The Dumbest Coup Attempt

America was saved by pure indolence.

A close-up of Donald Trump speaking
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Yesterday Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, told the House’s January 6 committee that Donald Trump knew rioters were armed, and urged them to go to the Capitol anyway. But the most surprising element of her testimony was her claim that Trump lunged for the steering wheel of his armored limousine and tried to force his Secret Service detail to take him to the Capitol. “I’m the f-ing president,” she said he told his chief bodyguard. “Take me up to the Capitol now.” The agent refused. If true, I believe this would be the first known example of Trump’s physically exerting himself when not on a golf course. It would also be the first instance of his volunteering to join a melee, rather than just letting one erupt in his name at a safe distance.

Coup leaders usually fail visibly, definitively, unambiguously. You don’t need committees to verify who led a coup when the plotters declare their seditious intent, as Hitler did in the beer hall, by punctuating it with a gunshot into the ceiling. I hope it does not sound like I am diminishing the gravity of January 6 when I say that it was among the dumbest coup attempts in history—not because it was destined to fail but because of the trivial reason it was destined to fail. That reason is Trump’s incredible laziness and complete aversion to personal risk. I struggle to think of another putsch that was doomed in quite this way. A whole party prostrated itself before its leader. Lawyers confected idiotic, barely-even-trying justifications. And thousands of people stood ready in the streets to escalate the violence and stop legitimate politics from proceeding. But Trump himself, the one plotter whose vigorous participation was absolutely necessary, seems to have spent most of that day watching TV and ignoring texts.

The January 6 hearings, culminating yesterday with Hutchinson’s testimony, have thrilled many Trump opponents. They must be easily amused. Was there any doubt about Trump’s amorality? The most striking aspect of the timeline now established is not the revelation of guilt but the long-known fact that the country was saved by pure indolence. The protagonist of this coup de cons appears to have tried to topple the government without issuing the orders that would allow a coup to succeed. Such actions—say, telling the Joint Chiefs, “I’m in charge indefinitely; ignore Joe Biden,” or putting Mike Pence under house arrest, or canceling the upcoming inauguration—would have, in any other coup, rendered a House committee superfluous. Instead our slothful president watched the fight in the executive branch play out, and waited to see if someone else would do these things for him, and assume all legal blame. (I said he was slothful, not stupid.)

Hutchinson told the committee that Trump thought Pence “deserve[d]” to be besieged by a crowd baying for his death, and that Trump wanted to remove metal detectors in the area, because the armed mob was after his enemies, and not him. These details sound like the Trump we have all grown to love and hate (and, frankly, are much more in-character than growling defiantly at his Secret Service agents, like Harrison Ford in Air Force One). This Trump is borderline sociopathic in his indifference to the suffering of others; willing to destroy any norm or institution that inconveniences him; and, in the end, unwilling to shift himself from a seated position except to receive the unconditional devotion of throngs of credulous supporters.

Laura Ingraham of Fox News warned Meadows that by not stopping the sack of the Capitol, Trump was “destroying his legacy.” Efforts like these apparently left Trump unmoved. And why should he have been moved? No one has been better at predicting Trump’s legacy than Trump. The advice that Trump never received, and that might have gotten him to stop the rioting sooner, is the advice that many failed coup-plotters in other countries have failed to heed. Sir, you are subverting the government—an unambiguous criminal act that will, if unsuccessful, end with your imprisonment or even execution.

He did not receive that advice, because it did not apply. I suspect that Trump committed serious crimes in the days or weeks after the election, and that no one would call those crimes sedition were it not for what came later. What came later was January 6, a real coup attempt, and on that day Trump outsourced all overt criminality. He avoided firing his own gun at the ceiling. He had bullied allies and enemies and made bad-faith arguments, and now welcomed the murder of the vice president. According to Hutchinson, he asked the Secret Service to remove obstacles to a coup. Does this act amount to insurrection? The Department of Justice, busily investigating Trump’s associates, seems to think the answer is maybe. The House committee has so far declined, wisely, to say either way.

Some people confront these facts and see a stone-cold political criminal. I see a lazy bastard who could not believe his luck—that he had yet again managed to get others to do what he dared not do himself. Maybe Trump will be charged, and maybe those charges will stick. My worry is that what saved American government from existential disaster was not its political institutions (which nearly collapsed) or the honor of its people (who were as nutty and bestial as any). It was the lassitude and cowardice of a single orange-tinted individual who spent most of the coup doing … nothing. The next bastard might not be quite as gutless.