Joe Biden began his presidency on the steps of a heavily guarded Capitol, encircled by miles of austere barbed wire. There, he delivered an appeal to end America’s “uncivil war” to a public still reeling from the events of January 6, when a violent mob inspired by outgoing President Donald Trump descended on the U.S. Capitol, leading to five deaths.

In the wake of the attack, observers took to debating the appropriate language to describe the political significance of what happened. Was it a coup attempt, or wasn’t it? A putsch? An uprising?

Much of this early debate centered on what makes a coup a coup, and distinct from, say, a violent riot. Coups d’état – the term conjures the image of a military leading the violent overthrow of government. We picture, perhaps, the Chilean coup of September 1973, when military forces under General Augusto Pinochet ousted the elected President Salvador Allende. Or, perhaps, we picture the power grab in Myanmar, in February of this year, that led to sweeping detentions of top civilian leaders. Surely, we ask, the United States was nowhere close to this fate?

To some, this may seem like an obscure intellectual exercise. But it raises a broader issue: there are high normative and political stakes to how we portray, and talk about, political violence.


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