When Putsch Comes to Shove: A Historical Take on Trump’s Attack at the Capitol

Image by Tyler Merber

There are many terms being thrown around to describe the events in Washington DC on 6 January: sedition, insurrection, protest, riot, mob, even coup. The most historically accurate term is a putsch, with any number of examples of angry mobs being channelled to overthrow civilian authority. It may have started as a protest and turned into a mob, but it ended as a putsch.

There is no categorical difference between a putsch and a coup d’état. Both refer to a sudden unconstitutional overthrow of government using the threat or use of violence. However, in common usage, a putsch is almost exclusively used to refer to a failed coup, and one that fails spectacularly or is seen as somewhat farcical in nature. An obvious comparison is the 1923 Beerhall Putsch when Adolph Hitler attempted to take power in Germany with his mob of Brownshirts.

Less of a farce was Napoleon’s orchestrated coup on 9 November 1799 – 18 Brumaire according to the French Revolutionary calendar. Under the guise of protecting the legislators from a rebellious mob, Napoleon detained the revolutionary government. Only once confronted by Napoleon and his loyal grenadiers in the chambers did the Councils realise the jig was up.

A more troubling comparison, however, is the 1922 March on Rome led by Benito Mussolini. A bombastic narcissist and political outsider – who tapped into resentment among largely white men who felt the establishment had ignored them – Mussolini led the march on the political capital to force a change. Moreover in this case, the Prime Minister had asked King Victor Emmanuel III to order the military to suppress the march and prevent any violence from the Fascists, but the King refused and transferred power to Mussolini instead.

President Trump’s ‘Rally to Save America’ is not much different; he chided the elected politicians as “weak” and “cowards”, even referring to his own Vice President as weak in the face of this conspiracy. Decrying weakness on the part of Congress in confronting the unfounded accusations of a “stolen election”, Trump urged the crowd to march on the Capitol, telling the crowd that “if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Much the same as Mussolini had his supporters in the King and others, Trump had his allies and enablers in other branches of government, specifically those in the Capitol who were trying to “stop the steal” and who the marchers were ostensibly going to support. The Proud Boys in their black and yellow, and other militias arguably vying to be the armed-wing of MAGA, are not too dissimilar in style and conduct to Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Such groups seem to be ready to move beyond street brawls with opposing protestors towards more paramilitary activities, much like the thuggish Brownshirts of the Nazis.

Had Trump actually joined the march to the Capitol the outcome could have been much different. The protest, after all, was not only outside but inside: there were around 147 lawmakers who stated their support for the false claims of election fraud. The mob remained in the Capitol building for up to 3 hours, and were for the most part directionless, having an air of an amateur farce. There is sufficient evidence, however, that some in the mob intended to use their time in the building to achieve more violent and tragic ends, perhaps even capturing and executing legislators. The farcical image of the self-described Q Shaman with his face paint and ridiculous headgear, carrying a spear and flag might be an enduring image of the amateur nature of this putsch. Such an image, however, belies the potential much darker intentions of those in full military gear chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”

It is conceivable then that if the mob had reached the chambers before legislators could evacuate or had the mob been effectively directed, the outcome of January 6th may have been far more like Napoleon’s successful 18 Brumaire coup than Hitler’s now-farcical Beerhall Putsch. Similar to Mussolini’s March on Rome and King Victor Emmanuel’s reluctance to deploy the military, President Trump delayed authorising the deployment of the National Guard to assist the overwhelmed Capitol Police.

In most cases of coups and attempted coups around the world, attention is most often given to the actions of security forces in conducting a coup. Typically this takes the form of soldiers rounding up opposition leaders or capturing key government buildings. However, the inaction of the state’s security apparatuses can potentially be as consequential. The military’s inaction in the face of threats to the state is still a form of undue military influence in civilian governance.

If Trump had been there the arrival of security forces to suppress the putsch may have been in doubt. After all, these events are not new or unprecedented: unmarked armed officers had been seen violently suppressing peaceful protests across the country; the Michigan state capitol was stormed by similar individuals without repercussions, even being encouraged by Trump. Time and again the President was asked to condemn such ‘protests’, yet on each occasion he only thanked them for their support.

The immediate consequences of this putsch will no doubt have a dramatic effect on the future of democracy in the United States. Lessons will be learnt by different sides. The ease with which Mussolini was able to seize power in 1922 directly inspired Hitler in his attempted Beerhall Putsch a year later. The subsequent failure of that putsch and the leniency of his punishment taught Hitler to work within the system to bring it down and that he had more supporters within the state than he initially thought. The leniency afforded to Hitler only served to strengthen his contempt for democracy. No doubt there will be some who look at the farce and see opportunity or what might have been had there been a more serious or organised presence guiding the rage. Such views may only be emboldened without severe repercussions or justice being served.

A fundamental lesson for all democracies around the world is that democracy is a system of government that ought never be taken for granted; it is always fragile and always requires vigorous defence. A particular challenge for the US going forward is what to do about the sympathisers within the system. Over 140 legislators openly defended the President’s unfounded attacks on the democratic system, and if the social media footage is to be believed, there are numerous sympathisers within key security structures.

A more bureaucratic lesson lies in the authorisation of force in protecting the legislative body of the US government. A hallmark of the American system is the separation of powers. However, as the January 6th putsch demonstrated this principle is built on a shallow foundation if the responsibility for protection lies solely within the Executive. There will no doubt be a series of investigations into the conduct of security personnel on that day, including possible reforms to Capitol security structures and as to who the proper authorities ought to be protecting the Capitol and its lawmakers.

In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Karl Marx wrote a scathing analysis of Louis-Napoleon’s farcical coup in 1851 as a watered-down attempt to emulate his more illustrious uncle’s successful coup of 1799. If the right lessons are not learnt in the United States in 2021, while this first putsch may have been farce the second could well be tragedy.

Image courtesy of Tyler Merber. (CC BY 4.0)

Simon Taylor

About Simon Taylor

Simon Taylor is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer at the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation, and holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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