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Is the United States on the Brink of Another Civil War?

With protests taking place across cities in America following the murder of George Floyd, CJ Werleman considers whether the country could descend into all-out conflict sparked by continuing racial injustice.

Is the United States on the Brink of Another Civil War?

With protests taking place across cities in America following the murder of George Floyd, CJ Werleman considers whether the country could descend into all-out conflict sparked by continuing racial injustice.

Last August, I forewarned in Byline Times that the actions and rhetoric of US President Donald Trump were likely to transform a domestic terrorism crisis into a violent right-wing insurgency. But things have spiralled disastrously out of control in the 10 months since then.

104,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and 40 million have lost their jobs. At the same time, a record number of businesses have filed for bankruptcy as cities, municipalities and states collapse under crushing debt and falling tax revenues.

Pouring gasoline on these woes is a President who has proven to be unfit to lead and unable to put the interests of a desperately sick nation before the interests of himself.

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Anger towards Trump’s recklessness, specifically in sitting on his hands for nearly three full months as the Coronavirus spread throughout the country, has been simmering beneath the surface for weeks. That anger was ignited into a nationwide inferno when a video emerged of several Minneapolis police officers torturing and murdering George Floyd, an unarmed and non-threatening black man who died screaming for his deceased mother after it was alleged he had tried to use a $20 counterfeit bill.

More than 200 cities in nearly 50 states are now confronted with a fury not seen on American streets since the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. As of Saturday night, 25 cities are under curfew and the President has promised to unleash “ominous weapons” and “vicious dogs” as he tries to convince his supporters that the protestors are a product of the “radical left”.

As heavily armed, anti-lockdown protestors and far-right militias take to the streets at the same time as hundreds of thousands protest against police brutality and racial injustice, an already traumatised American public and outside observers are now wondering if the US finds itself on the brink of another civil war.

“To me, current conditions feel disturbingly similar to things I have seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Cambodia,” observes Dr David Kilcullen, a former soldier and diplomat who is widely considered the world’s leading expert on counter-insurgency strategy.

Beyond the economic and health crisis, failed leadership and the proliferation and growth of heavily armed extremist groups throughout the country, what worries Dr Kilcullen the most is the fact that the country is awash with 300 million guns, hundreds of billions of rounds of ammunition, and three million US military veterans who have brought home the skills of urban and rural warfare from Afghanistan and Iraq.

More worrying, however, is the fact that political polarisation has reached levels not seen in the US since the Civil War of the 1860s. The divide between left and right has been widened by cable television news outlets, social media platforms and a President who sees his path to electoral victory in cornering 40% of the country – a number he deems adequate to leverage advantages the Republican Party enjoys on the electoral college map.

Like Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the American Civil War, the current White House occupant has expressed an interest in leading only one half of the country – or rather those who scorn liberals, immigrants, racial minorities and coastal elites. As was the case 160 years ago – when southern slave owners viewed the northern states as a threat to their way of life – the respective sides of politics view the other as an existential threat. 

For Republican voters, the left represents a lethal threat to their cultural values, including religion, individualism, and nativism. For Democratic voters, the right represents a mortal threat to theirs, including secularism, collectivism and multiculturalism.

All forms of violent extremism are rooted in this form of in-group versus out-group thinking. Neither side can imagine surviving the duration of two presidential terms with their party out of political power, which makes dialogue and compromise impossible. As the 19th Century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz opined: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

That said, civil wars or intra-state wars do not occur in modern and ageing states, where the central government’s hegemony over the use of violence is unchallenged. Sure, 41% of American households own a gun, but the Federal Government possesses armed drones, armoured vehicles, fighter jets, aircraft carriers, bunker buster bombs and even nuclear warheads. 

Also, unlike in the Civil War of the 19th Century, America’s current divide isn’t between north and south, or east or west. It is one that pits a way of life that’s largely ascribed to by those who reside in urban and suburban locations against those who live in the exurbs and rural communities – with left-leaning politics largely aligned with the former and the right with the latter. It is a contest for America’s soul between those who hold a university degree and those who don’t.

“If violence does spread, it will not be a re-run of the American Civil War,” says Dr Kilcullen. “Rather, given the multiplicity of groups involved, their geographical overlap and loose structure, we can expect something much more diffuse.”

Dr Kilcullen identifies the decade-long amorphous conflict that ravaged Colombia from 1948 to 1958 as the “best analogy” – an insurgency and counter-insurgency that left more than 200,000 Colombian men, women and children dead.

“Starting as rioting in Bogota – driven by pre-existing urban-rural, left-right, class and racial divisions – violence spread to the countryside as the two main political parties… mobilised rural supporters to attack each other’s communities. Local governments weaponised police to kill or expel political opponents. Extremists joined in and ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ emerged to prolong and profit from the violence,” he notes.

Should a similar tit-for-tat conflict emerge in the US, we can expect armed conflict to take place in “contested areas”, where identifiable liberal and conservative communities converge – which in America would mean where the outer rings of the suburbs touch the boundaries of the exurbs.

The likelihood of violence can best understood by the fact that the country was already in the midst of a white nationalist terrorism crisis before COVID-19 hit.

Compounding all of this is the likely role foreign adversaries will take in accelerating domestic terrorism and insurgency. A United States that is ravaged by internal division and conflict is a United States that will have little appetite or will to challenge the geopolitical aspirations of Russia, China and Iran. We can expect these actors to direct their online troll farms to flood Facebook and Twitter with disinformation and conspiracies that sow division and chaos.

A house divided against itself cannot stand and the future of the world’s superpower has never looked so perilous. 

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