David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading authorities on insurgencies. For decades he has studied them. As an infantry soldier in the Australian army and an adviser to the U.S. Army, he’s fought against them. His latest scholarly work has focused on their role in urban conflicts.
So when Kilcullen says that America is in a state of “incipient insurgency,” it’s worth sitting up, taking notice, and trembling just a little.
The official definition of an insurgency is the “organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control” of an area. An “incipient insurgency” might be happening when “inchoate actions by a range of groups”—followed by organizing, training, acquisition of resources (including arms), and the buildup of public support—lead to “increasingly frequent” incidents of violence, reflecting “improved organization and forethought.”
Kilcullen argues that this is what we’ve been seeing the past few months in the waves of provocations and street violence that have blown through American cities since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. By and large, the protesters haven’t been at fault. It’s been the extremists—left and right—who have tagged alongside the protests and counterprotests, exploiting the disorder.
In some cases, the violence has been committed by “individual idiots”—as Kilcullen calls them—such as, most notably, Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old self-appointed vigilante who, after reading radical right-wing ravings online, drove from his home in Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, and wound up shooting three people, killing two of them, in the wake of demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The incidence of violence is rising. According to a new report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (which usually monitors violence in war-torn countries), 20 violent groups—left and right—have taken part in more than 100 protests related to the George Floyd killing. In June, there were 17 counterdemonstrations led by right-wing militant groups, one of which sparked violence. In July, there were 160 counterdemonstrations, with violence in 18.
Armed militias are nothing new in the United States. A decade ago, Kilcullen counted about 380 right-wing groups and 50 left-wing ones, many of them armed. In the early 1990s, the faceoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, outside Waco, Texas, left 80 people dead—and inspired Timothy McVeigh and his gang of extremists to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground set off bombs all over the country; police waged deadly shootouts with the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, and Chicago; and marchers for and against the Vietnam War—mainly students and hard-hat workers—clashed in violent street battles.
But except for the last set of clashes (which didn’t involve organized groups, much less insurgencies), those earlier incidents rarely corresponded with the divides between the nation’s political parties. This is one way in which the current conflicts are different—and, potentially, more dangerous.
Another difference and danger is the prevalence of cable TV networks and social media, which amplify and spread the shock waves. Incidents that in the past might have stayed local now quickly go viral, nationwide or worldwide, inspiring others to join in.
After Rittenhouse shot three people in Kenosha, right-wing militants touted him as a hero. FoxNews host Tucker Carlson hailed him for deciding that he had to “maintain order when no one else would.” Frequent Fox guest Ann Coulter said she wants Rittenhouse “as my president.”
Kilcullen also has observed, in the militias’ social media, a steady rise of “dehumanizing” rhetoric—the left calling the right “parasites,” the right calling the left (especially the left wing of Black Lives Matter) “rats.” The trend parallels, and intensifies, the mutual hostility between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and politics broadly.
Meanwhile, a powder keg is building. FBI background checks for gun sales hit 3.9 million in June—an all-time high. Many of them were for first-time gun buyers—by definition untrained, possibly rash in their actions. An estimated 20 million Americans carry a gun when they leave their homes. It takes just a few trigger-pullers to set off a conflagration; even in intense insurrections, such as the postwar rebellion in Iraq, only 2 percent of insurgents actually fired their weapons.
Kilcullen sees a pattern similar to the patterns that precipitated insurgencies in Colombia, Libya, and Iraq. The key factor is the rise of fear. He cites Stathis Kalyvas’ book The Logic of Violence in Civil War as observing that fear, not hate, drives the worst atrocities. “Every civil war and insurgency of the last 50 years has been driven by fear,” Kilcullen told me. Today’s politics and social tensions are dominated by three fears: fear of other social groups, fear that those other groups are encroaching on one’s territory, and fear that the state no longer has the ability to protect the people.
Things do not have to get worse. “Incipient insurgency” doesn’t mean “inevitable insurgency.” We are still in the very early phase of this rampage—a “pre-McVeigh moment,” as Kilcullen puts it. And the extent of disorder has been exaggerated, usually for political motives. When violence has occurred during protests, it has been confined to just a few blocks; it hasn’t spread throughout a city. Contrary to Trump and other Republican politicians, New York is not a “hellscape,” Portland is not “ablaze all the time,” and Chicago is not more dangerous than Afghanistan.
In other words, there is still time for political leaders—locally and nationally—to calm the storm, douse the flames, and stifle the violent provocateurs across the spectrum, while also addressing the underlying social, political, and racial issues that sparked the (legitimate) protests.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump has no interest in calm. Instead, he is deliberately fanning the flames as part of a cynical election strategy. He has declined to criticize Rittenhouse, viewing his actions as self-defense. In general, he rails only against left-wing militants such as antifa activists—never against the right-wing ones, such as the Boogaloo Bois, Patriot Prayer, or Proud Boys. More than that, he has lumped antifa alongside the truly peaceful protesters of Black Lives Matter—and alongside the Democratic Party. His words encourage some police, in some cities, to take the same view. (In Kenosha, police were caught on camera tossing water bottles to armed right-wing militants, thanking them for coming out to help.)
Trump is also threatening to cut off federal aid to cities with Democratic mayors and rising crime rates, calling them “anarchist jurisdictions.” He has painted his opponent, Joe Biden, as a weak politician in “thrall” to leftist radicals—ignoring Biden’s long record as a left-centrist and his repeated denunciations of violence and looting, regardless of the cause.
Trump’s aim is to incite fear—fear of violence, disorder, change—and to paint himself as the bastion of law and order. It’s an odd tactic for an incumbent president, and it’s unclear whether the ploy is working. But, as Kilcullen and Kalyvas point out, he’s right about the fear’s potency. And the first violent incidents can spark a self-reinforcing cycle of violence, retaliation, and retaliation for that. “It doesn’t matter what the original grievance is,” Kilcullen says. “It becomes self-sustaining.”
The report by the Armed Conflict Location a& Event Data Project concludes:
In this hyper-polarized environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive, and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street. Without significant mitigation efforts, these risks will continue to intensify in the lead-up to the vote, threatening to boil over in November if election results are delayed, inconclusive, or rejected as fraudulent.
In short, the authors write, “The United States is in crisis.” The upcoming election—how it plays out, as well as how it ends up—could determine how deeply into crisis the country continues to plunge.