The Coup d’État Project of the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research initially categorized the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as an “attempted dissident coup d’état.” It also recently announced an additional classification: “attempted auto-coup d’état.” Scott Althaus is the director of the Cline Center, a nonpartisan research center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with more than a decade of experience in systematically categorizing acts of protest and political violence. Althaus, also a professor of both political science and communication at Illinois, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about defining the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
The Cline Center previously classified the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as an “attempted dissident coup.” Now it’s also labeled it as an “attempted auto-coup.” What is an auto-coup?
Under Cline Center definitions, an auto-coup occurs when “the incumbent chief executive uses illegal or extra-legal means to assume extraordinary powers, seize the power of other branches of government, or render powerless other components of the government such as the legislature or judiciary.”
Auto-coups typically involve an executive who is in power but is trying to use irregular means to sustain that power beyond what is legally mandated. They have happened with some frequency in South America. In fact, the name originates from “autogolpe,” which is Spanish for “self-coup.” But auto-coups are a worldwide phenomenon. Of the 40 auto-coup entries in the Cline Center’s Coup d’État Project dataset, fewer than a third happened in South America; roughly a third took place in Asia; and just under a quarter in Africa. The Jan. 6 event is the only auto-coup event in North America since World War II, although one of 24 recorded coup events for neighboring Haiti was an auto-coup as well.
Why was this additional coup classification necessary?
As noted in our Coup d’État Project codebook, a single coup event that satisfies all five definitional criteria can have multiple classifications for what type of event it was. It’s fairly common for a single event to have more than one classification for coup type. Of the 975 events in our dataset, over a third are tagged with two or more of these categories. For example, 114 coup events in our registry are classified both as military coups and as dissident coups, reflecting the simultaneous involvement of both types of actors in a single incident.
New classifications can be added over time as new information emerges about particular events, and this is what happened with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Back in late January 2021 when we first made our initial classification of “attempted dissident coup,” we noted that if credible evidence emerged for the involvement of other types of actors, then additional categories for the type of coup event might be applied. Initially, it was unclear whether our classification for the Jan. 6 event would eventually add more subtypes beyond “attempted dissident coup.”
But ongoing investigations by legal authorities, news organizations and the U.S. House of Representatives over the nearly two years since we released our initial classification have revealed credible additional evidence that President Trump was actively involved in attempting to displace the authority of the legislative branch. This new information makes the events of Jan. 6 an attempted auto-coup as well as an attempted dissident coup, according to Cline Center definitions that were first developed in 2013.
What was the tipping point for the additional classification?
It wasn’t just one thing, but a diverse and voluminous array of evidence that has accumulated over the past two years to show that there was a connection all the way up to the president himself. This new evidence goes far beyond President Trump providing encouragement to the insurrectionists, which was the only information about the president’s possible involvement that we knew in January 2021 when the Cline Center team reached its initial classification.
The body of information that our team has reviewed for this single case far exceeds anything that we’ve done for any other coup case the Cline Center has studied. But that’s partly a reflection of just how complex this event was.
Do you foresee adding any additional classifications beyond these two?
The classifications of attempted dissident coup and attempted auto-coup won’t change. There’s clearly a large amount of evidence supporting both of those. It’s possible that future disclosure of new evidence about this case might be relevant to additional classification categories for the Jan. 6 event. But from what is publicly known right now, the only two coup subcategories relevant to Jan. 6 are the two that we’re already reporting.
Why does this additional classification of auto-coup matter?
Labels matter when it comes to political violence because each type has distinctive consequences and implications for societal stability. Coups and attempted coups are among the most politically consequential forms of destabilizing events tracked by Cline Center researchers. While dissident coups are the most common type, making up nearly 30 percent of our 975 cases, auto-coups are among the rarest at fewer than 5 percent of cases.
But when auto-coup attempts occur, they tend to succeed far more often than the other types. While the success rate for attempted dissident coups is only 16 percent – that is, only 16 percent of dissident coup attempts end up throwing the national leader out of power – the success rate for attempted auto-coups is 75 percent. This far exceeds the success rate for attempted military coups, the category that probably comes readily to mind for most people, which oust legitimate political leaders 56 percent of the time.
In addition to better reflecting the historical record, hopefully this new classification also helps people understand just how serious a threat to American democracy the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol actually was.