With or Without Trump, Specter of Civil War Looms over the US

The white rural population feels robbed of their homeland. The cosmopolitan city dwellers feel bullied by the conservative minority. As mutual trust collapses, so do democratic institutions.

Republicans, who feel committed to the truth, are dealing with an ugly situation these days: Adam Kinzinger is basically an American conservative with no discernible flaws. After graduation he served as an Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2010, the congressman campaigned in Washington on a platform that espoused lean government, that opposed Barack Obama’s healthcare reform and abortion. Recently however, his wife Sofia received a letter in the post. In it, the senders vowed to execute her husband Adam, herself, and their son Christian.

The authors were obviously Christian extremists. They accused Kinzinger of harming not only his country but also «countless patriotic and God-fearing families.» Addressing his wife, they said: «We consider it blasphemy that you have given the name Christian to the son of the devil.»

Political violence could soon become the norm

The murderous rage directed at Kinzinger has nothing to do with his relationship with God though, but rather with his lack of fear of Donald Trump. The 44-year-old was one of only ten Republican members of Congress to vote to impeach Trump’s following the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Against the wishes of his party leadership, he now also sits on the congressional committee inquiring into the events of January 6. By fighting for the truth, he wants to bring his party, driven by fear and conspiracy theories, back to reason: «We fear the Democrats. We fear the future. We fear everything. This works for one to two election cycles. The problem is that it’s really hurting our democracy.»

Politicians in other democracies also receive savage threats from angry citizens. But in the U.S., it doesn’t stop there. Due to his criticism of Trump, Kinzinger is now considered a Rino (Republican in name only) by his party. Trump himself called the Rinos «the lowest form of human life.» Around the time that Kinzinger received the threatening letter, Eric Greitens, the Republican candidate for the Senate in Missouri, also posted a campaign ad on the internet. In the video ad he’s holding a rifle in his hands and saying: «Today we’re going Rino hunting.» Accompanied by a heavily armed task force, the former governor then breaks down a door and challenges his constituents: «Get a license to hunt Rinos. It won’t expire until we save our country.»

The new party platform in Texas shows how far the Republicans’ positions have drifted to the right. In contradiction to the current law, conservatives are claiming a right to secession for their constituent state. They are demanding that the Texas Legislature organize a referendum on the issue. Moreover, all sex education should be banned in schools. «Homosexuality is the choice of an abnormal way of life.» According to the party platform, Joe Biden’s election as president was also «not legitimate» given that substantial electoral fraud in cities distorted the result.

Harvard professor Steve Levitsky wrote in Foreign Affairs in January that even after Biden’s first year in office, the threat to American democracy has not diminished. «The Republican Party has radicalized into an extremist, anti-democratic force that threatens the constitutional order of the United States.» Should Trump or one of his cohorts win the 2024 presidential election, the White House will almost certainly politicize the bureaucratic apparatus and use the machinery of the government against political opponents. The result would be competitive authoritarianism: «A system where elections exist but the abuse of power by incumbents disadvantages the opposition.» Constitutional crises and political violence involving murders, bombings and armed insurrections could therefore soon become the norm in the U.S., Levitsky writes.

A feeling like the fall of Rome

Canadian author and writer Stephen Marche goes one step further. In his new book, «The Next Civil War,» he does not rule out even the bleakest of scenarios for the United States: «The United States is coming to an end. The question is how,» states the first two sentences. The trigger for the book project was Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Marche was on the scene and saw the violence take place. Left-wing demonstrators protested against what they saw as an illegitimate president, throwing stones at police officers and setting cars on fire. «It felt like the fall of Rome,» Marche says.

For the next few years, Marche traveled across the country, talking to members of armed citizen militias, neo-Nazis, as well as left-wing activists and many experts, to find out just how bad things were in America. Now he thinks: «The worst is yet to come.»

Marche describes the U.S. as a complex system with many factors contributing to its collapse. «And the more the system disintegrates, the less able it becomes to make decisions that will prevent its collapse.» Politicians today are no longer in a position to work out pragmatic solutions and find a consensus. «It’s all just a game of mutual loathing and hatred.» As an example of the broken sense of community, Marche cites the minute of silence Congress held for the police officers who lost their lives in the storming of the Capitol: «Only two Republicans showed up.»

The igniting factor is demographic change

Although many factors are at play, it is the rapid demographic change that is fueling the hatred. In 1980, the population identifying as white made up 80% of the total, in 2000 it was 70%, and now it is 60%. Four years ago, a poll showed that a majority of Republican voters felt like strangers in their own country and expect that in twenty years, white people will be a minority. «This is a dangerous moment,» Marche says. Examples around the globe have shown: «When populations that had power lose their power, it tends to lead to great political violence.»

So it is no coincidence that armed militias, far-right and anti-government groups experienced a new upswing after Barack Obama became the first dark-skinned president to enter the White House. In the past, the militia movement’s hatred and distrust were directed first and foremost at what they saw as an all-too-powerful federal government. «This wave of the movement was different, steeped in racist ideas about Obama,» says Heidi Beirich of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, which has been monitoring extremist groups in the U.S. for more than two decades.

The Obama era also saw the emergence of paramilitary groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, who later played an active role in the storming of the Capitol. The emergence of social networks on the internet have also helped extremists to spread their conspiracy theories, reach a larger audience, and recruit thousands of new members. Conservative television hosts and Republican congressmen from the Tea Party movement – a precursor to Trumpism – sympathized with the militias and their scare tactics about Obama. The president was demonized as a Marxist, a fascist, or a Muslim who wanted to put innocent citizens in re-education camps and who, on top of that, was not even born in the United States.

Trump was also a «birther.» Someone who didn’t think Obama was a true American. The conspiracy theorist became the first president to be openly supported by anti-government militias when he was elected in 2016. The popularity of paramilitary groups used to decrease under Republican leaders, Beirich explains. «But not under Trump. The militias now saw themselves as protectors of the president and his movement.» Marche adds: «Today the right has a paramilitary wing, a political wing, and a media wing.»

Trump’s most powerful mouthpiece is television commentator Tucker Carlson. Every night, he stirs up anger among his three million viewers on Fox News. One of his most explosive conspiracy theories is that of the «great exchange.» He accuses Democrats of deliberately pushing immigration in order to virtually eradicate «real Americans.» «Those who believe in the great exchange are also convinced that they are saving real democracy by keeping Trump in power.»

«America needs a second republic»

Stephen Marche says however: «A re-election of Trump doesn’t scare me.» Because ultimately it is only a symptom. «By 2040, 50% of the population will control 85 out of 100 seats in the senate. No one will feel like they are living in a democracy.» Similar to the Council of States in Switzerland, the senate in the U.S. forms a counterweight to the popular majority. In America however, this counterweight is further strengthened by the electoral system in presidential elections and the appointments of Supreme Court judges. The last two Republican presidents – Trump and George W. Bush – were elected to the White House with fewer votes than their contenders. Because the chief justices are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate, the will of the conservative rural population is also overrepresented in the judiciary.

«Five of the nine chief justices were appointed by presidents who were elected without a popular vote,» Marche says. The result of this has become apparent in the past few days: The conservative majority on the Supreme Court has made a series of rulings that are rejected by a clear majority of the American people. The justices have overturned the constitutional right to abortion, relaxed gun laws, and blurred the separation between church and state. The decisions are also sparking increasing anger among Democratic voters, politicians and activists. The «Washington Post», for example, referred to the court as a «junta» in an opinion piece, and on the internet the conservative judges are referred to as «right-wing extremists» or «Christian fascists.»

This anger and rhetoric can also quickly turn into violence on the left. Back in June, an armed young man was arrested near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home, for threatening the Judge’s life. «Judges can’t be sure of their safety. And I don’t think people will mourn if a murder happens,» Marche says. In his view therefore, the solution for the U.S. can only lie in a new constitution. «America needs a second republic.»

However, in view of the strong polarization, it is barely conceivable that the feuding camps would be able to agree on a new constitution. Especially since the majority voting system in the U.S. also favors the radical wings in both parties. With today’s computers and data collection, parties can draw constituencies so precisely along their voters’ places of residence, that the winners are usually already determined in advance. In such «safe constituencies,» the party’s internal primary pre-selection decides who goes to Congress. If you want to win them over, you only have to convince your own base and need pay little attention to swing voters. In the November elections for the House of Representatives, about 90% are such «safe seats.»

Whereas in the past there were conservative and progressive Republicans on one side, and conservative and progressive Democrats on the other, today it is very different. «Republicans have become the party of white resentment in the face of growing diversity, while Democrats have become the party of imposed multiculturalism,» Marche writes in his book. Both sides are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Violence against the government can sometimes be justified, say 40% of Republican voters, compared with 23% of Democrats. Whilst it is not yet a majority, the propensity towards violence has clearly increased in recent years.

But as great as the potential for conflict may be, it still seems unclear what a civil war or a splitting-up of the U.S. might actually look like. Basically, the balance of power seems to be unevenly distributed: Biden’s America represents the cities, where about 70% of economic output is generated and the majority of the population lives. On the other hand, Trump’s America is armed, ideologically more cohesive, and socially more homogeneous.

Just five years ago, Heidi Beirich says she would have called the idea of a civil war «ridiculous» without hesitation. Recently however, at a panel with two other extremism researchers, the question of civil war had come up, she said. «We all hesitated for a minute and then we all said, ‹I don’t think we’re there yet›». But the very fact that the question had come up and she had hesitated was worrying, she said.

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