Talk of civil war and political violence seemed to escalate after Donald Trump was voted out of the White House, but elements of civil war discussions in this country have existed long before so-called, Trumpism. And while we think of civil war as old images of a faceoff between gray coats and blue coats, today’s approach is more like wildfire, popping up in various places . . .. a devious choreography. Are we taking the time to accurately connect the dots of these events?
History as a Baseline
In the 1860s, northern and southern states disagreed about slavery, states' vs. federal rights, the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the economy. Lincoln was elected with a pledge to keep slavery out of the territories. In response to that slave states in the deep South seceded and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. Lincoln and the people of the north refused to recognize the confederate and it set the stage for war. When confederate soldiers claimed the federal Fort Sumter and opened fire on federal troops, the Civil War was ignited. Lincoln called in the militia for the insurrectionists and war lasted four years.
The 1861 scenario follows a pattern of events that served as a precursor to civil war. My fascination with patterns and clues is the reason I suffer through the mental torture of writing murder mysteries. And the reason I was drawn to the book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. In the book, political scientist and UC San Diego, Barbara F. Walter lays out what she considers the clues embedded within events of today.
With a landscape divided by racial, religious, or ethnic lines, civil wars are most often started by the groups that had once been dominant and are in decline. They lose position with demographic changes. Walter studied more than two hundred civil wars from around the world and found that most of them over the past few centuries have been perpetrated by white males. They tended to be Christian and felt they were losing guarantees of privilege and priority for the best jobs and best schools. The group feels the country belongs to them and want to “take it back,” by any means necessary, including violence.
A major trigger for a group in decline is losing a series of elections. The Republican party has been in decline for at least the past two decades. This creates a loss of hope for those who believe they should dominate. Extremists interpret this as democracy no longer working for them and decide that they will not be replaced by “others.” That decision justifies extreme measures in their view.
Walter looked to tactics used to hold on to power by stacking courts with like-minded judges and attempting to stack states with officials who could sabotage and suppress votes, all to ensure minority rule and that the majority or will of the people will never be a threat.
The CIA's guide to insurgencies defines an insurgency as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward completely or partially controlling the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” The CIA also calls groups in the pre-insurgency stage an “incipient insurgency.” Other experts refer to them as “proto-insurgencies.” The question is whether the U.S. is in this stage.
Insurgent groups coalesce around myths and lies. They begin to gather armed wings and train for violence. The acts of terrorist violence are directed at civilians with assassination attempts at opposition leaders, targeting of minority groups, and bombing federal buildings. Walter warns it is a mistake to see these as isolated incidents. Her concern is that leaders don’t often see the patterns. The recent attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband is directly connected to the January 6th insurrection, an historic and violent attempt to overturn election results. Walter calls the events of January 6th a highly visible attempt at a coup and says there are more subtle attempts. The effort to place extremists and vote deniers in Secretary of State positions could be considered another coup attempt.
Not all political experts agree with Walter’s Conclusions
Rich Lowry is editor-in-chief of National Review and a contributing editor with Politico Magazine. He believes The U.S. is sharply divided, but the depths of our political conflict shouldn’t be overstated.
In a recent opinions piece, Lowry wrote, “It is entirely possible that we will experience more political violence, and that would be a tragedy. But it would hardly be unprecedented in our national life and wouldn’t constitute anything remotely like a civil war.”
Lowry uses the same clues/evidence but comes to a differing conclusion. He refuses to compare mean Tweets and TV commentary to the American Civil War. “The American Civil War was decades in the making, a clash between rival systems of political economy and ways of life with different moral underpinnings in two sections of the country marked by relatively clean geographic lines.”
He in effect says we are not in the big leagues for civil war because those countries war torn by civil wars have widespread instability and divisions that make our disputes over inflation, climate change, and abortion seem lightweight by comparison.
In strong disagreement with Walter, Lowry calls her claim preposterous given Trump’s 2020 defeat and loss of national and local government control. “If we are no longer a democracy, no one has bothered to tell the candidates or the voters.” He characterizes the undermining of faith in our election process and the violent extremist fringe as indicators of unravelling civil peace but not impending civil war.
Civil war is fighting among citizens of the same country. It is the need by one group to claim superiority and dominance despite the viciousness of that need. It is also a refusal to recognize that no matter how different we all are, the human species is one body. Maybe the greatest mystery for us to solve and chew on is how do we build better humans. I’m still searching for those clues.