We are entering the gauntlet of what will almost certainly be the toughest trial America has faced since the Civil War. Whether we will emerge stronger, weakened—or suffer a potentially fatal train wreck—remains to be seen. But it is beyond doubt that during the seven weeks between now and the election—and more crucially, including the days and weeks following November 3rd—will see our country tested by a fire of unprecedented intensity.
Believing this is just another “heated election season”—or dismissing the dangers as overblown—risks sleepwalking into disaster we cannot afford.
More than at any time in our collective lifetimes, the level of political and civil anger—and in many cases outright hatred—between various American individuals and groups is frighteningly high. The highest ranking and best-known Democratic leaders barely attempt to disguise the intensity of their distaste for President Trump and senior Republican figures; the Republican disgust towards Democrats might be even more potent.
These negative views are amplified on an hourly basis on the cable news networks. CNN and MSNBC devote significant resources to searching out and highlighting even the most minor infraction committed by the Trump Administration, offering searing, contemptuous commentary against the president and his officials. Fox News and One America News Network perform the same negative role against Democrats; both are loath to report anything positive about the other side.
The dynamic of politicians railing against each other and TV personalities amplifying the contempt has been going on for decades. What has turned a bad situation into a toxic one has been the emergence of social media. This election year, however, “toxic” is threatening to devolve into an outright poison.
It used to be that the comments on various partisan platforms primarily served as echo chambers which reinforced strongly-held party opinions. Then partisan followers began trolling their opponents, going to the other side’s outlets to engage in nasty, often verbally abusive retorts (these comments aren’t arguments as much as shrill accusations). Since the 2018 midterms especially, the vitriol has spread into the pages of friends and families’ Facebook entries and other social media platforms, often separating close relations.
I’ve personally observed how many of my closest associates have lost lifelong friends resulting from enraged exchanges, watched as some families have literally been split apart by mean-spirited denunciations, and seen others band together as they gleefully tear common enemies apart with vicious words. In the past few months, however, that anger has been transferred from online to on the streets.
Sparked by a host of incidents—charges of police brutality, some attacking the so-called “cancel culture,” others protesting against political ideologies they detest—emotional supporters among both liberals and conservatives have taken to the streets to support and defend their side.
Peacefully protesting and giving voice to one’s opinion is a cherished First Amendment right that should be defended with enthusiasm. With increasing frequency, however, these lawful protests have been devolving into more destruction of property and now with both right and left groups of vigilantes engaging in gunfights against each other in which people have been murdered. It is atop this violent, toxic mixture that now the parties of both the Trump and Biden campaigns are threatening that if their side loses on November 3rd, disaster will strike.
In this super-charged and volatile environment—political parties that hate each other, cable networks that feed the hatred, social media that spreads anger to every corner of the internet, and increasingly intense street violence—the stage has been set for a post-election level of violence and disunity never seen in our lifetimes.
Owing to the still-raging pandemic, it is likely that tens of millions more Americans will vote by mail than ever before, the majority of them likely Democratic voters. It appears probable that Republicans will vote in far larger numbers in person than Democrats. That sets us up for the likely outcome where on election night, Trump garners the most votes, both raw and electoral. He can be expected to declare himself the winner.
But as the states count the avalanche of mail-in votes over the one to two weeks following election day, the outcome could change, potentially dramatically, showing a Biden win. Trump has already repeated to his angry supporters claims of mail-in voter fraud, and in the case of a Biden win can be counted on to claim he was the victim of Democratic cheating and call on his followers to take to the streets to protest.
Conversely, because a majority of the states—thirty-four of them—won’t count mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day (even if they were postmarked before November 3rd), it is likely that large numbers of votes, possibly millions of them, won’t count. Since most of those would be Democratic votes, Trump might still be the winner. In that case, Democrats would almost certainly cry foul, citing Trump’s alleged sabotaging of the Post Office’s ability to process and deliver mail before the election, claiming Trump stole the election—and again, calling Democratic supporters to streets in protest.
Therefore almost no matter how the election comes out, the losing side will claim the other cheated and may flood the streets with protesters—which would also almost certainly spawn a counter-protest by the supporters of the winner, to make sure their side doesn’t have the win taken from them. In this already super-charged, highly emotional state of the American electorate, we could see large scale violence, competing groups of citizens shooting each other, and both candidates claiming to be the winner.
However it eventually plays out, the danger continues for our Republic because a substantial portion of the nation may view the declared winner as illegitimate. If we’ve thought Washington has been dysfunctional in the past few years, its nothing compared with what would follow in this case. It would be almost impossible for either party to help solve the problem because both are major and active causes of the dysfunction that would follow.
We may be witnessing, therefore, the beginning of a major political realignment. Americans, especially those not in the radical wings of either party, will be demanding functional government. If neither party proves capable of governing its way out of the impasse, a new political entity may very well arise, much like the Republican Party rose to displace the Whigs in the 1850s.
The tectonic shift of that era eventually resulted in the destructive Civil War. While there is no commensurate geographic “north-vs-south” split that would divide the country today, there are multiple poles competing throughout the nation, set against one another, many of which appear to be increasingly willing to use violence to achieve their ends. It will take all the forbearance and wise leadership our country has to offer to avoid the worst outcomes and restore a semblance of basic effectiveness to our government. Fail to meet that minimal standard and the future could be darker than any of us would believe.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army, with four combat deployments. He won the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in 1991 and a Bronze Star Medal for service in 2011. The views in this article are the authors alone and do not represent the opinions of any group.