The bumbling assault on the Capitol building on the 6th of January presents a lesson on the tactics and strategy of attempts to take over a country by armed force. The attack on the legislative seat of the American government has a parallel in the Beer Hall Putsch in Germany in 1923, both in its failures and in its warning of what may come, and those of us who discuss gun ownership in terms of personal defense and defense against tyranny must understand what the event is teaching us.
First, some definitions. A coup is more concerned with replacing the leader, while an insurrection seeks more radical change — or to replace the ruling class. Sedition is the crime of advocating for the replacement of the government through illegal means.
What happened on the 6th involved all of these. Trump and his followers have been pushing a strongman form of government, one in which facts and good policy are defined not by evidence in the real world, but instead by how closely they conform to the whims of the Dear Leader. Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie regarding Trump’s inauguration crowd showed how things would be, and Kellyanne Conway gave deceit a new name: alternative facts. Trump’s mythical wall was constructed of nothing but fear, much like his whole brand that plastered his broad angry face across magazine covers and his name in gaudy gold on the work of others. When an actual threat came to the country in the form of a pandemic, he first tried to convince us that it was fake, then offered sham cures and pointless rebellion against what could have stopped the spread. And now that he has lost the election, he spreads the lie of fraudulent votes and sparks off a storming of the Capitol without letting himself be restrained by the fact that both the line of presidential succession and a co-equal branch of government were put into potentially mortal danger.
The attempt by the Nazis to take over Bavaria should have been instructive to the Trump cult. A coup only works if it has the support of sufficient parts of the military and business interests — and the acquiescence of the rest. No matter how much populist support discontent with the government has, the elites will not get on the side of a coup unless they are shown how it will benefit them. And the American military is certainly not going to join a revolt against whoever the legally elected commander in chief happens to be — or to interrupt the transition to whoever is declared by the electoral college to be the next commander in chief.
Call this the strength of American institutions, or call it a desire to back the winner, but a coup, while possible, is highly unlikely to succeed here. The Constitution builds distribution of power into the structure of our governments, federal and state, and despite the many concerns — often justified — over how politically apathetic Americans can be, Trump has demonstrated a limit. A majority of voters did not want more of his chaos, and it is reasonable to predict that were he to have put more effort into denying Biden the presidency, that majority would reject his seizure of power that did not belong to him.
In the old Soviet Bloc, populations eventually said enough is enough and threw out their dictators. I would like to believe that Americans would not take decades to do the same, but this takes me to the second word, insurrection, that addresses a change in regime. We fought a war of uprising to form this nation, and we experienced a second attempt in our civil war. Both illustrate the reality of changing government by force: Coups are done in a small number of days with only the mopping up to complete, however long that may take — and in some cases, the longer the better, since that gives the new leadership the excuse of maintaining a state of emergency indefinitely. An insurrection can go on year after bloody year. Coups require the support of the few with power; insurrections must be popular — enough — to win. Coups can be surgical and relatively clean; insurrections are inevitably messy.
Which is to say, the people who swarmed into the Capitol building were confused about the part that they had signed up to perform. And their leader was indecisive and equally befuddled. They and he thought that political doctrine and enthusiasm were substitutes for organization, and the mob, at least, allowed themselves to conclude that what they believed was sufficiently strong to overthrow power. Their failure was predictable, not because they were opposed by a mythical deep state — though as I said, the institutions of American government are more stable than they realized — but because they had no idea of the many details that a takeover entails. Storming a pizza shop or even the Capitol building will by no means topple the people who are running things presently.
The Teahadi terrorists should take a lesson from the left. A coup is not a resistance. People power movements standing up to authoritarian regimes to secure human rights and a fairer economy have scored more wins than violent insurrections, and they do so at much lower costs in lives. What they share with armed uprisings is a requirement that a large enough part of the population commit to win no matter how long the fight and how much the cost.
And this commitment is something that I have to wonder if Trump supporters possess. While part of his appeal was his claim to be on the side of the blue-collar worker left behind by the new economy, his voters who are members of America’s majority race and religion and who believe that hard work is the key to success have not experienced — or have not admitted that they have — a lifetime of being on the outs and thus will hesitate to put their lives and fortunes, such as they have, at hazard.
Revolutions can succeed — our national history shows this — but with a democratic process for choosing our leaders and a constitution that protects basic rights, it would be better for us to use what we have than to overthrow the system only to keep Trump as president.