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Chaos in America: What is a coup d’état?

·8-min read
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A protester supporting U.S. President Donald Trump  jumps from the public gallery to the floor of the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. 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 (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A protester supporting U.S. President Donald Trump jumps from the public gallery to the floor of the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sedition, coup d’état and fascism were the three most-searched words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary on Wednesday as violent rioters stormed the USA’s Capitol Building in shocking scenes.

Also on Merriam-Webster’s most searched words: insurrection, racism, anarchy, riot and terrorism.

Angry mobs of pro-Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol Building today, forcing US lawmakers to abandon the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency.

The pro-Trump supporters forced US lawmakers to abandon the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency.

What was meant to be a mere formality, has ended in anarchy and chaos.

The siege has seen pro-Trump supporters engage in tussles with the police, take selfies in Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office and the National Guard deployed as rioters fuelled by misinformation that incumbent President Donald Trump won the election, and had it stolen from him through voter fraud.

One woman has been shot dead.

Biden is scheduled to claim the Oval Office on 20 January. But today’s violence has been described as the closest America has ever come to a coup.

The background: Months of simmering resentment and misinformation

WASHINGTON D.C., USA - JANUARY 6: US President Donald Trumps supporters gather outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. Pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off Wednesday on President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory in what was supposed to be a routine process headed to Inauguration Day. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C., USA - JANUARY 6: US President Donald Trumps supporters gather outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. Pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off Wednesday on President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory in what was supposed to be a routine process headed to Inauguration Day. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Today’s attack on the Capitol Building follows months of built-up frustration, stoked by Trump’s baseless complaints he had the election stolen from him.

Trump has in recent days exhausted all possible avenues to protest the election result, after launching several failed legal challenges.

And in recent days, a phone call between Trump and Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been leaked. On it, Trump asked Raffensperger to “find” votes for him.

Political commentator Timothy L. O’Brien described the phone call as “what coup fever looks like”.

On Wednesday, that fever hit new heights as pro-Trump demonstrators entered the Capitol Building with claims the election had been stolen.

A dramatic escalation

TOPSHOT - US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen Theater on January 6, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware. - Biden on Wednesday denounced the storming of the US Capitol as an "insurrection" and demanded President Donald Trump go on television to call an end to the violent "siege." (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Biden on Wednesday denounced the storming of the US Capitol as an "insurrection" and demanded President Donald Trump go on television to call an end to the violent "siege." (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Today’s escalation has some describing the violence as an attempted coup d’état.

Former DC police chief Charles Ramsey told CNN, “This is as close to a coup attempt as this country has ever seen.”

Democrat Representative Greg Stanton also described it as an attempted coup d’état.

“No matter how many terrorists break into the Capitol, the President’s conspiracy to stop a transition of power — aided by members of the House — will not succeed. We must return to session and vote down this attempted coup d’état,” Stanton said.

“This is a coup d’état attempted by the President of the United States,” author and presidential expert Michael Beschloss tweeted on Wednesday US local time.

Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo was also among those describing it as a coup.

Germany’s foreign affairs minister Heiko Maas likened today’s events to the arson attack on the Reichstag before Nazi Germany was established.

By 9:30am AEDT, #CoupAttempt was trending on Twitter.

What is a coup d’état, and what would it take for this to become a successful coup?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06:  A pro-Trump protester carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. 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. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: A pro-Trump protester carries the lectern of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi through the Roturnda of the U.S. Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A coup or coup d’état is the forced removal of an existing government, usually through violent methods.

It’s an illegal but calculated seizure of control, with the phrase commonly associated with French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte’s power grab in 1802, and Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and seizing power in 49BC.

More recently, Thailand has faced a coup after Royal Thai Armed Forces overthrew the cabinet, establishing a military junta in 2014. Turkey and Libya have also been the settings for attempted coups in recent years, while a 2017 coup in Zimbabwe successfully triggered the resignation of Robert Mugabe.

A study of coups from 1950 to 2010 published in the Journal of Peace Research found the most common and accepted benchmark for a coup to be deemed successful is if the perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.

Another definition of a successful coup is that it leads to the installation of a new government favoured by the perpetrators, although the University of Kentucky’s department of political science researchers Jonathan M Powell and Clayton L Thyne said this definition excludes coups that are more concerned with changing the political system, rather than the ruling group.

Was Trump trying to stage a coup?

A Trump supporter walks past the Dome of the Capitol Building in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
A Trump supporter walks past the Dome of the Capitol Building in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Today was supposed to be a mere formality on the path to Biden’s presidency, and while this wasn’t a coup per se, it follows weeks of increasingly erratic moves from Trump to delegitimise the election.

He’s blasted the Georgia outcome as “not fair” and repeated claims the election was stolen.

Earlier this week, 10 ex-Pentagon chiefs including Dick Cheney issued a stern warning to Trump amid concerns he would call on the military to help him stay in office.

“The time for questioning the results has passed; the time for the formal counting of the electoral college votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and statute, has arrived,” they said.

But in the hours before the rioters smashed into the Capitol, Trump told supporters he would “never concede”.

The Republican leader failed to condemn the riots until they had forced staff to evacuate.

And in the video posted to Twitter, he said he understood the rioters and loved them, before asking them to go home.

In a later Tweet, he said: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long.”

Trump has since had his Twitter account locked, with the threat of permanent suspension.

What will happen next?

President Donald Trump smiles at supporters after a campaign rally at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, early Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Incumbent US President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The question now is, “What happens next?”

Rioters today were heard saying “This is it!” and “Take back our house!” as they forced their way into the building and shut down the democratic process. The violence has left one woman dead and Washington DC police say 13 people have been arrested so far.

Twitter has added new warnings to Trump’s tweets, describing his tweets as having a “risk of violence”.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution found that a history of protests increase the risk of coups as they ease coordination obstacles, while another study in 2020 also published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution found that the state of the economy could determine whether a coup occurred following an election.

It found that elections occurring during economic instability were more likely to trigger coups than those in times of prosperity.

Washington DC police say the US Capitol Building is secure and a 12-hour curfew has come into force in the United States Capital from 6pm local time.

Calls are being made for US Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office.

For America’s democracy, there’s a long night ahead.

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