How An Attempted Coup Becomes A Successful Coup
Like all things Trump, the former president’s video was equal parts absurd and disturbing. On what should have been veteran Ashli Babbitt’s thirty-sixth birthday, her family played a taped message from Donald Trump that lauded her as “a truly incredible person” and assured them “her memory will live on in our hearts for all time.”
Of course, Trump was eulogizing a woman who participated in the storming of the United States Capitol on his behalf. That Babbitt and her compatriots were attempting to overthrow the will of the electorate and re-install Trump as president, thus carrying out a violent coup, went unsaid. That Babbitt would have still been alive had Trump and his cronies not organized the even and attempted a violent coup also went unnoted. What was important, what really needed emphasized, was Babbitt’s newly minted role as rallying point and martyr.
With every passing day new and more damning information emerges that underscores the real and present danger of January 6th. There were legal strategies in place, under-the-table dealings, plans to both slaughter lawmakers and utilize terror to retain power. And yet, many in the political and pundit class still consider any concern over those facts hysterical, overblown, or at least look at the events as the culmination and final endpoint of the crisis. Meanwhile, the January 6th Commission has subpoenaed Trump confidants and conspirators Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, and others, only to be stonewalled at every turn.
What we are watching is something we have seen time and again throughout history. A failed coup that, through continued momentum, sanctification as faith and movement, and the failure by those who should know better to head the threat off before it grows out of their control, is predictably and miserably heading toward completing its purpose of seizing power.
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At the root of every antidemocratic movement is apocalypticism. The belief that, should the world not bend to your will, undertake your preferred actions in totality, and submit to your demands, then, somewhere in the near future, those who ignored your warnings will meet with a grisly and cataclysmic end.
This overrides any need for the mechanics of liberal democracy, which depends on coalition building, popular sovereignty, and the long and arduous process of legislative deliberation. It is also negates pluralism, or a need for society to function as a space where all peoples meet and confer and pilot the state forward. Authoritarianism, in all of its many forms, including fascism, is a violent denial of these processes, and the coup is the mechanism by which that override is realized and put into action.
A failed coup attempt is a crossroads. If the failure is met with swift retribution, its leaders and conspirators punished, the action and its associated ideology examined, dissected, and rebuked forcefully as a threat to both safety and liberal democracy itself, then it might be a mere flash. History is riddled with these events and shows us these failed coups should serve as a wake-up call for the society which birthed them.
However, when societies ignore these moments, when they write them off as brief phenomena, or, worse, discount the true danger and nature of them, the movement that attempted the coup grows. And these follow a predictable pattern where the movement begins lionizing the failed attempt, painting it as a forerunner of something else, something larger, and that momentum swells as leaders and supporters call their imprisoned compatriots “political prisoners” and spread conspiracy theories about the coup attempt itself and the machinations of those in power trying to stop them.
This is where we are now, at this very moment. Both the Republican Party and the Far Right have coalesced in revisioning January 6th. Depending on the time of day and the channel or website, the coup was either a peaceful demonstration, a lawful insurrection by patriots, a trap set by the Deep State, or all of the above simultaneously. Those telling these stories are wrestling for control of the movement and have, in different ways, called for the movement to grow and embrace more violent and antidemocratic measures. Some have traveled to Hungary to promote far right illiberal democracy that controls society through violence and autocratic rule. Others have advocated “Caesarism,” or the rise of a dictator who might end the “tyranny” of democratic rule.
“A failed coup attempt is a crossroads…”
The romantic view of a failed coup serves several purposes. It rallies potential recruits while coloring the crime with heroic hues. It also conceals the hard work behind the scenes to construct the infrastructure necessary for the next coup to be successful and for the theft of power to become permanent. The same forces spreading the conspiracy theories are working tirelessly to pervert and transform the law, seeking jurists willing to bend precedent into pretzels as they systematically deconstruct liberal democracy and its institutions. Meanwhile, bureaucrats around the country are disenfranchising opponents and shifting electoral oversight under their purview so that the wishes of aspiring demagogues like Donald Trump can be fulfilled.
The apocalypticism necessary for a coup attempt is a feature of religious-thinking that prioritizes an “in-group” of the faithful over the “out-group” or the enemy. In this framework, the failed coup attempt is a warning, a piece of material proof that destruction and tragedy is constantly present should the faithful not marshal their energies and courage.
Already, Ashli Babbitt has been transformed into a martyr. Her death on January 6th made for easy fodder for extremists, including white supremacists who readily blame a Jewish-Communist conspiracy for her slaying and the political moment. This conspiracy theory positions political enemies as both a threat and an evil entity, leasing a religious sheen to the movement and its actions. Again, this rationalizes any behavior, including murder, violence, intimidation, and the complete undermining of liberal democracy in totality.
We’ve seen this time and time again. The failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 by the Nazi Party in Germany serves as incredible instruction. As the coup was put down, those members killed by police and the military were regarded as martyrs and used as inspiration for future recruits to follow. Their blood wet what would come to be known as the Blood Flag, a relic that was treated as a sacred and holy object throughout the Third Reich. Their “sacrifice” and death minted the movement as a religious crusade. They were willing to die for their beliefs, meaning others should be willing as well.
The tragedy here is undeniable. Babbitt was a veteran who grew more and more radicalized through Trump’s rhetoric and the proliferation of the QAnon conspiracy theory. These twin elements, constantly in communication with one another, have ensnared millions of Americans in an alternate reality where their worst fears and paranoia are realized and the only answer is the violent overthrow of the United States of America and the elimination of their “enemies,” or their neighbors and fellow citizens.
Trump is, and always has been, a conscience-less grifter. It is virtually impossible to separate what he believes, if anything, from what he sees as an opportunity to profit. The fact that he continues to seek the presidency, a position he never really wanted and never really performed, is testament to both his relentless need for validation and the twisted nature of his psyche. That he has and will sacrifice lives and the stability of a people is one of the more disturbing realizations in modern history.
But there are others. Individuals who possess actual ideology and have watched with awe as Trump rammed his way to power and refused to play by any established rules or exist within any reasonable bounds. These are the Tucker Carlson’s, the Steve Bannon’s, the ideologues at the think-tanks and institutions who have long desired to bring liberal democracy to ruin. The domestic terrorists and extremists who wish to carry out a coup and establish America as a white supremacist fascistic dictatorship. These are people who are both disciplined and who recognize the utility of a movement that has tried and failed a coup and provides ready-made and powerful symbols of the apocalyptic need for upheaval and baptism through blood.
They failed on January 6th, 2021 to overthrow the government of the United States of America.
We were fortunate.
But we can’t simply rely on fortune anymore.