How could something like this happen in Washington? It was assumed that, despite all its social and political problems that have worsened in recent years, America was different and far more robust than we are now seeing.
A habit of being special
The rule of thumb was, ‘there is America and there are others’. With the others, shortcomings are natural and to be expected, even if many of them are well-established democracies. But America is a different story, because by default, the US is a role model that was supposed to remain the democratic icon forever.
Exceptionalism is foundational for America’s political culture. This type of self-identification was the cornerstone on which the nation and society were built a couple of hundred years ago. That’s how Americans are raised. And you will run into this phenomenon everywhere.
When asking his supporters gathered by the Capitol building to go home, President Donald Trump said, “You are special.” People from the more liberal political camp have even deeper convictions about the US being exceptional and therefore under an obligation to bring light into the world, as they see it.
That’s why everybody is shocked – how could this have happened? The reaction was followed by a wave of explanations as to why the clashes near and inside the Capitol building only looked like similar events in other countries, but in reality, they were something entirely different. Here is a comment from the CNN website, “Sure there are superficial similarities… but what’s happening in America is uniquely American. It is that country’s monster.”
Such restlessness is understandable. If we look at exceptionalism in the context of the world order that we’ve had in recent decades, we see that after the end of the Cold War, the US has held the unique position of the sole global hegemon. No other power in world history has ever reached this level of dominance.
Besides massive military and economic resources, America’s exceptionalism has also been relying on the idea that this nation sets the tone for the global worldview. This authorized America to certify systems of government in other countries and exert influence in situations that it believed required certain adjustments. As we all know, this influence took different forms, including direct military intervention.
We are not going to list the pros and cons of such a world order in this article. What’s important is that one of the key aspects of this order is the belief in the infallibility of the global leader. That’s why American commentators and experts are so worried about the Capitol Building events and Trump’s presidency in general hurting the international status of the US.
Generally speaking, post-election turmoil is not a rare occurrence. After all, the US itself has encouraged the new political tradition that has emerged in the 21st century. In recent times, in certain places, election campaigns haven’t ended after the votes were counted and the winner is announced. Instead, Washington often encouraged the losing side to at least try to challenge the results by taking to the streets. Indeed, resistance was part of the US Declaration of Independence after all.
Western capitals consistently emphasized the legitimacy of such actions in situations when people believed that their votes had been ‘stolen’. Washington was usually the lead voice in these declarations. Granted, this mostly applied to immature democracies with unstable institutions, but where are all those unshakable, solid democratic countries today? The world is experiencing so much instability that nobody is exempt from major shocks and crises.
There is another reason why traditional institutions are losing their footing. They were effective in a solidified informational environment. The sources of information were either controlled or perceived as trustworthy by the majority.
Today there are problems with both. Technological advances boost transparency, but they also create multiple realities and countless opportunities for manipulation. Institutions must be above reproach if they are to survive in the new conditions. It would be wrong to say that they are all crumbling. They are, however, experiencing tremendous pressure, and we can’t expect them to be perfect.
Looking for a scapegoat
The US is not better or worse at facing the new challenges. Or, rather, it is better in some areas and worse in others. This would all be very normal if America’s exceptionalism didn’t always need affirmation.
Situations in which the US appears to be just like any other country, albeit with some unique characteristics, are a shock to the system. In order to stay special, America looks where to place the blame. Ideally, the guilty party should be someone acting in the interests of an outside power, someone un-American.
This mechanism is not unknown to Russians from the experience in our country – for a long time now, Russian elites have been keen to blame outsiders for their own failures. But America’s motivation today is even stronger; there is more passion, because simply covering up the failures is no longer enough – America wants to prove that it is still perfect.
Democrats are taking back the American political landscape. For the next two years (until the 2022 mid-term elections), they will have all the power – in the White House and Congress. Trump’s supporters have seriously scared the ruling class, and the Capitol building debacle during the last days of his presidency has created a perfect pretext for cleaning house. Big Tech companies are at their disposal (so far).
Target number one is Trump himself. They want to make an example out of him, so that others wouldn’t dare challenge the sanctity of the political establishment. But Trump will not be enough, something must be done about his numerous supporters. The awkward finale of his presidency opens the door for labeling his fans as enemies of the republic and democracy.
The Democrats will do everything within their power to demoralize their earnest opponents. This won’t be hard, since the Republican Party itself is a hot mess right now. Trump has alienated almost all his supporters from the party leadership, but he is still popular among regular voters.
Demonstrative restoration of order and democratic fundamentals will also be used to reclaim the role model status. The reasoning is clear – we successfully neutralized the terrible external and internal threats to our democracy, so now we have regained the right to show the world how one should deal with the enemies of said democracy. The ‘summit of democracies’ idea proposed by Joseph Biden is starting to look like an emergency meeting for closing the ranks in a fight against enemies of progress.
And this brings us back to the foreign policy issue, because it’s not difficult to predict who will be enemy number one. Putin as an almighty puppeteer of all undemocratic forces in the world (including Trump) has been part of the rhetoric for a few years now. Hillary Clinton said it when giving a campaign speech in Nevada in August 2016, and Nancy Pelosi echoed the sentiment after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building. Of course, China is a close second on the enemy list created by the Democratic leadership, but there are some economic restraints there.
America’s inevitable strife to reclaim its exceptionalism will clash with the current tendencies in global development. All aspects of international affairs, from economy to security, to ideology and ethics, are diversifying. Attempts to divide the world along the old democracy vs. autocracy lines, i.e. go back to the agenda prevalent at the end of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century, are doomed, because this is not the way the world is structured now.
But attempts will be made nevertheless, and we can’t rule out some aggressive ‘democracy promotion’. Even if it’s just to prove that the embarrassing Trump episode was nothing more than an unfortunate accident. This, by the way, could become a short-term unifying factor for the diverse members of the Democratic Party, some of whom represent the old generation, while others are energetic young proponents of left-wing politics.
We can conclude that the world will not really benefit from the new presidency, even if respected foreign policy professionals return to the White House now that Trump is leaving. It might stabilize America’s frenzy in international affairs that we are all used to by now, but a new wave of ideology will neutralize the potential advantage (if it even existed, which is debatable).
America’s resolve to prove to the world that it’s not like others will encounter the large-scale ‘material resistance’, which will make a dangerous situation even worse. At least with Trump we knew that he didn’t like wars, and he didn’t start any new ones. Biden’s credit history is very different.
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