The Assault on the Capitol

Image: Luiz Armando Bagolin


If it works so well outside, why not try it at home too.

Last Wednesday, the mob stormed Congress in Washington. Huge flags flew everywhere. And weapons. Patriotism was exuded. The world looked on in amazement. Insurrection in Washington, following the President's suggestions. The police evacuated Congress. Also the vice president. They broke windows. The police called for backup. A curfew was enacted at 18 pm in the US capital. Donald Trump wrote on Twitter. He asked the crowd to respect the police. “We are the party of law and order,” he reminded his supporters. The crowd gathered outside the Capitol, and climbed the stairs. They shouted, they sang. They occupied Congress. They arrived at the entrance to the Senate. Screams could be heard: Trump won the election! Shots were fired at the door of the Congressional session room. It is the great spectacle of democracy. In full development. A march to save America.

Rarely has democracy shone so brightly with its own lights. Because overthrowing a government in Santo Domingo, Granada, Panama, storming the presidential house in Chile and killing President Allende, or funding the opposition in Cuba, or Nicaragua, or not knowing about the elections in Bolivia, is not the same as seeing its citizens assault Congress in their own home. Nor is it the same to see our presidents supporting their colleague Juan Guaidó, named president of Venezuela by Washington. Or working with local authorities to eliminate candidates in Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, or Paraguay, if Washington doesn't like the candidates. It shines brighter, like this, with people in the streets, with guns in their hands, assaulting the congress at home.

“Will you fight for America? Will you fight for America?” “Will you fight for America? Will you fight for America?”, the speaker insists on the question. “Yes!” Answers an enthusiastic crowd. “Save America”, read on the posters. In the name of the heritage of the founding fathers. From democracy. “USA”, “USA”, “USA”…, shouts the crowd. “God bless America!” concludes the speaker. With more certainty than hope. How to avoid the temptation to apply in your own country the same lessons of democracy promoted so successfully, for so many years, against uncomfortable governments all over the world, from the color revolutions in North Africa, or in Asia, to the military dictatorships in America Latin?


“Our democracy is under unprecedented attack,” said President-elect Joe Biden. But not quite. There are many precedents. I have cited just a few. Democracy also has many definitions. Almost endless. As a form of government, however, it is the one that was established in the United States in the eighteenth century, described in detail by Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable book “Democracy in America”. It is the political order of society that was then created, freed from the bonds of an ancient social order that was sinking in Europe. Based on capital as an economic order; in weapons, as a military capability; and in democracy, as a political order. Democracy as it is, not as everyone dreams of it, increasingly identified with paradise.

A democracy that we saw shine like never before in Washington last week, when Jake Angeli, one of the most notorious activists of the assault on the Capitol, member of the group called “QAnon”, a rogue with a hat with two horns, occupied the main hall of Congress . With anguished faces, the congressmen – convened on Wednesday night to finish ratifying Joe Biden's victory in last November's presidential elections – resorted to the founding fathers, recalled the foundations of democracy, without remembering, however, the governments overthrown countries, blockaded countries and regimes imposed through military coups in Latin America. Nor the most sophisticated legal measures applied against politicians who are uncomfortable for the White House, such as former Brazilian president Lula, against Correa, in Ecuador, against Lugo, in Paraguay, always supported by a large majority in the US Congress. Procedures that worked so well that it wasn't hard to foresee the temptation to use them at home. It was only a matter of time before someone thought of resorting to democratic measures at home as well.

The damage to the Republic

"Ignoring this election will damage our republic forever," said Mitch McConnell, the ultra-conservative Senate Majority Leader. Without saying that this is what they have always done in Latin America, without worrying about harming our republics, as it actually happens, profoundly and permanently. With the complicity of those around here who think it's not a bad idea to achieve your goals with Washington's support. The result is what we know, what Mitch McConnell denounces: the permanent damage to our republics, the impossibility of organizing their political life according to a balance of national forces, since the conservative will always find support and funding in Washington, which distorts all. As McConnell himself knows, he has always supported these measures. “Mike Pence lacked the courage to do what he should have done to protect our country and our constitution by giving states the opportunity to certify a correct data result, not the fraudulent and inaccurate ones they should have previously certified. America demands the truth,” the president said in a tweet.

Pence responded in a long letter. Harassed by Trump, who demands not to know the election results, he explains that his functions as chairman of the joint session of Congress are merely protocol, that he has no power to disqualify the vote. But the cards were already being played elsewhere. The election of the two senators from Georgia last week confirmed what had been evident in November: that Trump and his allies embody half of the country's electoral preferences.

The result of the Georgia senatorial election consolidated a Democratic lead in both houses. None of this guarantees, however, a change in the custom of seizing power in any Latin American country that decides to take a course that does not enjoy Washington's sympathy. Few things illustrate this point better than Kissinger's reference to Allende's election 50 years ago, when, with the support of President Nixon, he found the decision of the Chilean people unacceptable. And he decided to revoke it by arms. He had to make the economy grind until the people couldn't stand it. As they have been doing for 60 years against Cuba. Or like they do against Venezuela. Measures that – as Senator McConnell is well aware – deeply harm our republics. But they work so well for US interests that its president thought it might be interesting to apply them there as well.

Both sides of the wall

“A hegemony fades,” said Marcus Colla, professor of modern European history at the University of Oxford, in an article published by Lowy Institute from Australia. It is the obituary of the world that emerged from the Second World War, to which Western analysts refer. The pandemic came just to make it evident. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Washington's response to the crisis.

You don't have to look far to find pronouncements about the world beyond US rule. Few would argue, Colla said, that the pandemic has exposed this diminished global influence. He refers to the declining ability of the United States to influence what he calls the “global imagination”. When the pandemic broke out, no one thought to look to the United States. The crisis didn't change the world, it just laid bare truths that were still a little hidden, he said.

The supposed moral leadership of the United States has always been vital to maintain its hegemony within the framework of this old order inherited from the war. Underpinned by this moral language, the epoch of economic and military dominance is over and, in his opinion, it is extraordinarily difficult to think that it could ever be reconstituted. Colla suggests that we see the current political moment as the intersection of two arcs: one defined by the resurgence of nations and borders, by old geopolitical rivalries; the other characterized by a radical acceleration of global connectivity in science, the digital world, surveillance technologies as well as disease transmission. Globalization, he asserts, has always been a difficult (if not impossible) concept to define. But when we leave this phase, in a few months, we will enter another world, no less global, no less connected, "but it could very well be less American".

Ishaan Tharoor, columnist for The Washington Post on international issues, expressed a similar view. The power of the American model will be diluted; your arguments will be harder to hear. The pretense of showing the North American political order as an example for the world and the inability to foresee that chaos like last Wednesday 6th could also occur in that country, are two aspects of the same myopia, said Tharoor: “the that overestimates Washington's moral influence in the world and underestimates the profound dysfunction inherent in the American system.

For many – including President Obama, who liked to emphasize it – a myth like that of American exceptionalism is lacking. For others, this is an illusion that makes Washington's role in the articulation of military coups or the installation of cruel regimes of clientelism obvious, which characterized its politics for decades, recalls Tharoor.

The ups and downs of international politics

Alastair Crooke, a former British diplomat with extensive experience in international affairs, tries to explain why the United States can no longer impose its civilizing vision on the world. With the triumph of the United States in the Cold War, liberal principles, which John Stuart Mill once explained in his book About a liberdade, far from becoming a law of universal development, became a cynical framework for the application of its “soft power” policy throughout the world. The principles proposed by Mill, his sectarian project, could only become universal when they were supported by power. First, by colonial power; then by American democracy. “The merits of the American culture and way of life only acquired practical validity after the implosion of the Soviet Union”.

But today, with the collapse of US soft power, not even with the victory of representatives of the classical liberal tradition in last November's elections, the United States will not be in a position to promote a new world order. The seesaw tipped to one side when, in 1989, eastern European socialism collapsed and the Soviet Union dissolved. As in that delightful children's toy, one touches the ground with his feet, while the other soars into the clouds when the seesaw moves. But, as children know, the seesaw follows its movement, and with the feet they push it upwards again, until the other end, in turn, hits the ground again. In any case, the seesaw movement was not in the minds of those who then climbed to the clouds.

The old illusion has been diluted. Crooke makes several remarks. Among them is that the new North American generation, known as woke liberals, which denounces the liberal paradigm as illusory and reiterates that it was never more than a cover to hide oppression, be it domestic, colonial, racist or imperial. An obstacle that only redemption can erase.

An attack on any US aspirations for global leadership that include the idea that, in the end, there was never "prosperity for all". Not even free market. It is the overthrow of idols. The Fed – the US “central bank” – and the Treasury simply printed new money and distributed it to certain groups. Now one understands the significance of that huge financial ecosystem known as Wall Street. And if you ask, says Crooke, why not reduce it to a few institutions, such as investment blackrock,or hedge funds KKR, and task them with distributing the new funds to their friends.

Crooke fears that soft power will turn into hard totalitarianism. Riding on the seesaw, we can clearly see the ups and downs of the movement, the scene of the end of an era, the true end of the Cold War, whose origin had been the war. And that could be the beginning of one more… Maybe the final. Politically, the advanced societies of Western modernity are oligarchies, disguised as liberal democracies, says Crooke, recalling the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Conditioning the rejects of this modernity is the task, he concludes.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves


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