Could a civil war in the United States ever happen again?
Today, more than ever, it does appear to be a real possibility. This time, however, it will not be a war fought between the Northern and Southern states (though it could easily mirror such a split), but between the far right-wing and a perceived illegitimate government in Washington.
You may say this sounds overly hyperbolic; but is it?
Granted, we probably won’t wake up tomorrow to find the news filled with reports of legions of gun-toting rednecks taking up their Second Amendment rights by storming the White House. Nor are we likely to see a new Confederation form after Hillary Clinton’s likely election victory this November.
Violent conflict, however, could be much closer than we think.
What we are witnessing in America today, with the rise of Donald Trump, is nothing short of the greatest rupture to the fabric of US politics since the outbreak of the American Civil. Indeed, one has to look no further than Trump’s Presidential campaign to see that there is something very unusual and potentially violent being unleashed on American politics, and society at-large.
Even before Trump’s arrival on the political scene in May 2015, political scientists had pointed out that social polarisation was at levels previously unseen in America. Indeed, research carried out by the PEW Research Centre in 2014 showed that not only were Republicans’ and Democrats’ ideologically further apart than ever, but that almost a third of Democrats and 36% of polled Republicans viewed the other side as actual threats to the nation’s well-being. In this type of environment, it only takes a small spark to convince one side that other poses such a threat, that violence is the only legitimate solution. Enter bomb thrower extraordinaire: Donald Trump.
Trumps entry to the Republican Primary race came at the most opportune time a populist demagogue could ever dream of. With suspicion and antipathy for their political opponents’ at an all-time high, all a cunning, power hungry politician needed to do, was stoke the fires of anger, fear and hate latent in American society, drawing out a rich vein of popular support – and this is exactly what we have seen over the past year.
The violent and aggressive tendencies of a certain section of American society have been given a voice. Directed at minorities, immigrants, protesters, Democrats, and even fellow Republicans, the expression of what was initially burning frustration, has morphed into something resembling a mood of ‘pre-violence’. The manifestation of this enmity is on display regularly, almost on a daily basis. Trump’s rallies epitomise this. They have understandably gained a name for themselves over the past year as frenzied arenas of leader worship and anger: a Nuremburg-esque spectacle, more big-show than focused evil, but with a dark and sinister vibe.
Trump’s recent behaviour has reached dangerous new levels. In his constant attempts to secure free publicity by making news headlines, the rhetoric Trump and his team use has exceeded all acceptable limits. This sinister edge was on full display in July at the GOP Convention, when Trump’s senior campaign advisor, Al Baldasaro, openly declared that Clinton should be shot for treason. This call for actual retribution came only months after Trump first hinted that his supporters would turn to violence if the GOP held him back from the party nomination. A violent undercurrent has clearly been brewing.
It was in early August, however, that Trump planted the most fertile of seeds for future violence.
At a press conference, Trump appeared to support violent resistance towards any future Democratic President that attempted to impose gun controls. With the national and international news media fixed on his every word, Trump declared that, “If [Hillary Clinton] gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” before adding, “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Equally as concerning is that Trump appears to be setting the scene to argue, in the event of a loss, that Clinton’s win was thanks to a “rigged” election. This would make a Clinton presidency, in the eyes of Trump supporters, illegitimate. With over 14 million American’s voting for Trump in the primaries, this could easily create a political crisis – or maybe even open hostilities by an extreme right-wing group of Trump supporters, who are heavily armed and extremely agitated by the government’s control over anything that impacts on their perceived ‘freedoms’.
With any luck, none of these dark forces will combine in the way I am suggesting they could. There is just as much likelihood that common sense will eventually prevail, with the populist character of Trump fully exposed, and the potential for violence fizzling out in the process.
However, if there’s anything that this election campaign has already taught us, it is to ‘expect the unexpected’.