Like many fellow U.S. Americans, January 6, 2021 found me glued to a flurry of disturbing news reports. While a mass of pro-Trump extremists lay siege to the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers worked to certify election results, I couldn’t tear myself away from reports of the insurrection and chaos that President Trump incited. Tweets aggressively vied for viewers’ attention at the top of the screen, and my heart thumped in my ears in reaction to the inexcusably slow police response to the attack.
When I saw the term “banana republic” trending, I quickly eliminated any inkling that the fancy clothing store* had announced a poorly timed loungewear sale and continued scrolling.
Sheltering in place in his office, Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) posted a video describing the situation and demanding that President Trump act quickly to de-escalate the violence. “We are witnessing absolute banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now. @realdonaldtrump, you need to call this off,” he tweeted.
Later that evening after local and federal law enforcement officers finally secured the Capitol and lawmakers re-convened, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) gave a statement on the House floor, saying, “As a student of foreign policy, if someone described to me the actions that we saw, I would’ve assumed we were in a failed state or a banana republic…”
Perhaps most notably, former President George W. Bush wrote in a statement: “Laura and I are watching the scenes of mayhem unfolding at the seat of our Nation’s government in disbelief and dismay … This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic.”
Politicians like Gallagher, Kinzinger, and Bush are right to be shocked and outraged by what happened at the Capitol. The events of January 6 revealed that our democracy is less robust than many of us would like to believe. We should indeed be horrified by the fact that a political leader has yet again exploited white anger and deployed hate and disinformation for personal and political gain – this time with deadly consequences.
Statements such as the one above also suggest that many of us remain marinated in the intoxicating myth of U.S. exceptionalism. Derogatory terms like “banana republic” deride countries deemed to be “less developed,” and the context surrounding such language is obfuscated.
What, then, does “banana republic” really mean and where does the phrase come from? Used to refer to small nations, often in Central America, whose economies depend on the export of a limited-resource product such as bananas and who are marked by social stratification and oligarchy, the term was coined by the author O. Henry, who included it in the 1904 book Cabbages and Kings, describing Honduras and neighboring countries as full of corruption and political ineptitude. Throughout the 20th century, U.S. corporations including the United Fruit Company (UFC) created the economic, social, and political conditions that formed banana republics in Honduras and Guatemala. UFC, for example, was known as El Pulpo, or the octopus, for its prehensile grip on Honduran society: the corporation rapidly monopolized and frequently intervened in government affairs. In Guatemala, the UFC colluded with the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the democratically elected government.
Disdainful comparisons to so-called “banana republics” are not only harmful but fail to recognize the U.S.’s role in exploiting, manipulating, and destabilizing nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as across the globe. (International Relations professor Dov Levin found that the U.S. intervened in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000.) Such comparisons also treat the violence in the U.S. Capitol as an anomaly instead of the culmination of a long series of events built on a foundation of racism, colonialism, and imperialism.
The impulse to claim that the events of January 6 do not reflect “who we are” is misguidedly aspirational at best and willfully ignorant at worst. The assault on our democratic integrity shows us who we are and where we’ve been, and many U.S. citizens are shocked yet unsurprised by the insurrection.
Where do we go from here? There is so much to be done beyond purging social media of hate speech and arresting insurrectionists, from standing up to white supremacy and exercising our civic duty to holding Trump, his administration, and elected officials who failed to stand up to insurrectionists responsible for their role in the assault on the Capitol. On the world stage, it is crucial that the U.S. hold itself to the principles of democratic governance that it preaches. We can and should aspire to protect and enhance our democracy, placing pressure on our elected representatives to stand up to threats to the safety and freedom of U.S. citizens and the citizens of nations across the globe. We can and should collaborate with our neighbors and friends across the Americas and world to respect electoral and human rights. We can and should do better.
*In case you’re wondering like I was, the clothing store was founded in 1978 and originally called “Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company.” It originally leaned into a colonial aesthetic before being sold to Gap, who changed its name and image to look more upscale.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons