At the final presidential debate of 2016, moderator Chris Wallace asked then-candidate Donald Trump if he would commit to abide by “one of the prides of this country...the peaceful transition of power.”
Trump responded, “I'll keep you in suspense, okay?”
More than four years later, after a violent mob invaded the Capitol, leaving five people dead in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Congress’s ratification of the Electoral College count, we are faced with the question of whether we can call the transition between the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations a “peaceful transfer of power,” even if inauguration goes on without incident.
If we have learned anything over the past couple months (or years, or longer), it is that words have consequences and should be used as precisely as possible. So it is important to decide what to call Jan. 6, 2021, as well as Jan. 20.
Was it a coup attempt? A riot? Was it, as an official Department of Defense document released several days later (and since removed from the internet) said, a “First Amendment protest?”
I reached out to two friends smarter than I am for guidance on this question. Isabel Hull is the John Stambaugh Professor Emerita of History at Cornell University, and her research focuses on international law, fascism, and political violence. Valerie Bunce is the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government, also at Cornell University, and studies democratization and authoritarianism.…