An armed protester at a rally in Pennsylvania. Photo: Mark Makela / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Could it really happen here?

A podcast on the possibility of a second civil war reveals the dangerous polarisation that few Americans – including its host – can escape

The podcast series It Could Happen Here first aired in 2019, makes a simple and terrifying argument: it is quite possible that a second American civil war could take place imminently.

The series begins with a vignette which asks us to imagine waking up in an American city at war:

The official death toll is still just a few thousand, but international monitors say it must be much higher… It’s 2024, an election year, and every candidate is doing their level best to not call this what it is.

This is a war that looks very different from the first American civil war. There are no men with rifles marching on Washington, no seceding states, and no Fort Sumter event marking the beginning of the conflict. Evans has reported on wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, and he argues that a second American civil war would likely look much more like conflicts in these countries, with the nation collapsing piecemeal into warring rebel groups, and unrest developing in fits and bursts, with no clearly defined beginning and no clearly defined end.

This first episode describes a scenario eerily similar to the events of this last week. In Evans’ hypothetical, as well as in the real world, there are protests in major cities in opposition to President Trump. The protests become violent, the police retaliate, and a polarised nation responds: “When I see it,” imagines the Leftist Evans, “I’m sure that the police fired without cause. My conservative parents disagree.”

The unrest spreads, hastened by a recession that has left record numbers of people unemployed (Evans cannot have predicted, when he wrote this in February 2019, that such a recession might soon be the result of a global pandemic). We are asked to imagine the LA riots of 1992, but this time occurring simultaneously across multiple American cities, to the point that large chunks of these cities are soon outside of the control of the federal authorities. This is how it begins, argues Evans, and moreover:

Following the inciting incident for our theoretical civil war, what was done will matter less than how it’s interpreted by different segments of America.

Watching the recent violence across America, and the responses to that violence, such a scenario was all too easy to imagine. 

Across the course of ten episodes, Evans describes how such a conflict might develop. The strongest parts of the series are those that draw from military history and science. One episode lays out how a rural insurgency might construct IEDs using widely available agricultural chemicals and use them to cut off transport routes and starve the cities. Another episode explains the nature of drone warfare, and the usefulness of 3D printers to terrorist organisations. America is home to an alarming number of heavily armed extremist groups who would relish the opportunities presented by violent unrest – who, in fact, consider a second civil war to be underway already. As Evans argues, we cannot assume that the federal government would be capable of suppressing such groups. As demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military is not well suited to fighting an insurgency, particularly in an urban environment, and asking soldiers to fight against their own countrymen would pose a new – and dreadful – set of challenges.

To Evans’ mind, there is just one way of averting such a disaster: the American public need to find a way of defusing political polarisation. The trouble is, as a Leftist with self-confessed anarchist sympathies, Evans struggles to lay out a viable path. His series is focused almost exclusively on far-right extremism, which he sees as the key threat to peace, and he therefore has little to say about the role of far-left extremism in escalating tensions. This is a series intended for a left-leaning American audience, and Evans does urge his listeners to reach out across the aisle and attempt reconciliation. But he remains convinced that it is the Right that needs to change, not the Left, and he therefore encourages listeners to act by, for instance, donating money to mobile libraries that deliver books to Republican heartlands, as if reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is all that’s needed to save these Fallen people.

This kind of condescension is not, I suspect, an approach that the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt would look kindly on. Haidt has famously argued that the Right and the Left in America have different moral priorities: while the Left are primarily interested in the values of compassion and fairness, the Right consider national loyalty and respect for authority to be equally important, if not more so. Haidt urges tolerance and understanding, pointing out that neither Left nor Right are lacking in moral principles, it is only that their moral emphases are subtly different.

Not that you’d know it, given the way these two moral tribes increasingly regard one another. Scrolling through social media this last week, it is frightening to see the extent to which the American Right and Left seem to inhabit entirely different realities – faced with the same events, but utterly unable to understand the other’s perspective.

Evans’ own Twitter feed reveals a distinctly non-Haidt-like attitude towards the recent unrest, with invective against “the pigs” betraying a deeply tribal understanding of ongoing events (“When I see it, I’m sure that the police fired without cause. My conservative parents disagree.”) These biases, all too evident in the podcast series, undermine an otherwise accomplished piece of work.

But then, for a non-American outsider looking in, Evans’ biased approach is interesting in and of itself. This disturbing podcast provides an analysis of the polarisation tearing America apart, and a dark warning about where that polarisation might lead. At the same time, it provides a clear example of exactly what that polarisation looks like. If Evans is right about where America is headed – and we must all hope he is not – future people may well regard him as remarkable, both for his prescience, and for his refusal to recognise his own role in worsening the very problem he was trying to solve.

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