United States Representative Bennie Thompson opened the extraordinary prime-time hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol with precisely the right message, and precisely the right language.
The message was that the deadly January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump “was not a spontaneous riot.” It was the product of a conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and to keep Trump in office as an illegitimate pretender to power. And, the chairman of the January 6 Committee explained, “Donald Trump was at the center of that conspiracy. And ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy,”
Then the Democratic congressman from Mississippi said what every member of Congress should have said on the day that Trump called upon his supporters to “fight like hell” in order to position him not as an elected president but as an authoritarian strongman who had seized power:
Any legal jargon you hear about seditious conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States boils down to this: January 6 was the culmination of an attempted coup. A brazen attempt, as one rioter put it shortly after January 6, “to overthrow the government.” The violence was no accident. It represented Trump’s last stand, most desperate chance to halt the transfer of power.
With those words, Thompson brought clarity to a conversation that has suffered for the better part of a year and a half because the media and political elites have adopted language so cautious that it has obscured the reality of what happened on January 6, 2021.
It was always an attempted coup.
Now, finally, the chairman of the congressional committee that has been charged with getting to the bottom of a conspiracy to install an illegitimate president has labeled it as such. This matters because, until the investigators get the language right, America cannot have an honest discussion of what happened on the day that supporters of a man who had lost the 2020 election by 7 million votes stormed the US Capitol in a violent effort to prevent the certification of the Electoral College votes that were to confirm that defeat.
This was not a military coup d’état in which the generals of the armed forces employ their weaponry in order to remove the duly elected president or prime minister of a country. This was a self-coup, another form of coup d’état, in which a leader overrules the other branches of government in order to assume illegitimate and illegal power.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the scholar of fascism and authoritarian leaders who teaches history at New York University, immediately recognized the significance of the committee chair’s statement. “Kudos to Chairman Thompson for calling it a coup,” she said, shortly after Thompson finished his remarks. “Some still call it a riot, which does not capture the larger political design of overturning our democracy.”
Trump’s defenders mocked the turn of phrase, and the hearings in general. “It tells you a lot about the priorities of our ruling class that the rest of us are getting yet another lecture about January 6 tonight—from our moral inferiors, no less,” said Tucker Carlson on Fox News, the only major news network that did not carry the hearings live. More hysterical than usual, Carlson ranted that “they are lying and we are not going to help them do it.”
But there was no denying the accuracy of the term that Thompson employed.
PolitiFact, the independent fact-checking operation run by the Poynter Institute, noted Thompson’s coup reference and pointed out that the Coup D’etat Project at the University of Illinois’ Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, which monitors coups around the world, had determined that the storming of the Capitol “was an attempted coup d’état: an organized, illegal attempt to intervene in the presidential transition by displacing the power of the Congress to certify the election.”
It was a coup attempt. Referring to it as such opens a new chapter in our discussion of the high crimes that Donald Trump committed on January 6, 2021.