How likely is it that current American political tensions will escalate into civil unrest?
I’ve raised this question previously. As a futurist looking at politics and culture, I first asked the question in late 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, and many good comments followed. I’ll reference some of them in this post.
That post raised two possible areas for unrest. One was the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle. That ultimately ended when the pipeline was successfully installed and protestors evicted, both with Trump administration backing.
The other has become far more germane: the Trump administration’s expansion of immigration enforcement and resistance to it. In December ’16 I sketched out possibilities in a pretty obvious and unsurprising way:
As presidential candidate Trump vowed to deport Latino and Muslim illegal immigrants for various reasons. In opposition many politicians, activists, city leaders, and [other] people vow to prevent this from being carried out.
So far that seems to be happening, more this summer than previously. Let me summarize the current state of affairs, then identify drivers both for and against escalating unrest.
As I write this post protestors are blocking an ICE facility in Portland, Oregon. They started the blockade a week ago. Yesterday federal officials ordered them to leave. The Portland action has inspired similar acts in Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit.
Yesterday, we shut down the ICE office with 40 people. Our camp was dismantled; our spirits were not. Today, our camp was rebuilt and the movement continues. Join us tomorrow! #occupyICE #occupyICEdetroit #byanymeansnecessary #bamn #antifascists #antifa #annarborareaantifa
Meanwhile, a different form of anti-Trump activism is taking shape, as small groups of people protest individual Trump administration officials in person. We’ve seen spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders ejected from the Red Hen restaurant (a fine eatery; I still fondly remember the one meal I had there). Several students (I think) confronted Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, outside their home.
video: @SecElaineChao telling protestors to leave her husband, Mitch McConnell, alone.
Protestors shouted at Florida’s secretary of state Pamela Bondi at a movie theater, Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant, and Trump senior adviser Steven Miller at another Mexican restaurant. Representative Maxine Waters urged on this practice, eliciting a predictably mendacious Trump response.
Online discussions and actions are furious, unsurprisingly. One activist searched LinkedIn for current ICE employees and published the results. #OccupyICE on Twitter is pretty active and might be helping coordinate activity across the nation.
I haven’t found signs of actual violence from protestors this week. The closest seems to be a Florida man’s phoned in murder threat.
From the other end of the political spectrum, pro-Trump or at least anti-anti-Trump protestors descended on the Red Hen, while hostile reviews cropped up on Yelp and geographically challenged critics pasted other Red Hens. The GOP posted a video adcriticizing various Democratic politicians and entertainers for being too extreme. Iowa Republican Steven (not Stephen) King compared anti-ICE activity to the Civil War’s opening:
America is heading in the direction of another Harpers Ferry. After that comes Ft. Sumter. https://pgj.cc/Cf7DX6
Milo Yiannopoulos, possibly desperate for attention, texted several reporters that he “can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight”.
To sum up, controversy over and around recent ICE actions, pro and con, is growing. Could this week’s events expand, giving rise to a more intense civil conflict? Are these signals of a broader conflict?
There are drivers in play which could lead to escalation. The Trump administration seems ready to crack down on protests, and is still harshly prosecuting inauguration protestors. History is replete with examples of authorities trying to firmly quash dissent, only to trigger still more opposition.
A sense of political futility could spur on more intense protests or violence. The White House and both houses of Congress remain in Republican hands through at least January of next year (for the House, that is), and the GOP is fairly disciplined to follow Trump’s anti-immigrant lead. The Supreme Court appears tilted in a firmly conservative direction, as the decision supporting Trump’s Muslim ban indicates. Being or feeling disengaged from formal political mechanisms can inspire us to other forms of political action. Feeling that the entire nation has turned a dark corner, as this 2016 comment by Deborah so eloquently describes, can drive us not just to press a donation button but to hit the streets.
Moreover, the rising unrest presents with a fairly strong geographical breakdown. That multi-state lawsuit stems from largely blue or blue-ish states (California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, plus the District Of Columbia). The Occupy ICE actions are occurring in similar states (Michigan voted for Trump, but Detroit remains Democratic). Blue-r areas are more likely to contain anti-Trump populations who face smaller pro-Trump groups, which make it easier to assemble people for activity. Perhaps we’ll see this geographical separation deepen.
We can add a time dimension to the spatial one. July is about to begin, kicking off summer and the hottest weeks of the year. Research on this is uneven, but there are some papers (for example) that echo folk wisdom about “riot weather.”
Into the mix we can add that America is a very well armed nation. While protests have been peaceful so far, even civil at times, there are an enormous amount of guns in many hands and homes. It’s not a stretch to imagine ICE agents being met by armed protestors, or a pro-Trump supporter shooting at a perceived enemy. I mention guns, but it’s worth remember we have many other tools for inflicting bodily harm. The Charlottesville killing was committed by a car, for instance.
We are also a nation actively concerned with violence. Many are outraged by the recent run of school shootings, while Trump supporters are horrified at the crimes they learn about. Our news media, following the precept of “if it bleeds, it leads” will enthusiastically share every violent occasion they can find. As Vanessa Vaile reminds us, older tv, print, and radio outlets followed very closely all unrest in the far more turbulent 1960s. We should expect a much more intense media response now, given cable news and social media. (For my criticisms of tv “news”, see here.)
Additionally, trust in institutions continues to be low, according to well known surveys. Support for the establishment might even drop further, as evidenced by a majority of Americans now thinking news media likes to share fake news stories, according to a new poll. That can empower people to act outside of normal channels, or feel inspired to revolt against authorities.
There is also the view held by some that Trump is not just a bad Republican president, but an outright fascist starting to overhaul America in neoNazi way. From the “is it ok to punch a Nazi?” discussion onwards, the Trump era suggests to a number of people that the times have become extraordinarily dangerous, and that extraordinary responses should be on the table. (I’ve written previously why I think fascism is the wrong framing for understanding and responding to Trump, and will say more on it when I can.)
Finally, we have the established news and social media pattern whereby partisans of one side issue representations that trigger outrage from their opponents, who then emit their own expressions which elicit further dismay and the cycle continues. We could imagine this cycle heating up, partly driven by events on the ground, encouraging more people to participate in those events, and possibly egging us on to more intense actions, which various media would then circulate. Our predilection for creating and consuming rumors, distortions, fictions, and outright lies could serve as an accelerant to this process.
On the other hand, there are various ways an escalation might not occur. For one, the legal and political system could put out the fire. A federal judge just ordered the government to reunite separated immigrant children and parents within 30 days. The multi-state lawsuit mentioned above could achieve some successes. And perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s upset election yesterday will inspire more people — especially those that are young, Latino, working class, and left — to participate in electoral politics. Another candidate seeking a New York office, Cynthia Nixon, called for ICE’s abolition; supporters of that cause might find their energies slaked not by riot but by door to door campaigning.
In my 2016 blog post I raised other possibilities which have not been borne out.
Will we see civil disobedience, with police officers or bureaucrats refusing to follow federal orders? Will people hide undocumented immigrants in their houses, form human chains to block deportation agents, form a new Underground Railroad to shuttle immigrants to safety?
I haven’t seen evidence of these taking place. Please correct me in comments if I’ve missed some, but law enforcement looks well disciplined and human chains so far unlinked.
I also asked, “What happens when federal agents turn to force to compel obedience?” My vision was of ICE or other agents using violence not against allegedly undocumented immigrants, as we’ve seen, but doing so in public (and recorded) ways that elicit further protest, or conducted against protestors. These scenes remain unrealized possibilities as of now.
Perhaps there is also a fear that ratcheting into violence is a step too far for either side. We’re nowhere near the high levels of crime seen in the 1960s and 70s, so violence is less familiar for most Americans (except veterans). The left has the civil rights tradition of peaceful protest to draw upon.
Let me add one more topic to this already crowded field. This is a post about current events and near future politics, which is unusual for me. My brief is the future of education and technology, after all. So why delve into this topic at such length?
Because, as I’d said before, higher education is already immersed in the field, both through protest and enforcement. Some campuses teach law enforcement, for example, while others host students outraged at Trump. Moreover, there are undocumented students, staff, and, likely, faculty members. I’ve written and spoken about the many ways an ICE raid on a university could play out.
However, this is summertime, and classes have been dialed back. Many faculty are off campus. Most students are working. This is not the most active season for academic unrest, save electronically.
So it is summer 2018. How do you see American unrest developing in the near future? Has dissent reached a plateau, or will we escalate into chaos or violence? Or, more expansively imagined, do we dial things back to a new era of civility, or will we drive ahead instead into riots, killings, torture, assassinations, and burning cities?
Let me give a commentator the last word. What are the chances that we will break out into what cbamarilyn envisioned?
Unfortunately I do see a high possibility that we could face a Civil War during Trump’s reign, G-d forbid we do! I think it would be between ultra right and Ulta left wingers and between Trump supporters and Trump non-supporters if he gets impeached or if he takes more unpopular stances.