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Even failed coups have consequences

January 6 and the 'long coup'
The Philippines Christmas Coup of 1989

The Philippines Christmas Coup of 1989

The following is an edited excerpt from an interview with historian Alfred W. McCoy, the author of To Govern The Globe (Haymarket Books). The complete interview will be released as a podcast in the coming weeks.

The events of January 6, although profoundly serious, have been kind of trivialized. People are saying that only a few hundred people actually made it inside the capitol, where they raged around in a violent, but ultimately unproductive manner, and the Republic recovered within hours. President Biden's election was affirmed. So they're saying, "What's the big deal?" 

It is a big deal. I learned this years ago when I saw a similar event in the aftermath of dictator Ferdinand Marcos's fall from power. He had been a dictator that ruled the Philippines for fourteen years. In 1986, there was something called the People Power uprising, the first of the mass uprisings that ended tragically at Tiananmen Square and triumphantly in the Berlin Wall and Eastern Europe. It overthrew Communist dictatorships. And as a part of that sweep, a million people rallied in the streets of Manila, and they drove Marcos into exile. But then every Sunday his loyalists, his fanatic supporters, would rally in a park in downtown Manila. They denounced the election that had preceded his downfall as fraudulent and called for his restoration to power as the country's only legitimate president.

I got a tip from a colonel who was plotting a coup, an inadvertent tip during an interview, that after the usual Sunday rally, thousands of loyalists planned to storm the Manila Hotel — one of the symbols of historic Philippine democracy, the site of all the country's political conventions — and they would seize the hotel. That would be the precipitating event, which would lead to a coup. And so, tipped off, I found myself standing in the doorway of the Manila Hotel at about five o'clock after that Sunday rally. As the crowds stormed through the lobby and checked into the executive suites, I took up a position in the bar, overlooking the sunken marbled lobby, and watched this whole thing play out. 

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At one point, Marcos telephoned from his exile in Hawaii and announced an interim government. His former vice president (note the parallel there) stood up and announced that he'd received this call from Marcos, and that he was proclaiming the restoration of the Marcos government with himself as the interim leader of the country. And, you know, by midnight, the waiter apologized and said that we had drank the bar dry. They turned the air conditioning off, and kind of began to flush the coup plotters out of those luxury suites, which were suddenly turned into saunas. And the next day, you know, the rebel troops, the couple hundred of which that turned up, were sentenced to thirty push-ups. And the whole thing seemed like a big, bad joke.

Arturo M. Tolentino, center, proclaiming himself acting president on behalf of former President Ferdinand Marcos in Manilla, July 6, 1986

Arturo M. Tolentino, center, proclaiming himself acting president on behalf of former President Ferdinand Marcos in Manilla, July 6, 1986

A year later, I found myself standing in the middle of the main highway that rings Manila as government forces with tanks and troops were attacking the rebels, which now were making a serious attempt. They had seized the headquarters of the armed forces, and when defeated, they left it in flames.

And then a couple of years after that, there was a really serious coup attempt, in which President George H. W. Bush had to mobilize a couple of U.S. jet fighters for a passover of the rebel cavalcade that was fast approaching the palace, warning them to turn back or they'd be bombed to death. 

And so, you know, what I learned from this is that seemingly silly coup attempts can really shape the fabric of a democratic society. All democratic societies, whether it's a poor country like the Philippines or an incredibly rich one, like the United States, all democratic societies are amazingly fragile. And it doesn't take much to weaken, to damage, and even destroy the seemingly most resilient constitutional fabric. And indeed, what we're watching now is what many observers are calling a "long-term coup." Republican activists, having been frustrated in their attempt to seize power at the capitol and stop the ratification of President Biden's election, are now turning to a systematic attempt to rewrite the electoral rules that would allow them to overturn other, future elections.