Dr. Garen Wintemute used to mock warnings of a coming civil war in America as “crazy talk”. Then the California ER doctor saw the gun sales numbers.
Wintemute, who founded a gun violence research center after years of treating gunshot wounds, has long observed that the rush to buy guns comes in waves, often around an election. presidential. He always fell.
“In January 2020, arms sales took off. Just an unprecedented increase in purchases and that increase continued,” he said. “We were aware that, unlike previous surges, this one didn’t end. People are still buying guns like crazy.
Many were buying a gun for the first time.
Wintemute wanted answers and they stunned him. A investigation for his The California Firearm Violence Research Center released last month showed that half of Americans expect a civil war in the United States within the next few years. One in five people believe that political violence is justified in certain circumstances. Additionally, while nearly everyone said it was important for the United States to remain a democracy, about 40% said it was more important to have a strong leader.
“Coupled with previous research, these findings suggest continued 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 no longer thought he was so crazy to talk about a violent civil conflict.
The doctor is quick to note that many who expect civil war say it is only “somewhat unlikely”. But the half of the population even considering such a possibility reflects the loss of confidence of many Americans in a system of government under attack 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 sparked the latest barrage of threats of violence, this time directed at an institution widely seen as a bastion. establishment conservatism.
Florida Senator Rick Scott compared the FBI to the Gestapo. In Ohio, police killed an armed US Navy veteran who raided an FBI office. In Pennsylvania, a man with a history of vaccine denial has been accused of threatening to ‘slaughter’ federal agents he called ‘police state scum’, and likened Nazi SS and secret police Soviet.
In the days following the Mar-a-Lago raid, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned of an upsurge in threats of violence against federal agents, their families and the judge who issued the warrant. of search. The FBI said these included calls for “civil war” and “armed rebellion”.
This adds to a wave of threats against election workers since Trump alleged he was cheated out of victory by fraud in 2020, and a surge in intimidation of others in public office, from school board members to librarians to elected politicians.
Wintemute said the increase in violent threats is made more powerful by the increase in arms sales. “What happens when you take a society that’s increasingly scared for its future, increasingly polarized, increasingly angry with itself, and you throw down a bunch of guns in the mix?” he said.
“Ready to harm other Americans for their political beliefs”
Many Americans are reluctant to talk about the Civil War because it brings to mind the bloodiest conflict in their history. The threat of violent conflict in the United States is also very different from the wars once fought by guerrillas in Latin America and Africa, or in the breakup of Yugoslavia.
But Rachel Kleinfeld, civil conflict scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. “Countries with democracies and governments as strong as America’s don’t fall into civil war. But if our institutions weaken, the story could be different,” she said.
“What worries me the most right now are the polls that suggest between 20% and 40% of Americans would like a strong leader who doesn’t have to follow democratic rules. This would allow institutions to weaken and an insurgency like the Troubles in Northern Ireland could break out.
The parallel with Northern Ireland may be jarring, but recent polling suggests it is not unwarranted. In 1973, amid some of the worst years of the Troubles, one in five people in Northern Ireland agreed that “violence is a legitimate means of achieving one’s aims”. Half a century later, a similar proportion of Republican voters in the United States say that it is “justified to use political violence to achieve political objectives”.
A more complex picture emerges when the numbers are broken down, including whether this violence is targeted against people or property. But even then, Kleinfeld said the results were concerning. “You’re looking at 3 million to 5 million Americans willing to harm other Americans for their political beliefs,” she said.
“Attacks by politicians against the system”
The United States has a long history of political violence and murder, 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 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing that killed 168 people, was carried out by members of an anti-government militia.
But now the biggest threat to political stability comes from within the power structure, including Republican politicians who subvert the electoral system and further erode faith in democracy.
Trump’s allegation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen has sparked real and threatened violence, from the storming of the Capitol to a barrage of threats to kill election workers. The Justice Department has set up a special task force to protect election officials after more than 1,000 people were directly threatened for their refusal to declare Trump the winner in 2020. have stopped or intend to do so before 2024 the presidential election because of “politicians’ attacks on the system and stress”.
Wintemute said that with the attack on election workers, Republican leaders have made parallel efforts to weigh the electoral system in their favor through gerrymandering and obstacles to voting in swing states, further undermining the confidence in democracy.
“One of the great ironies is that there is the false narrative that the election was rigged which is being used to stage a rigged election in the future,” he said.
“Democrats see democracy under threat because of right-wing authoritarianism and the prospect of stolen midterms and the infrastructure that has been put in place for a stolen presidential election in 2024. For the right, that’s has already happened. Many people in our survey say 2020 was stolen. Their point of view is therefore that the threat has materialized. It is difficult to see a good outcome.
For Kleinfeld, this partly explains the significant number of Democrats also ready to justify political violence in certain circumstances – 13% compared to 20% of Republicans. She said that, nevertheless, the actual acts of violence are almost entirely on one side.
“What this suggests is that the American people are very frustrated with our democracy and don’t think it’s working. But Republicans think they can get away with violence, and that is normalized by their leaders, while Democratic leaders keep a check on their side. But that doesn’t mean it will be forever,” she said.
All of this is underpinned by America’s changing demographics and diminishing white political power.
Wintemute’s survey showed one in three people buy into the far-right ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory that white Americans are being supplanted by minorities – cited by the murderers of dozens in recent massacres from Texas to New York State. The “great replacement” theory also airs regularly on Fox News.
Lilliana Mason, the 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 important issue” for many. white voters.
“Then Trump said the quiet part out loud. He began to use openly racist and misogynistic language and create a permission structure for his followers to become much more aggressive and intentionally offensive in their rhetoric. It really encouraged not only uncivil behavior, but broke all those social norms that we previously considered sacred,” she said.
Trump’s membership in white nationalist groups, such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, also introduced armed militias into mainstream politics, helping them to infiltrate local police forces and the military.
In December, three retired US generals said Trumpism had infected parts of the armed forces and noted the “disturbing number of veterans and serving members of the military” who took part in the attack on the Capitol. They warned of the “potential for deadly chaos within our military” if the outcome of the 2024 presidential election is disputed.
“The potential for a complete breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines – from the top of the chain down to squad level – is significant if another insurgency were to occur. The idea of rogue units organizing among themselves to support the “legitimate” commander-in-chief can’t be rejected,” they wrote
“This really feels like a pivotal moment in American democracy,” Mason says. “We’re probably going to see more violence. I don’t think we’ll see less of it anytime soon. But, ultimately, how Americans react to this violence will determine whether it can be tamed or spins out of control.
Kleinfeld said she was not optimistic.
“We are getting to a point where if the Trumpist faction wins, I think we will see extremely high levels of violence for the foreseeable future. And if they lose, I think it will be worse,” she said.