Q&A

Why This Wasn’t a Coup

Here’s the right language for what’s happening in Washington—and why the terminology matters.

By , a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they prepare to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they prepare to storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

What is happening on Capitol Hill? News coverage offers a partial, if incomplete, grasp on the facts. Thousands of pro-Trump protesters, many wearing Make America Great Again hats and waving Blue Lives Matter or Don’t Tread on Me flags, have thronged the area. Mobs, some possibly armed, have smashed windows, overwhelmed the police, and stormed the Capitol building. Tear gas has been deployed in the Rotunda. Security guards and police have been photographed in at least one armed standoff—with whom is unclear—and at least one person has been wheeled out of the building in a stretcher, covered with blood.

Much less clear is how to describe what’s going on—what to call it. A coup? An insurrection, as President-elect Joe Biden labeled it? A mere riot? To understand the language—and why it matters—Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is happening on Capitol Hill? News coverage offers a partial, if incomplete, grasp on the facts. Thousands of pro-Trump protesters, many wearing Make America Great Again hats and waving Blue Lives Matter or Don’t Tread on Me flags, have thronged the area. Mobs, some possibly armed, have smashed windows, overwhelmed the police, and stormed the Capitol building. Tear gas has been deployed in the Rotunda. Security guards and police have been photographed in at least one armed standoff—with whom is unclear—and at least one person has been wheeled out of the building in a stretcher, covered with blood.

Much less clear is how to describe what’s going on—what to call it. A coup? An insurrection, as President-elect Joe Biden labeled it? A mere riot? To understand the language—and why it matters—Foreign Policy’s editor-at-large Jonathan Tepperman spoke to Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College and the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

[The political scientist Paul Musgrave argues that Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol is a coup. To read why, click here.]

Jonathan Tepperman: What’s the right term for what’s happening in Washington right now? Given President Donald Trump’s clear but indirect incitement, does it qualify as a coup or an autogolpe, or is it sedition? And why does it matter what we call it?

Naunihal Singh: This is not a military coup because that would involve the president using the military or the Secret Service or some armed branch of the government to get his way. Nor would I argue that it is what some people have called a civilian coup or an executive coup. Even autogolpes involve the threat of military force.

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.

JT: Let’s talk about that for a second. What we did have is the president inciting protesters, who then went to the Capitol to interfere with a constitutionally established process to democratically transfer power to his successor. What should we call that?

NS: I’m not a lawyer, but we have to look and see whether it satisfies the requirements of sedition—and if the shoe fits, we should call it that. This is a violation both of principles and of law, being incited deliberately.

I get why people call it a coup: It’s because they want to say it’s an illegitimate power grab. The problem is that then they end up looking at the military as the actors who are engaged in this power grab. Whereas, in fact, what you have is Trump and all the people who are enabling Trump. Imagine for a second that there was a similarly violent case involving Black Lives Matter protesters. I bet you Facebook and Twitter would have suspended all their accounts, would never have let them make their appeals. They would have been entirely shut out of the ability to use any form of mass media to communicate to the people. And that isn’t what we’re seeing here.

JT: Does it change the equation or the terminology if, for example, the stories about the civilian leadership of the Defense Department initially refusing to help the D.C. police are confirmed?

NS: Maybe, yes. If, in fact, what we are seeing here is not just an unwillingness to adequately police but a tacit cooperation with the protesters, then yes. Look at the mass revolutions in the Philippines or in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. All of these mass protests involved the military siding with the protesters and refusing orders to fire. If we get to that point, then, yes, it’s a coup. But I don’t believe we’re at that point yet. I think what we’ve got is something else, and it’s very dire, but it’s not that thing.

JT: Say a bit more about why the language actually matters. Why should we be careful about what we call this?

NS: Because we want to hold the right people accountable. And I think, in this case, the people who you want to point fingers at are the president, the party leaders, and the street thugs. And we lose that if we start talking about a coup; it gives a pass to all of the Republican politicians who have been endorsing what Trump’s saying.

JT: And that’s because calling this a coup shifts the focus and blame to the military?

NS: Right. If we instead call it sedition, then you can more clearly enumerate who’s involved and how. But what’s very interesting here is that, as in his phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump hasn’t really used his official authority.

JT: Well, on the Georgia call, he did hint at the threat of criminal prosecution.

NS: Right, but the threat was so transparently laughable that this other guy didn’t take it seriously. It was a con. He tried to cajole, bully, and convince the other guy to go ahead with him. What that shows, in that case as in this one, is that Trump’s only power is what other people grant him.

This cooperation with him is the source of the problem, and the language we use should reflect that.

If Trump were simply an older homeless man standing on the street yelling, he wouldn’t be a threat at all. The threat comes from the way people join him in his endeavor. But it’s not actually coming from his own legal power and authority. It’s instead coming from his position as a leader of a movement.

Jonathan Tepperman is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy and the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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