Kent State history professor discusses coups, insurrections, storming of the Capitol

Supporters of President Donald Trump, including a man identified by CNN as Jake Angeli (center with horns), known as the QAnon Shaman, are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Hundreds of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists linked to QAnon and the Proud Boys invaded the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as lawmakers prepared to certify the election of Joe Biden. In the wake of this event, the words “insurrection” and “coup” were used frequently, both on Twitter and by Senators such as Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger.  

On Thursday, KentWired sat down with Kevin Adams, an associate professor of history at Kent State and a specialist in the United States Army after the Civil War, to discuss insurrections and coups following Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol. 

Q: What is an insurrection? 

A (lightly edited for clarity): I think the casual definition—what you would think of—is a revolutionary movement to overthrow the government, people having guns, trying to depose a sitting government. Legally it’s defined more broadly, it can be that someone is trying to overthrow the government of the United States. But in terms of legal definition, it’s more broadly a conspiracy to oppose or to disrupt the enforcement of federal law or to prevent, hinder or delay the execution of laws, or it’s the attempt to seize or take possession of U.S. property. It’s not simply a revolutionary movement but it’s these other less overtly threatening kinds of acts that constitute insurrection. 

Q: How would you describe what unfolded at the Capitol building yesterday? 

A: Some of the difficulty here is that insurrections usually have intent and some planning behind them and we don’t really know enough about how it happened yesterday. I tend to believe that a lot of these mob actions are stemmed from just contingency in circumstances of which they can take advantage. So, if they can’t get in the Capitol, whatever. But I do think what you’re seeing are groups of Americans who believe that the electoral process is illegitimate, protesting but also willing to use their bodies and their physical force to try to disrupt a process to produce an outcome that’s favorable to their political opinion. 

Q: Has anything similar to this happened in the United States in the past? 

A: It has, not at the federal level —there weren’t mobs taking over the Capitol in Washington— but in southern state capitals in the 1870s. The best example is Louisiana in 1875. There were actual mobs of insurrectionists, seizing the state Capitol and imposing their own governor. This does have a history in the United States on the state level, and just more broadly, I think you see mobs of citizens acting on the margins of federal power trespassing on Indian reservations and taking land, trying to expel the Chinese from towns because they don’t like them there. So, we do see this in the American past for sure.

Q: What happened in Louisiana in 1875? 

A: The Army’s called in to restore order, and the governor who was deposed was reinstalled. But essentially, he’s reinstalled only until essentially losing an election as those mobs will fan out across the state and use violence and intimidation to prevent Republicans from voting in the 1870s and so the white supremacists win through, I would say, a corrupt electoral process underwritten by violence. There’s immediate peace, but the mob essentially wins the day shortly thereafter. 

Q: What is the difference between a rebellion and an insurrection?

A: I think it always goes down to the question of intent and organization. You think of a rebellion as an organized attempt to overthrow the state, an insurrection can be a similar thing, a similar outcome or similar aspirations, but not nearly so well organized. It only requires conspiracy of more than two people.

Q: What exactly is a coup? 

A: A coup is removing the head of state, essentially. It’s an attempt to depose the head of state. So, President-elect Biden is not president yet, but clearly, they are trying to prevent him from taking the oath on the 20th.

Q: When it comes to the electoral college certification and the attempt to keep that process from moving forward, it has been said this was an attempted coup. Is that true? 

A: They’re definitely trying to disrupt the electoral process and to prevent President-elect Biden from taking office. So I think in that sense, you might think of it as a coup. It’s hard to tell, though, what the actual political endgame is. At the outset they wanted to stop the electoral college certification and send the votes back to state legislatures, where the outcome would continue to be uncertain. I think they’re trying to take control of the process and hopefully produce an outcome they wanted. It’s less overt than an actual coup, but you could definitely read it that way.

Q: With votes being counted and Biden being officially declared president-elect, what does that mean for the people who were outside of the Capitol? 

A: I think one lesson, if you want to call it that from the past, is that if you don’t respond forcefully to these sort of mob actions, that often emboldens the mob, because the lesson they learned is they can get away with it with impunity and so they might try again. If people are operating under the conviction that the incoming administration is illegitimate and Biden is inaugurated on the 20th, I don’t imagine that that feeling is going away, and where that might take root or they might find expression is troubling to be sure.

Q: What is your perspective on how Trump responded? 

A: It’s really remarkable. You think of the President of the United States as an office of dignity and power and prestige. Generally, presidents, when these sort of domestic disturbances happen, or even things like natural disasters, etc, they’re there to project a sense of reassurance, confidence, to try to quell passions, bring the heat down a little bit and use the moral authority of the office to produce sort of a more peaceful set of circumstances. And I don’t think his addresses yesterday, his tweets or his video address, did any of that. I mean, he was inciting the mob earlier in the day and his attempts to stop the violence, essentially, recognized the legitimacy of the protesters’ claims and so it’s unlikely to dissuade them from continuing to take action against forces they believe are conspiring to overthrow the Trump administration.

Q: CNN reported many of the rioters represented conspiracy groups, fringe movements and extremists. What can history tell us about the best ways to tamp down these kinds of groups? 

A: Well, I think the difficulty with those movements is that their worldview is being stoked by the Republican Party, by major elements of the Republican Party including the President, and so unless politicians are willing to push back on disinformation and to be aggressive in combating it, that stuff will take root and I think with the internet, the ability for those conspiracies to spread and to be absorbed and believed is greater than it was even 20 years ago. 

And so it really does require an aggressive counter conspiracy campaign and I just don’t see that happening because the passions that animated that group yesterday also votes for a segment of Republican Party politicians who want to be reelected. And I think that explains the lack of courage in some quarters refusing to call them out. It also explains why you’re getting some belated resignations from the Trump administration, you know the damage has been done. They don’t have to worry about it. They want to try to preserve their honor and integrity but like the damage has been done, I think it’s all up for grabs and our collective actions will determine where we go. It’s just hard to see this going away anytime soon, though.

Q: With the contrast between the aggressive response to the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington D.C. and the arguably inadequate response we saw yesterday, what are the big differences between them? 

A: Clearly race, I think. American identity is complicated but I think at the root for many people the assumption that Americans are essentially white. And if that’s your mentality, then people of color present a threat to that identity. You can unconsciously see them as un-American or being outside your group, and that imposes more pressure to police them and to make sure they don’t do things that infringe upon what you see as your birthright, your liberty. And I think that’s been there since the end of slavery, the desire to police and monitor and oppress peoples of color.

Sara Crawford is the Opinions Editor. Contact her at [email protected]