A new civil war? Maybe so — but it won’t look anything like the first one
Almost every day offers more evidence of how American fascism is becoming a reality. We now know for certain that Donald Trump and his coup cabal attempted to overthrow American democracy on Jan. 6, 2021. The coup continues as Republicans and their agents are attacking America’s multiracial democracy in dozens of states, seeking to make it impossible for Black and brown Americans and other Democratic Party constituents to have their votes counted fairly.
Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a former Trump ally, said last week that, well after the events of Jan. 6, 2021, Trump continued his seditious attempts to pressure members of Congress to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Trump himself, along with acolytes such as Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, continue to threaten and incite political violence against those deemed to be the enemy. At a rally last Saturday in Georgia, for instance, Trump continued to threaten violence against members of the media, calling them “animals.”
As Salon’s Igor Derysh reported last week, Trump’s followers have been allegedly been going door-to-door in Black and brown communities in Colorado, engaging in acts of voter intimidation and harassment that echo the Jim Crow era of white supremacist terror and violence.
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As shown by the vile attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory has made major inroads into the so-called mainstream of the Republican Party. Federal and local law enforcement agencies continue to disrupt right-wing terror plots across the United States.
The rising neofascist tide is global: Some white supremacists and other right-wing extremists see the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to gain combat experience they can later use in their battle against multiracial democracy and pluralistic society in the U.S. and other Western nations. Experts on political violence, fascism and other forms of political extremism continue to sound the alarm about the perilous moment now facing the United States, where democracy is teetering on the edge of collapse. Their warnings have been largely ignored by the country’s political elites and the public more generally.
Barbara Walter is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the world’s leading experts on civil wars, political violence and terrorism. She is also a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has consulted for the State Department, the Department of Defense, the UN and the World Bank. Her essays and other commentaries have been featured at CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Walter’s new book is “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.”
In this conversation, Walter warns that the American people and their leaders have been blinded by a type of “status quo bias” that prevents them from responding properly to the democracy crisis and the danger of widespread political violence. She argues that privilege and a lack of historical experience with oppression have combined to create a state of willful myopia and denial for most white Americans about the existential peril the country now faces.
Walter draws upon some of the darkest moments in human history, such as the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, to explain why so many (white) Americans will likely remain in denial about the country’s descent into civil war and other massive violence, even as the carnage is imminent or already happening around them. She warns that many people will comply, or perhaps collaborate, with the right-wing extremists who are committing worsening acts of terror and political violence.
Walter does hold out some hope, however, and offers potential solutions to help mitigate this crisis, including new restrictions on the way social media platforms circulate and amplify politically extreme content.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Donald Trump continues to threaten political violence against his “enemies” if he is punished for his crimes. Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon and other right-wing propagandists are also threatening political violence on a near-daily basis across the right-wing media echo chamber. The FBI and law enforcement continue to uncover potential right-wing terrorist plots. Why are so few people taking these dangers of right-wing violence seriously?
I believe it is human nature for people to not want to believe that they and their fellow citizens are capable of such things. Many people want to live in a world of wishful thinking where life is going to continue to go on in the same way that it always has.
If it is sunny today and you go to work and afterwards you have drinks with friends and then there is the weekend when you get to watch football and it’s like that today, your bias is that it’s always going to be that way.
People are status-quo biased. They truly believe that the way things are today is the way that things are going to be forever. As a result, many people do not see the warning signs. What is so amazing is that throughout history, violent extremists are often very public about their intentions, what their goals are and what strategy they’re going to pursue to achieve those goals. Hitler is perhaps the best example. He wrote and published “Mein Kampf,” laying out exactly what he intended to do. If you look at neo-Nazis and other white supremacists here in the United States and elsewhere, they have a book called “The Siege” which details exactly what their plans and intentions are.
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The bible of the alt-right is a book called “The Turner Diaries.” It lays out exactly how they intend to start a second civil war in the United States. “The Turner Diaries” includes an attack on the U.S. Capitol, and in that book a working gallows is erected outside the Capitol where they’re going to bring “traitors” out for trial and then kill them. They’re not hiding what they intend to do, and yet throughout history, the people who are at risk have not taken those messages, warnings and manifestos seriously.
In societies at risk for widespread political violence, is it common for the public and its leaders to be in a state of denial? For people to just ignore the obvious threats or say it is all just hyperbole?
As a social scientist, the example I would start with would be the Jews across Europe prior to the Holocaust because there is a very interesting variation in how Jews responded by country. There is also a noteworthy variation in terms of how Jews responded to the perceived threat of persecution and how communists and socialists responded.
In terms of the Jews in Europe, it was German Jews who had their heads in the sand the most and refused to see the disaster that was about to hit them. They actually could read “Mein Kampf.” Many Polish Jews and Romanian Jews saw what was coming and tried to take action by fleeing Europe. The German Jews, less so. Why was this?
The German Jews were highly educated. They were cosmopolitan, they were the most assimilated. They were the most vested in the status quo. They were not living in ghettos, and they had not experienced pogroms until more recently. Therefore, many German Jews believed that they were going to be relatively untouched or that they had a vested interest in the society.
The German Jews were more likely to be caught by surprise, whereas if you are a Jewish person living in Poland, you’ve been ghettoized your whole existence, you’ve been the target of violence, you already know what the state is capable of. You know what your fellow citizens are capable of. You’ve seen the evidence of that. Such violence does not take you by surprise.
I think a similar dynamic is happening here in the United States. The American people as a whole have not witnessed the horrible things that human beings can do to each other because they have not been the target of such violence — except, of course, for African-Americans and other people of color who do see the approaching violence and disaster. Many white Americans do not want to see it. They do not want to hear the metaphorical train that is coming at them because they have not been targets of such violence as a group.
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White Americans as a group tend not to believe the warnings by Black and brown people and others who see what is happening. Because they haven’t had the direct experience, the hard evidence, of such things being true. I also believe that’s because white Americans have a vested interest in the system. They really want to believe that the system is OK, and if they just keep their heads down and just weather this storm, everything’s going to be OK.
How do people reconcile their wishes and dreams, or their delusions, with the obvious facts?
Trump and Flynn are preaching violence. You can quote them on it. If you read what they are saying, it is shocking. Yet few people seem to know about it. If I were to show what Trump and Flynn are saying, their actual words, to the average American, they would say, “You’re making that up, it can’t be true.” Thus we have a situation where these things are happening, but the information is not being shared with the general public, or if they are hearing what is happening then it is being distorted or not fully represented in a way that leaves most Americans ignorant of what is really going on.
Historically, the side that wants to do these horrible things and put themselves in a position of power, to lead a dictatorship or start a “race war” or commit acts of genocide — for example, to kill all the Jews in Europe — will spend a lot of time investing in propaganda because they understand that if they can control the narrative they can control the average citizen. That is exactly what is happening now in the United States. Experts and other people like us see the warning signs because we’re paying attention and we’re reading widely. Most Americans are not.
At one of Trump’s recent rallies, he told his followers to be ready to die to defeat “critical race theory.” Michael Flynn recently told his audience he wanted them to “charge machine gun nests” in service to their cause. How do you fit these examples within your model of a second civil war or other massive violence in the United States?
One of the challenges that violent extremists have is how to expand their base of support. If they don’t expand their support base, they just remain fringe movements forever. One way is to provoke a harsh government response. Let’s say that there are peaceful protests, but then there are provocateurs there who try to get the police to open fire or to bash a few heads. Violence entrepreneurs will use those actions as evidence that the police or the government or the opposition are evil and intent on crushing them.
That tactic is often successful in radicalizing at least some portion of average citizens. It pushes them towards the extremists. Donald Trump is what I would describe as an “ethnic entrepreneur.” He and his loyalists want to regain power. He is an autocrat. Trump has no interest in ruling democratically. But Trump is not going to get that power back without the support of the average white American. This means that Donald Trump has to convince them somehow that his is a worthy cause to defend.
How many people, in terms of a whole population, does such a movement need to take over society and impose its will on the public?
There is not much data on that question. Research suggests that perhaps 3% of the population is necessary to challenge whatever leader or group is in power. That is a quite small percentage, but if there is 3% of the American population out in the streets in a sustained way, it is actually enormous. You do not need a lot of people to start a civil war that’s going to be incredibly costly to the country as a whole. All they would need are a few militia groups who are effective at targeting infrastructure and shutting down the economy.
What has the response been to your book and its warnings about a second civil war or right-wing insurgency in America?
To my great surprise, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are reading the book. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I didn’t think Americans would want to read about the possibility of a civil war or read a book that is terrifying. And they did, in large numbers. But the second response has really been that 90% of the emails I get are people thanking me. They’re grateful. They have been worried about what they’re seeing and feeling in the country. The most grateful emails I get are from people who live in rural areas, who thank me for shedding light on this problem.
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There are people who say I am being an alarmist and that somehow I am making a second American civil war more likely by talking about it. The reality is that we know that violent extremists on the far right have been growing significantly, especially since 2008. You can read what their plans are. You can see that many of them are stockpiling weapons and going through maneuvers and training for war. These right-wing groups were sending some of their members to Ukraine, prior to the Russian invasion, to gain combat experience. We know that these right-wing extremists are actively recruiting from former members of the military because they want individuals with combat experience.
What these right-wing extremists want more than anything else is for the rest of the American people to ignore them, because that way they can grow their numbers, get more training, and when they’re ready to act they’ll have the element of surprise on their side. These right-wing extremists are a relatively small, weak group. Any militias in the United States are going to be small relative to the U.S. military. They need the element of surprise. I wish that it were true that if we did not talk about this threat, it would go away. That is simply not the case.
I see a situation where the right wing is already engaging in acts of lethal violence and is mobilizing for widespread violence. It is a one-way battle at this point. Liberals, progressives and other pro-democracy Americans are doing little, if anything, to defend their country against the threat. I fear that once they realize what the neofascists and right-wing extremists are preparing to do, it will be too late.
In the CIA’s manual on insurgencies there are three stages. The United States is in the second stage. The CIA calls it the “incipient conflict stage,” and it is marked by discrete acts of violence. Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City was probably the very earliest instance. Here is what the CIA manual says, almost verbatim: “The insurgents’ goal is to broadcast their mission to the world, build support and provoke a government overreaction to their violence so that more moderate citizens become radicalized and join the movement.”
The second stage is when the government becomes aware of the groups behind these attacks, but according to the CIA, the violence is often dismissed as the work of bandits, criminals or terrorists. What is so dangerous about the second stage is that citizens, politicians and law enforcement usually miss it. They don’t connect the dots, they don’t see that the movement is growing and that this is a precursor to open insurgency. Instead, these attacks are dismissed as idiosyncratic or the result of crazy people who have no connection to a larger movement. That’s exactly where we are today.
When you and other experts use the term “civil war,” how is it defined?
Experts use it as a type of umbrella term. Underneath that umbrella are all sorts of different forms of violence that can happen within a country. Civil wars mean violence that’s fought by a domestic group within a country that targets the government for political purposes. It becomes a civil war or a major civil war if it kills a thousand people during the course of the war.
Civil war can take different forms. There are social revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution or Mao’s revolution in China. Social revolution is the most destructive type of civil war. It’s a civil war where the rebels want complete political, economic and social change. There can also be a violent coup that kills a thousand people and is contained to a capital city. There is everything in between.
What we tend to see frequently in countries with powerful militaries are insurgencies. These tend to be more decentralized and usually fought by multiple militias and paramilitary groups. These militias have political goals, but their methods are very different. They don’t want to engage the military directly for the most part, don’t want to target soldiers, because if they engage the U.S. military, for example, they’re going to lose. They instead use unconventional methods, like guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run attacks, domestic terrorism, where they’re targeting the soft underbelly of a society, such as civilian infrastructure. In the United States we are not going to see a civil war like we saw in the 1860s.
What do we know about the public mood and emotion in a society that is about to experience a civil war or other mass violence?
The groups that tend to start these civil wars and insurgencies are driven by resentment. As such, the groups who decide that violence is a justifiable means to try to create political and social change are those that are losing status and have a deep sense of resentment towards other groups who are perceived as rising or doing better. These are the “sons of the soil” groups.
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It is that resentment that motivates their leaders. Average citizens are motivated by a different emotion to follow such leaders. That emotion is fear, which is an incredible motivator for average citizens to pick up a gun and start fighting. Ethnic entrepreneurs, violence entrepreneurs — those individuals who want to start a civil war to catapult themselves to power — understand the power of fear. What they do is create propaganda and circulate it among average citizens. They tell them that their lives are under threat.
In a given society, and most certainly here in the United States, most members of the general public, white Americans and privileged people in particular, are fence-sitters. They may know that something is deeply wrong in the country, but they will do nothing about it. What does that oft-discussed “silent majority” actually do when a society starts to fall apart and people are killing each other?
Such people are going to hold on to hope as long as they can. They’re going to plug their ears and cover their eyes and engage in wishful thinking as long as they can. And then, when something happens and they’re forced to choose sides, their base instinct is to survive and to do whatever they need to do to survive.
If there is a paramilitary group that is putting up roadblocks on their street, if there’s a group of people wearing all black with no insignias controlling a roadblock in a neighborhood with machine guns, the average person is going to do whatever those people want them to do. Survival drives behavior. Those fence-sitters are going to hope they’re not going to become the targets of the violence.
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Not all the far-right groups are white supremacists, but many of them are. What they want is for the United States to become a white “ethnostate,” or at the very least for certain states like Michigan to become white ethnostates. These white supremacists understand that if they don’t shoot at white people, then many white people are probably just going to keep their heads down and not do anything. It’s exactly what happened in places like Germany, where if you see that the Germans are targeting Jews, you do everything possible to make sure that you aren’t identified as a Jew. I believe that the average human who is trying to survive will do a whole lot of ugly things to keep themselves alive.
How do we prepare the American people for this civil war or insurgency or other such right-wing violence? Will it be a series of escalating events? Isolated acts of violence? Something spectacular, like 9/11?
Their ideal scenario is to coordinate, so that on a given day there would be multiple attacks. As I see it, it would almost feel like 9/11, where you wake up in the morning and you’re watching TV and you know that something has happened and everything seems chaotic. You’re not really sure who’s in charge or what type of threat this is and what you should do about it.
I see a scenario where there are bombings in multiple state capitals, or a series of assassinations, or maybe both at the same time. Suddenly the federal government is facing a leaderless resistance. The country’s leaders are trying to figure out how to respond. In the meantime, the American people are watching this all happen and wondering: What the hell’s going on, who’s in charge, and what should we do?
Some of these right-wing militias are going to want to capture territory in certain parts of the country and hold it. Some of them are going to pursue their own agendas. For example, I could imagine militias in Michigan saying, “We’re never going to gain control of the federal government, but Michigan could be a white state — we just have to convince all the nonwhites to leave. We do that by bombing their churches and targeting their stores with attacks. Eventually, the nonwhites will be forced to move south and we’ll ultimately get what we want.”
If the right-wing extremists are not able to coordinate their attacks, then we are just going to see a series of consistent attacks every few weeks. There will be a feeling that the country is under siege. Northern Ireland is a great example of this. The British military, as strong as it was, could not get rid of the IRA. The IRA continued to operate until the British government eventually negotiated with them.
If you had 15 minutes to brief President Biden or Attorney General Garland, what would you highlight as the first steps they should take to contain this threat?
Regulate social media. It’s the easiest thing that the U.S. government can do. The five biggest tech companies are all American companies. Don’t engage in censorship. Let people put whatever they want on social media, but regulate what tech companies are allowed to do in terms of their recommendation engines. Don’t allow them to take the most incendiary material and push it out to the widest possible audience, because that is causing a range of really negative societal effects. These include helping to accelerate the decline of democracy, helping to grow the rise of ethnic nationalism and hate crimes and helping to make it easier to organize militias. Regulating social media would be the quickest and easiest way to reverse these negative effects.