Analysis 05-28-2016


The American Presidential Election and Growing Civil Unrest

Is a breakup in the cards?

Ever since two years ago, when several militias had a faceoff with the Bureau of Land Management at the Bundy Ranch, the level of civil unrest has grown. Since then, there have been riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, and standoffs at a immigration center in Murrieta, California and a wildlife refuge in Oregon. Just this week, rioters attacked police outside a Trump rally. And, Sunday, the Washington Post had an article on the growth of America’s militia movement.

Clearly, America is headed towards dangerous times as the presidential election nears. More civil unrest is expected and some even wonder if America is on the edge of a breakup.

In 2008, while President Bush was still in power, Igor Panarin, a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian foreign affairs ministry, said the economic turmoil in the US had confirmed his long-held belief that the country was heading for extinction in its present form. He said the country’s break-up would be accelerated by rising unemployment and Americans losing their savings.

Public dissatisfaction was growing and was held back only by the election and the hope that Barack Obama “can work miracles,” he said. “But when spring comes, it will be clear that there are no miracles.”

Although it’s been eight years since this prediction was made (Panarin thought the breakup would occur in 2010), America is still united. But, could the 2016 presidential elections be the event that causes a breakup or serious civil unrest?

Are Americans Willing to See the US Breakup?

19 months ago, during the run-up to the vote in Scotland to seek independence from the United Kingdom, Reuters commissioned a poll to see if Americans would want their state to secede from the US. The results were surprising as they showed one in four Americans interested in breaking their links with the US – a result that shocked Reuters and many politicians in Washington.

What’s more surprising is that this movement to secede doesn’t come from “racist” whites. It’s the minorities that are more upset with the federal government and this “post racial, black president.” And, as Baltimore and Ferguson showed, the tensions building up in some places in the US are greater than one may think.

In fact, Whites are less likely to want secession. According to the poll, 25.4% of minorities want secession, while 29% are undecided. Only 21.4% of whites want independence for their state. 20.2% of whites are undecided.

Where is the desire to secede greatest? Texas. Only about 4 in 10 Texans want to stay in the US. 6 in 10 either want secession or haven’t made up their mind about it. And, it isn’t just Whites that want independence. Although the number of Hispanic Texans was too small a population in this poll to give statistically firm numbers, the raw numbers show that Hispanic Texans mirror the opinions of White Texans. And, 56% of Texans between 18 and 29 either favor independence or are still undecided.

Interestingly enough, there are some Democratic states that have majorities favoring independence or who are undecided – California and Oregon. And, both of these states are very likely to vote against Trump by a large margin in November.

A tangible sign of this unrest has been the growth of organized armed groups in the US. While armed Black groups have been formed since Ferguson, most of the attention has been on militias, which have supporters numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

As the Washington Post wrote last Sunday, “there is a significant movement among US citizens that are demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution, and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.”

“One example of this movement is a group in Oregon that calls itself the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard. The group refers to themselves as patriots, and is made up of people from all walks of life. The organization describes itself as a “defensive unit against all enemies foreign and domestic”, mainly because they believe the government is capable of unprovoked aggression against its own people.”

“The group’s members are drywallers and flooring contractors, nurses and painters and high school students, who stockpile supplies, practice survival skills and “basic infantry” tactics, learn how to treat combat injuries, study the Constitution and train with their concealed handguns and combat-style rifles.”

“The group members are conservatives, do not like former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and generally support Donald Trump.”

Is a Breakup of the US Possible?

A breakup is possible, but not likely at this time. However, as Igor Panarin noted, the factors leading up to a breakup are present. And, this presidential election will stress the US as it hasn’t been stressed since 1968.

One problem is that both of the presumptive candidates, Trump and Clinton, have high negatives. An NBC News poll showed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the most unpopular likely presidential nominees in the history of modern polling. Just 34% of registered voters have a positive opinion of Clinton, versus 54% who have a negative opinion. Trump’s rating is even worse: 29% have a positive opinion of him, while 58% have a negative opinion.

That means that whoever wins, there will be a lot of unhappy Americans – unhappy enough to take to the streets.

There are several flashpoints that could lead to nationwide civil unrest. Both Democratic and Republican conventions could start the unrest, although at this time the Democratic convention in Philadelphia has the greater likelihood of rioting.

Trump rallies are also a potential flashpoint since nearly any Trump event is a scene of Anti-Trump protests or riots.

A very big concern would be a close election like the one in 2000, where George Bush beat Al Gore for the presidency by winning Florida by about 300 votes. While that election was settled peacefully, given the level of unrest seen today, violent rioting around the vote counting could be expected. It’s even possible that rioters could storm the building and muddy up the voting results, which would lead to national unrest.

Even if Trump wins in a clear victory, the US can expect some rioting in large cities. But, it could be even worse.

The 1860 Scenario

This is called the 1860 scenario because it mirrors what happened in 1860, as America rushed into the Civil War. Lincoln (a Republican) wins the election and several states vote for secession before Lincoln becomes president. Meanwhile, the incumbent president, James Buchanan (a Democrat), did little to stop the secessionist movement.

Talk of succession isn’t unknown in the US. Several Democrats mentioned it after Bush’s reelection in 2004.

Considering the animosity for Trump, it most certainly would be mentioned after any Trump win in November.

Given its strong Democratic leanings and the polling that showed a majority of Californians either favoring secession or undecided, California might be the first state to talk of leaving if Trump wins. Since California is economically large enough to be its own nation and given the overwhelming Democratic majorities in its legislature, they could very well be in the vanguard of secession.

Like Buchanan before the Civil War, Obama might be unwilling to take strong action against any seceding state – especially given the animosity between Trump and Obama. He might even help by announcing that Social Security payments to California retirees would continue since the US traditionally makes these payments no matter what country the retiree lives in.

If California secedes, it is quite likely that they will be joined by Oregon and Washington State – both Democratic. At that point, the US could fly apart.

Now isolated from the US, Hawaii and Alaska, which both have strong independence movements, would likely declare their own independence. Texas would probably follow.

Native American nations throughout the West, who are already recognized as sovereign nations by the US government, may also decide to pull away. Their relations with the federal government are already strained and in fact, an Arizona tribe, the Tohono O’odham, closed off access to some of its land to the Border Patrol.

The relationship between the Border Patrol and the tribe has been stormy over the years, with accusations of human rights violations by federal agents and allegations that the agents’ presence has implemented a police state. Though only 75 miles runs along the Mexican border, the reservation is about 2.8 million acres or roughly the size of Connecticut and has about 30,000 members. The tribe’s official website says that nine of its communities are located in Mexico and they are separated by the United States/Mexico border. “In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border has become an artificial barrier to the freedom of the Tohono O’odham,” the tribe claims. “On countless occasions, the U.S. Border Patrol has detained and deported members of the Tohono O’odham Nation who were simply traveling through their own traditional lands, practicing migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture.”

While many anti-Trump states are too small or surrounded by pro-Trump areas, they might try to gain some sort of autonomy. There might also be some parts of the US along the US/Mexico border who might want to rejoin with Mexico or create an independent Hispanic state.

Although such dissolution of the US might seem impossible, we need to remember how quickly the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. A referendum for the preservation of the USSR was held on 17 March 1991 in nine republics (the remainder having boycotted the vote), with the majority of the population in those nine republics voting for preservation of the Union.

However, that quickly changed. In August 1991, a coup d’état was attempted by Communist Party hardliners. It failed, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin playing a high-profile role in facing down the coup, resulting in the banning of the Communist Party. Nearly immediately, Soviet Republics started declaring independence – beginning with Latvia and Estonia in August. 12 republics declared independence in the next three months. On 25 December 1991, the Soviet Union officially disappeared.

So, it’s important to remember that although Americans want a united US today, all it takes is a flashpoint event and a few months for a desire for unity to become a desire for independence.




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German Marshall Fund
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On May 23, the Islamic State (IS) perpetrated suicide bombings in Tartus and Jableh, killing 154 people and wounding more than 300. This was the first time either coastal city had been targeted by such attacks since the beginning of the war. Tartus in particular had seemed like a haven up until Monday. It was still an attractive tourist destination because of its wide beaches, and it was in the middle of a construction boom given the arrival of internally displaced people (IDPs) from other parts of Syria — not just the Assad regime’s fellow Alawites from Damascus, but also members of the Sunni majority from all across the country. Many Syrian refugees had even returned from Lebanon to Tartus because they considered life to be cheaper and safer there.

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