Only the availability and affordability of education will deprive fascist cults of the cerebral fuel they need to thrive on.
With its Capitol building overrun by a violent mob and some of its lawmakers advocating for an overturn of a democratic election, does the US government ever deserve to advise or criticise other countries on how they organise representative government?
Trick question: Whether deserved or not, the US government will do it anyway. But whether it will ever be able to do so effectively in the future hinges on whether it will be truthful about its own history and society, both past and present.
The opportunity now for American society is to project an understanding of the country that transcends the fantasy of American Exceptionalism, which has hindered the US attempts to promote democracy. Four years ago, what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, did not seem possible. That’s when thousands of pro-Trump rioters tried, in vain, to stop congress from certifying US President Donald Trump’s defeat, and act they considered to be outright treason.
In the end, one protester was shot by police. Three died of heart attacks. And one Capitol Police officer suffered a stroke amid the mayhem, dying in hospital a day after police regained control.‘’I couldn't have imagined anything like this happening,’’ videographer Marcus DiPaola told TRT World.
‘’At my first Trump rally in Cedar Rapids the most notable thing that happened was a high school student threw a tomato at Trump.’’
There was a story being told on Wednesday by the police to themselves that was, frankly, naive. It kept them from preparing appropriately for the threat the Capitol building faced. And before they knew it, things had accelerated beyond a point of no return.
‘’The pro-Trump rioters made a fist like they were going to punch the cops, which is why I started recording, Then they backed off the barricades. Completely outnumbered, there wouldn't have been any point in fighting,’’ DiPaola added.
‘’Immediately after the cops retreated to half-heartedly form a line on the Capitol steps using their asps to hold people back There were only six of them, not enough to block off the steps, protesters just walked around the side of them.’’
Meanwhile, the imaginations of the police around the potential for violence from Black Lives Matter protesters had caused them to overprepare to absurd, dangerous levels.
‘’I think the most interesting difference between the police response to BLM and to these terrorists is the amount of manpower requested and advance preparation. If this had been a protest by black people, there would have been thousands of police officers outside the Capitol,’’ DiPaola said.
‘’They would have been prepared with tear gas. But since it was domestic terrorists encouraged by the president, they just didn't see the need to prepare."
Wednesday’s riots come down to a failure of story telling. If America tells its story honestly to others, then the post-Trump era makes it much more relatable to the countries its government says it seeks to uplift and reform. Americans can now relate better to the terror of political violence at the highest levels of government. Rather than pretending an American passport is magical, it’s time for the US foreign policy establishment to advertise a realistic, approachable version of the US. In sum, it needs to be one that isn’t too good to be believed.
So far, the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank whose work reflects mainstream ideas in US foreign policymaking, is off to a bad start.
‘’The U.S. image as a bastion of democracy, rule of law, and respect for institutions has perhaps been irrevocably tarnished,’’ wrote CFR Fellow Bruce Hoffman in the hours after the attack on the capitol.
"The United States has always been a place of prophetic destiny and hallowed mission—a beacon for the principles of democracy and rule of law."
No, it absolutely has not. Statements like this are what make US democracy promotion sound absurd and disingenuous to the rest of the world. It sounds insulting to people living under authoritarian regimes supported by US-made weapons and money.
The kleptocratic elite in those countries understand that American history is not a fairy tale. If they’ve been paying close attention, they’ll know that the US is just a few decades away from apartheid. They understand that the electoral college gives outsized influence to votes from rural states, and that it too is a legacy of slavery. And they certainly know that income inequality and the availability of healthcare are serious problems that weigh on the health of the population and the republic.
What seems allegedly unprecedented about Trump’s term is the level of political violence that is corrupting American democracy, but politically motivated violence has been a feature of American society. American presidents have made ignored human rights or held hands with dictators for decades, but only Trump did so in a way so classless and brazen that the foreign policy establishment could not find a rationalisation for it. Like other presidents, he left the world worse than when he found it. The difference is that he didn’t apologise.
And domestic politics are no picnic either. In the 1920s, the white supremacist militant group known as the Ku Klux Klan exercised clandestine control over statehouses and local governments across the country. The 1990s saw several major incidents of far-right, anti-government violence, the most deadly being the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, which killed 168 people. At the time, before September 11, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil.
The faults in American democracy are certainly deeper now thanks to four years of Trumpist vandalism of democratic institutions, his promotion of psychotic and racist conspiracy theories and his shutting down of US borders to refugees and asylum seekers. His nihilistic mismanagement of the pandemic has made the US a less attractive place for people to want to even visit.
It will take a renaissance of both organisation, imagination and determination, not platitudes about America’s ‘’prophetic destiny’’ to be the Michael Jordan of democracies. There is no running away from America that the world can see on its smartphone screen.
There’s no filter strong enough to hide the inequality, the police violence or the fascist cults stalking our elections with conspiracy theories. Those have always been with Americans, we’ve only just now become a country that films all of it, all the time, for free global consumption. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.
President-elect Joe Biden’s administration faces a tough challenge. In order to do something meaningful to reduce the risk of another Trump-like president doing even more damage, he needs to scale back the powers of the executive branch.
At the same time, he’ll be under pressure from his own party to expand the powers of the surveillance state to crack down on acts of domestic terrorism and political violence. Once again, this puts him in the same position as other leaders facing the threat of domestic insurgencies who also seek to maintain the democratic credentials of their political systems.
It will be a challenge for the federal government not to overreact and grant itself too many powers to combat this problem. What Biden must focus on instead is finding ways to enhance the availability and affordability of education. That will deprive these fascist cults of the cerebral fuel they need to thrive on.
Providing public mental healthcare benefits will help divert people from these dangerous mindsets, and reduce the everyday forms of domestic violence against family members that can escalate into acts of domestic terrorism. Throwing funding into social services, austerity be damned, will reduce the risk of these security threats better than trashing civil liberties.
Biden will be a failure if he simply repeats stories the world is tired of hearing about America and its exceptional qualities. Every country has exceptional qualities. Maybe if America’s story becomes less a fairy tale about democracy and more of a gritty documentary, other countries will be able to find some helpful lessons about how to make their societies more just, fair and free.