Notes on a New American Civil War

Three different ways the U.S. could end: 2020 edition

Hello and welcome to Angry Planet’s weekly catalogue of a world in conflict. Every week Jason, Kevin, and Matthew watch the news and sort through the signal and noise so you don’t have to.

We’ve been talking a lot about the possibility of wide scale violence in America’s near future and the three of us don’t agree on what it will look like or if it will even happen. We wanted to use a few newsletters to outline our thinking. Three different perspectives from three different journalists we’ll loosely define as the Hack, the Historian, and the War Correspondent.

First up, the Hack. Next week, the Historian.

From Matthew

Anything coming won’t look like a civil war in the way we traditionally think of a civil war. From 1861 to 1865, America fought against itself. Blue and Gray marched against each other in battle lines. Territory was taken and held, generals and commanders ruled the battlefield, and more than 600,000 died.

The conflict I see coming won’t look anything like that. Historical comparisons are all faulty, but the Troubles in Ireland is one. The very early stages of the Syrian Civil War is another. I see distributed groups of armed militants of various political ideologies defending their home turf while insurgents conduct terror campaigns across the country. There won’t be a Blue and Gray, just a hundred different groups all vying for different things.

I think we’re in for a few weeks of a lot of noise and little signal. Apologies to the readers for being a little late this week, but I’ve been working on a large feature for VICE and wanted to use some of the cut content from it here.

The editors wanted me to find out if America was heading towards a new civil war. A week after they gave me the assignment, my mother called me to ask the same thing. It’s on people’s minds and it’s easy to see why.

On the night of Sept. 23, 2020, I listened to the police scanner out of Louisville, Kentucky. Two police officers had been shot during protests held in the wake of the decision to charge no one in the death of Breonna Taylor.

Again, there’s going to be a lot of noise and not a lot of signal in the coming weeks. There will be a lot of bad information spread online and a lot of rushes to judgement. This is just a gut feeling, but I think we may see the worst of what Americans have to offer their fellow Americans.

Our next civil conflict won’t look like the last one and it’s possible we’re already in the early stages of it. It may not happen though. Beware anyone that makes definitive predictions. Things are too chaotic and weird to call anything for sure. As David Kilcullen told me when I asked him about this, “I’ve predicted 8 out of 2 of the last civil wars.”

It doesn’t look good out there. It feels like we’re building towards something that’s nasty. The people I’ve talked to who are reporting on the ground and watch civil conflicts for a living aren’t hopeful.

A popular push back I hear against the idea that there will widespread conflict in the United States is that people like the Proud Boys and the Not Fucking Around Coallition and the 3 Percenters and the John Brown Gun Clubs are all just LARPing. A LARP is a “live action roleplay,” a game where a group of people gather together and pretend to be wizards and knights.

Proud Boys and Antifa, the logic goes, are doing a political LARP. There’s a bunch of cliches that explain why this kind of theater is actually dangerous. Fake it till you make it. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Act as if. You get the idea.

I asked Robert Evans, a journalist who has been reporting on the ground from Portland and who went to Ukraine specifically to see a modern-day civil war, what he thought of the criticism that people are LARPing in the streets.

He reminded me of the story of Tim Hetherington, a journalist who died in Libya when its Civil War began in 2011. “He starts noticing all these pictures on social media posted by these young men who had been working at fucking gelato stands and were suddenly revolutionaries,” Evans told me. “He sees these guys posing with guns and he can recognize every single Hollywood movie poster they were emulating.”

“Young men who are going to war for the time are play acting. They’re trying to represent the things they’ve seen in the media. That informs the way they go about going to war. There’s a deep sociological meaning in what Tim was recognizing there.”

“A lot of these people will find that when the actual shooting starts they don’t have the stomach for it. They don’t like it. They don’t want more of it. I think that’s absolutely true. But I also think that what’s important is that they think they’re ready for it long enough for it to start happening. Because once it starts happening, they won’t be able to extricate themselves.”

“And what happens to every individual who lets themselves get ensnared in this is that they will either get good at the new reality or they will die from it.”

Jason, on the other hand, recommends this article on on why it’s unlikely Donald Trump will be able to just stay on if he loses the election


Angry Planet

Evans and Jason Wilson have co-written two stories for Bellingcat and The Guardian. They center around the chatlogs of far right groups who plan to spread violence in Portland.

Federal authorities allege an NYC police officer was spying on Tibetan New Yorkers on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.

A former Tenessee National Guardsman said his fellow soldiers used a racial slur as if it were his name.

Speaking of the National Guard, it and the Navy are taking a pause from their recruitment efforts via Twitch after a run ofhigh profile scandals.

The Pentagon is, once again, making noises about withdrawing from Afghanistan completely.

at top: Boogaloo Bois in Virginia. Anthony Crider photo via Flickr