The Flames of November: What if some Trump backers turn to resistance?
What happens when you finally steel yourself to walk down those dark basement stairs?
By Joel Garreau
Best Defense office of domestic political scenarios
What happens when you finally steel yourself to walk down those dark basement stairs? And then you discover there really is a monster down there?
Apparently we’re about to find out.
Last winter — when the Donald Trump insurgency was still being dismissed by many — I wrote in this space a credible “thinking the unthinkable” scenario like I’d never seen before. It scared the hell out of me. It went like this:
A credible scenario today exists in which, the day after 58th quadrennial U.S. presidential election on November 8, 2016, the wheels start to come off the United States of America.
I never thought I would live to type these words. In all the decades I have reported on this country, this is the first time I can imagine such a future as credible. But fortune favors the prepared mind.
So what if Hillary Clinton wins in a squeaker? Where does this year’s anger go and how is it manifested? Suppose a significant minority of the country refuses to recognize the legitimacy of her administration? I am beginning to fear the sort of “Bleeding Kansas”-style resistance we saw in the 1850s. Imagine Oregon-militia style takeovers of federal facilities happening routinely. Imagine IRS offices fire-bombed. Imagine state legislatures — South Carolina, Arizona, Idaho — declining to cooperate with what they call “the illegitimate Clinton regime.”
I had written this scenario as hard as I thought I could.
Turns out — gods help us all — I was wrong.
It can get worse. The fury is getting worse. Last week in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent reported:
Yesterday, on the campaign trail, Trump said: “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged. I have to be honest.”
Meanwhile, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone is explicitly encouraging Trump to make this case to his supporters. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” Stone told a friendly interviewer, adding that Trump should start saying this: “If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.”
Stone also said: “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath.”
There’s been a lot of chatter on twitter to the effect that Trump is trying to delegitimize his potential loss in the eyes of his supporters. But I think this goes further than that: It’s also about delegitimizing the Hillary Clinton presidency, should she win.
Time for a new round of scenarios. The focal question this time is:
What if, the day after the election — among working class whites and regions of the South and West — a squeaker Clinton victory causes such a surge of outrage and disbelief about the “stolen” election that many refuse to accept the results?
Last winter — when some in Washington still didn’t believe Trump would even be the Republican candidate — here’s how our “Regional Refusal” scenario looked:
What happens if Clinton wins by the narrowest of margins? More important, what if some significant portions of the country refuse to accept that outcome?
This “Regional Refusal” scenario is presaged in today’s headlines. On January 2nd, near Burns, Oregon., for the first time in modern history, armed militia went on the offensive. Armed with AR-15 assault rifles, pistols and knives, dozens of men and women occupied federal property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and held if for five weeks. This occupation continued for weeks “without any visible law enforcement,” according to the Washington Post. Several elected officials from neighboring Western states actively encouraged this militia takeover.
The occupiers considered their decision to seize Malheur to be a game changer, according to the Post. Spokesman LaVoy Finicum … described taking the step forward to an actual occupation as “unprecedented”…. Finicum on January 26 was shot dead by Oregon police while allegedly resisting arrest, the only casualty of the occupation.
The Oregon state police say they have received death threats against the officer responsible…. Rep. Jeff Barker, the Democrat who chairs the Oregon House Judiciary Committee, says “The whack jobs — the militants — they were demanding to know the name of the officer that killed LaVoy, and they were going to kill him….”
In a 2014 face-off at militia leader’s Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada, officers stood down after armed people on bridges “took sniper positions behind concrete barriers, their assault rifles aimed directly at the officers below,” according to the Post….
Bundy’s cause won support from two U.S. senators — Rand Paul, the libertarian Kentucky Republican who ran for President, and Dean Heller of Nevada, who referred to Mr. Bundy’s supporters as “patriots”…. After Bundy suggested that “the Negro” would have been better off to be a slave than to be shackled by government subsidies, he was widely repudiated.
But the damage had been done…. Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, one of the country’s leading specialists on right-wing radicals, told The Post a showdown like the one in Oregon “was inevitable… because the anti-government extremists have been itching for a confrontation with the federal government.”
When the rebels finally surrendered in Oregon, more than 30,000 people listened in live, “capping an extraordinary 18 hours in which America’s growing and extreme anti-government movement morphed into something that more closely resembled a strange and nerve-racking TV show,” according to The Post. The drama was “fanned like a brush fire across like-minded social media accounts and YouTube.”
To be clear: A scenario is never a prediction. It is just a credible story about a future that could realistically occur….
[Conditions unique] to 2016, however … aid and abet the credibility of this “Regional Refusal” scenario.
For example, the American central government over the last few years has become so dysfunctional as to become increasingly powerless among the people.
One of the pillars of American constitutional government — the House of Representatives — has essentially vanished. That’s new. This is getting perilously close to the collapse of central authority….
Justice Antonin Scalia dies. Not only is the Supreme Court hobbled…. But for the rest of this year, the country probably will get a lesson from Senate Republicans in massive, determined lack of cooperation with a sitting administration….
Meanwhile, in this election campaign, where anger is stoked and insults are the coin of the realm, rarely are heard the phrases “the common good,” much less “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
So, in “Regional Refusal,” a narrow Hillary Clinton victory is so regionally hated that the consent of the governed is significantly rescinded. And nobody can figure out a way to stop it. As recently as a year ago, this scenario would not have been credible. It is only so today if, in 2016, American democracy has lost a significant amount of its resilience.
That’s the core of it.
Where does this go? I’ll let you develop the scenario from here. But “seditious conspiracy” (18 U.S.C. § 2384) is a crime under United States law. It is described as follows:
“If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Arguably we are already past that. In “Regional Refusal,” the next step is local active resistance, to which the federal government does not have the will or ability to respond. What happens if regions of the country just decide to start taking over areas of authority previously reserved to the federal government? It’s not hard to imagine Texas and Arizona taking control of their borders with Mexico. They already have, to some extent. Some folk there have made it abundantly clear how they wish to deal with unlawful immigration. The only thing standing in their way is the U.S. Department of Justice. Pick whatever flashpoint you like in which active regional take-over might become the norm. Abortion. Income tax collection. Environmental law. Federal lands. Income inequality. Islamic State sympathizers. Muslim immigrants. Prayer. The schools. Gay rights. The proper place of women. Race relations.
Let me repeat. Scenarios never claim to be predictions — much less high-probability ones. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know anybody who does.
But if a scenario describes a future that is credible — especially if it is highly unexpected — than that is a future to which prudent people prepare a strategic response. It is all reminiscent of how scenario thinking was described in its earliest days, in the 1950s, when it was applied to the then-new Nuclear Age.
The practice was called “Thinking the Unthinkable.”
So — now that the chattering class realizes a threat of civil war is credible — with less than a hundred days to go, what should our strategic response be?
The critical uncertainties are:
- How fanned will be the flames? For example, how much does Trump employ his formidable rhetorical and financial skills to egg on his supporters?
- How robust and smart will be the response? How early and energetically do the forces of Union mobilize?
If you cross these two as in classic scenario planning practice, you get a two-by-two matrix that offers four extremely different stories about the future:
- Flames strong, smart response weak. Call this “Fort Sumter 2017.”
- Flames manageable, smart response strong. Call this “New Leaf.”
- Flames strong, smart response strong. Call this “Clash of Wills.”
- Flames manageable, smart response weak. “Dodge the Bullet.”
For today we will focus on the first two credible scenarios: “Fort Sumter” and “New Leaf.”
In scenario planning practice, after you establish the many different kinds of futures that could be coming at you, you look for strategies that are robust in as many scenarios as possible. Therefore, loading up on guns and ammo is not a robust solution. And it could tip the scales away from calmer, more desirable scenarios.
Retaliating against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling, and indicting Trump and his colleagues on charges of seditious conspiracy are equally problematic.
Perhaps the one solution that is robust in as many scenarios as possible is to try to de-escalate the viciousness and incivility and work together to make sure the worst futures do not come to pass.
What are the lessons from the 1850s?
The issues then involved basic ways of life that were profoundly threated by change — much of it technological, from the railroad to the cotton gin. Rapid industrialization and the exponential expansion of western land for settlement were changing every equation. Especially those based on agrarianism, slavery, and a significant social order supported by the old ways.
Perhaps we can take heart that our differences today are not as intractable as was the “original sin” of the Constitution — allowing only some humans to be free. But another lesson is not to underestimate how profoundly different the cultures and values of this diverse continent genuinely are. Or the implications of the world’s oldest democracy being built on the consent of 320 million ornery individualists, heavily armed. Or the fact that race still matters — now particularly if you’re white and feeling threatened.
In 2016, again, ways of life are deeply threatened by vast change. An exponential increase in technology drives globalization, which is transforming the demographic makeup of the country. The United States is trending toward becoming — like most of the rest of the globe — a minority white country.
At the same time, a significant social order is collapsing. It was once possible for a high school educated person who could skillfully and diligently work with his hands to own a house and a bass boat and be celebrated as a pillar of society. The startling increase in middle-class white suicide rates and the increase in overdose deaths of young whites attest to the decline in that.
What are the lessons from the 1930s and 1960s?
Maybe we should take a leaf from the civil rights movement and start going to church with the folk we least understand. There is much still to learn from Gandhi and King.
Then again, perhaps this is what “Fort Sumter 2017” looks like.
- Nov. 9: Trump denounces election results, calls them “questionable,” vows to “take this to the Supreme Court and beyond.”
- Nov. 12: Pennsylvania and Virginia decline to entertain Trump suits contesting narrow Clinton victories.
- Nov. 13:Trump calls election results “illegitimate.”
- Nov. 18: Governors of Arizona and Texas question election results.
- Nov. 20: Louisiana, Georgia, and Mississippi say they want to review election numbers.
- Nov. 22: North Carolina begins throwing out votes from majority black counties.
- Dec. 8: Trump announces plans for a “Two-million-person march on Washington” to coincide with the planned inauguration.
- Dec. 14: Several Idaho counties say they “cannot legally recognize the authority of so-called President-elect Clinton.” By inauguration day, the majority of rural counties (but not population) in 13 states have issued similar statements.
- Dec. Jan 20: President Clinton’s inaugural address is drowned out by the revving of thousands of motorcycles around the Capitol. The black-clad riders call themselves the “American Restoration Militia,” or ARM.
- Jan. 22: The federal courthouse in Dallas is bombed.
- Jan. 24: In Wichita, ARM occupies the U.S. courthouse, the U.S. Internal Revenue building, and the U.S. General Services Administration building. Kansas State Police decline to remove them.
- Jan. 25: Clinton nationalizes Kansas National Guard.
- Jan. 27: Some 40 percent of the Kansas National Guard soldiers decline to mobilize. Trump applauds them, and encourages ARM militias “to follow these heroes.”
- Jan. 28: The Army removes the commanding general of the Kansas National Guard when he says “as a matter of conscience I cannot compel soldiers to violate their own consciences.” The brigadier general then crosses picket lines and joins the “Occupy Hillary” protestors in the Wichita federal courthouse.
- Jan. 29: Supreme Court rejects all Trump suits.
- Feb. 1: A federal judge’s car is bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
- Feb. 4: South Carolina announces a state convention to consider “our future relationship with the federal government.”
That is not the only scenario of course for the days after the election.
Consider, by contrast, “New Leaf”:
In “New Leaf,” a new political party emerges out of the ashes of the GOP (which itself was the child of an earlier national division):
This new “Common Conscience” is centrist and sober. It calls for tolerance, compromise and return to order. It demands that private views be respected but not imposed on the public. It carves out a bloc in Congress built around 20 disaffected Midwestern Democrats, plus two dozen Republicans from Iowa, California, Oregon, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maine. In May 2017, they meet in Omaha for a three-day “Common Conscience,” paid for by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos. From this emerges a plan to run candidates in every congressional district in 2018. It is mocked at first by political professionals, but their laughter dies as the attraction of the new approach quickly becomes evident. The new organization becomes popularly known as “the Commoners.”
In late 2017, some 50 additional Republican members of Congress indicate that they plan to run both as Republicans and Commoners candidates. Funding for the Republican Party itself dwindles as it shrinks into a regionalist party. Notably, the rump Republican party has almost no black or Hispanic members. George Will, in a column, calls this rump party “Humphrey’s Revenge” — an allusion to Richard Nixon’s strategy in 1968 of appealing to white Southerners as a way of defeating Hubert Humphrey.
In January 2019, the new House of Representatives is seated with the Commoners holding 109 seats, the Republicans 130, and the Democrats 201. This gives the Commoners the decisive edge. Whomever it supports will become Speaker of the House.
The Commoners Pary announces public tryouts for this seat, holding a series of meetings at which prospective Speakers describe how they would try to move Congress and the country forward — and back together. These 90 minute sessions are televised for a week, with each speaker allowed 45 minutes to speak and then 45 minutes to be questioned by National Party members of Congress. Decency and decorum are the rule of the day. The prospective Speakers speak in conversational tones, often describing their personal pain over the events of the previous two years.
The TV sessions become a national phenomenon, with the last three (of eight) receiving the highest ratings of the cable/livestream era. Some 62 percent of American adults tell pollsters they have watched “some” of the proceedings. Another 17 say they watched “all.”
The person selected to be speaker? She is a 42-year-old freshman member of Congress, a former police officer turned Congregational minister. And she suddenly is one of the most prominent elected officials in the country.
Joel Garreau, a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, is the author of several best-sellers, including the landmark work on this continent’s cultural regions, The Nine Nations of North America. He long served as a scenario planner with Global Business Network. He is currently the Professor of Law, Culture, and Values at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and not those of any of the institutions with which he is or has been associated.
Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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