Coups: language matters

The past four months have been quite hectic at work. In September, the university decided to return to face-to-face teaching while the case numbers of COVID were actually higher than when campuses were first closed in March. It was a challenge to revise the seminars and lectures (with compliance of the restrictions), to memorise students’ names (with those masks) and miraculously we didn’t get pneumonia (with all the open doors and windows to ensure ventilation). Despite the risks, I really enjoyed the personal contact. In December, however, it was decided this policy was not safe anymore, and everything moved back again to online teaching. Moreover, not just a national lockdown was reinstated (living and working with two teenagers on 70 square meters has been fun and challenging at the same time), but the borders closed as well because of the new British virus-variant (with transport via air, road, rail and sea coming to a standstill).

my teaching material, January 2021

New year, new events, new questions

Fortunately, students seem to be more motived than ever, which is inspiring. Moreover, the world is changing rapidly, leading to new questions in my research field, such as: do democracies perform better compared to dictatorships during the COVID-crisis, is populism in retreat, what are the explanations and effects of Brexit, etc… A week ago, another question became suddenly topical: what is a coup? And to be more specific: can the events in the United States be described as an (attempted) coup, or should we use less alarming terms such as ‘protests’ by ‘a mob’, ‘unrest’, ‘civil disobedience’,  ‘popular uprising’ or (a bit more forceful ) ‘insurrection’?

two snips of my teaching material, lecture 14/01/2021

So… what is a coup?

‘Coup’ is not a contested concept (like e.g. ‘democracy’) so defining ‘coups’ is eventually quite straightforward. Welch (1970: 1) claimed that ‘a coup is a sharp, clear event, easy to date and (i.e. if successful) possible to document.’ Coups are not just clear events, but also ‘illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive’ (Powell and Thyne 2011). Hence, the target of a coup is the chief executive. The perpetrators can be any elite who is part of the state apparatus (non-civilian members of the military and security services, or civilian members of government). The activity must be illegal, but violence does not need to be present, while the outcome can be successful (overthrowing of government/regime/system) but also unsuccessful (failed attempts).

Are coups common? No. Globally, coup attempts have been declining since the 1960s, and uncommon after the Cold War. Most coups took place in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. And most of them have been failed attempts. Successful coups are very rare.

Powell and Thyne (2011)

USA events on January 6: a coup?

Some of my students and colleagues argued that the events on January 6 looked more like a crazy carnival or macabre musical. But it would be a mistake not to take the actions seriously: the ingredients of a ‘coup’ were clearly present. There was a clear target (the incoming executive) with illegal activities by groups (e.g. right-wing and conspiracy groups, and fanatic Trumpists) with clear goal (to disrupt the democratic process). Already at the end of September, Trump told the Proud Boys (an extreme right-wing group) to ‘stand back and stand by’. Thereafter, plans and plots to disrupt the electoral process were shared on the Internet. The president knew about it and could have decided to prioritize security – instead, since the beginning of November, Trump has sought to undermine the integrity of the presidential election, has rejected the results, urged voters to illegally vote twice, sought to disenfranchise voters, and even tried to coerce officials to alter the vote results. On January 6, he went a step further and encouraged his supporters to ‘walk down to the Capitol,’ to ‘demand that Congress do the right thing,’ to ‘take back our country’ and to ‘show strength.’

So, this was a coup. Trump provoked a deadly insurrection at the Capitol (‘fight like hell’) helped by his ally Rudy Guiliani (‘let’s have a trial by combat’). To be more specific, it was a failed attempt of a self-coup. In self-coups, sitting executives aim to increase their power by overturning electoral outcomes. In self-coups, the head of government is one of the perpetrators, rather than military officers or others who want to weaken the chief executive. Examples of such coups can be found in America’s own backyard: President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, for example, dissolved the congress in 1992, and President Jorge Serrano Elías of Guatemala tried to do the same in 1993. More recently, President Evo Morales of Bolivia claimed he had won the elections, thereby rejecting the actual results, and in the end, he had to leave the country.

Watch (46 sec): When questioned by a reporter, U.S. President Donald Trump was unwilling to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election in November

A coup, or protest: does it matter?

Why bother? Does the label really matter? Does it make a difference whether we call such events ‘a protest’, or a ‘coup’?  Yes, labels matter because they have influence on how we think about such events, whether we see them as problematic, which may hold real-life consequences. During the Cold War, the military in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay classified their coups as ‘revolutions’ to legitimize their actions. Labelling an event as a ‘coup’, on the other hand, may have serious consequences (suspension from international organizations, international sanctions, less development aid, even foreign military intervention).

As George Orwell argued in ‘Politics and the English Language,’ language can shape our thoughts and our political actions. If a violent armed stand-off with capitol police that forces the government into hiding would be labelled as ‘a protest’ with ‘protesters’, then the events are seen as a legitimate form of participation in the democratic process. The use of misleading labels can hinder our understanding, making it impossible to know how to respond.

Coups may look like carnivals. But let’s still call it a coup. Language matters.