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This was no coup, but it comes far too close

Capitol police officers in riot gear push back

Capitol police officers in riot gear push back demonstrators who try to break a door of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana

If you're wondering whether events in Washington, D.C., constitute a coup, Naunihal Singh, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., literally wrote the book. Published in 2014, "Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups" applies game theory to examine why and when attempts to overthrow governments succeed. In this Q&A, he argues that's not happening right now — but there are worrying echoes. The interview, conducted Wednesday, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You've said that what's happening in Washington is troubling but it's not a coup. Can you explain that distinction?

A: There are three elements to a coup. There's an illegitimate attempt to seize control of the state. Second, there needs to be force or the threat of use of force: It can't be something that's purely occurring through legal or constitutional means. And the third element is the actors, and that is the state security forces. It's this that distinguishes coups from assassinations and violence that involves non-state actors. What we're seeing here is better described as an insurrection, a violent uprising against the government. It's sedition but it's not a coup.

Trump's not using any of his authorities as head of state. He's not directing the military to seize power on his behalf. If no one was there to help him, he would be yet another old man screaming at people on the street.

So I'm less concerned about these demonstrators. I'm more concerned about the politicians who are assisting him and giving him credibility. It's their support that we need to address. Likewise, if the police had treated this with the seriousness with which they treat environmental movements or Black Lives Matter, the demonstrators could have been contained or allowed to protest peacefully at a distance.

Q: It sounds like you're as concerned by the abdication from action by some political figures as by the actions of the protesters.

A: If these protesters were foreign actors of some sort, or if they belonged to other movements, there would have been a very clear sense of moral outrage about this sort of behavior.

Institutions don't function on their own. Traditions don't re-enact themselves on their own. Even with 200-plus years of thinking of ourselves as a democracy, these things can fall apart much more quickly than we think. And America was not a democracy for much of that time. We have an undemocratic tradition as well as a democratic tradition. As someone who is not a white American, and who is a proud small-d democrat, I want to see the people in elected office committed to the principles of democracy.

Q: While this isn't a coup, it's a profound political breakdown of some sort. What are the characteristics that allow coups to succeed, and are we seeing any of those in current events?

A: One of the things that happens in a coup is you end up creating a new understanding of authority. When a coup happens, it's not clear who's in charge, and the people making the coup use that uncertainty to claim they are in charge.

A lot of our social behavior depends on expectations about our behavior and that of others. These are communal understandings, and what a coup does is undermine them, it inverts them. When someone makes a coup they're not actually using their guns; they're saying, "We're in charge and these people are not."

What's disturbing here is that when our collective agreements fray, it creates room for people to contest power, to contest who is in charge and how we treat the legitimate winner. At the end of the day you don't take power by sitting in the White House, you take power because everyone recognizes that you have power. The Soviet Union could continue even when nobody believed in Communism as long as people believed that everyone else was going to support it.

During a coup, when plotters taker over radio or TV, they don't say, "We can win with your support." They say: "We have already won; we beg you, for your own sakes, please stay home." Acting as if they are in control. Part of the reason people rush to support one side or the other is that they're afraid if they don't a civil war might happen.

This is why what everyone else is likely to do matters so much, and why when these things get undermined, the social fabric that upholds authority starts to fray. This is such a ticklish moment. I don't think we will see a coup, but we're seeing something with a faint echo of that. Questions about what happens; who's in charge; who are people going to listen to — that creates an uncertainty as to who is the legitimate authority, who's actually in control, and that creates room for other kinds of actors. And here the person who's undermining belief in state authority is himself the president, which is not something that usually happens.

Q: You talk in your book about the concept of "inevitability of success" as a crucial factor in whether coups succeed. The flip side of that is the idea that the power of states is grounded in the inevitability that any insurrection will fail. How do those two ideas coexist?

A: This was a small number of protesters. If we believed the state was going to deal with them properly nothing would have happened. The problem is if there's doubt about that, it creates room for a very small number of people to have a disproportionate influence. I don't think the problem here is a serious large armed insurrection. The problem is that because the president is giving them moral authority, there is a question about how they will be dealt with. They are both showing that they are more in charge than we believe, and that other people are less in charge than we believe.

Q: You studied the run of coups in Ghana particularly closely, but that country has now been a democracy for a generation. How does a country come back from this sort of crisis?

A: Part of what changed is there was a very clear consensus both inside and outside the military that the military did not belong in politics. Many military officers in Ghana told me how bad military rule had been for them. (Late Wednesday, after this interview was conducted, Ghana's military intervened in a post-election dispute in parliament.) Argentina has been horribly coup-prone but since the restoration of democracy the military has stayed out of politics entirely and nobody expects them to come in. The academic answer is I'm not entirely sure, but I was able to do my research in Ghana because people felt those coups were so far in the past — not chronologically, but because people had rejected the idea of acting that way.

Similarly here, we need to make sure to recommit to the core principles of democracy. How we do that I don't know. All I know is that it happened in the past with the civil rights movement.

The problem is that America is facing a change. I think some of Trump's supporters feel that America is being betrayed — the America that was great was America in the 1950s, when America had a particular idea of who was allowed to hold power. I don't think Sarah Palin could do what Trump is doing. People see him and he looks like the sort of authority that there once was. The only way out of this is to recommit to the ideals of democracy.

Q: We've seen a lot of senior retired figures associated with the military signaling their support for the democratic transition lately, like the 10 former defense secretaries writing in The Washington Post on Monday. What's the importance of those sorts of statements?

A: Gen. Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out and criticized people refusing to hand over power. He's sending a very clear signal to the military actors that they're expected to stay on the pro-democratic side of that. That's done both to send a message to the military, but also — I'm speculating here — to send a message from the military. Military actors can't get up and say anything other than, "We support the constitution," but they talk, and they can send messages through retired officers. This is pure speculation and I'm speaking as a private citizen, but how much of that message is from Dunford to the troops, and how much is key military actors speaking through Dunford?

What we're seeing is an effort by retired military and secretaries of defense to reinforce norms of democracy. I think that's very important.

Q: Joe Biden will become president in less than two weeks. What does he need to do to get America past this moment?

A: I think one of the ways in which you defend the principles of democracy is that you recommit to those principles in a bipartisan fashion. And secondly, to the extent to which there were violations of the law, you prosecute them rather than giving them a pass. After Watergate, President Ford pardoned Nixon. After Iran-Contra there were the Bush pardons, and efforts to move past those events rather than prosecuting. I think that was a mistake. I think you need to hold people accountable for wrong actions. It does matter.

Q: What about before the inauguration? Rep. Ilhan Omar has said she's drawing up articles of impeachment to remove Trump from office.

A: I think it's important for the legislature to treat all of this very seriously. They were invaded. I worry that they won't take this seriously. You see politicians saying we need to move forward as if this happened 300 years ago, rather than this afternoon. I find all of that troubling.

Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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