With Election Day looming, an anxious nation hears rumblings of civil war

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Michael S. Williamson The Washington Post

Drew Miller inside a fortified bunker in West Virgina last year. A retired Air Force intelligence officer and Harvard-educated writer, Miller has been establishing compounds in readiness for an apocalypse.

This weekend, several dozen people will arrive at secret locations in West Virginia and Colorado to ride out the election and its aftermath. If Tuesday’s vote sparks unrest, Drew Miller’s customers at Fortitude Ranch will be secure behind walls patrolled by armed guards.

“Could the election devolve into civil war? Unlikely,” mused Miller, the founder of a budding network of members-only survivalist camps. “But look at World War I: Some worthless, low-level archduke gets assassinated and things escalate out of control. I’ve got people who are concerned that all it would take is a close election and some cheating.”

In Portland, Ore., where a right-wing armed group plans to show up at polling places on Tuesday with weapons in plain view, some extreme left-wing organizers are preparing to do the same.

“The right is not going to give up their power unless they feel threatened,” said Olivia Katbi Smith, a co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America in Portland. “People are opening up to the idea that a riot is the language of the unheard. Property destruction is not violence.”

On the eve of a presidential election fraught with tension, warning flares are bursting across American skies. From federal and local law enforcement to analysts who track radical groups, concern is high about the possibility that violence could erupt, especially if the vote count drags on for days without a clear winner.

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As Election Day nears, Trump ponders becoming one thing he so despises: A loser

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The signals are disturbing: A sharp increase in gun sales. A spike in chatter about civil war in online forums where right-wing extremists gather. An embrace of violent language by President Trump and other leaders. And surveys showing an increased willingness by some Americans to see violence as an acceptable tool against political opponents.

“We’re talking about violence in U.S. elections, and that’s insane,” said Lisa Kaplan, the chief executive of the Alethea Group, a Washington company that tracks disinformation efforts. “This is a real threat, and we have seen increased confidence among the militias.”

Even those who take the threat seriously say there is no evidence of any coordinated plan for widespread violence, and that isolated flareups are a more likely scenario. Equally important: “The vast majority of Americans across political lines reject violence, no matter what,” said Rachel Brown, executive director of Over Zero, a nonprofit group that focuses on preventing identity-based violence.

Yet Americans are unusually anxious about this election — and about violence in its aftermath. A YouGov poll found 56 percent of voters saying they anticipate “an increase in violence as a result of the election.”

“Militia groups and other armed nonstate actors pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters,” said the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit organization that researches political violence and has tracked more than 80 extremist groups in recent months. The project’s report said Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon “are at highest risk of increased militia activity in the election and post-election period.”

Nathan Howard

Getty Images

Damage at the Oregon Historical Society that occurred during an Indigenous Peoples’ Day of Rage protest Oct. 11 in Portland, Ore.

Unfounded rumors spreading in right-wing circles on Facebook and throughout conservative media have fixated for weeks on the notion that civil war is nigh. The longtime radio and TV commentator Glenn Beck has plied his millions of followers with the idea that the left has an Election Day “playbook” for civil strife.

But most Americans take their cues from the nation’s leaders, according to numerous studies tracking public opinion, and those leaders are clearly worried.

“As I look across America today, I’m concerned,” Joe Biden said in a speech at Gettysburg, Pa., this month. “The country is in a dangerous place. Our trust in each other is ebbing. Hope seems elusive.” The Democratic candidate said the country has “too bright a future to leave it shipwrecked on the shoals of anger and hate and division.”

President Trump, in contrast, has regularly used dire rhetoric to describe the threat he says the county faces. Last fall, tweeting about his impeachment, he quoted a minister who tweeted that removing him from office would “cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”

Within minutes, the Oath Keepers, one of the largest armed civilian groups, responded: “This is where we are. We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war.”

Although Trump said in his first debate with Biden that the threat of violence was mainly from the left — “Almost everything I see is from the left wing, not the right wing” — his own administration has repeatedly warned that extremists on the right are the primary danger in the coming days.

“White supremacist violent extremists have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks … [and] seek to force ideological change in the United States through violence, death, and destruction,” the acting homeland security secretary, Chad Wolf, wrote in an October report.

The day of the first presidential debate, the FBI’s Dallas field office warned local law enforcement about a rising threat from the “boogaloo” movement, a loose collection of extremist groups that often assert a need for a second Civil War. The warning called the election a “potential flash point.”

Jeff Kowalsky

AFP/Getty Images

A group tied to the boogaloo movement carries firearms at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing on Oct. 17.

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Oren Segal’s job is to track extremists and assess the danger they pose. He monitors their online chatter, traces foreign efforts to distort information that reaches American voters and works with law enforcement to neutralize extremist messaging.

But as vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, Segal says he is struggling: “I don’t want to amplify the voices of extremists because the last thing we want is to help them create fear and anxiety. But people need to know there is real concern, that these are the perfect conditions for extremists to try to create chaos.”

Drew Angerer

Getty Images

Oren Segal, right, of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s complicated,” Brown said, “because you don’t want to ignore what’s going on. A lot of these guys are trying to inflate themselves. They want to be seen as big and scary, even if they’re a joke. They’re seeking to create fear. It helps them recruit.”

The greatest danger after the election could come from lone actors who are inspired to commit violent acts, Segal said.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Washington-based organization that provides early warnings to countries in danger of falling into violent conflict, never expected to issue alerts about the United States. But early this summer, the ICG did just that, concluding that conflict could arise from the country’s sharp political polarization, the growing presence of armed extremists, the possibility of prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of the vote, and a president who deploys martial rhetoric and refuses to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.

Although the greatest danger is on the right, the ICG said the risk of violence involves extremes of both right and left. After Trump’s election in 2016, demonstrations, mostly peaceful, broke out in many cities, and in Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and some other cities, some protesters burned cars, smashed windows and vandalized buildings.

This year, said Katbi Smith, the Portland socialist organizer, each side’s expectations of the other have already made activists think hard about preparing for violence.

“The right-wing militias are always planning for violent confrontation,” she said. “They are fractured, but we are always prepared for the worst. We have to arm ourselves.”

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Western Pennsylvania is hunting country, and the shooting ranges and gun shops along highways near Pittsburgh are packed with customers these days. The clients are not, by and large, sportsmen, however. They’re suburbanites and city folks snapping up nearly anything that can be used for self-protection.

There isn’t much left.

“I just can’t get product,” said Nate Gerheim, 33, the general manager and gunsmith at the Shooters Bench in Russellton, northeast of Pittsburgh. “It seems like 30 million people went out and bought guns. We call suppliers and distributors and they just don’t have any product. Our selection is just terrible.”

Starting earlier this year, “everyone started buying everything,” Gerheim said. “It was kind of like a perfect storm. Coronavirus, civil unrest, people want to protect themselves.”

Handguns, short-barrel shotguns, semiautomatics — all snapped up as soon as they come in. The Glock 19, which will run you $559 if you can find one, is the most popular.

To some extent, this happens every election year. “No matter who is running,” Gerheim said. “People are afraid that the new president might try to take away your Second Amendment rights.”

Nationwide, gun sales have spiked in periods when buyers fear a government crackdown on firearms sales, such as when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 or after especially horrific mass shootings.

This year, sales have jumped 75 percent above last year’s, soaring beyond the peaks recorded after mass shootings in 2012 (the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre), 2015 (the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack) and 2016 (the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando).

According to a Washington Post analysis of FBI background check data, this year’s first major spike in sales — to 2 million a month, up from less than 1.5 million during the 2016 campaign — came in March, when many states went into lockdown to combat the covid-19 epidemic. That leaped to 2.8 million purchases in June and was 2.7 million in July as street protests and riots occurred in multiple cities after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

So far, Americans have bought more than 18 million weapons this year, with big surges in red and blue states alike, the analysis found.

In more than a dozen states, firearms are being sold at nearly double last year’s rate. In Michigan, where the FBI broke up a group that was allegedly plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), gun sales have more than tripled over last year.

The turn toward firearms is a logical result of this year’s atmosphere of fear and distrust, the ADL’s Segal said. “When people are told by their elected officials that extremists are coming into your suburbs, especially in the middle of a pandemic when there’s so much fear, it’s to be expected that some will decide to buy guns,” he said.

At Schultz’s Sportsmen’s Stop in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh, the parade of customers covers the ideological waterfront. “Blue-collar, white-collar, and my customers are from both sides — Republicans, Democrats,” said owner Debbie Schultz, 65, who hands out Trump signs. “Doctors, lawyers, people come from all over. People are Googling ‘guns’ and then drive over … from West Virginia. Same thing with New York state.”

They’re not hunting. Deer licenses have dropped by more than half in the past decade.

“The condition of our country is stirring the gun sales,” Schultz said. “The mood is different now between people. The pandemic has certainly created a different level. People are on edge.”

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Adria Malcolm

Reuters

Kacey Dawson, the assistant manager at Fortitude Ranch in central Colorado, stands lookout in December 2019.

At Fortitude Ranch, Miller, the founder, is stocking locations for the long haul because of “possible civil war following the November 2020 election.”

“Our populace is increasingly split,” Miller wrote in a bulletin to members, who pay $1,000 a year for access to his fortified havens.

“President Trump has been questioning and condemning the legitimacy of … mail-in voting in this election. … It is indeed possible that many Americans will refuse the results and serious violence could result.”

Miller said his clients are mainly libertarians and Republicans, but similar anxieties exist across the political spectrum. In the forthcoming New York Review of Books, a bastion of liberal intellectual thought, essayist Darryl Pinckney writes that the United States is “a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown, not civil war. We are only at the beginning of a Great Emergency. Something suicidal and reckless is out there.”

Though the membership of armed extremist groups is relatively small, researchers say the country’s broader political factions are so sharply divided that violence is increasingly seen as acceptable.

“We’re living in different places from each other, we shop in different grocery stores,” said Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “It’s easier to dehumanize people when you never meet them.”

James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers that democracies tend to be “spectacles of turbulence …, [as] short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” But he believed that a constitution guaranteeing the rights of the minority and a separation of powers could protect the United States from such an end.

Now, more than two centuries into the American experiment, Mason and Nathan Kalmoe of Louisiana State University have found in surveys over the past four years that more than 60 percent of Democrats and nearly 60 percent of Republicans see the other side as a serious threat to the country.

Striking numbers of Americans on both sides — 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats — say the country would be better off if large numbers of people on the other side “just died.”

When asked to imagine a scenario in which their party loses this election, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans said that violence could be an acceptable response. Mason and Kalmoe called that “lethal partisanship.”

The country’s deepening social divisions make it easier for people to see political opponents as “truly evil” — as 40 percent of Americans do in the study — rather than as neighbors they happen to disagree with, Mason said.

Still, leadership matters: When the professors read people a pacifying message from Biden or Trump, “they became less violent in their attitudes,” Mason said. “They listen to their leaders.”

More good news: Violence remains an absolute no-go for the vast majority of Americans.

“Violence is not popular at all,” Mason said. “But even five percent is millions of people, and it only takes a few people to create chaos.”

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Astrid Riecken

for The Washington Post

D.C. residents sign in at Capital One Arena, which is one of the larger polling places in the District, on Oct. 27 during the first day of in-person voting for the 2020 general election.

Across the country, law enforcement officials have been planning for the election with an unusual focus on potential violence.

Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, expanded a task force that aims to be ready to move immediately against any effort to disrupt voting. In Portland, Ore., city officials have discussed imposing a curfew if violence breaks out. In Beverly Hills, police asked business owners to board up windows on Rodeo Drive as a precaution against election night protests.

Analysts said the most effective protection against violence, however, is not police preparation but prevention of voter intimidation, a quick vote count, and a consensus among political leaders and news organizations to hold back on declaring a winner until results are rock solid.

“The strongest bulwark against violence is a feeling that the election proceeded cleanly and fairly,” said Stephen Pomper, the senior director for policy at ICG. “If it’s seen as rigged, the risk of violence goes up considerably.”

The ADL’s Segal agreed: “What will keep communities safe is leaders calling for calm and responsibility.” A campaign ad created by both major party candidates for governor of Utah — a mutual pledge to “disagree without hating each other” — “shows what’s possible,” he said.

“Maybe, just maybe, we get through Election Day and see that there wasn’t really a will to come out and fight in the streets,” Segal said.

If so, “we will have dodged a bullet,” he said, “because our public discussion is in a dangerous place.”

Christine Spolar in Pittsburgh and Andrew Ba Tran in Washington contributed to this report.

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