My first trip to India, the land of my father’s birth, was in 1986. I was 15 and wide-eyed, marvelling at its treasures, buildings and buzz. On the fourth day, I travelled from Delhi to the Taj Mahal, a shining tribute to the Mogul empire, built under Shah Jahan. “Let the splendour of diamond, pearl and ruby vanish,” wrote the poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Only let this one teardrop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, for ever and ever.”
Two things struck me about this trip, in addition to the wonderful architecture and people. The first was the economic might of India in its imperial heyday. In 1700, not long after the building of the Taj Mahal, a nation of 160 million people commanded 24% of global GDP. The second was related to the first: how could such a vast and prosperous nation have been subdued by a tiny force of British troops, becoming a colony — the jewel of the empire — during the reign of George II?
The reason, I would discover from later study, is simple: India was economically powerful but politically feeble. Notionally a state, it was divided into tribal factions willing to put sectarian interests above the nation. Robert Clive, a general who would become known as Clive of India, noted that he could exploit these fractures. As he put it in a letter of 1764: “I can assert with some degree of confidence that this rich and flourishing kingdom can be totally subdued by so small a force as two thousand.”
I can’t help seeing at least some parallels between 18th-century India and the modern United States. America remains economically powerful — commanding 24% of global GDP — yet has become politically weak in ways characteristic of an empire in decline. It is, I think, an error to focus on the relatively small group breaking into the Capitol as a result of lax security; far more significant are the surveys of representative samples of Americans that reveal how commitment to sectarian interests has, in many parts of the nation, superseded commitment to the republic itself.
Research by Yale found only 15% of Americans would punish a politician for engaging in electoral malpractice such as gerrymandering, so long as it benefited their own side. Other polls show that the number advocating violence to suppress political opponents doubled between 2017 and 2019.
An instant survey by YouGov found that 45% of Republican voters supported the Capitol attack. Most ominous of all, this madness has infiltrated political elites. More than half of House Republicans voted to defy the result of the presidential election — in a vote that took place after an assault on their own building in which people were killed and police officers were assaulted so violently that one later died.
China and Russia, for their part, are playing a blinder. They cannot collude militarily with internal American factions to overturn the wider nation, as per Clive of India, but they are doing the next best thing — prising people apart not with guns but with bots. In the past few months alone, Russia’s web brigades and their Chinese equivalents have cultivated a multitude of conspiracy theories designed to inflame sectarian divides. One analysis found that of 200 million tweets on the pandemic between January and May last year, 62% of top retweeters were bots.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are wily enough to know that empires — from Rome to the early Islamic caliphates to the Chinese dynasties to the Moguls — crumble, as often as not, from within. They are poking us, pulling at our divisions, hoping that the West, and not just America, unravels some more. They are being helped by a cast of useful idiots such as the Texas senator Ted Cruz, whose speech on Wednesday will live long in infamy, not to mention the army of radio and Twitter shock jocks who leap upon anything inflammatory in pursuit of new followers. Social media users live in vast echo chambers, a kind of digital segregation, indulging parallel versions of reality.
And this is, I think, the best way to rouse Americans from their bout of self-harm. A new power is rising. As the woke left and hard right squabble over epic trivialities such as whether using a Jamaican recipe in a US dish amounts to cultural appropriation, the true threat is busy imprisoning Uighurs in concentration camps, forcibly sterilising women, threatening India, pushing further into the South China Sea, locking up dissidents in Hong Kong and weighing up an attack on democratic Taiwan — something that could have huge ramifications for us all.
Xi and his fellow autocrats are enjoying a propaganda coup, eagerly pumping out pictures of the assault on the Capitol, stoking the idea that the only way to prevent a society from drifting into violent factionalism is via ever-greater centralised control. If America is broken, we must be doing it the right way! And it is certainly true that an authoritarian regime can eliminate all divisions in society through fear, censorship and control. This isn’t unity, however — it is the illusion of unity, with the real divide between the ruling elite and the masses it represses.
The paradox of Donald Trump’s presidency is that he roused the West to the threat of the Chinese Communist Party while weakening the institutions we need to confront it. He abused the presidency, undermined the rule of law and fractured the western alliance. He spent months priming his base to believe that the election was fraudulent, and then mobilised it against its own nation when he lost. His pathetic statement of Friday disavowing the violence was a naked attempt to evade criminal liability for an insurrection he had incited.
In the gospels, Christ said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln quoted that passage in a famous speech of 1858, the last time America came close to tearing itself apart. I guess I am not alone in feeling enormous gratitude to the judges and certifiers who defended due process over recent weeks and, indeed, those Republicans who stood up to Trump’s threats, not least Mitch McConnell, who indulged the president for far too long but gave a speech of immense authority as the republic wavered on an unforgettable night.
A breeze caresses the sails of history and we are carried along oblivious to the direction of travel. The events of recent days might be seen as an alarm call, alerting us to the looming rocks. All factions, both within and between free societies, should remember this: if we do not hang together, we will hang separately. It is not too late — not quite — to change course.
Matthew Syed is a columnist for The Times. He writes a column on sport as well as reviews, opinion and interviews. He has won numerous prizes for his writing, including sports journalist of the year at the British Press Awards and sports feature writer of the year at the Sports Journalists' Association Awards.