It’s America’s most dangerous moment in what has been a dangerous year. Covid-19, conspiracy theories and civil unrest.
All are congealing in a bitterly divided community. And the presidential election will be its flashpoint.
• Read more: Kidnapping plot and rise of far-right groups during US election
“This is an extraordinarily dangerous moment for our nation,” warns Brookings Institution president John Allen. “November 3rd may indeed be the most important date for these United States in living memory. The stakes are enormous and, in that moment, America will either step back from the cliff or go over entirely.”
Recent revelations of an extremist plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer is no surprise to US public policy think tanks. They’ve been warning for months that the festering quagmire of partisan politics has put the nation on the brink.
No one act or event can take the blame. Rather, a multitude of circumstances have combined to compound and reinforce the United States’ woes.
Covid-19 has hospitalised much of the White House and Pentagon. Not to mention its broad social and economic impact upon the citizens of the United States.
The presidential election campaign is in disarray. President Donald Trump’s sickness and continued questions about his health and that of his staff has hampered the Republican Party’s progress.
US intelligence agencies are warning against foreign interference. They’re also warning of domestic terrorism.
And the President has been challenging the legitimacy of the yet-to-be-held vote
All this is on top of a splintered society raging against itself in a way not seen for decades.
The result is a final race to the polls fraught with worry and fear.
It’s not about Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It’s about the survival of democracy.
It’s been a year of protest in the US. The Black Lives Matter movement surged into motion after a series of controversial deaths in custody. Demonstrations spread throughout the country. Some turned violent.
It has entered an environment of left versus right, with no middle ground.
It’s communists versus fascists. Or so the narratives go.
But what is most clear is extremism has found a voice.
And it has plenty to complain about.
Changing demographics. Challenged traditions. Clashing cultures. And an enormous gap between haves and have-nots.
But where politicians of all persuasion would once rage against racism, violence and voter intimidation in the past, not so now.
Trump and senior Republicans have repeatedly hesitated to condemn right-wing extremists, be they QAnon conspiracy theorists or the Proud Boys white-supremacist militia. But they’ve been quick to attack “antifa” as a co-ordinated, murderous ultra-left movement that threatens the stability of the Union.
Proud Boy leader Joe Biggs boasts that by asking them to “stand by” during the presidential debate: “Trump basically said to go f*** them up.”
America’s armed militias and extremist groups have been inflamed. Social media has spread their conspiracy theories and hate further and faster than ever before.
Their ranks are swollen. Their coffers are overflowing.
The result is a real and present danger: homegrown terror.
The US Department of Homeland Security and FBI earlier this year warned white supremacist extremism now poses a persistent threat of lethal violence.
But Trump used the biggest moment of the election campaign so far to reject this warning.
“Oh, you gotta be kidding,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem — this is a left-wing problem.”
Then he directly addressed a violent white supremacist group: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”. Trump later said he had no idea who the Proud Boys were.
“Whatever the president intended with this provocative phrase is irrelevant because this group has embraced it as validation of their cause and a call to arms itself,” Allen says.
Militias across the United States have been emboldened. Heavily armed men forced their way into the Michigan Capitol to protest Governor Whitmer’s Covid-19 containment measures in May. Similar gun-toting, camo-clad groups are now almost a common sight at public events, rallies and demonstrations nationwide.
“Since assuming office in 2017, Trump has made much of his desire to pull the US back from overseas wars. He should take great pains not to act like he wants one at home,” the International Crisis Group warned in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Now, for the first time, the US is on its list of international “crisis” hot spots.
“None of this means that the United States is about to experience generalised violence of the type that has wracked countries Crisis Group traditionally covers,” the group’s president, Robert Malley, notes. “But looking at this list was enough to convince us to turn our gaze to a country far more accustomed to issuing warnings than to receiving them.”
A social dilemma
Forget sex. If there’s one thing the artificial intelligences built to make social media megacorps such as Facebook, Google and Twitter rich have learnt, it’s that hate sells.
Rage prompts clicks. Clicks equal advertising cash.
The more rage, the more clicks … the more cash.
It’s a simple equation social media algorithms have embraced.
But it’s increasingly evident there’s a social and democratic price to be paid.
“An awareness is emerging that outrage, hatred, extremism, violence, all that stuff … that’s a feature of how the internet works. It’s not a bug,” says democracy analyst Dr Zac Rogers.
“Facebook’s algorithm, for example, is an attention assembly algorithm before it’s a targeted algorithm. And the way you assemble attention markets is with rage clicking. That’s why this stuff, this QAnon stuff, all this extremist nonsense is perpetuating more effectively in our society because it’s how the algorithms work. Period.”
But social media executives have been reluctant to do anything about it.
Just weeks out from the election, Facebook has taken down a tangle of disinformation pages allegedly run by Russian intelligence operatives. It also belatedly banned accounts promoting QAnon’s conspiracy theories.
But critics argue the damage is well and truly done.
Extremists have already banded together. They’ve been emboldened. And the online plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer in order to trigger “civil war” threatens to be just the tip of an iceberg.
An authoritarian advance
Russian-backed manipulation of social media debate and public opinion has had a “much worse effect on us than Pearl Harbor,” claims a prosecutor who worked on the Mueller investigation into the 2016 election. “Obviously, Pearl Harbor had a loss of life, and I’m not trying to say that’s comparable, but in terms of the effect and undermining our democracy, it’s arguably much worse,” Andrew Weissmann told Business Insider.
The allegations aren’t new. What is new is the amount of evidence behind them.
Russia, however, isn’t the only nation accused of exploiting such attitude engineering techniques.
Analysts argue all authoritarian regimes – be they China, North Korea, Iran or a multitude of others – are motivated to weaken the international rule of law promoted by the West.
And unregulated social media platforms have provided the means of doing this.
Putin and Xi’s goal is to divide and conquer.
Their tactic is to promote polarisation, undermine confidence in democratic institutions, spread confusion and generate apathy.
“Manipulating someone’s perception of others is most feasible, and most effective, if that perception can be collapsed into a one-dimensional caricature,” a recent RAND study found.
“If someone is “one of them” and if “they” are a monolithic group easily summarised by one characteristic, then perceptions are more easily manipulated and reinforced.”
That means memes. And rage.
A wounded White House
His personal staff are sick. His top advisers are quarantined.
And the President himself is still recovering.
Trump returned from hospital this week to a White House brought to its knees by Covid-19.
No amount of snipers, secret service agents, sensors or security fencing could keep it out.
It appears the Rose Garden event nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court was, in fact, a superspreader event.
Covid-19 has divided America. There are those who believe it is fake. There are those who believe it’s no worse than the flu. There are those who insist attempts to contain the pandemic are a direct assault on their personal freedoms.
Then there are those desperate to keep their loved ones healthy, and alive.
As the death toll in the United States relentlessly climbs above 212,000, debate is raging over the President’s management of the pandemic.
Anyone entering Trump’s presence must now wear yellow gowns, a mask and goggles.
No such requirements are placed on the infected President himself.
Unemployment is sky high. Emergency food queues are stretching for kilometres. No clear plan to stimulate the economy has been put forward. Trump wants to delay it until after the election.
At least 10 White House officials are ill. More than 100 Capitol Hill staffers have contracted the virus. All of the Pentagon’s top generals and admirals are in quarantine.
The few remaining West Wing personnel are beginning to social distance and wear masks during meetings – despite months of being discouraged from doing so.
But the horse has bolted. Covid has diminished their ranks.
And the presidential election looms.
Now the President is keen to reinvigorate his campaign with short-notice rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania this weekend. If he can find the staff to organise them.
Trump claims the electoral process is rigged against him. He accuses mail-in ballots of being subject to widespread fraud. He’s failed to produce any evidence to support this.
But he’s casting doubt on the upcoming vote’s validity regardless.
“These … baseless accusations seem specifically tailored to confuse and frighten the American voter and create uncertainty about the election’s outcome,” Allen says.
If so, it’s achieved that goal.
A recent poll found 47 per cent of the electorate disagree that the poll will be “fair and honest”. Some 56 per cent of respondents said they expected “an increase in violence as a result of the election.”
Now Trump’s chances appear to be dwindling.
He’s falling further behind in the polls. Not that 2016 didn’t prove the value of such polls to be dubious at best.
But Trump continues to insist “any negative polls are fake news”.
In March, Trump boasted he has the support of the police, military and “Bikers for Trump”.
“I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he said.
Fronting the media recently in the White House, Trump refused to offer any reassurance that he would respect the electoral outcome. He refused to promise a peaceful transition of power. He also refused to call for restraint in the event of civil unrest.
It was a scenario which prompted prominent New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to warn the US could be headed toward a second civil war.
“Our democracy is in terrible danger — more danger than it has been since the Civil War, more danger than after Pearl Harbor, more danger than during the Cuban missile crisis and more danger than during Watergate,” he penned.
With the threat of violence so openly discussed, he’s by no means the only commentator raising the alarm.
“Both candidates must loudly and unambiguously disavow politically motivated violence, and that includes preventing supporters from descending on the polls to provide vigilante ‘security’ of our electoral process,” Allen says. “Any refusal to endorse this basic protection of American lives and the sanctity of our democracy should be understood as a willingness to condone violence and de facto mob rule.”
A clear and present danger
“What emerged during the debate was a stark and disturbing divergence between the best traditions of American democracy and the jarring reality of Mr Trump’s concept of governing this country,” says Allen. “The stakes of this upcoming election may indeed be existential for the future of our American democracy.”
As some commentators wryly note, the US isn’t a democracy. It’s a republic.
Trump has to win the votes of an Electoral College. Not the popular vote.
Every state in the Union is allocated an Electoral College value based on its population. If you win that state, you win all its points. No matter the margin you win it by.
Which makes swinging electorates all the more important.
And prone to accusations of vote-rigging.
Such accusations can only be adjudicated on by the Supreme Court.
And if Barret takes her seat on the Supreme Court before the election, it will give the Republicans a 6-3 majority.
Meanwhile, the troubles of the United States have converged.
Militias are mobilising. Voters are confused and concerned. Society is polarised by a multitude of matters.
It’s against this backdrop that Trump has called upon supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for alleged fraud.
It’s a scenario fraught with risk.
“On November 3rd, I truly fear American voters will find both unarmed Trump supporters and armed, white supremacists groups at the polls seeking to “guard” our democratic process,” Allen warns. “The handwriting is clearly on the wall … America stands upon the edge of a knife.”
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