So here we are, a week away from the 2020 US election, which will almost certainly decide whether or not the United States has a future as a viable nation-state. If that seems like an exaggeration, you probably don’t really understand the scale of the mess America is in.
There is, for only maybe the second time in American history, a very real chance that an actual civil war will break out over the results of a presidential election. It’s not as unthinkable as most Americans believe. My friends who still live in rural parts of the West tell me people in their towns are quite literally locking and loading, buying up ammo in preparation if Trump loses. To do what, exactly? I don’t know. I can’t imagine they think they’re going to run an insurgency against the US military… but I think they believe that they won’t have to.
This Atlantic article lays it out pretty well, but the biggest barrier to predicting the events of the next three or four months in America is not that Trump will not concede the election. It’s not a barrier because it’s a near certainty. There is no version of this where Trump acknowledges defeat, gracefully or otherwise.
No, the biggest barrier is that there’s no clear answer to what happens after that, after he claims it was rigged, that mail-in ballots were fraudulent, that he’s still the President. There’s no clear answer because the Framers of the Constitution never imagined such a possibility happening. They may have been racist, misogynist, slave-owning white supremacist douchebags, but they also existed at a time when gentlemen simply did not behave that way.
But Trump is the polar opposite of the definition of a gentleman, then or now, and he’s going to kick up a ruckus and absolutely push it as far as it will go. He’s a textbook psychopath with a fragile ego, the worst sense of Rich White Man entitlement this earth has ever seen, and is likely facing prison — along with his immediate family — once he’s out from under the roof of the White House. He is not mentally or emotionally capable of grace, much less grace in defeat.
And so that leads us to a very bad place for the most powerful and wealthiest nation-state in a world interlocked by global networks of economy and finance and industry to be in: namely, chaos.
This winter is going to be very very hard indeed, on America and Americans and indeed the entire world. COVID-19 has kicked the moorings out from underneath the engine of global capitalism and showed how desperately fragile it really is, contrary to the bluster and bluff of free market advocates who insist that it is the economic version of Darwinian selection — which it is, to some extent, but that’s not a good thing on the day when the asteroid comes and ruthless efficiency of food-gathering isn’t as useful as being small enough to hide in cracks and warm-blooded enough to survive the endless winter afterwards. Modern, Milton Friedman-idolizing late stage corporate capitalism relies above all else upon endless increase of profit margins, and as we’ve seen, when they cease due to something that money can’t seem to control, such as the coronavirus, businesses that have lasted centuries die sad deaths over the course of a few months.
One of the most serious forms of collateral damage from this is going to be in the form of mass evictions, as soon as the moratoriums put in place by various jurisdictions run out. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that these moratoriums are not debt jubilees — if you haven’t paid rent since March, you’ll owe it, January 1st. All of it. Whether or not your landlord is willing to take payments, whether they charge you consecutive late fees for all that time accrued, is probably going to be entirely at their own discretion.
One of the things that modern capitalism is incapable of is systems thinking; it’s every capitalist for themselves, swimming the heady seas of commerce like a shoal of fish that forms a shape like an Invisible Hand. But that narrow focus, that greed and pitilessness, is one of capitalism’s failure points.
In this case, millions of landlords and property managers protecting their individual investments by evicting people who, in many cases, are still unemployed or underemployed due to the pandemic, is going to cause a cascading series of economic failures that will, in and of themselves, bring America to its knees. A key point to remember here is that this will happen regardless of the election outcome, as even if Biden is elected he won’t take office until January 20th, by which time those eviction processes will have already begun and, in many cases, be carried out. The likelihood of another federal moratorium extension are slim to none — and while many states will enforce their own, others won’t.
So that’s one major crisis waiting in the wings. Another is that there’s a pretty good chance that this winter will prove to be another extremely cold one, due to polar vortices coming in from the north, borne on the currents caused by rapid Arctic ice melt. That’s always bad, but combine it with millions of Americans suddenly displaced due to evictions or climate collapse events like the fires in the West, and you’re looking at a deadly one-two combo punch indeed.
And, of course, the virus; the virus that is on track to kill a quarter of a million Americans by mid-November and maybe a half million by Inauguration Day, and which is absolutely kicking the living hell out of not only domestic but foreign trade. Despite Trump’s witless babbling, the coronavirus shows no signs of petering out and there’s no vaccine in sight.
The best metaphor for this fourth quarter of 2020 is what William Gibson refers to, in his recent novels The Peripheral and Agency, as “the Jackpot”: a notional set of crises which could, individually, be managed with massive coordinated effort… but which all hit at the same moment, like a royal flush on a Vegas slot machine, leaving the entire planet punch-drunk and on the ropes.
And into this existentially precarious moment — precarious for not only America but the entire human race — walks Donald J. Trump, the human equivalent of a beer mug falling off a bar in the middle of a tense old West saloon showdown.
Partially because of the Founding Fathers’ inability to imagine absolutely shameless sons-of-bitches like Trump and Mitch O’Connell getting into the driver’s seats of America, and partially because of their own inefficacy and fecklessness, it seems unlikely that the Democratic Party will do much if Trump decides to cut loose after the election. The problem is that, like the Republicans, the Democrats have come to understand American democracy not as the mechanism of providing for and doing the will of the people, but as a team sport in which winning is not defined by carrying out the objective of good governance, but by getting votes and holding districts. A cynical man would argue that both parties are most interested in the gaining of power in order to sell it to the highest bidder; I am a cynical man and I do in fact argue this, but not at the moment. Electoral politics is always corrupt, but this goes beyond simple pork barrels and lobbyists with their hands in their pockets.
The Democrats fancy themselves as five-dimensional chess players, and maybe by the laughable standards of Washington they are. But the problem is that they’re sitting down at an exquisitely carved chess board across from Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They’re thinking five moves ahead… except their opponent isn’t actually moving his pieces. He’s waving that Husqvarna around and sawing through the chairs and the walls and the table the chess board is sitting on, while the Democrats sit there and make impatient scoffing noises and demand to know if we, the American public, can see what this guy is doing? He’s not even strategizing correctly! It’s like he isn’t playing the same game as them at all.
So when Trump starts calling the election a fraud, and attempting to send his own electors — hand-picked by Stephen Miller or Jared Kushner, because Trump has the attention span of a fruit fly on PCP and isn’t interested in conversations about other people, because other people are not Donald Trump and therefore irrelevant to his interests — the Democrats are going to continue to do what they’ve done so far, which is release a series of strongly-worded condemnations. The Senate belongs to the Republicans, so there isn’t much they can do anyway. And if the Democrats are team players, the Republicans are more akin to a death cult. They have no allegiance to America or the American people, which they prove in every election by trying every means, fair or foul, to rig the outcome in their favor, through cheap stunts and gerrymandering and voter intimidation. They only care about total victory, and as one of their elder statesmen and heroes once said: they will burn the village to save it.
But let’s imagine an unlikely scenario: Joe Biden absolutely sweeps the election in a landslide, one that not even a Republican-held Senate or Trump’s newly-packed Supreme Court can call into question. Trump continues to mewl and simper about “fraud” and “antifa” and whatever, right up until the moment that Biden shows up to the White House and Trump is, as Biden has suggested, frog-marched out of the joint. America’s long nightmare is over… right?
Nope. That’s when things really go off the rails. Because even without the office of the Presidency, Trump is a cult leader, and his cult consists of millions of Americans, the least-educated and least-intelligent and least-tolerant and most belligerent sector of the citizenry… and America is a country where lack of education or intelligence or tolerance or an even temper present zero barriers to purchasing and maintaining large collections of military-grade weapons and ammo.
I think that, for these people, collective street-level violence come January 20th is not a question. The only question is whether they get to be the Imperial stormtroopers or the Rebel Alliance, but I don’t think they care very much. What they care about is what the Democrats should care a lot more about than they appear to: that this is a pivot point in the history of America, and that this is either the end of the dominance of the far right wing in American politics or culture or its triumph.
So let me put this plainly and bluntly: I believe there’s a pretty good chance that these people will attempt to start an armed insurrection or an all-out civil war, at some point between Election Day and Inauguration Day. I don’t think it will be a territorial war, no North vs. South or even ISIS attempting to reclaim the lands of the ancient caliphate; I think it will be everywhere, in every part of America. I think it will be factional, like the various post-Soviet conflicts that broke out in the Balkans and other hotspots in the 1990s; I think they will not meet much active resistance from non-state leftist actors or activists; I think the federal government will be paralyzed by this crisis of leadership and unable to effectively respond; and I think that, on top of every other goddamned thing happening right at the exact same moment, that there is a fairly good chance that the United States of America will be a failed state by next summer, because — politics aside — the already-teetering economy cannot withstand this level of chaos.
How do we avoid this? I’ll be honest: I have no idea. It might be that Trump losing the election badly will take the wind out of the sails of the various increasingly organized right-wing militias and movements. It might be that the Democrats manage to sweep both the House and Senate, as well as win the presidency, and that might be enough to allow them to offer a decisive response to Trump’s recklessness and chaos creation. It might be that some of the Republicans remember that they serve all the American people, not just the ones in their party, and stand up to their thoroughly immoral leadership. Stranger things have happened.
But of course, none of that is likely. The system has been gamed so thoroughly and the Republican Party so thoroughly infiltrated by crazies and mercenaries and psychopaths and delusional Jesus freaks since 1980 or so that none of that is likely at all. I think a stalemate in the halls of power is the best case scenario… and that stalemate will not carry out into the streets.
So if I’m right, and America does break out into factional civil war or street-level insurrection and violence on a massive scale? How does that play out? I have no idea. Depending on who actually ends up in the White House, we might see UN peacekeepers in American streets next year, but I doubt it. I think that nobody on Earth, no other nation or collection of nations, is willing to directly intervene in this lunacy, despite the fact that every country on Earth will be impacted directly or indirectly by it.
For example, the United Kingdom — where I currently sit — is in a lot of trouble if America goes apeshit. Boris Johnson and the Tories have entirely put all of their post-Brexit eggs into the basket of new trade agreements with the US; if those agreements don’t happen, the UK is in very serious trouble and very well may lose Scotland to independence and EU membership. China may win political supremacy if America falls, but too much of their economy currently relies on American trade and manufacturing for them to easily withstand even a brief period without it. Russia? Russia would be happy to see America fall, but it’s not like they’re in any position to take our place economically. This is more about settling scores than anything else. And of course, if America falls, the already precarious situation in the Middle East explodes. Israel loses her biggest ally, but the Saudis also lose their biggest customer.
An America divided in violent civil war would not necessarily mean the end of the world, but it would probably mean a shake-up unseen on the planet since the end of the second World War, and maybe something more akin to the fall of Rome in terms of a complete and rapid redefinition of the status quo. And maybe more dramatic even than that, because Rome did not sit at the center of a global spiderweb of money and war and diplomacy the way America does. The end of America could be the geopolitical version of a singularity; a phase change so dramatic that it’s impossible to predict what the world looks like on the other side of it.
I certainly can’t. But I’m frightened enough of it that I am not going to return to America if I can help it in the near future. If I can’t find a way to stay with my partner here in the UK, I’ll go to one of the other entries on the short list of nations that are allowing Americans to enter during the pandemic. I’d rather live on bread and butter in some village in rural Turkey than return to a country that’s the equivalent of a gunpowder factory, with a big stupid orange asshole real estate con artist from Queens standing out front with a Zippo in his fat fingers.
If you are one of the hundreds of millions of my fellow Americans who were not lucky enough to have an exit strategy and find yourself trapped in a volatile country on the edge of chaos with no easy means of escape, my advice is to get as ready as you can for whatever comes, and do not assume that a Biden win will end the turmoil. In fact, it may precipitate it. Be wary, pay attention, and if you have a way to get clear of the madness, take it.
I am scared for you, for all of you, and for all of us, every human on the planet. Because a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, and God only knows who will be left when the waters recede. Hopefully it will be most of us; hopefully it will be any of us at all.
Vaya con Dios, mi amigos.