When Does a Mob Become a Coup? | Sojourners

When Does a Mob Become a Coup?

Graphic via isthisacoup.com

On Jan. 6, crowds of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building, interrupting Congress’s confirmation of the Electoral College votes that elected Joe Biden as U.S. president and leaving four people dead.

At a rally earlier in the day, Trump refused to concede the election and encouraged supporters to march to the Capitol and "fight like hell," prompting many to label the attack an attempted coup.

“The president incited his most ardent and extreme followers to gather in Washington DC, and then called for them to attack the Capitol, on the precise day and at the precise time that Congress was assembled to tally the electoral college votes,” political scientist Erica Chenoweth told Sojourners via email. “Call it an attempted coup, an armed insurrection, or sedition — all of these terms apply.”

But pro-democracy experts and political scientists also noted that the difference between an attempted coup and a successful one depends on the reaction of the public, including government officials.

“[Trump] had fewer loyalists in positions of power who were willing to join him in his autocratic power grab than he expected,” Chenoweth said. “As a result, the coup attempt has so far failed. But the number of GOP Congresspeople, Senators, and voters who continue to enable and embolden him is a disturbing reminder of how fragile and fraught our system is right now, how uncertain are the next 13 days, and how far we need to go to restore even the very basic foundations of democracy after January 20.”

In the months prior to the November 2020 election, progressive activists Jethro Heiko and Nick Jehlen partnered with Choose Democracy to create the Coup-o-meter in order to provide clear communication about how close the U.S. was to an anti-democratic usurping of power. By Wednesday afternoon, they had shifted the meter, which is divided into four stages — “Democracy,” “Preparing for a Coup,” “Attempted Coup,” and “Coup” — twice: first from “Preparing” to the line between it and “Attempted,” and just a few hours later, into “Attempted Coup.”

“We have entered new territory and have moved the Coup-o-meter into Attempted Coup territory to reflect this. Trump has directly incited violence in an attempt to stop the transition of power,” the statement said.

However, Heiko and Jehelen cautioned that the emergence of an attempted coup doesn’t mean the coup is going to be successful.

“The group attempting this coup is small and does not appear to be building momentum. Now is the time for leaders to immediately call for the completion of the democratic process,” the statement continued. “Any continuation of the theatrics by the GOP that led to this violence is dangerous incitement and must be condemned in no uncertain terms. Currently, the pillars of support for our democratic institutions are holding. We will continue to watch to see if that changes.”

Shortly before 6 p.m., the Capitol was secured by police, and Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the count would continue into the night. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser placed the city under a 6 p.m. curfew extending until 6 a.m. Thursday morning; the nearby cities of Alexandria and Arlington, Va., are also under curfew.

Meanwhile, Trump released a video asking the crowd to dissipate and “go home,” saying to the crowd, “We love you.” Trump also reemphasized his delegitimization of the election, resulting in both Facebook and Twitter limiting or deleting his posts, with Twitter announcing they would be locking his account for 12 hours. Trump supporters have congregated at state capitols in Georgia, Colorado, California, and elsewhere in support of the Washington attacks.

By Wednesday evening, many public officials had condemned the attacks, including President-elect Joe Biden, former Trump staffers, and Republican members of Congress. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said she was drafting articles of impeachment against Trump, while Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) announced that she was drafting legislation calling for the investigation of the Republican lawmakers who sought to obstruct Biden’s election confirmation by the House Ethics Committee.

Nearly 400 political scientists also condemned the attacks in an open letter calling on officials to remove Trump from office either by impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment.

“[The President] has rejected the peaceful transfer of power, encouraged state legislators to overturn election results in their states, pressured a state official to change election results, and now incited a violent mob that shut down the counting of electoral votes and stormed the U.S. Capitol,” reads the letter. “He should be removed from office immediately before further violence takes place or further damage is done to our democracy.”

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian of authoritarianism at New York University, similarly warned of further escalation, tweeting, “If there are not severe consequences for every lawmaker and Trump government official who backed this, every member of the Capitol Police who collaborated with them, this "strategy of disruption" will escalate in 2021."

As Sojourners reported in November, there are four questions the Coup-o-meter relies on to judge whether or not we’re approaching a coup:

● What's actually happening? Is it just words, or are there actions behind it?

● Are people actually responding?

● Does Trump have collaborators?

● Is there something actually changing about the election results?

Both Heiko and Jehlen have largely been reluctant to move the meter closer to the “Coup” side, in an effort to avoid legitimizing failed attempts at a coup. Heiko told Sojourners in November, “Trump, and potentially his followers, would love everyone to be highly reactive to what they're doing all the time, to get people more agitated, to take advantage of threats of violence or actual violence, in order to then escalate to the next step of a coup attempt.”

Editor's note: This article was updated at 11 a.m. on Jan. 7 to include additional reported deaths and an interview with Erica Chenoweth.

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