NEWSLETTER (£)A surge in violence looks unavoidable but what form will it take and how dangerous will it be?
The smell of gunpowder already pervades the US presidential election of 2024. Menacing threats of civil conflict are made from every podium.
“Do you want us to be in [a] civil war?” asked former Republican vice-presidential candidate and Alaska governor Sarah Palin in response to the arrest of Donald Trump on election charges in Georgia last month. “Because that’s what’s going to happen… We do need to rise up and take our country back.”
Rants like Palin’s are commonplace but they need to be taken seriously since to many they sound like a real call to arms. Those on trial for invading the Capitol on 6 January, 2021 credibly claim that they were only responding to Trump’s incendiary, if ambiguous, words of encouragement.
Biden’s campaign will be marginalised
Yet, whatever actually happened on that day, the attackers are being severely punished as genuine insurgents with the leader of the Proud Boys militia, Joe Biggs, who had declared a “war” to ensure that Trump would remain US president, sentenced this Thursday to 17 years in prison. Trump says he would pardon “a large proportion” of the Capitol rioters if he becomes president again.
The US now faces the likelihood that Trump, who is level pegging with President Joe Biden in the polls, will be the Republican presidential candidate next year at the same moment as the US government is seeking to put him in prison. They might possibly force him out of the race, but his high-profile legal battles to come will enable him to do what he does best, which is to turn attacks on himself to his own advantage by using them to dominate the news agenda.
While he does so, Biden’s campaign will be marginalised and ignored by the media.
The great wildcard in international affairs
The political crisis in the US is replacing the war in Ukraine as the great wild card in international affairs with nobody able to predict to what extent the American system of government has really broken down.
A surge in violence looks unavoidable but what form will it take and how dangerous will it be?
The last time political turmoil in the US was so great was in the 1960s – violence took the form of race riots and the assassination of leaders such as president Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, all of whom were shot to death. Given the rising level of hatred and the universal availability of firearms, it would be surprising if we do not see a serious bid to kill a leading political figure before the election.
Assassins only have to follow the lead of their governments in disposing of critics and opponents. State sponsored killings have been on the rise over the last few years, impressing individuals with the idea that this is an effective and acceptable way to change the course of history.
An unrelenting domestic conflict
The most recent likely assassination victim was the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom the Kremlin had every reason to target. But it was on orders from Trump that a US drone assassinated the Iranian general Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi militia leader, at Baghdad airport on 3 January, 2020. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, alleged by the CIA to have ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, is being hurriedly rehabilitated by all sides who want him as an ally in the Ukraine war.
I do not believe that the US is facing a civil war along the classic lines of that between the Confederacy and the Union (1861-65), but it is locked into an unrelenting domestic conflict that is bound to produce more violence. This is not as surprising as is sometimes portrayed because America has always been more divided geographically, politically, ethnically and culturally than foreigners imagine or Americans admit to themselves.
This division is not all negative since it is the very collision between these radically different versions of America which produces much of the country’s energy and originality.
America’s divisions are often seen as racial with hatreds deeply embedded by slavery and the Civil War, a view that is largely correct. As president, Trump left no doubt about where he stood on these issues, once threatening to veto a $718bn defence bill because it renamed US military bases like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas, both of which are bizarrely named after Confederate generals who fought to destroy the United States.
Discrimination did not end
Trump’s racism was barely concealed, but he also succeeded in plugging into a more pervasive political and social culture, once rooted in the south but now extending far beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. It is a culture which includes distinctive attitudes to women, gun ownership, abortion, evangelical Christianity, paramilitary policing, crime and punishment, affirmative action, and the place of government in society.
An unexpected aspect of modern America is that in the wake of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when black people supposedly gained de jure equality with white people, the southern version of American political culture became more dominant. The civil rights movement was portrayed as a great success, but the counter-reaction to it proved in many respects more powerful and influential. Discrimination did not end but took different forms.
Black people make up 13 per cent of the US population but 38 per cent of those in prison or jail. The “southernisation” of American politics and many aspects of American culture in opposition to contrary trends explains why “culture wars” in the US are fought with a venom that is not seen in Britain or in the rest of Europe.
‘The last Confederate president’
Called by some “the last Confederate president”, Trump was able to extend his appeal through a vague populism to those in America who felt that their standard of living had been static or eroded over the past 40 years and somebody must be to blame for this. Trump’s base support may not exactly know what he is in favour of, but they feel they have the same enemies as him. Identification with Trump is so strong that exposure of his lies and failings does him little damage and the judicial assault on him now under way may again disappoint Democratic expectations.
Do these escalating antagonisms lead inexorably towards some sort of violent conflict or even a civil war? It is difficult to imagine a decisive turn towards military confrontation as when the South Carolina militia opened fire on federal troops in Fort Sumter off Charleston in 1861. But it is also difficult to see how Republicans and Democrats can de-escalate hostilities since they encompass such a vast range of antagonistic interests and issues.
As the political temperature rises in the coming months, there is every likelihood of increased violence that does not amount to anything approaching regular warfare, but it does mean that America will be in a state of permanent – and irresolvable – crisis from which it cannot escape.
I followed with keen interest the progress of Hurricane Idalia which on 30 August struck the Big Bend region of the Gulf coast of Florida between the panhandle and the peninsula less than 90 miles away from the state capital of Tallahassee. Demoted to a tropical storm, it has since moved across south-east Georgia and South Carolina. Many people temporarily lost electricity because of trees falling on power lines and two people are known to have died.
The reason I was so interested in what really happened with Idalia is that extreme weather events are invariably reported by the media as potential or actual catastrophes, though the great majority of them are nothing of the sort. Hurricanes, floods and wildfires all get the same exaggerated treatment. On occasion, as with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, when the levees broke and the city was flooded, the catastrophe far exceeds expectations, but by then the media will have run out of superlatives.
I once reported on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers flooding, an experience which provided a good example of the deceptiveness of the selective reporting of natural disasters which gives a wholly misleading impression of a disaster without falsifying a single fact.
In this case, Americans watching television saw an attractive white-painted wooden house with a balcony in a suburb of St Louis slowly subsiding into the floodwaters of the Mississippi. What they would not have known was that a reason why the house was sinking so fast was the sheer number of camera crews with their tripods and heavy equipment who had crowded onto the part of the balcony that was not yet submerged.
No other houses in the district were in danger from the flood waters. Otherwise life was going on much as normal with gambling casinos on the Mississippi open for business as visitors made their way to the gaming table over duck-boards laid across the shallow flood waters.
Britain has far less severe weather than the US so the scope for exaggeration is less, but we do our best. TV favours reports from Cumbria and Devon while also focusing on Tewkesbury Abbey on the confluence of the Severn and Avon rivers which is often marooned by flood waters which stop just short of inundating it. Very picturesque it looks surrounded by water but this usually recedes before doing damage. By way of contrast, when a genuine flood did great damage in less scenic Hull in 2007, the local council complained that the disaster was largely ignored by the media.
It is not just the media that exaggerates natural disasters. Politicians see them as a chance to stand tall, defy the elements, wag their fingers at those who do not evacuate and stress the perfection of the counter measures in place, though these are seldom put to the test and often prove inadequate when they are.
Idalia was no exception to this rule, with everybody from the mayor of Talahassee to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden all standing at their different podiums and trying to look like the man in charge. Of course, not all this is pure opportunism as every American politician has a vivid memory of the damage President George W Bush did to his reputation by being pictured looking distantly through his plane’s window in 2005 at devastated New Orleans far below where 1,836 people had died and damage was estimated to be around the $100bn mark.
An American newspaper nostrum holds that “if it bleeds it leads” and this applies especially to war, crime and weather disasters. Atypical catastrophic incidents are presented as the norm, though by crying wolf so often the media and politicians discredit their own warnings. People who have borne the cost and inconvenience of three or four unnecessary evacuations may stay put when a real calamity is hurling towards them.
Beneath the Radar
The number of bank branches in the UK roughly halved from 1986 to 2014 and closures continue apace. Banks have closed branches in order to increase their profitability, using as the excuse that customers are shunning physical branches and moving to online banking.
This is the rankest hypocrisy, given the fact that in many cases the customers have no choice but to go online because either the local branch of their bank has closed or it has been hollowed out by being reduced to a few staff members with limited decision-making powers.
As with closures, de-staffing and de-skilling in other areas – notably railway ticket offices, supermarket check-outs, travel agents, buses – the pretence is that customers will benefit from modernisation. The reality is that customers are now forced to do work unpaid which was previously done by employees who got a pay packet. Anybody who objects to this can be denounced as a Luddite.
As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is rehabilitated apace on the international stage, the killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 is increasingly treated as ancient history.
But being even a mild dissenter in the land of MBS is as dangerous as it ever was.
“Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars trying to rehabilitate their image, but no amount of money can whitewash just how repressive the country has become,” says Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “The death sentence against Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, who has a total of just 10 followers on both of his anonymous Twitter accounts and is accused of nothing other than expressing his opinions on social media, is ludicrous. It is a marked escalation in the kingdom’s crackdown on any form of dissent.”
The purpose of the death sentence is apparently to blackmail al-Ghamdi’s brother, Dr Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, an Islamic scholar and Saudi government critic living in self-imposed exile in the UK to return to the kingdom.