What the Next Civil War Will Look Like

One of the most popular parlor games in America at the moment might be called: What will the Next American Civil War look like? Among the many scenarios being kicked around is the one dramatized in director Alex Garland’s upcoming thriller Civil War (in theaters April 12). In Garland’s film, the United States are again at war. Once again, there are two opposing American armies: the United States military forces versus the separatist “Western Forces” led by Texas and California. California? you say. Don’t you mean Texas and Florida?

The film’s Texa-Cali Confederation has many reviewers scratching their heads, but the composition of the opposing sides has little to do with the storyline. The film’s politics are purposely opaque. Garland hasn’t said why he chose these two particularly antagonistic states to join forces, but it seems obvious that it was the filmmakers’ attempt to ensure their movie was non-political and thus commercially viable.

If Garland’s film’s premise is decidedly not what the next American civil war will look like, is there a scenario that at least makes sense in our contemporary political climate?

Certainly not today’s familiar Red-State, Blue-State battle lines. Unlike the geographically convenient U.S.A.-Confederacy Divide of the 1860s, today’s ideological and political dividing lines extend all over the Lower 48, and include states that are constantly changing hue from red to purple to blue. Not to mention the urban hotbeds of liberalism in even the reddest of red states.

Author Stephen Marche offers another take in The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. Marche predicts the country will soon split into four separate nations: North, South, Texas and California. That would have made for a more realistic Alex Garland film, but it is unlikely that geography will play more than a bit part in any upcoming civil strife. America may be split, but it is split by age, education, race, and religiosity, not by some 21st Century version of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As for secession — don’t bet on it. Texans will continue to ramble on about Texit, but even Donald J. Trump’s Supreme Court has signaled that such a move would be illegal. Journalist Dan Solomon methodically examined the likelihood of Texas secession in a recent piece in Texas Monthly, and, after interviewing many prominent legal scholars and military experts, concluded that the prospect was extremely remote. Meanwhile recent polls suggest a majority of Texans don’t even want to secede.

So what are we to expect? Another Pax Americana?

Certainly not if Trump comes up short in this year’s presidential election. Many experts predict that if Trump loses the November election and, like last time, refuses to concede, there will erupt a wave of extremist violence that will make January 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capital look like tea time with the Queen. The violence may be long and continuous in a way the United States hasn’t seen since Civil Rights-era “Bombingham,” in which Birmingham, Alabama’s residents endured 50 dynamite explosions between 1947 and 1965.

At least that was the consensus of the numerous experts interviewed last month by Politico Magazine. Granted, the question was about if Trump were kicked off the ballot, not if he lost the election, but it amounts to the same thing.

Expect a “marked rise in violent extremism,” warned Donell Harvin, a homeland security expert and educator.

“Violence is likely no matter what happens,” said Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

It will be “the beginning of a further bloody unraveling,” said Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

There will be “mass far-right protests involving gun-toting vigilantes,” said Steven Simon, visiting professor of practice in Middle East Studies at the University of Washington, and Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Elsewhere, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has warned that if Trump loses in November that this will “be the last American election that will be decided by ballots rather than bullets.”

While Trump’s base is mostly old, slightly racist white people, that base has a highly unstable, militant anti-government core (think of the yahoos who tried to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer, or Cliven Bundy and his rabble-rousing kinfolk, or Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing  in which 168 persons were slaughtered). Such fanatics often have money, arsenals and serious martyry complexes. If Trump loses the November election, similar anti-federal government extremists will doubtless attempt to destabilize the country even more than it already is.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are roughly 700 anti-government extremists groups in the U.S. today. Militia movements alone account for roughly 50,000 wannabe Stonewall Jacksons. That is enough manpower to inflict a substantial amount of damage – though not enough to wage a genuine civil war. (There were about a million Confederate troops and they still lost.) And while most anti-government extremists will lack the guts to do anything besides their usual bitching and rage posting on social media, a small percentage of them will.

If President Joe Biden wins this November’s election, ordinary Americans should brace themselves for an increase in domestic terrorism, a large uptick in skirmishes against federal troops and federal agents, and more scenes as horrific as the January 6 U.S. Capitol attack.

Anti-government extremists may well launch bombing campaigns similar to those other racist, anti-government extremists undertook during the Red Summer of 1919 (in which white supremacist terrorist attacks broke out in more than three dozen U.S. cities and one rural Arkansas County, and during Mississippi Freedom Summer (when 67 black homes, businesses and churches were bombed or burned.)

Other nightmare scenarios could resemble The 2008 Mumbai attacks in India. Those attacks were perpetrated by a mere 10 members of a radical Islamist militant group, but managed to kill 175 people, and injure more than 300.

Harder to predict is what will happen if Trump wins. Many pundits are predicting the end of democracy in America. That’s unlikely. Dictators with a strong cult of personality don’t live forever, and when Spain’s strongman Francisco Franco or Chile’s Augusto Pinochet finally kicked the bucket, a form of democracy was eventually restored in those nations. Trump wannabes like Marjorie Taylor Green and Jim Jordan will never be able to fill Trump’s jackboots.

America has a long, sordid history of extremist domestic violence. One hundred years before the Revolutionary War, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy politician living in exile in Virginia, led a bloody rebellion against the government of Virginia because the governor refused to kill or drive out Native Americans from their valuable homelands. Such scenes have been happening off and on ever since. The “patriots” who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 would have felt very much at home in Bacon’s mob.

The extremists who attacked the United States on 9-11 believed they were foot soldiers in a righteous holy war. Should Trump lose in November, some domestic extremists will be convinced that they, too, are patriots fighting a righteous civil war. Just as we will never again underestimate the potency of a few Al Qaeda foot soldiers, we should not underestimate the destruction that can be wrought from a small percentage of passionate sore losers.