The Only Certainty This Election Is That There Will Be Chaos

President Trump is laying the groundwork for a drawn-out contestation of the election and won't commit to a peaceful transition of power. This will spark unrest.
President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.

At the moment, the United States is a country but not a state. It’s a country because its government exercises legal control over an extended territory, a sovereignty recognized in international law. Most, though far from all, its citizens regard themselves as Americans, members of a single political entity. But if we follow the influential early 20th-century sociologist Max Weber, a state is a political organization that enjoys monopoly control over all means of armed force throughout the country it seeks to rule.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in 2019, there were 576 armed militias and other “patriotic” groups present, in varying frequency, in all 50 states. Virtually all are armed to the teeth and include some organizations, e.g. the State of Jefferson, League of the South, which want to secede from the Union.

It was against this background that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement re-emerged during the summer of 2020, following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, whites, and people of other backgrounds took to the streets in protest against the Floyd death but also racial injustice in general.

This produced a highly combustible combination of conflicting interests and emotions that the Trump administration sought to exploit for its political advantage.

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Let me illustrate by providing an example close to where I live in Northern Nevada. In Douglas County, a largely rural area located on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, about 20 miles south of Carson City, there was a backlash against the BLM. In August 2020, librarians at the Douglas County Library drafted a statement in support of ethnic diversity and endorsing BLM. The proposed statement was in conformity with one already adopted and recommended by the National Library Association. Once the proposed statement became public the county Sheriff, insulted, announced neither he nor his deputies would respond to 911 calls coming from the library. The sheriff’s announcement caught the attention of the local news media.

Several dozen unarmed BLM supporters drove south from Reno to stage a publicly announced protest. They were met by dozens of armed defenders of the sheriff’s view. Many of these militia types wore camouflage uniforms, carried long-guns, and waved American flags. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, they began hurling curses and insults at the BLM demonstrators. No shots were fired and the BLM supporters were able to drive off without any serious physical abuse.

This scene might be multiplied throughout the country. It conveys some sense about the high-level political tension present throughout much of the country. The United States, in other words, is going through a period of serious civil strife.

The last time the US suffered through a wave of strife this serious occurred during the 1960s and involved the civil rights struggles, urban rioting, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the mass backlash against these cycles of mass protest. At that time, President Johnson appointed a presidential commission on the causes and prevention of violence. Ted Gurr, a young political scientist was appointed the commission’s staff director. As part of his job, Gurr and his co-chair sought to classify and measure civil strife on a world-wide basis.

Gurr’s classification subdivided ‘civil strife’ into three relatively distinct manifestations: Turmoil, Conspiracy, and Internal War. For Gurr, Turmoil encompasses relatively spontaneous outbursts of anger and resentment involving large numbers of people but with limited organization involved. What today would be called a ‘flash mob,’ a protest march, or street demonstration. Conspiracies, on the other hand, involve relatively few participants but are highly planned operations. Conspiracies come in two forms. First, there are terrorist plans to topple the government by assassinations, bombing campaigns, all aimed at making ‘propaganda by deed’ and achieving some important political purpose, e.g. toppling the government from power. Conspiracies though may be organized from within the halls of power. The coup d’etat, carried out either under military or civilian (or some combination of the two) auspices define what Gurr had in mind.

Internal wars combine the first two elements of Turmoil and Conspiracy in that they involve large numbers of people and require extensive organization and planning. And at least in the wealthy countries of the world internal wars are few and far between.

Many observers view the American presidential election scheduled for November 3, 2020, as a critical contest whose outcome will shape the country’s direction for years to come. It occurs at a time when there is a high level of Turmoil throughout much of the country (the ‘showdown’ in remote Douglas County is illustrative). Citizens labeling themselves Republicans and Democrats are mutually suspicious of one another, regarding one’s success as an intolerable defeat for the other. The Trump administration, aided by the Russian security services, evidently will stop at nothing to retain its grip on power; anything goes, including interfering with the US Postal Service. The context of course is one in which the COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 200,000 Americans and, correlatively, the country is experiencing a serious economic downturn.

What then should we expect the presidential contest to bring us? Let’s assess the probabilities.

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Though far from impossible, internal war seems the least likely election outcome. Most civil wars seem to require the geographic continuity of the contending parties, in the manner of the American Civil War (1861-1865). This type of exceptionally serious strife might develop in the event of a Biden victory. Well-armed right-wing militia groups, encouraged by a losing President Trump and his supporters on Fox News, might initiate an armed struggle. How long they might sustain the fight would likely depend on the response of the US Armed Forces along with local law enforcement agencies.

In a sense, an internal war is already underway. It is being fought on the Internet rather than the battlefield, with warring groups seeking to achieve dominance. At the moment, Putin’s Russia seems to be playing a role in cyberspace comparable to the one played by Mussolini’s Italy during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

A conspiratorial result of the presidential balloting appears more probable. In the event of a clear cut Biden win, especially if his new administration shows open support for BLM and analogous causes, we should expect right-wing groups, e.g. Q Anon, Oath Keepers, three percenters, to carry out terrorist attacks on targets they especially despise. The Martin Luther King Day commemoration or January 20, 2021, inauguration day for the new Biden presidency would offer attractive dates to initiate hostilities.

Gurr (see above) also paid attention to conspiracies launched from within government circles. He had in mind a coup d’etat staged by the military as has occurred so often in Latin America. The colonels and generals though need not be the dominant players. In Peru, for example, President Alberto Fujimori staged what amounted to a ‘self -coup’ in 1992, directed against parliament whose majority refused to give him free rein in meeting the armed challenge posed by the Shining Path movement.

What does seem clear however is that something approaching a slow=moving coup is already underway in Washington. Unlike the prototypical Latin American one, this does not involve or require the support of the military. Rather the propulsive power set in motion by the Trump administration involves the slow but sure erosion of constitutional safeguards (the removal of the ‘guard rails to the arbitrary exercise of executive power; the use of the justice department, the department of homeland security, the director of national intelligence, and even the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Postal Service, to further Trump’s aims.

It is even unclear at this point (September 2020), if the rules governing the November election will not be manipulated in such a way as to prevent a Biden victory. In the event these rules are interpreted in such a way to ensure Trump’s return to office, the United States would be well on its way to losing its constitutional democracy and becoming something else.

Since the 1800 Jefferson-Adams election observers of the American presidency have celebrated the peaceful transfer of power when the challenger wins the election contest and the losing incumbent gives way to his more or less democratically elected successor. This long-standing practice appears likely to be at stake on November 3. Whatever the outcome though the word ‘peaceful’ seems unlikely to describe the election’s aftermath. The country seems almost guaranteed to go through a serious wave of turmoil.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // 2020 / Authoritarianism / CARR / Donald Trump / Elections / Radical Right