The Students of "How To Start a Civil War" Have Begun
America didn’t ask for a homegrown rightwing terror movement, but now that it’s here we need to take it seriously
They thought that by “completely destroying Baltimore” — shooting up five power substations to blackout the city — they’d so upset white people in America that Trump’s racist base would rise up, begin the Second Civil War, and start slaughtering Black people, Hispanics, and Jews.
Instead, Sarah Clendaniel, 27, and Brandon Russell, 34, a co-founder of the white supremacist neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, are in federal custody awaiting arraignment.
This is what then-Congressman Adam Kinzinger was worried about when he told Axios last year:
“I don’t think that’s too far of a bridge to recognize. It’s going to be armed groups against armed groups, targeted assassination, and violence.”
And Donald Trump yesterday used his Nazi-infested social media platform to push a renewed call for violence by Americans against Americans as Senator Chris Murphy called out on Twitter:
There is an active movement within the United States trying to start a civil war. They’re armed and serious, having already shot up power stations nine times after their brothers-in-arms tried to kidnap and murder the Governor of Michigan and to hang the Vice President of the United States. They have already murdered numerous people across the country.
You may not recall names like Pat Crusius, Anders Breivik, or James Fields, but members of a dozen different white supremacist groups in America can tell you details of the lives of the El Paso murderer of 23 Hispanic people, the Norwegian killer of 77 “liberals” (most children), and the man who killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others at the “Jews Will Not Replace Us” rally in Charlottesville. All are heroes to the movement.
They also think of themselves as students of how to start civil wars. They believe that when a certain threshold of mistrust and grievance is hit, all it takes is a small event — like the power going out — to trigger much wider bloodshed.
As Kathleen Belew, author of the 2019 book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, told Rachael Maddow last night:
“Infrastructure attacks sit next to a show of forced violence like the January 6 attack on the Capitol and mass casualty violence like the Oklahoma City bombing. All of these exist together within one broad ideology in the white power movement.”
They’ve also internalized the lessons Barbara F. Walter warns us about in her seminal book How Civil Wars Start: when times are tough, people are vulnerable to demagogic and racist scapegoating.
Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie and his gun-loving friends get it, too. Last year Massie argued that the tipping point will come when “30 to 40 percent could agree that [the American government] was legitimate tyranny and it needed to be thrown off” and openly argued that people should be sufficiently well-armed to take on the US Marines.
Finishing that sentence, Massey added:
“They [those trying to bring down the American government] need to have sufficient power without asking for extra permission — it should be right there and completely available to them in their living room in order to effect the change.”
His buddies on the podcast where he made this assertion went even farther, saying that Americans should be able to possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to, presumably, fight against America’s police and military and take down our government.
Massey is not only still in Congress, Kevin McCarthy oversaw his sitting on:
Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure
Committee on the Judiciary
Committee on Rules
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure - Aviation
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure - Highways and Transit
Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure - Waters Resources and Environment
Committee on the Judiciary - Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet
and is Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary - Administrative State, Regulatory Reform, and Antitrust
Meanwhile, over at The Daily Caller (founded by Tucker Carlson), yesterday’s op-ed leads with:
“It’s 2025. The United States is in chaos. Chinese super soldiers roll in from Canada and criminals rule the streets. You could use a “weapon of war,” but the Democrats won’t allow you to have one that isn’t California compliant. The media told you guns are bad and that working out is toxic masculinity. But the Chinese look pretty fit, and they have guns. So do the criminals victimizing you. Alas, all that critical race theory and TikTok are useless as they break into your home and kill you. …
“America is primed for such a scenario. Our depressed youth are divided along ethno-racial, economic and social lines. Male depression and suicide are through the roof.”
So, how did we get here, and what’s the best way to avoid bloodshed and chaos?
The “how we got here” part came from two events. The first was the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, ruling for the first time in American history that public schools must be racially integrated.
It set off an explosion of private schools and academies, all-white church schools, and launched a movement to destroy public education that is now within reach of many of its goals.
Pouring fuel on this fire was the Reagan Revolution in 1981, when Republicans took over the government and flipped us out of FDR’s New Deal and into Milton Friedman’s neoliberalism, as I lay out in The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America.
Reagan’s neoliberalism not only took a meat-axe to unions and working class white people, it began the destruction of the most critical currency a government has: trust.
In the 1950s almost to 80% of Americans trusted government and their fellow citizens. Today, after 42 years of Republicans trashing government itself, that number is in the 20% range.
The decade of the Reagan presidency also saw the first full generation of non-white immigrants becoming US citizens because of immigration law reform that ended racial quotas in 1965 and a 3-million person immigrant surge that Reagan “legalized” in 1986. Combined, these two forces got “the browning of American” underway.
Also around that time the GOP rolled out their “voter fraud” scam that could be used to rig elections, and Reagan’s assertion that “Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem” was inflicted on us to win support for deregulating the polluting fossil fuel industry.
Those three memes together have destroyed the faith once held by millions of Americans’ in our government itself. And changes in our racial composition, along with economic changes rolled out with the Reagan Revolution, have made white racists positively hysterical.
Reagan cut tax rates on the morbidly rich from 74 percent down to 27 percent while raising taxes on working-class people 11 times, massively widening the American inequality gap.
There wasn’t a single billionaire in the country when he took that unprecedented step: today there are hundreds, and their money bins are so overflowing that they’re shooting themselves into outer space with the loose change spilling out.
Working people were totally left behind by the Reagan Revolution, as Republicans in business, state governments, and on the Supreme Court went gunning for labor unions, which had been a traditional base of support for the Democratic Party. Within a decade we went from a third of Americans in the private sector having union job and wage protections to around ten percent.
As a result, income for the bottom 90 percent of the workers has been functionally frozen since the 1980s and, in many cases, has actually declined; the standard of living a single wage-earner could provide a family in 1980 now requires two people working full-time jobs.
People will tolerate a lot of privation and pain if they’ve grown up with it, but when you take things away from people, they notice it and react with rage. In this case, Reaganism stole a middle class lifestyle from millions of working class white people, and they’re pissed.
Racist demagogues in the GOP are using that anger as a cudgel against American democracy.
As the white working class woke up to how they’d been screwed, Limbaugh and Fox came along to tell them who was responsible: all those dark-skinned people they were seeing in increasing numbers who were “taking their jobs.”
As Walter documents in How Civil Wars Start, when an ethnic, language, or racial majority of a population experiences a rapid (one or two generation) significant loss of status and wealth — as happened in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Syria, and is now happening here — grievance politics come to the fore and revolutionary groups made up of the newly disenfranchised appear.
Pretty soon, if a leader or political party decide to use race or religion as a political weapon, you have armed militias and open rebellions against the rule of law; it often happens so fast that afterwards people say they never saw it coming.
That’s where we’re at in America now, and it was first set up by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Reaganism (aka neoliberalism) took a huge bite out of the wealth and power of working class white people, reducing millions from the middle class down into the working poor. At the same time, Reagan doubled down on Nixon’s Southern Strategy by raging about “welfare queens” and “young bucks” using food stamps.
Reagan also negotiated what became NAFTA and the WTO, which led to over 60,000 factories and tens of millions of good-paying jobs moving offshore. (Joe Biden is only now starting to bring our jobs back and reverse that process.)
Then came Donald Trump, not only pointing out how billionaires were ripping off working people but doubling down by telling Americans all the way back in the 2015 primaries that our entire political system is “rigged” against working class white voters.
Instead of making government work for white people, Trump told his crowds in dog-whistle and metaphor, the corrupt “deep state” and “lying media” were conspiring to throw the country open to people with brown skin while subsidizing the lives of those of African descent.
Pointing out the truth about how Reaganism gutted the middle class (America’s middle class, once around 65% of us, slipped below the 50% of the population mark in 2015) let Trump wipe the floor that year with his primary opponents, and today his Big Lie about the 2020 election is believed by more than 70 percent of all Republican voters.
And, while not usually mentioned in the mainstream press, just attend a Trump rally or ask any of his followers: they believe all that “voter fraud” is being committed by Black people in big cities, a meme Trump hammered for five years and continues to spout with lies about “busloads” of post-church Black people crossing state lines to vote multiple times.
When there’s a shared sense of grievance combined with mistrust of government, these white supremacists believe, small events can flare into a wider civil war without warning.
The idea isn’t new within the white supremacist movement; they just haven’t yet hit a critical mass. Tim McVeigh thought he’d trigger a race war against the Clinton administration when he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in an imitation of the story line in the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries.
In that book — now the “bible” of the white supremacist movement, according to the FBI — the hero Earl Turner blows up a Federal Building but the government overreacts by sending agents out to confiscate guns from the good, patriotic white people across the nation. They rise up and begin an orgy of chaos and death; in the end the “mud races” are all dead (including Jews) and the Christian white supremacist hero helps run the new “European culture” nation.
All of this racism, outrage, and anger has also been amplified since around 2008 when Obama was elected president, coincidental with the near-universal adoption of smartphone-based social media, whose algorithms were described by Tristan Harris as a “civil war for profit business model.”
So, what do we do?
Walter and other academic and political observers point out that the way to diminish the power and appeal of rightwing terror movements and recover trust in a government is at least a two-step process.
First, Americans have to trust that their democracy works. That means adopting systems and laws like virtually every other developed nation in the world use to inspire and retain trust in their political system.
Canada, for example, has an independent, nonpartisan national voting agency (Elections Canada) that’s transparent and makes sure the vote is available to all citizens. Canadian law also puts a cap on money in politics that limits the influence of both the morbidly rich and giant corporations, while funding education in civics and critical thinking.
This will also require overturning the Supreme Court-created-from-whole-cloth doctrines that corporations are “persons” with constitutional rights and money is the same thing as First Amendment-protected “free speech” as laid out in their Citizens United decision.
Second, the Americans who’ve been the victims of Reaganism’s gutting of the middle class have to stop feeling like they’re constantly on the edge of panic. When more than half the families in America would be crippled by an unexpected $400 expense, you’re sitting on a powder keg.
Other advanced democracies have solved this problem by expanding union rights and the social safety net, including free or low-cost medical care and debt-free college/trade school education.
When people have a good job and income, they tend not to become terrorists. America’s slogan could become, “If Canada can do it, why can’t we?”
And, finally, as I lay out in The Hidden History of Big Brother, Congress must come to terms with the damage caused by social media algorithms designed to maximize outrage and profits at the expense of rational discourse, shared facts/reality, and democracy itself.
We have less than two years before the 2024 election and with the GOP in charge of the House it’s going to be a hell of a lift to put this country back on track. Nonetheless, the Biden administration and Democrats across the country can begin the conversation, preparing Americans for genuine electoral reform after the 2024 election. Maybe a few Republicans of good will could join them.
The media could help, too, by honestly exposing the damage Reaganism has done to this country while walking back from amplifying the GOP’s most radical, terrorist-friendly voices. Social media has a role to play here, too, if they’d become willing to put country over profits or if Congress could take up the big job of regulating them.
The final step we should take I find rather difficult to write about as a former member of SDS who was surveilled and harassed by both state and local authorities back in the late 1960s. But it’s true and it needs to be said: the existence of our democracy is confronted by the very real possibility of a fascist takeover.
It’s already happened to Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, and the Philippines.
Therefore, both federal, state, and local police agencies need to ramp up their surveillance and infiltration of these domestic terror groups.
America didn’t ask for a homegrown rightwing terror movement, but now that it’s here we need to take it seriously.
"Therefore, both federal, state, and local police agencies need to ramp up their surveillance and infiltration of these domestic terror groups."
The problem is that federal, state and local police agencies have a good number of members of these groups in their ranks.
Thom, I hope you're watching. Please, please, please, stop using the softening descriptor Neo-nazi. They are not neo-anythings. They are Nazis. Period.