How to Talk to Non-Americans About What's Happening in America


Illustration for article titled How to Talk to Non-Americans About Whats Happening in America
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

This week’s events in Washington D.C. were met with shock and horror from world leaders around the globe. Images of a U.S. Capitol building under siege by an incensed mob of right-wing extremists earned rebukes from the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and the coup attempt was spurned by leaders from Iran, Sweden, New Zealand, Israel and beyond.

The scenes helped tarnish the U.S.’ public image, to the point that international discourse centered on questions of whether American democracy can endure such attacks. Yet for many Americans—many of whom tend to disparage similar events in so-called “third world countries”—Wednesday’s chaos was a shock.

In the United States, politicians, media figures, and average Americans often prop up our institutions as infallible and unmovable, bound to sacrosanct laws that are impossible to tear down. Chaos and violence erupts in the streets of foreign cities. Attempted coups wreak havoc and bloodshed abroad, but not here—where the rule of law prevails. But Wednesday showed that we can’t hold our country in such high regard, especially among non-American friends who might want to demystify exactly what’s happening stateside at the moment.

If you ever find yourself in a conversation with a non-American friend or family member about the current situation unfolding in the U.S., here’s how to approach it.

Explain the myth of American exceptionalism

If you’ve long drank the American Kool-Aid, you’ve bought into American exceptionalism—a long perpetuated myth that holds the United States is a righteous force for good in this world and is thus worthy of asserting its influence wherever democracy and civil liberties may be threatened. It is, quite bluntly, rhetorical bullshit, but it nonetheless colors many everyday Americans’ perceptions of other countries.

If a non-American asks where this idea comes from, you can reach as far back as the U.S. Constitution, which preaches certain inalienable rights and equality for all (if you’re a white, land-owning man, of course). The idea has been further ingrained in our national psyche throughout history. Various military endeavors, such as both World Wars—President Woodrow Wilson famously declared during WWI that America was making “the world safe for democracy”—in addition to Ronald Reagan’s“ shining city upon a hill” speech, have further hammered the concept home.

Of course, any non-American who regularly observes international news knows that Wednesday’s events were absolutely unprecedented. But the shock and dismay that Americans expressed at our own compatriots make more sense when you understand that we’ve been repeatedly told that things like this can’t happen here.

Explain how these events actually make sense

It seems much the pro-American dogma was shattered on Wednesday, but this particular event wasn’t exactly unprecedented—especially if you examine it within recent context. If you want to demystify exactly how Wednesday’s siege came to fruition, look no further than the simple facts: a soon-to-be outgoing president consistently, falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged due to rampant voter fraud; a robust network of online conspiracy theorists and influencers disseminated the falsehood across the internet, where it often received airtime networks and websites; and a legion of Americans who believe they’ve been robbed of a free democratic process by a nefarious cabal of elites were encouraged by that president and other lawmakers to fight back.

In a sense, Wednesday was the culmination of a long, coordinated effort to subvert the results of the 2020 election. The outrage and incredulous responses we’ve heard from more reasonable lawmakers and media figures in response is, at least in some respect, due to the deeply entrenched sense of exceptionalism Americans feel about ourselves and our country. For non-Americans, it might make more sense within this lens, although it may not make it any less baffling.