Flat White

Trains, plains and escalators

20 January 2021

5:00 PM

20 January 2021

5:00 PM

Vladimir Lenin once said that there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen. The events two weeks ago in Washington DC suggest that in the remaining hours until, and possibly days after the inauguration of President Joseph Biden, there may in fact be decades. 

The last assault on the American Constitutional order led to a civil war. But unlike the events that preceded, the 1860s attack on the American Constitution was not instigated by the President of the United States. 

A fundamental source of America’s strength is its respect for the will of the people and the rule of law. The peaceful transition of political power was celebrated. Elected officials and office holders pledged allegiance to the Constitution and not to a person or a party. But E Pluribus Unum no more. 

It is not yet clear what price will be paid by the American people or America’s friends. Previously unimaginable policies will be implemented. Domestic and international power blocks will realign.  America’s soft power will be diminished so much so that the government of Turkey had the temerity to invite “all parties in the US to use moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis”. The government of Turkey. 

The longer-term consequences are unknowable but may trigger fundamental shifts in the Atlantic and the Pacific and may cast a long and dark shadow. History is replete with large shifts flowing from small events. From trains, to planes to escalators. 


In April 1917, at a railway station in Zurich Switzerland, 32 Russians boarded a train for St Petersburg. The train was chartered by German Kaiser Wilhelm II and the leader of the group was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin. Wilhelm’s intention in sending Lenin to Russia was to sew discord thus undermining the Czarist empire, a nation with which Germany was at war since 1914. 

Wilhelm achieved more than his initial objective. Lenin led the Bolshevik revolution which culminated in the 30-year reign of Josef Stalin. And the government of Stalin entered into the been a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany creating the conditions for Germany’s invasion of Poland which marked the official start of World War II. The conclusion of World War II was immediately followed by a cold war lasting decades. One train trip led to the death tens of millions and hostilities that linger to this day.   


In February 1979, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini boarded a chartered Air France plane from Paris to Tehran, Iran. Born in Iran but exiled by the Shah, Khomeini lived in Iraq until expelled by Saddam Hussein. From Iraq, Khomeini briefly resided in Paris but upon his return to Iran, Khomeini led a (Shiite) Islamic revolution resulting in a theocratic government under his guardianship, a vilayat-e faqih

Nine months later in November 1979, a group of Iranian students seized control of the US Embassy in Tehran and took 52 embassy staff hostage. Sixteen days later, a group of insurgents led by Juhayman al-Otaybi, inspired by the Iranian revolution, seized control of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site. One month after, in December 1979, Soviet troops crossed the border into Iran’s neighbour, Afghanistan. 

The siege in Mecca led to a political-religious accommodation in Saudi Arabia whereby Salafi clerics gained control of education and deployed religious police throughout the Kingdom. And before the Embassy siege, US President Jimmy Carter was leading in the polls and was tracking to defeat Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential election. 

Twenty-two years later, in September 2001, Al-Qaeda led an attack on the United States. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, whose family built much of the Grand Mosque, noted his spiritual inspiration from al-Otaybi.   


In June 2015, Donald Trump descended a golden escalator to launch his Presidential campaign.  In November 2016 Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and was inaugurated President in January 2017. The 2016 election set in train 4 years of bipartisan political recklessness, which when combined with the Covid 19 pandemic, destabilised America economically, socially and ultimately institutionally. America’s competitors and enemies watched closely and rubbing their hands. 

Before the November 2020 elections, commentators had suggested that the election may lead to “a second American civil war” which could erupt if the losing side takes to armed resistance or looting. Out of 330 million Americans, there are 400 million civilian firearms. There is a nationwide ammunition shortage and record gun licence applications. 

Was the storming of the US Capitol by Trump loyalists the start or the end of American history?  Only time will tell. What is known is that events, like pebbles dropped into water, ripple. It is not always the event, but the conditions the events create that can lead to either calm waters or tsunamis. 

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