Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is CNN’s International Security Editor. He has spent years reporting on wars, crises and natural disasters. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Even in the aftermath, America might not see how fortunate it is.
Most “attempted coups” elsewhere in the world leave a hangover of giddying uncertainty - shops shuttered, presidents in hiding, the television playing a nature documentary or half the staff in the hotel you are staying in not turning up for work.
However, America’s extraordinary privileges of law and functionality seemed to sustain, even in a brief moment of collapse. Wednesday was a six-hour catastrophic policing failure, one that finally served up an image of what the souring of democracy can look like, after years of appeasement and detachment by ordinary voters.
Yet still America woke up to relative order. The system had overnight thrived persistently - news networks broadcasting and dissecting the events, with variety and transparency, and the wheels of vote certification turning, as expected. Americans perhaps also took that for granted: that they turned on the TV to hear criticism of their president, that the police and national guard swooped in to enforce the law, that outrage - not fear at the new unknown - dominated. Chaos normally follows disorder, but in the United States the cogs kept whirring.
It’s been easy to say the US version of democracy was irreparably damaged by Wednesday, January 6. But, once Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have finished gloating briefly, remember too the signals that the day sent about its resilience. Yes, the United States witnessed a mob of mostly White men breaking into its Congress, because they felt the law was theirs alone, and because so many ordinary Americans spent four years thinking the horror was either too ridiculous to fear, or would just pass. But in the end, the quieter majority, not the loudest voice, remained standing. This short moment of ugly collapse should not lead Americans to dismiss the extraordinary eloquence and value of their system.
The rioters abused the privileges of their wealthy democracy - their free lives, in the richest nation on earth - to indulge in a fantastical, parallel reality, and livestream on open social media their breaking into the seat of government. It was a spoilt child version of America - so “free” to do whatever it wants, it ignored the truths, laws and decency that actually enabled that freedom. Elsewhere globally, scenes like these normally follow actual tyranny and absurd vote-rigging, palpable repression and torture - not fictional complaints that have had their (multiple) days in court.
Wednesday’s violence didn’t really fit the conventional description of an “attempted coup” - normally a word evoked when the military or security forces help change who’s in power. “Coup” became part of the day’s hurried lexicon perhaps as what was happening was so alien and unimaginable - in a capital city so absorbed with the infallibility of its processes, that it didn’t really have the vocabulary for this violence. But the less-privileged former Soviet Union - where even slight gasps of freedom have been very hard won - can offer comparisons as plentifully as Eskimos are said to have words for snow.
This wasn’t a “colored revolution” - like the “Orange” one in Ukraine in 2004, where hundreds of thousands of patient protestors stood in the cold for months to successfully reverse a blatantly fraudulent election. It wasn’t the “Tulip” one of Kyrgyzstan in 2005, when protesters - some on horseback, also angry at a patently rigged vote - fought their way into the presidential administration, drank its liquor, rode on its exercise bikes, all while armed security forces were unwilling to open fire.
It was uglier. It reminded me most of Ukraine in 2014, when an organized group of pro-Russian protesters forced their way into the local administrations of Donetsk and Slovyansk. The “Q-Shaman” would have fit right in that mob too. These brief, drunken moments of violence and shouting were the sparks that ignited a civil war which killed thousands. The media was also attacked then by the crowd, fired up by incendiary broadcasting from Russian state-media available in the east of the Ukraine. Crimea had earlier been invaded. It was a clockwork plan for occupation by Moscow.
But when you woke up each morning in Donetsk, the system continued to fall apart. In Washington DC, the opposite was true. The system is busying itself with rectifying the problem. The extraordinary privileges Americans live with daily - and that perversely led a handful to think the armed invasion of Capitol Hill was OK - were still there.
The United States’ allies and enemies will globally chew on this moment - for signs that it foments China’s rise, or gives Putin another decade in power, or makes Maduro seem comparatively competent. Yet remember, between horror at what a sense of privilege among a small mob can do, there is also a moment of hope. Values worked. Unlike elsewhere in the past decades, the departing President’s supporters did not take over parliament and change the government. The army did not switch sides. The rightful winner of the last election is not in hiding - he broadcast a speech, and will be president in several days. Two members of the slavishly loyal cabinet resigned.
Trump has done damage to democracy’s reputation globally in ways I never imagined I would see. President-elect Joe Biden is right to say it is “fragile.” It is also precious, and effective. For now, it worked. Trump and the domestic terrorism he fomented were - in this moment - defeated. There turned out to be enduring values at the heart of even some of the most compromised American elected officials. That is not a global norm.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Now is not a time for chest-thumping over American values that have slowly deteriorated for years to get to this point. But it should also not lead a country to be so spoiled in its own privileged system that it dismisses its extraordinary merits altogether. Democracy didn’t fail the United States, it pretty much saved it.
The singular reason the US system has advantages over its authoritarian rivals is that it is based on the open competition and truth of ideas. The morning after this failed coup, the United States didn’t wake up to a nature documentary on state TV, or find half the hotel staff missing, but was alive with a renewed vigor of self-criticism in rolling news coverage.
They should be mindful of how they might appear to those who woke up that morning in actual tyrannies: Many perhaps taking for granted how lucky they are to live in a nation where such a staggering abuse of democracy can still be eclipsed by its virtues.