What Would A New American Civil War Look Like?

(The below scenario was written just before the 2016 election. With Trump’s victory, it remains untested…for now)

Writing this the day before the 2016 US election I find myself wondering, along with many others, exactly what the result will be tomorrow?

I mean more than just Clinton vs Trump.

I mean how severe a blow has this election cycle dealt to the overall health of the political system? Can American democracy survive this?

While this forecast may be hopelessly out of date just 24 hours from now, lets guess that Clinton wins, narrowly. This is what the polls currently show. The Five Thirty Eight election forecast has Trump’s odds hovering around 30% – certainly too close for comfort for the Democrats. He may yet win, but what if he doesn’t?

I make this assumption because the implications are much more daunting.

Just Googling it, you find that many people over time have predicted a coming collapse of the United States. This could be in the form of some kind of revolution or an outright civil war. The odds of this happening surely remain low, but no longer seems quite so unthinkable. In just the last few years, we’ve seen the collapse of numerous regimes. The Arab Spring, which saw the toppling of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and (possibly) Syria, for starters, Ukraine as well. Then let us not forget the sudden (and completely unexpected) collapse of the Soviet bloc circa 1989. That the same thing could happen in a western country is far from unthinkable.

Of course, the options are not simply ‘business as usual’ or ‘civil war 2.0’. Likely, it will be something in-between. There are many past examples of civil disorder we could cite, both within and outside the US. You can go to Wikipedia to find the former. In the last year alone, they list eight major incidents involving violent riots or protests.

Lately, these have usually followed controversial police shootings. The Baltimore riots last year for instance lasted several weeks and saw more than a hundred police injured and nearly 500 arrests. Two and a half thousand national guardsmen were even called in to quell the violence. It is not uncommon for hundreds of people to be arrested or injured in these cases, though fatalities are comparatively rare in the modern era.

A History of Civil Disorder in the US

To look at more major incidents we have to go back a bit further. Take the Rodney King riots in 1992. The city of Los Angeles was in chaos for a full week. Some 55 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured and 11,000 arrested. It took the national guard and several army divisions to restore order. Some 13,500 troops were deployed in all. While still a tiny fraction of the whole United States armed forces – which number 1.3 million full time and 800,000 reserve personnel, it is still one of the greatest examples of civil disorder in the United States since the Civil War.

Probably the greatest example in the 20th century however, would be the ‘King Assassination Riots’ in April-May 1968 (also known as Holy Week). In raw figures the results were similar to the Rodney King Riots – at least 43 people died, 2,500 were injured and some 15,000 arrested. Rather than being restricted to one city, African-Americans rioted in more than one hundred . Tens of thousands of troops were deployed to major cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago.

These were in fact just the culmination of numerous black riots in the ’60s, including ones in New York (1964), Los Angeles (1965), Cleveland (1966), New Jersey (1967) and Detroit (1967), which sometimes resulted in dozens of deaths. We can look back on this era as more than just a few isolated riots – this was a sustained period of heightened racial tensions in the US. It is perhaps the best model we have for what might happen next – though if anything, with the races reversed.

There are other examples we could look at. 1919 was the year of the ‘red summer’ when racial tensions and communist agitators (following the recent Bolshevik revolution in Russia) killed as many as several hundred people. In 1913 the state of Colorado experienced a major uprising – the ‘Colorado Coalfield War’ where conflict between striking miners and local authorities resulted in hundreds of casualties.

Pretty much all these examples have a singular ‘trigger event’. With the 1992 riots, it was the acquittal of four police officers for excessive force over the beating and arrest of Rodney King. In 1968 it was the dramatic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado exploded with a murder – after finding the body of a strikebreaker, the Colorado National Guard attacked and burned a strikers’ tent community to the ground, sparking further violence.

So the question then is – will the 2016 election result be a similar trigger? And what could be the scale of the violence?

The Case For Revolution

If recent polling is to be believed, 1 in 4 Americans would support their state declaring independence from the union. This figure is over 30% in some regions, and apparently over 50% among certain groups in the Republican party (such as ‘Tea Party’ members).

Even after the 2012 elections, online petitions to whitehouse.gov emerged in all 50 states calling for secession from the United States. Nearly a million people signed, including 125,000 from Texas alone. So far, this is just a tiny fraction out of 300 million Americans, but the numbers are growing, and could be much higher than anyone realizes. Certainly very few politicians, even Republicans, would support such a movement, but as Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy shows, who cares what the elites want?

Other polls show that, while most Americans may not be rushing to declare their independence, the vast majority have little faith in the federal government. The latest polling shows that just 18% approve of the performance of congress and only 19% ‘trust the government’ – a near record low.

The major fault lines in the nation are fairly obvious. Trump voters are whiter, male, more rural and more religious. To say ‘poorer’ is not strictly accurate, as historically wealthier voters tend to go Republican anyway, but his most die-hard supporters are often working-class whites. Democratic voters are more likely to be women, urban dwellers, black or Hispanic.

A problem, potentially huge, is that while the pro-Trump groups may collectively be limited in number (assuming Clinton wins) they are individually much ‘stronger’ than the average person in America. I mean this in quite a raw physical sense, relevant to the question of civil disobedience and even civil war.

Donald Trump is up among ten points with men – who are much more likely to make useful soldiers in any conflict. This is also true of more rural voters, who are much more likely to be ‘survivalist’ types, members of their local militia, or otherwise already self-sustaining and ready to go. According to recent polls, more than half of Republican households own a gun, something true of only 20% of Democratic households.

This disparity has only grown over time. Indeed, nearly 11 million guns were manufactured in 2013, three times the figure from a decade earlier. I don’t know what worse omen there is then the fact that in the most heavily armed country in the world gun sales are still going through the roof.

Truly, there seems to be little point denying the fact that if all of America’s conservatives lined up on one side of a battlefield, and all of its liberals (hipster-typed included) on the other, the liberals would quickly be curb stomped.

This perhaps reveals a fundamental flaw with a democratic system. Despite its benevolent reputation, democracy only works because the losers in any given vote acknowledge, on some level, that there is no point disputing the result by force because they would likely lose anyway. If you’re outnumbered at the polls, you’d be outnumbered on any subsequent battlefield.

But if one particular side is fewer in numbers but still greater in strength this presents a dilemma. Lets face it, the only thing protecting the ‘United States of Canada’ from ‘Jesusland’ at the moment is a few million soldiers and police. Their loyalty would be the key question in any scenario where America descends into real internal conflict.

The other major factor here, and a necessary precursor to a mass uprising among angry whites, is the changing demographics of the nation and what this means for their future. Black and especially Hispanic populations are growing more rapidly than whites. Further throw in recent plans by the Democrats to let in hundreds of thousands more refugees from places like Syria and you can understand the electoral time-bomb the Republicans are facing. We see a similar backlash with the recent rise of the nationalist right in Europe. Most of these new immigrants will, inevitably, end up voting for the left. Where else will they be getting their welfare checks?

You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.

Mitt Romney had it right back in 2012 when he pointed out how 47% of Americans now pay no federal income tax. When half the country is forcefully funding the other half, with the latter growing in number every year, how is this situation sustainable? When the welfare dependent ‘takers’ simply outnumber the tax-paying ‘makers’ how can a democracy survive long-term? Throw in the deep social divisions in America, over race, religion, abortion, gay rights and a dozen other issues, and what do you have?

My point is this – one half of America is very angry and heavily armed – and may be about to lose what could be their last ‘winnable’ election to an opposition they deem exploitative and intolerable.

How is civil disorder not going to occur here?

Outbreak of Rioting

The worst-case scenario, then, is this.

Once a Trump loss appears inevitable, protests start across the nation. These are particularly common in heavily working-class white areas with high unemployment, such as in states like Michigan and Ohio. In cities with both large white and black populations, ethnic tensions explode. The worst examples include Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and a number of southern cities. Numerous riots break out with black and white gangs fighting running battles in the streets. In many cases, local police are unable to handle the violence. In dozens of cities, the national guard is called in.

So far, we essentially have Holy Week in reverse. Rather than blacks rioting at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. we have whites rioting at the election loss of Donald Trump. The simplest (and most likely) end to this story is that the riots are quelled. A small number of people (maybe a few dozen) are dead, with hundreds or even thousands more injured or arrested. Politicians (including new President-elect Clinton) make sympathetic speeches and vow to heal a divided America. Within a few years we all forget the whole thing.

But what if that isn’t the end?

How a Civil War Might Result

Amidst the brewing protests, Donald Trump refuses to concede the election, repeating his claims that the process is ‘rigged’ and urging Americans to ‘rise up against this utterly corrupt system’.

As the national guard is called in, problems arise immediately. With well over 50% of armed forces members having voted for Trump, many guardsmen do not answer the call to mobilize. Some have even joined the protesters, or remain at home to defend their neighborhoods amid the violence. Several states decline to call on the federal government for help at all.

By mid-November, the first serious calls for independence have emerged. In Jackson, Mississippi, more than ten thousand mostly white protesters surround and occupy the state capitol building, demanding the state declare independence. Most of the legislature flees, but several local politicians join with the protesters.

The Mississippi national guard – 12,000 strong, is mobilized, but less than half respond to the call. Those that do soon assemble around the state capitol. Conflicting orders arrive from the state governor and Washington, with the result they refuse to move in to clear the protesters.

Still in office, President Obama orders the immediate nationalization of the guard, but this is refused by the local troops as well as most of their commanders, with state governor Phil Bryant also objecting. Most of the local guardsmen then defect to the protesters, swelling their ranks as they fortify the center of Jackson. Thousands begin fleeing the city – particularly local blacks, fearful of the riots and whether the city might become a real battleground.

Regular army units are called in, and by the final week of November more than 30,000 Federal troops and officials from a number of agencies have surrounded the city, with the protesters and defecting guardsmen also growing in number as the stand becomes a magnet for nationalists and patriots nationwide. Still hoping to a peaceful end to the crisis, President Obama begins negotiations with the protesters.

The standoff drags on for several weeks. Meanwhile the situation escalates across the rest of the nation. In many areas riots are put down, but for every city that is pacified another defies the federal government. Across the twenty-seven pro-Trump states (sixteen of which have governors which previously endorsed Trump) calls for independence grow as federal authority quickly erodes. By the end of November more than a dozen cities (though no full states) have joined Jackson in declaring at least local independence.

Seeking a definitive end to the standoff, on December 2nd President Obama finally orders the federal troops to retake Jackson and restore order. Driving Humvees and carrying automatic weapons, thousands of federal troops begin advancing into Jackson from multiple directions. Resistance is surprisingly fierce, as thousands of heavily armed protesters remain, many having arrived from out-of-state. Images are broadcast around the world of federal troops firing into crowds and blasting aside barricades. Within two days the death toll is at over a hundred and little progress has been made. Local commanders call for the deployment of tanks, artillery and even aircraft to quell the uprising quickly. For the time being, the attack is called off.

However, outraged at this violence, public opinion (already shaky) turns decisively against the federal government and what many begin calling its ‘Tiananmen-style’ crackdown on dissent. In Republican-dominated states legislatures come together to seriously consider voting for independence, as occurred 150 years earlier. By mid-December the impossible has become a reality as multiple states, including Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, vote for independence. Several north-western states – Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, follow suit. In Alaska, a vote of the state legislature also sees the same result. In Louisiana, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards resigns after his veto of secession is overruled by a two-thirds majority, courtesy of several defecting democrats.

With eleven states having officially ‘declared independence’ in two weeks, the true scale of the crisis is realized. The government in Washington re-affirms the ‘indissoluble’ nature of the union and calls all votes for succession ‘illegal and void under the constitution’. President Obama, with President-elect Clinton by his side, issues an executive order on December 16th for the armed forces to restore order. Fighting resumes in Jackson and several other cities. Within a week fighting is occurring in the heart of the city. Some six hundred ‘rebels’ and two hundred federal soldiers are dead, with thousands more injured.

This ‘Fallujah in Mississippi’ sparks further outrage, with Utah, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, North and South Dakota and Oklahoma further declaring independence, bringing the total number of states to 22 and splitting the United States in two. They consist almost solely of states with Republican Governors and legislatures and a pro-Trump vote, with a few exceptions. Altogether, they have a population of 116 million people – 36% of the US population, as well as four of its five largest military bases.

Along the borders of the seceding states, riots quickly escalate into military skirmishes between various groups, many of them former army troops or national guardsmen, suddenly declaring themselves pro or anti-secession. Hundreds of thousands of people begin fleeing their homes, with blacks and Hispanics leaving the seceding states while some whites begin moving there, fearful of retaliatory black rioters or fresh federal government crackdowns.

Amidst the brewing crisis, with stock markets tumbling, foreign governments expressing their shock and the loyalty of much of the armed forces in doubt, President Obama invites Donald Trump to Washington in an attempt to end the crisis. The invitation is accepted, however the next day (December 22nd) while heading to the airport to fly from New York to Washington, an assassin (soon identified as a black lives matter protester) spots and shoots Donald Trump, who later dies in hospital.

Suddenly without any figurehead, and more distrustful of the ‘Washington establishment’ then ever, representatives of the defecting states begin gathering in Houston, Texas (the largest city in the seceding states). On December 25th (Christmas day) representatives decide to form a new confederacy, with Houston as the interim capital and Trump’s former running mate – Indiana Governor Mike Pence, as leader.

With both sides refusing to yield, the stage is set for civil war.

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