Oct 10th 2020

Trump’s Helter Skelter 

by Alex Hinton

 

Alex Hinton is Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and UNESCO Chair on Genocide Prevention at Rutgers University. 

 

NEWARK – Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrectionmartial law, and civil war in the United States. The arrest of militia leaders in Michigan on charges of planning to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and incite the overthrow of the state’s government suggests how far far-right politics in America is prepared to go.

Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast. US President Donald Trump, now far behind in most polls, will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, he encourages white-power militias and extremists, and sows disinformation about everything from mail-in ballots to COVID-19.

While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil. As someone who has spent his career studying genocide and mass violence, I fear that the chances of such violence are higher than most people think.

There are six reasons why Americans should prepare for the worst. First, the political, social, and economic situation in the US is deeply unstable. Such instability is a leading factor in all the robust models that researchers have developed over the past few decades to assess the risk of atrocities (including crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide). 

In the atrocity-risk model used by the United Nations, the US checks several boxes: in addition to a runaway pandemic, it is experiencing economic distress, high unemployment, mass protests, natural disasters, and ever-deepening political polarization. The presence of just one or two of these factors would be alarming enough; the US features more than a half-dozen.

A second risk factor is the country’s history of mass violence and human-rights abuses. Beyond the obvious examples of genocide committed against Native Americans and the enslavement of black people, the US interned Japanese-Americans during World War II and, more recently, engaged in torture as part of its War on Terror. Some argue that the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants – including the separation of families – at the southern border constitutes crimes against humanity, and liken US immigrant detention centers to concentration camps.

A third risk factor is the political demonization that has taken root, particularly on the right, with Trump relentlessly vilifying people of color. He has referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” Muslims as terrorists, and Latinos as criminal “animals.” He smeared Haiti and all of Africa as “shithole countries.” During the 2018 midterm election, Trump tried to mobilize his base by warning of an immigrant “infestation.” Now, he regularly inveighs against black and brown “rioters” and “left-wing radicals” who are supposedly burning down cities and threatening to invade white suburbs and destroy the American “way of life.”

In this context, it certainly is no coincidence that hate crimes have risen dramatically during Trump’s presidency, including instances of violent anti-Semitism. When Trump labeled COVID-19 “the China virus” and “kung flu,” reports of anti-Asian animus surged.

Fourth, by undermining America’s constitutional system of checks and balances, Trump’s presidency has eroded many of the buffers for preventing unrest. Trump openly flaunts the rules, including those meant to curb corruption (another risk amplifier), and has succeeded in politicizing independent agencies from the US Department of Justice to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, routinely intervenes on Trump and his cronies’ behalf, and supported the administration’s efforts to deploy federal troops against US citizens. Meanwhile, Trump has pardoned or granted clemency to criminal allies and alleged war criminals

Such impunity further heightens the risk of violence, by signaling to Trump’s heavily armed followers that anything goes. Indeed, Trump has even voiced support for a 17-year-old gunman charged with murdering two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

A fifth category of risk comprises catalysts that can make a bad situation worse, including contested elections, marches by armed groups, and other mass protests. Trump has already repeatedly questioned the integrity of the election, suggested that he won’t leave office, and proved eager to use force on civilians. Facing massive, largely peaceful protests, his first instinct was to invoke the Insurrection Act and activate the military.

This summer in Washington, DC, where federal law enforcement has jurisdiction, troops were issued bayonets and deployed to expel peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square. In response to nationwide Black Lives Matter marches, Trump’s supporters have taken to warning of seditioninsurrectionmartial law, and coup attempts, and armed extremists like the Boogaloo and the Proud Boys have taken to the streets. At the first presidential debate, Trump, prompted to repudiate such groups, instead instructed them to “stand back and stand by.”

The sixth factor includes anything that could trigger atrocity crimes in today’s tinderbox political climate. There are many plausible scenarios. For example, Trump’s refusal to accept electoral defeat could spark mass protests (and probably some rioting), creating an ostensible pretext for him to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy troops against US civilians.

Unrest would undoubtedly spread. Some protesters would respond with violence, prompting US soldiers and federal troops to use even more force. Images of people of color firing gunswould dominate Fox News and Facebook, a leading online disseminator of far-right propaganda that has already been implicated in genocide elsewhere.

That would be the trigger: Trump would call for those “standing by” to rise up and crush the black and brown “criminals” and “radicals” he has been demonizing. The full-scale race war that the mass murderer Charles Manson tried to instigate 51 years ago – he called it “Helter Skelter” – will have been launched by America’s president.

This is just one potential mass-atrocity scenario, but it is not hard to conjure others. Now more than ever, such risk assessments are necessary. By forcing us to consider the worst, they give us time to act. Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented.


Alex Hinton is Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and UNESCO Chair on Genocide Prevention at Rutgers University. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."