US militias hoping to spark power struggle

Armed to the teeth: US civilians own 393 million guns, or 120.5 firearms per 100 people. © Getty

Is talk of US civil war overblown? As Donald Trump plunges in the polls, some worry that his most hardline supporters will try to keep him in power – even if it means an armed conflict.

It is almost 2am on the 4th of November. The votes are adding up and Joe Biden has just been declared the winner. Everyone is waiting for Donald Trump to call his rival and offer his congratulations.

But no. Trump appears live on Fox News. He tells his supporters that the Democrats have stolen the election. All over the country, people take up arms to keep him in office. Soon whole cities are on fire.

This is the nightmare scenario that many US experts now fear. They worry that if Trump loses the presidential election, his supporters might rally to keep him in power, triggering a new wave of violence that could escalate into all-out war.

Last week, members of a right-wing militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen were arrested for attempting to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. Their aim was to spark a new civil war.

They are one of many right-wing paramilitary organisations that have sprung up in the USA. Perhaps the most notable is the Proud Boys, an all-male fascist group that provokes street fights with left-wing protesters.

Alarmingly, some have even accused the police of collusion with these groups. The Guardian has reported that police in Portland helped members of another far-right organisation, “Patriot Prayer”, to avoid arrest.

Trump himself has repeatedly appeared to incite his supporters to violence. During his debate with presidential rival Joe Biden in September, he called upon the Proud Boys to “stand by” for the election.

He has also warned that Democrats are trying to rig the election, an accusation that could lead his supporters to reject the results. Militias have already stated that they intend to “monitor” polling stations across the USA. Many believe that their real aim is to intimidate Biden voters.

Even if Trump accepts defeat in the election, the threat of violence could continue as other right-wing politicians and media figures have also praised violent far-right militias.

When 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse killed two left-wing protesters in Wisconsin last month, more than 11,000 people donated around $1 million to pay the legal fees in his murder trial. There is a risk that right-wing violence becomes normalised.

If Trump’s supporters do rise up, they will not lack the hardware. Over 45% of all civilian guns in the world belong to Americans. Their ownership is highly concentrated: 133 million guns are in the hands of just 3% of the population. This 3% is disproportionately white, male and middle aged – ominously all groups that tend to support Trump.

But some argue that political violence has always been commonplace in the USA, without spilling over into civil war. No fewer than four of the 44 men who have become president of the United States were assassinated while in office. Most of the major figures involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, were assassinated. Some leaders of the Black Panther Party were even killed by police.

So, is talk of US civil war overblown?

On the warpath

Yes, say some. After Trump’s victory in 2016, several US cities saw riots and violent protests carried out by anarchist groups. However, this never threatened to escalate into war. No civilian armed force would ever be able to match the military for firepower, so even if right-wing militias did try to start a civil war, they would very quickly be defeated.

Not at all, say others. Right-wing militias in the USA are much more dangerous than anarchist protesters: they have murdered several people in the last few years. The attempted kidnapping of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer proves how serious they are. Journalists warn that they have sympathisers in the military, as well as in the police, who might simply refuse to fight them, or might even take their side.

You Decide

  1. Should ordinary people be allowed to buy guns? What restrictions should there be?
  2. How should the media respond when Trump stirs up controversy? Do they have a duty to report his comments exactly as he said them, or should they refuse to broadcast incitements to violence?

Activities

  1. How would you survive a civil war? Write a paragraph about the steps you would take to keep yourself safe.
  2. Outgoing presidents often leave notes with some advice and encouragement to their successors. Imagine that you are leaving office, and write a short note to the new president.

Some People Say...

“The Civil War is not ended: I question whether any serious civil war ever does end.”

T S Eliot (1888–1965), American-born British poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that democracy cannot function unless every side is willing to accept the results of elections. It is for this reason that the tradition developed in the USA for the losing candidate in every presidential election to ring the winner and concede the election to them once the results become clear. The civil war of 1861–65 came about because the southern states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not the US electoral system ought to be overhauled in future. The candidate who receives the most votes does not necessarily win the election: they have to win the “electoral college”, which disproportionately favours smaller states. Some argue that this is unfair on voters in large states like California, whose votes are worth less, but others insist that the electoral college allows smaller states, like South Dakota, to make their voices heard.

Word Watch

Fox News
A right-wing news network in the United States that Donald Trump has often used to spread messages to his supporters directly.
Proud Boys
The far-right organisation is dedicated to starting street brawls with left-wing groups. In 2019, some of its members were convicted of assault in New York.
Fascist
Following fascism, a set of ideologies that advocates dictatorial power, political violence, suppression of opposition, traditional gender roles and official racism.
Portland
A city in Oregon, on the west coast of the United States, which has been at the centre of recent violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing groups.
Wisconsin
A northern state of the USA. Once a Democratic stronghold, it was key to Trump’s victory in the 2016 election.
Assassinated
Murdered for political ends. The word is thought to derive from the name given to a Shia Muslim sect based in mediaeval Persia, the hashshashin, who carried out high-profile murders of important leaders.
Martin Luther King Jr
Perhaps the most important anti-racist activist in history, his campaign of non-violent protest was essential in securing civil rights for African Americans. After years of persecution by racist organisations and the US government, he was shot dead in 1967.
Malcolm X
A contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr, he believed that African Americans must be willing to use violence in order to achieve their political ends. He was murdered in 1965.
Black Panther Party
A self-defence organisation set up by African Americans to monitor and prevent police brutality. Active from 1966–82, it became a target for the FBI. It also had chapters in the United Kingdom and Algeria.

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