Days after the January 6 attack on the Capitol, people are starting to wonder how the events will be fixed in history, but I’m still trying to come down on the name of it all.
Many people are opting to settle for the least debatable definitions. “Insurrection” is starting to stick, but when even that seems too dialectical, “anti-democratic action” is a popular Band-Aid. No one can argue that what happened Wednesday wasn’t anti-democratic: The mob that kicked in doors and ran rampant through the halls of the Capitol were literally attempting to stop a political process in action.
Terms like “insurrection” and “anti-democratic” aren’t inaccurate, but they both telegraph the user’s punch. How people define what happened is in part determined by their relationship to American power dynamics. If you’re a politician, it’s an insurrection (“an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government”*). If you’re a Trump supporter, it’s a revolution (“the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed”). If you’re Black, it smells like a coup d’état (“the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group”).
The smoking gun here falls largely on how one interprets Donald Trump’s rally speech. If you see it as sedition (“incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority”), then the actions of the mob (“a large and disorderly crowd of people, especially one bent on riotous or destructive action”) starts to winnow the list of terms sharply. Yes, the siege looked like the act of insurrectionists, but if it has a leader, then it has something resembling design and agenda. That the Trumpers who entered the Capitol seemed aimless once inside doesn’t mean it wasn’t led; it means their mission was shortsighted, or possibly that their leader isn’t very good at leading. Once you accept that the attack was spurred on, it becomes less organic and weed-like, and more creeping vine.
Make no mistake: The conditions that made January 6 possible, the ideas and machinations, have been swirling around for years and at every level of society, from the walking cliché that are the uncloaked Klan to the most powerful GOP congressman.
And then there’s the matter of “coup d’état.” That was the term being used by some members of Congress after they emerged from under their desks — as well as no small number of pundits. Pushback followed quickly, suggesting that the attack did not meet the historical criteria of coups we have studied before. The main sticking point is that at no point did Trump seek to enlist the aid of military forces to take the Capitol building or assume power over Congress.
All of this leads to a fundamental question: Do we define a coup solely by its methods, or can we apply its intent?
There is a sense of intentionality in the way the term is being debated as if it’s crucial to absolve America of even the possibility of enacting a coup in order to distance us from the kind of countries we look down upon. And yet, with some distance and an ongoing autopsy of the events that transpired, this qualifier doesn’t seem as clean-cut as it did on Wednesday. In a press conference last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said that repeated requests to the Department of Defense to deploy the National Guard were denied, despite the fact that military support is a mere eight minutes away from the Capitol. House Majority Whip James Clyburn has said that when he arrived at the Capitol that morning, no security perimeter had been established, despite repeated concerns that there might be riotous crowds. An argument can be made that the decision not to use military intervention is, in fact, a use of power.
Not that you need that argument. Plenty of coups have utilized homegrown rebel efforts — which is exactly what last week’s crowd contained, from various organized white supremacist groups to off-duty law enforcement and military-trained professionals. And then there’s the still under-discussed presence of stored munitions and explosives found on-site or nearby. Or the fact that people were stalking the halls of the building looking to lynch politicians. (Clyburn has also questioned how infiltrators knew to bypass his public office and instead made their way to his secondary unlisted office, going so far as to say that someone who worked inside the Capitol had to be complicit in the breach.)
If all it takes to meet the qualifications of an attempted coup are intent and force, it’s safe to say last week’s siege met that standard. But having made a compelling case for the word, it’s important to note its biggest shortcoming: it lets too many people off the hook.
What happened on January 6 started years ago, as early as the formalizing of the Tea Party during Obama’s first term. Republicans peddled disenfranchisement as a way to counteract Democratic strides. Despite the fact that America had already dragged itself out of a brutal recession, much of America simply could not countenance that our collective success had come under the watchful eye of a Black president. Public displays of racism ramped up during Obama’s second term, culminating in the election of his polar opposite in Donald Trump.
Make no mistake: The conditions that made January 6 possible, the ideas and machinations, have been swirling around for years and at every level of society, from the walking cliché that are the uncloaked Klan to the most powerful GOP Congressman.
As a Black person, I have an ancient and ongoing relationship with American power. It is a wind that was blowing when I got here, and it’s a wind that will see me out the door. When someone tells me that democracy has been attacked, I think of Georgia. Not the winning Georgia that has shed its red for a season, but the Georgia before now, the one where voter suppression was so rampant that they didn’t even try to hide it. I consider Mississippi and Louisiana. Hell, I consider my own Ohio. I consider all of the places where Black people are and the countless ways in which we have been disenfranchised. We ain’t had the right to vote for 60 years yet, and there already stands a laundry list of ways in which it has been chipped away.
Yet, apparently, none of it was an attack on democracy. Even the definition of “attack” (“to set upon or work against forcefully”) is somehow not up to par when the targets are Black votes and voices.
The idea of American democracy is a perfect example of white normalcy in action. White people believe that it’s a one-size-fits-all reality until someone who isn’t White tries on the shoes and a toe comes bursting out the leather end. Suddenly, we’re no longer in a democracy; we’re in a stolen election. We’re in a time of necessary precaution and rampant voter fraud. We’re in a race war.
When you dismiss the agenda of Black communities and circumvent their ability to vote, you are establishing a government that doesn’t represent what their votes intend. And if, when faced with the results of an election that attempted to capture a fairer representation of Black concerns, your goal is to terrify or harm the process or its representatives, you have effectively undermined what leadership Black people have in that space. You have effected a coup over Black interests; you have gone to war over the mere suggestion of an agenda that dares consider Black lives. And as calls for healing or unity proliferate from those who refuse to admit their roles in all of this, a coup against Democratic leadership that ran on a platform of Black capitulation may have succeeded. When the leaders we elected choose to be more concerned about what will mollify the right than what we hired them to do, we’ve been usurped.
To many Black people, there very much was a coup.
*All definitions come from Merriam-Webster dictionary, 2021.