We generally associate the word "putsch" with interwar Europe. We think of Hitler’s failed Munich Beerhall Putsch or perhaps early Weimar-era Kapp Putsch. We would never have imagined, even a year ago, that this same term would be offered as a description of potential presidential behavior in the U.S., so often trumpeted as a beacon of democracy to the world.
Yet as leaked tapes of Donald Trump alternately begging and threatening Georgia’s Attorney General, a Republican, show, it appears nothing is off the table for the faltering politician’s efforts to overturn the November 2020 election, which he lost.
Now the world is waiting anxiously as January 6 approaches, and with it masses of Trump supporters called to the Capitol by the president to oppose the certification of the election results by Congress.
What is the likelihood of violence? Or will this be a loud, but damp, squib?
Trump’s motley base of Constitutionally-challenged conservatives, QAnon conspiracy theorists, COVID deniers and anti-maskers suggests more bluff and bluster than viable power grab — something like the street version of his blithering phone call to Georgia. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous, not least when they’re augmented by armed, far right Trump loyalists, and when the outgoing president himself likes to beckon at violence.
Trump encouraged anti-lockdown activists to stage armed takeovers of state capitol buildings last year. He told the far right Proud Boys to "stand by" in case their muscle was required post-election. Could a brawling DC march turn into a standoff in the U.S. Capitol building itself?
Evidence shows escalatory practices are already at play. In Salem, Oregon, a few days before Christmas, anti-lockdown protestors came to protest a special session of the Oregon State Legislature, kicking in windows of the Capitol building, attacking press, and tangling with police.
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Indeed, there’s a growing anti-police and anti-government sentiment among armed far right Trumpists, which suggests their intent for "direct action" will be increasingly unconstrained. The familiar fascist fascination with violence is well represented on alternative social media and communications platforms like Telegram and 8kun, where far right activists celebrated the Christmas Day Nashville bombing with a deranged sense of awe.
There’s also been a spike in chatter about improvised explosive devices, after two such devices were thrown out of a moving truck in Pittsburgh Sunday night. Posts reference Italy’s notorious "Years of Lead," a volatile period of low-intensity conflict between fascists and leftists that left many dead from bombings and assassinations. Others reference the lethal bombing campaigns by terror groups in Northern Ireland.
On Wednesday, far-right protesters plan on converging on DC but in four different rallies demanding Congress overturn the elections — a common tactic to split police response and allow for more nimble, autonomous coordination in the streets. These will include a "Wild Protest" on the Capitol lawn, a march from the Mall to the Capitol, and two other apparently related events.
According to the Washington Post, "threats of violence, ploys to smuggle guns into the District and calls to set up an ‘armed encampment’ on the Mall have proliferated in online chats."
Although the public marketing for the day does not overtly propose armed assaults on police or the capitol, extremist groups promoting the events have clearly called for bloody civil war in defense of an illegitimate continuation of Trump’s presidency, and large crowds can easily provide them with cover.
There is evidence that perfunctory efforts to smuggle illegal firearms into the capital are underway. When DC police arrested Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio Monday on a misdemeanor charge for his confessed burning of BLM signs taken from black churches during last month’s violent protests, police found high-capacity magazines on him.
Tarrio is now being charged with a felony in DC, and although he took the heat for his white pride fraternity over the church attacks, it is unlikely any of his "brothers" will take that felony rap for him.
While Tarrio’s arrest may appear to put a damper on some of the more radical plans going into Wednesday, the Proud Boys are a decentralized gang whose chapter presidents wield more power than the chairman.
Reports indicate that Proud Boys will not wear their usual distinctive black and yellow colors, instead gathering "incognito" wearing all black to appear like the antifa opposition, and may engage in acts of violence around the city.
For counter-demonstrators who want to protest both Trump’s assault on democracy, and the presence of the far right on their streets, it’s unclear whether they have a chance of doing that safely. When antifascists showed up to counter-protest Tarrio and his roving far right, pro-Trump gangs, who attacked passerby indiscriminately, they too were assaulted, with little police intervention.
Scarred by the experience and constant far right intimidation, as well as appeals from state authorities to stay home, efforts to counter-organize against the armed incursion have been fraught. One camp believes that having even an unintentional role in triggering political violence could give Trump and his armed followers the opportunity to move against the elections.
Other activists persist in calling for decentralized actions, particularly in defense of churches and other institutions of DC’s large Black community. Where police and national guard will be stretched thin by the prospect of simultaneous far-right violence against various targets, it may well be that autonomously-organized community defense offers better protection against that kind of mob violence.
Despite his fans’ fantasies of violence and protracted civil war, of imposing their will by force, and the president’s own incitement, January 6 will likely mark both the nadir and the end of Trump’s time in power.
That is not to say that the day will pass peacefully: too many in the deluded ‘Stop the Steal’ camp have invested too much to quietly walk away, and the far right have been coiling themselves tight for a date with what they see as their destiny.
But barring a systemic failure of law enforcement and political will, the disintegration of Trump’s addled quasi-putsch into recriminations and bathos will put a fittingly sordid cap on his failed, single-term presidency.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of "Against the Fascist Creep" (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross