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Police work to keep demonstrators back during a protest in Lafayette Square Park, in Washington, on May 30, 2020.

TASOS KATOPODIS/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department would be “deeply concerned,” in the words of typical foreign policy speak, if the leadership of another country deployed tear gas on peaceful protesters in order for the president to stage a photo op.

In Washington on Monday, park police and the National Guard didn’t even wait 25 minutes for protesters to technically be in violation of D.C.’s 7 p.m. curfew. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas in Lafayette Square early, clearing a path for President Donald Trump to walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church so he could pose for photos while holding a bible. If the scene had occurred outside of the United States, the State Department would have called it “appalling” and urged the regime to respect the rule of law and exercise restraint.

As the country struggles to contain protests ignited by the death of George Floyd, the United States has become what red-meat, freedom-loving Americans are supposed to despise: tyrannical, oppressive, intolerant and violent. Major cities have been burning every night for the past week, while the President – who is already grasping to contain a pandemic and its enormous economic fallout – threatens to unleash the army to “dominate” American citizens. Taken together, these are the hallmarks of a nation in a deep regression, flaunted in the supposedly freest country on Earth.

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When foreign journalists are targeted and confronted in the midst of domestic chaos, they are, by the American view, seen as bravely telling stories their oppressive governments don’t want shared. When China expelled foreign correspondents back in February, the State Department remarked that “mature, responsible countries understand that a free press reports facts and expresses opinions.”

Yet the brazen targeting of journalists during the Floyd protests – including reporters who have been arrested, deliberately struck and shot at – has shown the country is no better than many of the regimes it admonishes. Indeed, what we’re seeing now is an American twist on a rather conventional authoritarian tactic: the intimidation and censure of the press as a means to stifle oversight and criticism. Americans are not so exceptional in this way.

When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro used the military to crush dissent – literally running over protesters – the White House was quick to condemn both the brutal actions and the regime. Yet when NYPD officers, in the style of Mr. Maduro’s apparatchiks, appeared to drive into a crowd of protesters Saturday, the White House didn’t even bother to acknowledge the incident. Americans are not so exceptional in this way either.

When people in India violently clashed in protest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new law that excludes Muslims migrants from a path to citizenship, the State Department urged authorities to “protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly” and demonstrators to refrain from violence. Yet the U.S. has not heeded its own advice in trying to contain its national protests, which were similarly ignited by opposition to systemic discrimination and oppression.

When vigilante groups in countries such as Ghana and the Philippines take up causes on behalf of political groups or movements, the U.S. sees it as a symptom of institutional dysfunction – something for which Americans can offer aid to fix. But when vigilante groups roamed the streets of Philadelphia on Monday to ward off looters, Trump-supporting onlookers viewed them not as a sign of disorder, but as a mechanism designed to restore order.

When collectivist, socialist nations demand conformity under the threat of violence – in Cuba, Venezuela or China, for example – Americans appreciate their own Constitutional freedoms all the more. Yet when a video Saturday night appeared to show Minneapolis cops firing paint rounds at citizens who were simply standing on their own properties, many U.S. commentators were conciliatory, insisting that citizens should have gone inside if they didn’t want to get shot.

In principle, the American establishment is supposed to be forever wary of abusing the state’s disproportionate power, and always reluctant to flex its muscles where peaceful demonstrators may get squashed. It is also supposed to know better than to think bullets and tear gas diffuse tensions, rather than inflame them. From the American perspective, those are things that other countries – less developed, less sophisticated, less refined countries – do.

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In reality, the tactics employed by the U.S. to disperse recent crowds are the very type favoured by the despotic regimes it is presumed to loathe. On Monday, with an orchestra of tear-gas canisters and firing bullets behind him, the President warned his people that if they did not yield to his orders, the situation would get much worse. And then, like a shirtless Russian president on a horse or a portly Supreme Leader on a balcony, he wandered off for his photo.

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