On January 6, 2020, elements of the Trump administration, in conjunction with a crowd of supporters, attempted an electoral coup designed to overturn the election of President Joe Biden and keep Donald Trump in power. This all seems quite remarkable (indeed, many Americans are still struggling to pretend that it did not happen), and from the perspective of American history, it is surely unusual. Few if any Presidents have attempted to remain in power through extra-legal means, much less invite a mob to attack the Capitol during the ceremonial counting of the electoral votes.
In the scope of the history of statecraft, however, there is little that is particularly unusual about Trump’s effort. It is depressingly common to see authoritarian groups undertake violence in order to win or maintain political power, and these efforts often succeed. Had the coup succeeded, American foreign policy over the past two years might have taken a dramatically different turn. Indeed, in the midst of yet another gripping conversation about the nature of “Realism” as a theory of international politics and as a theory of statecraft, it is perhaps worth noting that there is nothing that the “ur-Realist” Greek historian Thucydides would find surprising about the January 6 attempted coup.
Thucydides is often treated as the ur-realist by the modern Realist school of international relations theory in large part because History of the Peloponnesian War describes forms of statecraft that conform with “realpolitik” norms and modes of thinking. The modern theoretical form of this school concentrates on the statecraft aspect, imagining a world in which the internal lives of states are effectively meaningless for their international conduct; models treat them as “billiard balls” that bounce off one another with no reference to internal life. Realism turned in this direction largely because of the need to distinguish itself from liberal and socialist accounts of international politics, both of which concentrated on the importance of regime type.
But notwithstanding Realist admiration for Thucydides’, his city-states are the farthest thing from billiard balls; he shows all of them to have internal political divides that are critical to their functioning on the international stage. It is true that the difference between oligarchic and democratic polities in Ancient Greece was not terribly relevant to their behavior from a moral perspective- the oligarchic Spartans destroyed Plataea and the democratic Athenians destroyed Melos– but the Hellenic Greeks regarded regime type as exceedingly important, to the extent that the grip on state power was well worth fighting, dying, and killing for.
Thucydides describes many revolutions across Greece during the Peloponnesian War, many of which take place in response to a military victory or reverse. In city after city, the oligarchic and popular factions struggled for power, with the one often leveraging foreign support in order to win power. The arrival of an Athenian army offered the cue for the democrats to rise up and slaughter the oligarchs, the arrival of a Spartan army the reverse. He is particularly eloquent with respect to the civil war in Corcyra, which was conducted with a degree of brutality rarely rivaled even in battles between polities. Democrats and oligarchs slew one another with wild abandon, and neither was shy about calling for outside assistance. In Athens itself an oligarchic revolt in 411 replaced the democratic government with a regime of oligarchs that sought peace with Sparta and even began the construction of fortifications designed to ensure Sparta’s role in controlling the Athenian state. And at the end of the war, the Spartans installed an oligarchic government referred to as the “30 Tyrants” although it quickly collapsed.
Indeed, Thucydides would not be surprised to find that the coup plotters have admiration for Russian forms of governance, or that political leaders of the faction that launched the coup attempt would reach out for support from a foreign power. Politics do not end at the water’s edge or at the boundary of the city walls; control of the state is almost always more consequential for the fortunes of a faction than whatever ends a foreign conflict might seek. And there is no question that a successful coup attempt would have shifted US policy in consequential ways for Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world.
Contrary to accounts that seem to distinguish between what happens inside a state and what happens outside, the real lesson of Thucydides is that international politics cannot be detached from domestic politics. This is as true for war as it is for economics or social relations. The ends and means of fighting depended to great extent on the domestic political situations of the combatants on both sides of the conflict. Trump’s coup failed, but had it succeeded it would have immeasurably transformed American life and the global order.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.