Is America experiencing a coup?

Pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol during a rally to contest the certification of the presidential election results.
Pro-Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol during a rally to contest the certification of the presidential election results.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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On the afternoon of Jan. 6, a mob of US president Donald Trump’s supporters forced its way into the nation’s capitol, overwhelmed police, and smashed windows—forcing lawmakers into hiding, occupying the floor of the House and Senate and congressional offices, and derailing the certification of president-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November elections.

What do you call such a brazen, dangerous, and undemocratic act?

Biden settled on “insurrection” in his televised response to the violence. Other commentators have dubbed it a coup, or appended the legal label of sedition. Some newsrooms—like CBS—told reporters they could call the people who stormed the capitol “protestors,” while others rejected the label. The Washington Post went with “mob,” while NPR landed on “pro-Trump extremists.”

The truth is, it’s tough to fit the day’s events under a neat label. But by thinking through the words we use, we can better inform how the country responds.

Is this a coup?

The short answer is: probably not, if only because it was too chaotic and pointless to meet the bar.

The dictionary definition of the word coup is relatively straightforward. Merriam Webster says it’s “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.” But the picture gets fuzzier when you ask political scientists.

Some argue that a coup must be a secret, premeditated conspiracy by a small group of plotters. Others argue that it must involve the military. Both of these factors would knock the events of Jan. 6 out of the “coup” category.

Today’s violence, although egged on by Trump and his allies and organized by supporters on right-wing social media platforms, remained haphazard and disorganized; there is no evidence that it was a carefully planned ploy by the president, who is not known for careful planning. Similarly, although the National Guard was puzzlingly slow to respond to the storming of the capitol, the military did eventually step in to remove the trespassers—at the request of vice president Mike Pence, not Trump.

“Because the military is not involved at this point, I would say that technically, in academic terms, this is not a coup,” said Susan Stokes, a University of Chicago political science professor and director of the school’s Chicago Center on Democracy. “What it has in common with a coup is that it is a big step in the direction of the destruction of democracy.”

Joshua Tucker, a politics professor at New York University, agrees, arguing that coup plotters try to seize power for themselves or their leader in a very direct way. Merely delaying the certification of election results probably doesn’t meet that bar. “This is not traditionally what we would think of as a coup,” he said. “This is a riotous mob aimed at doing damage to the quality of US democracy.”

Why labels matter

At a confusing, distressing moment like this, you could be forgiven for not using perfectly precise language. “I don’t have a quarrel with people colloquially saying ‘This is a coup,’ because I know what they mean,” said Stokes. “It’s a moment when even more so than many times in the last four years, our democracy is much more fragile and vulnerable than we thought it was.”

But, as George Orwell famously argued in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” our words can shape our thoughts, our politics, and our actions. If we apply misleading labels to events, it can be harder to figure out how to respond.

“Those labels matter a lot because they’re going to form [answers] in the public mind around, ‘Is this a problem?’ and then ‘What is the solution to that problem?'” said Syracuse University political science chair Shana Gadarian.

Tucker takes particular issue with calling the violence a protest, which he says obscures the true nature of what happened. “When these people are called protesters,” said Tucker, “it gives this veneer of a legitimate form of participation in the democratic process.”

Creating an armed stand-off with capitol police that forces the government into hiding and leads to one woman’s death is not that. Tucker said, “I would argue that what they did today was aimed at puncturing the heart of the democratic process.”