After a day of chaos in Washington, the US wakes up to the idea that perhaps it can experience political turmoil like any other country.
As armed militias stormed Capitol Hill, the seat of American legislative power, demanding a halt in the certifying of results of November’s presidential elections, pundits wondered whether this was really America.
President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to take office on January 20, proclaimed on Twitter: “America is so much better than what we’re seeing today.”
The New York Times journalist, Jim Rutenberg, could only understand the scenes of chaos on American television by drawing upon the notion that everything undemocratic happens outside the US. "This is like watching foreign television right now - some foreign unstable government struggling with democracy,” said Rutenberg.
Unsurprisingly many Americans disagreed.
The American singer and songwriter, Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe, warned that “This is America” and that pundits and politicians should stop “coddling” each other that the unfolding was anything other than a foreign concept to the country.
In 2018, the Black artist Donald Glover wrote a song holding a mirror to America. The name of the track, ‘This is America,’ was provocative but Glover, who is also a vernacular intellectual, outlined that guns and violence are part of the American fabric.
In one of the more important lyrics of the tracks, “Don’t catch you slippin’ now/Look at how I’m livin’ now/Police be trippin’ now/Yeah, this is America/Guns in my area/I got the strap/I gotta carry ’em,” Glover wants to highlight the racial disparity of trying to make money and being a black person in America.
That racial disparity was obvious yesterday at the protests when the police force largely allowed the protestors to break security cordons and march into Capitol Hill. Whereas in another scene a Trump supporter is helped by riot police to scale down the stairs from a building they were just about to ransack.
When Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists held a protest last year in the same place they were branded as left-wing anarchists by Trump and his supporters. But more importantly, the police and the presence of the national guard was a show of force meant to intimidate protestors.
The notion that political violence, polarisation and armed militias representing different political factions could only happen in faraway places is a narrative Americans have long told themselves.
One US-based reporter encapsulated that American mythology by arguing unironically that “American exceptionalism [is] hanging on by a thread,” as armed Trump supporters vowed to take their country back.
The British, Indian and Turkish governments have all issued statements of concern regarding the violence and urged for a peaceful transfer of power. That may sit uncomfortably for many Americans who are more used to believing that they are the gold standard of democracy.
The American right-wing Republican politician Marco Rubio framed the protests as something that could only occur in a third world country. Whereas another liberal journalist argued that “We are not in Kabul. We are in America.”
American gun-toting violence which aims to overthrow the government, according to many American commentators on the left and the right, has no historical precedent in the country. Only references to eastern or African countries can bring the point home. Yet that’s not quite true.
One of the worst cases of domestic terrorism in the United States was committed by an avowed far-right individual, Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 detonated a bomb that left 168 people and injured more than 680 others.
McVeigh wanted to spark a revolution that would lead to the overthrow of the federal government. He believed, as the protestors that ransacked the legislative assembly in Washington yesterday, that the state was no longer acting and representing the will of the people.
The protestors that stormed Capitol Hill held Confederate Flags, which were used by southern US states that sought to secede from the US during the civil war in 1861.
Those symbols, now considered racist and controversial, continue to resonate deeply with many Americans who hold a deep distrust towards the government.
Many of the protestors also draw on a uniquely American political tradition which is the right to bear arms, enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US constitution.
In the recent past, any attempt to reform gun laws in the US has been painted as a government infringement of those rights and actions that only a state heading towards a tyranny would take. Guns, therefore, become a symbol of resistance towards the state.
The soon to be former president Donald Trump has greatly fed into that sense of distrust. Over the course of several months, Trump has repeated over and again that the elections were rigged and the votes were stolen. And in 2016, Trump seemed to support the right of “Second Amendment people” to take matters into their own hands in a bid to stop Hillary Clinton becoming president.
Americans are perhaps waking up to the prospect that their country, like any other, rests on a fragile social contract that can’t be taken for granted.
And as Americans talk about “coups” and “insurrections” against their democratic order, they might spare a thought about so many other democratic orders that have been overthrown with US backing.
As one observer put it following the events in the US: “You are not more free, civilised or above other nations. Recognise your humanity, ability to err. That's the first step to setting things right, rising up and doing better.”