Although President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE is proclaiming unity as his overarching goal, the storming of Congress on Jan. 6 may be the harbinger of an accelerating slide toward political disunion and potential state fracture.
In the most optimistic scenario, the failed insurrection brought America back from the brink of chaos and even civil war. The storming of Congress failed to intimidate legislators into annulling the presidential election results. Despite the initial unpreparedness of the Capitol police, order was eventuality restored and the potential kidnapping or assassination of legislators prevented.
According to the positive thesis, the vast majority of Americans will condemn the insurrectionists and most Trump voters will grudgingly accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election. Meanwhile, Trump’s political influence will erode, while the Republican Party returns to its traditional core and sheds its populist extremes.
But the key lesson of history is that to prevent the worst outcome, one must first imagine it. In an alternative pessimistic scenario, America’s deep socio-political divisions prove irreconcilable. Federal institutions and the three branches of government forfeit their legitimacy among a substantial minority of the population egged on by Trump and his allies, who will continue to control the Republican Party or its political successor.
American democracy cannot function if one of its two major parties rejects the role of loyal opposition and seeks to paralyze federal decisions. National polarization can be further widened if the incoming Democrats lurch leftward regardless of centrist and conservative opposition and if the new administration cannot work with congressional Republicans. “Progressive” leftist Democrats also bear some culpability for the escalating divisions in American society, having tolerated violent elements of antifa, promoted a dangerous “defund the police” narrative and enabled Trump to portray the incoming administration as the lackeys of radical socialists.
Violent conflicts can explode even where both sides believe they are defending democracy. The rioters who stormed Congress were convinced that their votes were stolen and their leaders cheated out of office. If they cannot be persuaded otherwise, then the pot of rebellion will continue to boil.
The political meltdown will embolden anti-government militias and street fighters, whether from the socialist left, the nationalist right or the hodge-podge of anti-government movements. If such movements are encouraged and manipulated by demagogues, violent clashes will spread and may be accompanied by bombings and terrorism.
In the midst of armed conflict, Republicans and Democrats could seek to oust their political opponents from some state governments and legislatures. Spreading insurrection and lawlessness could also be seized upon by rightist or leftist leaders to recruit local police in restoring law and order as a cover for establishing “ideologically cleansed” administrations. Federal authorities would either be too paralyzed to intervene or incapable of handling several simultaneous crises.
Local insurrections could also animate calls for separation and partition. Once there is major bloodshed in the midst of mayhem, territorial partition and population exchanges between majority blue and red states may emerge as a feasible solution that could restore peace and functioning governments. Various division options could then be voiced, whether a loose confederation with a weak central government or the full separation of several states and the creation of two North American countries.
Although such a scenario may be dismissed as a nightmarish impossibility, human behavior in conditions of economic distress, political chaos and social paranoia invariably exceeds our imaginations. We cannot assume that the bloody lessons of the 20th century, from violent state ruptures and world wars to the Holocaust and the Gulag, have been learned and will not be imitated in the 21st century. Neither representative democracy nor state integrity can be taken for granted, and even the strongest democracies will be tested.
We will discover over the coming weeks and months the durability of America’s institutions, the commitment of elected politicians and the trust of America’s citizens in a unitary and democratic United States.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is entitled “Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.”