Writing a review of Barbara Walter's How Civil Wars Start-- And How To Stop Them, in the new London Review of Books, James Meek asked a question that I sometimes asks my friends What are you willing to do? Just Friday night, reading a fascinating book set in late-seventeenth century London, The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone, I came across a couple of sentences that rattled me: "By the time Queen Anne ascendended to the thrown in 1702, it was an accepted fact that 'fire and water are less contrary than Whig and Tory.' These two conflicting visions split the nation in two. Scorn, hatred, fear: those were the emotions that dominated the world of Newton and Locke. Enlightenment England could be a very dark place indeed." Sound familiar? But there were no AR-15s then.
Meek begins by explaining that though Barbara Walter frames her book as a warning to America, she uses recent civil wars in dozens of countries warn Americans that we too "may one day poke your cellphone through the curtains to film shaky clips of fires and explosions on the horizon of your suburb, it may be your feet crunching on the bloodied glass of a bombed café, it may be your loved one taken away by masked good old boys with customised AR-15s, death’s head armbands and Ford F-150 technicals... [T]o Americans, the country’s own four-year 19th-century shriek of bifurcated patriotism, murderous ingenuity and suicidal mass charges over open ground is the civil war, and it is the prospect of a 21st-century rerun that gives the book its kick. Even in her denials that a new American civil war would look anything like the first, Walter links the two, with the future version trailed in dire precursors like the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on 6 January 2021. It’s from among such riled-up conspiracists and militiamen, according to Walter, that the next American civil war will come, as home-grown bands of right-wing terrorists and xenophobic guerrillas infest the democratic liberal order of the United States."
If civil war hadn’t begun in America in 1861 hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t have died, and Atlanta would have gone unburned. But the Confederacy would have gone on slaving, and tried to spread slavery to a new, wider empire. As in Walter’s scenario for the next civil war, the rebels were the patriarchal white supremacists, the federal government the (marginally more) progressive side. But these roles could switch. This is an imaginative realm progressive America seems reluctant to enter, where Albany or Sacramento audition as the future Richmond, and a future Fort Sumter must be triggered by liberals, or not at all. It’s not unreasonable for Walter and many others to see a future civil war in America taking the form of a smouldering, uncoordinated insurgency by pro-Trump conspiracists against a liberal reigning order of corporations, media, government, academia and metro society. But the real danger might be that Trump and Republicans loyal to him cheat and lie their way to a victory that is accepted by Congress, federal power passes to an autocrat, and, after a period of mass protest, most liberals just put up with it, judging it not worth the blood and damage to fight for democracy. If it is a real danger that civil war may threaten democracy, it is also a real danger that democracy may die because its defenders refuse to start one.
...As Nelson Mandela explained in Pretoria in 1964, in his statement from the dock, it had taken the ANC almost half a century, from its founding in 1912 to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, to accept that its non-violent methods weren’t getting results; that if the ANC didn’t come up with a plan for controlled violence, the wider Black community would use violence without a plan; that ‘the country was drifting towards a civil war’ between the races. ‘We did not want to be committed to civil war,’ he said, ‘but we wanted to be ready if it became inevitable.’ In the US, the Civil Rights Act was about to be passed as a result of non-violent action; nothing similar was going to happen in South Africa. Mandela’s preference for non-violence had to yield. ‘It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle,’ he said.
...Her text struggles to contain the tension between the view that civil war is an absolute evil, and the possibility that in some civil wars one side is right and the other is wrong. It is as if cherished liberal causes-- democracy, equal rights, tolerance-- should not be associated with the grubbiness of inter-communal violence; as if the fact that the partial victory of these causes in certain countries had to be fought for, in the literal sense of the word, is a dangerous secret.
...The number-crunching core of her case is the work done by a Virginia-based non-profit called the Centre for Systemic Peace, which gives countries a ‘polity score’ on a 21-point scale ranging from minus 10 to plus 10. Any country that scores plus 6 or more is deemed democratic, minus 6 or less, autocratic. Countries in between are categorised as ‘anocracies’. After the storming of the Capitol in 2021, America’s polity score slumped from 7 to 5, making it a non-democracy. Walter treats this as a fact. ‘The United States,’ she writes, is an anocracy for the first time in more than two hundred years. Let that sink in. We are no longer the world’s oldest continuous democracy. That honour is now held by Switzerland ... We are no longer a peer to nations like Canada, Costa Rica and Japan.
...Anocracy is the most unstable polity; unlike democracy or autocracy, it tends not to last. The journey from autocracy to democracy, when freedom of expression and action burst out ahead of reasonable restraints like honest judges, fair taxation and non-governmental interest groups, is a dangerous time. ‘A painful reality of democratisation,’ Walter writes, ‘is that the faster and bolder the reform efforts, the greater the chance of civil war.’ Change can also go the other way. After half a century when it appeared democracy was spreading, more and bigger countries are using the mechanisms of democracy to choose leaders who love elections only when they win them, and reject them if they seem about to lose.
As she puts together her case that America is in peril, Walter uses the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka to illustrate the dangers of factionalism and its even more dangerous cousin the superfaction, created by a strong leader who rallies supporters around identity, shared history, language and symbols, rather than policies. She characterises Yugoslavia as a country with two superfactions, Serbs and Croats, divided by alphabet, place of habitation, religion and standard of living. She uses Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sudan to exemplify the rise of the ethnic entrepreneur, who persuades people they’re menaced by ‘an out-group, and must band together under the entrepreneur to counter the threat’. In India, Modi uses this technique to harness the support of Hindus; in Brazil, Bolsonaro exploits the disgruntlement and unease of a white population which may recently have become a minority not simply because of demographics but because fewer people self-identify as white. The Serbs of Yugoslavia, the Sunnis of Iraq, the Muslim Moro of Mindanao and the Assamese of India are used as examples of ‘sons of the soil’ groups who feel they deserve better treatment than incomers and outsiders, and are psychic casualties of the perilous mood Walter calls ‘downgrading’:
People may tolerate years of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. They may accept shoddy schools, poor hospitals and neglected infrastructure. But there is one thing they will not tolerate: losing status in a place they believe is theirs. In the 21st century, the most dangerous factions are once-dominant groups facing decline.
There are too many ethnic entrepreneurs around the world to list: Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson in the UK; Vladimir Putin, the Russian Milošević; Pauline Hanson in Australia; Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour in France. But Walter holds course to her principal target, the ethnic entrepreneurs of anocratic America: Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and ‘the biggest ethnic entrepreneur of all’-- Donald Trump (you imagine he would relish the superlative). Like his counterparts around the world, Trump built a superfaction from sons of the soil who feel downgraded. He ‘put the grievances of white, male, Christian, rural Americans into a simplified framework that painted them as victims whose rightful legacy had been stolen ... where is the United States today? We are a factionalised anocracy that is quickly approaching the open insurgency stage.’
...When thousands of people broke through light police defences and into the US Capitol on 6 January last year they meant to disrupt the certification by Congress and the vice-president of the results of the presidential election, normally a formality. They were supporters of the loser in the election, Donald Trump, who had encouraged them to believe that Congress and the vice-president, Mike Pence, had the power to reject the election results and hand victory to him. Many of the rioters were long-standing captives of internet-propagated conspiracy theories, including the QAnon conspiraverse, where Trump was cast as a hero battling satanic forces, and they embraced Trump’s lie that he was the victim of a conspiracy to steal the election. Some were members of radical right nationalist militias. Had they got hold of any of the people they regarded as enemies and traitors, such as Pence or Nancy Pelosi, the day could have ended very grimly. But they didn’t. A single protester was shot dead by a Capitol defender, and hundreds of people were injured. Windows were broken and limitless images spilled into the world of red-faced, rage-blind middle-aged men in scrimmages. We saw the desecration of the temple of democracy by an amiable-seeming guy in a shamanic buffalo hat. As insurrectionists, the Capitol mob were ineffectual. They had no plan; if they had proper weapons, they never showed or used them; when police reinforcements arrived, they were easily dispersed. In hindsight the storming of the Capitol seems less like the first chapter of a new civil war and more like a disastrous policing operation. Within seven months, four of the police officers involved had killed themselves.
The shock of the live-streamed event, feeble as it was compared to the promised ‘coming storm’ of QAnon, was a distraction from other more significant and ominous events in the same location. The mob that tried to take over the Capitol had a more effective team on the inside, wealthy, educated and successful, dressed in business wear, taking a premeditated stance against democracy from the benches of Congress itself: 139 Republican members of the House of Representatives, more than half the party bloc and just shy of two-thirds of the number needed for a majority, voted to reject the presidential election results from one or both of Arizona and Pennsylvania-- two states that had swung for Joe Biden. Eight of the fifty Republican senators also voted against certifying all state results. No evidence has been produced to show that the election results in those states, or any states, were fraudulent or mistaken. And yet the sitting president-- the defeated candidate-- refused to accept them, and a sizeable chunk of his party went along with him. The votes in Congress and the Senate didn’t take place before the mob stormed the Capitol, but immediately afterwards; like their leader, who sent the rioters there, the Trump Republicans were openly declaring their disdain for the rule of law. Having obstructed the functioning of democracy for years, the Republican Party and its bouffant-haired figurehead turned decisively against it. Now it was only democracy if they won.
There are sound arguments against the idea that American democracy was ever at risk on 6 January. The Republicans didn’t have the votes in Congress to get their bullshit objections through, and they knew it. They could demonstrate fealty to Trump without destroying the republic. Even if they had been able to get Arizona and Pennsylvania’s votes excluded from the count, Biden would still have had more votes than Trump, and would still have had more than half the electoral college votes. The arcane law governing the process is so shot through with holes, particularly over who has final say on the integrity of the vote, the states or Congress, that any attempt to change the outcome would have ended up in the courts.
The greater danger lies in the precedent set. Vulnerabilities have emerged in the system that could be manipulated by the placement in lower-tier office of people who value winning over democratic integrity. Voter suppression and gerrymandering (the Democrats are also guilty of this) were baby steps. The 6 January Congressional votes were a signal that a large number of Republicans were open to the naked systemic lie, willing to be complicit in moves that show contempt not only for the opposition but for the overarching structure of rules and precedent. In the baroque flow chart of American post-election procedure, there are myriad forks and loops between polling station and inauguration, and many theoretical opportunities for sabotage. Partisan local election officials can try to reject county totals. State election officials have considerable power over the numbers. (At least Team Trump believed they do. See his unsuccessful plea to the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger-- ‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’-- a few days before the Capitol riot.) There are blue, thoroughly Democratic states, and red, thoroughly Republican ones, but there are also purple states, with Democrat-leaning presidential electorates and Republican-controlled legislatures. There has been much speculation that key purple states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which have Democratic governors and Republican legislatures, might end up sending rival sets of electoral college votes to Congress for certification: one chosen by the people, the other in the state capitol. Local laws to enable rogue state legislatures to countermand the popular vote have yet to get off the ground, but the pathway exists. Then there is Congress itself, perhaps controlled, in 2025 or 2029, by anti-democratic Republicans; and a conservative Supreme Court that has yet to demonstrate how much of a bulwark against autocracy-- or theocracy-- it will be. In 2025, the Pence role of counting the electoral college votes will belong to a Democratic vice-president. A hostile Congress, or fraudulent multiple slates of electors, or both, would put Kamala Harris in an impossible bind.
One possible outcome of the next presidential election is that a Democratic candidate wins a dispute-proof victory and is straightforwardly inaugurated. Another-- perfectly likely-- is that Trump runs again and is unambiguously re-elected in line with the law, even if most Americans don’t vote for him. But what if he, or a candidate like him, were to cheat, and he and his party threaded the needle to a victory endorsed by the key national institutions? Instead of today’s situation, in which there is a Democratic president and-- to use Walter’s terminology-- a downgraded superfaction of Trump supporters convinced by the lie that he was defrauded and should have won, you would have a Trump base accepting their champion’s fraudulent victory, and a liberal superfaction aware that the Republican head of state had stolen the presidency, that politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers had seized the apparatus of the American state, and that democracy had been killed.
One of the strange things about the reaction to the invasion of the Capitol was how few of those dismayed by it speculated that they might one day long for just such an assault to succeed. Might a different mob storm into Congress to save democracy, rather than attack it? If an autocrat who has stolen an election is about to have his trashing of American democracy hallowed by Congress, all other recourse having failed, shouldn’t Democrats-- or democrats, at least-- take direct action? Liberal opinion in North America and Western Europe has tended to be gung-ho about pro-democracy protesters storming ruling institutions in other countries, notably Ukraine in 2014. But it’s one thing to imagine, as Walter encourages her readers to do, the gradual spread of white supremacist, anti-government terrorism across America against a democratic framework, until one day the progressive left, and the people of colour she suggests are likely to be targets of violence, arm and organise for self-protection. It’s another to wake up one morning and find that without any bloodshed or violence, without any seeming change in the smooth running of traffic signals and ATMs and supermarkets, without, even, an immediate wave of arrests or a clampdown on free speech, your country is run by somebody who took power illegally. Something must be done! But what, apart from venting on social media? And by whom? Me? In Ukraine, students and the liberal middle class found fighting allies among football ultras, small farmers and extreme nationalists. Such an alliance would be hard to pull together in the Euro-American world. Describing liberal protests against government corruption and malfeasance in Bulgaria in 2013, Ivan Krastev spoke of ‘the frustration of the empowered’ and an urban middle class that ‘risks remaining politically isolated, incapable of reaching out to other social groups’.
In autumn 2019, when Boris Johnson got the queen to prorogue Parliament, avoiding scrutiny of Brexit by the absolutist expedient of shutting the legislature down, I thought I glimpsed, far in the distance, the vaguest outlines of the foothills of civil war. In the end, the courts intervened, before the then MP Rory Stewart had a chance to convene an alternative parliament which, he admitted, ‘sounds quite Civil War-ist’. Watching the Capitol riot a year and a bit later, the pro-lie votes of the pro-Trump Republicans were more troubling than the conduct of the rioters. The protesters were deluded; many seemed to have been driven over the edge of sanity by Trump and other forms of internet-borne conspiracism. There was a lot of malice, aggression, hate, bitterness and ignorance in the mob. There was also a wasted sincerity, ruthlessness and will. Who, I wondered, would do for the truth what these people were ready to do for a lie?