By Ravi Arvind Palat*
Several commentators have underlined the sharp contrast between law enforcement responses to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by mobs unleashed by President Trump on January 6, 2021, and to the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer. Despite two months of warnings that the president was mobilizing his supporters to reverse his election loss, the police and National Guard appeared to be caught off-guard, unlike the massive mobilization of law enforcement agencies against those calling for racial justice.
Yet, when the indelible image of a bare-chested man covered in animal furs, sporting antlers on his head, and with his face smeared with colors standing at the presiding officer’s desk in the United States Senate prompted outraged politicians and journalists to proclaim the storming of the ‘citadel of democracy,’ as ‘un-American’ and to compare it to the political violence in a ‘banana republic,’ they displayed a staggering historical amnesia.
Politicians and commentators in the United States who revel in the belief that their country is a beacon of democracy, forget that its record overseas is anything but that. In the justifiable outrage over the storming of the Capitol, commentators appear to have forgotten that the Clinton Administration supported Boris Yeltsin’s shelling of the Russian parliament to resolve a standoff between the legislature and the executive in October 1993.
When the rapid pace of economic reform and the dissolution of economic networks following the disintegration of the Soviet Union had led to a groundswell of opposition to the Russian president, Yeltsin had begun to rule by Presidential Decrees that were obstructed by the parliament—the same parliament that its citizens had defended against the military putsch of August 1991 and which had elected Yeltsin as its chairman.
Yet as it stood against the brutal marketization that Yeltsin was implementing by decree, the Russian president ordered his generals to shell the parliament building—ironically called the White House—and as its ruins lay smoldering, Clinton called to congratulate Yeltsin—for one of the most flagrant attacks on representative democracy: tanks shelling a national legislature, and then outlawing parties opposing the president. Yeltsin outlawed several political parties—and there was no demand from Washington to heal and unite a divided country!
President George W. Bush and CNN’s Jake Tapper were united in comparing the insurrection at the Capitol to an election dispute in a ‘banana republic.’ This political slur was coined by William Sydney Porter, himself a convicted bank embezzler who had fled to Honduras, to describe the operations of U.S. corporations—mainly the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) and the Cuyamel Fruit Company—supported by the Marines to expropriate peasantries of their land and create monocultural export economies in Central America. Through the force of U.S. arms, they supported a comprador kleptocracy.
To compare the storming of the Capitol to these areas denies the responsibility of the United States in creating them and also glosses over the fact that the insurgency in Washington was orchestrated not by a foreign power but by a sitting U.S. president.
Even within the United States, when armed mobs, angry at the stay-at-home orders issued to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus stormed the Michigan legislature in April 2020, or the Oregon legislature in December, or attempted to abduct Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, no Republican congressional leader equated these events with a ‘Third World style anti-American anarchy’ as Senator Marco Rubio characterized the insurrection at the Capitol. It is only when their own lives were at stake, they saw political violence in legislatures as a turning point!
The comparison ‘Third World’ states is doubly egregious because it evokes the racist trope that Black and Brown peoples, unlike Whites, are prone to political violence. Instituting democracy in the late twentieth century in much of Asia and Africa was a far more complex endeavor than in Western Europe or North America. The former colonies of European powers were much poorer when they became independent and were compelled to institute universal adult franchise from the very beginning when they had abysmal levels of poverty and literary.
In contrast, franchise was gradually extended in Europe and North America to subaltern populations as it was first restricted to men with property, then extended after popular protests successively to adult males, women, and eventually to ethnic minorities.
It also ignores the long history of the United States undermining and overthrowing democratically elected governments all over the world, from its military invasions in Central America and the Caribbean to its role in the ouster of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, to the CIA’s role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1960, of Salvador Allende in Chile twenty-three years later, and Maurice Bishop in Grenada in 1983.
The resort to violence by largely white mobs reflects the Republican mobilization of a middle class whose businesses were upended by the pandemic and a working class, abandoned by a Democratic Party aligned increasingly to Wall Street. Trump has mobilized this constituency by tying his anti-globalization America First rhetoric to anti-elite, anti-science, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black appeals.
Thus, his attacks on the mainstream media, his refusal to condemn outright the white supremist rally in Charleston, Virginia in 2017, his contention that the occupation of the Capitol pales in comparison to the BLM protests of the summer in Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere.
Twenty-one years after the shelling of the Russian parliament, virtually the same happened in the Ukraine during President Obama’s watch. A day after President Viktor Yanukovich and his political rivals had agreed on a framework to peacefully resolve their differences, in an arrangement under EU auspices and signed off by Washington and Moscow, a mob captured the presidential palace and the legislature and outlawed several political parties.
Soon after, an embarrassing tape of a phone call between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland and Washington’s Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, discussing the make-up of the Ukrainian government was leaked to the press.
When the ambassador noted that her argument that the most important opposition politician in the country, Vitaly Klitschko, should not be in the government would not be favorably viewed in Europe she responded with an expletive at the EU. And this Victoria Nuland is Joe Biden’s nominee to be the new Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs ensuring the continuation of a long tradition of U.S. subversion of democracies overseas.
*The writer is a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton