The Termite Coup

To fully understand January 6, you must consider all that happened before (and after) the attack.

A pillar of democracy swarmed by termites
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Stephen Buckley teaches journalism and public policy at Duke University. He has been a reporter, an editor, and a journalism teacher for more than 30 years.

In 1997, as a foreign correspondent covering sub-Saharan Africa, I was among the reporters who chronicled the march to power of a stout, round-faced revolutionary named Laurent Kabila.

By early May of that year, Kabila and his rebels had blazed across the massive central-African country then known as Zaire. Facing minimal resistance from government soldiers, they had captured city after city and deposed the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in just seven months. In mid-May, Kabila’s forces overtook Kinshasa, the capital. Soon they took control of the airport. Government soldiers laid down their weapons. And Mobutu fled after nearly 32 chaotic years in office.

More than two decades later, in January 2021, I was back in Africa. I’d spent the previous six years in Nairobi as a journalism teacher and editor. It was the first week of the new year. I sat at home, perched on the edge of my bed, transfixed by images from the U.S. Capitol. I was aghast. I was nauseated.

One year ago, I was surprised to hear analysts refer to this burst of deadly, shambolic violence as an attempted coup. None of Donald Trump’s loyalists had seized Reagan National Airport or tried to commandeer the airwaves. Trump’s political enemies didn’t flee the country. No tanks rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue. Life seems to have plowed on more or less normally, with the exception of the stubborn pandemic. Despite the best efforts of Trump and his lackeys, Joe Biden was inaugurated—and remains president of the United States.

The violence of January 6 may not have constituted an attempted coup in any traditional sense, but something fundamental has shifted in the United States. What happened then, and what is still unfolding, is a head-scratching amalgam of both conventional tactics and bare-knuckle political brawling that is just as potentially ruinous for our republic. Life is not normal.

In some ways, what we’re witnessing feels like a coup that will never end. An almost invisible, drip, drip, drip coup. Or, as one friend recently called it, “a termite coup.”

We now know that what happened at the Capitol frames a larger, more complicated picture, one that includes efforts by Trump and his cronies to use state election officials, Department of Justice lawyers, and members of Congress to overturn his defeat in November 2020. It includes threats to create a “national military emergency.” And don’t forget the relentless “Stop the steal” rhetoric. All of those elements together do make for an attempted coup. (There were also the 60-plus lawsuits challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, all of which failed. But this is not normal coup behavior. People laboring to topple a nation’s leader do not typically entrust their fate to the judiciary, unless they have seeded the courts with bribes, threats, or both. They want to crush the system, not test it.)

In Africa and around the world, we’ve long seen the rhythms of coups: the fervent behind-the-scenes negotiations (sometimes mediated by an ostensibly neutral party), the bullying of officials and bureaucrats, the poisonous narrative that corrodes the credibility of the sitting leader while boosting the opposition, the armed rebels.

Trump and his enablers seem to understand the process too. During his speech at the rally that preceded the Capitol attack, Trump championed laws to minimize voter rights. At least 19 state legislatures followed his lead, passing restrictive voting laws in 2021. These new measures are reactionary and punitive, and they may ultimately be ruled unconstitutional. But for now, they are laws, and barring intervention, they will greatly affect the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Trumpists have built on that momentum, embracing the “Stop the steal” absurdity as tangible evidence that “those people” want to take over “our” country. The message has propelled them to run for school boards, city councils, county commissions, and state legislatures, seeking to engage in the very process they condemn as evil.

Meanwhile, those who consider themselves prodemocratic and oppose Trumpism look on in disgust. But I’ve found myself asking: If we’re so angry, why aren’t people in the streets? Just 18 months ago, in the midst of a pandemic, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans marched to protest police brutality and structural racism. We remain enmeshed in both of those crises. Maybe we’re not marching for democracy because we are depleted.

Is it possible, though, that this marathon, multilayered coup attempt has lulled us into a false sense of security? So far, the system has held—barely. State election officials stood strong and certified Biden’s victory. Those lawsuits did fail. The House Select Committee has thus far done its work with fairness and competence.

Moderates and liberals might believe that the Trumpists’ energy will eventually ebb. Or perhaps they think that they did their part in November 2020, and they’re gearing up to do it again in 2024. The Big Lie won’t prevail, people tell themselves. The will of the voter will (again) be the ultimate fact-check. This is wishful thinking.

Whether or not Trump seeks reelection, the stakes go beyond 2024. A University of Virginia/Project Home Fire survey suggests that we are edging toward demise. Some of us think the country may be too far gone to repair. The poll found that “roughly 4 in 10 (41%) of Biden and half (52%) of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.”

The same survey revealed that many Biden and Trump voters “want many of the same things from government,” but “do not see how working with the other side fits into a bigger picture or translates into benefits for them … They are convinced that the other side is pursuing an agenda that is contrary to their interests, principles, and values. They are convinced they will suffer personally if the other side has their way.”

It is hard to find hope in this scenario. I keep thinking back to the coups we’ve witnessed in other parts of the world. Many of those who seek to usurp a sitting leader—even one as corrupt and incompetent as Mobutu was—end up exacerbating the very ills they claim to address, or birthing a whole new set of crises. Mobutu himself had taken power in a coup in 1965. And three and a half years after Kabila ousted Mobutu, he was assassinated. Now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire—teeming with mineral resources—remains one of the world’s poorest, most unstable countries today.

Attempts to upend legitimate authority can lead to unexpected consequences. That’s what we see now with Trump’s “termite coup.” He and his people say they want to revive a sense of confidence and purpose among the body politic. Instead, they seem to be doing just the opposite. They brand their crusade to restore him to power as an act of both patriotism and optimism. The tragic reality is that it is neither.