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It isn’t nitpicking — what Trump attempted was a self-coup, not a coup

Donald Trump, then president, pauses after delivering remarks on "Operation Legend: Combating Violent Crime in American Cities" in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 22, 2020.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

As the nation observes the first anniversary of the assault on the Capitol, it has become standard to label this event an attempted coup. The term is inexact. What happened on Jan. 6, 2021, was not a coup but rather a self-coup. Coups are directed by other officials against the sitting leader; self-coups are directed by the sitting leader against other officials. I point this out not because I am a stickler for words but because self-coups tend to leave a more lasting negative political legacy than ordinary coups. We are very fortunate former president Donald Trump’s plot failed.

The dual-power situations that sometimes evolve from self-coups are especially dangerous, but even they can be alleviated if effort is made to hold the perpetrator accountable. Consider the 2010 presidential election in Ivory Coast. Opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara was internationally recognized as the winner, but the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, would not concede. Civil war ensued, which Ouattara, the legitimate president, won. Gbagbo was arrested and extradited to stand trial for crimes against humanity. The trial ended in acquittal, but enough time passed that Ouattara felt he could allow Gbagbo to return home last year to foster national reconciliation.


To bring Americans back together, Trump must also first face criminal charges.

Arthur Goldsmith


The writer is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston.