Wednesday’s attack on Congress was not an attempted coup in the pure political sense. The threat to democracy does not come from within the state. Instead, it comes from Donald Trump, his fanatic supporters and a Republican Party that is increasingly authoritarian. The question now is whether in the wake of the attack, Republicans will change their strategy, safeguard democracy and tell the truth.
On Jan. 6, Donald Trump stood in front of thousands of supporters; some of them dressed in militia attire, carrying guns, while a few were carrying actual pipe bombs. In an hour-long speech, Trump told his supporters that the election had been stolen from them and that it was their job to take back their country. Trump ended his speech by asking his supporters to head to Capitol Hill, the very symbol of American democracy.
This launched an attack on the Capitol, where the angry mob quickly overran police and found its way into the heart of Congress just minutes after members of Congress were evacuated. This is the initial culmination of an attempt by Trump and his Republican colleagues for years to undermine American democracy, and it raises this question: What is the state of American democracy?
My research focuses on dictatorships in countries like Cuba, Iran and North Korea, so it’s a bad sign when someone asks me to write about the United States. My immediate conclusion is, therefore, also clear: The events we saw on Jan. 6 undoubtedly constitute an attack on democracy. Trump supporters tried to interrupt the certification of the election results so that the loser of the presidential election could remain in office.
Was It a Coup?
On the other hand, it is not entirely clear whether or not this was a coup attempt in the political sense. Research is not clear on what constitutes a coup, and the onslaught on the Capitol has prompted heated debate over just this question. Most definitions, including the large data set of coups in history by Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne that is most frequently cited, list as a basic requirement that the military or other elite within the state participate in the attempted illegitimate overthrow.
Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case in the storming of the Capitol. Instead, police tried to stop the extremists from entering the building, and in doing so, one police officer was tragically killed. Subsequently, police also received reinforcement from other security forces.
While the way security forces responded deserves criticism, and an investigation should take place into whether their failure to respond was negligent or deliberately planned, it is clear that police did not actively participate in storming the Capitol. There is also nothing to indicate that the military will not support Biden as president. Consequently, no political scientist is likely to classify the Jan. 6 event as a coup.
Some might ask if it matters at all whether we call it a coup attempt or not. This is somewhat similar to asking whether a patient has the plague or cholera. From a general point of view, the person is seriously ill regardless. Nevertheless, the crucial point is that if we want to provide the proper treatment, it is important to make the right diagnosis.
If we define the attack on Congress as a coup attempt, we must focus on the state. However, what we saw unfold largely resembled a rebellion or insurrection. Trump did not have the control he would have needed over the security agencies. This seemed to hold true as former secretaries of defense cautioned Trump against using the military. In that way, Trump differs from his authoritarian colleagues such as Vladimir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko and Nicolas Maduro, who still can count on the support of the state during critical situations. Instead, in a desperate attempt to stay in power, Trump had to put his trust in what he hoped was the last weapon in his arsenal, namely his fanatic supporters.
The Big Lie
While it is easy to laugh at people wearing stupid costumes running around Congress taking selfies, it is important not to underestimate the threat this represented in this specific situation as well as in the long term. After the event, news surfaced that trained militia groups who had targeted politicians were among the so-called innocent extremists. Minor details such as whether the extremists turned in the right direction at the right place determined whether or not the situation would become a massacre.
In the long term, the United States will have to deal with the fact that a significant number of Americans abandoned reality and put their blind trust in Trump instead. Over the past four years, Trump has tried to establish an alternative reality in which he alone dictates the truth. He has constantly lied and called the mainstream media “fake news,” echoing what the Nazis called the “lying press,” which is enough to give you nightmares. Republican Party members and the right-wing media alike echo Trump’s reality. Add to this the fact that research by Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik shows that a vast majority of Americans put party over democracy, including Republicans and Democrats. According to the political philosopher and thinker Hannah Arendt, this creates a breeding ground for totalitarianism.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist,” Arendt wrote.
Trump capitalized on this distortion of reality and the extreme polarization that followed his election defeat. He promoted what Yale University historian Timothy Snyder calls the big lie, i.e., that Trump won the election but was cheated out of victory. Opinion polls show that a large majority of Republicans believes this to be true, and on Jan. 6, some of them took this as far as possible. Some lost their lives, and many more can look forward to long prison sentences.
The Republican Party and a New President
In light of what the big lie says, the extremists’ actions make good sense; after all, they were trying to save the United States by overthrowing the rigged system that robbed them of their victory. However, the United States and the Republicans in particular must now deal with this matter.
New research shows that the Republican Party has increasingly become an authoritarian party reminiscent of Hungary’s Fidesz party or the Turkish AKP. Its anti-democratic rhetoric demonstrates this, as does the fact that leading up to the election, the Republican Party tried to suppress the voting rights of certain citizens. This also became evident on Jan. 6 when a group of Republican lawmakers refused to recognize Biden’s win based on unfounded claims of election fraud. In their eyes, it is only democracy if they win.
The question remains whether the Republicans want to change their strategy, safeguard democracy and tell the truth. Next, it is important that Americans punish Republicans if they fail to do so. It is difficult to predict whether it will come to that because it depends on many unknown factors. Will Trump be held accountable? Will Trump run in 2024? Who takes the baton after Trump? Will right-wing extremists carry out terrorist acts? Will the Republicans abandon the belief that extremism is a viable way to win elections? Will it be possible to corrupt institutions? At this point, we can only speculate.
The riots are disturbing and they will go down in history as a disgrace. However, it is worth remembering that despite this step backward, the health of American democracy has recently improved a bit. The latest example of this is the Senate runoff election in Georgia, a traditionally Republican stronghold. Two Democratic candidates defeated their Republican opponents, both Trump loyalists. The victories handed the Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress and the ability to pass democratic reforms.
At the same time, the Georgia Senate elections show that Republicans are weak when they believe too strongly in Trump’s agenda. Add to this the actual presidential election Trump lost, which occurred despite the fact that the electoral system gives Republicans an advantage over Democrats, and history shows that sitting presidents usually win a second term. One must also factor in the fact that both before and after the election, Trump and his cronies tried to exert enormous pressure on the electoral system in many ways: declaring election fraud, trying to disqualify voters, suing states in court and pressuring officials to overturn election results. Indeed, Trump convinced some voters he won the election, but he was unable to get American institutions to succumb to his will.
The United States still has free elections where people can choose their leader and that is precisely why it appears that Joe Biden will become the next American president.* Biden’s election was certified by Congress hours after the storming of the Capitol. Toward the evening, police managed to secure the building so that both houses could certify that voters had elected Biden as their next president. Democracy still seems to exist in the United States.
*Editor’s note: Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20.