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Stop Comparing the Capitol Riot to Banana Republics. It’s Lazy—and Wrong.

Commentators have relied on fallacious allusions to the developing world to explain a problem unique to the United States.

Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

The Trump-incited insurrection at the Capitol on Wednesday was a fitting coda to a presidency that came into this world likening Mexicans to “criminals and rapists” and that has, along the way, accepted and enabled white supremacists to a degree unprecedented in recent history. The president’s legacy is stained by the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, the El Paso terrorist attack, and the Kenosha shooting. The angry mob that stormed the Capitol—waving Trump signs and Confederate flags, wearing QAnon merch and sweatshirts that said things like “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” on them, fashioning impromptu nooses, waving guns, and forcing lawmakers to flee into hiding—was undeniably shocking to behold, but it was hardly a surprise.

Yet rather than evoke Charlottesville, El Paso, Kenosha, or countless examples of white supremacist violence in recent or more distant American history, mainstream politicians and elite pundits seemed only to be able to make sense of the event by bringing to mind other, far-off places. Here, these aghast commentators conjured allusions to another powerful moment of Trump’s hateful legacy: his referring to Haiti, as well as distant African nations, as “shithole countries.” But even though many in the media clutched their pearls in wild affront at the president’s characterizations then, their more recent comments have reflected the same thinking, as they appeared unable to fathom the scenes of mob violence without implicating the same parts of the world that Trump had defamed—or that the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing or otherwise degrading.

From the Capitol on Wednesday morning, ABC anchor Martha Raddatz reported: “It is so horrible to know, we are in America where this is happening, on Capitol Hill. I’m not in Baghdad. I’m not in Kabul. I’m not in a dangerous situation overseas. We are in America.” As the day wore on, the statements rolled in, each expressing a growing dissonance that a white supremacist mob had stormed the Capitol in the U.S. and not in, “you know, Bogotá,” in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper

“There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy,” tweeted Marco Rubio, a known Trump sycophant. “The scene that we saw on Capitol Hill—the banging, the yelling, the screaming, the demands to enter the chambers—those are the sorts of things that happen in third-world nations,” said Democratic representative and former intelligence officer Abigail Spanberger on NBC

And from George W. Bush, who didn’t exactly win his own election, either: “Laura and I are watching the scenes of mayhem unfolding at the seat of our Nation’s government in disbelief and dismay. It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic.”

Banana republics and third-world countries, in the U.S.-centric imagination, are ungodly places whose political machinations and persistent chaos would be unthinkable in the land of the free and the brave. Beyond the racist implications, and the laziness of the comparison, the evocation of “banana republics” is particularly ironic because it alludes to the debilitating impacts of U.S. foreign policy itself—something anyone who has read even the Sparknotes of any Gabriel García Márquez novel would know. 

The term came about in the early 1900s to describe how American businesses like the United Fruit Company exploited and manipulated developing governments in Central America to profit from their natural resources. It shouldn’t be lost that the term was coined in a short story about Honduras, a country that experienced a right-wing coup in 2009 abetted by the U.S. government, which, these many years on, is still a major cause of the unrest and violence that has compelled so many to seek asylum here. The U.S. has since continued to support the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, despite evidence that his dubiously legal 2017 reelection was fraudulent, and credible, multiple charges that he has participated in drug trafficking

This is just one example of how U.S. intervention in other countries helped turn them into the so-called “banana republics” they are regarded as today. There are, of course, a multitude of right-wing coups that the U.S. has enabled against democratically elected leaders across the region over the past century. But as one viral tweet summed up on Wednesday: “Looks like the United States needs the intervention of the United States.” The unrest that we’ve popularly associated with faraway lands has come home, bringing with it a dissonance that observers in the press and the halls of power failed to understand.

As Latin American historian Alejandro Velasco explained to The New Republic, the term “banana republic” also “captures this dynamic that U.S. policy is unmoored from its consequences.”  

“Which is extremely helpful when you’re a policymaker,” said Velasco, “because you don’t have to suffer from the negative consequences of the policies that you make.” [Full disclosure: Velasco is the executive editor of the North American Congress on Latin America, this author’s previous employer.

Cloaked in the comforting indoctrination of American exceptionalism, it seems that the Washington establishment hasn’t yet come to terms with the fact that white supremacist mob violence isn’t something that simply emigrated from the Middle East, Africa, or, Latin America: It is 100 percent homegrown. While politicians like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and countless others insist that the actions of Wednesday were un-American, if anything, what happened at the Capitol is a distinct feature of these United States. In fact, as historian Greg Grandin argues in his book The End of the Myth, a central consequence of the Trump era, in fact, is that the U.S. empire can no longer outsource its contradictions elsewhere but must now confront them at home.

As Velasco underscored, “I think it’s really important not to let this moment pass as a kind of siloing off in the realm of exceptionalism, but rather to do a much deeper interrogation of what underlies our assumptions about this moment.”

White supremacist violence should, indeed, come as no surprise in a society founded on slave labor, in which law enforcement agents still get away with shooting unarmed Black children, where Capitol police help direct extremist rioters to the offices of different congresspeople once they’ve stormed the Capitol’s walls. This is America’s real “deep state”: a system perfectly designed to protect white supremacists and those who enable them.

“American media is pathologically incapable of criticizing fascism in the United States without equating it with ‘the third world,’” said Nima Shirazi on an episode of the Citations Needed podcast. “That’s not just racist but serves an ideological function.” Or, as Velasco intimated, by sending the problem elsewhere, so to speak, it deflects attention from being forced to acknowledge the continuity of white supremacy in U.S. history. 

If there are comparisons to be made with other countries, it is less useful to draw attention to the ways the U.S. is unlike “third-world” countries than it is to understand regional—and global—trends toward right-wing extremism. There is, of course, Trump’s buddy, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has on numerous occasions incited violence, and who spoke out in support of Trump’s election fraud claims even after the storming of the Capitol. There’s El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, who fashioned himself a centrist but has since restricted the rights of the press and threatened Congress. In Venezuela, a power struggle continues between the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro and a right-wing opposition that isn’t too bothered by democratic norms itself, while bad economic policies and a nonsensical bureaucracy keep the people from receiving essential services. 

But the parallels between the coup in Bolivia in 2019 and Wednesday’s attempt in Washington are especially striking. In the wake of Evo Morales’s fourth presidential win, far-right-wing lawmakers stormed the presidential palace, where the far-right oil and agribusiness tycoon Luis Fernando Camacho placed a Bolivian flag and a Bible on the floor of the presidential palace, covering up the Indigenous flag that heralded the inclusion of the country’s long-mistreated Indigenous majority. Although Morales’s fourth-term run was questionable, there is little evidence that the elections themselves were fraudulent. The coup brought a revanchist evangelist right wing to power in Bolivia, which repeatedly put off new elections for nearly a year, when Morales’s party won the presidency.

The U.S. had a hand in that unrest as well. “People who refused to accept election results in Bolivia used the same playbook and storyline as Trump and had no evidence of alleged fraud,” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me. “But they succeeded in overthrowing the government because they had help from the Trump administration and its partners at the Organization of American States.”

Mainstream analyses of the Bolivian coup at the time misdiagnosed what was happening, interpreting it in many cases as a story of triumph for democracy against a dictator, said Velasco. It was an example of the media bias whose foreign coverage homogenizes the “third world,” while exceptionalizing the so-called first. 

But we must see ourselves as part of global trends, not apart from them. As Kenyan satirist Patrick Gathara wrote in The Guardian, “It may have more stuff and bigger guns, but at heart the west is simply a richer version of the rest.”