What did you see Wednesday when a pro-Trump mob took over the U.S. Capitol, sending members of the elected government running for their lives?

A political scientist who has lived through and studied the breakup of the former Yugoslavia saw one of the world’s oldest democracies coming unglued.

“ ‘Wake-up call’ doesn’t begin to describe it,” said Jasmin Mujanovic in a phone interview Thursday. “This needs to be understood as a near miss.”

Mujanovic is the author of “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans” and co-host of the podcast “Sarajevo Calling,” which covers (in English) the politics of Southeastern Europe.

His family fled Bosnia in the 1990s, and he has become a student of nationalism, authoritarianism and the far right. And what he has seen in the United States over the last few years hits a little too close to home.

“I’m very careful to say that America is not Yugoslavia,” Mujanovic said. “It’s one of the oldest constitutional republics in the world, and that is significant. Americans have come to expect democracy and to participate in it. But that is a lesson that has to be relearned, and we absolutely cannot believe that the country is so exceptional and so unique that its democracy cannot collapse.”

You could say that we just witnessed a constitutional government that worked as it was supposed to. After the insurgents were swept out out of the building, Congress went back into session and certified the results of the 2020 election, which Donald Trump lost. Trump issued a statement saying he accepted the results and would leave office Jan. 20. But Mujanovic doesn’t think we can be complacent.

The problem is not just Trump, but also that he got 72 million people to vote for him despite his four-year record of lies about immigrants and Muslims and his coziness with violent extremism.

An antidemocratic movement exists within today’s Republican Party, and more traditional Republicans are either afraid to confront it or hope they can use it to gain power.

“There is an authoritarian option in American politics right now, and it will reanimate itself,” even if Trump leaves office, Mujanovic said.

Shortly after the 2016 election, he wrote a piece for the online magazine Balkan Insight where he compared Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote in Great Britain to the rise of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the man most responsible for the genocidal collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Milosevic told people that they were the victims of a great injustice and needed to act in self defense. Explaining how that rhetoric could turn into ethnic violence, Mujanovic quotes the Yugoslav journalist Milos Vasic, who said in 1993: “You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line – a line dictated by David Duke. You too would have war in five years.”

Almost 30 years later, you don’t need to control the media to spread disinformation. In a polarized country where everyone can choose the content of the news they want to hear, we do it to ourselves.

That’s why millions of people today, including the woman who was killed by police inside the Capitol, believe that that there has been massive voter fraud in which illegal immigrants, dead people and even pets voted by the millions to steal the election from their leader. They believe that the constitutional government has lost legitimacy and the only way to stay free is to seize power, by violence if necessary.

People in every state share the same conspiratorial views and are bracing for civil war. They may include members of the military and police forces. We know that they serve in state legislatures as well as the U.S. Congress. If only a few of the people with these views will cross the line into extremist violence – like the plot uncovered this year to kidnap the governor of Michigan – it’s no consolation. It takes only a few to create chaos and an opportunity for a strongman to seize power.

What should we do about it? The same things we advise emerging democracies to do.

Mujanovic says we should invest in a massive public education project to teach the basics of democracy, civil rights, rule of law and media literacy to the whole population.

And he thinks there should be a 9/11-style commission that looks at the Capitol assault,  holding the people behind it accountable and exposing how deeply far-right narratives have penetrated our society.

“It’s really important that we talk about what happened and why it happened, and there has to be an institutional response to it,” he said. “It can’t just go down the memory hole.”

This was a near miss. If we wait for the next one, it could be too late.

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