Capitol Invasion Marred Hope of “Peaceful Transfer of Power”

by Jacob Rubashkin January 14, 2021 · 11:19 AM EST

At the final presidential debate of 2016, moderator Chris Wallace asked then-candidate Donald Trump if he would commit to abide by “one of the prides of this country...the peaceful transition of power.”

Trump responded, “I'll keep you in suspense, okay?”

More than four years later, after a violent mob invaded the Capitol, leaving five people dead in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Congress’s ratification of the Electoral College count, we are faced with the question of whether we can call the transition between the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations a “peaceful transfer of power,” even if inauguration goes on without incident.

If we have learned anything over the past couple months (or years, or longer), it is that words have consequences and should be used as precisely as possible. So it is important to decide what to call Jan. 6, 2021, as well as Jan. 20.

Was it a coup attempt? A riot? Was it, as an official Department of Defense document released several days later (and since removed from the internet) said, a “First Amendment protest?” 

I reached out to two friends smarter than I am for guidance on this question. Isabel Hull is the John Stambaugh Professor Emerita of History at Cornell University, and her research focuses on international law, fascism, and political violence. Valerie Bunce is the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government, also at Cornell University, and studies democratization and authoritarianism.

I posed both of them two questions: what do we call the past and upcoming events, and can we still refer to the upcoming transfer of power as “peaceful?”

In the case of Jan. 6, both Hull and Bunce agreed with both “insurrection,” which has been used by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, among others, as well as the less commonly used but perhaps more pungent “putsch.” According to Hull,  putsch, which “means an attempted overthrow,” is apt “even though it was attempting to overthrow a future, legal administration.”

Both were reticent to explicitly term the invasion a “coup,” with Hull noting that coups are “usually the work of a small group of insiders...well organized.” While at least one insider, President Donald Trump, stands accused of fomenting the events of January 6, and there are concerns among some in the House Democratic caucus that their Republican colleagues and/or elements of the Capitol Police were involved in some ways, there is no public evidence that a cadre of government insiders planned out a sequence of events involving the violent seizing of the Capitol for the first time in two centuries.

There is a  difficulty in assigning one label to what was in actually a mix of actors, said Hull and Bunce. Hull separated the mob into several component groups, each with their own goals, and Bunce noted that violent movements often “have all kinds of behavior embedded in them,” ranging from coups to insurrectionist mobs and even to the disintegration of the state and secessionist movements. 

Bunce compared the events of Jan. 6, 2021 to the Oct. 27, 1999 Armenian parliament shooting, when gunmen claiming they were carrying out a coup killed the country’s Prime Minister and Speaker, both of whom had just been elected as leaders of a new reformist government, and six other politicians. The resulting power vacuum allowed the country’s president to reconsolidate power after losing it during a disastrous parliamentary election, and the president has been dogged ever since by accusations he had a hand in the assault.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, most Republicans have resisted calls to impeach the president, arguing instead that the country should focus on a peaceful transition of power. Sen. Lindsey Graham praised Trump for having “committed to an orderly transfer of power.” Sen. Tim Scott similarly said impeachment should be off the table because Trump “has promised a smooth and peaceful transition of power.” On the floor of the House, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio argued it was pointless to impeach the president because there will be “a peaceful transition of power in seven days.”

The question of whether we can still reasonably refer to this time period as a peaceful transfer of power is a straightforward one, said Hull. "In short, I think we have just had a non-peaceful transition of power."

“It is clearly an unpeaceful transition because the effect of the rally and the subsequent actions delayed the Congressional vote,” she said. “Had the actions succeeded, the vote either would not have taken place or it would have been done under duress.”

Bunce cautioned that we should not limit our scope to Jan. 6 or even Jan. 20. “Even if Biden is sworn in and takes office,” she said, “we will still not know if the transfer of power is peaceful.” There are other ways an outgoing president and his supporters can deny an incoming administration a peaceful transfer, she said, from failing to share information with or outright lying to the incoming administration, destroying documents, or “[carrying] out policy and personnel changes after the election that … serve the sole purpose of sabotaging the incoming administration.”

Hull stressed the significance that it appears the president was aligned with the interests of the insurrectionists in disrupting the vote. “It is consistent with his reported happiness in watching the damage, and is consistent with the six hours it took him to condemn, in feeble terms, in a statement written by others and delivered unconvincingly, what had just happened,” she said, “That's good enough for me, and I suspect it will be good enough for most historians who will interpret this.”

It already appears good enough for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

"Somebody talked about a peaceful transition,” said the Maryland Democrat as debate on impeachment wrapped up Wednesday, “There has not been a peaceful transition. I don't know what you're talking about. You're not living in the same country I am."