On the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) appealed to the American ideal. A clutch of right-wing lawmakers during a joint session of Congress had challenged the certification of electoral votes confirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. It should have been a procedural formality, but President Trump had set the scene for an angry showdown with his refusal to accept the verdict of the November election and propagation of false conspiracy theories alleging mass voter fraud. Sensing the passions of their base — and a political opportunity ahead of the next presidential cycle — a number of prominent Republican senators led the charge on Trump’s behalf.
“As we speak, the eyes of the world are on this chamber, questioning whether America is still the shining example of democracy, the shining city on the hill,” Schumer said. “What message will we send to fledgling democracies, who study our Constitution, mirror our laws and traditions, in the hopes that they, too, can build a country ruled by the consent of the governed?”
Only moments later, a mob of far-right Trump supporters burst through the surprisingly meager protections around the Capitol, stormed the building and plunged the proceedings — and the country — into chaos. At least four people died in the tumult. U.S. lawmakers were forced to find shelter, ducking under desks, cowering behind a few armed security guards. The mob rampaged through the august heart of American democracy, raiding congressional offices with seeming impunity.
Some American commentators and politicians struggled to find language to describe what was happening. They pointed to the instability of war zones in the Middle East when talking about the rage of the crowds. They gestured to the venality of tin-pot despots in banana republics when talking about Trump’s incitement of an insurrection. They spoke of “3rd world style anti-American anarchy” in the halls of Congress, as if the antics of the mob were a desecration of the American character itself. Biden, in remarks delivered later Wednesday, said the events “do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are.”
As statements of shock and dismay flooded in from concerned U.S. allies, doyens of the Washington foreign policy community mourned what had happened to America’s image in the world. “So much for the peaceful transfer of power, for American exceptionalism, for our being a shining city on a hill,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
It also gave Washington’s putative adversaries plenty of ammunition to condemn decades of U.S. rhetoric and policy. “Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy,” tweeted Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, decrying sanctions placed on his country by the Trump administration.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the drama at the Capitol “showed how weak Western democracy is.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, with a hint of smugness, that her colleagues “hope that the American people can enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible.”
“After yesterday, they will have one less source of hope, one less ally they can rely upon,” wrote Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic, referring to dissident movements chafing under autocratic regimes. “The power of America’s example will be dimmer than it once was; American arguments will be harder to hear.”
But is that actually true? This piety about the American “example” and the apparent inability of prominent Americans to speak of Wednesday’s havoc as if it could happen here — well, it did — are two sides of the same myopia, one that overstates America’s moral influence in the world and underestimates the depth of dysfunction already inherent in the U.S. system.
What happened at the Capitol was intrinsically American, bound within a long tradition of right-wing paranoia and nativist racism. Some in the rioting mob waved Confederate flags; they were goaded on by a president who has tapped into a deep seam of grievance that existed long before he took power.
Polling already shows that a younger generation of Americans are less likely to believe in the “exceptional” nature of their country and more likely to want the United States to play a more limited, humble role on the world stage. But it’s those older than them, including key figures within the Washington establishment, who seem to need myths of American exceptionalism to hold onto.
For many abroad, that vision of the “shining city on the hill” has already died a thousand deaths. For some, it was always an illusion to obscure the Washington-engineered coups and client military regimes that defined their national politics for decades. For others, what faith they had in the American example was zapped in the torture wards of Abu Ghraib and the mammoth, multitrillion-dollar excess of the United States’ last two decades of ruinous wars.
Then came Trump, who explicitly cast doubt on the validity of American exceptionalism before wielding it as a blunt nationalist cudgel to attack opponents to the left. Under his watch, America became exceptional mostly in the scale of its suffering during the coronavirus pandemic. North of the border and across the Atlantic, onlookers could find in America’s woes reasons for pride in their own countries’ universal health care. And they could see in the weeks of racial unrest in the United States last summer, as well as the neo-Nazi tattoos sported by some of the Capitol rioters, evidence that their own societies’ experiments with multicultural democracy were perhaps enjoying greater health.
“There are Trumps everywhere, so each and everyone should defend their Capitol,” tweeted former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, turning Trump into a metaphor for the perils facing all liberal democracies. Rodrigo Maia, president of Brazil’s chamber of deputies — the equivalent of the U.S. speaker of the House — warned of the possibility of a similar insurrection should far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a Trump ally, lose in the 2022 election.
Far from the city on a hill, America had become a harbinger of darker days to come.