Attack on the U.S. Capitol Sets a Precedent for Future Anti-Government Action


As a mob of diehard Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, commentators rushed to decry the events as a coup. But there are technical disagreements over that word, given that the sitting president and his acolytes were trying to maintain power, not attain it. The failure of the Capitol police to anticipate the level of violence they encountered led some European security officials to suggest that it looked deliberate on their part.

It unfolded with almost comical ease: A Trump rally that started in the morning marched on Congress, and by 2:15 p.m. or so, the barricades around the building were swarmed and marchers ransacked the building. While some Capitol police officers tried to prevent the insurrection, and one died after a Trump supporter reportedly hit him in the head with a fire extinguisher, other officers were taking selfies with the rioters. It took four hours for police and FBI agents to clear the buildings; many people were allowed to leave peacefully, and only 83 people have so far been arrested for their involvement.

In the wake of the attack, senators who had stoked much of the rhetoric and the poisonous hostility that made this possible condemned the day’s events. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell condemned it as a “failed insurrection,” while Senator Ted Cruz labeled it a “despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system.” A CNN piece ran with the headline: “This Is Not America.” World leaders condemned the riots, but affirmed that U.S. democracy remained strong. The messaging was clear: The coup failed, business will go on, and the United States will be okay.

Yes, Wednesday’s violence failed to affect the outcome of the 2020 election in any way, and Trump has been roundly and thoroughly criticized for initially refusing to condemn it and praising the rioters. Yet as Teen Vogue’s own Lucy Diavolo pointed out in a November op-ed, coups don’t need to succeed in order to do damage. Months after the publication of that op-ed, the country arrived at the point where Proud Boys and Q-Anon adherents took things into their own hands, egged on by rhetoric urging a “trial by combat.”

What happened on Wednesday matters regardless of “success” or “failure.” The history of coups and takeovers is instructive here. The first takeaway is that coups are a kind of theater, a chance for the participants to show off their strength and determination. Benito Mussolini and his party framed his 1922 March on Rome as a show of strength that forced the Italian government to cooperate with him, but in reality, he was allowed to go through with it. Mussolini did have thousands of supporters, but King Victor Emmanuell III chose not to deploy the army to quell them, and instead brought them into government. The Italian strongman and his supporters had a chance to demonstrate strength and took it. In a sense, that’s what happened in the Capitol: Those photos of Trump supporters resting their feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk or walking off with government property will be used as recruiting tools for the far-right for years to come.

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Violent actors also use coups to legitimize their own behavior and win public approval in the process. Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 was a disorganized disaster that ended in a shootout with the police; Hitler, however, used the subsequent trial to depict himself as a German patriot who was fighting communism. He walked away with a slap-on-the-wrist sentence and used his time in prison to write Mein Kampf. After the putsch, he began to transform himself into a legitimate political actor, even as the Nazi Party continued to wage street battles with its rivals. After a dictatorial takeover in Cuba by Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro used the 1953 attack he led to try and seize the Moncada Barracks, the country ’s second-largest military garrison, to later make a name for himself. The actual attack was a failure through and through, but his subsequent trial embarrassed the government and gave Castro a much larger platform for his beliefs.



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