Watching the spectacle of supporters of US President Donald Trump crossing the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 election results, I remembered a line in Joseph Conrad’s short story, Heart of Darkness. This is Mr. Kurtz, a British colonialist, who becomes indigenous and rogue and a little crazy after arriving in Africa, with fatal consequences for Africans. What I remembered is that “all of Europe [had] contributed to the creation of Kurtz ”. Likewise, I have a feeling that all of America contributed to the creation of the “very American riot” of January 6, to quote Patrick Gathara’s January 8 tour for Al Jazeera. Indeed, I suspect that all of America was complicit in the creation of Trump himself.
I make this point by applying some of the terms used to characterize January 6 to America’s historic relationship with democracy outside its borders.
The riots, which were led primarily by white men, have been headlined as shocking and surreal; like an insurrection, a sedition and a betrayal, like “a terrible blow to the troubled democratic image of America” in the New York Times, and “a joyful desecration of this … temple of democracy” to use the words by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic President of the House of Representatives.
Even Trump’s vigorous supporter, Republican Majority Leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has been pressured into condemning the “thugs” and “mobs” who have invaded Capitol, while President-elect Joe Biden has more frankly called “national terrorists”.
In the weeks leading up to the Capitol Hill attack, some reporters had warned of a Trump coup attempt, describing his attempts to steal the election as un-American. Steve Coll, for example, wrote in New Yorker magazine that such programs are “familiar in countries like Pakistan and Belarus”, not in the United States.
Incidentally, it’s important to note that the “terrorists” believed they were “keeping America great” by trying to prevent an election from being stolen by the other side.
If stealing elections is not American and constitutes terrorism, what do you call those American presidents and congresses who have sanctioned coups and assaults against countless nascent democracies abroad?
I am not only talking about the interminable wars and military interventions carried out by the United States since its independence, but also, more specifically, the coups d’état that it has provoked and / or supported against majority elected leaders, many of whom were killed by, or with the help of, the CIA.
A short list of notable cases includes Iran in 1953; Guatemala in 1954; Pakistan in 1958; the Congo in 1960; Brazil in 1964; and Chile on September 11, 1973 – that “other” September 11, of the creation of the United States, that the world has never mourned or commemorated.
As such, if Trump is not an American, it is only because he has tried, unsuccessfully, to do at home what his country has managed to do abroad for centuries. Moreover, if we are to blame it for allowing violence and flaunting the law, should we not also blame the American presidents and members of Congress who have consistently sanctioned violence abroad while considering themselves themselves and the United States above international law?
Moreover, while the invasion of Capitol Hill by Trump supporters certainly shocked world leaders, could it have tarnished the country’s “democratic image” more than – say – the drone killings authorized by former President Barack? Obama? He approved more such murders in his first term than his predecessor, George W. Bush, did in his two terms.
It is only by ignoring the depredations of the United States in the rest of the world that people can believe that their democratic image depends on what goes on within their own borders. Sadly, most Americans seem indifferent to the rest of the world even as their country hesitates between wanting to destroy it and save it.
Next, critics describe Trump supporters as gullible, ignorant, and delusional, among other things. I have no doubt that many are, but enlightened liberals are equally sensitive to the vanities and illusions of the founding myth of the United States and the ideology of American exceptionalism. The myth, of course, is that a land forcibly seized by white European men, whose inhabitants they subjected to genocide and in which they instituted black slavery, is a beacon, a “shining city on the hill. A gift from God not just to those who live in the United States, but to humanity in general.
If secular Americans no longer engage in divine discourse, they continue to believe that the United States has a mandate to bestow the gift of democracy on “backward” nations even when, in practice, it involves destroying these nations. nations. Moreover, some of the very people who excoriate Trump’s hallucinations of American greatness also consider themselves unique and privileged simply because they are “American.”
This belief appears to be inspired by a simplistic, even Manichean, vision of good and evil – a vision that juxtaposes a morally unique and uniquely moral America with an evil and dangerous world mired in fanaticism, ignorance and violence.
There are many examples of American exceptionalism, but I will consider just one: the American response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. In their wake, Chilean American playwright Ariel Dorfman has written an essay comparing them to sustained attacks by the CIA in Chile on September 11, 1973.
He did not generously blame the Americans for this coup, which ended in the death of democratically elected President Salvador Allende. Rather, he urged Americans to treat their own tragedy as a way to feel “what the rest of us have known.” All they had to do, he said, was look in the “mirror of our common humanity”.
Instead, as we know, the 9/11 attacks simply evoked a vengeful pride in the exceptionalism of American suffering. This continues to guarantee a decades-long US “war on terror” that has claimed the lives of over half a million Muslims, many of whom are civilians.
Ironically, but predictably, this Manichaeism now also defines US domestic politics. Trump supporters don’t want to see themselves as part of an America that isn’t Republican, Trumpian, and Red, while those who support Biden can’t contemplate living in the same stratosphere as those supporters. Obviously, there are many factors at play in this divide, but ideologically it is no different from how most Americans tend to think of others elsewhere.
It can be insensitive to talk about these issues when half the country struggles to understand the events of January 6. But then again, this is an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the terms in which they relate both to each other and to the world.
This is not, however, a call for tolerance. It is a reminder of the consequences of living with a set of practices and expectations within its borders while violating them with impunity abroad. The inner / outer dichotomy, while perhaps inevitable, also obscures the fact that who we are manifests not only on the inside but also on the outside. Conversely, what we do to others invariably shapes who we become, on the inside.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.