6 min read

What do you call a flailing attempt at a coup?

What do you call a flailing attempt at a coup?

As investigations into January 6th attack on the Capitol get underway, we're learning more about Trump's efforts to interfere with the election, including delaying the certification of the Electoral College vote in Congress.

For instance, the House Oversight committee uncovered evidence that Trump asked the Department of Justice to say the election was corrupt. We also heard new first-hand accounts about the nature of the attack from local DC police and Capitol Police.

In response to some of these revelations MSNBC host Chris Hayes revisited a discussion about what to call all the events surrounding the 1/6 attack:

I tend to agree with Hayes. The Trump administration and Republican Party absolutely went for it, but enough people in those institutions held out and the rest of us actively resisted their efforts.

At times, the failed coup was farcical, whether it was the press conference at Four Season's Total Landscaping or the governor of Arizona ignoring a "Hail to the Chief" ringtone indicating a call from the president while signing off on the state's electoral vote certifications.

So why the lingering concerns about what to call what happened?

First, leading up to the election itself, Democrats and progressive campaigners had deep concerns about references to a stolen election—not because they thought Trump could actually steal the election, but because public discussions about that possibility could be distracting for volunteers and demobilizing for voters. As organizer Melissa Byrne put it: how many phone banking shifts were we losing to being prepared for something we'd obviously organize around rapidly anyway?

During the first presidential debate, Joe Biden handled the question of whether Trump would accept the election results this way:

...if in fact he says, he’s not sure what he’s going to accept. Well, let me tell you something, it doesn’t matter, because if we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s gonna go. He can’t stay in power. It won’t happen. It won’t happen. So vote. Just make sure you understand, you have it in your control to determine what this country is gonna look like the next four years. Is it going to change, or are you going to get four more years of these lies?

It was deeply important in that moment to continue to emphasize people's agency at the ballot box.

In some ways, however, this discourse carried over until after the election. And at the same time, some pundits have felt like it's their duty to downplay events that day since accusing activists and the media of overreacting to things makes some people feel smart, I guess. (I wish people were as concerned about under-reacting to problems, but perhaps I'll leave that for another day). Finally, this is a novel experience in America. We struggle to find words to make sense of it.

What do the words actually mean?

"Coup" is often defined in a way that underscores the success or even brilliance of a tactic.

Merriam-Webster points readers to the definition of "coup d'etat:"

: a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics especially : the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group

The American Heritage Dictionary offers a few definitions for "coup" itself:

1. A brilliantly executed stratagem; a triumph.
2. a. A coup d'état.b. A sudden appropriation of leadership or power; a takeover: a boardroom coup.
3. Among certain Native American peoples, a feat of bravery performed in battle, especially the touching of an enemy's body without causing injury.

Thus modifying the term to underscore that it "failed" make sense. Political scientists have also offered the word "autoglope," which has been used to describe "self-coups" by ruling regimes, usually involving the military in Latin America. The idea that it's carried out by the ruling regime rather than insurgents is important, but it's an incredibly awkward-sounding word in English and, ultimately, closer to jargon than a more commonly used word like "coup."

Stupid, violent coups are still failed coups

The other thing that I think holds us back from settling on "failed coup" is that a lot of the people involved weren't being particularly strategic, to put it mildly. But I'd push back on that sentiment. Stupid, violent coups can work. Non-strategic actors creating chaos and violence around elections can aid the powerful people actually trying to do the coup.

In DC, January 6th was the first time I saw local activists, including anti-fascists, Black Lives Matter and mainstream liberal and progressive groups all back off on street presence. In addition to their own safety, these people understood—correctly in my view—that it needed to be MAGA chuds vs. cops that day, not MAGA chuds and black bloc anti-fascists squaring off in ways that would give the Trump administration an excuse to escalate law enforcement responses.

Bear in mind, for DC activists, this was several weeks into "Stop the Steal" rallies and Proud Boy incursions into downtown, which included street fights and right wingers burning a church's Black Lives Matter sign.

In 2000, Republicans brought their best lawyers and operatives to bear to prevent Florida officials from conducting a recount. Two of them are sitting on the Supreme Court where they can rain down reactionary legal opinion for decades. In 2020, Trump had to rely on discredited conspiracy theorists as his attorneys and a rag tag group of militia members, QAnon Facebook moms, and racist chuds as his foot soldiers.

Indeed, some of the right wingers who raided the Capitol clearly had no idea what they were doing. They started rifling through papers in the Senate chamber, arguing if what they were looking at indicated whether Ted Cruz was actually betraying them. At the same time, we know armed militia members were also in the crowd, that they had caches of weapons stored outside DC and law enforcement is still looking for whoever planted those pipe bombs at the party offices near the Capitol.

At the end of the day, no members of Congress were harmed or held hostage. If the attackers had gotten a hold of Mike Pence, other members of leadership or even rank-and-file members, things could have gotten much worse.

That said, the attack did succeed in delaying the Electoral College certification process. Because our democracy is built on some rickety laws from the early 1800s, the actual state certificates certifying the electoral vote are transmitted to several people, including the President of the Senate, secretaries of state and the National Archives.

The President of the Senate's copies are the ones that get inspected and certified when Congress meets. Here they are.

The attackers could have been minutes away from seizing or destroying those boxes. Doing so would have delayed the election certification even more. The vintage laws governing the Electoral College were built for the era of mail delivery, so they anticipate the failure of a package to arrive in Washington, DC, but not necessarily the destruction of the certificates:

§ 13. When no certificates of votes from any State shall have been received at the seat of government on the fourth Wednesday in December, after the meeting of the electors shall have been held, the President of the Senate or, if he be absent from the seat of government, the Archivist of the United States shall send a special messenger to the district judge in whose custody one certificate of votes from that State has been lodged, and such judge shall forthwith transmit that list by the hand of such messenger to the seat of government.

In reality, Congress was able to return and do it's job that night. But if the certificates had been destroyed—on purpose or by accident—the failed coup could have gone on for a few more days, creating more uncertainty and chaos for the authoritarians trying to resist the peaceful transfer of power.

Incidentally, Senators are reportedly working on legislation to address election subversion along with voting rights. Perhaps the Electoral Count Act and the electronic transfer of electoral certificates can be part of that bill.

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