The Indian police have been accused often of watching passively when people were being beaten up by goons. The United States will have to live with images of some of its police officers taking selfies with rioters in its own capital and comparisons with how it treated Black Lives Matter protesters. But this comparison game is ultimately a race to the bottom.
The images of rioting Donald Trump supporters running amok through the halls of the US Capitol were shocking. But many around the globe were surely smirking that the self-appointed moral policeman of the world not only had feet of clay but also wore Viking horns and furs. When CNN’s Jake Tapper said in disbelief he felt like he was watching scenes from Bogota rather than the US Capitol, much of the so-called Third World, not just Bogota, bristled. Many parts of the globe from Chile to Iran know only too well that the United States happily jettisons its own pieties about democracy when inconvenient. As Pakistani writer Mohammad Hanif put it, everyone outside the US already knew that “being a world-class bully has always been part of the job” of an American president. Americans are just shocked that Donald Trump chose not to play Mr Nice Guy at home, turning his presidential podium into a bully pulpit as he called the rioters “special people” and assured them that he loved them. As one of the most stinging social media quips about the whole imbroglio put it, “Americans recently found out that it’s much easier for them to change presidents in other countries than in their own.”
Ever since the bitter elections and its chaotic aftermath, the US has been understanding the meaning of schadenfreude, the pleasure one feels in the misfortune of others. A Chinese state-owned tabloid put out side-by-side images of Hong Kong protesters storming the city’s legislature in 2019 and Trump supporters inside the Capitol building. “What words did they use on Hong Kong, and what words did they use on [storming the Capitol]” wondered a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman.
The Indian police have been accused often of watching passively when people were being beaten up by goons. The United States will have to live with images of some of its police officers taking selfies with rioters in its own capital and comparisons with how it treated Black Lives Matter protesters. But this comparison game is ultimately a race to the bottom. We shake our heads when Trump tweets, “There are things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots.” But an Indian Prime Minister once seemed to downplay a full-on massacre when he said, “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes.”
Some scream double standards because they feel those who expressed solidarity with Citizenship Amendment Act protesters and farmers have no moral right to condemn the DC mob. But many Citizenship Act protesters were reading the preamble to the Constitution, not mugging for selfies with souvenirs looted from the offices of their elected representatives. The right to protest in Shaheen Bagh is not the same as the right to storm Parliament. Most pertinently, it was the President of the United States himself who cried havoc and let slip these dogs of war when he told belligerent supporters “We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.”
But let’s not forget that fundamental institutions of checks and balances still held firm in the US. Judges, some appointed by Trump himself, refused to countenance his claims of electoral fraud. The media, from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post, when asked to bend not only did not crawl, their editorials demanded he leave office. Cabinet secretaries have resigned. Most of his party, many of whose members had cynically played along with his tantrums because they coveted his base, eventually accepted, if grudgingly, the constitutionally laid down process of transfer of power. Even Trump’s ever-loyal Vice President Mike Pence refused to play ball despite Trump’s very public arm-twisting. Facebook suspended the President’s accounts and Twitter blocked it. We might snigger that the results of the Bihar election were more sportingly accepted by all sides than the ones in the US, but one hopes if push ever came to this kind of shove, the pillars of Indian democracy would hold as firm, shaken but not stirred from their purpose. As historian Romila Thapar writes in her recent book ‘Voices of Dissent’ when the “institutions that uphold democracy fail to function as intended by the Constitution, then citizenship suffers and democracy fades away.”
What happened in the US might feel shocking but it is not so surprising. Trump’s election had given majoritarianism on steroids a new mainstream respectability. But we gloat at our own peril. While we point fingers, in the words of the poet W B Yeats, at what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards the Capitol to be born, we forget that this creature, pumped up by conspiracy theories, fake news, and nationalist resentments, isn’t unique to America at all. Neither is it just slouching anymore.