Trump incited his supporters to violently storm the Capitol Building in Washington DC in an attempt to revive his failed efforts to overturn the results of the election. Five people are dead as a direct result of the attack, including one police officer (ironically a Trump supporter) who was beaten to death [UPDATE: The cause of his death is unclear. Later reports indicate he may have died from a stroke the next day, possibly from exposure to pepper spray during the riot]. Legislators were made to flee the building which was ransacked and looted. Evidence points to a combination of complicity on the part of some police, and incompetence stemming from a severe bias in favor of white rightwing protesters. The level of complicit bias versus implicit bias will take a while to sort out. Trump was endorsed by police unions. And if you look at a recent polls on police attitudes towards race, it’s impossible to believe the union leadership went against the wishes of most members in backing Trump.
In response to the coup attempt, the liberal end of the US Establishment has used its influence with the billionaires who run social media to ban Trump and some of his supporters. A key ingredient required for a coup attempt to succeed is support of the mass media. Trump didn’t get it – as was already clear during his failed legal efforts to overturn the election result. Trump’s calculation appeared to be that he could use violence to intimidate judges and politicians who had rebuffed his legal challenges to start appeasing him, especially if the attacks spread to state legislatures all over the country. Even in the wake of the failed coup attempt Fox News pundits advocate impunity for Trump by invoking the threat of attacks on state houses all over the US.
Yes, it was a coup attempt
Some have argued that Trump’s coup attempt had no chance to succeed, that it lacked any visible military support, and that his “plan” was so unclear that it should not be called a coup attempt. Had Trump “attempted” a coup by secretly praying real hard that the election be overturned then this view might hold some water. That’s not what he did. He incited a riot that left five people dead and forced legislators to flee the Capitol Building. Moreover, he is the Commander-in-chief of the US military. It’s also important to stress that if his odds of success were zero, it was largely due to the fact that he was essentially attempting a coup against Joe Biden, a proven warmonger and servant of the US oligarchy.
All kinds of Chickens come home to Roost
Ironically, there are big problems with US elections, but they favor Republicans and have been tolerated by Democrats in order to ensure that the only real electoral threat to Democrats comes from the right. In 2000 and again in 2016, the Republican candidate won the presidency despite losing the popular vote. From 2008- 2010, despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats did nothing to reform an electoral system skewed in favor of Republicans. While Democrats did resort to the Russiagate conspiracy theory to try to discredit and even overturn Trump’s 2016 victory, there was no visible interest in abolishing the “winner take all” voting system that led directly to that victory. Getting rid of that system would not only make it harder for Republicans to win elections, it would increase electoral pressure on Democrats from the left. Without such pressure – with “nowhere else to go” [as US historian Thomas Frank stresses] to punish Democrats electorally for failing to deliver for anyone but the rich – voters either stay home or get taken in by people like Trump. In short, a voting system rigged to ensure that Democrats can ignore pressure from the left has saddled the country with menacing right wing insurrectionists.
Additionally, US politicians constantly get involved supporting coup attempts abroad (often successful ones). In 2019, to take a very recent example of one Trump supported, bogus claims of electoral fraud incited right wing riots (aided and abetted by the police) which finally led the military to “suggest” that the democratically elected president, Evo Morales, resign. The coup led to the installation of a dictatorship which was in power for almost a year before overwhelming popular revulsion led to the restoration of democracy in October. The coup could never have succeeded without Bolivian and international media cynically spreading the fraud claims. Should we be surprised that Trump and his handlers thought a coup like that might be worth a shot at home?
No easy response to a coup attempt
Impunity for coup attempts is very dangerous, but so is the power grab that has been made by the billionaires that silenced Trump and some of his supporters on their platforms. What happens when these billionaires support rather than oppose a coup attempt in the future? The answer is that it probably succeeds. As I wrote in 2017, Trump’s election victory should have led to much more emphasis on democratizing media. It is wrong to assume the US political system cannot get worse, and what better way to ensure that it does than to allow US oligarchs more control over public debate. In fact, their power extends to political debate on a global scale. It can be argued that Trump’s coup attempt hardly compares to other crimes – the war in Yemen, lethal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, or the catastrophic response to the COVID pandemic in the US, but how can US imperialism fail to take an even more savage form if its democracy further degrades at home? What if a US president one day attempts to seriously challenge US imperialism? Will he or she simply be chased out of office as Evo Morales was in Bolivia? The US left should not let itself become so defeatist that it fails to imagine such a reformer ever getting into office, nor fail to anticipate the threats such a reformer would face.
Personally, I don’t think Trump (or anyone) should ever be banned from running for any federal office as some have suggested. But there must be consequences for what he did. Impeachment is certainly justified even if it is symbolic (that is, even if additional steps are not taken to disqualify him from ever holding office). In addition to pursing prosecution for inciting violence, he should be prosecuted for any role he played in undermining security around the Capitol Building on January 6.
Lastly, US citizens should reflect on their imperial privilege. Their government has incited and supported six major coup attempts in Venezuela (including a briefly successful one in 2002) for the past twenty years. All of these were incomparably more threatening than what Trump attempted. Venezuela’s government has had to weigh the danger of granting US allies impunity for coup attempts, with the danger of US retaliation against measures such as disqualifying perpetrators from holding office – measures which are now debated in the US. All people should be able to debate how to deal with coup attempts without the threat of devastating foreign retaliation hanging over their heads.