On Jan. 6, millions of people around the world witnessed a modern-era insurrection as it unfolded in the United States. Supporters of Donald Trump, the outgoing president, raided the Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of the November 2020 presidential election results.
The insurrection was the worst incidence of election-related violence in the U.S. since 1920, and the first time the Capitol has been attacked by its own citizens.
Former president George W. Bush, the last Republican president prior to Trump, condemned the event, stating: “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic.”
Another Republican, Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher, a Trump loyalist, agreed:
What exactly are banana republics?
They typically force changes in government via coup or assassination in order to seize power. They often have populist leaders or strongmen who take power by force or refuse to relinquish it. Banana republics are therefore politically unstable, with unreliable transfers of power and frequent assassinations.
Successful coups result in a change of government, while assassinations, obviously, result in a change in leader, which may or may not be sufficient to cause the incumbent government to fail.
So has America become a banana republic?
Term applied to Honduras
The term was coined by American author O. Henry in his short story The Admiral to describe Honduras. At the time, the Central American country had faced one coup in 1827, six years after the country’s independence from Spain. Five more ensued in subsequent years; four were successful and one failed.
Honduran President José Santos Guardiola was assassinated in 1862, the only Honduran leader to meet that fate.
Now let’s compare the Honduran experience to America’s often violent relationship with the office of the president. There have been several assassination attempts against sitting U.S. presidents; four of them were successful.
Excluding the recent events on Capitol Hill, the state of Oklahoma has also experienced one event that could qualify as a coup when the Ku Klux Klan effectively overthrew the governor in the 1920s. But that event has largely been erased from America’s historical memory.
It could be argued the United States has just survived its first coup attempt at the federal level. As in most coups, there were fatalities — five died, including a police officer.
So for those keeping score in terms of whether the U.S. or Honduras is a banana republic: There have been four successful presidential assassinations in the United States compared to one in Honduras, while there have been four successful coups in Honduras, but none in the U.S. at the national level.
The first military coup in El Savador happened in 1890, and while most of the coups were either led by military generals or the army, there have been notable exceptions.
The 1894 coup was led by rebels who overthrew one civilian president for another. The May 1944 coup was perpetrated by civilian protesters in an insurrection similar to the U.S. Capitol raid. That insurrection successfully forced President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez to resign after surviving a military coup just a month earlier.
Two of the 13 coups were what are known as self-coups, in which an incumbent plots against his own government to quash dissent — something that seems chillingly familiar to Trump’s conduct and his threats against Republican leaders since he lost the election.
The first Salvadoran self-coup was in 1972 by President Arturo Armando Molina and the second was just last year, when President Nayib Bukele used the army against his own government due to a standoff with legislators over their refusal to approve a $109 million loan from the United States.
A Trump self-coup?
Some believe the Trump-fuelled insurrection comes close to a coup attempt but fails primarily because it wasn’t intended to remove an incumbent from office — on the contrary, it was aimed at keeping him in power.
But self-coups have been used by the executive branches of governments to quash legislative opposition or end standoffs between leaders and the legislatures of their own party, as in El Salvador. Civilian insurrections have also been classified as coups in banana republics. The events of Jan. 6 meet both criteria.
Trump’s speech at his rally prior to the raid on the Capitol made clear that he wanted Congress to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s election win.
He stated, falsely, that “for years, Democrats have gotten away with election fraud [aided by] weak Republicans.” He asked his followers to march on the Capitol to “fight for Trump” and once the siege was underway, he refused requests for the National Guard to be deployed to help quell the violence.
By the end of the day, the Washington Post and several political and business leaders were calling on Trump’s cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove him from office.
Trump had referred to his impeachment in 2020 as a coup attempt, so if the 25th Amendment is invoked by Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump and his allies would certainly view that as a form of coup.
In banana republics, some would call that a counter-coup — a coup to re-establish a government that was brought down by a coup. The counter-coup is sometimes celebrated, because contrary to dominant views on coups, some subvert democracy while others are welcomed as they restore democratically elected leaders.
This week’s events have stopped short of the U.S. devolving into a full-fledged banana republic. But that’s no thanks to Trump and his supporters. Rather than denigrating other nations as banana republics for their penchant for insurrections and lawless coups, the United States needs to take a long look inward.