The contest between violent populism and constitutionalism – and why it was not inevitable that yesterday’s attempted coup in the United States would fail

7th January 2021

Yesterday we watched, in real-time, an attempted coup in the United States.

Was it an attempted coup?

Some are already fussing about the ‘coup’ word – that it was merely a security violation, a mere matter of public order.

That view is not correct, for three reasons.

It was an attempted coup.

*

First, an essential constitutional stage for a peaceful transfer of power was disrupted.

The constitutional stage – usually a formality – was the certification of the electoral college vote by congress.

It is this certification that would make the inauguration of a new president happen on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

No certification, no certainty of inauguration of a new president.

The disruption was the object and the effect of the disorder.

And until and unless the electoral college vote is certified then the 20 January inauguration is uncertain.

(The resumed Congress is still considering the electoral college votes as I type.)

*

Second, the disruption was at the behest of the losing candidate – or, if you nod-along with plausible deniability, it was at least done so as to ensure he stayed in office.

It was disruption with the purpose of keeping a losing candidate in office.

And that candidate then praised these ‘special’ people for what they did.

Indeed, for the candidate’s daughter, these disruptors were ‘patriots’.

*

And third, the disruption was forceful.

The mob forced their way in, and there are reports of fatalities and injuries.

This was not a peaceful protest or an exercise in civil disobedience.

*

So a group (a) used force to (b) disrupt an essential constitutional process (c) at the behest of (or in the interests of) a politician – and if that disruption had succeeded, the inauguration of a new president would have been rendered uncertain.

That was an attempt at a coup.

*

One significant detail in what happened yesterday was that the order to deploy the national guard came from the vice president, not the president.

As Sherlock Holmes would have said, this was a ‘curious incident‘.

This means that, left to the president, there would have been insufficient coercive power to disperse the mob.

As any A-level history student knows – or should know – for a rebellion to succeed requires not only rebels, but also a weakness in the regime that is being rebelled against.

Usually the weaknesses of the regime are not deliberate.

But here the president seems to have wanted to maximise the disruptive power of the mob.

*

Another significant detail is how light-touch the policing was generally.

As a liberal, I am all in favour in light-touch policing.

The priority in such a situation should be public safety rather than the use of brutal – or lethal – force.

Yet the contrast with the policing of, say, the Black Lives Matter protest is stark – and telling.

If those who rioted yesterday had different colour skins then they would have been no doubt arrested or shot by police officers dressed up like Robocops.

Instead, there were hardly any arrests, and the rioters were just allowed to go home.

The photographs of some of the rioters – posing here and there in the Capitol – would be unthinkable if they were not white.

What happened yesterday was an expression of white privilege.

*

This attempted coup is what you get when politicians play with the monster of populist nationalist authoritarianism.

So often in history, politicians believe they can tame this beast, and that the beast will serve them.

And those politicians usually end up being devoured by the creature.

*

Today, it look like the attempt at a coup failed, and that the new president will be inaugurated on 20th January 2021.

Yesterday was a contest between constitutionalism and violent populism.

It was not inevitable that constitutionalism would always win this contest.

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37 thoughts on “The contest between violent populism and constitutionalism – and why it was not inevitable that yesterday’s attempted coup in the United States would fail”

  1. His lawyers (Lin Wood & Sidney Powell) invoked 1776 and called for revolution on their Parler accounts. This was an attempted coup.

  2. As a Briton I find this whole situation sobering and somewhat alarming. We have a government that has modelled itself on the Trump style:
    1. Bold lies with no shame when caught in the lie;
    2. A cabinet of sycophants loyal to the personality of the leader;
    3. A leader who is ill-equipped (emotionally, morally or from a talent perspective) to be in the position he is in;
    4. A scant disregard for political norms;
    5. A scant disregard for the law; and
    6. A worrying level of hatred and vitriol towards those who question and disagree with their point of view.

    As a nation we have got to be so careful that we don’t fall into the trap that America has fallen into of “it happens elsewhere”. It is happening here, too, but our government is learning from the mistakes of the Trump regime and won’t make the same ones.

    And I agree wholeheartedly, it was an attempted coup. History will inevitably conclude that those supporting the coup, and inciting it, were on the wrong side of history. Doesn’t make those who see it feel any better about it, though.

    All in all, this is a sad day for democracy across the world. If anything, it will embolden those who stand for what Trump stands for and this is just the beginning of something much worse.

    1. Also worrying, the same level of belittling & name-calling of those who disagree with the leader or any of his lieutenants and then parroted by the eager sycophants in the wider party. (Capt Hindsight etc).

      What has been overlooked to a great extent by the media (and DAG) is how the scenes in the DC capital were reflected in other state capitals in the US and coordinated through social media, Facebook in particular.

      However the US intends to deal with Trump and his co-conspirators, the current anti-trust actions being initiated against Facebook and others needs to be widened and accelerated to limit their corrosive influence.

  3. I found myself reliving childhood memories of the 1981 coup in Spain, particularly the image of armed men entering the legislative chamber. There were many differences yesterday, not least that there was never any hint of elements in the army siding with the attempt, but the fact that it was a poorly-organised attempt at a coup with no real chance of success doesn’t change the fact that it was an attempt.

    Those Republican members of Congress who whipped up opposition to the election result deserve nothing but contempt.

    1. Contempt and, I would add, the due process of law should they be found to have instigated, assisted or encouraged an attempted coup; I understand that there are reports of at least one senator doing so.

    2. In the case of the attempted coup in Spain (which was essentially a test of its new-found democracy) it was the Head of State who, by ordering the Civil Guard to stand down, stopped the coup. This was a key moment for Spain’s new democracy, and as someone who lived in Madrid for the two years before Franco died, it’s defeat was a most wonderful – even unexpected – moment.

      By contrast, in the US yesterday, the Head of State first provoked, and then stood on the sidelines urging, the rebels on. Such a contrast.

  4. Trump was calling the presidential election “fraudulent” even before polling day. He has continued this, saying that the election was “stolen”. This is more than “alternative facts” or “misrepresentation”, this is Conspiracy Theory ideation. Trump often weasels this, usually saying things like “I’ve heard that…” and “They say…”.

    I was writing a post for Slugger O’Toole yesterday; it’s a political blog in N Ireland. My post is about (real) conspiracies and (imaginary) Conspiracy Theories. I had got to the bit about Conspiracy Theories being malevolent and encouraging radicalisation; and that such Theories were dangerous and paused to look at the news…

  5. With regard to this being considered a coup attempt, the gap I am struggling to bridge is what the objectives of the mob were, or could have been, other than pure disruption. Perhaps there were none for the majority of them but I would expect a coup would be aiming for a specific outcome other than just delay of the process.

    Granted, after David’s piece was written, we have thankfully now seen the certification of the election result so it has proven to be minimal in terms of time. In my ignorance, I’m not sure what specific events could subsequently have unfolded that could conceivably have kept Trump in power and therefore made it a genuine coup attempt, particularly given Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell had already indicated that the certification would proceed prior to the major escalation. Perhaps if they had acted differently at the beginning it could be considered a genuine coup attempt but I feel that it falls short.

    1. I am sorry you are struggling.

      In essence: you say ‘just delay’ – and that is what happened, but ‘just delay’ was not the the only consequence. There is a possibility that the essential step may not have taken place.

        1. “And third, the disruption was forceful.

          The mob forced their way in, and there are reports of fatalities and injuries.

          This was not a peaceful protest or an exercise in civil disobedience.”

          That is why there is no comparison, it does not come close to passing that test

    2. The objective was to overturn the results of the election, presumably through intimidation of the member of Congress. There were reports that some came prepared to hold people hostage, there were pipe bombs and petrol bombs, and (of course) guns. They were, in summary, acting with intent.

    3. I tend to agree with Adam H, though what happened did resemble a feeble attempt at a coup. IIRC, Trump suggested that his followers attempt to influence the legislators in some favourable way to himself by their mere presence, no more and no less. So (if this was all he suggested) then the objective of the crowd, inasmuch as they had one, would not have been to totally disable the legislature but to coerce, persuade and intimidate it for a specific purpose. An extreme form of lobbying, one might call it.

  6. It is not encouraging that Boris Johnson has not, apparently, damned Donald Trump’s part in the attempted coup, although Priti Patel has.

  7. So little of what has happened over the last four years seemed likely, yet afterwards it seemed inevitable

    Is there anything that would stop Trump starting a war with Iran in order to distract and (in his mind) unite the country behind him?

  8. I was trained at some expense to the taxpayer more years ago than I like to think.

    Part of my training involved learning to track the positives.

    The line held yesterday, just.

    In Georgia, a man of Afro-American descent and a Jewish male were elected to the Senate. That they were Democrats, is to some extent, immaterial.

    Those playing by the rules and working hard were rewarded.

    Soul force finally won out.

    “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

    Somewhere Dr Martin Luther King Junior is smiling.

    When the Mayor of Washington called on the Governor of Virginia for aid that governor was not found wanting.

    The Virginia National Guard and State Troopers mounted up.

    The Confederacy riding to save the Union. During the American Civil War, Richmond, the state capital of Virginia was also the capital of the Confederacy.

    And Washington the capital of the Union.

    Hopefully, folk will now take the time to reflect on the words of John Philpot Curran, contained in his Speech on the Right of Election of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, on July 10th, 1790:

    “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

    The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

    And, as we saw, yesterday, bits of paper by themselves are not enough.

    Many of those folk who stormed the Capitol yesterday like to cite the Second Amendment to the US Constitution:

    “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

    Hence the boys, to comply with the letter of the Constitution, form themselves into armed groups and go out into the woods together …

    The latitude within which the Second Amendment may be interpreted is wide. And the sacred nature of the US Constitution prevents any attempt to tighten that definition.

    A written constitution that becomes like holy writ and does not evolve as society evolves is, arguably, no better than no written constitution.

    “The absence of a written constitution gives British politics flexibility enjoyed by few nations.”

    Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, published in 1952.

    Thankfully, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” did not perish in the USA, yesterday.

    But it was a damn close run thing.

  9. It was a spectacularly inept coup attempt. If the logic to it (assuming that there was some guiding logic rather than it just being a mob) was to delay the certification of the election result and thereby permit Trump to argue successfully that he should continue as president, then it is hard to see how it could ever work. Congress would – probably – have decided that it would just certify the results at a later stage and the Supreme Court – probably – would have agreed with Congress if put in a position to have to judge. I don’t think there is any evidence that delaying the certification could lead with any certainty to that certification not happening.

    A sensible coup would have had Congress taken over by the mob and then Trump’s troops clearing the mob out and arresting or otherwise preventing from voting all those congressmen who were wanting to certify the results.

    Of course, if such a professional coup had really been put in place, then Trump would have been in a very awkward place when it failed. The man is a coward as well as a liar and a narcissist.

    So yes it was an attempted coup, but a pathetic one. Still, the fact that such a thing could happen in the USA is deeply disturbing.

    1. Historically, the US have been playing with coups (successful & unsuccessful) in many parts of the world, a very good record indeed, second to none.

      So why not try one at home, having the right seditious criminal around? However, you’re quite right, luckily Trump’s was a pathetic attempted coup which just shows – with some cynicism – how “unprofessional” that man is – no good old Dr. Strangelove around!

      Of course I hope Trump may be held to account and got rid of. However, what matters is that Trumpism is there to stay – I’m afraid the US administration has been seriously infected and the mobs of brainless, uneducated (and armed!) thugs will be awaiting for the next Man of Providence.

  10. Here in the U.K. we didn’t need an armed mob to close down our Parliament. The PM just asked the Queen to send them home for five weeks. Only the Supreme Court was able to reverse the illegal order – a power which the government intends to remove.
    A coup is do much easier here.

  11. I would agree with Dan that it was an inept attempt at a coup (but none the less an attempted coup).

    If I understand the situation correctly (I would welcome correction or confirmation by somebody with more US constitutional and legal knowledge), then for Trump to continue as President it was necessary not only to not confirm Biden as President-elect, but to confirm him (Trump) as having won the election. And that, absent such confirmation (and of a vice president-elect), then by process n his term (and that of Vice-President Pence) would end on 20th January, and Nancy Pelosi (as Speaker of the House of Representatives) would assume the office of President.

    1. That is how I understand it. If no president or vice-president can be confirmed by the joint session, then the Constitution (or an amendment) says that the House speaker will be president.

  12. Thanks Mr Green.
    As you say the contrast between the law enforcement at the Black Lives Matter protests and what happened last night could not be more stark. There are clearly questions to be answered as to how this could have happened.
    Very fortunately, the protestors were unarmed and a disorganised, leaderless rabble.
    The good news is that yesterday clearly demonstrated (if that is the word) where the Anglosphere’s current version of nationalism/populism/tribalism leads. All our local purveyors of this tribalist poison will today be mumbling shiftily and looking at their shoes. The Democrats won the Presidency and control of the Senate, so at least we can begin to see some international leadership from the US again. Sadly for us in the UK we appear to be condemned to endure four more years of purgatory with our version of the tribalist, lying shyster.

    1. Watching the coverage yesterday, firstly on CBS and then on CNN, I was quite shocked by the editorialising that was happening. It was an editorial line I completely agreed with, but nonetheless there wasn’t an attempt at impartiality.

      I very much hope we don’t end up with media in which people can only get information from sources with which they agree.

      One of the key causes of yesterday’s events was a mob which genuinely believed the lies they had been fed about Trump having won a landslide and the election being stolen.

    2. I believe some of the protesters were armed and had brought pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails to the party. But I agree it’s the mob was disorganised and only got as far as it did through the lack of planning by the authorities and ridiculously limited police in attendance.

      As to what happens do next, I wouldn’t put money on Trump sticking to his promise of a peaceful handover.

  13. Like most people, I was shocked to see yesterday’s events unfold. My interpretation of it was as either a demonstration or (nearly) a riot in support of Trump. However, your analysis is compelling. If it was an attempted coup, then surely those involved in instigating or conducting it must (on the face of it) be guilty of treason against the USA. There has (to my knowledge) been no serious calls from senior figures on either side of the House or Senate calling for such prosecutions let alone indictment of the sitting president – it would seem to be a coup sans consequence for the plotters.

  14. Numerous press reports state that if the inauguration is delayed in any way under the Presidential Succession Act the House Speaker would become Acting President, therefore averting any coup?

  15. While I agree with Joe Biden when he said that the crowd would have been treated quite differently if they were BLM protestors, I find the “white privilege” argument pretty questionable.

    While there is undeniably a racialised aspect to both protests, surely it was the *politics* of the two groups of protestors which ultimately determined how they were treated, not the colour of their skin. I suspect Trump would have been equally happy if a crowd of black MAGA supporters had stormed Congress to prevent the election result from being certified.

    Wasn’t the light-touch policing at the Capitol largely attributable to the fact that the 2000-odd Capitol police force were unprepared and outnumbered? A force that is unable to prevent protestors breaching barriers isn’t in a position to wade into crowds and make arrests. The militarised police you see in images from BLM protests in Washington were the National Guard, which Trump (IMO quite deliberately) didn’t call in. The fact that Trump replaced the Defence Secretary with a loyalist after the election also seems like calculated preparation. When the National Guard were belatedly called in, it was apparently at the behest of Mike Pence, after Trump had effectively been circumvented.

    If we attribute the difference in policing to “white privilege”, aren’t we letting Trump off the hook for the role he played in ensuring that the policing of the protests would be ineffective? Wheeling out talking-points about systemic racism seems like an odd response to what amounts to a de-facto coup attempt by the losing side in an election.

    Is “white privilege” helpful in understanding this situation? Do we think that in a just society, black people should also be able to storm the seat of government unhindered if they don’t like the election outcome? This doesn’t seem like a “privilege” that anybody should enjoy, regardless of skin colour.

    1. The Capitol police were overwhelmed because they were not willing to kill large numbers of people. It they had opened fire shooting everyone who approached too closely, I think they could have prevented the crowd getting in. Consider Rorke’s drift where only about 150 people held off thousands of disciplined soldiers – the disorganised rabble in Washington wouldn’t have stood a chance. However, would that have been a good result? It seems to me that chosing instead a course of action which led to only five deaths was far superior. A measure of being a civilised country should be a reluctance by the authorities to use violence to maintain their position. Police in America are justly criticised for being too quick to resort to violence. I think that the Capitol riots have shown that violent confrontation is not necessary to prevail.

  16. A lot of people are bringing up the fact that this was a rather inept and disorganized coup, doomed from the get-go. Historically, the first attempt often is. Off the top of my head I can think of Hitler, Pinochet, Chavez…

    Let’s make sure we treat this seriously and take advantage of their ineptness NOW while we have the upper hand. To the fullest extent of the law.

  17. Thank you
    I’d like to add one observation. Probably done by others so apologies if it is a repetition.
    It is unthinkable that the Country with the most advanced Intelligence could not predict, or at least prepare countermeasures to prevent the attempted coup (undoubtedly it was).
    The realistic possibility of collusion of high profile politicians and Federal Agencies should be investigated.
    Trump is not alone on this.

    1. maybe, just maybe, inability (1) to understand the imminent danger, or (2) just plain st%##^&*ty.

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