On Wednesday, January 6, a violent mob, incited by outgoing President Donald Trump, attacked the U.S. Capitol in Washington in an attempt to obstruct the democratic process of certifying the vote for the incoming president Joe Biden. This was the first violent attack on the U.S. Capitol since the British in 1814, and it failed in its objective — to obstruct and overturn the certification of the new president.
The mainstream media has striven to find just the right word to describe the political significance of this event, and its historical context. “Riot” seems used most frequently, but everyone agrees this isn’t quite right. Even though a group of people — a mob — can be incited by a leadership to riot, the word implies a spontaneous eruption of violence, generally pointless and unfocused. Think Vancouver 2011.
“Insurrection” pops up a lot, but that isn’t quite right either, even though the U.S. Congress is charging Donald Trump with inciting an insurrection. Though that word implies an uprising against an established government, it lacks certain nuances that perfectly describe the storming of the Capitol last week, the causes behind it, and the sparks that set it off.
The mainstream media has started using the word “putsch,” a German word that entered the English language 100 years ago. While I think this is the perfect term for the events of January 6, this is the first time I’ve ever heard that term used to describe an event in North America — indeed, the first time I read it outside the good old days of the early 1920s.
“Putsch,” from the Swiss German for “knock,” or “push,” took on the meaning we ascribe to it today in troubled Germany between the wars. Journalists started using “putsch” to describe the several attempts at violent overthrow of governments. These included the Kapp Putsch in 1920 — an attempt to overthrow the Weimar government in Berlin — and, of course, Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, where he and other members of the fledgling Nazi party attempted a violent overthrow and takeover of the government of Bavaria.
These actions usually involved the participation of Freikorps, armed private militias made of veterans of the First World War. These putsches were usually crushed by state police (also supplemented by WWI veterans). Freikorps were also used by state governments to crush Communist factions in those days — but I digress.
But what is the difference between all these terms? Are they interchangeable? Why not use “insurrection,” as the U.S. House charges?
Putsch means a violent attempt to overthrow a government, secretly plotted, suddenly executed. But the semantics of that word imply clumsiness and lack of sophistication in the execution. While the January 6th Putsch was somewhat plotted on various social media by some of the participants, and incited and sparked by the “charismatic” leader, the violent participants are as much the subject of mockery as anything else. “Insurrection” implies a greater degree of planning, with a longer game plan than just knocking over a head of government and then figuring out what comes next.
So how about an “attempted coup d’état?” Another great loanword, or term, from the French, meaning “blow against the state.” This is certainly what Donald Trump would have liked with his incitement of his supporters, and certainly what his supporters intended with their attempted putsch. But by definition, a coup d’état involves a state’s military or police force, and quite frequently the state’s political elite is involved as well. They are not interested in changing the social institutions generally, and uninterested in the lower classes. So close, but no cigar. While armed militia, in the American sense, may have been involved on January 6th, the military was not. Nor was the political elite, as defined by those who took part in the invasion of the Capitol. (For these reasons, Napoleon’s take over of the French government in 1799 was more of a putsch than a coup d’état.)
What about English words like uprising, mutiny, rebellion, revolution … Again, these terms don’t have the semantic finesse of “putsch.” President Trump might like to think of his putsch as a revolution, but it’s not even close. A revolution is a capably led overthrow of a government, with the aim of changing the state’s social institutions, and usually the lower classes figure into it, if only pro forma. The use of the term “revolution” implies that violent overthrow and change was successful, however badly it may turn out afterwards.
A rebellion, like a revolt, is yet again an action against an established authority, violent or otherwise, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes planned, of a smaller scale than a revolution, and quite frequently unsuccessful (think the Riel Rebellion).
Now, before last week, the word “putsch” had been almost solely identified in English with Hitler’s famous failed Beer Hall Putsch. Not to compare Hitler’s attempted putsch with Trump’s, but it is interesting to contrast the two:
• The Beer Hall Putsch was Hitler’s first attempt to grasp power for himself and his party. The January 6th Putsch was Trump’s last attempt to hang on to power.
• The Beer Hall Putsch was violently crushed. The January 6th Putsch was relatively unopposed, and its participants mostly dispersed afterwards.
• Hitler was sent to jail. Trump, for all the talk about being charged, will not go to jail.
• Hitler used his time after the Beer Hall Putsch to write a book (in jail) and really get his message out there. Trump has been deplatformed from Twitter and other social media, and can no longer get his message out there.
• Hitler went on to use democratic means to achieve power for himself and his party. Trump’s attempt to hang on to power by democratic processes failed, hence the last gasp putsch.