The Clown Coup

January 8, 2021
Young woman dressed as a scary joker

The invasion of our Capitol building on January 6th, 2021, and the accompanying disruption of the work of our duly elected members of Congress, was certainly an unprecedented and frightening addition to our American history books.

And yet, when added to the list of coup attempts that have taken place around the world throughout human history, this action seems a bit out of place.

The New Oxford American Dictionary on my Mac defines the word coup in several ways, with the first entry going like this:

(also coup d'état) a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government: he was overthrown in an army coup.

And yet, despite all of the terrifying and shocking things we witnessed during this day, the one thing we didn't see was any serious attempt to seize power, or to overthrow our government.

In fact, the end game of the protestors seemed to simply be to storm the gates of our nation's Capitol building in order to… take selfies. And neither they nor their leaders, as far as observers can discern, had any practical or effective plans for seizing or retaining power.

The third entry for coup in my dictionary might at first seem a more appropriate way to describe what happened on this day:

historical (among some North American Indian peoples) an act of touching an armed enemy in battle as a deed of bravery, or an act of first touching an item of the enemy's in order to claim it.

In other words, the Trump-inspired protestors were only interested in making a symbolic gesture, and not in seizing any actual power.

And yet I am loath to apply this meaning of the term to what happened in our nation's capital on January 6th, for fear of giving legitimate offense to native Americans whose forebears no doubt engaged in such actions with more honor and self-awareness than can likely be ascribed to any of the protestors who illegally breached the defenses of our Capitol building on the occasion in question.

In fact their actions, while deranged and dangerous, did not quite rise to the level of any reasonable definition of a coup, or even a coup attempt.

If we're looking for comparable sorts of actions, we might do better recalling the Yippies of the sixties, and the protests outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Of course the Yippies were more self-aware of their overtly theatrical intentions than were the members of the mob that assaulted our democracy on the 6th. But both groups seemed to view political structures of any kind to be highly suspect, and not worthy of serious engagement.

There is, though, I fear, a difference wrought by the intervening years, and not a good one.

The Yippies understood that they were engaging in a form of political theatre, and realized the distinction between play-acting and reality.

For both Trump and his dedicated followers, however, (and perhaps for much of our society in this third decade of the 21st century), there seems to be little cerebral differentiation between play-acting and the real thing.

So much of our public attention is devoted to posturing, puffoonery[1] and empty opinionizing that many of our citizens seem to have lost the ability to distinguish this sort of behavior from actions that have real-world consequences.

But can we pretend surprise? The attack on the Capitol was preceded by speeches from Trump and his associates who were pretending that Trump had actually been elected to a second term by a majority of American voters and a majority of the Electoral College. And they were followed by a long-winded speech from Mitch McConnell full of mock outrage over the actions of the President and his followers. And the following votes included numerous Republicans who pretended to question the validity of the electoral results from some of the states. And the Democrats responded by pretending that Pence and Trump's cabinet might actually invoke the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office. (And the Capitol police, at least to many outside observers, seemed at times to only be pretending to defend the perimeter of the building they were supposed to be securing.)

And of course all of this was preceded by years of the entire Republican party pretending to have the best interests of most Americans at heart.

And then for the last four years our country has been led by a president whose success at every improbable turn in his career has been built upon a towering series of acts of pretense, probably best summarized by his stint pretending to be a business leader in his role on The Apprentice, but leading eventually to his defenders and interpeters legitimizing the notion of “alternative facts” in order to explain his improbable assertions (more plainly referred to as a “pack of lies”), and culminating (with some finality, we can only hope) in the tragic acts on January 6th that amounted to a make-believe coup.

I just read this morning that the CEO of a marketing consultancy apologized for his actions (after being arrested) by saying “…I followed hundreds of others through an open set of doors to the Capitol building to see what was taking place inside.”

This person's perceptions seem to epitomize the moment in which we find ourselves, as our leaders prove willing to open the doors to heretofore unimaginable possibilities, and so many find themselves unable to resist the temptation to follow the crowds to see what sort of thrills might await them just on the other side of those doors, where the lines between fantasy and reality, between observation and participation, between actions and consequences, have all vanished into the smoke of the conjurer's trick.

Make no mistake: the 45th president of our United States, aided and abetted by Republican politicians and right-wing news media, has led many of his followers, as well as himself, up to and even over the brink of a sort of delusional madness, and it is up to all of us to pull ourselves and as many of our fellow citizens as we can save back from the gaping maw.

It is time for all of us to move beyond partisan politics and tribal squabbles to find reality-based common ground and take real actions that will have real consequences.

Nothing less will save our nation.


  1. Yes, I'm aware that puffoonery is not a real word. I just made it up. But it seems like it should be. I use it to mean a contrived inflation of the importance of things and people that is so extreme and habitual as to border on the comic.  ↩