To understand the attempted coup that culminated in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, it is useful to go back to Donald Trump’s immediate response to the election he actually won, in 2016. The head of his transition team, Chris Christie, then governor of New Jersey, presented Trump with a detailed plan for the transfer of power to his incoming administration. It was literally trashed. As Christie recalled in his self-pitying memoir, Let Me Finish, “All thirty binders were tossed in a Trump Tower dumpster, never to be seen again.”* Trump didn’t want an orderly transition to his own presidency, let alone to Joe Biden’s. To a raging narcissist a plan is an impertinence, a Lilliputian restraint on the inspired instincts of a giant. But for a seditious conspiracy (or what the House inquiry has characterized as an “insurrection” in its recommendation of charges that should be brought against Trump) to succeed, a plan is imperative. Trump’s fundamental problem was that his putative second transition was every bit as cack-handed as his first.
Two years on from January 6, the most important question about the coup is why it failed. Or to put it another way: If you were planning a future coup, what could you learn from this one? From the evidence accumulated by the House of Representatives inquiry into the attack, two aspects of this failure are obvious. Too many Republican officials in crucial states refused to subvert their own elections. And what we might call the institutional right—Donald Trump’s appointees to the judiciary and the Department of Justice—did not support the conspiracy. Yet the most important factor may be one that is much more intangible. At its heart was Trump’s political persona.
For Trump’s hard-core followers and the legal and judicial arms of his movement, the coup’s fault line ran through the unstable terrain between performance and action, gesture and reality, signals transmitted and signals received. If Trump himself had understood his relationships with those groups more clearly, the insurrection might well have got much further than it did. “Fascism,” as Guy Debord once wrote, “is technologically equipped primitivism.” Trump unleashed the primitive anarchy on January 6, but he was not technically equipped to make it effective.
In his 2004 book Trump: How to Get Rich, the ersatz mogul set out his rules for success. One was “Be a good storyteller. People like stories, and they’ll remember them.” Another was:
In business—every business—the bottom line is understanding the process. If you don’t understand the process, you’ll never reap the rewards of the process…. Part of the process is doing your homework. You have to know what you’re getting into first.
In the business of staging a coup, Trump violated both these rules. He never managed to settle on a good story. And he did not do enough homework to understand and master the process of retaining the presidency after a clear electoral defeat.
A coup, in this context, does not mean tanks on the streets, helicopter gunships strafing public buildings, thousands of people rounded up by soldiers, and a junta of generals or colonels addressing the nation on TV. On the contrary, the story that needed to be told by the plotters of 2020–2021 was not the overthrow of democracy, but its defense. Trump, as his chief of staff and co-conspirator Mark Meadows put it in his book The Chief’s Chief, was merely seeking “to uphold the democratic process.” In any conceivable future coup, this will again be the necessary narrative. We won, they are stealing our victory, we need to take extraordinary measures to defend democracy.
It is important for actual democrats to understand this. Dark fantasies about martial law and mass repression may deliver a certain masochistic thrill. Yet the lesson from the events of two years ago is that, spectacularly horrifying as it was, the attack on the Capitol was not the main event. It was a poorly conceived and (by Trump) badly led reaction to the failure of the much more feasible coup—which Trump just might have pulled off in November or December 2020. He lost that opportunity because he could not create the necessary heroic drama—the one in which he was not sullenly subverting the presidential election but selflessly upholding its real results.
In the fashioning of this drama, Trump had one great advantage—five years of preparation. He had, from the start of his run for the Republican nomination, insisted that “our system is absolutely, totally rigged.” Before both the 2016 and the 2020 elections, he refused, on this basis, to commit to accepting the declared results. There was never any real doubt that if he lost in 2020, he would refuse to concede defeat. We know from the House committee hearings that Trump’s announcement on election night that “frankly, we did win this election. . . . We want all voting to stop” had been planned well in advance. Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, told the committee that this precise intention had been clear as early as July. On election day itself, Trump discussed with the right-wing activist Tom Fitton an earlier memo in which Fitton laid out plans for the president to demand that only the votes tallied by the end of that day should count.
This was the essence of the coup. What is remarkable, however, is the absence of any real plan to enforce it. Here is the first of Trump’s misunderstandings about the nature of his own power. It was not feasible for any president simply to order all voting to stop. What was important to the plot was that, having laid down this marker, Trump and his fellow plotters follow it up by creating and sustaining a story in which any vote not counted by his arbitrary deadline was illegitimate. They failed to do this because Trump stupidly believed in his own fictional creation—the mogul from The Apprentice whose orders will be obeyed unquestioningly by subordinates. It is clear from his subsequent reactions that Trump genuinely believed that those minions would include his attorney general, William Barr, his own federal judicial appointees, and the Supreme Court on which he had created a solid right-wing majority.
What Trump failed to grasp is that, in a sense, he had been too successful. He was lucky enough to be able to lock in, potentially for a generation, control of the Supreme Court by militant conservatives. Their long-cherished goal of overturning Roe v. Wade could now be fulfilled, whatever the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. A second Trump term was no longer a necessity. It was certainly not worth the huge risks implicit in a coup. Trump had too narrow a view of this transactional relationship. He thought state-level election officials, judges, and the Department of Justice would either be bullied into obedience or act as loyal followers. His demand of the DOJ was simple. “What I’m asking you to do,” he said in one ninety-minute phone call to the acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, “is just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.” Hence his fury when Barr announced, on December 1, that the Justice Department had seen no evidence of widespread electoral fraud. He reacted to Barr’s statement, as Meadows’s executive assistant Cassidy Hutchinson told the House inquiry, by throwing his lunch at the wall, leaving “ketchup dripping down the wall and…a shattered porcelain plate on the floor.”
Hence, too, his shock and distress when, on December 11, the Supreme Court rejected what was in effect his last legal chance to overturn the election results. Hutchinson heard Trump “raging” at Meadows about “why didn’t we make more calls,” suggesting that Trump believed that he and/or Meadows could have directly leaned on the justices to do his bidding. Meadows, in his more anodyne and self-serving account in The Chief’s Chief, recalls that “to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen President Trump quite as despondent as he was when I walked into the Oval Office” and informed him that the Supreme Court had declined to hear his challenges to the election results.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this institutional obstruction left Trump with no options other than the final desperate maneuvers of January 6, when he tried to get Mike Pence to refuse to certify the election results and sent an armed mob to attack the Capitol and intimidate the members of Congress. To understand what Trump could have done instead, it is necessary to revisit a long meeting at the White House on the evening and night of December 18, 2020. This episode is easy to dismiss because it was described by Hutchinson as “unhinged” and because the proposals aired at it were called “nuts” by one of the saner attendees, the former White House lawyer Eric Herschmann. These characterizations are accurate. Yet the meeting matters for two reasons. The first is that it immediately preceded Trump’s fateful decision to summon his followers to Washington on January 6. The other is that one of the ideas put forward at this meeting would be of great interest to any future conspirator.
The meeting happened because three very strange people bluffed their way into the White House using what one of them, the libertarian conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne, called a “Jedi-Mind-Trick”—getting a junior staffer to let them in unannounced. They were quite an unholy trinity. Byrne, the founder of the online discount retailer Overstock, was a former lover of the Russian spy Maria Butina, a relationship he later spun into an allegation that he had been ensnared in a deep state plot against Trump. The former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s national security adviser, had pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US. Trump’s sometime lawyer Sidney Powell was so wild in her allegations of extensive electoral fraud (involving both an international Communist ring and US agencies including the army and the CIA) that even Trump’s legal team, led by the not notably sensible Rudolph Giuliani, had publicly distanced itself from her.
The trio’s meeting with Trump lasted for six hours, at first in the Oval Office and then in the president’s living quarters. It was joined quickly by a highly alarmed White House general counsel, Pat Cipollone, and later by Giuliani. It was dramatically confrontational. At one point, according to the account in his self-published book, The Deep Rig, Byrne decided that “if Cipollone moved another inch towards Flynn…or me I was going to bury my knuckles in his throat.” Yet somewhere amid this craziness was the nearest thing the whole plot ever got to a potentially viable plan to overturn the election. Essentially, Trump would appoint Flynn as what Byrne called “Field Marshall” of a military-led operation to oversee a hand recount of votes in the six most narrowly contested states:
General Flynn drafted a beautiful operational plan for such a mission. One signature from the President and the whole thing would roll. The teams would be created from the right National Guard Units, the right directives to each…
Powell, meanwhile, would be appointed as special counsel, with powers to seek out and prosecute those responsible for the gigantic electoral fraud.
The first obvious problem with this movie was the casting. Field Marshal Flynn and Witchfinder General Powell were not credible actors. A better director, then or in the future, would hire smarter performers. The second problem was that the conspirators—both in this meeting and in Trump’s more official circles—could not get their story straight. The idea put forward by Byrne, Flynn, and Powell was that Trump would act on the basis of an executive order signed by Barack Obama empowering the president to take extraordinary measures to protect the integrity of elections in the event of foreign interference. Leaving aside the obvious ironies, the most basic requirement was to create a public narrative in which this foreign power was identified.
Since there was no actual evidence, the plotters were free to invent whatever tale they wanted. Given that Trump had decided months before the election that he was going to claim victory regardless of the actual votes, there was plenty of time to prepare a dossier full of charts and figures and fake “intelligence.” (Think Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.) But the conspirators were like a dog chasing a flock of pigeons—they ran so excitedly after so many targets that they could never catch hold of any particular one. Powell spun fictional tales of election systems flipping votes, German servers storing US voting information, and election software created in Venezuela “at the direction of Hugo Chávez”—the Venezuelan president who died in 2013. Byrne pointed the finger at China, but also claims in his book to have “even tracked the organizers down to a small element, a Leninist cadre, who were staying in a motel together and managing the Deep Rig around the state of Georgia.”
In one of its more bizarre revelations, the House committee discovered that, in the run-up to January 6, Trump and Meadows continued to pursue a theory whose sole evidence was a YouTube post by a man named Bradley Johnson, who, according to Donoghue, “had been arrested for a cyber offense of some sort in Italy.” Johnson claimed an Italian defense contractor uploaded software to a satellite that switched votes from Trump to Biden. Meadows urged the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, to meet with Johnson. Trump’s acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, actually asked that the US defense attaché in Rome “find out what the heck’s going on.”
In spite of all of this idiocy, however, Byrne did have one seriously interesting proposal to put to Trump at the meeting. It was that, having seized control of the voting machines through some kind of military task force, there would then be a live TV event in which all of the paper ballots in the six most contested states would be counted in front of the cameras: “If there are not big discrepancies, Trump concedes. But if there are big discrepancies, we would rerun the election in those six counties, or states, using that federal force.” This was actually quite an intelligent idea. By appearing to commit to conceding defeat if no discrepancies were found, Trump could pose, as he had to do if a coup were to succeed, as the defender of American democracy. (It goes without saying that, under Flynn’s watchful eye, discrepancies would have been found: Byrne writes that he had already “documented” “vote-flipping in the Problematic 6 states amounting to 299,567 votes, just enough in each state to flip the election.”)
Most importantly, there would be a public drama, an elaborate spectacle of “democracy” in action. It is not hard to imagine how Trump’s enablers in the media would sell this show: Why are the Democrats afraid to see what the paper ballots say? The mechanics of this performance remain obscure. How were “discrepancies” to be created? What would the Supreme Court have done? To have a chance of success, the plan would surely have to have been put into effect much earlier—well before the Electoral College met on December 14 to confirm Biden’s victory. Yet Byrne had the germ of the right idea. The best way to steal a presidential election would indeed be through a staged display of democratic process backed by elaborate precooked “evidence” of foreign conspiracy and amplified by Fox News, social media campaigns, and other media. This is the upside-down shape of a successful American coup. Democracy is destroyed by the enactment of its protection. Conspirators succeed by foiling a “conspiracy.”
We know that Trump was sufficiently enthused by this plan to announce in that meeting that he was giving Powell full security clearance and appointing her as special counsel to find and prosecute the alleged fraudsters. But he could not ultimately bring himself to dismiss the objections of his own lawyers. We may never know quite what went through his mind as the arguments continued past midnight. But what we do know is that at 1:42 AM on December 19, 2020, shortly after the last participants left the “unhinged” meeting, Trump sent out the tweet calling his people to Washington on January 6: “Be there, will be wild!”
What, though, did Trump mean by “wild”? How, in other words, did he understand the relationship between his words and other people’s actions? In Trump: How to Get Rich, he claimed to keep on his desk his own version of Harry Truman’s the buck stops here. Trump’s adaptation was the buck starts here. Truman’s version implies that the leader takes responsibility for actions that may have been instigated by subordinates. Trump’s suggests that subordinates must take responsibility for actions instigated by him. There is no doubt that the buck for January 6 started with Trump. What remains to be teased out is where he thought it would stop. The evidence suggests a fatal ambivalence on his part.
We can trace the development of Trump’s ways of inciting his followers to violence through three successive quotes from his rallies in early 2016. On February 1 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he told his fans that “if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” This is a simple instruction from the leader to the follower. It is too gauche, too plainly fascistic.
On March 4 in Warren, Michigan, he used a similar line, but this time turned inside out. As a protester interrupted his flow, he instructed: “Get him out. Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court.” He then asked the crowd rhetorically: “Are Trump rallies the most fun?” and answered: “We’re having a good time.” This is much more sophisticated. The visceral thuggery of “knock the crap out of ’em” is gone. Violence is shaped as an entertaining spectacle, part of what it means to have a good time. And Trump’s instruction is constructed as a joke in which the first part (try not to hurt him) is undercut by the second (if you do…). It is Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife—please!” repurposed as a plausibly deniable goad to brutality.
By March 9, as a protester was led away from a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Trump could address the incident almost as if he were a detached commentator on a sports event: “See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen, because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.” Note the similarities in language between these interventions and some of Trump’s crucial signals to the crowd before the assault on the Capitol. “Will be wild!” is the same promise of an anarchic “good time.” The pseudonostalgic lament that “we’ve become very weak” prefigures his instruction to the crowd gathered for his rally at the Ellipse on January 6: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
It is striking how quickly Trump, as he got into his stride as a political campaigner, developed this form of repartee, with its complex relationship between saying and doing. It epitomizes his broader relationship with his followers. Trump learned on his feet that the smart mafia boss never directly orders the hit—just as his audience learned to read their leader’s intentions, to fill in gaps, to get to the pitch of a performative give-and-take in which “try not to hurt him” means both what it says and the precise opposite. This collusive connection was embedded in a much larger field of signs and signals in which violence against Mexicans or Muslims was not instigated but gestured toward and an actual killing by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, was enfolded in the warm embrace of an exquisite ambivalence: “Very fine people on both sides.” It was this give-and-take form that Trump brought to its moment of perfection when, in a debate with Biden in September 2020, he instructed: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
In the last desperate throes of a failing coup attempt, however, this gift for double entendre became, for Trump, a liability. Ambivalence became vacillation, subtlety melted into evasion. Performance crossed too far into reality, and Trump found himself in a no-man’s-land for which he had no map.
The House committee hearings leave little doubt that Trump knew he was rallying an armed mob to march on the Capitol to prevent the formal congressional certification of Biden’s electoral victory. The plan, such as it was, seems to have been to keep the crowd outside while Trump himself entered the building. On January 2 Giuliani told Hutchinson: “We’re going to the Capitol. It’s going to be great. The president’s going to be there. He’s going to look powerful. He’s—he’s going to be with the members. He’s going to be with the senators.” Why would Trump “look powerful”? Because he would have the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers at his back. The message, presumably, would be: Deal with me or you will have to deal with my barbarians at the gates. This would be a visit from the goon squad in which the goons would be heard but not seen.
Yet this was not the understanding of these armed groups. On January 4 the National Security Division of the Department of Justice informed the acting deputy attorney general that the far-right militants were planning to “occupy federal buildings” and discussing “invading the Capitol building.” Roger Stone, who was liaising between the militias and Meadows from a “war room” at the Willard Hotel, told the Danish filmmaker Christoffer Guldbrandsen, before the attack, that the intention was “fuck the voting, let’s get right to the violence.” The strategic aim was the same—to declare Trump president for a second term—but these tactics were radically different. Trump was still in the world of performance and spectacle: looking powerful. His army was in the world of immediate and direct action. Giuliani thought it was all “going to be great.” Meadows told Hutchinson around the same time that “things might get real, real bad on January 6.” What would be “great” was a show of force. What would be “real, real bad” was not a show at all. The last phase of the coup fell between these two possibilities: too much of a performance to achieve its real-world goals, too hideously real to succeed as a grand spectacle.
On the day of the march on the Capitol, Trump found himself improvising the role of duce that he had failed to rehearse properly. The only thing that seems clear about his actual physical intentions is that he himself was not clear about them. On the one hand, as he began to speak at the Ellipse, he could see thousands of his supporters lingering outside the rally area because they did not wish their weapons to be discovered as they passed through the magnetometers that had been erected to screen attendees. He fully understood why they had those weapons. As Hutchinson testified, he shouted at the Secret Service: “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the fucking mags away. Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”
On the other hand, the most inflammatory phrases in his speech were not in the prepared text from which he was reading. He ad-libbed references to Mike Pence having “the courage to do what he has to do”; “We fight like hell”; and, crucially, “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue”—the apparent promise that Trump himself was intending to lead the march on the Capitol in person. But was he? The answer may be that he “intended” to do so in some half-world between the real and the imagined. Meadows, in his book, writes:
When he got offstage, President Trump let me know that he had been speaking metaphorically about the walk to the Capitol. He knew as well as anyone that we couldn’t organize a trip like that on such short notice. It was clear the whole time that he didn’t actually intend to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with the crowd.
In their hearings, the members of the January 6 committee tended to suggest that Meadows was simply lying about this. They had Hutchinson’s dramatic evidence that, when he was in the car being driven back to the White House, Trump had shouted at his Secret Service driver: “I’m the fucking president, take me up to the Capitol now” and “reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel.” But could this too not be “metaphorical”? It has the air of a man acting out a desire he does not wish to fulfill, a drunk in a bar fight shouting “Let me at ’em” while making sure that his friends are holding him back. Only Trump can ever know what he really wanted to do, but the probability is that he did not actually know himself. He was in a state where the word “intend” had no clear meaning.
In the 187 minutes between the end of Trump’s speech and the time he finally called off the mob, he seems to have lost all sense of the relationship between words and actions, between incitement and murder. He sat at the head of the table in the private dining room off the Oval Office watching the mayhem on Fox News. His reaction to the chants of “Hang Mike Pence” was relayed by Meadows to Cipollone: “You heard him, Pat, he thinks Mike deserves it. He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” Around the time that members of Pence’s security detail were making what they thought might be their last calls to their families, Trump sent an incendiary signal to the attackers, tweeting, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution.”
Trump, at that point, was implicitly providing a mandate for murder. But this could no longer really be called an attempted coup. Neither Trump nor his fellow plotters had the slightest idea what they would do after Pence, and presumably members of Congress, of both parties, were murdered. This was not a plan for the seizing and holding of power. It was a dark fantasy of personal revenge. Oddly, Trump sent that tweet at the moment he really accepted that he was a loser—that unbearable realization made it necessary that someone be sacrificed on the altar of his humiliation. When even that became impossible, there was nothing left to do but cancel the whole show.
If it happens again, it will probably not happen like this. The pilot episode was a disaster because it had no coherent script, too many ham actors, too weak a grasp on the difference between gestures and consequences. But there is much to learn from it. Next time, if there is one, the plot will be much tighter, the action less outlandish, the logistics much better prepared, the director more competent. And the show will be called Defending Democracy.
—December 21, 2022