Is This How Greatness Ends?

Some of the American mystique has gone, even if the raw power remains. That is what makes the scenes in Washington not simply pathetic, but important too.

A white star peeling off a blue background.
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

What a tawdry coup attempt. What a fitting end to a presidency.

This was not shocking in the same way as attempted and successful coups elsewhere—Egypt in 2013, Thailand in 2014, Turkey in 2016—which were serious, planned, meticulous. This, it seemed from afar at least, was an orgy of anger whipped up by a deluded and bitter man. It was closer to one of those videos you sometimes get sent of a fight breaking out in the chamber of some obscure parliament, the subplot always being: Look at this crazy place.

We in the rest of the world are used to watching blockbuster films and box sets depicting the awesome power of the American empire, its leaders and agents wrestling with their consciences but never forgetting that they had them. We gorge on seasons of 24, or go to the cinema to watch Independence Day or Zero Dark Thirty. This is the United States supreme and righteous—sometimes a knight in shining armor, at other times a dark one, forced to be the baddie, because the rest of us will not: “The hero Gotham deserves … a silent guardian, a watchful protector.” That kind of thing.

This America, for all its flaws, is usually somehow inherently good—and always powerful.

It is harder to believe that now. Donald Trump has spent four years as the most powerful man on Earth and has no achievements to show for it. He couldn’t pull out of NATO, let alone see three moves ahead of his rivals. There was nothing good or conflicted or complicated or clever about his mob or its hissy fit. What beamed out to the world was a bunch of angry people in costume, as if a Village People convention had turned ugly. Somehow they managed to push their way past the police, egged on by a rabble-rouser in chief—less a puppet master, more a resentful old man raging at the dying of the light.

When I asked British, American, and European friends, diplomats, officials, and politicians what they thought about last night, I got different answers. It was the final break between Trump and the Republican leadership, said one. A good thing, perhaps, because it meant that in the long term, America would be able to right its ship. Others said the opposite: Many European diplomats have already concluded that the U.S. cannot be relied on. Some in Britain were impressed with Joe Biden’s speech, a reminder of old senatorial calm. Most simply don’t know.

The problem is that something is too obviously wrong. Too many diplomats and politicians on this side of the Atlantic now believe that the U.S. is simply too divided to stand alone in the world for much longer. It is too riven and aggrieved, shorn of a unifying cause.

For people like me, this is sad. When I was younger, I spent a few months living in Washington, D.C., as an intern for Senator Ted Kennedy. I loved the history and the power of the place, watching these great imperial senators striding into committee rooms to discuss foreign affairs and understanding that they really mattered. I took tours of the Capitol building, riding the underground train and watching people by the frescoes and statues. I would take visitors to the senator’s office overlooking the Mall, where he kept John F. Kennedy’s chair, as well as a chessboard featuring Irish Republican Army figures on one side and British policemen on the other. It was in that room’s fireplace, I would tell guests—with an embarrassed smile—that the British had lit their torches to burn the White House. I loved it.

Here in London, I still have a black-and-white picture on my wall of the Statue of Freedom, the figure at the top of the Capitol building. It’s a kind of reverential image, an homage to American power and liberty and democracy. Last night’s scenes make me wonder how such a photograph will be seen in 10, 20, or 30 years’ time. Quaint? Melancholic? Naive?

Alternate centers of power or influence are emerging, now—in Beijing, obviously, but also in Berlin and Brussels to some extent, the latter two not rivals in power, but former client kingdoms that now seem more settled, secure, and well governed. The U.S., with 330 million people, today defends Europe, with its 450 million, largely because it is richer and more willing to spend the blood and treasure necessary to run an empire. Watching a horn-headed, topless man in face paint pretend that he has led a coup through Congress makes you question how long this can last.

British entertainment has largely given up the pretense that its leaders and institutions—once imperious and world-dominating themselves—are staffed with devious Machiavellian intellects intent on controlling the country, or the world. British satire instead tends to lampoon those in charge as incompetents with no real power. We don’t tend to believe in conspiracy theories that the British state is controlling our lives, because it so obviously could not: It is far too withered.

This is what I think makes last night’s scenes in Washington not simply pathetic, but also important. Something of the mystique has gone, even if the raw power remains.

It is not as if last night was a kind of Wizard of Oz revelation for the world, a discovery that the great and powerful Oz does not exist. America and its president remain very powerful and will continue to be. The U.S. president can still wipe out life on Earth with the push of a button. But the sheen has come off. America no longer feels as special. The austere marble at the heart of imperial democracy is sprayed with graffiti. The institutions don’t look as secure, nor does the stability of the system.

Oddly, the weirdness of the moment normalizes America. It is becoming just another country, richer and more powerful than the rest, but less so than it was. So is this how greatness ends—not with a bang, but by being sullied and made normal? We all have nutters who could storm parliament, and might: A terrorist drove a car into pedestrians outside the Palace of Westminster in 2017; Berlin police had to stop a breach of the Bundestag in November. America is no different. Europe is no better. Is this Trump’s greatest achievement, to make the U.S. the moral equivalent of every other country he said it had become, but in fact hadn’t? I don’t think so—not yet. He has succeeded in making America less great, though.

Trump, you see, is a kind of Roderick Spode, the amateur dictator mocked by the aristocrat Bertie Wooster in the English writer P. G. Wodehouse’s novels: “The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone,” Wooster says, mockingly. “You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People.”

But Spode shouldn’t be the president of the United States. That’s the problem.