The American Exception
Only here has a right-wing populist been elected and then attempted a coup to keep himself in power
I’ve said before in this newsletter that it’s important for us to make relevant distinctions in analyzing the rise of the antiliberal right. The Brexit vote, Marine Le Pen in France, the AFD Party in Germany, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and of course Donald Trump (and his many epigones) in the United States—each is part of the trend this newsletter aims to understand, each resembles the others in certain respects, and each is distinctive in others.
Here’s one crucial way in which the American experience with the rise of the right is different and significantly worse than the others: Only here has a right-wing populist been elected and then attempted a coup to keep himself in power.
There was some debate immediately after the events of January 6, 2021 about whether what the world had witnessed that day constituted a coup or some other deformation of the peaceful transfer of power. I was one of those who resisted using the term, simply because I associate coups with efforts by the military or some unified front of the military and civilian actors to overthrow a sitting government. What happened 17 months ago, by contrast, was a president inciting an insurrection to keep himself in power. “Self-coup” sounded vaguely silly, so I swore off the term.
I was wrong. And I’ve known it for a while. But in the congressional hearing broadcast live during prime time on Thursday night, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol established it without a shred of doubt. The president of the United States lost the election of 2020. He was told repeatedly that he lost. He refused to accept it. So he initiated a multi-pronged effort to keep himself in power beyond January 20, 2021, when he was constitutionally obligated to step down. The horrifying events on the afternoon of January 6 were a crucial part of that plan, set in motion on December 19, 2020, when Trump tweeted that it was “[s]tatistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
There were other, equally treasonous parts to the plan, including a weeks-long effort to strong-arm Vice President Mike Pence into asserting a non-existent power of his office to reject the certified vote counts from certain crucial states. But as unlikely as it sounds, Pence became the hero America needed at a crucial moment by refusing the president’s attempted bullying. (In response, when he heard on the afternoon of January 6 that some in the crowd on Capitol Hill were chanting “hang Mike Pence,” Trump grumbled, “maybe our supporters have the right idea” )
When this and other Oval Office machinations led by obsequious pseudo-intellectuals like the Claremont Institute’s John Eastman came to nothing, all of Trump’s hopes for overturning the election began to rest on the big protest he had announced for the day Congress would convene to make the results of the election official. Among the most eyebrow-raising revelations of Thursday night’s hearing was confirmation of the crucial role the extremist groups the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, along with members of various local militias, played in the unfolding of the violent events that day.
When asked about the Proud Boys during his September 29, 2020 debate with Joe Biden, Trump refused to denounce the group and instead called on its members to “stand back and stand by.” The group heard the president’s words and responded to his invitation to Washington on January 6. Its members, along with those from likeminded groups, ended up taking the lead in breaking into the U.S. Capitol and attempting to terrorize members of Congress into capitulating to the president’s tyrannical will.
This is one crucial distinction between what happened in this country 17 months ago and what we’ve seen before or elsewhere. The American militia movement is small, but in the early days of 2021, it nonetheless came to the aid of a lawless president seeking to use force to keep himself in power. It did so by attacking the national legislature and threatening to kill elected representatives of the American people. And when this happened, the president himself stood back and stood by, watching expectantly, refusing to call off the armed mob, hoping the violence might empower him to remain in the White House despite losing the election two months earlier. In doing so, Trump ended up injecting a crucial element of fascism into the country’s political system.
I don’t use the F-word lightly. Trump winning the presidency while losing the popular vote by three million isn’t fascism. Trump appointing a record number of judges and three Supreme Court justices who appear poised to overturn Roe v. Wade isn’t fascism. Trump attempting to close the southern border to immigrants and refugees isn’t fascism. Trump’s verbal attacks on the media aren’t fascism (though they could be said to lay the groundwork for it by stoking popular rage against a free press). Trump engaging in the politics of bullshit by lying constantly to the American people isn’t fascism (though it, too, can prepare the way for it by leading voters to despair of firmly distinguishing between fact and falsehood).
But groups of organized, armed thugs allied with the president acting at his request to prevent the peaceful and lawful transfer of power to his successor is absolutely a fascist act. We’ve seen nothing remotely like it elsewhere in the democratic world, no matter how bad the illiberal policies and rhetoric of newly emboldened right-wing populists in other countries have been.
Like many other commentators, I’ve gone on the record saying last night’s hearings won’t have any significant political effect. We all know the basics of what happened. We lived through it. We saw the horror unfold in real time. We heard the president prepare for it for weeks by refusing to concede to Joe Biden and by repeatedly lying about the existence of indisputable evidence the election had been stolen. You were either shocked and appalled at the time by his words and deeds and their concrete consequences or you weren’t. Filling in crucial details nearly a year and a half later isn’t going to change a meaningful number of minds.
But getting the facts straight in the public record is extremely important, as is reinforcing the reality of what happened in the United States in the two months following the 2020 election, regardless of how many minds have been closed to that reality by the former president’s epistemic poison (which continues to be reinforced by defenders in the GOP and the right-wing media).
On January 6, 2021, the United States came far closer to ceasing to be a liberal democracy—or really any sort of democracy at all—than than any other country in the (currently) democratic world. Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil—none of them have come anywhere near where we almost ended up 17 months ago. The fact that it didn’t happen and that we can imagine various scenarios that might have stopped and reversed it days or weeks or months later should be no consolation at all.
Americans like to think of the themselves as an exceptional nation. In this respect, at least, we have fully earned the distinction.
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Some on Twitter have objected to the inclusion of Turkey in my list of countries that haven't experienced an event as bad as January 6, 2021. I view this as a spectrum. Germany has a far-right party that now regularly wins over 10 percent of the vote. France has seen the National Rally party make it into the final round of the presidential vote in the last two elections, with its margin increasing over time. Hungary's antiliberal president has been re-elected several times while increasing his party's control over the media. And so forth. At the furthest extreme (so far), Vladimir Putin rules Russia as an autocrat, and an even more dictatorial one since his invasion of Ukraine. Turkey is somewhere between Hungary and Russia. I thought including it would sharpen the argument I was making. If you strongly disagree and can back it up, I'm happy to concede the point, which I don't think weakens the overall claim about coups being distinctively bad, and one nearly happening here being really bad for the United States.
While you're right that no other democracy has seen anything like January 6th, I wonder how significant that actually is given how few right-wing populist governments have lost power via the electoral process.
Marine Le Pen hasn't won the French presidency yet, and the AfD is nowhere near power in Germany. Viktor Orban's Fidesz party just won reelection in Hungary with a strong mandate. Poland's Law and Justice party won reelection in 2019 with a reduced mandate. Boris Johnson just won a no-confidence vote, and while I can't imagine violence in Britain if he had lost it, or if he loses the next election, the fact is the scenario hasn't transpired yet. Nor has it transpired in Brazil, where I don't think anyone can be as certain things will unfold entirely peacefully. Bolsonaro is polling well behind Lula, so if the ultimate result matches current polls we'll see both what he does and what his supporters do.
Off the top of my head, the only example I can think of where a right-wing populist government lost an election recently was in Israel, and it's true that Netanyahu didn't try to stay in power through something like January 6th. Maybe that's because January 6th was a terrible idea that shouldn't have and didn't work and might have backfired in Israel? Netanyahu, after all, faces more determined right-wing rivals than Trump does (one of them is now Prime Minister). Anyway, I wouldn't cite Israel as an exemplar of peaceful transfers of power given how Netanyahu came to power in the first place.
Turkey is also a special case given its history of military coups and the fact that the army has historically conceived of themselves as the guardians of secularism and the constitution. That aspect of Turkey's history complicates a narrative about populism (and political Islam) as a threat to democracy there -- they *are* threats, but they came to power in the context of democratization rather than democratic decay.
Anyway -- I agree that January 6th was a horrible and distinctive chapter in American history. I just think it's too soon to say that it proves either Trump or America is distinctive among contemporary right-wing populisms.