Dr. Garen Wintemute used to laugh off warnings of a civil war coming to America as “crazy talk.” Then the emergency doctor in California saw the gun sales numbers.
Wintemute, who founded a center to research gun violence after years of treating gunshot wounds, had long noted that the rush to buy guns came in waves, often around a presidential election. . It always fell back.
“Then in January 2020, the arms sales started. Just an unprecedented increase in purchases and that increase continued,” he said. “We were aware that, unlike the previous waves, this one did not end. People keep buying guns like crazy.”
Many were buying a gun for the first time.
Wintemute wanted answers and they surprised him. A survey for your The California Center for Research on Gun Violence, released last month, showed that half of Americans expect civil war in the United States in the next few years. One in five thought that political violence was justified in some circumstances. Also, while almost everyone said it was important for America to remain a democracy, about 40 percent said having a strong leader was more important.
“Together with previous research, these findings suggest an ongoing alienation and distrust of American democratic society and its institutions. Substantial minorities of the population endorse violence, including lethal violence, to achieve political goals,” the report concludes. .
Suddenly, Wintemute didn’t think talking about a violent civil conflict was so crazy anymore.
The doctor is quick to point out that a large number of people who expect civil war say it’s only “somewhat likely.” But half the population even considering this possibility reflects the lack of confidence of large numbers of Americans in a system of government under assault by Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party.
The FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence earlier this month for classified documents removed from the White House triggered the latest barrage of threats of violence, this time aimed at an institution widely regarded as a bastion of establishment conservatism.
Florida Senator Rick Scott compared the FBI to the Gestapo. In Ohio, police killed an armed US Navy veteran who attacked an FBI office. In Pennsylvania, a man with a history of refusing vaccines was accused of threatening to “kill” federal agents he described as “police state scum” and compared them to the Nazi SS and the Soviet secret police.
In the days following the Mar-a-Lago search, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned of an increase in threats of violence against federal agents, their families and the judge who issued the warrant. search order The FBI said these included calls for “civil war” and “armed rebellion“.
FBI headquarters, seen behind security fences, in Washington DC. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
This comes on top of a wave of threats against poll workers since Trump alleged he was robbed of his 2020 victory by fraud, and a sharp increase in intimidation of others in public service since school board members to librarians and elected politicians.
Wintemute said the increase in violent threats is made more potent by the increase in gun sales. “What happens when you take a society that’s increasingly fearful for its future, increasingly polarized, increasingly angry with itself, and you throw a bunch of guns into the mix?” he said
“Willing to harm other Americans because of their political beliefs”
Many Americans cringe when talking about civil war because it brings to mind the bloodiest conflict in their history. The threat of violent conflict in the US also looks very different from the wars once fought by guerrillas in Latin America and Africa, or during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
But Rachel Kleinfeld, a civil conflict specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. “Countries with democracies and governments as strong as the Americans do not fall into a civil war. But if our institutions are weakened, the story could be different,” he said.
“What worries me most right now is a poll that suggests 20% to 40% of Americans want a strongman leader who doesn’t have to follow democratic rules. That would allow institutions to weaken and an insurgency like the Troubles in Northern Ireland could break out.”
The parallel with Northern Ireland may be broken, but recent polls suggest it is not unwarranted. In 1973, in the midst of some of the worst years of the Troubles, one in five people in Northern Ireland agreed that “violence is a legitimate way to achieve your goals”. Half a century later, a similar proportion of Republican voters in the US they say it is “justified to use political violence to achieve political goals”.
When the numbers are broken down, a more complex picture emerges, including whether this violence is directed against people or property. But even then Kleinfeld said the results are disturbing. “You’re looking at 3 to 5 million Americans willing to hurt other Americans because of their political beliefs,” he said.
“Politicians’ attacks on the system”
The US has a long history of political violence and assassinations, including bombing campaigns by radical left-wing organizations in the 1970s and more recent right-wing attacks by anti-abortion groups and white nationalists. The nation’s deadliest domestic terrorist attack, the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, was perpetrated by members of an anti-government militia.
But now the biggest threat to political stability comes from the power structure, including Republican politicians who subvert the electoral system and further erode trust in democracy.
Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen sparked real and threatened violence from the storming of the Capitol to a barrage of threats to kill poll workers. The Justice Department created a task force to protect election officials after more than 1,000 people were directly threatened over their unwillingness to declare Trump the winner in 2020. Many have resigned or intend to do so before 2024 presidential election due to “politicians’ attacks on the system and stress”.
Trump supporters gather near the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Photograph: Karla Coté/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock
Wintemute said that with the attack on poll workers has come a parallel effort by Republican leaders to tilt the electoral system in their favor through gerrymandering and obstacles to voting in swing states that further undermine the trust in democracy.
“One of the great ironies is that there is the false narrative that the election was rigged that is being used to organize rigged elections in the future,” he said.
“Democrats see democracy as threatened because of right-wing authoritarianism and the prospect of stolen legislatures and the infrastructure that has been created for a stolen presidential election in 2024. For the right, already it happened. Many people in our survey say 2020 was stolen. So their point of view is that the threat has come true. It’s hard to see a good start.”
In Kleinfeld, this partly explains the significant number of Democrats also willing to justify political violence under certain circumstances: 13% versus 20% of Republicans. He said that, however, the actual acts of violence are almost entirely one-sided.
“What this suggests is that the American people are very frustrated with our democracy and don’t think it works. But Republicans think they can get away with violence, and their leaders are normalizing it, while the Democratic leaders keep a check on their side. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be forever,” he said.
Underlying all of this is America’s changing demographics and the decline of white political power.
Wintemute poll found one in three people buy far-right ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory that white Americans are being supplanted by minorities, cited by killers of dozens in massacres recent from Texas to New York State. The “great replacement” theory is also aired regularly on Fox News.
Lilliana Mason, author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, said the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008 made race “a really salient issue” for many voters white
“Then Trump said the quiet part out loud. He started using overtly racist and misogynistic language and created a permission structure for his supporters to become much more aggressive and intentionally offensive in their rhetoric. This really it encouraged not only uncivil behavior but broke all these social norms that we had previously held sacred,” he said.
Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in New York City two days after FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago. Photograph: David Dee Delgado/Reuters
Trump’s embrace of white nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers also brought armed militias into mainstream politics, helping them infiltrate local police forces and the military.
In December, three retired US generals said Trumpism had infected parts of the armed forces and pointed to the “disturbing number of veterans and active-duty military” who took part in the attack on the Capitol. They warned of the “potential for lethal chaos within our military” if the outcome of the 2024 presidential election is contested.
“The potential for a complete breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines, from the top of the chain down to the squad level, is significant if another insurgency occurs. The idea of rogue units that they organize among themselves to support the “righteous” commander-in-chief. cannot be ruled out”, they wrote
“It really feels like a seminal moment in American democracy,” Mason says. “We’re probably going to see more violence. I don’t think we’re going to see less in the immediate future. But ultimately, how Americans respond to that violence will determine whether it can be calmed or whether it spirals out of control.”
Kleinfeld said he’s not optimistic.
“We’re getting to a point where if the Trump faction wins, I think we’re going to see extremely high levels of violence sustained for the foreseeable future. And if they lose, I think it’s going to be worse,” he said.