The End of an Em­pire

En­vi­sion­ing Amer­ica’s col­lapse

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Stephen Marche

Ev­ery­one in Canada with any power has the same job. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re prime min­is­ter, min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs, or pre­mier of Al­berta; it doesn’t mat­ter if you’re the mayor of a small town or a Ceo of a ma­jor com­pany, if you run a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion or a mine. Cana­di­ans with any power at all have to pre­dict what’s go­ing to hap­pen in the United States. The Amer­i­can econ­omy re­mains the world’s largest; its mil­i­tary spend­ing dwarfs ev­ery other coun­try’s; its pop­u­lar cul­ture, for the mo­ment, dom­i­nates. Canada sits in Amer­ica’s shadow. Fig­ur­ing out what will hap­pen there means fig­ur­ing out what we will even­tu­ally face here. To­day, that job means an­swer­ing a sim­ple ques­tion: What do we do if the US falls apart?

Amer­i­can chaos is al­ready ooz­ing over the bor­der: the trickle of refugees cross­ing af­ter Trump’s elec­tion has swollen to a flood; a trade war is un­der­way, with a US trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive de­scrib­ing Canada as “a na­tional se­cu­rity threat”; and the com­man­der-in-chief of the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary the world has ever known openly praises au­thor­i­tar­i­ans as he at­tempts to dis­man­tle the in­ter­na­tional post­war or­der. The US has with­drawn from the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil, pulled out of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment, aban­doned the 2015 Iran nu­clear deal, and scorned the be­drock nato doc­trine of mu­tual de­fence.

Mean­while, the im­perium it­self con­tin­ues to un­ravel: the ad­min­is­tra­tion is launch­ing a “de­nat­u­ral­iza­tion task force” to po­ten­tially strip scores of im­mi­grants of their US citizenship, and voter purges — the of­ten-faulty pro­cesses of delet­ing in­el­i­gi­ble names from reg­is­tra­tion lists—are on the rise, es­pe­cially in states with a his­tory of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. News of one dis­as­ter af­ter an­other keeps up its re­lent­less pace but nonethe­less shocks ev­ery­body. If you had told any­one even a year ago that bor­der guards would be hold­ing chil­dren in de­ten­tion cen­tres, no one would have be­lieved you.

We have been naive. De­spite our ob­ses­sive fa­mil­iar­ity with the States, or per­haps be­cause of it, we have put far too much faith in Amer­i­cans. So in­grained has our reliance on Amer­ica been, we are barely con­scious of our own vul­ner­a­bil­ity. About 20 per­cent of Canada’s GDP comes from ex­ports to the United States—it’s a trade re­la­tion­ship that gen­er­ates 1.9 mil­lion Cana­dian jobs. This de­pen­dence is even clearer when it comes to oil — some­thing the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line ex­pan­sion, which will ship our nat­u­ral re­sources to global mar­kets, could rem­edy. The fact that the pre­mier of Bri­tish Columbia tried to stall the project in a show of re­gional power is a sign of a col­lec­tive fail­ure to rec­og­nize how per­ilous our po­si­tion is. Ninety-nine per­cent of our oil ex­ports go to a sin­gle cus­tomer. And that cus­tomer is in a state of rad­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll from Ras­mussen Reports, 31 per­cent of likely US vot­ers an­tic­i­pate a se­cond civil war in the next five years.

We mis­un­der­stood who the Amer­i­cans were. To be fair, so did ev­ery­body. They them­selves mis­un­der­stood who they were. Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency was based on what we will, out of po­lite­ness, call an il­lu­sion, an il­lu­sion of na­tional unity ar­tic­u­lated most pas­sion­ately dur­ing Obama’s key­note ad­dress at the 2004 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion: “There is not a lib­eral Amer­ica and a con­ser­va­tive Amer­ica—there is the United States of Amer­ica. There is not a black Amer­ica and a white Amer­ica and Latino Amer­ica and Asian Amer­ica—there’s the United States of Amer­ica.” It was a beau­ti­ful vi­sion. It was an er­ror. There is very much a red Amer­ica and a blue Amer­ica. They oc­cupy dif­fer­ent so­ci­eties with dif­fer­ent values, and the po­lit­i­cal par­ties are emis­saries of those dif­fer­ences—dif­fer­ences that are in­creas­ingly ir­rec­on­cil­able.

Many Cana­di­ans op­er­ate as if this chaos were tem­po­rary, mainly be­cause the col­lapse of the United States and the sub­se­quent re­ori­en­ta­tion of our place in the world are ideas too painful to con­tem­plate. But, by now, the signs have be­come im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. The job of pre­dic­tion, as im­pos­si­ble as it may be, is at hand.

af­ter the midterms, spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller presents his re­port to the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral, and Amer­ica is thrown into im­me­di­ate cri­sis.

Con­gres­sional com­mit­tees call a parade of wit­nesses who de­scribe the pres­i­dent’s col­lu­sion and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice in de­tail. The Repub­li­cans re­spond on tele­vi­sion and through pub­lic ral­lies. Ru­dolph Gi­u­liani, on Fox & Friends, de­clares that “flipped wit­nesses are gen­er­ally not truth-telling wit­nesses.” Trump air­ily waves away the Mueller re­port at a rally for 100,000 sup­port­ers in Ohio: “I’m go­ing to par­don ev­ery­one any­way, so it’s all a waste of tax­payer dol­lars.” A Propublica sur­vey shows Amer­i­cans are di­vided on im­peach­ment.

Since the Repub­li­can base re­mains over­whelm­ingly sup­port­ive of the pres­i­dent, the House Repub­li­cans, ar­gu­ing the need for “na­tional unity,” do not vote for im­peach­ment, which re­quires a ma­jor­ity in the House. The vote then goes to the Se­nate, where Repub­li­cans refuse to re­move Trump from of­fice. Mueller presses in­stead for an in­dict­ment. There is no le­gal prece­dent for in­dict­ing a sit­ting pres­i­dent.

The case pro­ceeds to a fed­eral judge over­see­ing a grand jury and then even­tu­ally to the Supreme Court, which has been tipped right­ward with Trump nom­i­nees. The court rules that the pres­i­dent can­not be in­dicted. Protests fill the streets of Wash­ing­ton, New York, Chicago, and Los An­ge­les. Polls vary. Some­where around 40 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is le­git­i­mate. Some­where around 60 per­cent do not.

STeven Webster is a lead­ing US scholar of “af­fec­tive po­lar­iza­tion,” the un­der­ly­ing trend that ex­plains the par­ti­san ha­tred tear­ing his coun­try apart. In 2016, he and his col­league Alan Abramowitz pub­lished the pa­per “The rise of neg­a­tive par­ti­san­ship and the na­tion­al­iza­tion of U.S. elec­tions in the 21st cen­tury,” which was one of the first at­tempts to track the steady growth of the mu­tual dis­like be­tween Repub­li­cans and Democrats.

Af­fec­tive po­lar­iza­tion is a cri­sis that tran­scends Trump. If Hil­lary Clin­ton had won the 2016 elec­tion, the un­der­ly­ing threat to Amer­i­can sta­bil­ity would be as real as it is to­day. Each side — di­vided by neg­a­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, so­cial me­dia, and a pri­mary sys­tem that en­cour­ages en­thu­si­asm over rea­son — pur­sues ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity at any cost be­cause ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity is in­creas­ingly the route to power. Abramowitz runs a fore­cast­ing model that has cor­rectly pre­dicted ev­ery pres­i­den­tial elec­tion since 1992. Af­ter he mod­i­fied his model in 2012 to take into ac­count the im­pact of grow­ing par­ti­san po­lar­iza­tion, it pro­jected a Trump vic­tory in 2016 — and Abramowitz re­jected the results. That should be a tes­ta­ment to the power of the model; it traced phe­nom­ena even its cre­ator didn’t want to be­lieve. No­body wants to see what’s coming.

Webster de­scribes a ter­ri­ble spi­ralling ef­fect in ac­tion in the US. Anger and dis­trust make it very dif­fi­cult to go about the busi­ness of gov­ern­ing, which leads to in­ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment, which re­in­forces the anger and dis­trust. “Par­ti­sans in the elec­torate don’t like each other,” he says. “That en­cour­ages po­lit­i­cal elites to bicker with one an­other. Peo­ple in the elec­torate ob­serve that. And that en­cour­ages them to bicker with one an­other.” The past few decades have led to “ide­o­log­i­cal sort­ing,” which means that the over­lap be­tween con­ser­va­tive Democrats and lib­eral Repub­li­cans has more or less dis­ap­peared, elim­i­nat­ing the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre.

But it’s the peo­ple in the par­ties, not just the ideas in the par­ties, that have changed. “There’s a re­ally big racial di­vide be­tween the two par­ties,” says Webster. The non­white share of the

Amer­i­can elec­torate has been in­creas­ing tremen­dously over the last few decades, and most of those vot­ers have cho­sen to af­fil­i­ate with the Demo­cratic Party. What worries Webster isn’t that the Repub­li­can Party re­mains vastly whiter than the Demo­cratic Party, which, in turn, has be­come more mul­ti­cul­tural — though that’s hap­pened. The real source of the cri­sis is that white Repub­li­cans have be­come more in­tol­er­ant about the coun­try’s grow­ing diver­sity. Ac­cord­ing to the Prri/the At­lantic 2018 Voter En­gage­ment Sur­vey, half of Repub­li­cans agree that in­creased racial diver­sity would bring a “mostly neg­a­tive” im­pact to Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Dur­ing the Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush years, there re­ally wasn’t as much of a dif­fer­ence be­tween the racial at­ti­tudes of white peo­ple in both par­ties. That’s no longer true. “Dur­ing the Obama era, if you look at just white Repub­li­cans, 64 per­cent scored high on the racial-re­sent­ment scale. For white Democrats, it was around 35 per­cent,” says Webster, who an­a­lyzed data from the Amer­i­can Na­tional Elec­tion Stud­ies. The Repub­li­can Party has be­come the party of racial re­sent­ment. If it seems eas­ier for Amer­i­cans to see the other side as dis­tinct from them­selves, that’s be­cause it is.

The loathing just keeps grow­ing. In 2016, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that 45 per­cent of Repub­li­cans and 41 per­cent of Democrats de­clared the op­pos­ing party’s poli­cies a threat to the na­tion’s well-be­ing—up from 37 and 31 per­cent, re­spec­tively, in 2014. Po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries re­gard each other as un-amer­i­can; they re­gard the other’s me­dia, whether Fox News or the New York Times, as poi­son or fake news. A siz­able chunk also don’t want their chil­dren to marry mem­bers of the op­pos­ing party. “A lot of peo­ple say, ‘What would hap­pen if there were a very in­de­pen­dent-minded can­di­date, a third-party can­di­date with no par­ti­san la­bel, who would come and unite Amer­ica?’” Webster says. “That is ab­so­lutely not go­ing to hap­pen.” In sur­veys, in­de­pen­dents seem to make up a large per­cent­age, but if you press those self-iden­ti­fied in­de­pen­dents on their vot­ing be­hav­iour, they look just like strong par­ti­sans. Abramowitz’s own anal­y­sis of the 2008 elec­tion sug­gests that only about 7 per­cent of Amer­i­can vot­ers are truly in­de­pen­dent in that they don’t lean to­ward one party or the other.

Amer­ica is be­com­ing two Amer­i­cas, Amer­i­cas which hate each other. If the Democrats rep­re­sent a mul­ti­cul­tural coun­try grounded in the value of demo­cratic norms, then the Repub­li­cans rep­re­sent a white coun­try grounded in the sanc­tity of prop­erty. The ac­cel­er­at­ing dis­like par­ti­sans feel for the other side — the quite cor­rect sense that they are not us — means that po­lit­i­cal rhetoric will fly to more and more dan­ger­ous ex­tremes. In Septem­ber 2016, Ken­tucky Gov­er­nor Matt Bevin gave a speech at the Values Voter Sum­mit in which he openly spec­u­lated about vi­o­lence if Hil­lary Clin­ton were elected: “Whose blood will be shed?” he asked. “It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.” More re­cently, Michael Scheuer, a for­mer se­nior CIA of­fi­cial, wrote that it was “quite near time” for Trump sup­port­ers to kill Trump op­po­nents (the blog post has since been deleted).

Such ex­plicit calls for vi­o­lence are be­ing driven by a dy­namic of oth­er­ing that, once started, might not be eas­ily stopped — ex­cept by dis­as­ter. “I don’t see an optimistic sce­nario here,” Webster ac­knowl­edges.

the man who as­sas­si­nates the pres­i­dent uses a .50-cal­i­bre Bar­rett ri­fle with ar­mourpierc­ing in­cen­di­ary am­mu­ni­tion. He pur­chased it legally at a gun show.

The as­sas­sin’s note, posted on Face­book the mo­ment af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion, amounts to a man­i­festo, but it’s noth­ing Amer­i­cans haven’t heard be­fore. He quotes Thomas Jef­fer­son, about the tree of lib­erty re­freshed by the blood of pa­tri­ots. He com­pares the pres­i­dent to Hitler. “Peo­ple say that if they had a time ma­chine they would go back and re­move the mon­sters of his­tory,” he writes. “I re­al­ized that there is a time ma­chine. It’s called the present and a gun.”

The as­sas­si­na­tion of the pres­i­dent leads, at first, to a great deal of pub­lic hand wring­ing. On so­cial me­dia, the as­sas­sin’s hero­ism is sug­gested and then out­right

What if Amer­ica is al­ready in an armed con­flict and we just haven’t no­ticed?

cel­e­brated. Within a month, the as­sas­sin’s face ap­pears on T-shirts at ral­lies.

The as­sas­si­na­tion is used as a pre­text for in­creas­ing ex­ec­u­tive power, just as in the af­ter­math of Septem­ber 11. Amer­i­cans broadly ac­cept the mas­sive cur­tail­ing of civil rights and a dra­matic in­crease in the reach of the sur­veil­lance state as the price of se­cu­rity.

SCOTT GATES is an Amer­i­can who lives in Nor­way, where he stud­ies con­flict pat­terns at the Peace Re­search In­sti­tute Oslo. His work has been de­voted to po­lit­i­cal strug­gles in the de­vel­op­ing world, where most of the civil wars hap­pen. He now sees that his re­search has ap­pli­ca­tions at home. The ques­tion for the US, as it is for ev­ery other coun­try near­ing the precipice, is whether civil so­ci­ety is strong enough to hold back the fe­ro­cious vi­o­lence of its pol­i­tics. Gates isn’t en­tirely sure on that point any­more.

Democ­ra­cies are built around in­sti­tu­tions that are larger than par­ti­san strug­gle; they sur­vive on the strength of them. The dele­git­imiza­tion of na­tional in­sti­tu­tions “al­most inevitably leads to chaos,” Gates says, cit­ing Trump’s con­stant at­tacks on the Fbi, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, and the ju­di­cial sys­tem as typ­i­cal of so­ci­eties headed to­ward po­lit­i­cal col­lapse, as hap­pened in Venezuela un­der Hugo Chávez. The Supreme Court has al­ready been the en­gine of its own in­val­i­da­tion. Since the ide­o­log­i­cally di­vided Bush v. Gore rul­ing which de­cided the 2000 elec­tion, the Supreme Court no longer rep­re­sents tran­scen­dent in­ter­ests of na­tional pur­pose. Trust in the Supreme Court, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Gallup poll, is split sharply along par­ti­san lines, with 72 per­cent of Repub­li­cans re­port­ing ap­proval com­pared to 38 per­cent of Democrats. Mitch Mccon­nell’s de­ci­sion to make the ap­point­ment of a Supreme Court jus­tice an elec­tion is­sue in 2018 — an ap­point­ment that will likely not get the sup­port of a sin­gle Demo­cratic sen­a­tor—is an ex­am­ple of a po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion be­ing con­verted into a to­ken in a zero-sum game, ex­actly the kind of de­ci­sion that has played a part in desta­bi­liz­ing smaller, poorer coun­tries. Once the norm has been shat­tered, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to glue back to­gether.

In a sense, the cri­sis has al­ready ar­rived. Only the in­cit­ing in­ci­dent is miss­ing. In De­cem­ber 1860, the fif­teenth pres­i­dent of the United States, James Buchanan, be­lieved he was of­fer­ing a com­pro­mise be­tween proslav­ery and an­ti­slav­ery groups in his State of the Union ad­dress, but his re­marks pre­ceded the Civil War by four months. His dec­la­ra­tion — that se­ces­sion was un­law­ful but that he couldn’t con­sti­tu­tion­ally do any­thing about it—be­came the mo­ment when Amer­ica split and the war was in­evitable.

Few Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions now seem ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing ac­cept­ably im­par­tial ar­bi­tra­tion — not the Supreme Court, not the Depart­ment of Jus­tice, not the Fbi. The only in­sti­tu­tion in Amer­i­can life still seen as be­ing above pol­i­tics is the mil­i­tary, which, ac­cord­ing to a 2018 Gallup sur­vey, is the most trusted in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try, with 74 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ex­press­ing con­fi­dence in it. No sur­prise: the wor­ship of the armed forces has been in­grained into or­di­nary Amer­i­can life since the Iraq War. Not so much as a base­ball game can hap­pen in the US with­out a cel­e­bra­tion of a sol­dier. Mem­bers of the mil­i­tary are even given pri­or­ity board­ing on ma­jor US air­lines.

If civil or­der were threat­ened, could Amer­ica look to the troops to step in? In 2017, about 25 per­cent of Democrats and 30 per­cent of Repub­li­cans said they would con­sider it “jus­ti­fied” if the mil­i­tary in­ter­vened in a sit­u­a­tion where the coun­try faced ram­pant crime or cor­rup­tion. In an ar­ti­cle in For­eign Pol­icy, Rosa Brooks, pre­vi­ously a coun­sel­lor to the US un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fence for pol­icy and a se­nior ad­viser at the US State Depart­ment, could imag­ine “plau­si­ble sce­nar­ios” where mil­i­tary lead­ers would openly defy an or­der from Trump.

A coup would hardly be un­prece­dented, in global terms: in Chile, in the 1970s, a democ­racy in place for decades de­volved into win­ner-take-all hy­per­par­ti­san pol­i­tics un­til the mil­i­tary im­posed tran­quil­i­dad. But even the armed forces might not be enough of a power to sta­bi­lize the United States. There is a huge gap be­tween en­listed troops and of­fi­cers when it comes to pol­i­tics. Ac­cord­ing to a poll con­ducted by the Mil­i­tary Times, a news source for ser­vice mem­bers, al­most 48 per­cent of en­listed troops ap­prove of Trump, but only about 30 per­cent of of­fi­cers do. It ap­pears that the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary is as di­vided as the coun­try.

Would a coup even work? The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary hasn’t been par­tic­u­larly good at paci­fy­ing other coun­tries’ civil wars. Why would it be any good at paci­fy­ing its own?

There Are trends — which no coun­try can es­cape, or that few have es­caped, any­way—that fore­cast the like­li­hood of civil con­flict.

A 2014 study from Anirban Mi­tra and De­braj Ray, two eco­nomics pro­fes­sors based in the UK and US re­spec­tively, ex­am­ined the mo­ti­va­tions un­der­ly­ing Hindu-mus­lim vi­o­lence in In­dia, where Hin­dus are the dom­i­nant ma­jor­ity and Mus­lims one of the dis­ad­van­taged mi­nori­ties. The two pro­fes­sors found that “an in­crease in per capita Mus­lim ex­pen­di­tures gen­er­ates a large and sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in fu­ture re­li­gious con­flict. An in­crease in Hindu ex­pen­di­tures has a neg­a­tive or no ef­fect.”

That sug­gests rev­o­lu­tion is not like the com­mu­nist prophets of the nine­teenth cen­tury be­lieved it would be, with the un­der­class ris­ing up against their op­pres­sors. It’s some­times the op­pres­sors who re­volt. In the case of In­dia, ac­cord­ing to Mi­tra and Ray’s re­search, ri­ots start at the times and in the places when and where the Mus­lims are gain­ing the most rel­a­tive to the Hin­dus. Vi­o­lence

Break­down of the Amer­i­can or­der has de­fined Canada at ev­ery stage of our his­tory.

pro­tects sta­tus in a con­text of de­clin­ing in­flu­ence.

“A very sim­i­lar pat­tern of re­sent­ment can be seen in the US right now,” Gates tells me. The white work­ing-class com­mu­nity per­ceives its po­si­tion in life as wors­en­ing. “At the same time,” he says, “the Latino com­mu­nity and the black com­mu­nity have been im­prov­ing their sta­tus, rel­a­tive to where they were.” In other words, white re­sent­ment doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily re­flect ac­tual changes in fi­nan­cial well-be­ing as much as frus­tra­tion in the face of mi­nori­ties mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains. And, as sta­tus dwin­dles, the odds of vi­o­lence in­crease. Gates points to the bloody Char­lottesville rally as the kind of flash­point fu­elled in part by a sense of ag­grieved white di­min­ish­ment.

We can track the desta­bi­liz­ing ef­fect of threat­ened sta­tus in other con­flicts around the world. A strug­gle be­tween eth­nic groups los­ing and gain­ing priv­i­lege con­trib­uted, in vary­ing de­grees, to the bru­tal­ity be­tween Hu­tus and Tut­sis in Rwanda in the 1990s and to the ear­lier Bi­afran War in Nige­ria.

There Are deeper anx­i­eties and more trou­bling vi­sions for any­one whose job is to pre­dict where Amer­ica is headed. For the re­ally scary stuff, you have to go to Robert Mcle­man, who stud­ies mi­gra­tion pat­terns and cli­mate change at Water­loo’s Wil­frid Lau­rier Uni­ver­sity. He’s got a kind of cheer­ful and upbeat way of de­scrib­ing the spread of to­tal chaos that’s dis­arm­ing.

Cli­mate change can bring about po­lit­i­cal chaos, in large part through mi­gra­tion. “Mil­i­tary peo­ple call it a threat mul­ti­plier,” Mcle­man tells me. Usu­ally, mi­gra­tion is the last re­sort, a re­sponse to changes that are un­pre­dictable and un­ex­pected. So Bangladesh, to take an ex­am­ple, will typ­i­cally not ex­pe­ri­ence mass mi­gra­tion be­cause of flood, be­cause peo­ple in that re­gion have been deal­ing with floods for thou­sands of years. But a drought could cause a se­ri­ous cri­sis, caus­ing waves of mi­gra­tion into In­dia.

As its de­par­ture from the Paris cli­mate agree­ment clar­i­fied, Amer­ica is barely able to face the fact that cli­mate change ex­ists, never mind able to come up with ef­fec­tive strate­gies to ac­com­mo­date it­self to the re­al­ity it is al­ready fac­ing. In 2012, a hot and dry year in the US, soy bean, sorghum, and corn yields were down as much as 16 per­cent. And, be­cause the coun­try is a ma­jor pro­ducer of com­mod­ity crops, the drought pushed up food prices at home and glob­ally. There are a lot more 2012s coming. And, of course, Amer­ica is ut­terly un­pre­pared for the vastly less pre­dictable catas­tro­phes of cli­mate-change ex­tremes, as New Or­leans and Puerto Rico have both learned to their de­struc­tion.

Most wor­ry­ing to Mcle­man is the fact that Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions are grow­ing in the ar­eas that are most vul­ner­a­ble to un­pre­dictable catas­tro­phes. They in­clude coastal New York, coastal New Jer­sey, Florida, coastal Louisiana, the Caroli­nas, the Valley of the Sun, the Bay Area, and Los An­ge­les. Many Cen­tral Amer­i­cans who were sep­a­rated from their chil­dren at the Amer­i­can bor­der were flee­ing gangs and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, but they were also flee­ing drought. “En­vi­ron­men­tally re­lated mi­gra­tion al­ready hap­pens—we’re just see­ing the thin edge of the wedge right now,” Mcle­man says. Get used to refugees at the Cana­dian bor­der. There may be more of them.

All right, you say, there are con­di­tions that lead to civil war: hy­per­par­ti­san­ship, the re­duc­tion of pol­i­tics to a zero-sum game, the dev­as­ta­tion of law and na­tional in­sti­tu­tions in the con­text of en­vi­ron­men­tally caused mass mi­gra­tion, and the rel­a­tive de­cline of a priv­i­leged group. Fine. But when you land at JFK and line up for Shake Shack, where are the in­sur­gents? Then again, in other coun­tries and in other times, it’s never been clear, at least at first, whether a civil war is re­ally un­der­way. Con­fu­sion is a nat­u­ral state at the be­gin­ning of any col­lapse. Who is a rebel and who is a ban­dit? Who is a free­dom fighter and who is a ter­ror­ist? The line be­tween crim­i­nal­ity and rev­o­lu­tion blurred in Mex­ico, in Cuba, and in Ire­land. The tech­ni­cal def­i­ni­tion of a civil war is 1,000 bat­tle deaths a year. Armed con­flict starts at twenty-five bat­tle

deaths a year. What if Amer­ica is al­ready in an armed con­flict and we just haven’t no­ticed? What if we just haven’t no­ticed be­cause we’re not used to up­ris­ings hap­pen­ing in places where there’s Bed Bath & Be­yond?

IF There is an in­sur­gency-in-waiting, it will likely be drawn from the hun­dreds of antigov­ern­ment groups across the coun­try, many of which were ready­ing for civil war in 2016 in the event of a Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­i­dency. One of the most ex­treme ex­am­ples is an ide­o­log­i­cal sub­cul­ture made up of “sov­er­eign cit­i­zens,” who be­lieve that cit­i­zens are the sole author­ity of law. Ryan Lenz, a se­nior in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter for the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, has been re­search­ing them for nearly eight years. It’s been a ter­ri­fy­ing eight years. A 2011 splc re­port pegged the num­ber of the sov­er­eign cit­i­zens, a mix of hard-core be­liev­ers and sym­pa­thiz­ers, at 300,000. The move­ment, Lenz be­lieves, has grown sig­nif­i­cantly since then.

To put that in per­spec­tive, the Weather Un­der­ground was es­ti­mated to con­tain hun­dreds of mem­bers. Some guesses put the num­ber of Black Pan­thers as high as 10,000, a de­bat­able fig­ure. Both the Un­der­ground and the Pan­thers—who talked a great deal about the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for vi­o­lence but man­aged to com­mit rel­a­tively lit­tle — caused im­mense panic in the late six­ties and seven­ties and mas­sive re­sponses from the Fbi. Sov­er­eign cit­i­zens, and antigov­ern­ment ex­trem­ists as a whole, are part of a much larger move­ment, many are armed, they an­tic­i­pate the gov­ern­ment to fall in some ca­pac­ity, and they are re­spon­si­ble for about a dozen killings a year. The Fbi has ad­dressed them, and their grow­ing men­ace, as do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism. In 2014, a sur­vey con­ducted with US of­fi­cers in in­tel­li­gence ser­vices across the coun­try found sov­er­eign cit­i­zens to be the coun­try’s top con­cern, even ahead of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, for law en­force­ment.

Theirs is a to­tal­iz­ing vi­sion of ab­so­lute in­di­vid­ual free­dom and re­sis­tance to a state they be­lieved is ruled by an un­just gov­ern­ment. Rooted his­tor­i­cally in racism and anti-semitism—they hov­ered on the ex­treme fringes of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics un­til the 2008 hous­ing cri­sis and the elec­tion of Barack Obama—sov­er­eign cit­i­zens be­lieve they are sov­er­eign unto them­selves and, there­fore, can ig­nore any lo­cal, state, or fed­eral laws and are not be­holden to any law en­force­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the splc, the sov­er­eign cit­i­zens be­lieve that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is an en­tity that op­er­ates out­side the purview of the US Con­sti­tu­tion for the pur­poses of hold­ing cit­i­zens in slav­ery.

“Un­der­stand­ing sov­er­eign-cit­i­zenry ide­ol­ogy is like try­ing to map a crack that de­vel­ops on your wind­shield af­ter a peb­ble hits it. It’s a wild and chaotic mess,” Lenz tells me. Ul­ti­mately, the move­ment boils down to a series of con­spir­acy the­o­ries jus­ti­fy­ing nonobe­di­ence to gov­ern­ment agents. Some­times it ex­presses it­self as con­vo­luted tax dodges, as in the case of the self-pro­claimed pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic for the united States of Amer­ica (RUSA), James Ti­mothy Turner, who was con­victed of send­ing a $300 mil­lion fic­ti­tious bond in his own name and aid­ing and abet­ting oth­ers in send­ing fic­ti­tious bonds to the Trea­sury Depart­ment. Turner was sen­tenced to eigh­teen years in prison. Bruce A. Doucette, a self-ap­pointed sov­er­eign “judge,” re­ceived thirty-eight years in jail for in­flu­enc­ing, ex­tort­ing, and threat­en­ing pub­lic of­fi­cials.

At other times, the spirit of disobe­di­ence ex­presses it­self in straight vi­o­lence, as in the case of Jerry and Joseph Kane, a fa­ther-son pair who, in 2010, killed two po­lice of­fi­cers at a rou­tine traf­fic stop in West Mem­phis, Arkansas. Or in the case of Jerad and Amanda Miller who, in 2014, af­ter killing two po­lice of­fi­cers at a Cici’s Pizza in Las Ve­gas, shouted to hor­ri­fied on­look­ers that the rev­o­lu­tion had be­gun.

the sum­mers grow hot­ter, and the yields on corn and beans grow smaller. Dur­ing the first drought, the de­clines are small. The year af­ter is more se­ri­ous. Food prices spike. In­fla­tion rises, lead­ing to a sharp jump in un­em­ploy­ment.

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