If you live in the United States and you didn’t know what a coup was before January 6, 2021, you’ve no doubt heard this word floated more times in the last week than you have in the rest of your years combined. If you’ve actually investigated it for yourself, you’ve also no doubt realized that determining what counts as a coup and what doesn’t isn’t very straightforward, and there’s often plenty of disagreement and hairsplitting even among the experts. So what is a coup, then, exactly?
Coup, sedition, insurrection, riot — an entire thesaurus’ worth of closely related political terms have prevailed over the course of this tumultuous news cycle. Knowing the difference between them might help you make sense of it all (kind of).
What Is A Coup?
It’s appropriate that coup — which is short for coup d’état (literally “stroke of the state”) — would be a loan phrase from the French, who enacted one of the most historically famous popular uprisings. However, its first known use dates back to 1646, which is more than a century before the French Revolution.
Merriam-Webster defines a coup d’état as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”
Beyond the dictionary pages, however, coup can mean a lot of different things that aren’t necessarily that. Whether the use of the word is appropriate in every context is something that can definitely be debated. But if you take a descriptivist approach to language (that is, words mean whatever they mean according to the way they’re actually being used), “coup” is sometimes used loosely to describe any sort of power grab, and not necessarily a political one.
Since you’re most likely here because you’re interested in the technical definition, then we can start by establishing the fact that scholars usually disagree when it comes to what counts as a coup or coup attempt. It’s one thing to have a definition; it’s another thing entirely to decide whether the messy circumstances of real life meet the given criteria.
That said, most experts would agree that a coup is a seizure of power that is both illegal and carried out with the participation of the military, armed forces, or a political faction within the existing government — not the general populace. It can be violent, but it doesn’t have to be. The most crucial criteria is that it’s carried out beyond the scope of what’s considered legal by the existing government. So, in other words, impeachment wouldn’t count, because there’s a process for that that’s outlined in the Constitution.
There are also different kinds of coups, if you want to get really granular. The Coup D’état Project at the University of Illinois’ Cline Center for Democracy recognizes 12 types of coups. In a case where, say, the chief executive of a country would attempt to seize power for themselves in an illegal or extra-legal way, that would be considered an auto coup or a self-coup.
The Atlantic‘s Zeynep Tufekci explains why having this level of clarity and distinction is so important:
“Part of the problem is that we haven’t developed linguistic precision to put a name to it all—not just to what’s been happening since November, but to the processes within which it’s embedded. That’s dangerous, because language is a tool of survival. The Inuit have many words for snow—because their experience demands that kind of exactness. … In Turkish, we do have many different words for different types of coups, because our experience similarly demands it. For example, coups that are attempted through threatening letters from the military are called memorandum coups. A 2007 attempt is commonly referred to as the “e-coup” because the threatening letter from the military was first posted on the internet. (The one before that, in 1997, is often referred to as a “postmodern” or “soft” coup.) We know the difference between military coups that start from the top and follow the military chain of command and those that do not. The term autogolpe comes from the Spanish partly because there have been so many such attempts in Latin America.”
At the moment, the Cline Center says on its website that “the storming of the US Capitol Building by a violent mob on January 6, 2021 was definitely a politically motivated attack. It might also have been an attempted coup. The Cline Center research team is in the process of answering some key questions that would allow us to make this determination.”
According to the Cline Center, at least three out of five criteria are definitely there, in that there was a credible threat posed to a targeted body that had meaningful control over national policy. The questions they’re still grappling with include whether the intention of the mob was to merely disrupt government affairs or seize control of them, and whether the effort was organized or not.
Other experts are drawing lines in the sand over other factors, such as whether the military or armed forces were involved. Some would say that having a chief executive at the center of the action makes it a coup regardless of the level of the military’s compliance. Others are arguing that the events of January 6 were largely mob-driven by those who voluntarily, not contractually, support the president — thereby making it an insurrection but not a coup. However, a lot of that is also muddled by the question of whether certain members of Congress and the Capitol police were collaborating with the mob (or merely not doing enough to stop them).
What About All Those Other Words?
Here’s a helpful guide.
Insurgency — A revolt against the government that doesn’t quite reach the level of an organized revolution (which, by definition, is successful). An insurgency differs from terrorism in that it’s selective and targeted.
Insurrection — A revolt or resistance against the government or some other form of civil authority. It comes from the Latin verb insurgere (similar to insurgency), which means “to rise up, ascend, rebel.” Insurrection is a synonym for insurgency, though if you want to be really specific, insurrection refers more closely to the organized opposition to authority, whereas insurgency refers more closely to the act of the uprising itself.
Protest — A public expression of opposition or dissent aimed at influencing decision makers, but not actually attempting to usurp or overthrow them.
Putsch — A violent attempt to overthrow a government that’s plotted in secret and conducted suddenly. From Swiss German, putsch originally meant “knock” or “thrust.”
Riot — A violent disturbance that takes place in public, usually involving a crowd of people and some magnitude of property destruction. It may or may not be politically motivated or have any sort of organized intent — sometimes a sports game is enough to incite a riot.
Sedition — Any sort of conduct or speech aimed at hindering the government’s authority or inciting a rebellion against the government’s authority. In other words, sedition is the promotion of a rebellion, whereas the insurrection is the rebellion in action. The etymology of “sedition” literally means “a going apart.”
Soft coup — Also sometimes referred to as a “silent coup,” a soft coup is a turnover or negation of political power that occurs without any violence and sometimes partially within the bounds of legality, usually due to a plot or conspiracy of some kind within the existing government.
Terrorism — Violence or a threat of violence that has some sort of political aim or message behind it. Unlike an insurrection, terrorism doesn’t have to be organized, and it often targets civilians rather than the government. However, certain acts of insurrection count as terrorism, too.
Treason — An act that seeks to overthrow or harm one’s government, especially by collaborating with its enemies. “Treason” comes from the Latin verb trāditiō, which means “betrayal” (or literally, “a handing over”). Under U.S. law, “treason” has a specific definition that states “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason.”