The delusion of American exceptionalism

Today is a day of reckoning for all Americans who believe their democracy is just ‘too strong to fail.’

Police officers stand guard as supporters of United States President Donald Trump gather in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, the US, on January 6, 2021 [Leah Millis/Reuters]

On January 6, Vice President Mike Pence convened the two chambers of Congress to count electoral votes and officially certify Joe Biden as the president-elect of the United States. This is usually a straightforward and purely ceremonial procedure that takes around one hour. Yet these are not “normal” times.

First, several Republican lawmakers, in a brazen but doomed effort to keep Trump in office, started raising objections to the results of the electoral college, prolonging the process. Then, in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the election, thousands of pro-Trump protesters stormed and “occupied” the Capitol. As people wearing MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats and carrying Trump flags rampaged through offices and onto the legislative floors, lawmakers were told to shelter in place in the House Gallery. Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser swiftly put the US capital under curfew and announced a two-week state of emergency.

As the images of chaos and violence coming from the heart of American democracy filled television screens and social media timelines, millions in the US and around the world were shocked, but all this was not necessarily surprising.

President Donald Trump, after all, has long been spouting baseless claims of widespread election fraud, claiming the presidency has been “stolen” from him, and egging his supporters on to violently resist the peaceful transfer of power. He openly pressured Republican officials, including Vice President Pence, to ignore their constitutional duties to keep him in office. He even made a now-infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger instructing him to “find the votes” he needed to win the swing state.

Just hours before the riot in Washington, DC, in a 70-minute speech near the White House, the president called the election result an “egregious assault on our democracy”, and openly instructed his supporters to “walk down to the Capitol”, adding “You will never take back our country with weakness”.

But Trump was not the only one responsible for Wednesday’s riot. Countless Republican lawmakers and officials – as well as conservative media personalities – contributed to thousands of Trump supporters being convinced that the election was “stolen” from them. Out of ideological loyalty, short-sighted political pragmatism or pure partisanship, they helped the president incite his supporters to violence, undermine the US Constitution, and make a mockery of the electoral process.

Even many high-ranking Republican establishment figures refused to condemn the president’s unlawful attempts to overturn the election until the last minute, as they were scared to lose the support of Trump’s millions of loyal followers. Many others, meanwhile, chose to ignore or downplay the president’s antics, claiming that his influence would evaporate soon. Meanwhile, right-wing extremism slowly became mainstream.

Now, after the Capitol is secured and Biden’s victory certified after a day of chaos, politicians from both sides of the political spectrum are vocally condemning Trump and highlighting the challenge facing the new administration and the country. But why was Trump’s xenophobic and divisive language accepted for so long? Why was he allowed to undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers not only in the weeks after the election, but during the entirety of his presidency? Why were his dog whistles to white supremacists, racists and violent fascists ignored and normalised? Why did the American state not take the necessary measures to prevent Wednesday’s insurrection, which was incited by the president and his supporters out in the open for everyone to see?

Even the media appeared unprepared for the violence. In many ways, the president was openly paving the way for a coup attempt for months. Thousands were regularly taking to the streets to chant “Stop the Steal” and wave their guns. If what was happening in the US was taking place in Latin America, Southern or Eastern Europe, Africa, or anywhere else in the Global South, US media organisations would have sent teams of reporters to the relevant parliament in full protective gear and publish countless news pieces about the uncertainty surrounding the electoral process and the “looming violence”. But not in the US. Why?

One reason is the prevailing idea that the US democracy is just too strong to fail. Mix that with American exceptionalism and the widespread belief in the superiority of Anglophone liberal institutions, and you can see how America ended up where it is today.

The parochial belief that US democracy and institutions are “invincible” became especially strong after the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. In the eyes of many, “democracy” had categorically prevailed over dictatorship, and there was (apparently) nothing else to add to history.

Today, therefore, is a day of reckoning for Americans (and everyone in the Western world) who believe their democracy is “too strong to fail”, even when their elected officials are working to normalise ultra-nationalism and violent right-wing activism for political gain. Rather than continuing to view their country as an “exception”, they should look to the recent past, and other countries, to understand the perils of normalising fascistic and anti-democratic tendencies.

In the interwar years, for example, conservatives across Europe “legitimised” ultra-nationalism or violent activism. They believed they could “exploit” fascism and still preserve the democratic legitimacy of their respective states. As a result, many nations in Europe found themselves being ruled by fascist dictators, experienced widespread violence at the hands of far-right militias, or were forced to establish authoritarian regimes.

In many cases throughout the 20th century, from Latin America to Europe, authoritarians and fascists came to power “legally” through elections, gradually decimating institutions, undermining the rule of law and eliminating opposing voices during their time in office – which often lasted years if not decades. These periods of authoritarianism were rightfully seen as crises or collapses of democratic systems.

Regrettably, despite the widespread refusal to accept reality, this is precisely what is being experienced today across the Western world, from the United Kingdom and Poland to, of course, the US: a crisis of democracy. Demagogic leaders have been allowed to undermine political institutions for years while right-wing “extremism” became “mainstream”.

If they want to heal their country and rebuild their democracy, the America’s new leaders need to accept this reality, abandon the idea of American “exceptionalism” and finally put a stop to the normalisation of anti-democratic, even fascistic, behaviours of their fellow politicians.

But there is one more lesson they should learn from other countries that experienced similar crises of democracy in the recent past: Even after being defeated in polls and courts, dangerous political trends like Trumpism do not disappear overnight.

Take the example of “Berlusconism” in Italy.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italian media tycoon and former prime minister, much like Trump, worked to undermine the representative system, attacked the judiciary, legitimised corruption and criticised “professional politicians” during his nine years in power.

Despite often being dismissed as a degenerate mired in sex scandals and corruption allegations and being “unfit” to rule a European democracy, Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for two decades until his resignation in 2011. But his exit from the driving seat of Italian politics did not in any way mark the end of Berlusconism. He not only continued his efforts to return to a position of power, but the populist modus operandi he introduced to Italian media and politics, as well as his legitimisation of nationalism and neo-fascism, is still crippling Italian democracy to this day. His ongoing presence in media and politics as well as the current popularity of far-right politicians such as Matteo Salvini is, in some ways, proof that Berlusconism is still alive in Italy.

The same may happen with Trumpism in the US. Even when Trump is finally ousted from the White House, the damage he caused by legitimising actions and behaviours that were once taboo in American politics may continue to hinder the healing process of American democracy in the years to come.

So, in short, America is no exception to any rule, the American democracy is not too strong to fail, Trumpism is likely here to stay, and Americans need to quickly come to term with these facts, if they really want to, in President-elect Biden’s words, “build back better”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.