Home / 2020 Election / Would a coup by any other name smell so wrong?

Would a coup by any other name smell so wrong?


Paul Musgrave argues that the effort to prevent Congress from declaring Biden the next president was, in fact, a coup.

As I write this a few hours later, rioters incited by President Donald Trump have stormed the Capitol building. Both the House and the Senate have suspended their counting because of security threats. Reportedly, shots have been fired. A photograph of a rioter occupying the House speaker’s chair shows that the Capitol is, essentially, being occupied. C-SPAN is reporting that senior members of leadership of the legislative branch are being held in an “undisclosed location.” Reporters are refusing to divulge their locations on the grounds—entirely reasonable—that doing so could endanger their safety. The National Guard has been deployed.

It’s undeniable at this point. The United States is witnessing a coup attempt—a forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework. The president has caused the interruption of the process that would certify his removal from office. The mechanics of constitutional government have been suspended. Americans are in danger of losing constitutional government to a degree unmatched even during the Civil War, a period when secession itself did not postpone either the holding of elections or the transition of power between presidents.

For Musgrave, the unwillingness of many to call it a coup reflects a worrying tendency to downplay threats to U.S. democracy – a tendency that’s contributed to U.S. democratic erosion. On the academic side, this blindness stems from methodological exceptionalism.

Mostly, though, the optimists’ reluctance to see what’s in front of their faces has had less to do with scholarly integrity and more to do with wish-casting—making predictions because you want them to be true, not because the evidence supports it. For U.S. political scientists, coups and paramilitary political forces are axiomatically things that happen out there.

 Their study fits in the mainstream of comparative politics, which studies foreigners, not U.S. politics (except for the small tribe of specialists in U.S. political development, who are well aware of the history of violence in the country’s political history). Until Wednesday, Americanists modeled what election outcomes would be, not whether their results would matter—those questions mattered for others.

Musgrave’s argument has generated significant pushback on various platforms. Naunihal Singh, in both an interview at Foreign Policy and a piece at The Monkey Cage, argues that what happened on January 6th was definitely not a coup.

In the interview, Singh argues that:

I think it’s extremely telling that the violence we’re seeing is coming from street protesters whom Trump has incited. This is the president of the United States. He is the most powerful man in the world, in quotes. And yet he’s not using any of his official authorities. He’s using his bully pulpit to stir up what is a poorly organized ragtag bunch of protesters who are being treated with kid gloves in a way that peaceful protesters in Portland, in D.C., and all over the nation were not treated last summer. In fact, if the D.C. police or the National Guard had treated this bunch of protesters the way they treated any of the Black Lives Matters protesters, they would never have been allowed to breach the first perimeter, let alone get into the Senate building. There are two reasons they’re being treated with kid gloves. One is that they are affiliated with the president, so they have some political protection. The other is that the protesters have, for a long time, styled themselves as Blue Lives Matter supporters, so law enforcement may have been hesitant to use force against them.

In neither case is this actually a threat to the Republic. But, look, whether or not force was used, the president engaged in an illegitimate, immoral, and probably illegal attempt to grab power [emphasis added].

While there are ways in which the insurrectionists did get easy treatment, some of these claims show their age. Much of this argument derives from snippets of video that appeared on social media during the day. Longer videos, as well as efforts by reporters to piece together events, make clear that the Capital Police were simply overwhelmed. Moreover, as numerous posts at LGM have highlighted, it looks pretty clear that some of the insurrectionists sought to capture – and even execute – high-ranking U.S. government officials.

In his article, Singh writes that:

Although scholars differ in how they define coup attempts, most definitions have a common core of agreed-upon conditions. In my book, “Seizing Power,” I define a coup attempt as an explicit action, involving some portion of the state military, police or security forces, undertaken with intent to overthrow the government.

What occurred on Wednesday meets some — but not all — of the conditions to be a coup attempt. Efforts to block the transfer of power to the legitimate victor of an election meet the intent portion of the definition, even if the person who is overthrowing the government is also the incumbent. But the raid on the nation’s capital in this instance was committed by a mob, not the country’s own armed forces. 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.

What occurred is better described as an insurrection, since it was a violent uprising by citizens against the government. Those bearing arms were civilians, members of the public. This is different from a coup, where a branch of the government uses state forces to attempt to seize power — and this distinction matters.

Singh draws an analogy:

A coup is like being robbed at gunpoint. But Trump’s attempt to convince Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat was more like a swindle, with Trump attempting to talk Raffensperger into handing over his wallet. The attack on the U.S. Capitol was more forceful, yet still different from a coup, more like somebody grabbing your wallet. All three are forms of theft, but the forms are very different, and the responses differ accordingly.

I agree that each crime involves a different modus operandi, but I don’t get the analogy. If we follow Singh’s definition, what differentiates a military coup from a civilian insurrection has nothing do with with the level of force involved; which category applies depends entirely on the actors. Provincial rebellions may easily bring more force to the table than a handful of colonels.

Perhaps Singh intends for the analogy to only illustrate how the same outcome can be generated by three distinctive processes. So why does it matter, then?

Calling something a coup attempt turns our attention toward the state. But what is striking about Trump’s behavior is that he is acting as if he is a private citizen rather than president of the United States. He is stirring up protesters, but not using state security forces; he is attempting to wheedle Raffensperger into committing electoral fraud but not — other than vaguely threatening Raffensperger with criminal consequences — using state authority to coerce Raffensperger into doing so.

Trump is able to engage in these anti-democratic actions because of the people who are voluntarily supporting him — not because he is the commander in chief. 

But the president is not a private citizen; his call for his supporters to march on the Capitol and help keep him in power is obviously inflected by his authority and his prerogatives.

This is really no different than if Trump ordered the military to occupy the Capitol and arrest members of the legislative branch. Military officers don’t have a chip in their head that makes them compelled to obey his orders; they have every right to resist an illegal order. This is why ten former Secretaries of Defense signed an open letter urging the military not to intervene in a disputed election: to warn the military not to participate in any attempt by the president to mount a coup.

Indeed, Rob noted yesterday that “if the military disobeyed a lawful order from the President to launch nuclear weapons (and there’s almost no question, under existing US law, that such an order would be lawful) then it would in effect constitute a military coup.” What would make such an assurance to Pelosi a coup is precisely the fact that nether Speaker Pelosi nor General Milley have the legal authority to interdict such an order. We don’t call Muammar Gaddafi’s seizure of power in Libya a “coup” because overthrowing the government was within his authority.

Okay, but what substantive difference does it make?

Those who want to prevent insurrection could respond in a number of ways. One path, taken by Twitter and Facebook, was to suspend Trump’s account, thus taking away his megaphone at a time when his remarks might whip up violence.

If Trump were calling on the military to seize the Capitol then taking away his megaphone would also be a good idea. He still needs to communicate with supporters, whether they’re in uniform or in civilian clothes.

Another approach is to make it clear to the other politicians who are helping him undermine democracy that there is no return to respectability or business as usual afterward. Would they choose opportunistic behavior in the moment if they knew they would pay the cost of being associated with a rejection of democracy for the rest of their lives? Would they undercut democracy if it shut the door to lucrative employment as a lobbyist? Would they be willing to be shunned socially for decades?

Change “other politicians” to “military personnel” or “internal security services” or whatever and this paragraph still makes sense.

The point is not the specifics of the response, but rather that the diagnosis suggests an analysis and an appropriate reaction. Compared to a coup, an insurrection involves a different set of people, communication is used differently, the role of the police is different, and the remedies are different. The terminology matters because it illuminates the dynamics of this event and how they are different from other kinds of events.

Singh presumably would consider all the following examples of attempted coups if they happened in the USSR in the 1987:

  • The NVD, in whole or in part and either at the behest of the General Secretary of the Communist Party or against him, tries to seize control of Moscow
  • The KGB – in whole or in part and either at the behest of the General Secretary of the Communist Party or against him – tries to seize control of Moscow; and
  • The Red Army – in whole or in part and either at the behest of the General Secretary of the Communist Party or against him – tries to seize control of Moscow.

Each of these would entail different sets of people, uses of communication, roles for the police, and remedies. The disposition of the overall KGB would matter not only in each of these scenarios, but also if civilians acted as the primary ‘troops’ of an attempted seizure of power.

Singh maintains that the events of January 6th amounted to an insurrection rather than a coup. I’m not entirely sure about the basis of the distinction. In U.S. law, “rebellion and insurrection refer specifically to acts of violence against the state or its officers.”

Since all of Singh’s coups involve the threat of violence, they would all seem to also constitute insurrections. That is, Singh’s “coup” is a specific type of insurrection, one involving at least one of the state’s security services.

This isn’t a problem per se for Singh, but it does suggest some analytic issues. Singh’s substantive objection to referring to January 6th as a coup attempt is, in essence, that insurrections involving a state’s own security services are not comparable to insurrections that don’t involve a state’s security services. While I’m not persuaded by the specific examples Singh provides, I do think that his argument makes some degree of sense.

However, are the events of January 6th more comparable to non-coup insurrections? Ceteris paribus, I don’t see how we learn more about January 6th by placing it in the same pot as the FMLN insurgency in El Salvador, the Greek Civil War, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857 than by placing it in the same pot as Operation Rubicon.

Why, then, is the relevant distinction between “coup” and “insurrection”? We can solve Singh’s concerns just as easily by distinguishing between kinds of coups. Maybe coups that involve the security services constitute one cluster of coups, while those that don’t constitute another. Some of examples of both kinds would take the form of self-coups, others would not.

Should we adopt Singh’s nomenclature or something like I’ve just suggested? I’m not sure. But we can’t choose between the two options based on the criteria Singh has offered. Both preserve a distinction between, on the one hand, what happened on January 6th and, on the other hand, attempts to overthrow governments that involve some slice of their security services.

If this weren’t already getting too long, I’d turn to a discussion of the various dynamics that drive stability and change in social-scientific concepts. In its absence, I’ll just make a few claims about their implications:

  • The way that social scientists define a concept – or even that a social-scientific field defines a term – is not inherently better than alternatives.
  • The considerations that lead us to settle on specific definitions may not be decisive, or even relevant, in different contexts.
  • There’s often less consensus about the precise meaning of concepts than we like to imply.
  • Disputes about the meaning of concepts can reflect substantive disagreements about how to do social science, and these often – for good reasons – reman implicit when we argue about definitions in public-facing contexts.

So what do I think? To the extent that it matters, my own view is closer to Musgrave’s and overlaps with Zeynep Tufekci’s:

In Turkish, we do have many different words for different types of coups, because our experience similarly demands it. For example, coups that are attempted through threatening letters from the military are called memorandum coups. A 2007 attempt is commonly referred to as the “e-coup” because the threatening letter from the military was first posted on the internet. (The one before that, in 1997, is often referred to as a “postmodern” or “soft” coup.) We know the difference between military coups that start from the top and follow the military chain of command and those that do not. The term autogolpe comes from the Spanish partly because there have been so many such attempts in Latin America.

The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering.

Maybe in other languages, from places with more experience with this particular type of power grab, we’d be better able to discuss the subtleties of this effort, to distinguish the postelection intervention from the Election Day injustices, to separate the legal but frivolous from the outright lawless, and to understand why his party’s reaction—lack of reaction—is not just about wanting to conclude an embarrassing presidency with minimal fanfare. But in English, only one widely understood word captures what Donald Trump is trying to do, even though his acts do not meet its technical definition. Trump is attempting to stage some kind of coup, one that is embedded in a broader and ongoing power grab.

And if that’s hard to recognize, this might be your first.


Coups are (ex ante) extralegal appropriations of authority by an actor within, or by part of, a government from another.

Notice that, for me, the defining characteristic of coups is neither the employment of violence nor which part of the government is implicated in the usurpation of authority: if the Speaker of the House appropriates presidential authority with respect to the military, that’s a coup; if Al Haig really had tried to jump the line of succession, then he attempted a coup; if the president incites a mob to force Congress to declare him the victor of an election, then that’s a coup; and if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deploys the military to declare himself Supreme Executive, then we’re looking at a coup.

What makes coups ‘special’ is their internal character; they involve struggles among incumbents – sometimes specific actors, sometimes bureaucratic divisions, sometimes branches – over the distribution of authority within a government.

We can handle the rest by attaching adjectives.

But realize that I come from a social-scientific tradition that thinks what’s in the arrows is more important than what’s in the boxes. For me, Charles Tilly’s observation about social-scientific explanation and revolutions applies:

I am arguing that regularities in political life are very broad, indeed transhistorical, but do not operate in the form of recurrent structures and processes at a large scale. They consist of recurrent causes which in different circumstances and sequences compound into highly variable but nonetheless explicable effects. Students of revolution have imagined they were dealing with phenomena like ocean tides, whose regularities they could deduce from sufficient knowledge of celestial motion, when they were actually confronting phenomena like great floods, equally coherent occurrences from a causal perspective, but enormously variable in structure, sequence, and consequences as a function of terrain, previous precipitation, built environment, and human response.

For hydrologists, a flood is a wave of water that passes through a basin; a severe flood is one in which a considerable share of the water overflows the basin’s perimeter. For our purposes, the equations hydrologists use to compute water flow in floods have three revealing characteristics: they reduce floods to special cases of water flow within basins rather than making them sui generis, their results depend heavily on the hydrologist’s delineation of the basin, while estimation of the flood’s parameters requires extensive empirical knowledge of that basin. Yet the equations embody very general principles, the physics of incompressible fluids in open channels (Bras 1990, pp. 478-82).

Note several implications of the analogy. First, every instance of the phenomenon – flood or revolution – differs from every other one; the test of a good theory is therefore not so much to identify similarities among instances as to account systematically and parsimoniously for their variation. Second, in different combinations, circumstances, and sequences, the same causes that produce floods or revolutions also produce a number of adjacent phenomena: smoothly flowing rivers and stagnant swamps on the one side, coups d’etat and guerrilla warfare on the other. Third, time, place, and sequence strongly influence how the relevant processes unfold; in that sense, they have an inescapably historical character. Finally, the events in question are far from self motivating experiences of self-contained structures; they are local manifestations of fluxes extending far beyond their own perimeters. Floods and revolutions have no natural boundaries; observers draw lines around them for their own analytic convenience. In these regards, they resemble a number of other complex but lawful phenomena: traffic jams, earthquakes, segmented labor markets, forest fires, and many more. I suppose, indeed, that most interesting social phenomena have exactly these characteristics

Thus, it doesn’t trouble me if the category “coup” expands beyond the participation of the security services; I’m happy to make the participation of security services a source of variation rather than a defining feature of coups. But it’s also totally understandable why other scholars would prefer narrower, more precise definitions that mandate a greater number of shared attributes.

So should we call January 6th an attempted coup – or, more properly, one part of an unfolding effort by Trump to mount a successful coup? I don’t think the question of causation is all that important. Most of the debate over whether to call it a coup isn’t about coup-proofing. It’s basically normative and political in character: what label for Trump’s actions – and those of his mob – best captures their degree of illegitimacy?

To be honest, I don’t see a lot of difference between “coup” and “insurrection” here.

The major disadvantage of “insurrection,” I suppose, is that it makes Trump’s role one of “inciter” or “fomenter.” This places him one step away from the action itself. It also locates his conduct in the murky domain of where freedom of speech ends and criminal incitement begins. Saying that he attempted a coup, however, removes any such complications.

The advantages of “incitement of insurrection” are that it’s a defined legal offense and that it’ll be the grounds for impeachment.

In conclusion:

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