Why America remains exceptional
America remains exceptional, despite the horrific events of last week. It has been a federal republic in its current form for more than 230 years. During that time, we have faced at least two insurgencies, namely the Whiskey Rebellion and the Civil War, which were put down. We have had coup attempts, going back to the Newburgh Conspiracy, that have all failed. We have had presidents assassinated and contested elections.
But we have never had a president, vice president, Congress, or any ruler brought in other than in accord with the provisions of the Constitution and the law of the land. We have never had a dictatorship, military or otherwise. We have never had to change our Constitution or our laws other than by the normal and peaceful processes outlined therein.
No great power can match that record save for Britain, where the last successful revolution was in the 17th century. Some smaller states have been similarly stable for a long time, but even Switzerland was politically reshuffled by Napoleon Bonaparte at the start of the 19th century. France, Germany, Russia, Spain, and, for that matter, Japan, China, and Iran, have suffered coups, revolutions, dictatorships, and collapses of government orders within the last 100 years, with some more recently than that.
That matters. It means there is something about our system and perhaps our people that has given it an unusual, and I feel comfortable saying exceptional, degree of stability in the face of massive global upheavals and great domestic turmoil. We should absolutely reject any likeness between what has gone on in America and what goes on in Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, and any of the other dictatorships with which our citizens and others are now invidiously comparing our country.
If Donald Trump had been Vladimir Putin, he would not be leaving office in less than two weeks. If he had been Xi Jinping, it would be Twitter that was shut down, not his account. This is not in any way to exonerate or defend Trump. His actions and remarks were execrable, and he should be held accountable under the law. It is to say that because of the nature of our system, he was defeated at the polls, his opponent will succeed him, and our system has survived. That is not how things work in dictatorships.
America is not undamaged by these events. We have been injured. Nor can we take anything for granted. The fact that our system has survived this challenge does not mean it will inevitably survive future crises or that it is not in need of repair and strengthening. Certainly it needs constant and vigilant defense. But our people can still hold their heads high and continue to condemn dictators and tyrants without feeling hypocritical or that their moral authority to do so has been somehow destroyed.
We are flawed, as all people are. We have harmed ourselves, and we may harm ourselves more in the days and weeks to come. But we have not lost the right nor the duty to stand for freedom, the rule of law, and individual liberties. The events of the last week should focus us on the importance of now defending those principles at home and abroad all the more.
Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Choosing Victory” and an architect of the surge military strategy in Iraq.