TRURO — By fomenting a violent uprising against democratic rule last week, President Trump did something unique in American history. He unleashed terror in his own country. Previous presidents have only done that abroad.
Over the last century, no nation has intervened as often as the United States in so many countries so far away from its own borders. Overthrowing governments is one of our specialties. Last week gave us a glimpse, on a greatly reduced scale, of the havoc we have wreaked elsewhere.
The idea of “exceptionalism” is deeply ingrained in our national DNA. Americans grow up presuming that, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asserted, “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries.”
Our leaders believe they know what is good for the world better than the world itself knows. This has led the U.S. to incite rebellion and subversive violence in dozens of countries. To replace the governments we overthrow, we often promote corrupt demagogues. Now we face the same combination at home: insurrection and demagoguery.
According to a joke that is told in many countries, there can never be a coup in the U.S. because there is no American embassy there. The latest zinger is no less ironic: “Due to travel restrictions, this year the U.S. government decided to stage its coup at home.” The bitterness beneath those lines is a natural reaction to last week’s violence from people outside the United States. The form of democracy that Americans brag about and seek to impose on others, it turns out, is hardly perfect — or even enviable.
American leaders not only work to spread political chaos in other countries, they openly encourage it. When the halls of Congress were invaded last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was rightly outraged. Yet when a mob stormed the Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong two years ago, she called it “a beautiful sight to behold.” Not surprisingly, Chinese commentators sprinkled their reports on last week’s Washington attack with words like “retribution,” “karma,” and “deserving.”
If our democracy collapses or is decisively weakened in the coming decades, it will not be because the wrong political party came to power in Syria or Venezuela. Nor are China, Russia, and the other usual suspects truly responsible for our domestic decay. Our deepest social and political crises are self-created. While we spend trillions to fight wildly exaggerated threats in distant parts of the world, our democratic institutions atrophy. Cynical politicians take advantage, even to the point of inciting violence for their own gain. It happens elsewhere, so why not here? When measured by the strength of our democracy, the U.S. may not be so exceptional after all.
American intervention has set off plagues of violence in countries from Guatemala and Chile to Iraq and Libya. Generations of Americans assumed that plague would never reach our shores. As we have learned over the last year, though, plagues spread. Domestic terrorists follow the example we set abroad. We cannot expect peace at home if we relentlessly promote upheaval in other countries.
Last week’s mob attack in Washington was a historic event. The forces it represents are potent. They will not fade away. Taming them would require a deep reordering of our national priorities. Our efforts at nation-building abroad have been notorious failures. The scenes flashing across our TV screens these last few days suggest that we should try it at home.
Stephen Kinzer is a Truro Central School graduate and former New York Times foreign correspondent. His most recent book is Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.