America’s COVID-19 numbers aren’t under control. In many places they’re getting worse. Large portions of the west coast are on fire, social media is fueling genocides, and political violence in the U.S. is increasing. People are marching in the streets, aligned with two ideologically distinct factions. Many of them (overwhelmingly from one side) are armed, and violence and death has resulted when these two sides have clashed.
The signs of a coming conflict are everywhere. Political polarization is up, gun and ammunition sales have spiked, killers such as Kyle Rittenhouse are being lauded by their political allies, and protests are widespread in American cities. Police kill unarmed people in the street, the government is polarized and corrupt, and our institutions are failing. Armed militias patrol U.S. streets and groups like the Atomwaffen Division and the Base plot to start a larger conflict. Mass shootings, sometimes ideologically motivated and other times not, occur frequently. Poverty and unemployment are widespread as mass evictions loom and Congress stalls to help those in need.
Some on the far right are talking about another civil war. Some experts who have studied sectarian violence in the United States and other countries think we’re already in one.
According to several experts I spoke with, a new civil conflict will look nothing like the first American Civil War. It’s not likely that clear sides will be drawn up with massive armies of Americans marching towards each other as drones strike from above. An insurgency is more likely—a period of sustained and distributed conflict where non-state actors carry out violence to achieve a political goal. Several said they believe we’re already in the early stages of one, a period before large-scale political violence the CIA defines as an “incipient insurgency.” …
“We are in a state of civil war, whenever, in more than one geographical location in the United States it becomes commonplace for multiple non-state armed groups, to fight each other with deadly force. When that is an occurrence that is common in more than one location in the country, that’s a civil war,” Robert Evans told me over the phone. Evans is a conflict journalist who’s reported from Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. His work has appeared in Bellingcat where he reports on modern American extremist movements. He’s also a podcaster and his 2019 podcast “It Could Happen Here” described the possibility of a new American Civil War.
“To most people, the idea of a second American Civil War feels more like science fiction than a possible future,” Evans said on “It Could Happen Here.” “It feels silly when I stand in line at the DMV or hop on to a public bus or train. The systems that govern our lives here are so seemingly intricate, so stable, and so settled that any kind of mass upset feels impossible. Fantastic even. But I have walked through the cities where the busses still run, just without windows because the blast from mortars have blown them all out. I’ve watched people stand in line and fill out forms in government buildings while howitzers shake the foundations and machine guns chatter half a mile away. I have seen systems collapse. Everything I’ve seen and everything I’ve read over the past two years has convinced me that the United States is closer to that kind of terror than anyone is willing to admit.” …
“Collapse,” he said, “is not evenly distributed…I’d say there’s a real danger that [America] is going to see sustained political violence.”
But Isaacson noted there are important differences between Colombia and the United States. In Colombia, the conflict happened mostly in the country and the different sides took and held territory. “In America, it will be more urban. It’s not going to be about controlling territory,” he said. “A lot of it will be, like terrorism, an effort to display a show of force and make a statement. It’ll be more performative than what you’d see in Colombia where the guerillas really did intend to take over the country.”
Kilcullen thinks America has been in what he calls “pre-revolutionary conditions” for a while. “The COVID crisis caused a lot of people to become more militant than they were in the past,” he said. He pointed to the George Floyd protests, the more than 100 days of sustained direct action in Portland, the Kenosha shooting, the seeming execution of Michael Reinoehl, and the shooting of Garett Foster in Austin, Texas as just some of the stress points. “We’re starting to get to the point where there’s a bit of a critical mass building.”