The scenario is scarily believable: It’s November 2020. President Trump has just lost the election. He blames voter fraud. He blames ‘deep state’ interference. He blames illegal immigrants. He refuses to step down. Riots and demonstrations erupt across the divided United States …
The sabre-rattling is getting louder. Governors. Judges. Preachers. Politicians. All are ramping-up the rhetoric, pushing the deep political divide within the United States towards a second Civil War.
Social scientists put aged, white male evangelical populations in one corner. The other holds young, highly educated women of colour. In between are countless pockets of outraged interest groups, all fixated on their own fears.
“Almost every cultural and social institution — universities, the public schools, the NFL, the Oscars, the Tonys, the Grammys, late-night television, public restaurants, coffee shops, movies, TV, stand-up comedy — has been not just politicised but also weaponised,” warns Hoover Institution historian Dr Victor Hanson.
“(The US stands) at the brink of a veritable civil war”.
THE FOREVER WAR
The first US Civil War began in April 1861.
The cultural divide behind this clash never went away.
It was a fight over slavery. But it was also a fight over religious and political divides.
It’s a fight still being fought out in social media, in rallies and in political conventions.
Here’s one example, from many.
Former US marine and now talk-show host Jesse Kelley has stated: “It’s time for the United States to divorce before things get dangerous”.
“There is simply no common ground with the Left anymore,” he writes. “We are now the couple screaming at each other all night, every night as the kids hide in their room …
“It does not have to be this way. There is a difficult, but ultimately peaceful path that ends with everyone getting most of what they want. We divide the nation in two.”
It’s a view getting some serious attention: Governors, Senators, Representatives, Preachers … all are making similar calls. South Carolina members of parliament have proposed a bill giving that state the power to secede.
But isn’t it all just a storm in a teacup?
Political wannabes playing to their individual ‘teams’?
Vocal minorities drowning out the silent masses?
SEVEN MOUNTAINS: The religious zealots wanting to control the US
Dr Hanson again has his fears: “zealous and sometimes warring tiny minorities can escalate tensions, nullify opposition, and bully the silenced majority to sanction — or at least not object to — violence.”
But Dr Hanson’s Hoover Institution colleague, political scientist Professor Morris Fiorina, is not so worried.
“I am happy to report that the available data provide grounds for feeling much more sanguine about the state of our country,” Professor Fiorina writes.
“Although they are noisy and harmful to our politics, the kinds of people Hanson criticises are many fewer in number than generally believed. They are what political scientists call the political class, a small minority of self-appointed activists, demonstrators, donors, partisan media commentators and office-seekers. Given that such people are the public face of politics, many Americans understandably take them as representative, but they are statistically abnormal — what we call “outliers.”
But such anger-fuelled rhetoric is not unique to the United States.
Extremism is also on the rise in Europe, the United Kingdom — and Australia.
What makes the US different is the terrifying amount of weaponry in the hands of its citizens
The social cauldron is continuously being stirred. Facts are manipulated. Those holding differences of opinion are labelled ‘mortal enemies’.
It’s an environment inflaming threats and fear.
Politicians seeking to grab attention through quick one-liners are no help.
California Democrat Eric Swalwell responded to threats of civil war over his hopes to run for the 2020 presidency on a gun-control platform. He said it would be a “short war” because “the government has nukes”.
The idea of using nuclear weapons against one’s own citizens, needless to say, did not go down well.
President Donald Trump has also made his mark: he made a seemingly half-serious quip about becoming “president for life”. “(Xi Jinping was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day”.
In the context of his daily social media outbursts, this now seems all too feasible to many.
These are clear examples of the extreme, polarising language that has become commonplace in daily political discourse.
And beneath it all boils widespread discontent over economic circumstances, political and religious ideology — and the pace of change.
Could desensitisation to such outrageous statements produce a self-fulfilling prophecy?
“Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster,” University of Connecticut Professor Peter Turchin recently wrote. “Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether.”
The number of terror attacks in the United States has been steadily growing. But very few of them are from Islamic extremists.
Instead, those collared for crimes such as October’s pipe-bomb attacks and the synagogue mass-shooting in Pittsburgh belong to the far right.
“Of particular concern are white supremacists and anti-government extremists, such as militia groups and so-called sovereign citizens interested in plotting attacks against government, racial, religious, and political targets in the United States,” writes Center for Strategic & International Studies think-tank researcher Dr Seth Jones. “Although violent left-wing groups and individuals also present a threat, far-right-networks appear to be better armed and larger.”
And driving this violence are issues such as changing ethnic demographics, falling religious influence, practices such as abortion — and the power of centralised government.
Left-wing extremists are equally determined to enforce their view of the world. This includes the rejection of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism as well as a focus on environmental crises and socialist beliefs.
But these extremists do not correspond to US political parties, Dr Jones says: “Opinion polls in the United States show that most Republicans and Democrats loathe terrorism.”
Such extremism, however, is nothing new to the US.
EXPLORE MORE: Why we’re obsessed with apocalypse
“After the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant conducted an aggressive — and ultimately successful — campaign against the Ku Klux Klan and its offshoots … from the 1860s to the 1870s,” Dr Jones writes. “Grant deployed federal soldiers to arrest Klan members … Yet far-right extremism persists.
“The challenge now is to devote sufficient attention and resources to stop the further rise of right-wing extremism.”
And that extremism is finding a full voice.
In April, popular political commentator Sean Hannity declared that if President Trump was impeached … “there’s going to be two sides … fighting and dividing this country at a level we’ve never seen” — those that stand for truth and those that literally buy into the corrupt deep state attacks against a duly elected president”.
Trump campaigner Roger Stone has said impeachment would produce “an insurrection like you’ve never seen,” and that any politician speaking out against the president “would be endangering their own life”.
A second civil war?
Social and conventional media is helping extremists get together, organise events, and find common ground.
And that commonality is reinforcing efforts to broaden extremist movements, such as Nazi ‘skinheads’, into the ‘mainstream’.
“Many of these right-wing extremists are trying to be less visible and less conspicuous. The goal is to avoid the classic skinhead appearance of shaved heads, steel-toe combat boots, and other apparel that might be obvious to law enforcement,” Dr Jones says. “White supremacist Ben Daley instructed his supporters to wear clothing like polo-style shirts and khakis, as well as to get clean-cut military haircuts.”
Daley’s thinking, as outlined in his social media posts, represents the new approach: “Ultimately the 80s in that style of nationalism proved to be ineffective … (I) think its time to reimagine the nationalist look and playbook, we have become predictable that needs to change.”
At least in pockets of the United States, this new tactic appears to be having some effect.
And it’s that regionality that has Dr Hanson concerned.
EXPLORE MORE: The apocalyptic drive of Trump’s evangelicals
“Left — Right factionalism is increasingly fuelled by geography — always history’s force multiplier of civil strife,” he writes. “Red and blue states ensure that locale magnifies differences that were mostly manageable …”
Again, Professor Fiorina puts the counterview.
“To understand contemporary American political life, you should begin with the realisation that most of the people blabbering on cable television, venting on Facebook, and/or fulminating on Twitter are abnormal. They are abnormally interested and involved in politics, they tend to occupy the policy extremes, and they are abnormally opinionated.”
He states that out of the 235 million voters in the US, only one per cent subscribe to the likes of either The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.
“Liberals rail against Fox News and conservatives against MSNBC; they should take consolation in the fact that the Fox viewing audience is about one per cent of the eligible electorate while news shows on MSNBC fall short of that … Granted, these small audiences may spread the word to some non-subscribers and non-viewers, but even taking such second-order effects into account, the simple fact is that the ranks of the politically interested are surprisingly thin.”
But is ignorance enough to defend US democracy?
Professor Turchin argues that the outrage expressed by politicians, social media and media is symptomatic of almost unprecedented levels of inequality within US society.
And unequal societies generally turn a corner only once they have passed through a long spell of political instability, he says: “Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality”.
The US has been on the brink of this precipice before, as recently as 1920. Extreme social insecurity led to race riots, worker revolts and terror campaigns targeting ‘elites’.
“The worst incident in US labour history was the West Virginia Mine War of 1920—21, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain,” Professor Turchin says. “Although it started as a workers’ dispute, the Mine War eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection that the US has ever seen, the Civil War excepted. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles battled against thousands of strikebreakers and sheriff deputies.”
The US army had to be called in — against its own people — to quell the uprising.
But Professor Fiorina points out that the current level of political violence is lower than that of another US cultural crisis point, the 1960s.
“Our country is experiencing rapid social changes that naturally create social problems and political controversies,” he writes. “The American citizenry has worked through these kinds of problems in the past (most recently in the 1960s), and I am optimistic that they will continue to do so … Whenever you are feeling discouraged about America, turn off CNN, log off your computer, and go walk the aisles of Walmart.”
Professor Turchin isn’t so sure. He argues the difference, now is a confluence of social circumstances — and the disrupter of social media.
“Three years ago I published a short article in the science journal Nature,” Professor Turchin says. “I pointed out that several leading indicators of political instability look set to peak around 2020. In other words, we are rapidly approaching a historical cusp, at which the US will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval.
“This prediction is not a ‘prophecy’.
“I don’t believe that disaster is preordained, no matter what we do. On the contrary, if we understand the causes, we have a chance to prevent it from happening. But the first thing we will have to do is reverse the trend of ever-growing inequality.”
Dr Hanson sums it up: “Whether we all take a deep breath, and understand our present dangerous trajectory, will determine whether 2019 becomes 1861.”