There Won’t Be a “Civil War”...
…But the far right is pushing politics toward a darker and more violent future.
Earlier this year, former president Donald Trump used his social media platform to hint at civil war. A stream of recent books have sounded the alarm about this possibility, while many people, such as the chair of the conservative Claremont Institute, seem to welcome a coming conflagration.
There’s good reason to be worried about political violence in America. In December 2021, a 22,900-person poll found that almost 1 in 5 Republican men believed violence against the government was justifiable “right now,” while a survey by scholars Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found 13 percent of Democratic respondents justified killing Republicans. Support drops when pollsters correct for bombast (people not believing what they say), but those who appear serious are still disturbingly numerous, and their beliefs have already leapt into the real world. Political violence has skyrocketed on the right since 2016. White supremacist activity has risen significantly in the last five years.
Americans certainly have the means to fight. Gun sales spiked in 2020 and rose further in 2021. About twenty percent were first time buyers, with more women and minorities buying guns than in the past. In fact, America has more guns in private hands than are held by all of the world’s militaries combined.
But “civil war” isn’t the right model for thinking about the threat of political violence today. Scholars of civil war know that the hatred in people’s hearts, their desire to harm each other, and their ability to do so, do not determine whether a country breaks into war. More guns are correlated with more homicides and suicides—but if guns led inexorably to civil war, America would have been torn apart long ago, as would other countries in the top ten of per capita arms holders such as Canada, Finland, and Iceland.
Meanwhile, the world is awash with countries where people face vast inequality, a lack of political rights, corrupt elites, and aggrieved ethnicities, religions, and races—and very few break into war. Models that attempt to determine when and where civil wars might occur find that grievances or ethnic and religious diversity just aren’t predictive on their own.
This is because civil war is mediated by the nature of the state. Civil wars happen largely in countries with large, poor populations facing a bulge of young men, the demographic most likely to use violence. They generally require governments with low capacity levels, and high rates of corruption and brutality. When the U.S. Civil War erupted in 1861, the Union army had just ten infantry regiments controlled by a miniscule federal government riddled with corruption. Civil wars don’t happen in wealthy countries with strong institutions and strong militaries, like the modern United States, because it would be quixotic to try to overthrow such states.
That’s the good news.
But while it makes no sense to attack a high-capacity state, it makes a lot of sense to use violence to gain and maintain power within that state. The January 6 Select Committee is unveiling the effort made by then-President Trump to launch such a coup. Trump exercised his control over the military by refusing to call out the Washington DC National Guard, while activating pro-Trump militias and using his hold on the mob to attempt to force another branch of government into submission.
That is the model of violence being used in the United States today. Instead of worrying about a civil war, Americans should be concerned about a party faction using government and private violence as two pincers to muzzle dissent, gain power, and buttress their control.
What does this threat look like?
As GOP Senate candidate Eric Greitens proves with a recent campaign ad in which he brandishes a gun and talks about “RINO hunting,” the violent faction’s first targets are pro-democracy Republicans. Politicians who voted for Trump’s impeachment, such as Adam Gonzalez and Adam Kinzinger, were chased from office after threats against them, their wives, and young children. Liz Cheney’s ability to campaign is being affected by credible threats. Those who vote for bipartisan legislation such as the infrastructure bill find themselves doxed by colleagues. In Nevada, Proud Boys were invited to a state GOP meeting to participate in a vote to censure traditional conservatives. The goal is to intimidate pro-democracy politicians and force right-leaning voters to vote for the Republican Party’s anti-democratic wing.
The violent faction is also attempting to take over discrete elements of the state, particularly election machinery. Intimidation of election workers was once vanishingly rare, but since 2020 the Department of Justice has tracked more than 850 threats. That includes threats against both Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State and local officials who refused to support claims of election fraud. It also includes everyday bureaucrats: a 2022 Brennan Center poll found that 1 in 6 election officials had experienced threats, and a third knew someone who had quit out of fear. These election officials are being actively replaced by election deniers, over 100 of whom have won Republican primaries for elected positions.
Meanwhile, mechanisms of law enforcement are being politicized. Some police officers and sheriffs are being drawn to radical right politics or adopting the tactics of militias, while we’re also starting to see politicized deployment of the National Guard. The politicization of state violence increases the risk that mobs and militias will be allowed to act with impunity.
Finally, there are the Republican politicians and voters who amplify the violent faction. They are not your father’s GOP: since 2016 nearly half of Republican congressional seats have turned over or will do so imminently. As part of this realignment, the GOP acquired a group of swing voters in 2016 who have redistributionist economics but feel strongly about their white identity. It’s hard to appeal to such ideological diversity with a traditional low tax and strong national security platform. So, to coax them in, MAGA builds base loyalty by creating an evil “other”: Democrats are conflated with pedophilic “groomers,” violent imagery is directed against women, minorities, and Jews, while a narrative explains how all of these groups are colluding to “replace” white men and Christians. This base-building strategy is helping fuel the substantial increase in hate crimes and violence targeted at minority groups.
All of this suggests that a grim future might be in store. Intransigent, identity-based parties, often led by politicians dehumanizing the other side, are strongly correlated with increases in political violence. When multiple hardened racial, religious, and geographic identities align, as with white, Evangelical, rural Americans, conflict becomes much more likely.
This will especially be the case if the anti-democratic faction ultimately fails in its aim to capture parts of the state through election subversion and intimidation. They have already electrified hundreds of militias and tens of thousands of violent supporters. If this anti-democratic faction fails to seize power electorally, they won’t be able to control the tiger they’ve unleashed. The insurgency many people already fear now—one that falls short of civil war but is nevertheless deadly—could come then.
This is what has conflict scholars up at night.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her last book, A Savage Order, traces why some democracies are so violent and how they can improve.