Most coups elsewhere in the world leave you with a hangover of dizzying uncertainty: companies are closed, presidents are in hiding, a nature documentary is on TV, or half the staff of the hotel where you stay does not show up for work.
Yet America’s extraordinary legal and functional privileges seemed to be endurable even in a brief moment of collapse. Wednesday was a disastrous six-hour police error that finally gave a picture of what a sour democracy can look like after years of appeasement and alienation from the core voter.
Yet America has awakened in relative order. The system blossomed overnight – the media broadcast and dissected the events, with diversity and transparency, and the wheel of voice certification turned as planned. The Americans may also have taken it for granted to turn on television to hear their president’s criticism, that the police and the National Guard broke the law, that indignation – rather than fear of the new unknown – prevailed. Usually chaos follows disorder, but in the United States the wheels keep turning at full speed.
It was easy to say that the American version of democracy was irreparably damaged on Wednesday 6 January. But when Moscow, Peking and Tehran have finished their agony, you also have to think of the signals that were broadcast that day about their resilience. Yes, the United States saw many people, especially white people, come to Congress because they thought the law belonged only to them and because for four years many ordinary Americans thought that the horror was either too ridiculous to be afraid of or that it would just pass. But in the end, the silent majority, not the strongest vote, remained. This brief moment of terrible collapse must not cause Americans to give up the extraordinary eloquence and value of their system.
The rioters abused the privileges of their rich democracy – their free life in the richest nation in the world – to surrender to a fantastic parallel reality and openly realize the dream on social media by storming the seat of government. It was a spoiled, childish version of America – so free to do what it wanted, that it ignored the truths, laws, and standards of decency that actually allowed that freedom. Elsewhere in the world such scenes usually follow real tyranny and absurd electoral fraud, tangible oppression and torture, rather than mock trials with their (multiple) day in court.
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Wednesday’s violence did not exactly fit into the conventional description of an attempted coup – the word often used when the army or security forces help to change the person in power. The coup ended up in the common vocabulary of the time, perhaps because what happened was so strange and unimaginative – in a capital so gripped by the infallibility of its processes that it had no vocabulary for such violence. But the less privileged former Soviet Union, where even light sighs of freedom were painfully won, offers as many comparisons as the Eskimos have words for snow.
It was not a colour revolution – like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, when hundreds of thousands of patient demonstrators stood in the cold for months to overthrow a clearly manipulated election. It wasn’t the tulip of Kyrgyzstan in 2005, when demonstrators – some on horseback, also angry at the clearly manipulated elections – entered the president’s government, drank alcohol, rode a bicycle, all at a time when the armed security forces didn’t want to open fire.
It was uglier. It strongly reminded me of Ukraine in 2014, when an organized group of pro-Russian demonstrators invaded the local authorities of Donetsk and Sloviansk. Q-Shaman would also be part of this group. These brief moments of drunkenness, violence and shouting were the sparks that unleashed a civil war that claimed thousands of lives. The media were then also attacked by crowds who set fire to the Russian state media in the east of Ukraine. The Crimea has already been seized. It was a one-hour plan for the occupation of Moscow.
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But if you wake up every morning in Donetsk, the system keeps collapsing. In Washington, it was the other way around. The system is solving the problem. The extraordinary privileges that Americans live with every day – and which perverted a handful of Americans into believing that an armed invasion of the Capitol was normal – were still there.
America’s allies and enemies around the world will ruminate over this moment – looking for signs that it will fuel China’s rise, or give Putin another decade in power, or make Maduro relatively competent. Remember, however, that among the horror of what a sense of privilege can do in a small crowd, there is also a moment of hope. Working values. Contrary to what has happened in other countries in recent decades, the supporters of the outgoing president have not gained control of parliament or changed governments. The army hasn’t changed sides. The legitimate winner of the last election is not hiding – he has made a speech and will be president in a few days. Two members of the pro-slavery cabinet have resigned.
Trump has damaged the reputation of democracy around the world in a way I could never have imagined. President-elect Joe Biden is right to be fragile. It is also valuable and effective. It’s worked so far. Trump and the domestic terrorism he had created were – at that time – defeated. It turns out that even the most compromised American elected representatives have sustainable values at their core. This is not the global standard.
This is not the time to prioritise American values, which have slowly deteriorated over the years, to get to this point. But neither should it lead to a country being so spoiled by its own privileged system that it gives up all its excellent merits. Democracy didn’t fail the United States, it saved them.
The only reason why the American system has an advantage over authoritarian competitors is because it is based on open competition and the veracity of ideas. The day after the failed coup, the United States did not wake up to a nature documentary on state television and found that half of the hotel staff had disappeared, but lived on a new force of self-criticism in the news.
They have to think about how they could influence the people who woke up that morning with real tyrannies: Many people take it for granted to live in a country where such an abuse of democracy can still be stopped by its virtues.
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