Some observers in recent years have remarked that America has been in a cold civil war but this notion is outdated in the era of globalization and instant communications. Instead, America is in the middle of a hybrid civil war.
What is hybrid war?
Today there are attacks being made by state and non-state actors on nations and institutions targeted at weakening democratic governance to achieve a political objective. Major international organizations like the European Union and NATO refer to these as hybrid threats.
These actors use subtle and far-reaching methods which are cloaked in secrecy but can also happen in plain sight. In general, low trust societies with weak governance are more susceptible to hybrid threats whereas high trust societies with sound governance are much more resilient.
High trust societies have high levels of mutual trust which are imposed by moral norms and customs and by law or contractual obligation. In high trust societies there is a low tolerance for corruption, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a healthy respect for facts.
In low trust societies, trust between people and their institutions is low and they do not have a set of shared ethical values. These societies generally have high levels of corruption, low levels of societal cohesion, poorly functioning institutions, and are more vulnerable to disinformation. Corruption, low levels of public trust, and weak public and private accountability leave them more vulnerable to a hybrid threat.
America’s hybrid civil war
The three key targets of a hybrid campaign are: societal cohesion; a common belief in truth and facts, and trust in public institutions.
A hybrid campaign targets a society’s deepest historical wounds to make them bleed again. Its main effort against a high trust society is to turn it into a low trust society, where conspiracy theories and “alternate” versions of the truth can run rampant.
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In our case, the unresolved wounds and tensions over own Civil War, Reconstruction, institutionalized racism and sexism, and fear of the “other” — combined with a collapsing economic order are being leveraged by both foreign and domestic actors with different goals but similar objectives in mind.
Whereas our previous civil war was fought with organized armies with clear chains of command, the current hybrid civil war is fought by individuals. Violence may be encouraged by memes or politicians, but much like franchise terrorism, it is carried out by those supporters at the bottom — and using their own resources to target those imagined to be the enemy.
The goal of the domestic actors currently engaged in stirring up a hybrid civil war are to establish permanent minority rule for a shrinking white ruling class. In their own words, they described the election of Donald Trump as their “last best hope” to “take their country back.” When they say “Make America Great Again” they mean Make America White Again, never mind the irony that it never was.
They see the demographic writing on the wall and the impending arrival of their own minority status so they stop believing in majority rule and begin to rig the system to ensure they can maintain power. They achieve this through voter suppression, gerrymandering, blocking judicial nominations of the other party, and denying the legitimacy of both their opponents and any elections they may win.
Their followers are stirred into action by the scapegoating of the “others” who they are led to believe are to blame for their own economic insecurity. And these others are immigrants, Muslims, Jews, people of color, LGBTQIA persons, coastal elites, and any other targets identified by the white ethno-nationalist movement’s leaders.
We’ve seen this play out in recent years through birtherism, the wholesale purging of minority voters from the rolls, and gerrymandering so extreme that clear majorities of Democratic voters are still unable to capture majorities within state and national legislatures. We also saw it in the destruction of norms in the refusal to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court plus the blocking of 82 of President Obama’s federal judicial nominations, whereas in the previous history of the republic, only 86 had been blocked in total.
This movement has transformed the Republican Party from a free market, socially conservative entity into a white ethno-nationalist movement seeking one-party rule in perpetuity. And now that they have captured a majority in the Supreme Court and been able to appoint over 100 new federal judges (after holding 82 of them open by denying previous nominations), this movement can now rely on the judicial system to serve as its legal bodyguard.
This white ethno-nationalist (WEN) movement has also morphed into a cult of personality under President Trump, especially when it comes to society’s trust in law enforcement and minority rights. On the one hand, the WEN movement defends and glorifies American law enforcement when African-Americans are shot and killed by police in such disproportionate numbers. But when US law enforcement agencies are investigating the administration and their cronies, resulting in an increasing number of indictments and convictions, the WEN movement vilifies the FBI and other federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies as “partisan” and “corrupt.”
The constant bombardment of slanderous attacks and conspiracy theories on these institutions by media outlets allied with the WEN movement has changed the entire society’s conversation on the trustworthiness and impartiality of its institutions of law and order.
At the same time, the lack of public accountability in many of the cases in which an innocent African-American is killed by the police only feeds distrust in law enforcement. Meanwhile, seeing groups of armed white men holding a televised standoff with federal police for weeks, or storming the Michigan statehouse only to have their actions excused and lauded, feeds into further distrust in our system of justice.
In such ways do high trust societies erode into low trust societies.
Meanwhile, as in any civil war, opportunistic outside actors exert their influence to ensure the outcome favors them. Foreign hybrid actors such as the Kremlin seek to weaken Americans’ trust in their institutions and to stir up societal unrest. Their goal is to weaken the United States both internally and externally so as to create an opening for Russia to regain what it sees as its rightful place as a major world power. So, when a candidate in the 2016 election emerged who favored a dismantling of the US administrative state, a diminished US role in global affairs, and the dismantling of the post Second World War international system, Putin found the ideal movement to support.
The Russian government conducts their hybrid campaign in the United States through sophisticated disinformation efforts on social media and by funneling money to organizations allied to the WEN movement.
They opportunistically stepped into an already compromised public discourse and made it even worse via exploiting the existing anger and acrimony between various groups within American society. Online, they pose as both extreme right and left wing actors, using every opportunity to turn a reasonable argument into a dirty scrum pitting sister against brother and neighbor against neighbor.
During the 2016 US Presidential election, this meant aiming at disaffected Bernie Sanders voters and undecided Democrats to convince them to sit out the election while simultaneously hyper-energizing the WEN movement (not to mention average Republicans) to get to the polls. Trump’s energized voters showed up to vote and millions of Democrats sat out the election in an election that saw 44% of eligible voters not even bother to show up. The result was an electoral college victory by Putin’s favored candidate, despite losing the popular vote by over 3 million votes.
Consolidating the first victory
In a number of ways, the hybrid civil war’s first battle was won by the WEN as soon as Donald Trump took the oath of office and began rolling back rights for women, minorities, and LGBTQ people, not to mention virtually every policy of his predecessor.
Yet the American institutions largely held firm despite the Republican-held Congress’ refusal to hold Trump accountable for ethical transgressions related to maintaining direct control of his business interests while in office. They also let him off the hook in the impeachment trial for seeking to extort the Ukrainian government to help him in the 2020 election when the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted him after refusing to hear from any witnesses nor allowing additional evidence to be presented.
Trump moved quickly to fill the Supreme Court vacancy that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell had so cynically held open for him since eroding norms served the WEN movement’s agenda.
His clumsy and uncoordinated attempt to enact a Muslim travel ban (a campaign promise) was stopped by courts, as was a second version until later in June 2018, when the Supreme Court which included his appointee Neal Gursuch, deemed it constitutional.
And later in 2018, he appointed Brett Kavanaugh to another vacancy, largely to serve as his legal bodyguard since Kavanaugh seemingly auditioned by publishing his beliefs on a “broad view of presidential powers,” to include his view that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Mid and low-level federal bureaucrats held the line on legal and policy norms while Department of Justice prosecutors continued to uphold their oaths of office. Diplomats from the State Department continued to represent the United States. But over time, Trump and the WEN’s attacks on these institutions began to erode their ability to function.
To be sure, many of Putin’s desired outcomes have been achieved already, with Trump attacking the UN, NATO, the EU, America’s closest allies, and pulling the US out of key regional trade agreements such as the Transpacific Partnership. At the same time, Trump and his key WEN followers in Congress have done their best to shield Russian interests from the fallout of their interference in the 2016 US election — all while attacking and eroding the FBI, CIA, and other agencies with a role to protect the country.
A blizzard of disinformation
Any hybrid campaign relies on a comprehensive disinformation effort and the current American hybrid civil war is no exception. Once power is seized, the domestic hybrid actor holds onto it by using many of the same disinformation techniques which helped to bring them to power. Only now they do so with the resources of the state at their disposal.
In the case of Trump and his WEN movement, which includes their allied media outlets, it has been a virtual avalanche of lies and disinformation which did not even cease during the gravest of circumstances; the coronavirus pandemic.
This gaslighting on mass scale has the WEN movement no longer trusting the nations’ most accomplished medical experts; causing efforts to contain the disease to be enacted six weeks late, remain disjointed, and in some states be driven by politics instead of science. As a result, over 105,000 Americans are dead and 40 million are unemployed due to the lack of a resilient economic system. Meanwhile, the social democracies of the West are still standing and countries like South Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan have contained the virus with few deaths.
At the current pace, the US could have over 200,000 dead from the virus by the end of summer.
Will it turn into a kinetic civil conflict?
Given the current toxic mix of disease, unemployment, and outrage from the killings of black Americans by the police, we’ve already seen the beginning of protests which have turned violent, resulting in rubber bullets being fired at peaceful protesters, the burning of police stations and businesses, and protesters being shot during protests in Louisville (by whom remains unknown). There have also been video reports from Minnesota of possible agent provocateurs in the crowds being among the ones to break windows and start fires.
During this same time, white anarchists have been reported in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Nashville and cited as the cause of violence and destruction — hijacking an otherwise peaceful gathering for their own purposes while discrediting those with legitimate grievances.
Police responses in many cities have been forceful and sometimes indiscriminate, with even the media being arrested or shot by rubber bullets on live television. Or in New York City where a police vehicle drove into crowd of protesters. It is exactly these kinds of overreactions that discredit local authorities and fan the flames of unrest; two things which meet the objectives of hybrid actors. Having their scapegoated population being seen in nightly pitched battles against the police reinforces the WEN narrative and justifies their moves to disenfranchise their political enemies.
Its not clear yet if the violence surrounding these protests will escalate or whether peace will prevail, assuming state and local officials take measures to address the protesters’ grievances and restore order. But we are already seeing disinformation being spread on social media meant to fan the flames.
Once escalated, this hybrid civil war could lead to even more sustained and widespread fits of violence. The WEN movement in the United States speaks openly about how well armed they are for just such a moment and their most extreme adherents seem to relish the thought of one. Their willingness to storm government buildings and protest while fully armed indicates an inherent desire for armed confrontation.
It remains to be seen whether or not WEN gunmen will jump into the fray of these protests but they may choose not to since minorities visibly protesting in the streets fits their white supremacy narrative, especially when they result in violence and property destruction. For this reason, any intervention on their part is more likely to take the form of being agent provocateurs within the crowds.
At the same time, there are also armed groups such as the “Boogaloo” movement which is loosely allied with the WEN movement. According to investigators at Bellingcat, Boogaloo adherents indicate they will be seeking armed confrontations with law enforcement in the coming months and speak openly in their social media groups about starting a second civil war.
How to prevent escalation into a kinetic Civil War?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
The answer lies in the center. Only through a centrist coalition of reasonable and pragmatic people and parties, willing and open to compromise, can a hybrid civil war be de-escalated in the near term. Only when it has been de-escalated can long term structural changes be addressed. This requires credible leadership at all levels to seek peace and reconciliation. It requires the wounds of society to be addressed and for a real plan to heal them to emerge. It also requires a common dedication to truth-telling and accountability.
Hybrid conflicts rely on fringe elements to take over the narrative which is only possible when the majority in the center goes silent and becomes passive. Those in the center must become as vocal and active as those on the fringes and to build bridges across the elements of society which were separated by both history and the hybrid civil war which exploited the societal wounds created by history.
Social cohesion and trust will need to be rebuilt and reinforced. A good place to start is with public accountability and transparency and a sincere effort to ensure that all citizens are equal under the law — and for people to believe they are.
It will also be necessary to reinforce public education to teach critical thinking skills so there will be a common belief in truth and facts. There will also need to be greater accountability for media outlets and a return of the Fairness Doctrine may be in order. Of course a certain number of people will always believe in conspiracy theories but as science has shown us, the number of people who believe such things rises when people feel desperate and powerless. So the efforts toward building a more equal and just society will mean fewer people feel desperate and powerless and thus fewer of them will be inclined to fall for disinformation.
In all of these efforts, rebuilding the strength and resilience of democratic institutions will be vital to rebuilding societal trust; turning America into a high trust society which is less tolerant of corruption and much harder to divide.
In time, America will also need a truth and reconciliation process much like South Africa did in the aftermath of apartheid. Such a process could help us to, as a society, discover, discuss, and reveal past wrongdoing by both government and non-state actors in the hope of resolving elements of conflict left from the past.
Only through a sincere effort to heal the wounds of America’s past and present will it be able to step into the future and live up to the ideals it was founded upon.