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The Hour of the Barbarian

What happened on January 6 was profoundly American, emerging as it did from our long and very specific history. No one did this to us.

Writing in 1950, as Europe’s overseas empires began to fall apart, Aimé Césaire declared that fascism had been the logical consequence of colonialism. In order to justify systematic plunder, white nations had needed to work very hard to create the myth that they were “civilized,” and the rest of the world beasts. But through the very act of colonization, Europe itself became savage—and would eventually turn the horrific methods it had perfected abroad on itself. The era of US global domination, he wrote in “Discourse on Colonialism,” would be worse still: “The hour of the barbarian is at hand. The modern barbarian. The American hour. Violence, excess, waste, mercantilism, bluff, conformism, stupidity, vulgarity, disorder.” I reread Césaire’s essay on Monday, while scrolling through more images of a shirtless man in horns and pausing to watch a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger brandishing the sword from Conan the Barbarian.

What happened on January 6 was profoundly American, emerging as it did from our long and very specific history. No one did this to us. But despite the geographic confusion, Bush, Tapper, and McCain correctly identified that nothing like it has happened here for a long time. Presidential scholar Nicole Hemmer told the Financial Times that the Trump-Biden transition “cannot be categorized as a peaceful transfer of power.” For the elites speaking to the nation that day, no good domestic analogies were ready to hand. In reality, in the era of US global hegemony, the line between the US’s own history and that of “Bogotá” has not really existed for a very long time. We inhabit a global system, and if regime change happens somewhere around the world, there is a good chance the United States government is somehow involved. What happened on Wednesday is that mainstream commentators responded to the fictional distinction between civilization and its opposite violently falling apart, for all the world to see.1

To survive, the legend of American exceptionalism needed its imagined inverse, whether in Indian territory or across the border with Mexico. Over the weekend I asked Yale historian Greg Grandin about the use of Latin American comparisons as a way to reflect or deflect from the problems of American liberalism. “That’s been going on forever,” he told me. “Latin America as an unstable place—with a tendency to be ruled by dictators, or roiled by mobs threatening property rights—has long been held up as the antithesis of everything the US was meant to be.” Grandin’s book The End of the Myth suggests that Trump is in many ways the inevitable consequence of our own imperialist war-path, which began not with overseas conquest but in North America. White settlers kept pushing outward from the original settlements until there was nowhere else to go, and so we finally turned on ourselves. He also demonstrates how often extremist movements in the United States have been powered by veterans returning home from war. Among other troops involved in Washington last Wednesday was Ashli Babbitt, the Californian woman shot and killed in the raid, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Air Force. One of the men photographed carrying zip ties, which can be used to take hostages, identified himself as a decorated pilot who also fought in the war on terror.


January 6th

One reason many were surprised, argued journalist Vincent Bevins, is that they bought into the myth that coups only happen in "other" places. This piece debunks that kind of American exceptionalism, while pointing to the very American origins of this particular uprising.