For the past four years, I’ve watched with dismay as the echoes of authoritarianism that I’d experienced elsewhere in the world reverberated through President Trump’s America. Now, in the final days of Trump’s presidency, the logical endpoint of that evolution has arrived. Dangerous extremists have violently stormed the Capitol and took control of the congressional chambers, all to keep their leader in power illegally after he lost an election.
These harrowing images seem familiar to me — thanks to the time I’ve spent in places ranging from coup-prone Thailand to the war-torn Ivory Coast to the tinderbox of Madagascar with its bloody protests. Now I’m seeing them in Washington.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol is a depressing, tragic and frightening moment for the country. But it would be a lie to say it was shocking. It was utterly predictable. I, and others, have been warning about Trump stoking post-election violence literally for years. When you elect an authoritarian populist who encourages conflict, demonizes political opponents and seeks to subvert democracy to stay in power, this is exactly what it looks like.
What’s happening in America looks a lot like the deadly 2009 protests in Madagascar, when angry protesters stormed the presidential palace. At least 20 were killed. I’m also reminded of the 2010 coup in Thailand when protesters occupied Bangkok. That, too, led to a bloodbath. America certainly has far more robust institutions than those countries. But if the United States avoids further violence, it will be a miracle.
It’s important to recognize that this did not come out of nowhere. There’s nothing surprising about it. We knew the protesters were coming because Trump and his cynical enablers openly encouraged them to come. He called for “wild” protests on Jan. 6. Well, that’s what we got. Hours before the Capitol was stormed, the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, called for “a trial by combat” as he encouraged the radical zealots who would later take over the Capitol by force. Republican power brokers and aides to the president who were able to stop this encouraged it instead.
Worse, the very people responsible for emboldening this insurrection knew better. As Republican Sen. Ben Sasse has explained, his Senate colleagues all recognize, behind closed doors, that Joe Biden won the election. Those who objected to the electoral certification were just engaging in opportunistic showboating, hoping that they could gain a bit of popularity with Trump’s political base. It didn’t matter to them that their efforts to overturn the election were sure to be a magnet for extremists seeking to keep Trump in power at all costs. It didn’t matter to them that people might die. After all, the protesters who responded to their call were willing to disregard the will of the voters, so why not disregard the Capitol police too?
And lest we forget, there was a dress rehearsal for this moment earlier this year in Michigan, when Trump called on his supporters to “liberate” the state (from public health measures that his administration publicly supported). The result was, again, predictable: heavily-armed pro-Trump militias entering the state capitol and engaging in a tense showdown with law enforcement. Trump and his allies cheered them on.
Sometimes, political violence does erupt spontaneously. But more often, as we’ve seen elsewhere around the world, it is caused by politicians who recklessly incite their supporters. The disturbing scenes in Washington on Wednesday would not have happened if Trump had accepted defeat. They would likely not have happened if Sen. Josh Hawley had decided to support a peaceful transition of power. And they would likely not have happened if elected Republicans who were too scared of their base to speak out against their destructive tendencies had, for once, picked principle over party.
From my experience around the world, I know that these moments of violence-fueled madness are difficult to defuse. We will be lucky if Wednesday’s events shock Republicans into calling for restraint, and if Trump’s most extreme followers actually listen. But it is far more likely that further violence will ensue in the days before Trump formally loses power.
In the meantime, the damage being done to America’s reputation, image,and soft power is incalculable. In the eyes of the world, the United States now has yet another feature in common with shattered, dysfunctional countries: The transfer of power is still set to occur, but nobody can claim it was peaceful. People at the Capitol who are flying flags and claiming to be patriots just bestowed an incredible gift to America’s adversaries.
For years, it has been clear that Trump has been an authoritarian menace who would eagerly burn America’s institutions to the ground if it meant saving himself. Now, we know what that looks like as images, that were only familiar to those who live in banana republics, are now familiar to all Americans thanks to the cynical brinkmanship of Trumpian banana Republicans.