Dr. Galen Wintemute scoffed at warnings that civil war was coming to America as “crazy talk.” Then a California emergency room doctor looked at the gun sales numbers.
Wintemute, who founded a center to study gun violence after years of treating gunshot wounds, has long watched the arms-buying rush come in waves. Every time it fell again.
“Then gun sales skyrocketed in January 2020. It was an unprecedented surge in purchases, and that surge continued.” “We knew this wasn’t going to end, as opposed to the previous surge. People are still buying guns like crazy.”
Many were buying weapons for the first time.
Wintemute wanted answers, but they surprised him. Half of Americans expect a civil war in the United States within the next few years, according to his California Center for Firearms Violence Research survey released last month. One in five he believed that circumstances justified political violence. Furthermore, nearly all said it was important for the US to maintain democracy, while about 40% said it was more important to have a strong leader.
“Together with previous research, these findings suggest continued alienation and mistrust from American democratic society and its institutions. We advocate violence, including lethal violence, to achieve,” the report concludes.
Suddenly, Wintemute doesn’t think stories of violent civil wars are so crazy.
Doctors quickly realized that many people who expected civil war said it was only “somewhat likely.” But half the population, even considering such a possibility, reflects the waning confidence of many Americans in the system of government that is under attack by Donald Trump and a significant portion 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 unleashed the latest barrage of violent threats.
Florida Senator Rick Scott likened the FBI to the Gestapo. In Ohio, police killed an armed US Navy veteran who attacked his FBI office. In Pennsylvania, a man with a history of refusal to vaccinate has been charged with threatening to “slaughter” a federal agent he described as “police state scum” compared to the Nazi SS and Soviet secret police. .
Days after the Mar-a-Lago raid, the FBI and Homeland Security have warned of surging threats of violence against federal agents, their families, and the judge who issued the search warrant. The FBI said these included calls for “civil war” and “armed rebellion”.
In addition to a wave of intimidation against election officials since Trump claimed his victory was stolen from him by fraud in 2020, there has been a surge in intimidation against public officials, from school board members to librarians to elected politicians. is doing.
Wintemute said the surge in violent threats has been fueled by rising arms sales. “What if we put a lot of guns into a society that is more anxious about the future, more polarized, more angry with itself?” he said.
“willing to hurt other Americans for their political beliefs”
For many Americans, talk of the civil war daunts because it evokes the bloodiest conflict in history. The threat of violent conflict in the United States looks very different from wars once fought by guerrillas in Latin America and Africa, or during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
But Rachel Kleinfeld, a civil war expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. No, but if our institutions are weakened, that could change,” she said.
“My biggest concern right now is that polls show somewhere between 20% and 40% of Americans want strong leaders who don’t have to follow the rules of democracy. It will undermine the institution and riots like the Troubles in Northern Ireland could erupt.”
The parallels with Northern Ireland may be contradictory, but recent polls suggest they are not unwarranted. In 1973, at the height of the conflict, one in five of him in Northern Ireland agreed that “violence is a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals”. Half a century later, a similar percentage of US Republican voters say that “the use of political violence to achieve political goals is justified.”
Analyzing the numbers reveals a more complex picture, such as whether such violence targets people or property. Still, Kleinfeld said he was worried about the results. “Three to five million Americans seek to harm other Americans because of their political beliefs,” she said.
“Attack on the System by Politicians”
The United States has a long history of political violence and killings, including bombing campaigns by radical left-wing groups in the 1970s and recent attacks by anti-abortion groups and white supremacists. Members of antigovernment militia carried out the nation’s worst domestic terrorist attack in 1995, when the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up, killing 168 people.
But today, the greatest threat to political stability comes from within power structures, including Republican politicians, who are overthrowing the electoral system and further undermining faith in democracy.
Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen have unleashed real and threatened violence, from a raid on the Capitol to a barrage of threats to kill election workers. The Justice Department created a special task force to protect election officials after more than 1,000 were directly threatened because they did not want to declare Trump the winner in his 2020 presidential election. deployed. system and stress”.
Wintemute said attacks on election officials were paralleled by efforts by Republican leaders to favor the electoral system through gerrymandering, which further undermines confidence in democracy, and obstacles to voting in battleground states. said to be taking place.
“One of the great ironies is that there are false narratives that elections were rigged and are being used to set up rigged elections in the future,” he said.
“Democracy is under threat because of right-wing authoritarianism, the possibility of stolen midterm elections, and the infrastructure gearing up for the 2024 stolen presidential election. For the right wing it’s already happened and in our survey many said 2020 was stolen so their view is that the threat has come true It’s hard to find a good way.”
For Kleinfeld, this partly explains why a significant number of Democrats are prepared to justify political violence in certain situations. He’s 13% compared to his 20% for Republicans. Nonetheless, she said the actual acts of violence were almost entirely one-sided.
“What this suggests is that the American public is very dissatisfied with democracy and does not believe it works. And while Democratic leaders keep checking on their side, their leaders are normalizing it. she said.
Underpinning all of this is America’s changing demographics and the decline in white political power.
A survey by Wintemute showed that one in three people support the far-right “great successor” conspiracy theory that white Americans are being replaced by minorities. This conspiracy theory has been cited by those who killed dozens in recent massacres from Texas to New York.
Liliana Mason, author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Become Our Identity, argues that the 2008 election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, made race a “very big deal” for many white voters. It has become an important issue,” he said.
“After that, Trump said the quiet part loudly. We created a permission structure. Not only did it encourage truly disrespectful behavior, it broke all of these social norms that we previously considered sacred.
Trump’s endorsement of white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers has helped integrate armed militias into the political mainstream and infiltrate local police and military forces.
In December, three retired US generals said Trumpism had infected parts of the military, citing “an alarming number of veterans and active members of the military” who took part in the attack on the Capitol. , warned that if the outcome of the 2024 presidential election were to be contested, “it could lead to deadly chaos within the military.”
“In the event of another riot, it is very likely that the chain of command along the partisan line, from the top of the chain to the squad level, would be completely destroyed. The idea of a unit organizing cannot be dismissed,” they wrote.
“It feels like a pivotal moment for American democracy,” Mason says. “Perhaps we will see more violence. I don’t think we will see less of it in the near future. You can do it or you can get out of control.”
Kleinfeld said he wasn’t optimistic.
“If the Trumpist faction wins, I think we will continue to have very high levels of violence for the foreseeable future. If they lose, I think it will be worse,” she said.