The January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol Building by the supporters of Donald Trump is often referred to as the ‘stupid coup’.
Political commentators in the United States have continued to compare it to various failed putsches that looked more comical than threatening. There are numerous examples in which men and women, after becoming uncanny victims of their own political and ideological fantasies, launched attempts to trigger coups, only to end up seeming silly and droll.
On many occasions, they had to pay a hefty price because, no matter how stupid their political ambitions turned out to be, they were vigorously taken to task by the state and/or government.
One of the most infamous botched (and ‘stupid’) putsches was the 1923 ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in Germany. It was led by Germany’s future Nazi demagogue Adolf Hitler. It was planned in a beer hall by members of Hitler’s then tiny Nazi party, and driven by conspiracy theories, racist ideas and a complete misreading of Germany’s political situation.
Historically, ‘stupid coups’ and failed ‘insurrections’ have been the product of propaganda and a misguided sense of righteousness
Hitler’s plan was to lead around 2,000 Nazis in a bid to take over the city of Munich, and then march on Berlin and take over Germany. The ‘march’ was a disaster. Sixteen Nazis were shot by the police and Hitler was arrested. Charged with high treason, he was sent to prison.
However, the German state and government, struggling to control a spiralling economy, and the ‘democratic’ media, treated the putsch lightly. There was sympathy for Hitler in various sections of the judiciary as well. Many judges saw Hitler as a ‘misguided patriot’. He was given a light sentence.
His brief stay in jail was rather comfortable. In this comfort he reassessed and then reshaped his strategy which, a decade later, saw him becoming the totalitarian ruler of Germany. Many historians have posited that, had he been treated in the manner in which people accused of treason often are, there might not have been a Nazi Germany or a Second World War.
It was a ‘stupid’ putsch, but one which was dealt with equal stupidity by a struggling state and government. However, this is not always the case. No matter how stupid the attempt to overthrow a government (by triggering a coup), the state often treats it in the most serious manner.
In 1981, just six years after the death of Spain’s totalitarian ruler Francisco Franco, a lieutenant colonel and 150 soldiers barged into the Spanish parliament and held its members hostage. The lieutenant colonel, Antonio Tejero, believed that his coup would be hailed by the Spanish people and Spain’s king due to the country’s economic woes.
But the coup attempt quickly started to look like a farce when the soldiers allowed TV cameras inside the building to beam the coup live. A senior army officer was also present in the building. Tejero thought that he would join the soldiers, but the officer angrily ordered the soldiers to put down their weapons. Then, once the king denounced the attempt, the coup fell apart. Tejero spent 14 years in prison.
‘Political analysis’ informed by conspiracy theories and the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ are the main factors behind ‘stupid coups’. The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. Trump and his supporters were fixated on the belief that the ‘deep state’ was conspiring with the ‘US elites’ to oust him from power and that Trump had enough supporters in the US armed forces who would take the side of Trump’s supporters by imposing martial law and return him to power.
This was a fantasy which, when physically enacted in the shape of the Capitol Building attack, went horribly wrong. It unfolded like a tragic comedy. It even drew sympathy from some sections of the anti-Trump camp, who saw the attackers more as idiots than existential threats.
Yet, the US state was aware that it could not take the events lightly if it were to deter people from ever attempting to violently undermine the American political system, no matter how ‘stupid’ the attempt. Dozens of Capitol Hill attackers were arrested and sentenced.
As investigations into the May 9 attacks on military and government installations and property by the supporters of the former Pakistani PM Imran Khan dig deeper, some startling information has begun to pour out. Khan, his close aides and thousands of his party’s supporters were systematically fed questionable assumptions as ‘facts’ by the party’s own propaganda outlets, spread across various social media outlets and WhatsApp groups.
These ‘facts’ were uncritically consumed by a leader and his supporters who are known to be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect and whose beliefs are heavily influenced by conspiracy theories. They were convinced that the support that the party enjoyed within the file and rank of the military would trigger a split in the institution if people attacked military symbols and installations during a violent ‘uprising’. The split was supposed to oust the current military chief through a coup and instal a pro-Khan chief who would then reinstall Khan as PM.
They had no clue that, historically, the chain of command of the country’s military has always proven to be robust. It is extremely unlikely to ever be seriously challenged from within. The May 9 episode was thus a stupid putsch based on fantasies of a glorious and ‘revolutionary’ return to power of a messianic leader.
What was even more curious was the manner in which the leader and his mainly middle and upper-middle class supporters reacted to the crackdown that followed. They exhibited genuine surprise, shock and hurt, as if suggesting that their class should be dealt with softer gloves by the state compared to how their ‘corrupt’ opponents were, and the common folk are. This, despite the fact that an ‘insurrection’ was unleashed to trigger a split in the most prominent institution of the state.
There is nothing ‘unprecedented’ about the crackdown, as is now being claimed by Khan. The only thing unprecedented in this case is that the state is not hesitating to apprehend some members of a ‘privileged’ class as well.
This is a class of people who, for example, when stopped by a traffic constable for jumping a red light, starts to shout at him in English. This is done to exhibit their special separateness. But this time, many of them were not jumping a red light — they were trying to jump the state.
And no amount of shouting in English will get them out of this.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2023