The mainstream news is full of apocalyptic warnings from Trump officials and supporters saying that if the Democrats win the national elections, it will only be because of voter and electoral fraud. As a result, Trump supporters are warning, the Federal government – in Trump’s hands – may have to take action to “save democracy.” Others warn that private, pro-Trump militias will be the ones to enforce a pro-Trump coup. 

It’s hard to know how to interpret this kind of loose crazy talk. I’ve spent most of my professional life studying the link between human rights abuse, regime instability, and political violence. I’ve watched as unscrupulous leaders from Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia to Pascal Lissouba in the Republic of Congo seized upon moments of systemic change and domestic instability to foment civil war with the help of off-the-book militias, often supplied with weapons and guidance by units working within the formal state, or by meddlesome allies from abroad. I even wrote a scholarly piece about how Shining Path, the leftist guerrilla group in Peru, used an Election Day to kick off their armed insurrection.   

The US has many of the elements that make for a dangerously toxic and potentially violent political environment.

  • First and foremost, we have a threat from within the ruling political class: leadership in the White House that thrives on, and foments, chaos, one that is deeply insecure about its political legitimacy and is constantly seeking to assert its authority, bolster its image and whip up its political base, which is roughly 35-40% of the electorate (which is a lot, by the way). 
  • Second, we have a number of external shocks to the system: the COVID crisis and its resultant death rates, acute and sudden poverty, institutional disruption, psychological fear, and pervasive uncertainty, leading in some cases to the systematic collapse of organizational structures such as this or that public health system. 
  • Third, we have acute racial tensions stoked by the often-despicable behavior of American police officers, some of whom have killed African American men in the most spectacularly brutal and public way possible. This has sparked the largest social movement in America’s history, but also led to arson and generic violence on a scale not seen since the 60s. 
  • Fourth, we have economic collapse; contraction in GDP, mass unemployment, and financial insecurity that is far worse than the great recession of 2008. 
  • And finally, we have climate change-induced disasters in the form of out-of-control wildfires, leading to panic, recriminations, migrations, and loss of life and property.

To all this add the widespread availability of combat-grade weaponry in the hands of ordinary citizens, militias, and local police departments, and it seems like a miracle that we haven’t already descended into civil war. It’s testimony to the strength of our institutions and the rationality of most citizens that things haven’t already fallen totally apart.  

As someone who analyses this kind of stuff for a living, while also being a responsible parent, what to do? I’ve put an alarm system on the house (big whoop) and thought about purchasing a weapon of my own; as a former soldier, I more or less remember how to use one responsibly, although it’s been thirty years since those intensive three years of training. 

Still, none of these measures seem like particularly helpful responses; an alarm isn’t going to help if the police are so delegitimized that they won’t come or if they mess up when they do arrive, and a handgun is likely to do more harm than good. So no, I won’t be buying one; that would really be a step too far. More and more people that I run across in Minneapolis are thinking of moving to the suburbs, feeling that the downtown, which I live close to, is no longer safe. But moving my kids in the middle of the school year (such as it is) seems crazy. 

I’m not sure what to do. I have an Israeli and a Canadian passport, so if all fails, and if my ex agrees, we could temporarily move the kids to a different location. But maybe a temporary haven in a state out West would be just as good. I’ve asked my ex to take the kids to Canada a week before the presidential election, just to be safe, but she doesn’t believe it’s necessary, and I find it hard to persuade myself that she’s wrong. 

I now can finally understand – really understand — what it’s like to be on the verge of a possible sociopolitical collapse, but to not know for sure. To see the very real possibility, but not to know if it’s “really real,” and if so, whether something should be done now, rather than in two weeks or two months. Like Jews in Germany during the early 30s or Bosnians in February 1991, things are starting to go sour, but will they slide all the way? How and when would I know?

My partner is from Iran, and she has seen more than her fair share of revolutionary chaos. Her parents had the foresight to send her away two years before the Islamic Revolution began, as they sensed the looming collapse and got her out well ahead of time. As a result, she was safe in London and then in the US when their world and livelihood fell apart. She spent the rest of her life in semi-exile, separated from her father for 16 years, and isolated from all she knew and held dear. She eventually built a life and thrived here in Minnesota, but it’s not been easy. She bears the scars, just like any other refugee from a home that disappeared. 

Am I being less intelligent and careful with my own children than her parents were with her in the late 1970s in Teheran?  How could I possibly know before it’s too late?

My father moved us to Israel in the 1970s because he believed Communism was about to take over the world and rain nuclear hell on the US. Israel, he thought, would be a safe place for Jews. He and my mother believed the Jewish army, flush from its miraculous 1967 victory, would provide a safe haven as the rest of the world descended into Cold War madness. The collapse of the Israeli front in 1973 didn’t deter them, as the Jewish army ultimately prevailed. After years of making a heroic go of it in Israel, he and my mother returned to the US in the late 1990s after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination, exhausted and disillusioned with the Zionist dream. The settlers and right-wingers had revealed the nasty underbelly of Zionism, and the dream of a Jewish haven no longer appealed. The US, moreover, no longer seemed  the insecure, consumerist, and vapid nightmare they had fled in the early 1970s, when they read the neocon Commentary magazine. Now, my father has transitioned into a reasoned and cerebral liberal, counseling calmly that all will be well in the US, Biden will win, and that the threat of armed chaos by Trumpian thugs will recede as the levers of state return to responsible hands. 

Burned in my childhood by his panic over America’s allegedly apocalyptic trajectory, however, I have taken on his earlier persona, prophesying American doom and thinking of geographic bolt holes for my kids. Perhaps I am reinventing and inhabiting the fears he taught me fifty years ago, preparing for an American Armageddon that my father no longer believes in. 

Update: On September 16, 2020, the day after I wrote this, Thomas B. Edsall, the NYT op ed columnist, wrote a piece warning of Election Day apocalypse. Worth reading.