January 6 Was Not an Attempted Coup
If this really was an attempted coup, it must have been organized by Monty Python.
It has become nearly obligatory in both media and think tank accounts of the January 6, 2021 invasion of the U.S. Capitol building to describe the disorder as an “insurrection” or an “attempted coup.” The cover of the August 18, 2023 issue of the Week was typical: “Trump’s Nightmare: Can prosecutors prove that his failed coup was a crime?” Note the assumption that the episode was definitely a coup; the only question was whether prosecutors could prove a crime and send the former president to prison.
However, there are some problems with that thesis. One is that the FBI (hardly a pro-Trump institution) concluded in August 2021 that it was not a coordinated coup or insurrection. An even bigger problem is that the events of January 6 exhibited virtually none of the characteristics of the dozens of successful or unsuccessful coups around the world over the past seven decades. If this really was an attempted coup, it must have been organized by Monty Python.
The most obvious defect was that Trump and the other alleged plotters did not even make an attempt to shut down a notoriously hostile news media, including most notably, the television networks. Coverage of the January 6 events by nearly all portions of the media remained in the hands of Trump’s adversaries, and it consisted of incessant, shrill, and utterly hostile accounts. Indeed, the media treatment amounted to a running editorial on how awful and dangerous the events taking place were. The explicit message was that America’s democracy was under siege and in danger of being supplanted by a dictatorship imposed by Donald Trump. Such dominance of television coverage was especially crucial, since it poured evocative, highly negative images into the homes and offices of the American people.
Even the most amateurish coup organizers would never have made the blunder of leaving the communications system under the control of their enemies. At a minimum, they would have had a plan in place to ensure a complete blackout of coverage. A more sophisticated strategy would have included seizing the studios and other broadcasting facilities of the establishment media and putting their own supporters on air to circulate the appropriate propaganda. Yet throughout the ongoing “coup attempt,” Trump and his supporters made no effort whatsoever to take control of media outlets and neutralize the tsunami of vitriolic accounts. That is curious behavior for a president who was allegedly intent on seizing dictatorial powers.
A second pervasive feature of genuine coups is the role of military units trusted wholeheartedly by those people making a bid to overthrow the existing political order. Such units would be prepared to move into the capital and other key power centers as soon as the signal was given. In the case of the January 6 events, Trump already would have taken steps during the weeks after the November election to purge all officers whose loyalty to the president might be in doubt. That step would be imperative with respect to officers at all Army and Marine bases located near Washington, D.C., as well as other power centers. When the day for execution arrived, the president would need to know that the military leaders and the forces they controlled would obey his orders, no matter how unconstitutional they might be. As analyst and TAC contributing editor Peter Van Buren notes, “To stage a coup, you need tanks on the White House lawn.”
Once again, though, there is no evidence that Trump or anyone else in the administration even attempted to make such moves. To the contrary, General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taking covert steps to convince his subordinates not to obey orders from the president unless Milley confirmed them. That action was far more constitutionally dubious than any tangible measures that Trump or his loyalist appointees adopted.
The main criticism that his opponents have expressed about Trump’s posture regarding the military on January 6 is that he failed to promptly call in the National Guard or other armed personnel to suppress the violent demonstrations at the Capitol. He can indeed be faulted for such a blasé attitude. But one point was quite clear: He made no attempt to use the military to support the demonstrators and keep himself in power. If he had wanted to do so, loyal, pro-coup units would have moved immediately to take members of Congress into “protective custody” and the president would subsequently issue orders to release only those members who were deemed to be reliable supporters.
Get daily emails in your inbox
A final coup feature missing from the January 6 episode were sizable, ongoing pro-coup demonstrations, especially once violence erupted at the Capitol. Only 2,000 to 2,500 people who had attended the much larger, peaceful rally on the Mall bothered to march on the Capitol, and even fewer remained there after aggressive types forcibly invaded the building. Fewer than 1,000 militants appear to have actually breached the Capitol, and most of them were not longtime extremists.
Organizers of actual coups, however, try to create the impression that they are responding not only to a national crisis, but also to overwhelming public sentiment in favor of taking such “corrective” action. Carefully organized and sustained demonstrations under the tight control of experienced agitators are important to creating that impression. Again, however, the January 6 events did not fit that pattern. Instead, most of the demonstrators were political novices who melted away after the Mall rally, and the vast majority of the remainder left once violence began.
People who robotically insist that January 6 was a failed coup need to explain why the episode did not have any of the major features that dozens of successful and unsuccessful coups in other countries have exhibited. It is far more likely that the disorder was simply a riot that a handful of frustrated, right-wing policy zealots waged. Such violence cannot be tolerated, and the perpetrators deserve to be prosecuted—as hundreds have been. But it is wrong to conflate a riot (however nasty) with an organized insurrection. Such cynical exaggeration does not serve the best interests of the American people or the future of a democratic political system.