All American: Political violence is at home in the United States
28th February 2021
As democracy in the United States has been pushed to breaking point, demonstrated by January’s insurrection at the Capitol and the ensuing attempted impeachment of Donald Trump, political pundits and journalists have taken to comparing the scenes in the Capitol to the “middle east” or naming specific locations such as Syria, Baghdad and Kabul. These comparisons again appeared in the media in light of the recent crisis in Texas, where scenes of people queuing for access to clean water were described as those akin to a “third-world country”.
Such a quote arose during the Capitol insurrection, when Senator Marco Rubio tweeted “this is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy”, while CNN’s Jake Tapper simply likened the scenes to Bogota. ABC anchor Martha Raddaz reported: “It is so horrible to know, we are in America where this is happening, on Capitol Hill. I’m not in Baghdad. I’m not in Kabul. I’m not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America.” Not only is terminology like “third world” generalised and outdated, these comparisons are also ahistorical and simply false. This rhetoric promotes the negative stereotype that countries outside the US, typically countries in Central or South America, the Middle East, or Africa, are being unfairly referenced as chaotic and war-ridden. Many expressed disgust when Donald Trump referenced “shithole countries” during his presidency; and yet the media and politicians are simply continuing this ignorant discourse in a more covert manner.
These comparisons also deflect attention away from the fact that this political violence is, in reality, distinctly American. Allowing this rhetoric to permeate cable news and political discourse contributes to an “othering” of political violence as “something that happens in those countries over there”, but not in the US. In fact, this kind of violence is intrinsically linked to American history. Historically, the United States is a settler colonial state, created by the displacement and death of Native Americans, and built on the back of slave labour. The white supremacist Charlottesville demonstration, recent Proud Boys rallies and the El Paso terror attack are just a handful of examples that reveal that this violence is still a feature of contemporary American society. It is unsurprising that the trajectory that began with the Trail of Tears and continued through Jim Crow and public lynchings has led the US to a place of white supremacist uprisings. The storming of the Capitol was a culmination of this history of political violence and the escalation that has occurred under the Trump administration. The inability of the media to recognise this leads to an inability to fully understand it.
“It is unsurprising that the trajectory that began with the Trail of Tears and continued through Jim Crow and public lynchings has led the US to a place of white supremacist uprisings.”
Political violence is also an important element of US foreign policy, most notably in the form of the “war on terror”. This policy has also been invoked through CIA backed coups. Between 1947 and 1989, the US attempted to overthrow governments of other countries a total of 72 times. Studies have shown that when a government is toppled it often leads to civil war and domestic instability. Political violence is homegrown in the US and exported to other countries in the name of “democracy”.
In the past few weeks, this rhetoric has again appeared in discussions surrounding the crisis in Texas. ABC anchor Erica Simon tweeted a video of people queuing to fill up buckets of clean water from a public spigot with the caption “This is not a third world country. This is Houston, Texas.” In this case, residents have been failed by deregulated privatised power grids that have not been weather proofed and a lack of government support and preparation. The Texas grid system is run by corporations and isolated from other states. This is distinctly American – both in its capitalist nature and its stubborn individualism. More generally, the catastrophic weather is almost inevitably a result of climate change; something many US politicians still deny as being a real threat to humanity.
It is curious that the media often reach for far away defective comparisons when presented with scenes of political violence, instead of referencing its long history in the US. The myth of American exceptionalism has deluded many into a sort of cognitive dissonance. These analogies are not just offensive; they are a betrayal of US history. In order for American to truly come to terms with its past and move toward a better future, it needs to forget the idea of exceptionalism and face reality.
Featured Photo by TheTapForwardAssist on Wikipedia Commons