The assault on the US Capitol and constitutional crisis that it has caused was telegraphed, predictable and yet unexpected and confusing. There are several subplots involved: whether the occupation of the Michigan State House in May was a trial run for the attacks on Congress; whether people involved in the Michigan attack and other rightwing extremists from groups such as the Proud Boys were involved (as video shows individuals rallying and directing the crowds to the Capitol, initiating the first and subsequent clashes with the Capitol Police over the concentric perimeter barricades and then leading the charge towards the debating chambers and congressional offices while yelling threats to specific politicians like Pence and Pelosi; whether there was collusion between the president and elements in the DoJ, DoD and Capitol Police leadership to “stand down” their forces even in the face of intelligence reports that mass violence was distinctly possible; whether this was done purposefully to allow the occupation in order delay the electoral college certification vote hoping that somehow Trump would be declared the default winner (he would not); and so on.
Rather then get into these subjects while the smoke has yet to clear, allow me to offer a critique and then clarify some key concepts needed to understand what happened.
To begin with, the liberal corporate media is doing us no favours by loosely throwing out words like “domestic terrorists” and “coup” (the rightwing media prefers to blame everything on Antifa or portray the rioters as “misguided patriots” so will be ignored). This a prime example of conceptual stretching that devalues the true meaning of the words and renders them meaningless as analytic tools at a delicate moment. Conceptual precision, not conceptual stretching, is needed now. So in the interest of conceptual precision let me briefly offer the following taxonomy:
Military coup: removal of a government by the armed forces often working on behalf of or with civilian elite factions via the threat or use of force. It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and often pre-emptive in the face of a potential grassroots mass uprising. Its scale of violence can range from low to very high depending on the perception of common threat by the coup-mongering elites. It can involve universal or particular (corporate, in terms of specifically military) grievances. Depending on what the coup-mongering coalition intends, it can involve regime rather than government change. Other names for this phenomenon are “golpe de Estado (golpe)” or “putsch” (although in recent history the term refers to violent inter-military leadership disputes rather than regime change per se).
Constitutional coup: removal of government by a disloyal opposition via manipulation of legal norms (e.g. impeachment under false pretences). It is top-down and elite in nature and execution, not mass based, and the scale of violence is low. May embrace universal claims but uses particular grievances as precipitant or justifying factors. Does not involve regime change.
Insurrection: attempted/actual overthrow of government by armed political faction(s). It involves collective violence that is mass but not necessarily majority based. It is bottom-up in nature even if encouraged by elites and the scale of violence ranges from low to very high depending on the level of State and/or civil resistance to it. Embraces universal claims but may use particular grievances as a justification for action. May or may not desire or cause regime change.
Armed revolt: violent protest against government. Non-elite and bottom up in nature and execution. Low to medium scale of violence depending on scope of adhesion and State and social resistance. Often particularistic rather than universal in its grievances or claims. It can be minority or mass based depending on the scope of social adhesion. It may or may not result in government or policy change and will not result in regime change.
Sedition: advocating or instigating the usurpation/overthrow of duly constituted government. Can be elite or grassroots in nature and execution but with a limited mass base in any event. Low to medium scale of violence depending on degree of State repression. May have particular or universal grievances or claims but is not focused on regime change.
Revolution: mass (violent/non-violent) collective action leading to socio-economic and political parametric change (which involves regime, social and structural changes that transcend simple government overthrow). Bottom-up and grassroots in nature and execution based on universal claims or grievances (even if led by organised revolutionary vanguards). Scale of violence low to extreme based on scope of social and State resistance (i.e. class, religious and ethnic divisions increase the probability of violence).
Revolts, insurrections and sedition can lead to coups or revolution but are not synonymous with them.
So what happened in the US? The attack on Congress is best seen as an insurrection/limited mass revolt instigated by a seditious president refusing to step down after losing an election. It is not a coup because those are basically quarrels amongst elites that require overt or tacit involvement by the armed forces in support of one faction or one elite faction overthrowing another via “constitutional” means. It did not intend regime (or even governmental) change but instead the reassertion or re-validation of a particular type of administrative authority in a presidential democracy.
Nor was terrorism involved. Terrorism is the use of seemingly indiscriminate extreme or disproportionate violence on defenceless targets for symbolic purposes. It has a target (victims), object (purpose) and subject (audience(s)). The object is to sow pervasive fear and dread with the purpose of bending the subject to the perpetrator’s will. It can be criminal, state- (including military), state-sponsored, or non-state ideological in nature.
The assault on Capitol Hill did not involve extreme or wanton indiscriminate violence against defenceless targets. It was not designed to sow generalised fear. It was a limited, low-level mass act of partisan violence on a symbol of power that involved thuggery (including corporal harm) for the purposes of intimidation. It resulted in arrests, injuries and deaths, but it failed.
Once we understand these basic differences, we can more specifically consider the proportionate remedies needed to address the problem. Throwing around emotive language during a delicate and charged time only cheapens the debate and compounds the real issues involved. So let’s be precise.
PS: Long term readers will note that I have discussed various aspects of civil-military relations and the causal factors at play in coups in previous posts. Things like push and pull factors, vertical and horizontal cleavages within the military, disloyal oppositions and partisan stalemates–there is much more to the coup phenomenon than simplistic (mostly Left) punditry would have us believe. The truth with regard to recent event in the US is more complex, scary in part and yet comforting in the end.