Has the United States become a Banana Republic?
No, it has not.
By Brendan Wilson
Since November, Donald Trump has responded to his electoral defeat with unsubstantiated accusations of widespread fraud. Repeatedly rebuffed by conservative judges he appointed, Republican election officials he once praised, and his own attorney general, he has continued to spout falsehoods about his “landslide” victory having been stolen, thereby rousing his most passionate disciples into a vengeful, foaming maelstrom.
Two months of “victory” rallies and Twitter tantrums that included demands to “get moving” and “fight” culminated this week when the president called his supporters to the seat of our nation’s government to attend a “Save America” rally as a last-ditch effort to disrupt the ratification of Joe Biden’s victory. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted ahead of the event. “Big protest in DC on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
On the day of the rally, Rudy Giuliani primed the crowd with calls for a “trial by combat." The president of the United States then approached the podium. “And we fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He told his ardent supporters, “So we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give… our Republicans…. the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
The mob obliged.
By early afternoon, rioters overran the Capitol building while the certification process was underway, bum-rushing what few Capitol Police officers had been dispatched to keep order. As our nation’s elected officials were whisked away to safety by security personnel, the mob entered both chambers, looting items, ransacking offices, and breaking windows and furniture. Five Americans died.
“We are witnessing absolutely banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now. You need to call this off,” tweeted Mike Gallagher, Republican congressman from Wisconsin. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic,” read a statement issued by George W. Bush.
“The peaceful transfer of power is what separates American representative democracy from banana republics,” tweeted secretary of education Betsy DeVos before resigning her post. Columbian daily newspaper Publimetro taunted the US with a headline “Who’s the Banana Republic Now?” on its front page.
Context tells us that these statements do not refer to a west coast retailer selling overpriced apparel made in Bangladesh. Rather, they reference a type of government marked by instability, corruption, and violence.
In the early 1900’s, Central American governments were run by corrupt leaders that were controlled by American fruit companies such as United Fruit and Cuyamel. In exchange for bribes and kickbacks, these corporations expropriated land and resources at little cost, cheaply harvesting the fruit craved by increasingly wealthy North American consumers. As a result, the population remained impoverished, bound to the banana plantations with no chance of upward mobility in a system rigged to rob them of their country’s resources and wealth.
With powerful foreign interests pulling the strings, Central American leaders stayed in office only so long as they were willing to cooperate. In 1911, a popularly elected Honduran government threatened to disrupt the existing arrangement. A coup d’état was quickly arranged by Cuyamel founder Sam Zemurray that installed General Manual Bonilla, a military leader more sympathetic to the banana trade.
In the 1950’s, Guatemala elected a pro-Soviet president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who nationalized lands belonging to United Fruit. Right on cue, another coup d’état, this one facilitated by the CIA, deposed Guzman and replaced him with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a man more amenable to the status quo. Before long, the country was embroiled in a civil war that would kill more than 200,000.
This was the world that Texas banker William Sydney Porter encountered when he fled to Honduras while escaping prosecution for embezzlement. Struck by what he found, he penned a series of short stories under the pseudonym O. Henry, including “The Admiral,” a fictional tale set in Anchuria, a land he described as a “small, maritime banana republic.”
The term has grown broader over the intervening decades to include any country marked by corruption, coups, and chaos. Modern examples can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and Latin America. Robin Wright of the New Yorker writes, “Over the past century, “banana republic” has evolved to mean any country (with or without bananas) that has a ruthless, corrupt, or just plain loopy leader who relies on the military and destroys state institutions in an egomaniacal quest for prolonged power.”
So, do the events of the past two months render the United States deserving of the “banana republic” pejorative? Hardly.
First, America remains the world’s largest economy and enjoys the 7th highest per-capita GDP according to the IMF. Even after four years of “America First,” it is the most active contributor to the globe’s multilateral institutions. This stands in stark contrast to the inward, impoverished tin pot dictatorships usually associated with the term in question.
Secondly, the leaders of banana republics subjugate their own citizens and leech their country’s resources to enrich themselves and their cronies. While the United States has an imperfect record of representing all its citizens equally, its independent courts, free and fair elections, and free press put it in an entirely different category than countries like Venezuela.
Finally, our nation’s democratic experiment has persisted for 232 years. While that history is dotted with a civil war and more than a few violent riots, the system created by our founders has stood firm. The commitment to continuity and the peaceful transfer of power that have persisted for over two centuries was on full display when, undeterred by the violence of the day, Congress reconvened to ratify the electoral college vote. America is not an unstable coup-magnet.
Labeling the United States a banana republic is a misreading of history and our present circumstances, but our leaders cannot forget that the world is watching. The spiraling events of the last two months have left our allies anxious and our enemies overjoyed.
“The festival of democracy is over,” wrote Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev on Facebook. “America no longer plots the course, and consequently has lost its right to set it. And all the more to impose it on others.” Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa tweeted Thursday, “Yesterday’s events showed that the US has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy.” Ouch.
If we wish to maintain our standing as the shining city on the hill, the example of the prosperity that can be achieved through liberal enlightenment values, we need to change our course quickly. Our Constitution is a compact rooted in faith, sustained by faith. Both left and right must act to preserve it by breaking down the walls that separate us through understanding and compromise.
“American democracy will prevail,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to this week’s events, “it always does.” May he be right.
Donald Trump Speech "Save America" Rally Transcript January 6. (2021, January 06). Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/donald-trump-speech-save-america-rally-transcript-january-6/amp
Eschner, K. (2017, January 18). Where We Got the Term "Banana Republic". Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/where-we-got-term-banana-republic-180961813/
Holland, S., Mason, J., & Landay, J. (2021, January 06). Trump summoned supporters to "wild" protest, and told them to fight. They did. Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-protests/trump-summoned-supporters-to-wild-protest-and-told-them-to-fight-they-did-idUSKBN29B24S
Lee, M. (2021, January 08). Rejecting criticism, Pompeo says US isn't 'banana republic'. Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-joe-biden-donald-trump-embassies-democracy-25daab40008be8dc54d4005e02965b49
Longley, R. (n.d.). What Is a Banana Republic? Definition and Examples. Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://www.thoughtco.com/banana-republic-definition-4776041
Wright, R., & Khullar, D. (n.d.). Is America Becoming a Banana Republic? Retrieved January 09, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/is-america-becoming-a-banana-republic