"Stop the Steal" means "Start the Coup": Experts on Trump's Jan. 6 coup plot and the power of denial

January 6 was Trump's coup attempt, and it was serious. So why are Americans reluctant to say so?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 17, 2021 9:01AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the most basic sense, a coup is an illegal takeover of government power by an individual or faction.

A coup can be attempted by members of the existing government and political system or those outside of it. A coup can also involve both groups working together towards the same goal of overthrowing the government.

The connotative meaning, symbolism, and emotional valence of the word "coup" is something much broader: for Americans a "coup" is something that happens in other countries — "over there," not in the world's "greatest democracy." More generally, a "coup" summons up ideas and feelings of social disorder and chaos, a broken democracy or other form of government, and a country to be looked down upon as some type of failed state in the so-called Third World.

On January 6, then-President Donald Trump, his Republican co-conspirators in Congress, allies in other parts of the United States government, and followers attempted a coup to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and Joe Biden's victory.

The last few days have seen more revelations about the Trump regime's lawlessness and just how perilously close Trump and his allies came to succeeding in their attempt to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. The American people and the world now know that Donald Trump's agents were pressuring the Department of Justice to intervene by "proving" that Biden won the election because of widespread "voter fraud."

Documents obtained by the House Oversight and Reform Committee include a draft memo that was to be submitted by the Department of Justice to the Supreme Court which argued that the 2020 Election results should be nullified.

Moreover, other questions still remain about the events of January 6, such as how the Trump regime was able to so easily demobilize the United States military and why dozens of repeated warnings about a violent attack by Trump's followers on the Capitol were ignored.

Instead of speaking plainly and directly about the Trump regime's coup, many in the mainstream news media, and among America's political class more generally, have avoided using such language. When the coup was imminent, they dismissed it as something "impossible" and "ridiculous" and "fearmongering" by people afflicted with "Trump derangement syndrome."

When the coup and attack on the Capitol finally occurred, many of those same voices called it an "insurrection" or a "mob action" by Trump supporters who "didn't really have a plan." This too is incorrect: Trump's attack force included highly motivated and trained elements who acted in a precise fashion with the goal of capturing Mike Pence, whom they threatened to kill, along with other Republicans deemed to be "traitors" and Democrats. Trump's attack force was also attempting to start a civil war, and at the very least to disrupt the certification of Biden's victory with the goal of creating the conditions for Trump to declare a national state of emergency.

As the horrors of January 6 became even more clear, the chattering class and America's political elites then tried to dismiss the coup as "frightening" but not a "real threat" to the country's democracy. Too many other public voices have also defaulted to the weak and absurd claim that Trump's coup "failed" and "could not have succeeded any way" because of "institutions" — which in their collective mind somehow minimizes the existential peril facing the country's democracy.

And even with these new revelations about Trump and his regime's high crimes, members of the country's political class are still desperately trying to avoid using the word "coup" in a sustained and serious way because to do so would then necessitate questions about investigations, public hearings, trials — along with the threat of punishment — for Donald Trump and his regime.

The Democrats very much want to "move on" from January 6 because they see it as a distraction from their policy agenda. The Republicans are complicit and do not want to implicate themselves by having proper investigations – and are still using the Big Lie to attack American democracy and freedom in what is an on-going coup. The American people are divided on basic questions of reality, which means that there is no agreed upon narrative about January 6 and the Trump regime's attempt to overthrow the country's multiracial democracy and the rule of law. In total, America is being besieged by organized forgetting about the Trump's regime's coup attempt on January 6, and the horrors of the Age of Trump, more generally.

In an effort to better understand why so many Americans are afraid to use the word "coup" to describe the events of January 6 and beyond, I asked several experts from a range of backgrounds for their insights on this social and political dynamic of evasion and denial.

David Rothkopf, political commentator, author of "Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump," and cohost of the podcast "Deep State Radio":

At first glance it seems that we were so shocked by the coup attempt that we froze. But with each passing day, as evidence that it was not only a coup attempt but a vast conspiracy involving multiple crimes at the federal state level, the question grows more urgent. Why are we so inert? Why the inaction? For the GOP, it is easy. They are afraid of complicity and suffering the grim political fate they so richly deserve. But why don't Democrats act? Are they afraid of appearing too "partisan?" Afraid of alienating the few Republicans who might support their legislative agendas? Afraid of a public backlash or giving more bandwidth to Trump and the Trumpists? Whatever the excuse, it is lame. The reality is inaction will just make the past into prelude, yesterday's coup into tomorrow's autocracy.

Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a columnist and contributing editor for The Atlantic, and author of "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

The evidence keeps piling up, and is now crystal clear. Donald Trump, Mark Meadows and their allies were dead serious about overturning the election and installing a coup-driven presidency. Trump's conversation on January with Kevin McCarthy makes it clear that if this took many deaths of members of Congress and even Mike Pence, that was a price he would pay. There is undoubtedly more to come, including with top officials at DOD. We came much closer to a genuine violent coup than we knew.

Andrea Chalupa, journalist and author of "Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm." She is also the cohost of the podcast "Gaslit Nation":

I think a number of factors have normalized the coup for many people in the U.S., including many elites, especially in the media. For one thing, political violence has already been normalized through mass shootings and the gun violence epidemic, which are propped up by the Republican Party and the NRA. Another factor is that most white people in America — and the media and elites are mostly made up of white people — haven't had to deal with the realities of authoritarianism, so to them, they're still expecting an exit ramp and some return to normalcy.

Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University, and author of "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them" and "How Propaganda Works":

Time and again in recent years, too many have avoided and even derided terminology that is perfectly adequate to describe our times; "authoritarianism," "autocracy," "anti-democratic," "racist" and "fascist" — all of these are accurate to describe the formation that is building in the modern Republican Party. Democratic party politicians have shied away from the accurate terminology because they wish to signal civility and bipartisanship, at a time when voters they wish to woo have clearly indicated a preference for strength. Others have simply failed to recognize and update on the authoritarian threat, mocking those who take the Trumpist faction seriously. As evidence emerges that the country narrowly avoided a coup, and the mechanisms that would have enabled that coup are now being legalized in bills passed across the country, the willful denial of the anti-democratic threat posed by the GOP must increasingly be seen as a form of complicity.

Jared Yates Sexton, political commentator and author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People" and "The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage." He is the co-host of the "Muckrake Political Podcast":

The denial by media, politicians and Americans at large of what January 6 meant and what it represented — namely an attempted coup and overthrow of a presidential election — is driven by an unwillingness to reckon with just how perilous of a moment we're living in but also how our history is riddled with antidemocratic actions. This isn't the first time our system has been imperiled. It is a canary in the coal mine moment that tells us we are dangerously close to a troubling and dangerous conclusion to representative government.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center. He is the author of "Bush on the Couch" and "Obama on the Couch." His most recent book is "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President":

The country is faced with intensified efforts to force a coup to take over the government. "Stop the Steal" means "Start the Coup." One fundamental psychological challenge facing all presidents is to help citizens contain their anxiety and fear — both of which risk replacing thought with action.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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