It’s a coup, call it one

Words matter, and Americans must recognize this for what it is

January 7, 2021 1:04 pm

A protester holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol Building near the Senate Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of a violent uprising by pro-Trump terrorists in the U.S. Capitol, Americans are attempting to process what happened in the hallowed halls of Congress. So far, we know at least four people died, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were planted, firearms and weapons were carried, nooses were erected, Congress was evacuated and overrun, Capitol police were attacked, property of lawmakers was damaged and stolen and more.

Hours later, there is still confusion over what to call these actions. At first, pundits and journalists called it a protest. Then it became violent. Perhaps a riot? Insurrection? It all happened so fast. Then, as the ballots of electors were placed at risk, a far darker picture began to emerge: This was more than an insurrection. This was a coup — if early and poorly executed — baited through months of seditious acts by the highest elected officials in the land, including President Trump.

Americans across the political spectrum reeled in shock. Some outright denied it. An attempted coup in America? Isn’t this what happens in other “less great” countries?


Leaders around the world expressed concern and disbelief. A statement by former President George Bush condemned the acts, saying, “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.” As President-elect Joe Biden took the stage, he cautiously referred to Trump’s ongoing statements as “bordering sedition” and, more firmly, “insurrection.”

But Trump’s words weren’t bordering sedition, they were sedition, and they went well beyond inciting insurrection — he may not have conducted the coup himself, but he was clearly hoping to incite one.

For years, hesitancy to use strong — yet accurate — language has dominated the narrative of the Trump presidency. Even as armed domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol, some pundits and political scientists hedge in calling it a coup, citing requirements of “premeditated conspiracy” and “military involvement.” These sentiments, however, became murkier when around the same time news broke that the woman Capitol police had shot and killed was Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran turned domestic terrorist who clearly came prepared to fight. This, combined with a security failure and a response that was markedly lighter than those previously seen from federal authorities, sadly suggest some military or law enforcement members — current or former — are likely in Trump’s ranks.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a coup as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.” This was exactly that: A small group of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists who, even if temporarily, overtook Congress and Capitol security in attempts to stop the Electoral College. While they will likely ultimately fail — something that arguably can’t be confirmed until Biden is inaugurated — this was a violent, premeditated attempt to upend an election and government. That’s more than insurrection. To paraphrase many others, a poorly run or short-lived coup is still a coup.

Setting aside the many years in which Trump has carefully orchestrated a cult following built on conspiracy theories such as QAnon, in recent months he repeatedly planted the seeds to overthrow election results. From musings on suspending the election to conspiracies of election fraud, the ultimate actions of his supporters have been cultivated with purpose over time. In fact, Trump’s behavior in 2020 became so worrisome that 67 former government officials and students joined together to analyze concerns of transition integrity, acknowledging that much could go wrong in Trump’s refusal to leave office.

Meanwhile, for months users on Parler and other pro-Trump social media platforms sought to organize a “revolution” and “Civil War,” with calls for “blood,” to “burn down D.C.” and much more. Many comments were explicitly directed at the Electoral College, and the insurrectionists targeted Congress on the specific day it was in session to certify electoral votes, requiring the Senate staff to save the paper ballots as they were evacuated before the mob broke into chambers during the count. Moreover, this conspiracy was fueled openly by dozens of Republican elected officials, including Colorado House Reps. Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who for months have stoked conspiracy theories of a fraudulent election, and committing to voting against electors.

Going even further, on the morning of the violent coup, Boebert tweeted, “Today is 1776.” Later, Denver Post reporter Justin Wingerter tweeted that roughly 10 minutes prior to the domestic terrorists breaking Capitol barriers, Boebert spoke on the floor, saying “Madam Speaker, I have constituents outside this building right now. I promised my voters to be their voice.” She was acting as one of them on the inside.

Even after the violent attack, as lawmakers reassembled and votes rolled in during the wee hours of the morning, many elected officials remained against democracy, voting against the will of the people. These officials deserve no place of authority, yet, at least for now, they remain directly in the ranks of government.

Whether it’s admitting our president is outright lying, scheming, propagating conspiracy theories or inciting violence, many Americans just can’t seem to bring themselves to admit this has happened in our nation. We like to say America is the greatest country on Earth. We like to say we are the leaders of democracy. But great countries and great democracies don’t have attempts to overthrow a free and fair election, no matter how small or unsuccessful.

Eventually, I’m hopeful our democracy will persevere, even if its edges are a bit tattered. But this is modern America: A place where violent coups are attempted. The first step to overcoming any problem is to acknowledge you have one. America has a problem, and it starts with Donald Trump. He must be removed and prosecuted immediately, along with removal of all government officials who have supported his attempts to overthrow our democracy.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the wording of the tweet “Today is 1776.”


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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.