A New Civil War in America?
David Remnick: From the moment Donald Trump was elected, threats of violence from the extreme right from white nationalists, anti-Semites, all kinds of groups ramped up considerably. Law enforcement experts cited Trump's inflammatory rhetoric, even his celebration of tough guy violence at his rallies as inspirations. Trump of course was defeated in 2020, but he is still very much with us. January 6th was an attempt at an open insurrection and the threats have hardly faded with his retreat to Florida.
When FBI agents raided Mar-a-Lago recently to secure highly sensitive documents, the threats came again fast and furious. Some on the far right compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and they're invoking the term civil war, an armed assailant attacked an FBI office in support of Trump, and he was killed trying to escape. At the same time, much of the leadership of the Republican party is afraid to denounce Trump with the fever that he's inspired. More and more Americans now are beginning to acknowledge that democracy itself is in peril.
Today I'd like to revisit a conversation I had earlier this year with Barbara F. Walter. It seems even more relevant today than it was then, which is really saying something. Walter is a political scientist whose recent book is called How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them. She studied political violence for the CIA, and she says that the possibility of real civil unrest, even civil war is on some level very real.
Now, there have been a lot of books about how democracies die, the Twilight of Democracy. I think that readers who want to get it, get it, and the audience that wants to get it, gets it. Now you're telling us something even worse, that there's a possibility of a civil roar in this country. What does that mean?
Barbara F. Walter: It means that the US has the risk factors that we know tend to lead to civil war. Let me explain that. I've been studying civil wars for the last 30 years outside the United States in places like Iraq, and Libya, and Afghanistan, Mozambique, Northern Ireland. I haven't looked at the United States because until recently there's been no reason to do that. One of the things that we've learned is that even though these countries are different, the same factors tend to emerge again and again and they lead up to civil war. Then over the last five years, I started looking at my own country and I started to see these factors emerge not only here, but emerge at a surprisingly rapid rate.
David Remnick: What are the crucial factors that make you believe that the United States, which has always thought of itself as exceptional, and the oldest democracy on earth, and many other cliches that we could list and examine, what has changed so that we are vulnerable to this?
Barbara F. Walter: Back in 2017, I was invited to be on a task force run by the US government, and it's called the Political Instability Task Force. It's been around since--
David Remnick: This is a CIA effort?
Barbara F. Walter: Yes, it's a CIA effort. What the task force did is initially they sat around a table and they brainstormed about all the commonsensical things that these experts thought could potentially lead to instability and violence. The first and most important one was something that we call innocracy. Innocracy is a fancy term that political scientists give to governments that are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. They're something in between. You could think about these as partial democracies. That was surprising.
It turns out that full democracies rarely have civil wars, full autocracies rarely have civil wars. It's the ones that are in between that are particularly at risk. The second factor is, in these innocracies, if their populations begin to organize along racial, ethnic, or religious lines and form parties, which then seek to gain political power in order to exclude everyone else, we call those ethnic factions. When we looked around the world and we saw countries that had these two factors, they were put on a watch list, just to see. These are countries that we have to look out for because they're unlikely to remain stable in the next few years.
David Remnick: Just to be clear, the CIA was interested in models of foreign countries that fall into civil war.
Barbara F. Walter: No, the CIA is legally not allowed to look at the United States. We never ever talked about the United States. That was absolutely forboden. This was my own personal decision, that here I am, I've studied civil wars for 30 years, I'm on this task force, I know about this model, and this is information that I thought the American public should have.
David Remnick: You map out in historical terms and in political science terms, a map of the course of American democracy since 1776. Beginning mainly with the election of Andrew Jackson, the United States becomes solidly a democracy. It obviously falls back in the period that leads up to the civil war and carries us through the civil war and then recovers in, I believe 1877, if I remember right, and has some bad moments in the mid '60s, but it has never been as bad in 200 years as it was on January 6th and is today. Explain that.
Barbara F. Walter: The United States until January 6th, 2021 was considered the world's longest-standing democracy. It was downgraded to an anocracy after the January 6th insurrection and Switzerland is now considered the longest-standing democracy. America's democratic decline began--
David Remnick: Forgive me for interrupting, but who's doing the downgrading? Is there a rating service? How is that done?
Barbara F. Walter: It's a big data set called the Polity Data set. It's run out of the Center for Systemic Peace. It's a nonprofit that studies, not just democracies around the world, it analyzes all countries around the world, whether autocratic or democratic, and it gives them a rating between negative 10, most autocratic, to positive 10, most democratic.
David Remnick: That rating system, that Moody's of democracy, if you will, is telling us that the United States is no longer a democracy?
Barbara F. Walter: The way to really think about it is it's a partial democracy. If we were to continue to become less democratic. If, for example, voting rights were suppressed even more. If we did have a situation where one party tried to overturn the results of election, we would certainly be downgraded even further, and we would become at even greater risk of political violence.
David Remnick: Your book begins with a very dramatic moment, which was a group of right-wing radicals, white supremacists, who were furious with many things, but they were hatching a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. This was a plot that was, thankfully, overturned and there were arrests and all the rest. You clearly begin your book with that incident as a harbinger of many such incidents that could be in the offing.
We saw out on the capital the three percenters, we saw all kinds of groups, proud boys and the rest. What is coalescing out in the country that gives you the feeling that civil war is possible and what would that civil war look like? Obviously, it's not going to be a matter of Gettysburg and Antietam in 1862 in battlefields, but what does civil war mean? What gives you the sense that it will happen?
Barbara F. Walter: What I see happening is what we've seen happening in other countries. Here in the United States, we are in the midst of a massive transformation of our country, from being a country that's white majority to being a country that's non-white majority. By about 2045, the United States will be a minority white country, that's a fact. What we are witnessing is a subset of the white population, which is unwilling to accept this. That also fits what we've seen historically.
We know that the groups that tend to start civil wars are not the poorest groups. They're not the immigrant groups. They are the groups that were once dominant but are in decline. They either had power or they know they're losing power, and they believe that the country is rightfully theirs and they are willing to use violence to stop it. What we are going to see is a different type of civil war. You've seen this in other countries as well. Something that's more decentralized.
It's fought by a large number of smaller militias, paramilitary groups, sometimes they work together, sometimes they don't work together and they're using unconventional tactics. The tactics of the weak against the strong, guerrilla warfare, terrorism. A bomb here, a mass killing there, targeting infrastructure, targeting crowded spaces, targeting civilians. That's the type of civil war we're more likely to see here and in fact, it will looks look more similar to what the IRA was doing in Northern Ireland, or even what Hamas has done in Israel.
David Remnick: I think you're suggesting those analogies as analogies of tactics not one of analogous types of struggles, but it seems to me though that kind of violence is not foreign to American history. We don't have to just go back to Timothy McVeigh, or Waco, or the rest, we can go back much farther of other kinds of terror. You could even say that Tulsa, in the early part of the century was a white supremacist act of massive terrorism in Oklahoma.
Barbara F. Walter: Or the Ku Klux Klan, they pursued terrorism method.
David Remnick: We didn't frame that as civil war. Why are we framing this as a potential civil war?
Barbara F. Walter: One way to think about this is to think about it as an insurgency. The CIA actually has made publicly available a manual that they put together. The last version was the 2012 version. It's called The Guide To Insurgency and people can get it online and it's really interesting to read. It outlines what the CIA sees as three stages of insurgency. Stage 1 is the organizational phase when you start to see extremists get together and start to organize. Stage 2 is when they start to form militias, they start to form military arms. They might be very isolated, but government officials view that attack as isolated and they don't see it yet as part of a broader movement.
The open insurgency stage is when you start to see a consistent set of attacks. We are at the second stage where militias have formed, they have exploded since the Obama era and they are arming themselves. They are training and we have had a few violent incidences. The question all the experts on insurgency were asking about January 6th, was is this the start of the third stage, the open insurgency stage, or is this really still this very sporadic, still isolated violence of stage 2? I think we haven't hit that third stage yet but again, the militias are still there. They're still organizing and I think most troubling, they are increasingly coming to believe that violence is their only option.
David Remnick: There was one moment when it seemed that the Republican Party leadership was going to stand up after looking into the abyss and stand up for democracy. That was the moment when Mitch McConnell in the will of the Senate denounced Donald Trump. If you were naive perhaps you thought for one fleeting second that this might have an effect or at least create a serious conflict within the Republican Party. It disappeared within a day or two. McCarthy as well. In the end, McConnell didn't vote to convict. 66% of the house caucus voted to reject Biden's presidency. It seems that the Republican Party leadership is responsible for a civil war scenario as much as the radicalized basis, no?
Barbara F. Walter: Well, it's a chicken or egg situation, what comes first? Politicians' number one priority is to win office and to stay in office and they need the support of their voters, their constituents to do that. They're going to reflect the desire of their constituents and much of the Republican Party, the voters are still enthralled with Trump, and politicians are going to reflect this.
On the other hand, they are taking measures to play to an increasingly radical base. If you're gerrymandering your districts, what you're doing is you're creating heavily Republican districts and you're forcing Republican candidates to fight out in the primaries with another Republican. It's usually the more extreme Republican who wins. The reason for that is that more passionate members of parties tend to turn out in the primaries. They're both responsible.
David Remnick: Let's talk about the nature of potential violence in such a second Civil War, you're right, whether or not the United States will find itself in a security dilemma depends on whether those on the left, liberals, minority, city dwellers decide that they should also arm themselves. Why is that the case?
Barbara F. Walter: Here's the strategic dilemma. If you're an accelerationist on the right, you want Civil War. By definition, you're extreme. Most people on the right are not as extreme as you are. You have to convince average citizens to support your cause otherwise, you're not going to succeed. What you often see happening are these ethnic entrepreneurs or violent entrepreneurs. Those are the ones who want to instigate. They want to start a fight. If you're Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia and you want to gain control of Yugoslavia but in order to do that, you have to defeat the Croats so that they don't become independent.
You've got to convince average Serbs to support your cause but most average citizens don't want war. What these violence entrepreneurs often do is they provoke some violent attack from the other side because they need hard evidence to show their own population that what they're saying is, in fact, true. They'll prod or they'll provoke until there is some response. Then they use that to say, look, everything we've been telling you is true. You better arm now or you're going to be in trouble.
David Remnick: We also know that the United States has incredibly powerful and sophisticated law enforcement and the world's largest military. Isn't it stand to reason that once the FBI or law enforcement put its collective mind to both surveilling and dealing with this problem that yes, there will be incidents and it would be awful? There's no underestimating that but it wouldn't be a matter of civil war.
Barbara F. Walter: It would be this type of insurgency which for people who study conflict, we would consider that a civil war but to get to your question, those groups in the United States who are preparing for civil war have thought about your question and they understand how powerful the US military is and they've seen what the FBI is able to do. After the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City, the FBI was incredibly effective in infiltrating militias and basically neutralizing them.
They've learned from that, and they talk a lot about a strategy called leaderless resistance. In fact, there's a book, it's considered the Bible of the far right in terms of how to fight this 21st-century civil war here in the United States. It's called The Turner Diaries.
David Remnick: It's been around for a while.
Barbara F. Walter: It's been around for a while. I used to be able to buy it on Amazon until January of 2021. In fact, I bought a copy in December of 2020 and when I bought it on Amazon, Amazon recommended a whole series of other white supremacist books that I might want to read as well.
David Remnick: That's great news.
Barbara F. Walter: Yes, it was great news. The algorithm clearly identified that I would want to go deeper down this subject but leaderless resistance, it's like cell warfare. This notion that if you can create 1,000 little fighting cells in the United States, that's very, very hard for even a powerful government to put down.
David Remnick: Because we don't want to close with absolute gloom and foreboding, or even self-fulfilling prophecy about a potential second civil war. You look to the experience of South Africa of all places as a prime example of how a country avoided a civil war, despite all the complications of the transfer from apartheid to something else. Now, it's always hard to analyze the thing that hasn't happened but what do you think kept South Africa from slipping into civil war and what's the analogy with the United States?
Barbara F. Walter: Yes. South Africa is a fantastic case. Back in the '80s, if you were to ask civil war experts, what country was most likely to experience a civil war, every single one of them would have said South Africa and it would have been hard to argue with them. This was the time when the apartheid government was doubling down, you saw increasing protests by the Black majority. The government was responding with more and more violence. Of course, Soweto killings, where the government went in and just killed 100 plus children was just a culmination of that.
People thought, well, here you have the apartheid regime, not only are they refusing to reform in any way, but they are just doubling down with violence and repression. Then the government shifted and Botha was replaced by De Klerk. De Klerk very quickly agreed to let Mandela out of prison and negotiate with him about a peaceful transfer of political power. The white minority peacefully handed over majority control to the Black majority. The question is why would you ever do this?
That's a puzzle, because usually, the group that's in power, especially if it's a minority, holds on to power for dear life, because they know if they reform, they know if they compromise, they're going to be shut out of power forever and yet, that didn't happen in South Africa. One of the reasons, a big reason it didn't happen is because the white business community, white business elites, finally broke away from the apartheid regime, and they said, "We are not going to support this anymore."
David Remnick: Carry that out to the US example, who's De Klerk in this analogy, who's Mandela and how does this apply to the United States in any way?
Barbara F. Walter: That's a great question. [crosstalk]
David Remnick: In other words in the American map, and the American situation, what moves have to be made on all sides so that we are not staring once more into the abyss and then leaping in?
Barbara F. Walter: Yes. The De Klerk in the United States case is Republican leadership. It would be people like McConnell. McConnell is a key player here because he keeps the Senate in lockstep. It'd be Republican leadership that is from the federal level to the state level that currently is doing everything possible to cement minority rule at various levels.
David Remnick: The logic here is you're asking the Republican Party leadership to sign its own suicide pact in terms of power. In other words, it's the nature of politicians to hold on to grasp and enhance power. You're asking them to do the opposite.
Barbara F. Walter: It's not a suicide pact at all. The United States, our system is a two-party system. If the Republican Party continues to cater only to white voters, that's their own suicide pact that they're making with themselves. They don't have to do that. In fact, in many ways, Republican leadership back in the 2012 elections, they came out and they said, "We must expand our tent. We must begin to woo Latinos." Latinos, in some respects, are a natural constituency for the Republican Party. They tend to be socially conservative. They were there for the picking for the Republican party.
It's the Republican Party that chose not to try to attract that growing subset of the American population. Of course, they didn't do that because it's very hard to cater to the far right, which includes many whites who are racist and include Latinos. They're in this bind where at some point, they're going to have to let the far right go if they want to continue to operate as a healthy party here in the United States.
David Remnick: Barbara Walter, thank you so much.
Barbara F. Walter: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much, David.
David Remnick: Barbara F. Walter's new book is called How Civil Wars Start And How To Stop Them. She's a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-director of the website, Political Violence at a Glance.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.