On January 6th, a group of Trump supporters stormed the D.C. Capitol building. It seems clear to everyone that they did this to protest the planned January 6th joint congress session to confirm Biden as president-elect. Beyond this, there are a few varying and contradictory accounts of what happened today:
Some have argued that the GOP, McConnell, and Pence have betrayed Donald Trump and thrown him under the bus. Now seeing him as a liability, establishment Republicans have cut Trump off. This schism has revealed that Trump has developed a large number of supporters who prefer him far more than the Republican party. Given that Trump was so close to overturning the election, and potentially wanting 2000$ checks instead of the 600$ that McConnell gave, his supporters have intervened to tip the scale against the GOP. These protestors are now fighting the Republican establishment, the security apparatus, and the Democrats for Trump.
One can also claim that protesters stormed the capitol to do a coup for Donald Trump. They occupied the building not simply to overturn the election results and the scheduled vote to confirm Biden, but to fundamentally alter the system. This explains why different statehouses across the country saw similar breaches by protestors with similar intentions. These Trump supporters are authoritarian fascists and would like to end the liberal democratic system and place Trump as their permanent leader. They almost did this, as well. The reason the police were so nice to them is that they were in on the coup. The same goes for the national guard, which took so long to be deployed. Clearly, Trump and his supporters are a threat to the system, and we must mobilize to defend against them.
Countering both of these narratives, I firmly believe that there is no coup happening in Washington, D.C. For there to be a coup, there must be some semblance of a conflict of interest between the security apparatus of a state and those who are protesting. The footage of police opening the gates for the protestors, allowing them to enter the capitol building, taking selfies with them, holding the door open for the protestors as they were leaving are all clear evidence that these protesters constituted an extremely minimal, at best, threat to the American state. Has there ever been a time in which, during an ongoing coup plot for a political leader, that the leader told the plotters that “you are very special, but you should stop the violence and go home”? Why would anyone use a word that implies such an immanent and existential crisis as “coup” to a context such as this? Why would one sound the alarm about a group that had no semblance of a coherent plan to radically disrupt the system? What could they ever have possibly done to upend the system? What evidence of a plan did they have? Literally nothing. Most of these protestors do not particularly care for “ending democracy” — at least explicitly. They have not even begun to think about that. All they want is their dad (Trump) to stay in power.
To call this a “coup” implies a level of coherency to their political plan that is simply nonexistent. Of course, one could respond that all that is required for a coup attempt is the intention of overthrowing the government. And to that I say: I guess. Seems like an extremely pedantic hill to die on. Seems like the use of the word “coup” by so many liberals and even radicals implies (or directly suggests) a level of urgency beyond simply the fact that there are some who potentially are attempting to overthrow the government. I know that I, personally, would only be throwing that word around if they had even a shot in the dark at succeeding.
This event is not the beginning of a civil war. For the same reason, it is not a coup, for the same reason that police are using extremely minimal force on the protestors: they do not represent a serious threat to the American state; they are on its side. This event was a spectacle with only the most minute trace of actual political substance. While they are sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk, those who stormed the capitol building are metaphorically chained up in a cave, pointing at shadows on the wall. Their beliefs contain no reference to the actual world. The reading of these shadows determines to the crowd that Trump is their ally and leader and that the GOP are now their enemy. But why is this the case? What meaningful policy position do these groups disagree on? Surely one could not say that this schism was invented from McConnell’s denial of the 2000$ checks that Trump wanted.
Those who were at the protests were entirely subsumed into an irrational spectacle. As these protestors only listen to Trump, his constant talk of how he has almost overturned the election results have convinced many of them that a protest to occupy the capitol building is the last thing that he requires to finally continue being in power. This is the reason that the protestors could have even dreamed that they were going to tip the scale in Trump’s favour to overturn the election. This is also why, in reality, they had no chance of actually doing so. When Trump claims he has almost overturned the election results, he is lying. “Lying” may be the wrong word, as he likely does believe he is doing so. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally not true that Trump is, or has been, anywhere close to overturning the election. Any rational, empirical observation into the matter shows this. He barely had a plan in November to do so, but in January, it has become clear that there is no chance whatsoever that Biden won’t be sworn in later this month.
It then becomes clear the double-promotional capacities that this spectacle provides. Trump supporters use this event to show how strong they are and how much the establishment trembles at their might if they simply flex a muscle. Those against Trump use the event to smear him and his supporters as almost destroying American democracy in a coup attempt that could have succeeded. Both of these views, though, are false. The aesthetic worldview which led Trump supporters to occupy the capital (i.e., the spectacle surrounding election fraud and the GOP betraying Trump) further branches out to create and strengthen other aesthetic political worldviews.
To further explain this idea: the spectacle obfuscates the real, material world (which, contra Baudrillard, I still believe exists), subsequently creating aesthetic political beliefs. These aesthetic political beliefs generate political actions that are entirely blind and aim at nothing that truly exists. These aesthetic political actions, being as absurd and polarizing as they typically are, create their own spectacle, which can intermingle with the varying aesthetic political beliefs that populate society and embolden them.
People seem to think that a political spectacle cannot involve any violence. I would respond that it is quite the opposite. In fact, typically, political spectacle actually leads to violence. The spectacle is wild and exciting, it is easy to understand, and firmly places the individual that is subsumed into it as one of the “good guys” and the shadows on the wall which they are peering at as the bad ones. This violence is, of course, only aimed at the shadows on the wall. Not at real things in the world. These protestors are a weapon, but one aimed at random with no coherent target. They are an automatic rifle which is firing off into the distance from the hip. This is still extremely dangerous insofar as it can cause people harm; it just cannot overthrow a government (by itself, at least).
The violence the spectacle brings is not violence that meaningfully threatens the system. This is why the protesters could not have hoped to develop a coherent plan. What’s their goal? Pressure the government into making trump president? Declare a dictatorship with Trump as the head? How could they ever feasibly have achieved these plans? Do we even have evidence that those in the protests had a coherent strategy? Regardless of all that has happened today, the vote to confirm Biden as president-elect will simply happen today, and it will not be affected by these protestors. It could not have hoped to be affected by it. If one thinks clearly about the protest, this simple fact becomes apparent.