, they did not issue orders or make decrees as a new government. They did not try to entice the support of the military or law enforcement (quite the opposite). They did not try to hold the building. They were not ousted, they left near curfew.

A few insurrectionists may have planned to disrupt the acceptance and counting of electors’ ballots, but the interruption lasted just a few hours. Vice President Pence had, for example, already rejected efforts to have him reject electors’ ballots, etc. Electoral votes had already been counted. Nothing done, literally under the influence of insurrectionists, would have survived subsequent scrutiny.

As despicable as the January 6th insurrection was, even if the insurrection wildly exceeded the goals of some of its most extremist participants (e.g., had they held the Capitol, taken hostages, executed government officials, etc.) nothing would have stopped President-elect Biden from taking office at noon on January 20, 2021.

To claim otherwise is a backhanded slap in the face at our military, law enforcement officers, and other governmental institutions.

[VII] Even if the evidence is strong, should Trump be charged?

Even if Trump can be charged, the DOJ would need to then exercise discretion regarding whether he should be charged.

The DOJ can’t decide on political grounds, at least not in theory, nor if they want to preserve DOJ integrity. In addressing issues of prosecutorial discretion, the DOJ would need to consider whether the subsequent politicized spectacle might not lead to a never-ending carrousel of charges against former officials with every swing of the political winds that bring new administrations to power.

When Trump won in 2016, calls for doing away with the electoral college or for faithless electors to change the outcome of the election were not prosecuted as seditious or characterized as an attempted coup. Nether were the lies of Russiagate — promulgated by many on the January 6th Committee — or calls to have Trump removed from power via the 25th Amendment seen as an attempted coup.

Even Trump’s most dedicated political opponents would concede that a failed prosecution would leave Trump freshly empowered and emboldened.

There is also the impact of both successful and failed prosecutions on America’s reputation of the world, and that is my primary concern in arguing that we should be parsimonious in using the term.

[VIII] Why we should be parsimonious using the term coup.

Partisan rhetoric –some errant, some deliberately dramatic — recklessly flies about these days, why should use of the term “Coup” be any different?

Just as some Republicans still defend an indefensible insurrection, some Democrats carelessly casting about rhetoric in the same manner and with the same arrogant Dunning Kruger ignorance that pushed Russiagate falsehoods. They apparently don’t care about the deleterious effect their partisan rhetoric has on America’s reputation or standing in the world.

Their interests come first. America be damned.

Ironically, that puts them (and the media pundits who parrot similar views ) in the same rhetorical bed already containing our former lout-in-chief.

The term coup (with or without adjectives) is politically loaded and used to delegitimize an opponent. In fact, Coup is so pejorative that prior military leaders in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay carefully called their rise to power as revolutions or the act of political “movements” instead of coups

Across much of the world a coup is a revolution instigated by the military or other security forces. Al Ortiz, vice president of standards and practices at CBS News initially warned news staff against dramatic labels like terrorist attack or attempted coup. The Associated Press also initially advised against describing January 6th as a “coup” or “attempted coup” because as used around the world, where the term coup carry military overtones absent from the events on January 6th.

America’s enemies are listening. As with the bogus Russiagate allegations, sloppy partisan rhetoric is used by Russian and Chinese officials to denigrate America. Just as false claims of election fraud dimmish respect for America and cast doubt on the legitimacy of America’s government, false and premature use of the term attempted coup — or  of derivative adjective coups — seriously injures America’s standing in the world and confidence in its government. Accordingly, we should be sure that all the necessary elements are in place before we call January 6th an attempted coup, or part of an attempted coup.

References

Bartelson, J (1997) Making Exceptions: Some Remarks on the Concept of Coup d’état and Its History. Political Theory 25: 323–346.

Bello (2016) When a “coup” Is Not a Coup. The Economist, 9 April. Available at: https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2…

David, SR (1987) Third World Coups d’état and International Security. Baltimore, MD; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Diamond, L The Use of Coup d’état and Golpe de estado in Books . (2015b) In Search of Democracy. London: Routledge.

Keating, JE (2012) Coups Ain’t What They Used to Be. Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/06/27/cou…

Kotze, JS (2017) Africa Faces a New Threat to Democracy: The “Constitutional Coup.” The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/africa-faces-…

Marinov, N, Goemans, H (2014) Coups and Democracy. British Journal of Political Science 44: 799–825.

Marshall, MG, Marshall, DR (2018) Coup d’état Events, 1946–2017. Center for Systemic Peace, May 2. Available at: http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscr/CSPCo…

Thyne, CL, Powell, JM (2016) Coup d’état or Coup d’Autocracy? How Coups Impact Democratization, 1950–2008. Foreign Policy Analysis 12: 192–213.

Varol, O (2017) The Democratic Coup d’état. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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