Tension was high, security was weak and a bitter handover of power was under way when violent intruders forced the people’s representatives to stop their debate and cower on the floor.
Future generations of Americans will identify this as a description of events at the Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January 2021. For Spaniards, however, it fits an earlier moment in history – an assault on Madrid’s parliament, the Congreso de los Diputados, on 23 February 1981.
Spain’s attackers – reactionary followers of the dictator General Francisco Franco, who had died six years earlier – were also led by men in silly hats, although Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero was sporting the patent leather tricorn of Spain’s civil guard paramilitary police force rather than a pair of buffalo horns.
Comparisons mostly end there. Tejero was waving a real weapon. Some of the 200 soldiers and civil guards with him peppered the debating chamber ceiling with machine-gun fire.
This was a proper coup attempt, not a shambolic human tidal wave containing costumed followers of an egomaniacal conspiracy theorist. In Spain, tanks rolled down the streets of the eastern city of Valencia to support the coup. Some people began packing for exile. Others worried about firing squads, recalling the techniques employed by Franco.
Reactions in the Spanish debating chamber were also different. The outgoing prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, and the deputy prime minister for defence affairs, General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, refused orders to hit the floor, while the latter angrily commanded the armed assailants to desist. They ignored him.
The communist leader, Santiago Carrillo, was the only other deputy to remain in his seat, slouching calmly and chain-smoking. “Old, disobedient and smoking away,” is how Javier Cercas describes him in his masterpiece of literary non-fiction, The Anatomy of a Moment. “He understands that if he survives the gunfire, the golpistas [coup leaders] will execute him.”
In Spain, there was no need to urge the head of state to make a television address condemning the assault. King Juan Carlos organised that himself, donning his commander-in-chief uniform and rebuking the “actions or attitudes of anyone who wants to interrupt by force the democratic process … voted on by the Spanish people”.
He did not say, like Donald Trump, “We love you. You’re very special.” Yet it seems Juan Carlos may also have unwittingly encouraged the plotters in advance, since many were convinced he was on their side. “In the King’s name!” some shouted during the assault.
Those who stormed the Spanish parliament thought a military junta was ready to take over, led by a mysterious figure known as White Elephant (probably the now deceased former royal aide, General Alfonso Armada).
When the gunmen burst in (failing to turn off a TV camera that recorded the whole thing), there were good reasons to believe people would die, but in the end nobody was hurt. White Elephant did not reveal themselves and, after 18 hours holding the deputies hostage, the attackers surrendered. The coup had flopped.
I once met a musician who claimed that, during his military service, he had taken part in the coup. He recalled being bundled into a truck and deposited outside the parliament building, but he sneaked off to buy cigarettes while his unit awaited orders. When he returned, they had gone. A policeman told him they had entered the parliament building, so he ran in and joined them. For Spaniards, then, there was a spooky element of deja vu in the scenes transmitted live from Washington on Wednesday, not least because they combined real danger with farce.
The good news, though, is that Spain’s coup was an end, not a beginning. When it failed, Spaniards realised they no longer had to fear an army that had been the backbone of Franco’s regime. Democracy and its institutions proved resilient, just as they have in the United States. The assailants went to jail, even if their shadowy backers mostly escaped identification and retribution.
In fact, apart from a few frights in the 1980s, Spain has barely witnessed any further military stirrings in the post-Franco era – until last month. In a 6 December “patriotic” letter, 34 aged generals and admirals, and hundreds of other ex-officers, claimed the Socialist-Podemos coalition government led by Pedro Sánchez was intent on imposing a form of communism.
Publication of the letter, which was also signed by the 1981 coup plotter Major Ricardo Pardo and one of Franco’s grandsons, followed revelations of a group Whatsapp chat among retired officers in which one participant wrote that “there is no other choice but to start executing 26 million sons-of-bitches”.
The reactionary old Spanish military officers clearly feel emboldened by a global normalisation of far-right, anti-democratic rhetoric, but their threats are empty. A year after the failed 1981 coup, Spaniards voted in their first leftwing government since the 1930s. The socialist prime minister Felipe González stayed in power for 14 years, overseeing a remarkable and solid transformation in Spain.
The trauma, then, need not last. In fact, an incident like this can be purifying and clarifying. For Spain it marked the limits of violence and the definitive end of the rotten era of Francoism.
In time, one can only hope the events in Washington on 6 January may seem just the same.
Giles Tremlett is a correspondent based in Spain. He is the author of Ghosts of Spain, and biographies of Catherine of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.