Modeling civil unrest in the United States: some historical cases

Greetings from the United States holiday of Labor Day.  I took a day off yesterday with my wife to explore Fredericksburg, a nearby Virginia city with interesting historical and general stuff.  Being an America, I couldn’t take the day really off, and managed to work whenever I could: in the car, in the hotel.

door Fredricksburg old house next to river

Continuing to teach myself photography.

Labor Day is a contested day in American history, although modern celebrations show few signs of it. We tend to celebrate with outdoor relaxation, a genial nod to summer on its gradual way out the seasonal door.  We often forget that historical labor movements preferred the date of May 1st for its international and radical charge, and that conservatives succeeded in hauling it to the calendar’s either end precisely to neutralize that meaning.  Or, as Eugene Debs put it, “We never hear of Capital Day, not because Capital has no day, but because every day is Capital Day. The struggle in which we are now engaged will end only when every day is Labor Day.”

So struggle and opposition in American culture is today’s theme, instead of grilling and loafing. I’d like to look ahead to where such turmoil might take us, and in ways not always focused on labor.

I’ve been modeling potential civil unrest in the US for a while, as some of you know (in terms of polycrisis, neonationalism, recent polls, after Trump, the 2020 election, 2018-2019, the 2016 election, egging on fears, and Sinclair Lewis). One way of doing this futuring work is by drawing on historical examples. History does not repeat, but some relevant  historical events can give us some rough ideas of how insurrections/civil war/rebellions/secession/etc. might play out.  At the least they give us examples to think with.

Today I wanted to offer a group of these examples, drawn from the past few generations, which might be useful.  For each one I’ll offer a very brief introduction, then explore how something similar might play out in the modern American setting.

One caveat: what follows are sketches of history, not serious historiography. Each one is way too short, and you should really dive into each on your own, including in comments. They are samples and summaries to stir your imaginations and investigations.

Another caveat. For these examples/models I assume a few details:

  1. Trump (and DeSantis, the most likely Trump successor now) live and keep doing their thing for at least a few years.
  2. Civil unrest happens, to some degree.
  3. Time horizon: medium term, the next 5 years, or so.

The future can easily invalidate #s1 and 2.  While Trump often appears in rude health and, in American style, is rich enough to pay for top notch medical care, he also has poor health habits and is nearing 80.  He or DeSantis could, of course, be killed, either in accidents or by the time-honored American tradition of assassination.  As for my second assumption, we haven’t seen much unrest over the past five years, despite my forecasts.  We might not experience anything of the kind – and should hope to be so fortunate.

One last bit of throat-clearing: there are other historical examples we can draw from, especially on the global stage.  I have been working on others, but wanted to get some out there now. I’d love to hear your own historical ideas.


THE YEARS OF LEAD Italy endured a low grade civil conflict starting in the 1960s. Various extreme right and left groups targeted each other, the government, civil society, and civilians with bombings, kidnapping, robberies, and assassinations. The extreme right’s goal was the notorious “strategy of tension“: to scare people with terror enough that they would accept a reactionary government. The left’s strategy: to mobilize the population enough to kick off a left-wing revolution. Both used violence and terror as risky but sometimes successful recruiting tools, as well as for resource-gathering (cf bank robberies). Violence and terror also kept the cycle going by instilling the desire for revenge in survivors, friends, family, and witnesses.

Strage di bologna - By Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The 1980 Bologna railway massacre.

How might this apply to the United States? It is not difficult to foresee some extreme right-wing groups (3%ers, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, etc) increasing their violent acts and becoming more ambitious. One established American precedent is The Order, a hard-right racist fringe outfit which conducted bank robberies and at least one assassination in the mid-1980s.  Following the Italian example, not to mention the action of some Republicans around the January 6th event, we would envision some politicians allying themselves with these fringe activists to varying degrees of secrecy or openness, for a shared cause and/or mutual benefit.

I’m not sure if there will be any such corresponding action on the extreme left, since so many are wedded to nonviolent action. But we could see such organizing happen if a group feels right-wing dangers are dire enough and if they are willing to obtain the necessary tools.  Perhaps right wing attacks will spur retaliation. Or maybe some will see their struggle as so fundamental to humanity that they must risk extreme action (cf the classic “if you had a time machine, would you travel to the 1920s and murder Hitler?” prompt).

Recall that in the Italian case the activists were very small in number. The Red Brigades numbered a few hundred out of a nation with circa 50 million people. The United States, in contrast, numbers nearly 330 million and is very well supplied with weaponry.

Recall, too, that in Italy’s Years of Lead neither side succeeded in taking over the government, even after kidnapping and killing a former prime minister.

CHINA’S CULTURAL REVOLUTION From 1966 to 1976 political chaos engulfed the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao, having lost a great deal of power due to the horrific failure of his Great Leap Forward, launched a political gamble to rebuild his leadership. The story is complex and not easy to summarize, but it took the broad form of a revolution from above, which developed into widespread unrest to the level of civil war.  Mao used national, regional, local, and cultural supporters to provoke political instability while building up a Stalin-level cult of personality.  To do this Mao and his allies ran huge propaganda campaigns, created new political-military units out of teenagers, spurred endless rounds of local political fighting (hence struggle sessions and escalating local violence), and purged leaders across the system, along with preparing the nation for war with the Soviet Union, and more.

China Cultural Revolution Tiananmen 1966_Wikipedia

(I recommend Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976. The complexity of this story is immense, and its recency means it’s difficult to get perspective and documents.)

How might this play out in the United States?  Obviously the American situation is very different.  Contemporary America is a world leader and is neoliberal in ideology, as opposed to China’s developing nation status during these events, not to mention being a communist state. However, we could imagine a right wing American leader, such as Trump, applying some of Mao’s practices if he wins the 2024 presidential election. Imagine him authorizing various local groups (militias, friendly state governments, local or state police) and federal agencies to go after people he doesn’t like (liberal school boards, tech companies, whatever Trump thinks Antifa is). Trump (or DeSantis) could use federal powers to crack down on anyone he doesn’t like, such as sending troops to deep blue cities, increasing digital surveillance, or denying resources. Trump (or DeSantis) could also follow Mao in urging repeatedly updated political opinions, talking up foreign war to scare people at home, calling out domestic enemies, and generally building up a cult of personality.

Obviously there are limits to this analogy. Trump is no ideologue like Mao was; I’m not sure what a Little Red Book analog might be.  Further, today’s GOP counts economic growth as a major, even leading achievement, while a Cultural Revolution level of chaos would undermine that.

One thing to keep in mind: Mao succeeded, at least in terms of his drive to rebuild his own power. He lived the last years of his life in supreme authority, albeit in declining health, after dismantling some of his support structures.

THE DESTRUCTION OF YUGOSLAVIA In the 1990s this nation tore itself apart, as a nationalist party tried to seize and expand control over the whole republic, and as different sub-nations sought to secede. A powerful national army proved a major power source for the Serb hardliners, as did militias. Republics generated their own forces, including irregular militias. Violence escalated in cycles of vengeance and deliberately inflicted terror. Republics exited the federation while the war grew in complexity and horror.  Other nations intervened, eventually establishing a shaky peace – followed by more conflicts and more unstable settlements.


Bosnia’s Stary Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva River, rebuilt after being shattered in the war.

What vision for American conflict does the destruction of Yugoslavia present?  This is a more extreme model than the first two, but it could play out in several ways. imagine if Trump or DeSantis wins the White House and cracks down much harder than in the Mao model. Such suppression, surveillance, and violence provokes resistance at the state and city level. Democrats/liberals/the left attempt to secede in some way, such as declaring local autonomy from the Republican administration. They could organize self-defense forces at scale. This could spark an escalated federal crackdown. Any violence would drive all sides to further organization and action, and the nation spirals into civil war.

Alternatively, we could imagine the reverse, with a Democratic election victory and the Trump/reactionary right treating the winner as a tyrant. The latter could attempt to secede at the city, state, and/or regional level. They could organizing violence at various levels, from lone activists to militias or suborned local police, aimed against federal forces or locals perceived as aligned with them. The White House follows Lincoln in 1861 and responds with greater force. The civil war spiral kicks off.

Once more, there are obvious differences between the United States in the 2020s and post-Tito Yugoslavia. As with the Chinese comparison, America is not a communist state.  The USA is also more powerful geopolitically, not at the point of having foreign forces intervene and force settlements.  There are not clear-cut mixtures of ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides; the American situation is more complex.  Yet ethnic cleansing, should it occur, might take different forms, such as racial mass murder.

Why these historical examples out of all others?

First off, I was looking for situations that were as close to the present as possible.  That makes the comparisons less removed than, say, examples from Europe in the 1600s.  These histories are still distant from our present in key ways.  The contemporary internet, for example, could prove a powerful tool in any actor’s arsenal. The experience and impact of COVID-19 might inflect any such future history in ways quite different from our examples.

Second, for each one I began by isolating present-day factors which could drive civil unrest in the United States. Looking at dueling small groups in Portland, Oregon and the group which rioted in the US Capitol brought to mind the fierce, committed extremists of modern Italy. Considering Trump’s cult of personality, I looked for contemporary examples.  North Korea offers one, as does Italy’s Berlusconi, but not with the deliberate cultivation of chaos represented by Mao’s top-down revolution. Considering secession presents several alternatives, like Czechoslovakia’s split or the Eritrean war, but former Yugoslavia has advantages: a larger number of factions, a late industrial economic base, and a mix of ideologies with other identities.

Again, these are sketches. There is a lot more to say about each of those stories. There are plenty of ways today’s American context differs from each. Plus I have a lot more research behind this, but don’t want to overwhelm in a single FB post. My goal is to get you all thinking and commenting, so have at it.

(Bologna bombing photo by Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari –, CC BY-SA 3.0; Cultural Revolution photo from Wikipedia; Mostar’s Stary Most image from Wikipedia)

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10 Responses to Modeling civil unrest in the United States: some historical cases

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    Let’s not forget Arab Spring, also quite recent. Here’s coupled cusp modeling: *Coupled Catastrophes: Sudden Shifts Cascade and Hop among Interdependent Systems* J. R. Soc. Interface 12: 20150712.
    Speaking of cusp models, here’s climate change tipping points:
    **Complex networks of interacting stochastic tipping elements:
    Cooperativity of phase separation in the large-system limit**
    PHYSICAL REVIEW E 104, 044301 (2021)

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    I think a terrorist model is the most likely outcome. We’re already seeing a backlash from the political center, which is politically the strongest faction in the US, in the form of rejecting more extremist candidates for office. The power of state-level actors is not sufficient to mount a Confederacy-style secession movement.

    That leaves the lowest form of conflict by those feeling they are disenfranchised (rightly or wrongly). The typical pattern here is that marginalized extremist groups will seek violent action to advance their agenda. Given the amount of guns in the US, this reaction could be quite bloody. However, I think a mainstream culture and a law enforcement culture that rejects violence as a political tool makes the system sufficiently antifragile to survive this latest attack on its norms.

    It won’t be pretty but we’d muddle through. No Battle of Fredericksburg 2.0. More likely we’re looking at Bloody Kansas distributed broadly throughout the US.

  3. Rachel Rigolino says:

    Interesting, and I would add that both Left and Right are trotting out the 1930s Germany comparison. The only disagreement seems to be which part of 1930s Germany we are in—the early 30s or Reichstag era. So depressing.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Not a good comparison; Weimar Apocalypse is a section heading in David Redles’ chapter (McGhee/O’Leary 2005/2014) that gets into it. Although we have hundreds of millions of guns in the US, even in the Jan 6th riot hardly any were actually used. Germany, for example, had armed Freikorps and Communists (Spartacists) battling it out in the streets. SA were thugs that make our gang wars look like children playing with fake guns in the street.

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, I am so glad you brought this subject up. In 2022, what kind of world are we entering and are there any viable comparisons to the past given that we are entering a time of global climate chaos? There have certainly been horrible acts of violence over the course of human history and they may not be suitable comparisons–yet. Clearly, the US is becoming more divided, and there are external powers, international competitors, facing social and economic problems. Before we do any analysis, who really are all the players–including foreign players? In terms of the US, is this merely a Culture War, or is there a Class War embedded in this? Who stands to lose most from the war? And who stands to gain? With advanced technologies, how can the different parties advance their cause through a continuum of force, including: propaganda, economic coercion, and physical force?

  5. Tom Haymes says:

    I think we are seeing a convergence of paradigm shifts similar to the 1920s.

    1) We have a declining world power (the US) that doesn’t realize its new place in the world (equivalent would be GB in the 20s).
    2) We have a raft of societies dealing with the fallout of an economic paradigm shift. In the 20s we saw the impact of the agrarian to industrial shift take widespread hold across a broad spectrum of societies. (Yes, this moved at a different pace in different parts of the world and was tinged by cultural norms – as is today’s shift). Trivia bit: The US Congress refused to certify the 1920 Census because it showed a majority living in urban areas, not on the land ( In the 202os, we’re seeing an economic shift away from unsustainable industrial economics, particularly those relating to energy production. People are also thinking differently about their individual roles within the economy.

    3) This is going to cause the same kinds of frictions and suspicions we saw in the 20s where utopian ideals rubbed against industrial and agrarian angst to create a toxic mix in many countries. In periods of economic dislocation, the weak in society often became victims and in many countries this inevitably became tinged with racial violence. There’s no reason to believe this isn’t already happening and will likely continue as times become more uncertain. Add in the mix of climate stress and disasters and you will see lots of societal conflict.

    I am (mildly) optimistic that our ability to communicate online will help groups that otherwise would have been targeted in isolation communicate their struggles. And that this will dampen the worst excesses.

    However, I do see a similar convergence of economic, political, and cultural paradigm shifts causing a great deal of unrest and uncertainty. This is a much more global phenomenon than it was in the 1920s. Then it was confined mostly to North America, Europe, and Japan. Now, the whole world is struggling with the impacts of these issues in parallel, if not at the same level. We could definitely use some leadership that understands these forces to help navigate a complicated new environment, domestically and internationally. Not seeing that yet and that’s what I find most troubling. (Imagine the 1989 transition with Putin at the helm of the USSR instead of Gorbachev.)

  6. Joe says:

    I would say “God help us,” but I am a Deist. We need to fix this ourselves.

    Of the various scenarios presented, I see more terrorism by the Timothy McVeighs of the Right, not civil war: our real rulers, the corporations, would not put up with the loss of capital.

    But I may be wrong. We in the Center may have to endure things we cannot usually abide: FBI raids and capital punishment such as McVeigh and Nichols rightly earned.

    As a Southerner, I fear a lot of what I see and hear, much of it, but not all, bluster. Those of us opposed to the extreme Right should also arm ourselves and get training. Consider it an insurance policy. Yes, high-cap handguns and ARs. We Southerners of rural persuasion are comfortable with guns already; y’all in town, especially Blue-Staters on the Coasts, may need to learn that comfort, too.

    May we never need these weapons, but the Second Amendment works against Fascism, too.

    I fear that college campuses, seen on the Right (not without reason) as breeding-grounds for Leftist thought, may be targeted. We are not ready for that, as our active-shooter training premises a lone wolf, not a pack of paramilitary goons with good training.

    Keep both eyes open and have a Plan B. It looks a lot like Kunstler’s near-future right now.

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