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Q&A: Cuckoo, but not a coup

What happened in the Capitol was horrific, but a scholar of coup attempts says it would be a mistake to call this one.

Egyptian soldiers on armored personnel carriers in Cairo on July 3, 2013 — a situation very much unlike the one in Washington on Wednesday.
Egyptian soldiers on armored personnel carriers in Cairo on July 3, 2013 — a situation very much unlike the one in Washington on Wednesday.KHALED DESOUKI

In our struggle to name the horror that befell the Capitol on Wednesday, word choice matters, says Clayton Thyne, chair of the political science department at the University of Kentucky and co-creator of a database of coups around the world.

What we saw Wednesday in the Capitol was shocking. It was unprecedented. Was it also a coup attempt?

No. Not at all.

Why not?

So there are three main things when we are looking for a coup. First, who did what to whom? Perpetrators for a coup must come from the elite members of the state apparatus. And we are almost always talking about generals when we are talking about a coup attempt. Here we didn’t have any elites. It was just civilians, not members of the state apparatus.


The second thing: Did what? A coup must attempt to overthrow the chief executive. And this wasn’t an attempt to really overthrow anything. There wasn’t an organized idea that they are going to overthrow Congress and take over Congress and dissolve Congress, or anything like that. And even if they had, it’s still not a coup, because we aren’t talking about the chief executive. We are talking about the legislative branch.

And so the final part: To whom? It kind of meshes with the second part. The target wasn’t [President Donald] Trump. The only person that could be overthrown in the United States is [the president]. Biden’s not the president yet. And Congress obviously isn’t the chief executive.

What was it, then?

It was a riot. It was trespassing. It was a mob that got out of hand. People are using the word “insurrection.” Maybe, except I just don’t think the goal was to overthrow the government by any means. It was disgusting. It was awful. But it just wasn’t an organized attempt to really do much, except express displeasure. I think it’s important to be careful with our language. We can get beyond this with good leadership. I think that’s why these words are so important.


Contrast what happened in Washington, then, to what you would call a real coup.

What I would point to is Egypt in either 2011 or 2013. For us to have had a coup, what would have happened is the military would have stepped in, and they would have said this is out of control and we’re going to overthrow Trump, and we are going to take control of this country. And that is exactly what happened with Egypt, twice. And that is how you lose your democracy.

One of the shining moments Wednesday was that the military . . . wanted to make sure that we saw civilian governance from beginning to end. Clear civil-military separation [is] a hallmark of democracy. It’s something we shouldn’t take for granted. I think we should be really proud of that happening — but also vigilant that it remains that way.

Kelly Horan is deputy editor of Ideas.