Assault against the Capitole: A putsch?

The assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 cannot be considered a coup, at least according to the information available so far. A coup consists of « taking power illegally, and through violence or coercion, to displace the person in power or change the current political system ». However, the assault on the seat of the US legislature lacks two fundamental elements for a putsch: planning and coordination, and armed force or institutional power with which to exercise violence or coercion.

For one thing, the assault was apparently neither planned nor directed. President Trump held a rally in Washington D.C. on the 6th at the same time that Congress was meeting to certify the election results and officially declare the victory of Joe Biden. In his speech, Trump again insisted, without proof, that the elections had been fraudulent and incited his followers to go to the Capitol to protest against what he called a « heinous attack on our democracy ».

After the rally, at around two in the afternoon, thousands of Trumpist protesters surrounded and stormed the building. The session of Congress had to be suspended and the congressmen put to safety. Still, the assailants did not appear to have a clear intention beyond protesting Biden’s victory and hindering his certification.

They walked inside the Capitol, vandalized some offices, took souvenir photos and stole furniture. When police regained control of the building several hours later, Congress was able to resume its session, certifying the early morning election results, the last step before Biden takes the oath as President on January 20.

Furthermore, the assault on the US Capitol does not appear to have had armed force or institutional support. After Trump lit the crowd with his speech, his followers clashed with the police and easily overcame the weak security cordons, opening up the debate about the building’s apparent lack of protection.

They entered the Capitol, breaking windows and doors and entered the congressional offices and the Senate chamber. However, most of the assailants were not armed and neither the Army nor the police supported them. They were evicted by the security forces within hours and at least 68 of them have already been detained. Nor did Vice President Mike Pence or other members of the government, the Republican Party – to which Trump belongs -, the local administration or the media endorsed the assault.

These events contrast with another recent coup: the one that overthrew Sudan’s dictator, Omar al Bashir, in April 2019. It was launched by the Sudanese Army to force a transition of power after thirty years of rule. The military arrested Bashir, occupied public buildings, established a state of emergency, released a statement through the media, and deposed the government and parliament.

In spite of everything, the assault on the Capitol represents a serious threat to American democracy. It took the application of a curfew and the intervention of the National Guard to restore order. The clashes with the protesters left four dead and a dozen injured. Trump ended up urging his followers to go home, but not before reaffirming himself on the unfounded allegations of fraud. Biden, for his part, crossed out the events as « insurrection » that « borders on sedition » and asked Trump to send a clear message of rejection.

Some Democratic and Republican congressmen have gone further, calling for a new impeachment against Trump, accusing him of fomenting sedition. Others have called on Vice President Pence to activate the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which allows a president to be removed from power if he is deemed incapacitated.