Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

America – a deeply flawed democracy lost at sea

  • Neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic, and racially divided, the United States may be staring at a second civil war

Americans usually speak of their civil war with reverence. But many now fear they may experience a second one in their lifetime. In 2018, a poll found that nearly a third of Americans thought a second civil war could happen within five years. Their prediction may not be far off.

The violent unrest on January 6 in America’s capital – organised mostly by right-wing militant groups – should be counted as an insurrection following a presidential election. On the civil side, there have been more than 60 attempts by former president Donald Trump and his political allies to overturn the presidential election in the courts. In any other countries, that would be called a constitutional coup.
Republicans so far have failed to remove the sitting president. Instead, this week, they removed one of their own, Liz Cheney, from her party leadership in the US House of Representatives because she refused to endorse Trump’s claim that he won the last election and that she held him responsible for the deadly riot at the Capitol.

Think of what that means. In effect, one of the two dominant political parties in the United States is saying the last presidential election was stolen and that the current “president” is illegitimate. Even more ominously, 124 retired generals and admirals have signed an open letter challenging the legitimacy of the Biden presidency and warning that the US is in “deep peril” from a “full-blown assault on our constitutional rights”.

Calling itself “Flag Officers 4 America”, the open letter not only casts doubt on the result of the 2020 election, but Biden’s “mental and physical condition” as well as his signature policies, which are being likened to those of socialism.

A coming conflict, it warns, will be “like no other time since our founding in 1776” between “socialism and Marxism” and “constitutional freedom and liberty”.

Those who signed the letter included retired Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc who is currently running for a US Senate seat for New Hampshire, former Army Lieutenant General William Boykin, who was deputy undersecretary of defence under president George W. Bush, and retired Vice Admiral John Poindexter, who was Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser during the Iran-Contra scandal.

Coincidentally, in France, two similar letters, the first signed by 20 mostly retired generals and a new one by serving officers of the armed forces, have warned against growing Islamism, youth delinquency and violence that, they say, threaten France’s very survival and blamed President Emmanuel Macron for making concessions to fundamentalist Islam.

The US liberal media, such as The New York Times, have rhapsodised about the Biden presidency in the past five months that they are only belatedly realising Trump – and Trumpism – didn’t go away. Rather his grasp on the Republican Party has only strengthened.

Members of the Proud Boys, including leader Enrique Tarrio (second from left), a far-right group, at a rally in Portland, Oregon, in September 2020. Photo: AP

Right-wing militia arming themselves to the teeth; retired top military brass working to undermine the current executive branch; and a major political party and its affiliated voters deciding that the current president is a usurper – all these are more than ominous signs.

This current situation fits rather well with what the Central Intelligence Agency calls “an incipient insurgency”, in its “Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency”, readily available on the website of the official US Homeland Security Digital Library. No doubt the CIA analysts thought they were describing other people’s countries; little did they know their analysis would soon apply to their own.

“A conflict in the pre-insurgency stage is difficult to detect because most activities are underground and the insurgency has yet to make its presence felt through the use of violence,” it says.

“Moreover, actions conducted in the open can easily be dismissed as non-violent political activity. During this stage, an insurgent movement is beginning to organise: leadership is emerging, and the insurgents are establishing a grievance and a group identity, beginning to recruit and train members, and stockpiling arms and supplies.”

China mocks US ‘double standards’ over Capitol chaos vs Hong Kong

In 2019, the US Department of Homeland Security declared far-right domestic terrorism as the “greatest threat” to the United States. That’s right, not China or Russia, but America’s home-grown terrorists!

Barbara Walter, a political-science professor at University of California San Diego and an expert on armed civil conflicts, is worth quoting at length.

In a January interview on the website called “Political Violence at a Glance”, she said: “We know from past civil wars that there are two big risk factors. Countries that are partial democracies – we call them “anocracies” because they’re neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic – are most likely to experience civil war.

“The second big risk factor is whether a country’s population, whether its citizens, have broken down politically along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. The United States has both of those conditions currently … The US is now considered a partial democracy, in the same category as countries like Ecuador, Somalia and Haiti.”

She continued: “The reason most Americans can’t imagine a second civil war here is because they’re thinking about the first one. They’re thinking about Gettysburg and big, large conventional armies fighting on the battlefield. But that’s not the way it’s going to happen.

If civil war happens in the United States, it will be more like a Siege of Terror: more like what we saw in Northern Ireland or in Israel
Barbara Walter, political-science professor

“What we’ve been seeing since 2010, is the rise of far-right militias. They began to grow when Barack Obama was first elected. And we’re seeing the rise of terrorist attacks; those began to grow in 2011, which was the year the census was released that showed that, for the first time, a majority of the children born in America were non-white. Many of us who study extremist groups think that this was a wake-up call to them that non-violent means of keeping America white were no longer working, and they needed to shift to more violent methods.

“Since 2019, there’s been an increase in groups that call themselves “accelerationists”. These groups want to speed up the move to civil war, and they want to create radical change. The group we’ve all heard about is called the Boogaloo Boys, but the militia group in Michigan that tried to kidnap Governor Whitmer also wanted to start a civil war.

“Ultimately, if civil war happens in the United States, it will be more like a Siege of Terror: more like what we saw in Northern Ireland or in Israel, where people learn to live with a fairly consistent stream of terrorist attacks by a number of extremist groups, some of whom coordinate, and some of whom don’t.”

Just as many US politicians were practically rubbing their hands with glee at the violent 2019 unrest in Hong Kong – US Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the mayhem as “a beautiful sight to behold”, so many Chinese leaders and “wolf warrior” diplomats have been happily anticipating political troubles and instability in the US.

What both sides should remember is that instability at home spells troubles aboard. Two of the world’s most powerful countries and economies in turmoil will adversely affect each other and the rest of the world.

If they can’t live together, we all may not live at all.