One of the darkest days in American history played out in a barely two-square-mile area, but it rippled across the globe. Authoritarian leaders were gleeful about the chaos in the world’s most powerful democracy. As armed insurrectionists, white supremacists, and rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela—a failing state with rival claims to the Presidency, and shortages of power, food, and medicine—tweeted a warning about political polarization in the United States. With more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, Jorge Arreaza wished Americans well in finding “a new path towards stability and social justice.”
Officials in Turkey, which has witnessed a dramatic erosion of democracy amid arrests of dissidents and journalists, called on all parties in Washington “to maintain restraint and prudence”—and then warned its own citizens in the United States to avoid crowded places. Iranian state television ran live coverage of the chaos at the Capitol, with a running ticker underneath, as Hossein Dehghan, a former Revolutionary Guard and a Presidential candidate in the upcoming June election, tweeted, “The world is watching the American dream.” The Russian deputy U.N. Ambassador compared the turmoil in Washington, D.C., to the 2014 protests in Kyiv that toppled the Ukrainian government.“On social media platforms like Telegram, supporters of ISIS and Al Qaeda celebrated the turmoil in the United States. An ISIS publication predicted that America would be consumed with turmoil for the next four years.
America’s allies were also appalled—and posted their own undiplomatic admonitions on social media. Boris Johnson, a long-standing ally and personal friend of Donald Trump’s, chastised the President. “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol,” he said. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted that “the American people’s will and vote must be respected.” In a tweet, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, condemned the “shocking” scenes out of Washington. “We must call this out for what it is: a deliberate assault on Democracy by a sitting President & his supporters, attempting to overturn a free & fair election! The world is watching!” Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, appealed directly to the President. “Dear Donald Trump, recognise Joe Biden as the next president today.”
Worldwide, the broader question was about the impact on the credibility of liberal democracy if it could produce such turmoil in a country known for its strong institutions, laws, and checks and balances. “Enemies of democracy will be happy to see these unbelievable pictures from #WashingtonDC,” the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, tweeted. “Trump and his supporters should accept the decision of American voters at last and stop trampling on democracy.” Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel based in Qatar, ran a column headlined “America Is Coming Undone.” “The jarring bedlam” that the world witnessed is “only the beginning. Over the next four years, the remaining shreds of American ‘democracy’ may not just continue to unravel, but the whole rotten edifice could implode.”
America’s rivals cited the chaos at the Capitol as a sign that America has forfeited its claim to be a political model or world leader. “The celebration of democracy is over,” Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the international-affairs committee in the Russian upper house, said. “I say this without a hint of gloating. America is no longer charting the course, and therefore has lost all its rights to set it. And especially to impose it on others.” In a televised address, on Thursday, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that the unrest in Washington “really showed that first how floppy and weak the Western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are.” From Zimbabwe, which last year appeared on the verge of collapse as unemployment hit ninety per cent and inflation neared eight hundred per cent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted outrage on Thursday that Trump had once criticized the African nation. “Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy,” he wrote.
And then, of course, what does America’s revolt mean for everybody else? On Wednesday evening, I had a long conversation with an ambassador from a Middle Eastern country that has faced civil war and struggled to stabilize its fragile democracy. He recalled similar attacks on his own country’s parliament and said that he was “heartbroken” about the siege of the Capitol. “Americanism is like a religion, which is why you don’t burn the flag. It is instilled in Americans since primary school,” he said. “These things have a certain holy character. So to see people storm the office of the Speaker of the House and behave like an anti-monarchy mob storming the palace is unbelievable.” The United States would overcome the crisis, he predicted, “but it’ll leave a pretty bad aftertaste.”
A European diplomat mused about “the temptation” to only see what happened as “un-American,” then added, “what happened today is the result of what happened before.” He warned that the attack on the Capitol and what it represented “will have an impact on all democracies” and the basic values for which they stand. “I hope there will be some kind of deeper awareness in Washington of what has happened here over the past few years,” he told me. Human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, issued the kind of alerts about the state of politics in America that they normally reserve for failing states or crisis countries.
In all the conversations I had with diplomats, foreign-policy analysts, and historians, each rattled off the coup attempts, insurrections, seizures of government facilities, or threats to officials that they’d witnessed or written about—elsewhere. But none of the experts—even among those long worried about political corrosion in America—foresaw the unprecedented assault by Americans on their own Congress, aided, abetted, and gleefully encouraged by the President in a rousing speech in front of the White House. There’s actually a word to describe it: autogolpe, a coup that is initiated or facilitated by a country’s elected leader either to seize extraordinary powers or establish absolute control of the state. Derived from Spanish and initially associated with Latin America, it is also called a “self-coup.”
I’ve had a long-running conversation on the dangers of an American autogolpe or civil war with Keith Mines, who served for more than three decades as a U.S. Special Forces officer and diplomat in countries with existential political crises, insurrections, rebellions, or civil wars—Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Haiti, Colombia, and Darfur in Sudan. We’ve often talked about what we’ve learned from civil strife elsewhere and how it might apply in our own country. On Wednesday, he was in isolation at a Washington, D.C., hospital in the midst of stem-cell-replacement treatment but was watching the drama unfold on television. The mob’s attempt to seize control of one of the three branches of American government meant that America had crossed a political threshold. “People are now willing to go outside institutions to solve problems, and, once that happens, it puts a nation in a different place,” he warned. “Once we’ve given up on institutions, we no longer have the means to peacefully settle disputes.”
The challenge to America’s brand of democracy has gradually built up in recent years. It started, Mines told me, “with the whiff of violence in calls to ‘Lock her up,’ ” a popular chant during Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton. It grew with verbal attacks on politicians and armed incursions into statehouses by militias. In May, masked gunmen with assault rifles marauded through the Michigan legislature to demand an end to the mandatory lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. In October, six militiamen were arrested for plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. “Through sheer intimidation of arms, people have now breached our Capitol,” Mines said. “We need to remember that this is not the work of a handful of protesters but indirectly reflects the choice of millions of Americans. We’re now in a very dangerous place. I’m not sure how you walk it back.”
David Blight, a Yale historian, said that the only comparable event in U.S. history was John Brown’s assault on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia, in 1859. Brown, an abolitionist, had grown disillusioned with pacifism. He was the first American to be hanged for treason. “And today,” Blight said, with some disbelief about the events a hundred and sixty-two years later, “we’re talking about seizing the U.S. Capitol.” I asked him if the trend is transient or whether America is at war with itself. “Yes,” he said, “politically we are at war.” What distinguishes the insurrection in 2021 is that it was “incited by the chief executive of the country. We’ve had Presidents who overstepped their bounds,” Blight told me, “but never anything like this.”