Riot or insurrection? Lies or madness?

See updates through January 22, 2021, at bottom of post.


To recap the story thus far, on January 6, 2021, as Congress was meeting to deliver the final certification of Joe Biden’s presidential election victory last November (2020), a mob overran the U.S. Capitol, protesting, utterly without evidence,[1] that the election was stolen. They disrupted the count which nonetheless ultimately proceeded with the expected result.[2] Donald Trump, the incumbent who lost, is credibly accused of inciting an insurrection for his remarks preceding the riot.[3]

A consensus seems to have arisen characterizing this riot as an insurrection and as sedition.[4] Indeed, Democrats are wielding an impeachment charge of incitement to insurrection in an effort to pressure Mike Pence and a majority of the cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment.[5] Some, however, have noted a systematic assault on U.S. institutions throughout Donald Trump’s term in office and call it a coup.[6]

The riot itself seems both to have lacked much planning or military support, undermining the claim it was a coup,[7] but some Capitol Police officers do seem to have welcomed the rioters, officers from other police departments may have participated in the riot, some military personnel may have participated in the riot,[8] and Fiona Hill argues that yes, the January 6 riot was indeed a coup, a “self-coup” to be precise.[9]

I guess, color me skeptical. Hill accuses Nicolas Maduro of the same offense in the 2017 Venezuela election,[10] a conclusion I am not prepared to endorse because the U.S. government and mainstream media have been demonizing Venezuelan governments at least since Hugo Chávez. When the demonization is too consistent, I rather strongly suspect I’m seeing propaganda more than I am truth. For me, the effect here undermines Hill’s credibility.

Hill’s analysis is nonetheless interesting because it shows a systematic effort to undermine institutional checks and balances to preserve Donald Trump’s power[11] that could be construed as intentional, and no, the fact that the effort has, at least so far,[12] failed does not completely undermine her argument.

Really, the question is of a piece with Trump’s endless falsehoods.[13] If you see Trump as knowing that what he has been saying is false, you see him as a liar. These are intentional falsehoods.

If, on the other hand, you see Trump as believing his falsehoods, then he is not a liar. He is delusional,[14] arguably at least verging on psychotic.[15]

I have found Trump’s falsehoods ludicrously unpersuasive (remember bleach[16] and hydroxychloroquine?[17]), so I’ve been inclined to treat them as products of delusion. But it is also the case that a great many people in the U.S. at least desperately want to believe those falsehoods.[18] For those people, Trump’s falsehoods are plenty good enough, and if you understand Trump as fitting in with a certain paranoia that casts opponents as “un-American,” disloyal,[19] and perhaps even treasonous, then you can understand that Trump was never addressing people like me with those falsehoods. He was talking to his base, consisting primarily of authoritarian populists, paleoconservatives, and social conservatives,[20] and indeed the first two of those tendencies were in ample evidence in their at-least-an-insurrection.[21]

So if pressed, I have to concede that the evidence is equivocal, that Trump could be lying, or he might simply be delusional.

In essence, Hill claims that the riot was the culmination of an intentional systematic effort,[22] appealing to a definition of coup that requires organization and planning.[23] Part of the discrepancy lies in scope: If you view the riot in isolation, you might indeed view it as poorly planned and poorly organized,[24] as ‘merely’ an insurrection.[25] If, with Hill, you see it as a culmination,[26] then it becomes a coup.

With Trump I see delusion,[27] arguably at least verging on psychosis.[28] I see narcissistic rage.[29] I do not credit him with sufficient intelligence to plan this effort. I see what for Hill constitutes a coup[30] as an emergent property—the assault on institutions is certainly there, it’s real, but you really couldn’t have foreseen this riot if you didn’t know to expect it in advance[31] (some of us foresaw worse[32]), and while Trump pursued the authoritarian populist, paleoconservative, and social conservative agenda of his base[33] it strains credibility to a breaking point to imagine that Trump planned a coup in advance over all the years of his presidency.

For me, the question of scope cuts against calling it a coup. If you adopt the scope of Trump’s term in office or longer, an organization with the full resources of the executive branch should, by all rights, have been a lot better and, by all rights, should have had an actual plan for the riot. If you adopt the scope of the riot itself, it definitely was not a coup.[34]

But it all hinges a duality between rational and irrational, and how you see Trump makes all the difference. If you see intention, you see lies and a coup. If you see delusion, you see madness with effects coming together in an insurrection. I am inclined to the latter conclusion, but the evidence can support either.


Update (revised), January 15, 2021: Prosecutors first claimed,[35] then withdrew their claim,[36] that the Capitol rioters intended to capture and assassinate lawmakers in their insurrection on January 6, 2021.[37]

What I’m still not seeing here, even if the original claim is true, is an actual plan for keeping Donald Trump in office: Taking legislators hostage could 1) impair legislative bodies’ ability to reach a quorum (who would show up to risk being taken hostage or executed?) to take action and 2) result in a court overturning any action taken under such circumstances as being under duress and therefore invalid. Such a ‘plan’ further assumes that legislators have agency here, that they can indeed choose to overturn the election.

None of this made any sense even with the original allegation. But especially with claims accused rioters are making,[38] the story is only getting weirder. In any event, this is not planning, but rather delusion, even, as with the delusional raging narcissist-in-chief himself,[39] psychosis.[40]


Update, January 16, 2021: In the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland lays out a context and an account for the January 6 riot that seems much more intentional than what I had seen previously. The important aspect of Freedland’s account is that it requires neither intelligence nor sanity. In essence, Donald Trump was desperate to remain in power and having exhausted legal or regular military options for doing so, let loose a mob.[41] If you have access, his article is far more worthwhile than Fiona Hill’s, the latter of which requires Trump to possess both minimal intelligence and sanity, of why she thinks it was a coup.[42]

Freedland’s explanation also illuminates that Trump’s criminal exposure from inciting the insurrection[43] now likely constrains him from attempting a repeat for Joe Biden’s inauguration.[44]

Indeed, one problem with attempting to take power by force is that you need to succeed. Because when you fail, the full resources of the state may be deployed against you.


Update, January 17, 2021: The weak police response to Trumpsters overrunning the U.S. Capitol unsurprisingly fits a pattern.[45]


Update, January 18, 2021: I remain inclined[46] to think the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6[47] falls short of a coup,[48] but evidence is accumulating that the rioters were better prepared than I initially understood.[49] Doubts about police preparation, particularly relative to those for Black Lives Matter Protests, persist,[50] but

[Police] weren’t just facing an unruly protest, and they weren’t just underprepared—they were in a battle against a more organized and coordinated force than they had realized. A stunning Washington Post report lays out the scene. “Everything they did was in a military fashion,” a D.C. police commander said. One officer was overcome by protesters and heard rioters shout, “We got one! We got one! Kill him with his own gun!” Brian Sicknick, the officer who died of injuries sustained in the attack, was reportedly beaten with a fire extinguisher. . . .

“I didn’t want to be the guy who starts shooting, because I knew they had guns—we had been seizing guns all day,” Daniel Hodges, a D.C. police officer, told the Post. “And the only reason I could think of that they weren’t shooting us was they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a firefight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand demonstrators, we would have lost.”

Once inside, some putschists were prepared. They came with schematics and maps of the building, and set about their work with purpose. Some wore tactical gear and carried flex ties, which would have been useful for kidnapping and hostage-taking. If not for the quick thinking of the Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, who drew a column away from the Senate floor, they might have walked through the unlocked doors and into a chamber still filled with lawmakers.

Only on Friday did it become clear how much danger [Mike] Pence had been in. Secret Service officers whisked Pence and his family to a hideaway in the Capitol—but just one minute before Goodman made his stand, and only about 100 feet from the stairs up which the officer was chased by the mob, according to the Post.[51]

The objection I’ve been raising is that even if more successful, this attack still would not have reversed the outcome. Nonetheless, it appears that the rioters actually believed they could compel such a result,[52] even if their plan for doing so was incoherent.

In truth, I don’t know if this is really a failing: Pretty consistently throughout my life, I have expected things to make more sense than they do and I have expected people to be more intelligent than they are. When my threshold is not met, I am dismissive. My evaluation of this riot would be another example.


Update, January 19, 2021: Based on Federal Bureau of Investigation allegations in court documents, it appears that at least 30-40 people executed a coordinated, planned attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.[53] They would have been using the rest of the mob more as a distraction than as a diversion. As I understand all this, and assuming the veracity of allegations that have obviously not yet been tested in court, this rises to the level of a coup.[54]


Update, January 20, 2021: Now that conspiracy charges have been filed in the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, the Wall Street Journal has more specific details[55] about the coup plot.[56] While we’ve not yet heard from the defense, the evidence appears damning.


Update, January 21, 2021: It appears some right wing militia leaders felt the January 6, 2021, coup was ludicrous and were not interested in participating even at the time, let alone for Joe Biden’s inauguration, that some were discouraged by a dissonance between their self-image as on the side of “law and order” and a mob overrunning the U.S. Capitol, and that some others were following Donald Trump’s orders to stand down.[57] In the event, none of them showed up to interfere with the inauguration.[58]


Update #2, January 21, 2021 (citation added, January 22, 2021): Despite the absence of physical violence at Joe Biden’s heavily fortified inauguration,[59] a failed coup attempt two weeks before that led to that fortification,[60] and a looming second impeachment that might bar Donald Trump from future office,[61] the conspiracy theorist mass media continues to spew election disinformation.[62] While some right wing militia groups declined to participate in the coup attempt for various reasons, some right wing militia may have stood down apparently only because Trump told them to.[63]

It’s hard to see where right wing militia will next have a significant opportunity to strike. What’s important to know is that they are still out there. The threat that they have always posed remains. And it has to be said, that significant portion of the U.S. population that continues to believe in Trump is also still there, even if Trump’s final sendoff from Joint Base Andrews was really rather dreary.[64]

  1. [1]David Benfell, “When it’s over but it isn’t,” Not Housebroken, December 21, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/11/27/when-its-over-but-it-isnt/
  2. [2]Ted Barrett, Manu Raju, and Peter Nickeas, “US Capitol secured, woman dead after rioters stormed the halls of Congress to block Biden’s win,” CNN, January 6, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/06/politics/us-capitol-lockdown/index.html; Talia Lavin, “The Violent Crescendo of the MAGA Conspiracies,” New Republic, January 6, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/160814/trump-protesters-attack-us-capital; Rebecca Tan et al., “Trump supporters storm U.S. Capitol, with one woman killed and tear gas fired,” Washington Post, January 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trump-supporters-storm-capitol-dc/2021/01/06/58afc0b8-504b-11eb-83e3-322644d82356_story.html
  3. [3]Andrew G. McCabe and David C. Williams, “Trump’s New Criminal Problem,” Politico, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/11/trumps-new-criminal-problem-457298
  4. [4]Ron Kampeas, “Biden: Capitol marauders are ‘thugs, insurrectionists and anti-Semites’ who should be prosecuted,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 8, 2021, https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/biden-capitol-marauders-are-thugs-insurrectionists-and-anti-semites-who-should-be-prosecuted; Seren Morris, “What Does Insurrection or Sedition Mean? Definition of Words Used To Describe Capitol Riot,” Newsweek, January 7, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/what-does-insurrection-sedition-mean-definition-capitol-riot-1559745
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  7. [7]Nicolás Rivero, “Is America experiencing a coup?” Quartz, January 6, 2021, https://qz.com/1953602/is-america-experiencing-a-coup/
  8. [8]Kyle Cheney, Sarah Ferris, and Laura Barrón-López, “‘Inside job’: House Dems ask if Capitol rioters had hidden help,” Politico, January 8, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/08/congress-democrats-capitol-riot-inside-job-456725; Kurtis Lee, Jaweed Kaleem, and Laura King, “‘White supremacy was on full display.’ Double standard seen in police response to riot at Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-07/la-na-washington-capitol-police-attack-race; Matt Stieb, “Capitol Police Suspends Cops for Allegedly Siding With Pro-Trump Mob,” New York, January 11, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/01/two-capitol-cops-suspended-for-actions-during-capitol-riot.html
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  11. [11]Fiona Hill, “Yes, It Was a Coup. Here’s Why,” Politico, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/11/capitol-riot-self-coup-trump-fiona-hill-457549
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  25. [25]Jennifer Haberkorn, “Republicans block House resolution calling on Pence to remove Trump over Capitol riot,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-01-11/republicans-block-house-resolution-to-call-on-pence-to-remove-trump-over-capitol-riot; Ron Kampeas, “Biden: Capitol marauders are ‘thugs, insurrectionists and anti-Semites’ who should be prosecuted,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 8, 2021, https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/biden-capitol-marauders-are-thugs-insurrectionists-and-anti-semites-who-should-be-prosecuted; Seren Morris, “What Does Insurrection or Sedition Mean? Definition of Words Used To Describe Capitol Riot,” Newsweek, January 7, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/what-does-insurrection-sedition-mean-definition-capitol-riot-1559745
  26. [26]Fiona Hill, “Yes, It Was a Coup. Here’s Why,” Politico, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/11/capitol-riot-self-coup-trump-fiona-hill-457549
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  42. [42]Fiona Hill, “Yes, It Was a Coup. Here’s Why,” Politico, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/11/capitol-riot-self-coup-trump-fiona-hill-457549
  43. [43]Jennifer Haberkorn, “Republicans block House resolution calling on Pence to remove Trump over Capitol riot,” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-01-11/republicans-block-house-resolution-to-call-on-pence-to-remove-trump-over-capitol-riot; Ron Kampeas, “Biden: Capitol marauders are ‘thugs, insurrectionists and anti-Semites’ who should be prosecuted,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, January 8, 2021, https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/biden-capitol-marauders-are-thugs-insurrectionists-and-anti-semites-who-should-be-prosecuted; Andrew G. McCabe and David C. Williams, “Trump’s New Criminal Problem,” Politico, January 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/01/11/trumps-new-criminal-problem-457298; Seren Morris, “What Does Insurrection or Sedition Mean? Definition of Words Used To Describe Capitol Riot,” Newsweek, January 7, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/what-does-insurrection-sedition-mean-definition-capitol-riot-1559745
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