Will the United States experience civil unrest in 2018-2019?

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.

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.

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.

On a different level seventeen states attorneys general, plus the DC AG, filed suit against the recent wave of family separations.

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 ad criticizing 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:

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.

the revolt is coming

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.

bake them cakes_Quinn Dombrowski

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?

(revolt marquee by Alan Levine; cake board by Quinn Dombrowski; thanks to commentators here, on G+, and Facebook for their thoughts)

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22 Responses to Will the United States experience civil unrest in 2018-2019?

  1. I’d like to offer a few protective factors that may contribute to keeping a lid on all-out civil unrest.

    First, as long as people are talking and have unifying collective experiences, we are less likely to harm each other. Invest in more of these.

    Second, when individuals have a lot to lose, they are less likely to destroy things. Contrarily, if people have nothing to lose, then they are less inclined to demonstrate restraint. If civil unrest means losing cellphone coverage, I think people would be hesitant to go that far.

    Third, our collective media literacy, cynicism, and engagement is dynamic. It is conceivable that, over time, fewer people will center their perspective and outward expressions through the current amplification channels if they cannot find fulfillment in them. Fewer people may fall into “rabbit holes”.

    I highly recommend listening to the complete podcast interview of Cass R. Sunstein: “DEFENDING THE REPUBLIC – A Conversation with Cass R. Sunstein” [ https://samharris.org/podcasts/defending-the-republic/ ].

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for the podcast pointer, Steven.

      I’m not sure about the wealth angle. I used to think so, but have been researching WWI. That saw the world’s richest and most self-satisfied nations and empires hurl themselves upon each other with horrendous and, for many, politically suicidal effect. Is this due to a blindness to violence’s impact, or to overweening confidence?

      • WWI’s cultural angle at the time ascribed valor and manhood through warfare which is absent today. (American) men hurled themselves into warfare largely for the glory of it – not for particularly political reasons. (Not even Wilson could come up with a good political reason, save for the Lusitania).

        Second, I suspect that no one at the time could have imagined the bloody effect of mechanized total warfare (not that anyone today remembers it either) which leans more towards either willful blindness or naïveté.

        Facetiously, I say that the depth of commitment to civil unrest here would go only so far as to not jeopardize access to social media.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          For WWI I was thinking of the Europeans in 1914, not the US in 1917. All *kinds* of reasons fired the guns of August. (One of my favorite titles of all time is for a book about the war’s start: _The Long Fuse_)

          For the bloodshed: historians now say the Europeans *could* have realized it, because modern war had been at play elsewhere – the Russo-Japanese War, an early glimpse in the US Civil War, and especially the colonial wars. But Euro leaders didn’t think those lessons applied to themselves.
          (Along those lines, I’m reminded of Michael’s comment on this thread about applying DHS and Pentagon War on Terror abilities to US insurgents.)

          And your facetious comment did give me a much needed laugh. 🙂

  2. Cobb says:

    One way or another, the only people who will have experience dealing with civil unrest will be the sworn officers and agents of various law enforcement agencies. At the most important levels of leadership and among their alumni are a great number of sober individuals who will not see any wisdom in revolutionary and militant posturing. Considering their experience in sussing out terrorist networks, identifying and arresting political activists will be like barrel fishing, for which they don’t actually have a license.

    That means if we see widespread domestic militancy, the Trump Administration is going to full Nixon with law and order, and Americans are going to be very quickly surprised at what FEMA and Homeland Security can be repurposed to accomplish.

    Every time this subject comes up, I think back to the film ‘The Seige’. Americans are very good at hating each other for political reasons, and that is because of how we have shaped identity politics over the past two decades. But Americans are very poorly constituted to take the kind of comments they blithely make online into violent action, and they will suffer greatly if they try.

    As much as we are moved by the relative innocence and good intentions behind the more vocal forms of political agitation, if the kind of thing we saw at Berkeley, or Ferguson goes viral in the streets, Americans will hunker down and call out big guns and liberty will suffer greatly.

    Right now, I think Americans (falsely) believe that their differences are profound and irreconcilable. If they keep pushing and escalating, I think they will find their fates pre-ordained and simple. America has never been as repressive as China was in the 1960s. All men are capable of all things.

    We stand in the shadow of a looming event that our media is itching to call the X of the Century that will forever change the fate of Y and Z. I think people need to smoke a lot more weed and remain incapable of handling the truth. You really don’t want to go there.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Your sketch of turning the war on terror’s apparatus upon domestic opposition is very convincing, Michael. I can imagine an insurgency rapidly quashed, which might trigger another round.

      Very powerful point about the desire for a giant X.

  3. Phil Katz says:

    I wish I could agree with Steve Covello, but I have a more pessimistic view of things.

    This is not an attack on his arguments or his optimism (and I certainly share Steve’s enthusiasm for some of the things that Cass Sunstein says). But I don’t see the evidence that “people are talking and have unifying collective experiences” — rather, I see at least as much evidence that the unifying collective experiences reinforce existing tribal loyalties among smaller groups. I don’t buy the argument that “when individuals have a lot to lose, they are less likely to destroy things,” because history is full of people who have acted against their immediate or long-term material interests; plus, the country is full of people who feel they have lost too much already, which helps explain the epidemic of suicides in the United States. And I wonder about who the “our” is in ” our collective media literacy, cynicism, and engagement is dynamic.”

    None of this means that (more) civil unrest is imminent, but the 50th anniversary of the terrible events of 1968 ought to be an opportunity to reflect and pull back.

    • Phil – You misread what I wrote. As for collective experiences and talking, my statement was to “invest in more of these” – not making an observation of the present. My comments here reflect ways to reinforce protective factors (factors which push back against destructive factors).

      Second, it is important to recognize the difference between “loss” and “destruction”. While Americans may claim that they have suffered losses from either Obama or Trump, the nation still has electricity, food, communication, and transportation. If full-on civil unrest takes place, such as what happened post-MLK assassination, people will literally lose all of those things due to their absolute destruction. I propose that today’s polarization is not operating on the same level as the fury of a nation’s loss of a civil rights leader. On the flipside, if Trump were assassinated, why then we might see a similar effect – but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Absent such a spark, I seriously doubt people will go so far as to risk the utter destruction of the very survival.

      Third, the “our” is all of us. Whether we participate in a range of social media or nothing at all, the effects of its presence affects us all. Anecdotally, I have noticed more people simply “turning off and tuning out”. The nominal sum of this trend would be fewer people feeling depressed and hopeless. Maybe that counts for something.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Perhaps we can have civil war *and* collective belonging.
        Let’s say the roughly one quarter of Americans who voted for Trump constitute one group. That’s about 75 million people, which is a vast realm for collective identity.
        Ditto the swath that pulled the lever for Clinton.
        Better yet, nothing defines a group like defining itself against an Other.
        Two vast tribes, if you will. Maybe their satisfaction will be enough to keep them from warring.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I wonder, Phil, about desperation.
      I’m thinking of Case and Deaton’s “deaths of despair.” Is that population likely to revolt? When I think of historical examples it’s often the middle class or disaffected members of the elite who organize the rest (if I can generalize brutally).

      Thank you for the tribal point, which I echoed in another comment.

  4. Angelle says:

    I found it odd that you mentioned you hadn’t seen reports of violence ‘by the protesters’ this week. Despite the right’s constant saying so, the vast, vast majority of violence (and yes, ‘rudeness’ and lack of ‘civility’, whatever those things can mean in a context of standing up to human rights violations and crimes against humanity) comes from them – the Trumpers.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I have to keep myself open to various possibilities, Angelle. One of them is violence from the left. We have plenty of historical antecedents for this, some quite recent, and the reasons I give above could power such activity.
      “Could”: these are possible outcomes.

      As you can see above, I certainly see many possible ways for the right to be violent, too.

  5. David Soliday says:

    I seem to detect some White privilege, most notably in the statement: “…violence is less familiar for most Americans (except veterans).” I think that people of color would strongly disagree. If you’ve not heard about the conversations they have to have with their children about what to do if they’re ever pulled over or approached by a police officer, get woke #bamn. This is, perhaps, a blatant oversight in your analysis–take a look at Pittsburgh and https://www.uua.org/ga/off-site/2018/ware.

    • David Soliday says:

      Another place of all too familiar violence, the home: https://www.owu.edu/news-media/details/powerful-words/

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Excellent point about domestic violence, too. The clear majority of violence suffered by women, for example, is committed by either people women already know (as opposed to strangers) or their domestic companions (spouses, family members). How do you see this connecting with the political dimensions mentioned above?

        • Worth asking individuals in local domestic violence support networks what changes they see in patterns, numbers.

          Although this may (or may not) be wandering somewhat off-track, I find myselfing wonder what areas, kinds of communities, diverse and not without divisions but less contentious and still talking.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            That’s a great idea, Vanessa. I will check these out.

            Diverse, divided, and still talking: I am trying to keep that going in small ways. On Facebook, as you’ve seen. And the Future Trends Forum – let’s see how the interest groups play out.

            I’ve heard from psychologists that they’ve been seeing more anxiety, but I’m cautious about this, given likely political bias and also the replication crisis and what it says about that field.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        PS: thanks, too, for citing BAMN.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Perhaps, or perhaps not.

      I did not cite the racial experience of violence in this post partly for lack of time . That needs more emphasis.

      On the other hand, when I wrote violence is less familiar for most Americans, I’m referring to the general statistics about violent crime (the FBI surveys are the most commonly cited). Violent crime has declined massively over the past three decades – truly an extraordinary development, a historical break, and one utterly, sadly unrecognized – and as a result most Americans are, as I wrote, less familiar with violent crime.

      Yes, violent crime falls disproportionally upon black, Latino, and Native populations, as compared with white and Asian demographics. The experience of violent crime is also shaped by other factors, including geography (compare north and south Chicago, for an easy example), class (the poor suffer much more than the affluent), and others; I did not mention these, and should have.

      You’ll notice that I did mention veterans. Currently serving soldiers and support staff, along with post-Vietnam veterans, tend to be very ethnically diverse, and also drawn from America’s poor and working class economic strata. This is unusual in our history, and I can say more about this if you’re interested… but my point here is that their experience of violence is vital, and also shaped by numerous factors, including race.

    • FusEldar says:

      The problem is that violence toward minorities has been *so* oppressive it has ruthlessly smashed any nominal resistance to their oppression. The black and brown experience is one of post traumatic stress syndrome, the opportunity to build coalitions is increadibly difficult as they are more focused on surviving.

      I do agree, the OP seems to denote that the situation has been so far been peaceful. In reality there has been imense violence by the state and it continues to this day. I was in Occupy when they turned the violence of the state against a mainly suburban white group and, even being reletively restrained, it was massively violent. This violence is seen as the norm by the general population and it is discounted when we talk of violence. What the OP seems to be asking is “will we see resistance violence?”, which is a definite possibility. It is difficult to forsee these things however due to the organic nature of popupar resistance in history. The fuel for the fire is there, the question is will there be a spark.

  6. David Soliday says:

    Synchronistically, last night I overheard this poll mentioned while my wife was watching The View: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2018/06/28/Poll-Nearly-a-third-of-US-voters-expect-civil-war-within-5-years/4691530199715/

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