Police with guns drawn watch as rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob is without precedent in the nation’s modern history, according to two historians contacted Wednesday.

In fact, Michael Socolow, a media historian and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maine, said the closest thing he can recall to what happened in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday was a failed coup d’etat that rattled Spain nearly 40 years ago.

“In the storming of the Capitol building to prevent the operation of government and illegally enforce an unconstitutional outcome, the 2021 Trump events resemble the 23-F coup in Spain in 1981 that failed,” said Socolow, who was studying in Spain in 1985 and observed the attempted coup’s aftermath. “In both cases, a small group of fanatic armed rebels tried to overthrow established democratic and constitutional norms in favor of authoritarian governance.”

Andrew Rudalevige, chair of the government and legal studies department at Bowdoin College, wasn’t as quick as some to use the words “coup” or “sedition,” but he agreed that the assault on the Capitol building is unprecedented.

“There is obviously a long history of protest in Washington, D.C., and it’s one of the things protected in the First Amendment, the right to peaceably assemble,” he said. “But there is not obviously a lot of history of armed mobs with Confederate flags storming the Capitol.”

Even in 1968, a year when Vietnam War protests in the nation’s capital were commonplace, and when tension escalated following the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, there was unrest and even violence, but protesters never breached a federal building.


In 1877, in the wake of the Civil War, after Congress met to settle a disputed presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, there was a threat of insurrection. In echoes of Trump and his allies, Tilden and some supporters complained that the election was stolen from them and threatened to send an armed mob to Washington. However, outgoing President Ulysses S. Grant bolstered military presence and the march never happened.

Both Socolow and Rudalevige said the scenes from Wednesday were atypical and more appropriate for authoritarian regimes in third-world countries.

“These type of things happen around the world and we watch and say, ‘Look at those poor people,’” Rudalevige said. “It’s worth remembering we are not above it all. Democracy takes work and good will and that’s lacking at the moment.”

Socolow wonders how journalists might describe these events if they were happening in another country.

“I worry that U.S. journalism isn’t capable of accurately processing, describing and reporting what’s occurring,” he said.

Socolow also believes Wednesday was the most historically significant moment of Trump’s presidency so far.

“One thing that struck me was that right before this happened, the president was telling his supporters, ‘Your leadership failed you,’” he said. “That’s a dangerous message.”

Rudalevige agreed that the president bears significant responsibility and that his role in the events cannot be overlooked.

“People were told not to take him seriously, but clearly some portion of the president’s audience takes him extraordinarily seriously,” he said.

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