‘These are conditions ripe for political violence’: how close is the US to civil war?
Nearly half of Americans fear their country will erupt within the next decade. Ahead of the midterm elections this week, three experts analyse the depth of the crisis
Sun 6 Nov 2022 04.00 EST
Barbara F Walter: ‘Judges will be assassinated, Democrats will be jailed on bogus charges, black churches and synagogues bombed’
American political scientist and author of How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them (Viking)
Americans are increasingly talking about civil war. In August, after the FBI raided Donald Trump’s Florida home, Twitter references to “civil war” jumped 3,000%. Trump supporters immediately went online, tweeting threats that a civil war would start if Trump was indicted. One account wrote: “Is it Civil-War-O’clock yet?”; another said, “get ready for an uprising”. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, said there would be “riots in the streets” if Trump was indicted. Trump himself predicted that “terrible things are going to happen” if the temperature wasn’t brought down in the country. Perhaps most troubling, Americans on both sides of the political divide increasingly state that violence is justified. In January 2022, 34% of Americans surveyed said that it was sometimes OK to use violence against the government. Seven months later, more than 40% said that they believed civil war was at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years. Two years ago, no one was talking about a second American civil war. Today it is common.
Are America’s fears overblown? The most frequent question I get asked following my book How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them is whether a civil war could happen again in the US. Sceptics argue that America’s government is too powerful for anyone to challenge. Others argue that secession will never happen because our country is no longer cleanly divided along geographic lines. Still others simply cannot believe that Americans would start killing one another. These beliefs, however, are based on the mistaken idea that a second civil war would look like the first. It will not.
If a second civil war breaks out in the US, it will be a guerrilla war fought by multiple small militias spread around the country. Their targets will be civilians – mainly minority groups, opposition leaders and federal employees. Judges will be assassinated, Democrats and moderate Republicans will be jailed on bogus charges, black churches and synagogues bombed, pedestrians picked off by snipers in city streets, and federal agents threatened with death should they enforce federal law. The goal will be to reduce the strength of the federal government and those who support it, while also intimidating minority groups and political opponents into submission.
We know this because far-right groups such as the Proud Boys have told us how they plan to execute a civil war. They call this type of war “leaderless resistance” and are influenced by a plan in The Turner Diaries (1978), a fictitious account of a future US civil war. Written by William Pierce, founder of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, it offers a playbook for how a group of fringe activists can use mass terror attacks to “awaken” other white people to their cause, eventually destroying the federal government. The book advocates attacking the Capitol building, setting up a gallows to hang politicians, lawyers, newscasters and teachers who are so-called “race traitors”, and bombing FBI headquarters.
Pages of The Turner Diaries were found in Timothy McVeigh’s truck after he attacked a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. Patrick Crusius, the alleged El Paso Walmart gunman, and John Timothy Earnest, the accused shooter at a synagogue in Poway, California, echoed the book’s ideas in their manifestos. A member of the Proud Boys can be seen on video during the insurrection on 6 January 2021 telling a journalist to read The Turner Diaries.
Election deniers are running for office in 48 of the 50 states
The US is not yet in a civil war. But a 2012 declassified report by the CIA on insurgencies outlines the signs. According to the report, a country is experiencing an open insurgency when sustained violence by increasingly active extremists has become the norm. By this point, violent extremists are using sophisticated weapons, such as improvised explosive devices, and begin to attack vital infrastructure (such as hospitals, bridges and schools), rather than just individuals. These attacks also involve a larger number of fighters, some of whom have combat experience. There is often evidence, according to the report, “of insurgent penetration and subversion of the military, police, and intelligence services”.
In this early stage of civil war, extremists are trying to force the population to choose sides, in part by demonstrating to citizens that the government cannot keep them safe or provide basic necessities. The goal is to incite a broader civil war by denigrating the state and growing support for violent measures.
Insurgency experts wondered whether 6 January would be the beginning of such a sustained series of attacks. This has not yet happened, in part because of aggressive counter-measures by the FBI. The FBI has arrested more than 700 individuals who participated in the riot, charging 225 of them with assaulting, resisting or impeding officers or employees. Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, will almost certainly go to jail for his role in helping to organise the insurrection, as will numerous other participants. But this setback is likely to be temporary.
Civil war experts know that two factors put countries at high risk of civil war. The US has one of these risk factors and remains dangerously close to the second. Neither risk factor has diminished since 6 January. The first is ethnic factionalism. This happens when citizens in a country organise themselves into political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology. The second is anocracy. This is when a government is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; it’s something in between. Civil wars almost never happen in full, healthy, strong democracies. They also seldom happen in full autocracies. Violence almost always breaks out in countries in the middle – those with weak and unstable pseudo-democracies. Anocracy plus factionalism is a dangerous mix.
We also know who tends to start civil wars, especially those fought between different ethnic, religious and racial groups. This also does not bode well for the US. The groups that tend to resort to violence are not the poorest groups, or the most downtrodden. It’s the group that had once been politically dominant but is losing power. It’s the loss of political status – a sense of resentment that they are being replaced and that the identity of their country is no longer theirs – that tends to motivate these groups to organise. Today, the Republican party and its base of white, Christian voters are losing their dominant position in American politics and society as a result of demographic changes. Whites are the slowest-growing demographic in the US and will no longer be a majority of the population by around 2044. Their status will continue to decline as America becomes more multi-ethnic, multiracial, and multireligious, and the result will be increasing resentment and fear at what lies ahead. The people who stormed the Capitol on 6 January believed they were saving America from this future and felt fully justified in this fight.
America’s democracy declined rapidly between 2016 and 2020. Since 6 January 2021, the US has failed to strengthen its democracy in any way, leaving it vulnerable to continued backsliding into the middle zone. In fact, the Republican party has accelerated its plan to weaken our democracy further. Voter suppression bills have been introduced in almost every state since 6 January. Election deniers are running for office in 48 of the 50 states and now represent a majority of all Republicans running for Congressional and state offices in the US midterm elections this week. Trump loyalists are being elected secretaries of state in key swing states, increasing the likelihood that Republican candidates will be granted victory, even if they lose the vote. And America’s two big political parties remain deeply divided by race and religion. If these underlying conditions do not change, a leader like Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers can go to jail, but other disaffected white men will take his place.
Regulate social media… the result would be a drop in everyone’s collective anger, distrust and feelings of threat
What is happening in the US is not unique. White supremacists have leapt on projections that the US will be the first western democracy where white citizens could lose their majority status. This is forecast to happen around 2044. Far-right parties of wealthy western countries have issued ominous warnings about the end of white dominance, seeking to stoke hatred by emphasising the alleged costs – economic, social, moral – of such transformation. We are already seeing elements of this in Europe, where rightwing anti-immigrant parties such as the Sweden Democrats, the Brothers of Italy, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the National Rally in France and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria have all seen their support increase in recent years.
What can we do about this? The obvious answers are for our political leaders to invest heavily in strengthening our democracies and to have their political parties reach across racial, religious and ethnic lines. But here in America, the Democratic party does not have the votes to institute much-needed reforms of our political system, and the Republicans have no interest; they are moving in the opposite direction.
But there is a potentially easy fix. Regulate social media, and in particular the algorithms that disproportionately push the more incendiary, extreme, threatening and fear-inducing information into people’s feeds. Take away the social media bullhorn and you turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hate-mongers and enemies of democracy. The result would be a drop in everyone’s collective anger, distrust and feelings of threat, giving us all time to rebuild.
Stephen Marche: ‘America has passed the point at which the triumph of one party or another can fix what’s wrong with it’
Canadian novelist and essayist and author of The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future (Simon & Schuster)
The United States is a textbook example of a country headed towards civil war. The trends increasingly point one way, and while nobody knows the future, little – if anything – is being done, by anyone, to try to prevent the collapse of the republic. Belief in democracy is ebbing. The legitimacy of institutions is declining. America increasingly is entering a state where its citizens don’t want to belong to the same country. These are conditions ripe for political violence.
No civil war ever has a single cause. It’s always a multitude of factors that lead to decline and collapse. The current US has several of what the CIA calls “threat multipliers”: environmental crises continue to batter the country, economic inequality is at its highest level since the founding of the country, and demographic change means that the US will be a minority white country within just over two decades. All of these factors tend to contribute to civil unrest wherever they are found in the world.
But the US is more vulnerable to political violence than other countries because of the decrepitude of its institutions. For 40 years, trust in institutions of all kinds – the church, the police, journalism, academia – has been in freefall. Trust in politicians can hardly fall any lower. And there is no reason for trust. The constitution, while unquestionably a work of genius, was a work of 18th-century genius. It simply does not reflect, nor can it respond to, the realities of the 21st century.
The divide between the American political system and any reflection of the popular will is widening, and increasingly it cannot be ignored. The electoral college system means that, in the near term, a Democrat will win the popular mandate by many millions of votes and still lose the presidency. The crisis of democracy will only grow. With around 345 election deniers on the ballot as candidates in November, the Republicans appear to have evolved a new political strategy, seemingly based on the gambling strategy of Joe Pesci’s character in Casino: if they win, they collect. If they don’t, they tell the bookies to go away. Unless there is a completely separate Republican leadership in place by 2024, they will simply ignore the results they don’t like.
The American electoral system is already hugely localised, outdated and held together by good faith. Any failure to recognise electoral outcomes, even in a few states, could result in a contested election in which nobody reaches the threshold of 270 electoral college votes. In that case, the constitution stipulates a “contingent election” – acclimatise yourself to this phrase now – in which each state gets a single vote. That’s right: if no candidate in an American presidential election reaches the threshold of 270 electoral college votes, the state legislatures, overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans, pick the president, with each state having one vote.
The confusion of legal status of a separate group of persons is a classic prelude to civil war
In 1824, the candidate who won the popular vote and the most electoral college votes, Andrew Jackson, did not become president. John Quincy Adams fudged his way through. A contingent election is one mechanism, just one, by which an American government could be perfectly constitutional and completely undemocratic at the same time. The right has been preparing for exactly such a reality for a while, with a phrase they repeat as if in hope that it will mean something if they say it enough: “We’re a republic, not a democracy.”
Quasi-legitimacy is what leads to violence. And America’s political institutions are destined to become more and more quasi-legitimate from now on. One of the surest markers of incipient civil war in other countries is the legal system devolving from a non-partisan, truly national institution to a spoil of partisan war. That has already happened in the US.
The overturning of Roe v Wade, in June, was both a symptom of the new American divisiveness and a cause of its spread. The Dobbs decision (in which the supreme court held that the US constitution does not confer the right to abortion) took the status of women in the US and dropped it like a plate-glass window from a great height. It will take a generation or more to sweep up the shards. What women are or are not allowed to do with their bodies – abortions, IVF procedures, birth control, maintaining the privacy of their menstrual cycles, crossing state lines – now depends on the state and county lines in which their bodies happen to reside. The legal reality of American women is no longer national in nature. When a woman travels from Illinois to Ohio, she becomes a different entity, with different rights and duties.
The court itself is well aware of the legal carnage it has caused. “If, over time, the court loses all connection with the public and with public sentiment, that is a dangerous thing for democracy,” associate justice Elena Kagan said shortly afterwards. Her conservative colleague Samuel A Alito responded: “It goes without saying that everyone is free to express disagreement with our decisions and to criticise our reasoning as they see fit. But saying or implying that the court is becoming an illegitimate institution or questioning our integrity crosses an important line.” But what anyone says or implies is of little to no importance at this point. The percentage of the American public having almost no confidence in the supreme court reached 43% in July, up from 27% in April. The confusion of legal status of a separate group of persons is a classic prelude to civil war.
The justices of the court, and the American public, are just catching up with the inevitable consequences of the refusal of Congressional Republicans to allow President Obama to select Merrick Garland for the court and then going on to confirm three Trump nominees, resulting in a court skewed six: three to the right. The supreme court feels illegitimate because it is illegitimate. The Dobbs decision does not reflect the will of the American people because the supreme court does not reflect the will of the American people.
Elections have consequences, right up until the point when they don’t. On a superficial level, the 2022 midterms couldn’t matter more; American democracy itself is at stake. On a deeper level, the 2022 midterms don’t matter all that much; they will inform us, if anything, of the schedule and the manner of the fall of the republic. The results might delay the decline, or accelerate it, but at this point, no merely political outcome can prevent the downfall. America has passed the point at which the triumph of one party or another can fix what’s wrong with it, and the kind of structural change that’s necessary isn’t on the table. This is a moment between two American politics. The wind has been sown. The whirlwind is yet to be reaped.
Christopher Sebastian Parker: ‘Many white people feel the need to take drastic measures to maintain white supremacy’
Professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America (Princeton)
America is rushing headlong into another civil war, and it’s a matter of when, not if. As political scientist Prof Barbara F Walter argues, civil wars are likely in the presence of two factors: anocracy and ethnic factionalism. When one considers the centrality of race to American politics, it is clear that ethno-nationalism is hastening the movement towards anocracy.
Think about the role of race in the first civil war and the one we’re headed towards. It’s well documented that the repulsive nature of the institution of slavery was the principal cause of the civil war, driven by moral as well as economic and political concerns. In 19th-century America, the Democratic party was a relatively reactionary institution in the south, whereas the Republican party was a relatively progressive institution located in the north. Republicans supported the abolition of slavery, whereas 19th-century Democrats were all for it. Regardless of the outcome of the war – driven as it was by the prospect of material gain or loss, moral redemption or amorality – the war came to rest on the fulcrum of race and racism.
Throughout history, political identity in the US has ultimately been driven by the parties’ respective positions on race, with divisions sorting primarily by way of racial identity and racial attitudes. Contemporary Republicans, for instance, tend to be white and relatively racist. Democrats are more likely to draw from a more diverse pool and, as such, are, typically, less racist. To illustrate this point, Republicans are far more alarmed by a diversifying country.
Likewise, white people were and are more likely to support Trump, driven by the anxiety associated with the rapid racial diversification of “their” country. What, you may ask, do white people and the Republican party have in common? Well, 80% of Republican voters are white.
The consequences of the centrality of race and racism to American politics and the threat of internal war are dire. It was racism that was ultimately responsible for the rise of the Tea Party, a reaction to Obama’s (racialised) presidency. The Tea Party (now the Maga movement), in turn, moved the GOP to the right, eventually setting the stage for Trump.
With Trump pushing the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, and many Republicans buying into it, the stage is set for another American war of all against all. We’ve seen this before. The civil war, as it happens, was set in motion by the refusal of the Democrats to accept Abraham Lincoln as the legitimate winner of the 1860 contest given his views on slavery: he thought it morally wrong.
But it wasn’t the economics of slavery that motivated the south’s insistence on maintaining what was known as the “peculiar institution”. Only 3.2% of white southern families owned slaves. Clearly, then, the maintenance of slavery as an economic institution carried no value for almost all white southerners. With economic reasons absent, why were white southerners willing to fight a war over slavery? The southern way of life: white supremacy. As part of southern culture, these people were not ready to forfeit their social dominance, relative to the Black community.
These conditions remain in place. As many white people (Republicans) confront the fear that by 2044 they’ll no longer be in the ethnic majority, they feel the need to take drastic measures to maintain white supremacy. It’s all they’ve ever known. It happened in the 1860s; what’s to prevent it from happening now?
Look for the next civil war to take place after the 2024 election cycle, when the next wave of violence is likely to emerge. Similar to the original civil war, there’s too much at stake for both sides. Then, as now, the threats are existential. In the 19th century, Democrats viewed the newly established Republican party as a threat to their way of life. Republicans, for their part, saw southern intransigence on the issue of slavery as a threat to the union.
Today, Republicans, driven by the existential threat of losing “their” (white) country, will continue their attack on democracy as a means towards preserving America for “real” Americans. Democrats, on the other hand, see the “Magafication” of the GOP as an existential threat to liberal democracy.
Election-related violence generally takes place when the following four factors are present: a highly competitive election that can shift power; partisan division based on identity; winner-takes-all two-party election systems in which political identities are polarised; and an unwillingness to punish violence on the part of the dominant group. All four are present in America now, and will be more amplified in 2024.
We’re almost there. White angst over increasing racial diversity makes another Trump candidacy (and presidency) likely, pushing us into anocracy. Democrats are having none of that. They’ll resist going down the slippery slope to autocracy the same way that their 19th-century counterparts, the party of Lincoln, refused to let the Confederacy bust up the union. Likewise, should Democrats prevail in 2024, Republicans will revolt – the 6 January Capitol attack is a forewarning.
Either way, I’ll wager that a civil war featuring terrorism, guerrilla war and ethnic cleansing will be waged from sea to shining sea. In the end, race and racism will lead to another very American conflagration.