But that doesn’t mean the United States is in the clear

Last Wednesday, much of the country watched in horror as a Trump-incited mob stormed the Capitol building, interrupting the certification of the results of our most recent election. This “siege of Congress” was appalling for a myriad of reasons—the encouragement by President Trump, the undermining of our nation’s democracy, and the violence and bloodshed itself. But also troubling is how this has damaged the brand of democracy across the globe.

For many Americans, 2021 was supposed to signal a break with the chaos, pain and strife that characterized much of the Trump presidency, and particularly the events of the past year. Instead, photographers captured shocking scenes of violence—of members of Congress and staffers sheltering in place, of physical aggression against Capitol police and of offices being ransacked. These photographs spread around the world and ran as front-page news stories in the media of allies and adversaries alike.

America’s adversaries immediately took advantage of the chance to point out the failings of the United States, but no country was perhaps as openly opportunistic as China, whose state-run media Global Times crowed “the US has totally lost legitimacy and qualification to interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs.” Chinese state media quickly leapt to ridicule the United States, comparing last Wednesday’s events to the pro-democracy protests that shook Hong Kong earlier last summer. In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Capitol riots are an exemplar of American hypocrisy. A series of tweets from Global Times contrasted quotes from House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauding the Hong Kong protestors and condemning the Capitol rioters. The tweets also quoted a CCP Foreign Ministry representative saying people should “reflect on why some people and media in US [sic] gave different narrative [sic] on social turmoil in Hong Kong in 2019.”

There are clear and obvious differences between the storming of the Capitol and the Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong protests were a popular uprising against the marginalization by the CCP of the democratically elected government of Hong Kong. In the United States, the situation was the opposite: the rioters themselves were trying to undercut the democratic process. In both instances, unfortunately, violence marred the proceedings. Violence is always horrific—though to condemn it in all cases is to ignore the reality that for many oppressed people it is sometimes the only option for rebuking tyranny. Our own country’s birth, after all, was built upon revolution and protest. But while protestors in Hong Kong were and are in legitimate danger of losing their voice—given the outright criminalization of dissenting political voices, new laws that subvert the judicial code of Hong Kong to Beijing and repeated instances of protestors locked up indefinitely incommunicado—America’s rioters on Wednesday were disgruntled by the outcome of a free and fair election that was not in their favor.

The situation in Hong Kong is profoundly different. On the same day that rioters stormed the Capitol, police in Hong Kong conducted a series of raids, rounding up over 50 activists, former lawmakers and academics. These individuals were accused of “subverting state power” by hosting primaries for pro-democracy candidates in the Hong Kong election and detained under a new national security law Beijing enforced in the territory this summer. The crackdown was the type of brutal, authoritarian behavior the Hong Kong protests were trying to prevent and a devastating warning that Hong Kong is quickly losing its foothold in the free world. While upset Trump supporters were rioting over election results they didn’t agree with, people in Hong Kong were being locked up for attempting to hold democratic elections at all.

Grievances over an election loss are not the same as grievances over martial law and takeover of government structures. The CCP’s decision to portray them as equivalent reveals just how little the CCP understands true democracy. Of course, we expect that of a country with one authoritarian political party whose survival is protected at all costs, no matter how much oppression that requires. Unfortunately, it seems that many Republican politicians and right-wing media outlets care just as little about protecting democracy, having supported President Trump’s baseless claims that the election was “stolen.” Even after the Capitol was cleared, 147 Republican members of Congress still voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Unlike the several hundred rioters, these elected officials actually hold substantial individual power in the political process. These are the people that have fueled the flames of President Trump’s claims that the election was invalidated by fraud, who abetted his misinformation and calls to violence, and who fundraised and whipped their constituents into a frenzy in pursuit of short term political power at the expense of upholding the foundations our country is built upon.

The Capitol will be repaired. But allowing our president to encourage political violence has deeply undermined our witness to the value of democracy, damaging America’s international credibility for years to come. We cannot persuade others to start playing our game when we are flagrantly breaking our own rules.

Where we go from here is up to us, as a country. Foreign adversaries have long complained that the United States selectively applies human rights law abroad to damage political opponents while overlooking the egregious abuses of its own government and allies. This is a chance for Washington to dispense with the pernicious form of American exceptionalism that refuses to admit to any need for reform: to acknowledge the weaknesses of its own processes with humility, to rebuild our divided society, to grapple with our legacy of white supremacy and to move forward ready to work collaboratively with the rest of the world to create stronger democratic institutions.

But in many ways, the damage has already been done. Foreign authoritarian leadership will not quickly let go of this opportunity to highlight the United States’ own political weaknesses. And the damage to the brand of democracy will be felt not just in the United States, but in Hong Kong and other places where political freedom still struggles to take root. Global Times argued that last Wednesday’s “unprecedented incident will mark the fall of ‘the beacon of democracy,’ and the beautiful rhetoric of ‘City upon a Hill’ will perish.” As a country, we all—Republicans and Democrats alike—have an obligation to ensure this cynical prophecy doesn’t come to pass.

Image credit:  Alex Gakos