A siege on the U.S. Capitol, a strike against democracy worldwide
By Anthony Faiola, Shibani Mahtani and Isabelle Khurshudyan,
As the Trump administration sought to drive Venezuela’s autocratic Nicolás Maduro from power, activist Jorge Barragán embraced the effort as the good and moral crusade of the world’s greatest democracy.
Then came the siege on the U.S. Capitol.
The 22-year-old student activist watched “in shock” from his hometown in western Venezuela last week as a mob inspired by President Trump invaded Congress to attempt to overturn an election loss. Barragán could not pull away from the YouTube images showing the pro-Trump marauders acting very much like Maduro’s colectivos — the extraofficial thugs that keep opponents in check and a dictator in charge.
“Our main ally in the fight for democracy has tumbled,” Barragán said. “What does that mean for us?”
The insurrection at the Capitol is threatening America’s historical role promoting democracy around the world. The spectacle of Trump rallying supporters to march on the Capitol over baseless claims of election fraud as lawmakers certified President-elect Joe Biden’s victory has provided a propaganda coup for Washington’s enemies, undermined pro-democracy movements worldwide and offered a model for would-be autocrats.
Four years of Trump had already dimmed the United States’ democratic bona fides. The 45th president embraced right-wing nationalists who flouted the rule of law, while backing a handful of pro-democracy movements that served expedient political purposes. A chorus of “no” went up against Venezuela, Cuba and Iran. But from Egypt to Honduras to Saudi Arabia to North Korea, Trump signaled tolerance for human rights abuses and offered authoritarians a new gift to dismiss accountability by popularizing the term “fake news.” When asked in September about the alleged Russian poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Trump essentially demurred.
Now, the international implications of the events in Washington last week — and its racial undertones that led the Times of India to dub its pro-Trump participants the “Coup Klux Clan” — are expected to reverberate far beyond Biden’s inauguration.
Michael Robinson Chavez
The Washington Post
Pro-Trump rioters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as lawmakers met to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
“I think we will get through this, but our credibility as an example of governance is pretty seriously tarnished,” said Ian Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018. “Let’s not forget that Trump had many enablers, and they’re still there. … This president has reduced the coin of our realm.”
The State Department said the events of Jan. 6, showed “once again that there is a right way and a wrong way for the citizens of a democracy to express themselves,” but did “not in any way diminish the power of our democratic history and the principles that we strive toward.”
“Our democracy has been tested in the past, and it will be tested in the future,” the department said in a statement to The Washington Post. “These experiences make us stronger as we work to perfect our union and our democracy. That we are tested, however, should never cause anyone — allies, friends, or foes — to doubt the strength of America’s democratic institutions or our people.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Analysts now warn of a herculean task ahead for Biden. Global inequality, historic migration and deep polarization have driven satisfaction with democracy to disturbing lows. Biden could be weakened by the millions of Trump voters who still say his victory was illegitimate, giving adversaries such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin an opening to assail his mandate on the world stage. Meanwhile, any attempt to preach the rule of law to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hungary’s Viktor Orban could draw calls to get his own house in order first.
U.S. democracy promotion abroad has long faced accusations of hypocrisy. During the Cold War, Washington routinely coddled strongmen who pledged to oppose communism. Yet last week’s siege is likely to amplify accusations of a double standard, haunting U.S. diplomats and human rights activists as they press for the rule of law abroad.
“A lot depends on what happens next,” said Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University. “If you’re going to allow impunity [in the United States], then that hurts the American experiment. Without accountability at home, we’re going down a path of saying, you know, stuff happens.”
The copycat risk
In Israel, some observers fear the Trump model of insurrection fueled by baseless conspiracy theories could push the country’s own volatile politics toward a dangerous tipping point.
In a country bitterly split by an ideological divide that has paralyzed the government for more than two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emulated Trump, railing against “fake news” and decrying a “witch hunt” by prosecutors and courts trying him on corruption charges.
Protesters rally outside the residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Jan. 2.
Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, waited a day after news organizations called Biden’s election victory to congratulate him and lagged behind other Israeli politicians in condemning the riot at the Capitol last week.
“The reason what happened at the Capitol can happen here is because we already have all the same ingredients,” Yaakov Katz, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, wrote in a commentary. “That is what happens when democracy — its values and its institutions — are consistently and systematically attacked, eroded and dismantled. Violence is a potential next step.”
A propaganda coup
Mideast adversaries such as Iran have seized on the chaos at the Capitol as evidence U.S. democracy is deeply flawed. Allies such as the Gulf Arab monarchies will miss Trump, who declined to criticize their human rights abuses. Though they will seek close ties with a Biden administration, they now have a new argument with which to dismiss U.S. advice on democracy.
“It’s clear your democracy is in shambles so please don’t come over here and lecture us,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in Dubai.
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko moved swiftly to spin last Wednesday’s events to his advantage. Lukashenko, in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory for a sixth term last year in an election denounced by the United States and other countries as fraudulent. The country has been rocked since then by mass protests calling for his resignation.
“I warned you: It’s bad when they walk down the street,” Lukashenko said after the Capitol siege. “It’s even worse when they walk into the courtyards. It will be unbearable when they come to your apartments.”
Marina El Fadel, a 37-year-old protester who was stunned by the mob in Washington, sought to distance it from the peaceful demonstrations in Minsk.
“I had no illusions about Trump and his policies, so the storming of the Capitol did not affect my attitude on America as a democracy,” she said. “It is a pity for the people who suffer because of the wrong policy of their president. That’s where we’re similar.”
Supporters of the Belarusian opposition gather in Independence Square in Minsk on Aug. 19.
In China, the Capitol siege has provided a boost to the ruling Communist Party, which has long warned citizens that democracy is a recipe for chaos.
“Chinese state media is already proclaiming the riots in Washington as the failure of democracy,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a party newspaper. “This is a huge help to the Communist Party’s legitimacy.”
State media concluded that U.S. democracy was “bankrupt” and “an embarrassment.” The People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, ridiculed what it described as America’s false sense of superiority amid years of attempting to export the model.
“The gunshots at the U.S. Capitol make clear that the bitter fruit of ‘democracy’ must be swallowed by the one who sowed it,” the newspaper said. “Whether it is bitter or sweet, they will know.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying likened the mob in Washington to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, which Beijing routinely described as “rioters.” Hua said she had “made a note” of the words U.S. officials and media used to describe the Capitol siege.
“They all condemned it as ‘a violent incident’ and the people involved as ‘rioters,’ ‘extremists’ and ‘thugs’ who brought “disgrace,’ ” Hua said. Yet the protesters in Hong Kong were “democratic heroes.”
“What’s the reason for such a stark difference in the choice of words?” she said. “Everyone needs to seriously think about it and do some soul-searching.”
For pro-democracy movements, a bitter pill
Indeed, analysts say the attempted insurrection has reduced Washington’s moral authority to back pro-democracy movements from Hong Kong to Caracas, Venezuela — some of which enjoyed the strong support of Republicans.
Two of the Hong Kong activists’ greatest advocates were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Both men traveled to Hong Kong at the height of the protests to advocate democracy and became leading voices for sanctions against Chinese officials and allies in Hong Kong. Their votes last week against certifying Biden’s win, and Hawley’s raised fist to the demonstrators outside the Capitol before they entered, have provided Beijing with an opening to rail against U.S. hypocrisy.
“Aligning with some of these folks is going to be a lot more contentious moving forward,” said historian Jeffrey Ngo, a pro-democracy activist who has spent significant time lobbying Washington for support.
Cruz’s office said the senator had merely called for “electoral integrity and democratic credibility.”
“No one outside of the Establishment media and some Democrats believes that undermined America’s credibility on deliberation, elections, and democracy,” the office said in a statement. Hawley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“The Trump years have made it difficult for pro-democracy activists to create alliances because people look to the president, and no matter who he is, he has tremendous power,” Ngo said. “After this week, it has become even more difficult.”
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), front, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), third from left, are seen at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The Trump administration this week added Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. In the Cuban and Venezuelan exile communities of South Florida, Trump’s actions last week deepened the divide between conservatives — some of whom held rallies in favor of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election — and liberals, who argued that they echoed the abuses that they or their families had fled.
Trump “ceded moral authority to speak on domestic matters in another country, and that’s what’s so dangerous,” said Ana Sofía Peláez, co-founder of the Miami Freedom Project. “We lose our own voice for democracy when we don’t value [it] in our own country.”
In Venezuela, one of the few countries targeted by the Trump administration for human rights abuses, the events of last week provided the authoritarian government with a rare gift.
“This is just another symptom of the terminal stage of imperialism led from Washington,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told The Post. He said the United States “never had” the moral authority to criticize Venezuela because “they are a corporate plutocracy represented in two elite parties, working with lobbies. Nothing is further from a democracy than that.”
Barragán, the student activist, watched the events unfold in Washington with mounting despair.
The United States was “the country with the most solid institutions in the world, and the first to turn to Venezuela and give a boost to our political actions,” he said.
But watching the mob attack the Capitol, he said, “made everything more difficult for us. … Our main ally, as we see, has many problems.”
In Hungary, where Orban has used his decade in office to wipe away checks and balances restraining his power, Bernadett Szél was glued to the television.
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Szél, a lawmaker who ran against Orban in 2018. She called it a warning to opposition politicians in Hungary.
“This is frightening for us to see these kinds of populists, how far they go. They will dare to do anything to hold on to power,” she said.
But when Trump leaves office, Szél said, it could be an important signal to other troubled democracies around the world. His departure will be “a reinforcement for all of us,” she said. “It can happen that populists can come, but also they can go.”
Faiola reported from Miami, Mahtani from Hong Kong and Khurshudyan from Moscow. Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem; Liz Sly in London; Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia; Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo; Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela; Loveday Morris in Berlin; Lily Kuo in Taipei and Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.