Was January 6 a Coup Attempt in the USA?

By Clayton Besaw and Matthew Frank* (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Supporters of President Donald Trump, following his encouragement, stormed the US Capitol building on Jan. 6, disrupting the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Waving Trump banners, hundreds of people broke through barricades and smashed windows to enter the building where Congress convenes. One rioter died and several police officers were hospitalized in the clash. Congress went on lockdown.

While violent and shocking, what happened on Jan. 6 wasn’t a coup.

This Trumpist insurrection was election violence, much like the election violence that plagues many fragile democracies.

Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

What is a coup?

While coups do not have a single definition, researchers who study them – like ourselves – agree on the key attributes of what academics call a “coup event.”

Coup experts Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne define a coup d’etat as “an overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.”

The U.S. didn’t have a coup, but this Trump-encouraged insurrection is likely to send the country down a politically and socially turbulent road

Essentially, three parameters are used to judge whether an insurrection is a coup event:

1) Are the perpetrators agents of the state, such as military officials or rogue governmental officials?

2) Is the target of the insurrection the chief executive of the government?

3) Do the plotters use illegal and unconstitutional methods to seize executive power?

Coups and coup attempts

A successful coup occurred in Egypt on July 3, 2013, when army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forcefully removed the country’s unpopular president, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, had recently overseen the writing of a new constitution. Al-Sisi suspended that, too. This qualifies as a coup because al-Sisi seized power illegally and introduced his own rule of law in the ashes of the elected government.

Coups don’t always succeed in overthrowing the government.

In 2016, members of the Turkish military attempted to remove Turkey’s strongman president, Reçep Erdogan, from power. Soldiers seized key areas in Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, including the Bosphorus Bridge and two airports. But the coup lacked coordination and widespread support, and it failed quickly after President Erdogan called on his supporters to confront the plotters. Erdogan remains in power today.

What happened at the US Capitol?

The uprising at the Capitol building does not meet all three criteria of a coup.

Trump’s rioting supporters targeted a branch of executive authority – Congress – and they did so illegally, through trespassing and property destruction. Categories #2 and #3, check.

As for category #1, the rioters appeared to be civilians operating of their own volition, not state actors. President Trump did incite his followers to march on the Capitol building less than an hour before the crowd invaded the grounds, insisting the election had been stolen and saying “We will not take it anymore.” This comes after months of spreading unfounded electoral lies and conspiracies that created a perception of government malfeasance in the mind of many Trump supporters.

Whether the president’s motivation in inflaming the anger of his supporters was to assault Congress is not clear, and he tepidly told them to go home as the violence escalated. For now it seems the riot in Washington, D.C., was enacted without the approval, aid or active leadership of government actors like the military, police or sympathetic GOP officials.

American political elites are hardly blameless, though.

By spreading conspiracy theories about election fraud, numerous Republican senators, including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, created the conditions for political violence in the United States, and specifically electoral-related violence.

Academics have documented that contentious political rhetoric fuels the risk of election-related violence. Elections are high-stakes; they represent a transfer of political power. When government officials demean and discredit democratic institutions as a simmering political conflict is underway, contested elections can trigger political violence and mob rule.

So what did happen?

The shocking events of Jan. 6 were political violence of the sort that too often mars elections in young or unstable democracies.

Bangladeshi elections suffer from perennial mob violence and political insurrections due to years of government violence and opposition anger. Its 2015 and 2018 elections looked more like war zones than democratic transitions.

In Cameroon, armed dissidents perpetrated violence in the 2020 election, targeting government buildings, opposition figures and innocent bystanders alike. Their aim was to delegitimize the vote in response to sectarian violence and government overreach.

The United States’ electoral violence differs in cause and context from that seen in Bangladesh and Cameroon, but the action was similar. The U.S. didn’t have a coup, but this Trump-encouraged insurrection is likely to send the country down a politically and socially turbulent road.


*Clayton Besaw, Research Affiliate and Senior Analyst, University of Central Florida and Matthew Frank, Master’s student, International Security, University of Denver

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read more opinion articles here on Havana Times.

6 thoughts on “Was January 6 a Coup Attempt in the USA?

  • I would agree with the sensible and rational comments made by Stephen and The Anti Imperialist. To be sensible and rational is what is desperately needed in the USA right now.
    Roger Graham is clearly in thrall to the far right trumpist cult.
    This cult is neither sensible nor rational. It’s comprised of a bunch of losers who have been brainwashed by a sad and childish little orange-faced man who is clearly deranged.

  • Roger Graham states: “The coup had already taken place earlier.” It is very evident that according to Clayton Besaw and Matthew Frank in their article they clearly and understandably make the educated case: no coup occurred. To use that terminology fails to understand the factual learned evidence provided by these two experts.

    Some suggest sedition, some suggest insurrection, others, political violence as to the occurrence on Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

    I agree with “The Anti-Imperialist” and Nick’s expressed statements.
    Roger Graham’s post is not based on fact nor reality as most of Trump’s supporters tend to bend reality to suit their political agendas.

    The so called “socialists” as Roger refers, I suppose they are Democrats he refers, certainly did unseat the Republicans by a landslide victory obtained by legitimate and legal voting as has been the case in the United States since its inception as the American Republic.

    To insinuate otherwise with words like “election irregularities” is baseless, untrue, factually incorrect and outright false. How many vote recounts have taken place in many swing States, in order to appease Trump and his Republican supporters the “unbelievers”, and at the end of the day none, absolutely none, of those vote recounts have proven anything but legitimate.

    Even Republican Vice President Pence, an ardent Republican and Trump supporter, at the end of the day clearly confirmed the election win to the Democrats and President elect Biden on Capitol Hill despite the unspeakable ruckus caused by the Trump mob.

    The sad thing is some people can be so politically dumb, desperate, and delusional that no matter what takes place their claim to “landslide” victory must be accepted no matter what the cost even at the cost of lost lives.

    That is the beginning of totalitarianism and dictatorship, whereby an individual and loyal supporters only believe one unstoppable belief and anyone who gets in the way is portrayed as a traitor, fake, unworthy, un American in this case, even, “socialist”.

    Trump has been permanently banned from his bullhorn, Twitter, much to his chagrin. For the sake of all Americans, that is a good thing. History clearly demonstrates what eventually happens (it does not end well) to undemocratic leaders who try to cling and abuse power after being thoroughly and legitimately defeated and the will of the people thwarted.

  • Roger is a good example of the Trumpeteers who will justify anything he does even if it destroys the nation’s imperfect instutions and kills people. I hope all those identified in the mob attack on the Congress get the book thrown at them and frankly, their ringleader should be held criminally responsible. Imagine what Roger and crowd would be saying if his supposed socialists were the ones to storm the Congress. They’d be calling for life imprisonment or the death penalty.

  • The coup had already taken place earlier. The whole focus of the socialists was to unseat President Trump by any means necessary, thus the manipulation of the press, restriction of social media, and election irregularities.

  • “This Trumpist insurrection was election violence, much like the election violence that plagues many fragile democracies.” The vernacular argument now begins as to what nomenclature is rightly assigned to the happenings at US Capitol buildings on Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, January 07, 2021.

    The authors, Clayton Besaw and Matthew Frank, make the case that the extremely serious and loaded word “coup” or “coup d’etat” is erroneous and misplaced. According to Clayton Besaw and Matthew Frank a coup did not take place rather they use less incendiary wording or perhaps more politically correct wording: “election violence”. It is my opinion that most people would not be so inclined to agree with the soft, less incendiary vernacular, almost innocent description of what actually took place.

    “Election violence” could be construed as simply a few fights breaking out on the street of the capital, or throwing a few Molotov cocktails at police with police responding with rubber bullets. Election violence takes place regularly in many countries and is quickly handled by the police and some violence perpetrators are carted off to jail and then life resumes as normal after a cooling down period. This is hardly what occurred at the US Capitol buildings days ago.

    What happened at those US government buildings on Wednesday was clear cut sedition on the part of the President D. Trump and his followers who on the encouragement and incitement of the President stormed the buildings with guns and visible weapons, smashing windows, destroying government property on their route and once inside rampaging with impunity. This seditious act was more than election violence. One retired army veteran died, a Trump ardent supporter, and numerous others seriously injured. Gunshots were fired.

    The dictionary (Random House) definition for “sedition” is the incitement of public disorder or rebellion against a government. Clearly both those factors within the definition occurred. President Trump did his best to incite his followers to act as though the election was stolen from him and that any further legitimate confirmation act as past United States Presidential protocols necessitate, like the ceremonial act taking place at Capitol buildings, this must be stopped, or as Trump stated: “We will not take it anymore.” Folks, let’s literally rebel.

    The authors make the case with their definitions and parameters delineating a coup from an insurrection. The experts make a clear case that what happened on Wednesday was not a coup. Fair enough. But to simply call the events “election violence” does not attribute enough seriousness to the situation, to the potential destruction to democracy to which the United States espouses worldwide.

    When the presiding President of the United States overtly condones a rebellious act on his very own duly and legally legitimate elected government, that is by all accounts an act of sedition and is unprecedented in recent American history to just call this insurrection simply “election violence”. Violence in an election does not do justice to the horrendous damage this seditious act has done to American democracy and the confidence Americans have in their future elections and politicians.

    Clayton Besaw and Matthew Frank are adamant: The U.S. didn’t have a coup . . .” No, perhaps not but certainly a seditious act clearly occurred rather than mere election violence, though violence did occur.

  • This is so saddening.
    It has been coming for a long time. It comes as no surprise that trump has orchestrated this violent uprising from his far-right power base.
    It’s no surprise but it’s still very saddening.
    Hopefully this is the end of it. But sadly this element doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soo.
    trump should be thrown in jail.

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