Will the U.S. have another civil war? Interview with Paul Staniland

A political scientist who studies political violence weighs in on America's troubled and turbulent times.

After the turbulent 2016 election, I started reading a bunch of books about the Spanish Civil War. My fear was that the Trump era could precipitate a similarly catastrophic conflict in the U.S. The nightmare scenario was this: After a disputed presidential election, the U.S. Military fragments along partisan lines, and fights itself, with irregular militias providing support and committing atrocities across the country. This scenario seemed remote, but so catastrophic that it deserved some attention — a classic tail risk.

Well, here we are in 2020, and we have a disputed presidential election. It’s only disputed because Donald Trump has chosen to dispute it, with utterly vaporous and obviously false accusations of mass voter fraud. After having all of his legal challenges thrown out in court, failing to bully election officials into refusing to certify the election, and failing to bully state legislatures into attempting to appoint alternative electors, Trump is down to his last gambit — trying to persuade Congress and Vice President Pence to overturn the election when they count the electoral votes on January 6th. This will almost certainly fail, but it has garnered support from at least 140 Republican members of the House, and a growing list of Republican Senators.

Why are so many elected Republicans going along with this attempt to effectively turn the U.S. into a dictatorship? Because their constituents want it. 77% of Republicans polled say they believe in the myth of widespread voter fraud, and Trump supporters are pouring huge effort and energy into rallies and public disinformation campaigns. Nothing quite like this has ever happened in U.S. history.

So to assess the possibility of a second American Civil War or other large-scale political violence, I spoke with Dr. Paul Staniland, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. Staniland is an expert on political violence, with research focusing on South Asia. He co-directs the Program on International Security Policy and Program on Political Violence. His first book, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, was published in 2014, and his second book, Armed Politics: Violence, Order, and the State in South Asia, is coming out in 2022. He recently wrote an article in Foreign Affairs with Aila M. Matanock entitled “The Militarization of U.S. Politics: How Trump’s Presidency Opened the Door to Armed Electoral Interference.” So he seemed like the person to talk to.

Here is our email conversation. It has been very lightly edited for readability.

P.S.: First up - what counts as a civil war? There are a lot of scholarly definitions, many of which don't align with Americans' intuitions - some civil wars, as defined by researchers, involve only a few hundred or thousand dead over a long period of time, with as little as 25 battle deaths in a year. A plurality would be some form of asymmetric or guerrilla conflict; a sizable chunk of others involve some mix of militia and state security force conflict (think 1980s Lebanon); some are conventional civil wars along relatively clear battlelines (i.e the American or Spanish civil wars). We shouldn't get hung up thinking about "civil war" as equaling Antietam.

That said, I think the odds of an actual civil war in the US are low. Rich countries with large security apparatuses tend not to have these kinds of conflicts - they tend to have some combination of less-aggrieved populations and more effective deterrence and disruption of potential rebels. There are of course exceptions that matter (think Northern Ireland), so nothing is impossible. But what Aila Matanock and I argue in our Foreign Affairs piece is that it's more likely you see some degree on ongoing, but probably *comparably* low-level and sporadic, political violence linked to radical right-wing actors. We've seen plenty of this already, especially death threats and disrupted plots. The US security apparatus seems to be, in general, taking this stuff seriously now, though at points we've seen both local sympathizers and efforts at the federal level to downplay threats from the right. My fear is that this kind of low-level but potentially fatal dynamic could persist, especially linked to a Lost Cause myth of a stolen 2020 election, and fueled by Trump and his base. Even with sustained policing, this kind of thing could drag on, and could kill people, even if we never hit standard civil war definitional thresholds (much less 1864 America).

N.S.: OK, but just for the sake of argument, let me push back here a bit, with an over-the-top nightmare scenario. Suppose there's a disputed election and a President like Trump refuses to leave power, citing imaginary voter fraud like Trump has done. And suppose he orders the military to effectively overturn the election and install him as dictator (as Trump has reportedly discussed doing in private, and as retired general Michael Flynn has urged him to do). Might it then be possible that some fraction of the military obeys him, and another fraction doesn't, and the military splits and fights itself? I've been reading a lot of books about the Spanish Civil War since 2016, and my biggest fear is that the military could split in half, and every military base and the surrounding territory would fall into the hands of one or the other of the factions, and the entire country would have a Spain- or Syria-style war where each side has a regular army plus a ton of irregulars, and they battle over multiple fronts all over the country. 

Why can't this happen? Is the chain of command simply too strong? 

P.S.: That *could* happen - nothing is impossible, unfortunately, and if you believe the leaks from the White House, all kinds of wild ideas are being floated. That said, I think there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. In cases like Spain, we see profound polarization deep into the military apparatus itself. I don't see a lot of open evidence of that, at least from a distance, in the US case - it's not obvious there is a "Trumpist" bloc of military officers, for instance. Nor do we have a cohesive military establishment facing off against a civilian ruling elite it fears and loathes; while there are important problems in US civil-military relations, they don't rise to that level. The highly decentralized nature of US policing makes for a comparatively weak internal security force - in some other countries, control of the Ministry of Interior (i.e. internal security, borders, etc, not our DOI) would allow control of a national law enforcement apparatus that doesn't have a clear American analogue. Finally, I think the cues from the Supreme Court and now, finally and outrageously late, from top Republicans further reduce the likelihood of a major split over this. Again, it's 2020 and anything could happen, but I think that kind of disastrous and highly lethal fracture is unlikely.

N.S.: Well, that's reassuring. Polls showed a substantial minority of troops (and a smaller minority of officers) supporting Trump as of August, but there's a difference between voting for him and supporting him in a coup. The thing about our military not hating the civilian leadership is reassuring too.

So, a U.S. "second civil war" wouldn't actually look like a civil war, but a prolonged period of civil strife and low-level violence? What would be the closest analogy to that? Maybe the Troubles in Ireland? How would that struggle eventually resolve?

One more question: Talk to conservatives, and you hear again and again the assertion that "we've got the guns". How much of conservative gun culture over the past 50 years was, consciously or unconsciously, a preparation for some kind of Turner Diaries fantasy of race war in the U.S.? Was a fantasy like that always in the backs of people's minds? 

P.S.: Going back to the earlier discussion - low-intensity violence can still be a civil war, and is a much more common form of civil war than 1937 Spain, but yes it would not look like that at all. I am skeptical it would get to the level of sustained civil war in the US, but you never know, and regardless of intensity, such violence might drag on indefinitely, with sporadic bombings or successful/attempted assassinations. I am hoping there would be substantial law enforcement pressure that grinds down on such movements and plots, and so it might die out quickly or eventually, but low-level violence can endure for decades, so there are no guarantees that anything ends quickly once it begins.

On gun culture, this isn't an area I work on, but it seems pretty plausible that the widespread availability of guns, and their valorization, puts the US in a somewhat different category than other wealthy countries with large internal security establishments. My intuitive sense is that it lowers the bar to more substantial violence - takes fewer shocks to get to a bad place than in Japan, perhaps. Ideas of race war, of apocalyptic clashes, of revolt against tyrannical government power and marauding leftist radicals, all add to the kindling as well. 

N.S.: Do you mind if I ask one more question? 

What can the government do to lower the risk of major civil conflict in the United States over the next decade? What can regular people do?

Thanks again, really appreciate you taking the time.

P.S.: It's a great question, and not one with an easy answer. At the level of the government, a consistent and non-selective approach to investigating armed groups and individual plots is essential, with political elites not giving rhetorical or policy space to actors using or threatening violence. Once you get violent actors embedded in "mainstream" politics, things can get out of hand quickly. For individual citizens, I can think of two pieces - the first is to demand appropriate behavior from elected officials of whatever party. The second is to avoid spreading misinformation or incendiary rhetoric that can fuel narratives that support violence.

Anyway, that’s the whole interview. For more from Dr. Staniland, follow him on Twitter, read his books, and check out his article with Aila Matanock in Foreign Affairs. For the sake of our country, I hope his prediction of no major civil war comes true.

By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here! There’s a free email list and a paid subscription too!

Share Noahpinion