The tile is an unfortunate one, as it brings to mind our last Civil War where the North and South faced off on battlefields 1861-65 and over 600,000 Americans died. A far better title would have been America on the Verge of Violent Social Unrest.
The author, Stephen Marche, is a Canadian journalist and novelist who has been a writer for numerous periodicals, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and others.
His book belongs to a category that can be called Counter-factual History, or just plain speculation.
His starting point is the presentation of five possible conflict scenarios all based on probable outcomes according to research he has done with individuals and institutions that would be involved in such a scenario.
As journalist, Marche has travelled extensively in the USA and seen how Americans are no longer capable of interacting with one another. They seem to belong to different tribes. The Republican Party has become the party of conservative and often lesser-educated white people, with few non-white members at all, whilst the Democratic Party has become a multi-cultural party largely based in urban areas. The rich often stick with the Republican Party as it aims to lower taxes for them.
Trump is not to blame, according to Marche as the US was already deeply divided before Trump was elected in 2016. The problem is no longer who is in power, but rather the structures of power itself. He writes that “The American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible. The legal system grows less legitimate by the day.” p.10
America is suffering from the political consequences of information pollution, according to Marche. Social Media and its algorithms (pushing more of the same at you, whatever your bias) have contributed to the creation of alternative realities. Those that trust Trump and Fox News often avoid exposing themselves to the so-called “liberal media” (CNN, New York Times, etc), and the opposite applies as well. Civil discourse has ceased, now you are either one of US or one of THEM. In a country with more guns (400 mil) than people (330 mil) this can quickly become a problem.
I’ll only mention one of his scenarios here: the Battle of the Bridge.
There are 616,087 bridges in the USA and almost 40% are 50 years old, or older. No funds were set aside for maintenance, and many of them are structurally deficient today, as in dangerous to use. In this scenario agents from the Federal Highway Administration show up for a routine inspection and find crumbling concrete, water damage and other structural problems. They have to direct the local County’s supervisors to close the bridge as a danger to public safety. Now things get complicated, as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requires an environmental assessment before any repairs can be made. The EPA has staffing shortages and a backlog of work to do, so it could take some time to produce the required report. Meanwhile, the bridge will be barricaded with concrete blocks and barbed wire. Drivers in this rural county will need to take the long way around.
The local Sheriff, an elected official, will wake up to angry phone calls from his constituents demanding that the bridge be reopened quickly. The Sheriff is quick to see a political possibility and in order to ensure his reelection he goes to the bridge and has it cleared for traffic. This is filmed for his Facebook page along with his comments about how Federal Government is not going to be allowed to mess with people’s lives in his county as long as he is Sheriff.
Soon Fox News arrives and the Sheriff becomes a popular man on national TV. Local militia groups show up with their own media equipment and begin broadcasting from the Bridge. National militia groups are also on the move towards the bridge. The State’s governor needs to be reelected and chooses to do nothing about this.
The Federal Government in Washington doesn’t want to activate the local National Guard as they can’t count on the local population (in national guard uniforms) to actually do anything they are told to do. Washington feels forced to send in regular troops from the US Army. The situation gets worse day by day. Only one accidental shot is required and the power of the American Army will sweep the militia groups away in minutes. The dead and wounded will be broadcast live on the Internet as it happens. Riots will then break out in many places around the country. Things will go from bad to worse rapidly.
Marche takes up five such situations, however there could be many more possible situations that could have been included.
According to Marche, what needs to be done to prevent these situations is for America “to implement a modern electoral system, to restore the legitimacy of the courts, to reform its police forces, to root out domestic terrorism, to alter its tax code to address inequality, to prepare its cities and its agriculture for the effects of climate change, to regulate and to control the mechanisms of violence.” p.226
I think it is going to be difficult to avoid small scale armed conflict in the near future in the USA. Most likely it will be localized and relatively small scale, but could happen in numerous places more or less at the same time. Don’t expect to see large battles between angry groups. This kind of low level conflict could go on for a very long time. The political system is just too broken to deal with this.