What Do We Call the Events of January 6th?
From a riot to an outright coup, our language shows us to be just as divided as our ideas do.
As a writer, I am intimately familiar with the idea that words matter. If they didn’t, the world would not only be a dimmer place but I’d also be sorely out of a job (not that the “job” at hand does the utmost singularly to keep food in my mouth). Though the notion may seem quaint to some (draconian even if this scene from The Giver is to be believed), precision of language is not merely a pleasantry that should be enjoyed by a privileged elite but a necessity that all persons need in order to survive in an increasingly complex society.
I am also intimately familiar with the idea that sometimes people are less than precise, and sometimes even the best of intentions, the best laid plans, run astray in the heat of the moment. I myself have reconsidered my own use of language when, upon such incidents, I have found that it no longer fits the bill.
The events of January 6th, 2021 were immense and immobilizing. They shall forever live among the most consequential episodes in our American history; I’d be willing to bet the house on it. With what already feels like a gargantuan sense of political baggage, it is absolutely imperative that we use the right words to describe what happened that day.
But what are the right words?
To get a snapshot of this terrifically unsettled moment, I turned to Wikipedia. Specifically, I spent hours perusing the “2021 storming of the United States Capitol” discussion page in order to get a sense of how both traditional media and private citizens are processing the language of this moment.
A quick glance will tell you that there is about as much agreement as you ought to expect, which is to say next to none.
The most ardent and passionate discussions that have swirled around what language to use to describe January 6th find purchase in whether or not the term “coup” is an appropriate label. As the conversation has played out over the last few days, matters of the attack’s success and geographic variation in those observing the event might weigh into whether “coup” is the right word after all. Wikipedia user Paul has proffered, “Very few not-in-the-moment sources used coup without attempted, because the word coup does imply a success.” It’s dubious that that might disqualify the word altogether, however. Indeed, according to WMrapids, “we describe various self-coups on Wikipedia as simply a ‘coup’ or ‘coup attempt.’” This notion of “self-coup” or “autogolpe” is perhaps most starkly applicable. Autogolpe itself is a term of Spanish origin that refers more discreetly to a coup wherein a leader previously elected by democratic means turns to un-democratic forms to secure power. The German putsch is similarly considered.
Still, despite horrified, real-time reactions across the Internet (including on my own Twitter feed) there are a few reasons to think that January 6th may not be an American “coup” strictly speaking. Experts assembled by both The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution note that as it is properly understood, most coups (or attempted coups) are dependent upon the involvement of the military, a police force, or other state actors. While the target of the January 6th attacks and the illegal means by which they were carried out certainly qualify as markers of an attempted coup d’etat, the perpetrators were virtually all private citizens who lacked the backing of any state sanction.
That is, if you don’t count President Trump, himself perhaps the most powerful state actor still onstage.
Indeed, The Washington Post leaves room to consider events like that which occurred on January 6th to be officially and decidedly a coup should the military stand down and stand by in moments where it should clearly be acting. And though such a dereliction did not happen so acutely on January 6th (eventually the National Guard and several other state agencies retook the Capitol building) credible reports have surfaced more than once that Trump was loath to command the National Guard to defend the Capitol. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Donald Trump wanted the riot to continue.
Of course, the fact that such matters have not been so outwardly substantiated (though short of a signed confession from Trump attesting to his negligence, I’m not sure what exactly would suffice) creates a problem for Wikipedia’s self-imposed pledge to neutrality. While an important cornerstone of the world’s largest free online encyclopedia, such a tenet has given ample cover to pro-Trump sentiment in the description of an event that should unilaterally bring about the condemnation of Trump and Trumpism.
Take, for example, this consideration from user Elle Kpyros: “Currently, the few cherry-picked words from Trump’s address are arranged in such a way that they push a POV and give the false impression that he explicitly advocated for a violent attack on the Capitol.” According to Elle Kpyros these “cherry-picked words” draw a “false” implication that Trump encouraged his followers to “take back the country,” that his urging to “fight like hell” was only in the context of “election security,” and that the use by Trump of the words “peacefully and patriotically” should better qualify the subsequent events of the day more than anything else. Startlingly, several other users agree; their consensus rests that it would be rash to suggest that Donald Trump is to blame for the events of January 6th.
If taken in context, this of course faulty. The rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol constituted a parade of Trumpian characters espousing falsehoods about the integrity of the November election that have been roundly disproven in numerous courts of law on more than 60 occasions. At the rally, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and chief architect of these legal challenges, advocated for “trial by combat.” Donald Trump, Jr. declared his father “one of the greatest fighters out there” and thanked the attendants of the rally for “standing up to the bullshit.” President Trump himself then called the 140 members of the House of Representatives who objected to the election count on his behalf “warriors” and informed the crowd that they would have to “fight much harder” if Vice President Mike Pence were to refuse to change the vote tally in favor of the GOP. According to this transcript from Al Jazeera, President Trump used the word “fight” or “fighting” some 20 times over the run of his speech. He used the word “peacefully” just once.
Similar neutrality concerns have cropped up on the Wikipedia discussion page concerning the attributed labels of “terrorist” and “terrorism” to the proceedings of January 6th. Some users have, quite insightfully, applied the FBI’s own definition of terrorism to the events of the day, as “an unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” An assault on the Electoral College tally is about as sincere an attempt to coerce the government in the execution of its political objectives as I can think of.
And yet, here too, objections are raised, predominantly in bad faith. False equivalencies drawn by users such as ExplosiveResults and HistoryMan1812 assert that they will only consider the actions of the Trumpists on January 6th terrorism if the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent riots of this past summer are also marked as such. Of course, the attack on a private business at random, poor as it may be, is not political violence in the same way that storming the national legislature during the counting of an incredibly consequential vote is.
(The taking of the 3rd precinct police headquarters in Minneapolis last May is perhaps one exception in which I would be comfortable affixing the label of “terrorist” to people ostensibly associated with the Black Lives Matter movement; still, the motivating factor in that event, the killing of George Floyd, was at the very least not predicated on a lie. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the election result.)
Other users have advocated waiting to see if official charges of terrorism are brought against the Capitol Hill rioters before applying the label “terrorist.” This wait and see approach is perhaps best for a resource like Wikipedia, which relying largely upon the gracious work of volunteers is not capable of responding to news events in an up-to-the-minute fashion. Indeed, even as I pen this consideration, the situation continues to develop: earlier today the House of Representatives introduced a new article of impeachment against Donald Trump for “inciting violence against the government of the United States.”
Still, it feels like a gross abdication of reality to state that what happened last Wednesday was done allegedly, even if that is the technical legal qualifier. The attack of January 6th was not clandestine, not unknown to us. It played out on our TV screens in real-time. Its perpetrators posted and streamed live on social media. There is nothing alleged about the violence of January 6th.
So, what words are the right words after all? While I support Wikipedia’s attempts at a fair conversation by way of its policy of neutrality, neutrality cannot be a shorthand for timidity. Neutrality cannot be used to obscure the truth. As I wrote the other day and as myriad others have reported, the writing was on the wall. This attack, shocking though it may be, was not unaccounted for. It is exactly what President Trump had yearned for, and having got it he was apparently “increasingly angry” to have to call it off.
The right words are the harshest, but they are necessary to preserve our republic. This was a riot. This was an insurrection. This was terrorism. These were rioters. These were insurrectionists. These were terrorists. And even if academia is hesitant to call this a self-coup, it is about as close as the United States has ever come to one, in fact probably as close as anyone could come without it being so technically ordained.
There is one last item that should not be in question, however: this was most certainly the work of Donald J. Trump. This would likely not be so, not in so many words and actions, if Mike Pence or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz (complicit though he may be) was the one holding the bully pulpit. This is Donald Trump’s legacy first and foremost, and now it is up to the rest of us to hold him accountable.