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Police seen around Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Police seen around Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Trump, the Coup, and the Collusion That Made It Possible

It will be hard to disentangle the levels of causal, moral, and legal responsibility, and harder still to repair the damage.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

The U.S. Capitol building was assaulted and occupied this past Wednesday, by an angry and violent insurrectionary mob incited by Donald Trump and his closest family members and cronies.

Was it a “coup?” Republican House member Adam Kinzinger said so. Many have called it that. Republican Senator Mitt Romney called it an “insurrection.” Many have used this term as well. We can argue about which terms best apply and how, and also about the moral and legal implications of applying such terms. What is beyond argument is a fact: there was a violent takeover of Congress–the representative arm of the U.S. government–as it was discharging its constitutional duties, and this takeover was incited by, and then justified by, Donald Trump, the sitting president of the U.S. [I note here his subsequent, belated, so-called “hostage video” in which he called for peace, but only parenthetically, for I regard it as irrelevant in legal, moral, and political terms.]

Trump must be constrained, and eventually held legally and criminally accountable, in every way possible.Trump poses a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy in the U.S., and indeed he now clearly poses a clear and present danger to simple civil peace and legal order. He is the primary instigator of this debacle, he deserves to be named and shamed, and to be removed from office. And we deserve to be free of him and the danger he poses, and now. Talk of the 25th Amendment is appropriate and necessary. Talk of impeachment is appropriate and necessary. And, short of these legitimate steps, it is essential that those who occupy the central positions in the U.S. government fulfill their duty to uphold the Constitution, which right now means ensuring that Trump does no harm and then quietly departs. They need to do all that they can to hedge in the madman, and to make clear to all subordinates that we are in the middle of a democratic transition and that orders that disturb the status quo ante will not be followed.

Trump must be constrained, and eventually held legally and criminally accountable, in every way possible.

At the same time, Trumpism, and indeed “Trump” himself the politician,  has never been simply a matter of Donald Trump the individual, even if, paradoxically, it has largely been about subservience of millions of people and major institutions to the corrupt will of Trump the individual.

And what happened this week involved a broader and deeper danger that far exceeds Trump. 

What happened involved a massive collusion of a great many actors to overthrow the legitimate results of the November presidential election, to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, and thus to overthrow constitutional democracy itself.

Collusion. The word appears inescapable in the age of Trump.

According to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, “collusion” means “secret cooperation for a fraudulent or deceitful purpose.” The term, broadly, refers to a kind of collaboration that is somehow nefarious in ways that at least skirts illegality. “Collusion” has been a central theme of the Trump administration, motivating the Mueller Report investigation into 2016 ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow, and laying in the background of the House impeachment of Donald Trump for working behind the scenes to extort the government of Ukraine for personal benefit.

As we know, the Mueller Report did not find any evidence of collusion. But this is because “collusion” is not a relevant legal category and so, as a point of law, it was never treated as a relevant consideration. The Report was unable to conclude that the Trump campaign had conspired with Moscow to win the election. There was insufficient evidence to support such a legal charge, which required evidence of conscious and very explicit agreement to bring about an illegal end. 

Trump, Barr, and their cronies loudly screamed “no collusion, no collusion!” 

But in fact, while the Mueller investigation did not address collusion, it furnished extensive evidence of collusion in the only relevant, colloquial meaning of the term: “secret cooperation for a fraudulent or deceitful purpose.”

Trump apparently cannot resist engaging in collusion, either to questionably win election then or to obstruct a decisive election loss now. 

And the real danger presented by this week’s assault on Congress and ransacking of the Capitol is that it represents a massive collusion, one that has been sometimes hidden, and sometimes very public, and has involved both explicit calls to and plans for insurrection, and less explicit encouragements and incitements to engage in activities that intersect with the explicit calls, and all of these efforts converged in a perfectly predictable storm to generate the event we witnessed this past Wednesday.

This collusion involves many parties, so many that it raises big questions about the political system itself.

First, of course, there is Trump himself who, along with his despicable progeny and malevolent advisers, has promoted conspiracy theories and levelled accusations and threats against opponents and encouraged and incited “wild” conduct and an angry march on the Capitol. Trump did not have to say “assault the Congress” in order for his words to have this effect and for him to know that his words would have this effect.

Second, of course, was the mob itself, many thousands of angry and violent individuals who descended upon the Capitol under the banner of “stop the steal,” i.e., who willingly engaged in collective action intended to physically obstruct Congress from doing its duty, to prevent the election from moving forward to a peaceful transfer of power, and thus to overthrowing the Constitution.

Third were the groups that mobilized these individuals, and prepared them for the riot that was clearly planned in advance—groups such as Proud Boys, Turning Pont Action, Stop the Steal, Tea Party Patriots and a wide range of local Q-anon, conspiracist, and militia groups. The rioters came prepared, with gear and explosives and arms and knowledge of the Capitol building complex itself, the location of Nancy Pelosi’s office, etc. And the groups that mobilized these individuals had been planning this event for months, something that has long been known by all levels of law enforcement, as has been reported by Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins for NBC News, among many others.

Many of these groups also organized similar forms of “stop the steal” intimidation across the country—in Michigan, Georgia, Washington state, etc., timed to coincide with The Big Event at the Capitol. Many of these groups comprise a network of violent right-wing hate groups and militias that has been on the rise in recent years, that has been involved in efforts to kidnap Democratic Governors, and that has indeed been identified by the current FBI Director as the primary terrorist threat we face. These fascists have made clear that this week’s insurgency is the beginning, not the end, of their effort to challenge an election they consider illegitimate. And these groups have demonstrated a facility at using social media to organize themselves that surely ought to give all believes in constitutional democracy pause.

It is now clear that if much collusion was necessary for the insurrection to commence, further collusion was necessary to allow it to succeed so quickly.But the insurrection also includes some very establishment Republican organizations. It has been reported that the Rule of Law Defense Fund, an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, was involved in mobilizing for the riot. The group apparently put out a Robocall urging people to “march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal,” and indeed the leader of the group, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, has apparently acknowledged this effort, claimed it was undertaken by “rogue” staff members without authorization, and is promising an investigation.  

We know that many Republican state and local leaders, including elected public officials, have been heavily involved in “Stop the Steal,” and that at least some of them participated in the march. Indeed, most Republican members of the House and the Senate have strongly supported “stop the steal” for weeks and months. The effort to obstruct the Electoral College Count was a very organized and very public effort that involved a dozen Senators and over 140 Representatives, most of whom continued to obstruct even after the riot had taken place. At least a few, most notably Congressmen Mo Brooks, spoke at the rally before the march, calling upon marchers to “start kicking ass” (Brooks has since doubled down on his support for violence).  Most of these Republican leaders were probably uninvolved in the planning of the march and the riot. But all of them supported the rally, its angry rhetoric, and the march on the Capitol. Most of them have been telling the people who assaulted the Congress—and them!—that that they are the true patriots, and that Biden’s presidency must be stopped, the Constitution be damned. There can be no doubt that every Republican leader, at every level, who has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election and has demanded its overturning, is responsible for the toxic and angry situation that erupted in violence on Wednesday.

These are the principal political actors who colluded, broadly, to create the violent situation at the Capitol. Some explicitly intended violence. Some knew that violence was possible but considered it a risk worth taking, and considered its costs to be less troubling than the possibility of a Biden presidency. Some were perhaps clueless about the practical effects of their incendiary rhetoric and manifest public support for illegality.  All played an indispensable role, and all remain on the political scene, poised to do more of the same.

But there is more.

It is now clear that if much collusion was necessary for the insurrection to commence, further collusion was necessary to allow it to succeed so quickly.

A few things are clear.

One is that the Washington, D.C. mayor, and other D.C. public officials, explicitly requested that the federal government coordinate law enforcement efforts in the city and on the scene, and that these requests, made weeks ago, were ignored.

A second is that orders were given in advance by federal authorities that federal national guard forces should stand by but not deploy, should not be armed, and should not engage any violence if deployed, etc. In other words, someone in the Executive Branch, presumably the Secretary of the Army, clearly anticipated the possibility of deployment and sought to forestall it, and limit its effectiveness, in advance.

A third is that, as Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan has very publicly stated, when the Pentagon was phoned by him, as per procedure, to authorize the deployment of Maryland National Guard, he received no response for almost two hours, and then received a rushed response outside of normal channels. 

In short, while the insurrection was going on, and Hogan had National Guard troops ready to deploy, and requested proper authorization, he was denied authorization.  The Pentagon refused to authorize National Guard deployment for almost two hours while the Capitol building was being rampaged by rioters.  There were decisions taken to produce this “nondecision.” There are authorities, and institutions, who were clearly responsible for non-action in the protection of the Congress and the enforcement of federal law.

There is complicity here at the highest level. And a kind of collusion, between the relevant Pentagon officials and, on the one hand, their insurrection-instigating boss, and on the other hand the rampaging mob, who were allowed free reign on federal property by federal forces.

And finally, if there was complicity at the highest level of law enforcement, there was also complicity at the lowest level, at the level of the behavior of certain members of the Capitol Police itself. It is clear from video footage that some officers cooperated with or gave aid to rioters. Maggie Haberman reported in a Tweet that “cops gave rioters directions to Schumer’s office but aimed a gun at a photographer and didn’t believe she was a journalist.” And clearly the effective employment of police force, and the number of arrests, was paltry given the thousands of rioters, the importance of the Capitol, and the fact that the riot was an insurrection that endangered the lives of members of Congress.

As Todd Gitlin argues in yesterday’s USA Today, at every level of law enforcement, huge questions remain to be answered about how this insurrection was allowed to proceed, and succeed, for so long.

When you put it all together, what you have is a vast, right-wing collusion to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power by mobilizing a violent assault on Congress and then standing back and standing by for hours while the assault proceeds.

Clearly this organized effort was in many ways feckless. Clearly it did not succeed in overthrowing the government or even obstructing Congressional certification of the November election. Clearly it was not a “coup” in the sense of a carefully-executed plot, by elements of the armed forces, to seize control of the apparatus of the state. It was insurrectionary, and seditious, and it did involve the attempt to obstruct constitutional processes. There is no doubt that few of its protagonists, probably including Trump, had very clear ideas about what the outcome was likely to be. Some, including Trump, might have believed that it would pressure Pence, and his Congressional allies, to somehow invalidate Biden’s victory. Some probably hoped for nihilistic destruction, and perhaps a violent repression that would justify further armed insurrection. It is possible that Trump himself hoped for such a scenario, that this is why federal forces were held back, and that he was hoping that the insurrection would provoke a crisis sufficient to allow him to declare martial law—as his “reasonable” and “constitutional” ally Tom Cotton has long supported.

As with all such events, a range of intentionalities and mixed motives and vague sentiments and powerful passions were brought together to generate a mobilization whose proximate outcome was obscure, and whose ultimate outcome is yet to be seen. But there can be no doubt that this event was violent and very public assault on constitutional democracy that implicates a great many actors, organizations, and institutions.

It will be hard to disentangle the levels of causal, moral, and legal responsibility, and harder still to repair the damage.

There are dark times ahead.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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