The news media have paid a lot of attention to the possibility of violence associated with the 2020 US Presidential election.
Much of this coverage has been alarming – with some reports even discussing a possible civil war. Certainly, this is a contentious election year and the drama is being multiplied by the psychological and economic pressure people are under due to the Covid-19 pandemic,
But here’s a bottom-line assessment: While there is legitimate concern, several factors should ensure that election violence will be limited. This issue should give cause for preparation and vigilance but not panic.
Extremism’s long history
One factor driving much of the panic over possible election-related violence is the lack of historical understanding and context.
Many people believe that the right and left-wing extremism we are seeing is new. It is not. Over the past century there has been a persistent threat of political violence from both extremes, and several periods during which these threats rose to an elevated level.
It is not unusual for both extremes to grow at the same time, because fear is a strong motivator, and the fear of one extreme often leads to a responsive growth by the other.
The 1920s was one such period. In 1920 anarchists detonated a large wagon bomb in a terrorist attack, targeting the heart of Wall Street, that killed 30 people and injured 300.
At the same time, the second Ku Klux Klan was growing rapidly, adding hundreds of thousands of men to its ranks. On August 8, 1925, tens of thousands of robed Klansmen marched in formation down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC in a demonstration of power.
The 1960s was another decade when violence from both extremes peaked. That decade saw the rise of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, the bombing of black churches and the emergence of several left-wing terrorist groups such as the Weather Underground that arose from the anti-war movement.
The echo of those 1960’s groups was felt into the 1980s with the rise of related terrorist groups such as the Order, the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, and the May 19 Communist Organization. The May 19 Organization bombed the US Senate in 1983.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, domestic extremist groups conducted hundreds of bombings inside the US. These attacks hit targets including the US Capitol, the Department of State, the Pentagon and many police stations, corporate offices and university facilities.
The 1990s brought events such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City and the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, as well as a spike in anarchist activity that featured events such as the November 1999 Battle of Seattle.
This history demonstrates that it is not at all unusual to see spikes in extremist activity and violence like the one we are experiencing in the United States.
The good news is that due to changes in explosive regulations it is far harder for extremists to obtain explosives today than it was in past decades when commercial explosives could be easily bought or stolen. Because of this, we are seeing far fewer bombing campaigns during this flareup of extremist violence than we did in the past.
Furthermore, the idea that the US has never been as politically polarized as it is at the present, never faced such contentious elections, is simply not true. Divisive politics started before the Revolution, and elections have frequently featured lots of mudslinging and other dirty tricks.
Elections such as those in 1800 and 1828 and the contested election of 1876 were particularly nasty. In fact, the deadlocked 1800 election was one of the pivotal events that led to the July 1804 duel between Vice President Aaron Burr and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that resulted in Hamilton’s death.
While we certainly witness a lot of harsh rhetoric in politics today, we are not seeing anything even faintly resembling the May 1856 incident in which Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death on the Senate floor with a walking cane.
Given this historical context, the question then becomes: What is driving the hype and fear over the potential for election-related violence today?
I believe one of the factors is 24/7 news channels. Prior to the launch of cable news channels in the 1980s, national television news consisted of a half-hour news program that had to cover every important global event that happened that day. Quite frequently terrorist attacks simply did not make the cut.
When it came to newspapers, many terrorist attacks even if covered were not considered front page news. Contrast that to 24/7 cable news, where even minor terrorist attacks receive major coverage. This heavy news coverage persuades people to believe that the terrorist threat is far greater than it was in the past – and greater than it really is now.
This is why I refer to cable news as a terror magnifier. There has always been a powerful connection between terrorism and the media. The advent of modern terrorism during the Victorian era coincided with the advent of daily newspapers and news wire services that sent news stories nationally and internationally via telegraph lines.
Social media serves as another significant terror magnifier. While there was some social media in the 1990s, such as Internet Relay Chat, and Usenet, those outlets simply did not have the breadth and reach of today’s social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Also, smart phones were not nearly as common as they are today.
Frequently now, when an attack happens, photos and videos are captured as an attack is in progress and then immediately distributed around the world on platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. Past attackers have even broadcast their attacks on Facebook Live. This coverage serves to create vicarious victims and have an impact far greater than attacks in the past, acting as a true terror magnifier.
Beyond their role in magnifying fear and shock, social media also serve as a powerful way for extremist groups to broadcast propaganda, air grievance narratives and recruit sympathizers and adherents.
Yet despite this, both right-wing and left-wing extremist groups remain surprisingly small. Anarchists are certainly generating a lot of publicity due to violence in places like Portland, Oregon, but the number of anarchists actually committing violent acts is very small.
The same goes for right-wing groups, whether white supremacists or nationalist groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. There is also a threat posed by the Boogaloo Boys, an anti-government extremist group that seeks a civil war but that has participated in Black Lives Matters protests as well as right-wing Second Amendment rights rallies.
A civil war?
With that context in mind, let’s return to examining the possibility of a civil war.
In revolutionary theory, terrorism is used to create favorable conditions for, and pave the way to, an insurgency. Insurgencies generally start out small, but then conduct operations intended to allow them to grow to the point where they can challenge the military power of the ruling regime.
In the case of the American Civil War, this happened very quickly because the southern states seceded from the Union and took a significant chunk of the US armed forces with them. The territory of the Confederate states also provided the rebel force a significant amount of terrain to operate in, and from which to obtain logistics and manpower. The population of the southern states was also mostly in favor of the secession and willing to fight for it.
There simply is no modern equivalent to the Confederate states today for either left or right-wing extremists.
Even in the 1960s while Marxist groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army were able to find some shelter in inner city slums, they simply did not have much favorable terrain to operate in. It is not an accident than many radicals were forced to either go underground, or flee to countries such as Algeria and Cuba.
Likewise, right-wing extremist groups have been under heavy pressure for decades and have not been able to find much in the way of public support for their acts of violence. For example, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was intended to inspire the militia movement to launch a civil war – but it instead resulted in a serious weakening of the militias.
We will see a continuation of violence from extremists on both fringes, some of whom will target each other. Other potential targets for this violence could include opposing politicians, as in the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting. They might include corporate interests as in the package bomb campaign conducted by Cesar Sayoc in 2018.
However, do not expect such violence to come anywhere near the level of a serious insurgency, much less a civil war. Despite the current polarized political climate, and the psychological, social and economic pressures created by the Covid-19 pandemic, most Americans simply do not want a civil war and will not support the fringe extremist actors attempting to foment one.
It is quite appropriate to be concerned about election-related violence, and to prepare contingency plans to help mitigate the impact it may have upon one’s organization. However, it is no cause for panic.
Scott Stewart, a vice-president at TorchStone Global, is a seasoned protective intelligence practitioner with 35 years of analytical, investigative and security experience. As a special agent with the US State Department, he was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations. He was the lead State Department investigator assigned to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-up New York City bomb plot. He also led a team of American agents assisting the Argentine investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and was involved in investigations following a series of attacks and attempted attacks by the Iraqi intelligence service during the first Gulf War.