Coup attempt: we now know beyond any shadow of doubt

Revisiting January 6

Hearings into the failed coup bid are all very well and good, says Daniel Lazare. But there is more to the breakdown of the political system than Donald Trump

Like Hollywood, Washington has long been partial to ‘great man’ theories of history. When things go right, it is because some hero or saint has stepped in to save the day. When they go wrong, it is because an evil-doer has been messing up the works. It could be Osama bin Laden destroying the World Trade Center because he “hates our freedoms”. It could be Vladimir Putin interfering in American politics because he wants to “sow discord”.

Or it could be Donald Trump - the ultimate Great Satan in Democratic eyes - who spurred on the Capitol Hill insurrection on January 6 2021 because he hates the US constitution and all that it stands for.

‘Donald dunnit’ is the theme of an extraordinary series of congressional hearings that began last week. A special panel chosen by the Democrats and largely boycotted by Republicans is presenting evidence that Trump ignored campaign staffers who told him he was on track to lose the 2020 election, ignored attorney general William Barr when he said that claims of election fraud were “bullshit”, and then egged on a mob to attack Congress in a desperate last-minute bid to retain power.

Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat in charge of the hearings, declared at the outset:

Donald Trump was at the centre of this conspiracy, and ultimately Donald Trump, the president of the United States, spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.

“The sacred obligation to defend this peaceful transfer of power,” added Liz Cheney, the Republican ‘never-Trumper’ from Wyoming, who is co-chairing the sessions, “has been honoured by every American president except one”: ie, Trump.

Hence, if Trump is singularly responsible for the greatest US political breakdown since the Civil War, then punishing, defeating or otherwise removing him from the scene will allow American politics to return to normal.

Fairy tale

But it is a fairy tale that Democrats tell one another, while shivering in the dark. To be sure, Donald Trump is guilty of all the things Thompson, Cheney and others say he did - which is to say pressurising a local official in Georgia “to find 11,780 votes”, so he could say he won the state after all; telling the fascist Proud Boys to “stand by and stand back”; fomenting insurrection; and so on. But the idea that he is solely responsible is absurd for one simple reason: politics were falling apart long before he entered the scene.

The process goes back to Watergate in 1972-74, although the 1990s is when it erupted in a really big way. This is when house speaker Newt Gingrich twice shut down the federal government in a fit of pique - he felt insulted because Bill Clinton made him leave the presidential plane by a rear exit1 - and then tried to use the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal to drive Clinton out of office. While unsuccessful, the fury of Gingrich’s attack left Washington stunned.

A few years later, dozens of Republican activists - many of them congressional staffers flown in especially for the occasion - shut down the presidential vote count in Miami by pounding on windows and roughing up election workers. The ‘Brooks Brothers riot’ - so-called because the bourgeois crowd were so well-dressed - succeeded in throwing the election into the hands of the Supreme Court, whose 5-4 Republican majority promptly named George W Bush the winner, even though he was trailing Democrat Al Gore by half a million votes.

Liz Cheney thus condemns Trump for trying to do what her father, Dick Cheney, Dubya’s running mate, accomplished all too successfully in November-December 2000, which was to steal a presidential election.

After a pause for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - which produced the usual ‘rally round the flag’ effects among Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden - the next step occurred in 2011, when Republicans raised the ridiculous charge that Barack Obama was ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Kenya and therefore was not a natural-born citizen as required by the constitution’s article II. Was ‘Birthergate’ a genuine coup attempt or merely an effort to hold onto the spotlight in an odd-numbered year between elections? Whatever, it was a sign that politics were growing increasingly unhinged.

But it was in 2016 that America truly went off the rails. After Trump’s victory, Dems might conceivably have concentrated their ire on the Electoral College - the ancient constitutional relic that enabled Bush and Cheney to win in 2000 and Trump to prevail a decade and a half later. But this was both dangerous and unprofitable, because (a) it would have meant criticising the constitution, the holy of holies as far as US politics are concerned, and (b) the ancient document is so difficult to amend at this point that the Electoral College is all but set in stone.

With reform a dead letter, Democrats decided to blame Russia instead. Referring to campaign manager Robby Mook and campaign chairman John Podesta, one campaign account observed:

That strategy had been set within 24 hours of [Hillary Clinton’s] concession speech. Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up and up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centrepiece of the argument.2

This was every bit as much a coup attempt as January 6, since the goal was to prevent Trump from taking office, or boot him out once collusion was proved. Indeed, a palace coup may have been in the works as early as May 2017, when deputy attorney general Rod Rosenthal and FBI director James Comey met secretly to discuss tape-recording the president and using the 25th amendment to declare him unfit. But, despite more than two years of around-the-clock Russiagate hysterics about walls closing in and bombshells going off,3 the effort flopped when special prosecutor Robert Mueller concluded that there was nothing to “establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government”.

One coup attempt led to another, which is no doubt why Trump felt justified in marshalling his forces in early 2021. The central thesis of the January 6 hearings that it was all Trump’s fault is therefore false. Indeed, it is a cover-up aimed at concealing the Democrats’ own role in the debacle. The goal is to distract attention from the real problem at hand, which is less a single, errant politician than an 18th century system that is on the verge of collapse.

Politicians emit so much foggy constitutional rhetoric at moments like these that Americans have long since stopped paying attention. But they should listen more closely, because it is highly revealing.

Thompson set the tone. “The constitution doesn’t protect just Democrats or just Republicans,” he said. “It protects all of us - we, the people. And this scheme was an attempt to undermine the will of the people.”

So the constitution equals the popular will, does it? In fact any bright college freshman would have no trouble coming up with a dozen different ways in which it undermines it. These include:

That is more than 230 years without a say-so in terms of the overall governing structure. If Thompson really believes the constitution represents the will of the people, why not allow Americans to vote - not on individual amendments, but on the document as a whole? Or does he think that would violate the rule of law?

Capitol Hill

But the hearings have accomplished one thing, which is to remove any doubt that the January 6 2021, uprising was anything other than an attempted coup. This is in contrast to a chorus of scepticism that the coup initially elicited from certain sectors of the pseudo-left.

Three days after the mob tried to overturn the election, for instance, radical journalist John Pilger tweeted that “the made-for-media theatrics on Capitol Hill were not an attempted ‘coup’. Coups are what the CIA stages all over the world. Neither was ‘democracy’ in peril. What democracy?”4 The New Left Review sneered at the “hysteria over the Capitol Hill occupation”, while editorial board member Mike Davis was especially supercilious: “Yesterday’s ‘sacrileges’ in our temple of democracy - oh, poor defiled city on the hill, etc - constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy.”5

Jacobin magazine - “the closest thing to a flagship publication of the DSA left”6 - was more thoughtful, but still dismissive. The uprising was “a significant defeat for the far right,” it said. “The riot and its quick repudiation by the political and economic elite made plain that there is currently little base in the state or among big capital for a Trumpist coup.” The article continued:

It will be difficult for the GOP [ie, the Republicans’ ‘Grand Old Party’] to maintain its radical base, while also winning nationwide office … the ability for these forces to pose a real threat to liberal democracy will ultimately depend on attracting support from big capital - a possibility that, for now, seems remote.7

All of which sounds distinctly hollow a year and a half later, now that Trump’s grip on Republicans is stronger than ever and the party is gearing up for massive gains in the upcoming mid-term elections. The main lesson that Republicans have learned from January 6 is not that coups are a losing venture, but the opposite: ie, next time do it right. Thus, they have continued stacking state governments with election officials committed to the big lie that 2020 was stolen, continued accusing Democrats of preparing an even bigger steal in 2024, and continued attacking Biden’s legitimacy.

The goal, to put it simply, is to rig the electoral process by sidelining the popular vote and seeing to it that Republican state officials have the final word in determining who enters the Oval Office. Whether this is a violation of the constitution or a return to its proper 18th century roots is unclear. But it is precisely that lack of clarity that may enable the gambit to succeed.

In any event, it is not the radical right that is retreating: rather it is the Biden administration that is crumbling before American eyes. By equating the constitution with democracy, people like Bennie Thompson merely guarantee that one will blindly follow the other over a cliff. The only force capable of breaking this vicious cycle is the working class, and it can do so only by pointing out that mindless constitution worship is the enemy of democracy and that workers must take the lead in reconstructing American politics from the ground up.

Unity, democracy and maximum hostility to both bourgeois parties - this must be the essence of the working class programme if it is to succeed.

  1. edition.cnn.com/US/9511/debt_limit/11-16/budget_gingrich/.↩︎

  2. J Allen and A Parnes Shattered: inside Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign New York 2017, p396.↩︎

  3. www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1ab6uxg908&t=36s.↩︎

  4. twitter.com/johnpilger/status/1347871961175744512.↩︎

  5. newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/riot-on-the-hill.↩︎

  6. J Creegan, ‘Walking the tightrope’ Weekly Worker March 22 2018: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1195/walking-the-tightrope.↩︎

  7. jacobin.com/2021/01/capitol-building-riot-business-trump.↩︎