In his inaugural address four years ago, President Donald Trump declared a crusade against the “carnage” he said his predecessors had wrought on the nation, lining their own pockets while creating a nation of “forgotten men and women.” Five hours later, fired up and triumphant, Trump filed for re-election, the earliest incumbent to do so in memory. So it was that Trump set the stage for what a lot of people thought was him governing, but in effect has been the most foreboding, nerve-frazzling — and by far the longest — re-election campaign in modern U.S. history.
Just a week away from its climax, some of the country’s most sober voices say one cost of Trump’s term-long barrage of grievance and accusation is the possibility of civil unrest on and after Election Day. There is always the chance that fraught tempers will dissipate, either by luck or a landslide one way or the other that imposes a forceful quiet on the contest. But, with an animated Trump issuing daily allegations of a sinister plot to unseat him, and supporters of both sides apprehensive of how far the other is prepared to go to win, the fear is that Americans will erupt in the worst political violence since Jim Crow.
If there is trouble, it is expected to begin as soon as votes start to be counted, and even before — especially if it is favoring former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump has himself repeatedly described plans for an aggressive, state-by-state challenge to mailed ballots, with the ultimate aim of placing the election outcome before Congress or the Supreme Court, right-leaning venues he could dominate. Prior to getting there, Trump has suggested he may summon the power of the street, declining to promise a peaceful post-election transition and alerting the Proud Boys and other ultra-right militias, to “stand back and stand by,” a remark interpreted by one neo-Nazi leader as a message to “get ready for war.”
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But such disorder could start anywhere: The left, especially the far left, would certainly be unnerved by ominous gatherings of pro-Trump forces, and seem likely to rapidly confront them. Much of the general public might leap in with moral support, too, and even swell the protests, particularly if there were explicit signs of significant Election Day voter suppression or the disruption of polling places. Gun sales are already well ahead of any full year since 1998 and, according to a recent survey published at Politico, up to 40% of the members of both major political parties believe that violence would be justified if their side loses the election.
Today, the members of some far-right fringe groups believe a second civil war has already begun. The Justice Department, National Guard units, and local governments across the country are preparing for violence. Facebook, where social swarming has helped to spur group violence in countries like Myanmar and India, says it is taking steps it hopes prevent or curb such trouble in the U.S. election. Authorities have charged 14 men in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, and last week police arrested a Maryland man for allegedly threatening to kill Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, his running mate. On Friday, Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, tweeted that the FBI had just visited her home, saying her name was found in the home of an Idaho man arrested on weapons charges and possibly affiliated with white supremacist groups. There is concern as well about militias provoking election violence: Last week, the FBI charged a member of Boogaloo Bois, a far-right anti-government militia, with opening fire on a Minneapolis police station and shouting as though he was a member of Black Lives Matter. The agency said the man coordinated with other members of the group to foment similar attacks.
How could the government tolerate chronic criminality within its borders? In fact, law and order had become a political pretext for an extension of Manifest Destiny.
There is no way to know with precision what is coming. There are clues, however, in threads of extremism running through history’s most intense periods of restiveness. In the intensely divided 1840s and 1850s, the United States was already effectively two separate nations, adjacent to one another but co-existing in isolated mystification. In the interregnum between the world wars, too, deep public disaffection opened the way to violent, race-based politics. Similarities between today’s actions by Trump and European politics in the 1930s “does not look good,” said Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale and author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Like the orchestrated needling that preceded these past outbreaks of bloodshed, Americans seem almost fated to confront each other in the street — with potentially tragic consequences.
As a political matter, the Civil War was a dispute over how to settle the western side of the continent — as free or slave territory. When the North won, the question was decided — the western states, along with the rest of the newly reunited country, would be free. But there remained the issue of people already living in the western states and territories. After the Civil War and through the turn of the 20th century, the federal government carried out yet another in a series of campaigns to push out Native Americans to make way for White settlers.
In large part, the government justified the blood-stained offensive by publicly stigmatizing the Native American lands as “lawless,” and framed their campaign as the establishment of safe and proper governance. How could the government tolerate chronic criminality within its borders? In fact, law and order had become a political pretext for an extension of Manifest Destiny. “Most of the crime/lawlessness in the area was the result of White Americans fleeing state jurisdictions to hide out in Indian Territory,” said Alexandra Stern, a history professor at City College of New York. “But politicians and Americans in general didn’t really care about who was the cause of lawlessness. They really wanted to organize Indian Territory, which would open up much of its land to white American settlement.”
A century and a half later, the “othering” of populations remains the core prerequisite for civil conflict — and today is the primary subtext to the fears of post-election violence. Amid one of the country’s most turbulent and horrendous periods in decades, profound political and cultural divisions have been on display in continuous street protests and counter-protests since the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
But, in a stark move not seen since the Civil War, Trump last month began seeking to effectively codify the country’s tense political divide. Lincoln branded the South as insurrectionists and demanded that the country remain whole; labor leaders, too, were subject to such attacks, notes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. “City, state, and federal governments branded (and indicted) certain labor leaders and unions such as those involved in the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 or the IWW’s (International Workers of the World) strikes in the early 1900’s as ‘anarchists,’” McPherson said in an email exchange. Trump, turning Lincoln on his head, has sought to cast out blue regions as the other: In a memorandum, Trump declared four Democratic-majority cities — New York, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. — “anarchist jurisdictions” that may be stripped of federal support. In a notice issued Oct. 8, the Transportation Department said such cities may be disqualified from new $10 million coronavirus safety grants it is awarding.
A century and a half later, the “othering” of populations remains the core prerequisite for civil conflict — and today is the primary subtext to the fears of post-election violence.
It is not clear that Trump’s action is legal, scholars told me. Neither his memo nor an enforcing document released later by Attorney General William Barr cite any precedent or existing law allowing the designation of an outlaw jurisdiction, and city officials said they would fight any actual exclusion from federal funding. Stern, the CCNY professor, said that when the federal government was squeezing out Native Americans in the late 19th century, there was “never a formal legal designation like with what the [Justice Department] is doing right now. Still, the general idea of an anarchist jurisdiction is very similar to 19th-century Indian policy in a number of respects.”
A common thread is the suggestion that Democrat-majority cities and states are not authentic parts of the country. Last month, Trump said that if you look at just red states, his administration’s Covid-19 response may be the best in the world. It is the blue states that are the problem. (In fact, as the pandemic has continued, it has been blue states that have most recently seen case rates drop while they soar in more anti-mask red jurisdictions.) Trump has also threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and deploy military troops in U.S. cities, as they ordinarily do only in foreign war zones, and Barr has suggested that protesters be charged with sedition against the state.
William Banks, a law professor at Syracuse University, said the president’s actions reflect mere “Trumpian rhetoric, played to maximum volume for his base.” Perhaps, though we won’t know until we see his reaction should he be defeated next Tuesday. But if so, the lurch for separation of the country according to partisan affiliation appears likely to outlive him. In a recent piece, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote that the coming 6–3 conservative majority Supreme Court may instigate “something close to a de facto breakup” of the country. If the court proceeds with expectations and overturns longstanding law on divisive social issues such as abortion and school prayer, the country could further sort itself into like-minded, red- and blue-voting cities and states that enact new abortion and prayer laws to match their values.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Trump himself has seemed to be preparing mentally to lose. In the final debate last week, he seemed positively exercised by the intolerable thought of losing, but not entirely sold on again being president, with all the administrative annoyances he now knows that would entail. Yet, after the 2016 surprise, almost no one has been prepared to count him out. Indeed it would be wrong to entirely exclude a tense, long, and perhaps loud but largely peaceful waiting period for mail-in ballots to be counted, and the result to be a clear re-election of Trump. Democrats would predictably squawk over his relentless, months-long attack on the integrity of the polls, his party’s voter-suppression campaign, and his general creation of chaos. But in this scenario, Biden would graciously concede.
In the opposite case, too — a resounding Trump defeat — there is always the chance that the president will accept the outcome, if begrudgingly. That, as President Obama and every modern president did before him, Trump will welcome Biden to the Oval Office for a courtesy chat, a photo op, and a show of a normal democratic transition. After that, he will climb aboard the waiting Marine chopper after the inauguration on Jan. 20 and peaceably make his way back to Mar-a-Lago, the Trump Tower, or some other of his luxury properties. That scenario is likeliest if Biden’s margin leaves very little leeway for credible accusations of a stolen election.
But this picture is not what most observers expect. If the polls turn out to be correct and Biden achieves a wide victory, it is treated as a near certainty that Trump will spend the entire time through the inauguration — and perhaps the rest of his life — claiming the election was stolen and demanding justice. Given that it is also in his DNA to violate the usual political traditions, the question will then become how far he will take his post-election protest.
What Trump will precisely suggest that the Proud Boys and other “standing by” groups do is not known. But it’s likely to include some version of “protect the ballot.”
A number of thinkers and analysts have spent much of the year and longer contemplating an altogether-plausible scenario in which Trump initiates the type of crisis more typically seen in undemocratic countries: He simply refuses to go. A year ago, well prior to the pandemic, Edward Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State, produced a 54-page paper entitled, “Preparing for a Disputed Presidential Election,” which gamed out a scenario eerily close to today’s election forecasts, including the potential for violence. In May, Amherst law professor Lawrence Douglas, published a book entitled Will He Go? that, after casting doubt on a Trump concession, foresaw three potential scenarios, all of them dire. He grouped them into three categories, ranging from rogue electors who vote for random presidential candidates, to interference by hackers, to a reversal of the Election Night outcome after all the ballots are counted. In all cases, mayhem results.
Both works confronted a fact that no one appears to have foreseen prior to Trump: the reliance of America’s balance of power, less on the Constitution and legal precedent, and more on voluntary observance of how civil people normally behave. Since Trump is intent on crossing lines, including the threat of crowd violence as a tool of persuasion, no one is sure how, short of Trump simply giving up, the crisis can be easily resolved.
In any extended vote count, Trump will use Twitter and appearances on friendly media such as Fox News — as he did during the Mueller investigation and his impeachment — to whip up supporters into a frenzy. What he will precisely suggest that the Proud Boys and other “standing by” groups do is not known. But it’s likely to include some version of “protect the ballot,” such as groups of men, AR-15s strung across their back or chest, milling about the entrances to polling stations, frightening some people from going past them inside. This could be the beginning of genuine trouble as the far-right militias and Biden supporters doubtlessly harbor very different definitions of “protect.”
There are live models of some of what might be in store. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, businesses were razed, shop windows shattered, and cars flipped and burned in cities across the country. People were run over and shot, with some two dozen people killed. In August, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old man from Illinois, shot two people dead during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and has been charged with intentional homicide; in June, an Oregon man plowed his car into a crowd of Portland demonstrators, injuring three people. In recent months, numerous fights have broken out over masks across the country, including several people killed. In all, Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University, has compiled an archive of almost 800 incidents of far-right vigilantism, according to a report by Bloomberg.
The intensity of America’s political polarization seems likely to make the post-election trouble much greater and involve many more cities and states. Worrying, too, is that at least some of the public is already numbed by gun violence and no longer prone to be shocked by a mere shooting. Should violence break out and escalate, the wall of public opinion — one’s family and community — that ordinarily serves as a governor against extreme behavior might not be there.
The situation could spiral quickly out of control. In August, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he foresaw no role for the military in an election dispute. But Trump could count on a vanguard of hundreds and even thousands of other federal troops to counter-protestors opposing him. In June, when he wanted a show of force against Black Lives Matter protests, Attorney General Barr cobbled together an American version of the “little green men,” the Russian troops without insignia who invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Barr sent hundreds of heavily armed men in unmarked uniforms and vehicles onto the streets of Portland and Washington, D.C., detailed from the Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Border Patrol. The impact was incendiary, inciting even larger and more unruly protests by demonstrators from the left.
Such a standoff could be the nightmare scenario, in which vote counting cannot be satisfactorily completed. The election could be thrown to the House or the Supreme Court, with an outcome bound to be accepted by only half of the electorate. The question yet again comes down to how far Trump, should the vote count go against him, will want to push his post-election strategy. If his behavior to date is any guide, the answer will be: as far as he can.