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As the US becomes more divided, will old battlelines be redrawn, pitting Americans against Americans as it was 150 years ago?
For two years I have been warning in almost all my public remarks that the United States is confronting the gravest crisis to its institutions and society since 1861 – when the country broke in half and waged a four-year civil war that killed 8% of the arms-bearing-age male population of the country (and fully one half of all Southern white males); a graver crisis even than World War II. (Hitler never realistically threatened American institutions – although American Fascists did…) My alarm has been that Russian intelligence has meddled with the American presidential election; that the man now in the White House, Donald Trump, has what appear to me – and now to many others – obvious associations with Russian intelligence; and that American democracy has become brittle from decades of polarisation by right wing totalitarians.
Now, a recent poll of respected thought leaders in the United States has given a 35% chance of “civil war” in the coming five to ten years, defined as violence using organised armed forces causing at least 1,000 fatalities. I, too, have been warning publicly that there is a significant risk of deaths from politically-inspired violence in the next several years (I have hardly been alone in expressing this concern) and that America has become so polarised over the past 40 years over race, economic striation, social change and party politics that “civil war”-level violence is a realistic possibility.
Much of the angst about American civic culture and political dysfunction has focused on Donald Trump. Trump no doubt exploits the dangerous divisions in American society for what he imagines is personal advantage. The recent riot in Charlottesville, Virginia about Civil War statues honoring defenders of the South (ergo, of slavery, or “southern heritage”, depending on perspective), in which one person was murdered and over 100 were injured by a white supremacist driving a car into a crowd, focused attention on how Trump has appealed to and incited white supremacists. Trump notably characterised the demonstrators supporting the American Nazis demonstrating as “fine people” and assigned as much blame to the anti-racist (and peaceful) demonstrators as to the white supremacists. These were statements unheard from a national leader in 50 years, 100 years after the Civil War ended slavery, when the federal government had to use troops to enforce the desegregation of public schools. Trump’s implication was clear: the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, was ebullient and thanked Trump for his “honesty and courage to tell the truth…and condemn the leftist terrorists.” Trump then issued a clarification, supposedly, but it is always the initial affirmation that shapes attitudes, and never the begrudging rectification.
Yet Trump is as much a product as a fomenter of the social divisions now straining American society.
Three intertwined threats to American institutions and political culture underlay Trump’s rise and the violence in Charlottesville. They make significant politically-inspired violence easy to imagine, and civil war a serious topic of discussion: first, Russian meddling in the US presidential election and assistance to an authoritarian demagogue; second, the far right’s long-standing and growing political intransigence; and third, the rise of populist resentments and anger at the social and economic strains of the past 40 years, and the far right’s exploitation of them, and of white resentment at these social changes.
Russian meddling and a polarised zero sum democracy
Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election and covert campaign to discredit American democracy has deepened American distrust of American institutions and the electoral process. And Russian intelligence, in a related but distinct operation, has had what appears to be a decades-long involvement with members of Donald Trump’s entourage, and with Trump himself. The motivations for this involvement are multiple, and debatable, but it appears clear that Russia has aided a demagogue and populist to win the White House, a man who exploits America’s fears and divides society rather than unites it. I have been cautioning about Russian intelligence meddling with Trump for two years, but this conclusion virtually jumps out to professional intelligence officers: all 17 intelligence agencies of the United States (CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, NGA, INR, ODNI…) concur that Russia massively intervened in the American presidential election of 2016, so as to discredit Hillary Clinton, support Donald Trump, and especially to discredit American democracy in the minds of American citizens. A failing American society provides strategic advantage to Russia – or so the zero-sum thinker Vladimir Putin seems to imagine. The success of the Russian campaign has been alarming. The situation is emphatically not the business-as-usual intelligence interference in American politics, as Trump shill and now Director of the CIA, Michael Pompeo, routinely and testily asserts when asked.
Trump’s victory is disturbing to 75% of American society even independent of clear Russian manipulation to put what the Russians appear to consider a “useful idiot” in office. His positions and statements corrode American democratic norms, and increase the likelihood of violence in America. Trump even incites, almost welcomes, it.
The American public’s faith in institutions and in the fairness of the electoral process has dropped from repeated lies like Trump’s “it’s a rigged system” (unless he won…). Relentless attacks on the institutions of government by public figures, and by ubiquitous, anonymous social media users – such as the canard that the “Deep State” is the enemy of the people’s will – have caused a loss of faith in public institutions. Much of this social media activity has been proven to be conducted by…Russian intelligence, so as to discredit American democracy, and increase social discord. The campaign is succeeding.
Also on The Big Smoke
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Yet, American norms and support for the government were being undermined long before Trump rose to national prominence. Right-wing thought leaders have undermined even belief in facts and objective truth in American society with decades of incendiary denunciations of the “system,” of political opponents, and of “political correctness” (recall Rush Limbaugh’s coinage of the term “feminazis” for feminists, now entered into general discourse). The Russian intelligence operations these past two or more years have exacerbated these corrosive perspectives by a vast disinformation campaign designed to sow distrust of American democratic institutions and political culture. Fully 71% of Trump voters now believe, for example, that the voting system is “rigged,” despite universal statements by officials of both parties, in all 50 states, that there is no evidence of voter fraud, and that the electoral system functions transparently and honestly. A large percentage of Trump supporters also believe the “system” is rigged, and that Hillary Clinton is a “crook,” despite every investigation into her many alleged scandals having turned up zero wrong-doing (with the one exception of having used a private server for her business emails).
Russia engaged in a strategic program to exploit these domestic political trends, to undermine America’s election, democratic processes and American citizens’ faith in American democracy. They did so by attacking truth, undermining trust in democratic institutions, and deriding the democratic process – all policies designed to discredit democracy enunciated baldly by the Nazis 80 years ago. Tragically, it is empirically proven that people progressively come to believe lies, even when they know they are hearing lies. This needs repeating, because it seems nonsensical: people progressively come to believe lies, even when they know they are hearing lies. Soon, a lie becomes a truth, if only one hears it often enough, and especially from authority figures.
It also appears clear that the Russian intelligence service aggressively exploited its de facto subsidiary, Wikileaks, for the specific tactical objectives of attacking Hillary Clinton, and supporting their useful tool, Donald Trump. Whatever Wikileaks’ possible libertarian origins, and the David-versus-Goliath aura it has in the minds of people wary of government institutions, it has been obvious for some time – and is now demonstrated, despite Trump’s defensive denials and sputterings – that Wikileaks either colludes with, or is exploited by, Russian intelligence.
The result of the combined actions of the far right, of Russian intelligence actions to undermine American faith in democracy, and to build up the demagogue Trump, have all sapped the faith of the “left behind” segments of American society that the government will represent them fairly. Hearing the “Leader” then exhort his supporters over and over to “punch in the face,” or to lead chants of “lock her up” about his opponent, or characterise Nazi-supporters as “fine people”, creates an atmosphere in which vigilantes and thugs may well use violence to suppress their opponents.
The rise of the far right and the social class left behind
The August riot in Charlottesville, Virginia was ostensibly about removing the statues of heroes of the former pro-slavery Confederate states. But, it was really the clash of two concepts of American society which have been at odds since the country was formed 240 years ago.
The far right affirms two interrelated positions: first, that whites are racially superior to other races, and America was created by and for them; and second, that the federal government and national standards, concerning race relations, employment, even identity cards or census-taking, any government-mandated social obligation (e.g., helmets for motorcycle riders) are totalitarian, sap individual freedom, and are therefore “un-American.” I have sincerely been told, for example, that I was the “enemy” because I worked for the federal (national) government. For 50 years, too, most Republican politicians have had to make a Faustian bargain, even when they or other politically conservative voters reject explicitly racist positions: they must receive the electoral support of the socially-reactionary and racist far-right, or they cannot be elected. Racist positions have become mainstream as a result and have contributed to such political polarisation that the government is regularly paralysed; paradoxically even as attitudes about race and trade in America as a whole continue to evolve towards progressively greater tolerance and openness. The political middle disappears, disaffection in American government grows, and violence on the margins moves towards the mainstream. The populists are angry about social change beyond their control, and the progressives about the obstructionism of the right and the open racism of some extremists now embraced by the man in the White House.
Trump embodies the visceral rejection of many of the trends and changes in American society of the past 50 years. Russian intelligence has engaged in a campaign to help him, but more importantly to undermine faith in and the capabilities of the American government. Trump’s policies (sic) challenge the foundations of American democracy: racial inclusiveness, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a free press, an America engaged in world affairs… A significant minority of white, working class Americans resent the changes that have occurred in America at their expense. American politics have become polarised, and frequently dysfunctional. White supremacists are both now injected into the mainstream more than at any time in 50 years, and more strident as American society leaves them ever further behind socially and politically.
The government and society of the United States are resilient, and far more tolerant than the positions espoused by the man in the White House. America experienced embryonic civil war-like violence in Charlottesville. The risk of events much worse, and even violence at the level of civil war in the United States, is now a legitimate concern of prudent observers.