America, Through the Looking Glass

Even an exceptional nation is bound by the rules of politics

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America, Through the Looking Glass
A protestor at the United States Capitol building following a “Stop the Steal” rally on January 06, 2021/Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Mad Hatter asked Alice.

The MAGA crowd, armed with bulletproof vests, guns, and carrying a makeshift gallows and noose knew the answer to their riddle. They proceeded to “primary the hell” out of the Capitol building.

America was shocked. They had stepped through the looking glass; the broken doors, the enraged faces, the mob hunting police through the corridors, the lawmakers, now crouched behind barricaded doors. Even those who were so happy to whip up the crowd when they were safely behind barricades now balked at hearing the words of the crowd shouted at them, spittle flecked. Some free speech sounds better at a distance.

Searching for answers, the professional pundit class grasped for allusions, and found it in the very war zones Washington had previously waded into. The capital looked like Baghdad, said CNN’s Wolf Blitzer; it looked like Kabul, said ABC’s Martha Raddatz. Social media provided a thousand other allusions, mostly focused on the Middle East, denigrating the dusty others banned beyond the Atlantic Ocean.

Wave those analogies aside if you like. Call them merely a colorful metaphor, a way of making the shocking understandable by relaying to Americans what they have seen on their TV screens for decades.

But they are more than a metaphor; they are a framework for thinking.

American exceptionalism suggests that the things that happen abroad — in the “shithole countries” of Trump’s imagination — don’t happen in America. That different laws apply to the 50 states. That an exceptional nation cannot be bound by the mundane rules of political reality.

It’s the Alice in Wonderland phenomenon, the sense that the world you are now in is a world apart. But even in Lewis Carroll’s book, the alternate reality was part of Alice’s world, just hidden, subterranean, accessible only through the rabbit hole. The mob outside the Capitol hadn’t fallen into Washington from a riverbank in Baghdad or Kabul; they had come from America.

American exceptionalism is dangerous, at home and abroad.

The magical thinking that America’s actions at home somehow inhabit a different reality is what led to the political crisis of these past four years.

By not recognizing political reality, by not believing the rules of politics apply to you, it can be treated as a game, in which the consequences don’t count. But they do count, and the very belief that “it can’t happen here” is what allows it to happen.

A republic doesn’t die because the Sturmabteilung march down the Mall. It doesn’t end when Trump stands at his inauguration and declares, “This American carnage ends now”; it doesn’t end when the crowd shouts, “Lock her up” and he merely smiles; it doesn’t even end when he concocts claims of fraud and elected officials nod along. Instead, it dies of a thousand cuts.

Those rules apply abroad, too. The countries the pundits compared Washington to didn’t become that way in some magical way. No, they too were bound by the laws of political reality. Their republics broke by a thousand blows.

First, the bombing of an electricity plant, then a failure to police the streets. An uninvestigated killing here, the roughing up of a respected dignitary there, a sordid assault that goes unpunished. Too little electricity, too few jobs, too many discarded guns — and a beautiful, fragile, imperfect society cracks.

America’s imagined exceptionalism follows it abroad. Washington’s wars have too often been informed by this magical thinking: America as Alice, an ingénue gifted by history to stagger around other people’s cities, gasping in wide-eyed astonishment at war zones she cannot understand, parallel worlds so different from her own. “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” said Alice. “Oh, we’re all mad here,” said the Cheshire Cat.

Over there, they’re all mad.

Perhaps the darkest aspect of exceptionalism is this: If you survive the trial by fire, you feel more saved than the rest.

America survived the trial. It survived by a thousand decisions, by the beautiful monotony of a stable state reasserting itself. Behind the inauguration of a new president and the reassertion of a functioning republic lie a thousand decisions: of the Trump staffers who decided to do their job regardless of ideology; of the National Guardsmen who heard the former president’s call but decided not to act; of the women and men who woke up and went to work, regardless of their political views. The dull, metronomic decisions that decide the fate of civilizations.

If America is bound by the laws of political reality, then those decisions are causes for celebration. Those individuals were little heroes. But if America is exceptional, then those decisions were always inevitable and congratulations are worthless because the long descent into chaos was never an option. And with this line of thinking, it’s easy to look around at the broken republics of the world, shrug, and say, “Well, they just didn’t fight hard enough.”

But they did. The men and women of other countries fought hard too. They hated the checkpoints, and the chaos, and the men with the guns. They hated not knowing what would happen tomorrow. They hated the broken glass, and the dust covered barriers, and the frightened faces staring back from the mirror. They also said, “This isn’t who we are.”

Iraqis didn’t love their shattered country any less than those wrapped up warm on the Mall last week. They didn’t decide, surveying the first jagged bruises foreign weapons had blasted in their historic cities, that they would simply give up on it. Nor did the Syrians who left home, nor the Afghans, nor all the other people of the Middle East’s shattered century.

They didn’t love their countries any less nor did they fight less furiously to preserve it. But gradually, when their cities went dark and their neighbors became suspicious and they had to bury their children, the thousands of decisions weighed in the balance against them. A thousand cuts add up.

In Washington, the roadblocks have been dismantled and the National Guard has mostly gone home. Life is dull again. “A republic, sir, if you can keep it.” America has kept it. In those places far from the eyes of the world, where the checkpoints still stand and the drones still hover and the men with guns still crouch, they are trying to keep their country, too. Looking around at a world they do not recognize, they imagine if they just walk a little further and fight a little harder and hold on a little longer, a beautiful monotony will reassert itself.

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