Karl Marx wrote a brilliant pamphlet called “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” It examines the coup d’etat of December 2, 1851, in which then-president Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, seized dictatorial powers and proclaimed himself Emperor of France. The Eighteenth Brumaire refers to the date (from the French revolutionary calendar) on which Bonaparte’s uncle seized power in 1799. Marx famously quipped that the earlier coup was tragic and the second a farce.
There are some fascinating similarities between Louis Bonaparte, whom Marx described as a “grotesque mediocrity,” and Donald Trump, but there is also now one very big difference: Trump’s coup failed. Simply put, Bonaparte had the support of the army; Trump did not. The first rule of coup-making is that you better have the army, or a big part of it, behind you. No significant part of the U.S. armed forces supported Trump’s coup.
What exactly happened? On January 6, 2021, militant supporters of Trump—including white supremacists, veterans, current and former law enforcement officers, a few elected officials, Christian evangelicals, and a motley crew of far-right conspiracy mongers—attempted a preemptive coup at the U.S. Capitol. This crowd was not the wretched of the earth, but overwhelmingly white and middle class, including many who had flown to Washington to participate. What they joined was not simply a white riot but also an attempted coup.
The coup was not well organized or executed—it was even more farcical, in this sense, than Louis Bonaparte’s. The coup was not intended to overthrow the government. Rather, it was aimed at preventing a newly elected government from taking power—an autogolpe or “self-coup” as it is known in Latin America.
The coup failed, of course, despite strong encouragement from Trump and from factions within the Republican Party. Indeed, the coup would not have been attempted without this encouragement. It was also facilitated by law enforcement and Pentagon officials who prevented or balked at a more vigorous defense of the Capitol. But the coup had no visible support within the broader military and intelligence establishment nor among economic elites, and it quickly collapsed.
A few days before the attempted coup, in fact, all ten living former secretaries of state issued a letter warning Trump not to involve the military in his chicanery. And the National Association of Manufacturers, which had greedily supported Trump in the past, denounced the coup and called for Trump’s removal from office.
The backdrop to the coup was of course Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in the November 2020 election. Despite the absence of any evidence of widespread irregularities in the election, a substantial minority of Congressional Republicans intended to challenge the electoral votes from several states on January 6. If these challenges were ratified by Vice President Mike Pence, who was to oversee the counting of electoral votes on that day, Biden would lack the necessary votes to become president.
Of course, Pence had no authority to throw out any electoral votes and made it plain to Trump that he would not attempt to do so. (Some putschists were later heard to chant, “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!”) The goal of the coup, accordingly, was to stop the counting of those electoral votes which the insurgents (and allied members of Congress) deemed illegitimate, and thereby to prevent Biden’s election. In the fantasies of some, Pence might even declare Trump the winner of the election.
Shortly before the attempted coup, President Trump and other far-right figures spoke to the crowd that would march on the Capitol. The big lie that the 2020 election had been “rigged”—stolen from Trump and handed to the “far left,” “socialist” forces allegedly arrayed behind Biden—was repeated as well as incantations about the need to “save America” through “combat” and “strength.” “We will never give up. We will never concede,” Trump announced. “You will have an illegitimate president. That is what you will have, and we can’t let that happen. . . . We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
This was a long-planned rally, with plenty of chatter on social media designating January 6 as the day on which the “theft” of the election would finally be stopped, even if the result, as some seemed to hope, might be civil war. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” Trump had tweeted. “Be there, will be wild!” He got that right.
“The planning for Wednesday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol,” notes The Washington Post, “happened largely in plain view, with chatters in far-right forums explicitly discussing how to storm the building, handcuff lawmakers with zip ties and disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election—in what they portrayed as responding to orders from President Trump. . . . Trump supporters exchanged detailed tactical advice about what to bring and what to do once they assembled at the Capitol to conduct ‘citizen’s arrests’ of members of Congress. One poster said, ‘[expletive] zip ties. I’m bringing rope!’”
The Capitol would never have been raided had it been defended rather more vigorously. The media has mainly focused on the Pentagon’s slow response to requests to mobilize National Guard troops after the coup began. But the more puzzling question is why the security of the Capitol was not reinforced in anticipation of an attack on January 6, especially since such an assault was being openly discussed on social media and was clearly known by the FBI, which warned of a “war” on that day.
The chief of the Capitol Police has said he requested that the District of Columbia National Guard be put on alert for January 6, but that this request was rejected by his supervisors—House and Senate security officials who have since resigned. Even as the Trump crowd was battling police to enter the Capitol, moreover, the Pentagon refused to authorize deployment of the National Guard. It eventually relented, but not before Trump had ordered his minions to retreat.
Although badly outnumbered, many Capitol Police clearly fought hard to prevent the putschists from entering the Capitol and from entering those parts of the Capitol where members of Congress had retreated. Some rebels sprayed police with chemical irritants and attacked them with flag poles and sticks. One police officer, apparently hit with a fire extinguisher, later died. Dozens of police were injured. And a Capitol Police officer shot and killed one person who, along with others, was attempting to break into a secure section of the Capitol, the Speaker’s Lobby adjacent to the House Chamber. Five people died in all, and many dozens were injured, although no member of Congress was harmed.
Other police, however, did not fight the crowd and quickly retreated. Whether they did so out of fear for their safety or sympathy with the putschists remains unclear. Both factors may have played a role. Several police officers were quickly suspended and more than a dozen are currently under investigation. Video shows one putschist taking a “selfie” with a police officer inside the Capitol. Another officer wore a MAGA hat (“Make America Great Again”) and was seen directing the insurgents around the building. A leading Democrat noted that it was “fishy” that the insurgents knew the location of lawmakers’ offices. One far-right Republican lawmaker has been accused of live-tweeting the location of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, whom some of the insurgents were trying to locate.
Once the Capitol had been breached, a great many people entered the building unimpeded and were not molested by the police, who stood to the side. Some of these people wandered about like tourists, taking photographs and video. If there was a tactical plan for seizing members of Congress or holding the Capitol, not all of those who stormed the building seemed aware of it. But this does not mean that others were not intent on stopping the confirmation of Biden’s victory. The coup was enveloped in a larger riot, but it was still an attempted coup.
The takeover of the Capitol was greeted with disbelief and outrage in the mainstream media and on most social media. Elite supporters of the putschists were thrown on their heels, especially as scenes of violence and teargas began to play out on television. Only a couple hours after it began, Trump tweeted a video asking the rebels to “go home,” adding, “We love you. You’re very special.” Although some of the insurgents ransacked the offices of Congresspeople, they soon retreated, but only a few were arrested as they left the Capitol. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are now engaged in an effort to identify and arrest those who entered the Capitol unlawfully. Hundreds of people may eventually be arrested, according to the top federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia.
What comes next? In the short term, the failed coup is undoubtedly a blow to Trump and the far right. In a recent poll, only 12 percent of the respondents said they support the people who took part in it, while 79 percent said the participants were either fools or criminals. Of course, 12 percent is far from a negligible portion of the population. A variety of polls indicate that Trump’s average approval rating fell from 42.6 to 40.8 percent from January 5 to January 12, but it has been falling since the November election and continues to sink as of this writing.
And what of the longer term? Unfortunately, January 6 may mark the beginning of a new and intensified period of right-wing violence in the U.S. Despite the coup’s failure, and Trump’s impending re-impeachment, many of the putschists were clearly exhilarated by their ability to seize the Capitol, if only partially and for a few hours. They also have a martyr—the (unarmed) individual who was killed by Capitol police.
More importantly by far, there are tens of millions of Americans—not thousands or tens of thousands, but tens of millions—who believe that Biden was not fairly elected. Biden’s administration may be considered illegitimate by a larger share of the electorate than any since Abraham Lincoln’s. Many of these people, furthermore, are hopping mad, convinced that their “freedoms” are already under attack by the Democratic Party, African Americans and Black Lives Matter protesters, immigrants, and the renascent socialist movement in the U.S. Few figures are hated more intensely by the far right than Pelosi and the democratic-socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Armed “patriots” who feel they are righteously defending their freedoms and have God on their side can, with only a little coordination and encouragement from on high, do a lot of damage. This is one of the key lessons of January 6. And it suggests that a great deal of trouble lies ahead.
—January 12, 2021
Jeff Goodwin is Professor of Sociology at New York University. He is currently chair of the Peace, War, and Social Conflict section of the American Sociological Association.