The farcical yet deeply troubling occupation of the U.S. Capitol by cosplaying MAGA nitwits has deepened American liberals’ urgency to finally consign the Trump era to the ash heap of history.
The events of January 6 marked the moment when authoritarian populism finally breached, if only for a ludicrous few hours, the inner sanctum of representative democracy in Washington, D.C.
The Trumpist siege of the Capitol also has international implications. As my colleague Abhijnan Rej pointed out yesterday, the events – and the four years that led up to them – have done serious damage to America’s global image, and laid bare American exceptionalism as a “self-perpetuated yet comforting myth.”
This sense of embarrassment has made the American political center all the more eager to move beyond Trump, and return to some semblance of normality under the incoming Democratic administration. An expectation is afoot that Washington’s reputation will “snap back,” to employ a COVID-19 term of art, the instant Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20.
This has been made explicit by the Biden camp itself. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, has argued that the mere fact of Biden’s election will send a “powerful message around the world” that “the last four years were an aberration and not representative of what America is and aspires to be.” (Recall that Donald Trump won the votes of 74 million Americans on November 3.)
Meanwhile, Biden has also promised to lead a democratic renewal at home – to win back the “soul” of America – while pledging that he will host a global “summit of democracies” in order to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.”
On its face, the goal of reinvigorating democracy at home and abroad is laudable. But there are some obvious problems. The first is that in order to fix the problem you need to understand it; and absent from most of these restorationist calls from Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans is any solid grasp of what caused Trump, nor of their own culpability in his rise. Particularly, I’m referring here to the combination of widening income inequalities, economic austerity, and perpetual war that underpin what Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth recently termed “angrynomics.”
One of the two great legitimating claims of liberal democracy is that it is able to deliver more prosperity than any of the alternatives. (The other is the vote.) But after four decades of bipartisan deregulatory economic policies, upward transfers of wealth, and the shredding of state capacity, increasing numbers of Americans have come to the realization that the system brings them few tangible benefits – a message that Washington’s catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 crisis has darkly underlined.
Despite the pressure coming from its left wing, this is a question that the mainstream of the Democratic Party continues to evade. Unable (or unwilling) to address the material precursors of the anger that led to Trump, many American liberals and anti-Trump Republicans have instead pointed to the deus ex machina of Russian election meddling in order to explain how such an absurd figure could win the presidency of the leading nation of the “free world.”
A similar blindness explains the prevailing response to the many challenges facing the U.S. at the global level. Like America’s domestic problems, many of these date back to the end of the Cold War, in which much of the American policymaking elite became so drunk on its victory against communism that it mistook a contingent historical event – the implosion of the moribund Soviet empire – for a universal law of history.
From this belief in America’s inherent virtue and preternatural beneficence and wisdom – former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously claimed Americans “stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future” – the mistakes flowed naturally: economic “shock therapy” in the former USSR; the galloping eastward expansion of NATO; the destabilization of the Middle East in the name of democracy; and, of course, gleeful deregulation at home.
The most convincing argument against Biden’s promised “summit of democracies” is the simple fact, adduced in each of the above instances, that every action has a reaction. “Almost inevitably,” Robert Wright argued last month in the Washington Post, “a ‘league of democracies’ would lead to a de facto league of authoritarians — and to deep fissures between the two.” Authoritarianism is not an ideology, and dictatorships that otherwise have little in common other than their non-democratic nature would suddenly find themselves united by a common interest – and a common threat.
The ensuing struggle would not only dramatically ratchet up the risk of a catastrophic global conflict; its demands might also strain the U.S. home front to breaking-point. Restorationists assume that rising authoritarianism abroad requires the U.S. to take on ever more burdens, to accrue ever more material power, in the task of forcing the world into its own image, without realizing that bipartisan monster-slaying adventures played no small role in Trump’s successful rise to power.
While it is comforting to assume that American moral authority will “snap back” once Trump is out of office, such a return is unlikely in the short to medium term. The reason – as the above failures indicate – is that it is has never just been about Trump.
Describing the unbelieving reaction in Washington to the Trump-induced storming of the Capitol, Ishaan Tharoor noticed an elite myopia, “one that overstates America’s moral influence in the world and underestimates the depth of dysfunction already inherent in the American system.” People in parts of the world that have been on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy are much less inclined to view American power – and the so-called “rules-based international order” that it undergirds – in a roseate light. Put another way, American exceptionalism doesn’t travel well.
The storming of the Capitol on January 6, seen in real time by the world, offers a good opportunity for U.S. policymakers to reflect on past mistakes and adopt a more restrained and measured approach in its foreign policy. Indeed, not only does the long road to global democratic renewal begin at home; given resource limitations, domestic renewal also likely depends on a more restrained posture abroad.
As Patrick Porter of the University of Birmingham argued on Twitter yesterday, foreign policy – the projection of American power – should be the means rather than the end of U.S. policy. “The better view is that the state of the home front – the constitution, political order, due process, etc – is the thing to safeguard and the ultimate ‘end’ in itself,” he wrote. “Foreign policy exists to protect and advance it.”
On this front, the Biden administration has a huge job ahead of it.