Let's Say the Scary Parts Out Loud

Depression, Violence, and Civil War

I doubt I’m the only one who’s felt like we’ve spent the last three months careening toward a whole series of abysses. Being a historian with a deep well of comparable situations, and one cursed with a rather dour turn of mind, hasn’t been an asset when it comes to seeing the bright side of our current state of affairs. But the benefit of that point of view, which I’ll summarize as “It Can Always Get Worse,” is that you’re not surprised when it does, in fact, get worse.

Well, here we are. Things have gotten worse, again. These events aren’t a bad dream that will fade into oblivion when we blissfully wake up, or as the climax of some ongoing story we’re reading or watching; instead, they’re the direct and understandable result of past and ongoing processes, and they’re going to be links in a causal chain that lead us directly to a series of future outcomes.

All of this sounds obvious, and to some extent it is, but a couple of factors are interfering with our general ability to treat the United States in 2020 as an object of effective analysis.

First, we’re all pretty close to ongoing events, and it’s difficult to analyze something when it’s right on top of you, to get the necessary distance to see the big picture. All this can all feel pretty overwhelming, and it’s happening fast, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to wrap your head around it.

Second - and this is less forgivable - is the deeply held but equally misplaced belief that America is different and exceptional: that the problems afflicting other states, past and present, and the analytical tools we can use to understand those issues, do not apply here.

This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. Even if one firmly believes that America is a shining city on a hill, with a unique, divinely inspired mission in the world, it would take an equally unique combination of ignorance and avoidance to overlook the manifest issues that have plagued and continue to afflict this country. The United States is not immune from structural political issues, economic disasters, mismanagement, and run-of-the-mill fecklessness. The fact that something has not yet happened doesn’t mean that it can’t. The only way to effectively avoid the worst possible futures is to admit that they can in fact happen.

So with that in mind, let’s say the scary parts out loud.

1) A New Depression of the 2020s

Unemployment spiked above 20 percent in May. Hopefully it doesn’t get any higher, but even if the economy rebounds over the rest of the year, 12 percent unemployment by December is an optimistic estimate; for reference, unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October, 2009.

To some degree, as I wrote in the first post here, the damage has already been done: businesses have already closed, jobs are already gone, and with lower tax receipts, local and state government spending (and therefore jobs) will be slashed to avoid municipal bankruptcy. Uncertainty about the economy makes people less likely to spend, and more likely to save, in general. Thrift might be a virtue, but it’s bad for consumer economies that rely on the constant purchase of goods and services. All of this means that demand is unlikely to reach prior levels anytime soon. Even a slight downturn in consumer demand has serious consequences.

This is the whole reasoning behind Keynesian stimulus and countercyclical spending: use government spending to pay people to do necessary work, and they’ll spread that money throughout the economy more broadly. If we’re lucky, some combination of good fortune and good policy can avoid or lessen the impact of this impending Depression of the 2020s.

RANGE OF POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: Roughly as bad as the Great Recession to - on the worst end - more acute and longer than the Great Depression?

2) Civil Unrest

The wave of protests and riots rocking practically every major city in the United States has deep roots in a centuries-old racial caste system to more recent manifestations of structural inequality like predatory lending, redlining, and especially abusive policing.

There are several other layers to consider here, though. First among them is the fact that the vast majority of the participants in these protests are young, ranging from their late teens to mid-30s. This is a generation whose entire experience of political and economic life has been shaped by consistent upheaval: 9/11, the War on Terror, the Great Recession, Ferguson, the Trump years, and now the pandemic and subsequent events. The members of this age cohort - disproportionately packed into unaffordable major metro areas; highly educated but also heavily indebted and economically precarious; less likely than prior generations to own homes, be married, have children, or own businesses at these same ages - are a demographic powder keg constantly tied to social media feeds that tell them about the injustices of the world. It would not be surprising if ironic resignation turned into something rather more active under these circumstances.

There is every reason to expect the protests, and perhaps rioting and looting, to continue. The ongoing response seems unlikely to quell them, particularly if police brutality - the core issue - continues or rises, as seems probable given the beatings and tear-gassings of even completely peaceful protesters. Remember, this current wave of protests has only been going on for a week! Organizers and leaders will probably emerge, as will more coherent sets of demands, and elected officials might involve themselves more fully.

This is connected to the economic aspects I discussed above - the more people who are out of work, the more precarious they feel, the more likely they are to engage with protest movements and the more radical those movements are likely to become. Unemployment is the enemy of economic and political stability - more than anything, this was Keynes’s insight (read Zach Carter’s great book).

RANGE OF POSSIBLE OUTCOMES:

1) The protests might die down on their own, particularly if met with de-escalation and greater involvement from elected officials. Even in that case, however, a wide swathe of younger Americans now has first-hand experience of mass protest and, for many, police brutality. It’s hard not to see that planting some seeds for the future.

2) Police/military crackdown. Police and civil authorities continue on their present course, instituting harsher curfews and meeting peaceful protests and rioters alike with violence. In this scenario, it probably puts a lid on the activity for a short while, but opens the door to both greater authoritarian control (a la Hong Kong) and much more violent clashes between the opposition and the state.

3) War in the streets. Instead of quelling unrest, a police and military crackdown provokes intense, sustained violence between protesters and the state. This could be anything from hand-to-hand clashes to gunfire and explosives. Neither this nor a robust, comprehensive police crackdown are unprecedented in American history.

3) Authoritarianism

The President of the United States using militarized police with tear gas, horses, and riot gear to clear peaceful protesters in order to have a photo op in front of a church he doesn’t attend encapsulates the danger and possibilities of the present moment pretty dang well. It’s a cliche at this point, but what would you say if you saw it in Erdogan’s Turkey, Hong Kong, or Weimar Germany? Your answer is unlikely to be, “all good, nothing to see here, move along.”

If we’ve gotten to this point, however, the horse has already left the barn. Pretending that we can turn back the clock to October, 2016 - even if that were desirable - with a single election, congressional resolution, or even impeachment understates the sheer scale of institutional rot that has allowed us to get here in the first place.

Scholars have been talking about the imperial presidency for almost half a century, and the increasing concentration of power and authority in the executive branch is not a process that can be entirely laid at Donald Trump’s feet. The obvious and blatant misuse of that power (and the disregard for both accepted norms and written laws that goes along with it) certainly belongs to him and his enablers, but this is also the result of a long-term series of processes that will require fundamental reforms to undo.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, and we’ve been driving on those good intentions and passing off-ramp after off-ramp from this path for a very long time.

RANGE OF POSSIBLE OUTCOMES:

1) The military and civil authorities effectively ignore Trump for the rest of his term, he’s defeated in November, and Joe Biden or whoever begins a process of reform.

2) Creeping authoritarianism. Trump and his allies wield the police and military to violently crush protest and dissent in the lead-up to November’s election; maybe he wins, but he probably still loses if the election happens (he’s historically unpopular!), in which case see 1) above. Either way, however, the blueprint now exists for a much more skilled, competent authoritarian to execute the same playbook.

3) Authoritarianism reigns. Dissent is crushed, Trump either wins or the election never happens, and we’re now locked into a future where authoritarian social and political control is a fundamental facet of our system.

4) Civil War

I’m not exactly an optimist, and even I have some serious reservations about discussing this possibility. But the truth is that this country has deep social, racial, and political divides. Americans have a propensity for violence and private access to weaponry unmatched in the world. Sure, most of the guns in private hands right now belong to people who are more likely to vote Republican, and presumably support more of Trump’s agenda, but there’s way too much weaponry in this country to assume that state of affairs can’t change; firearms and other weapons of war aren’t exactly hard to acquire, make, import, or use.

All of this means that open civil war has to be an outcome we at least consider possible, if not exactly likely. That’s especially true given that groups who literally want to start a civil war are becoming more active and trying to exploit the ongoing protests to further that goal.

As with civil disturbances or authoritarianism, what would you say if you saw this particular mixture of factors somewhere else? The answer would have to be, “It’s on the table.” That doesn’t mean you’re asking for it or want it to happen, but pretending it’s not a possibility doesn’t help.

For what it’s worth, I still think this is highly unlikely, but I can also see a few different paths that might lead to internecine violence serious enough for us to call it a civil war, as opposed to mere civil unrest. How could it happen?

1) Contested election. Trump refuses to leave office after a defeat or blatantly rigs the outcome, triggering protests, an attempted crackdown, and open violence in response.

2) See above, war in the streets, as a result of an attempted crackdown on ongoing protests.

3) Get creative. We’ve got a pretty volatile mixture of things here, from right-wing extremists to a president who seems to want to use a professional standing army to crush opposition, so there are a wide variety of ways for all this to go very, very wrong.

I can’t stress this enough: civil war is really bad. Nobody in their right mind should want this to happen.

The Upshot

These are all scary things: depression, civil unrest, rising authoritarianism, and civil war. But they’re not out of the realm of possibility, and acting as if they are doesn’t help us avoid them.

Next time: let’s talk about a few historical parallels, from the end of the Roman Republic and the Wars of the Roses to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Arab Spring. Until then, be safe and be well.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, subscribe to this email newsletter and get every new piece right in your inbox.