A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Coup of What

Did the January 6 attack on the Capitol Building really attempt to overthrow democracy?

by Jeffery L. NicholasFebruary 2, 2021

On January 6, 2021, an angry mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. attempting to replace the legitimately elected government. The outgoing president, Donald Trump, and his allies roused the crowd before their march. Trump “needed [his] digital warriors” to “fight like hell,” while Rudy Giuliani said, “Let’s have trial by combat.” Late night talk-show hosts expressed their shock that a “coup” had been attempted against the U.S. government. The mob, we are told, attempted to throw out the legitimate votes of millions of people in order to keep Trump in office as the president. We are told they wanted to overthrow democracy, but that “Democracy Has Prevailed.” When the Financial Times echoes this declaration with every other newspaper, you know they mean their “democracy.” I want to resist calling this action a coup to point out that this attempt aimed, not at overthrowing democracy in America (which doesn’t exist) but merely changing who holds power.

Others likewise have suggested that what happened was not, properly speaking, a coup. It did not involve the military, nor was it meant to establish a tyrant. Moreover, nothing about the crowd’s actions was clandestine or secretive. Yet, while clandestine military action might characterize some coups, they do not characterize all of them. Fiona Hill, a former deputy assistant on Russian affairs and now at the Brookings Institute, argues, in a piece for Politico, that Trump attempted a self-coup. She links him to Napoleon III and others who have tried to maintain power after they lost it. As far as analysis goes, Hill is correct; that is, she is right to reject the idea that the storming of the Capitol was not a coup because it was not secretive or because it did not try to establish a tyrant.

Yet, my reasons for questioning the attachment of the label of “coup” to this action are different from those others. Or rather, I should say that the question is not: Was there a coup? But rather: Was the action an attack on democracy? Many will point to the fact that the action was intended to stop the certification in Congress of the electoral vote; that it happened in conjunction with Trump’s allies attempting to reverse or exclude legitimately cast votes that favored Joseph Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election. The fact that record numbers of people voted, that record numbers voted for the loser and for the winner of the election, seems to testify to the fact that democracy was in play and that the action was an attempt to overthrow democracy.

An election can change who holds power in a government; a coup is an attempt to change that power as well, just through different means. Yet, democracy should not be associated with changes in who holds power. In a real democracy, the people always hold the power. I am not making a point about the common distinction between a representative republic and a direct democracy. A representative republic may still be a form of democracy if the people who choose the representatives do so willingly, knowledgeably, and autonomously in such a way that they might always call the representatives back. Murray Bookchin and Alasdair MacIntyre propose such possibilities in their different versions of local democracy and calls for a “confederalism” of local communities. I doubt that the people of the U. S. ever enjoyed a representative republican democracy on the national level. Some might say the post-war experience in the northern states, after women received the vote, could count as moving toward a representative democracy, but such arguments, while admitting the lack of voting rights in the south for Black individuals, ignore the racism that disenfranchised Black individuals in the north. Any chance of a representative republican democracy was lost with the death of Bobby Kennedy and entirely exorcised by Citizens United in 2010.

My argument, then, is that the 6 January 2021 action was not so much a coup as a mutiny. “Mutiny” seems the better term because Trump and his allies did not want to change the government and its structures as much as they wanted to keep Trump the one in charge. A mutinous crew does not want to change the governing structure of the military, for they accept the need for a captain and first mate. Rather, they want to make sure that their individual is captain.

The Left still needs to address the underlying causes of how and why Trump was elected in 2016, as well as why the mutiny failed. Trump was initially elected because people in the U.S. are tired of government that seems not to care about them on an everyday level. Ezra Klein, in a recent interview, held that through the last several administrations, Congress has failed to enact legislation that people recognize as affecting their lives, positively or negatively. What most do recognize is that jobs are fewer, pay is lower, and the news is positive when the stock market rises. They think that “red tape” is the problem, and often they vote for those who promise to cut red tape because that will bring in jobs. Of course, Republicans, and many Democrats, are great at cutting the red tape that prevents profit from flowing to corporations, as the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated. Trump was elected because he was different, and he ran on a major party platform (unlike Ross Perot in the 1990s). The mutiny failed, as we must keep this point front and center, because big business did not see profit in such an action right now. I do not mean to say that business has absolute control over elections and policy. I’m sure many were surprised at how Trump won the Republican nomination and how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, despite having won the popular vote. I am saying, however, that big business withdrew the very support upon which the mutiny relied—Twitter, Facebook, corporate sponsors for a variety of instigators.

The mutiny was an attempt to determine who represented corporate America, not an attempt to overturn democracy. My resistance to calling this action a “coup” is simply to recognize that, when the mainstream media uses the term “coup,” they want their readers to believe that democracy works. We have to remember that calling the U. S. government a democracy is a lie. In identifying this lie, we might just be able to help people realize that the Trumps and Bloombergs of the world are not the answer. The answer lies in taking back their communities to form local direct democracies that can form a confederalism, to take up the possibilities the post-war years suggested. That would be a coup worth talking about.