A wargame designer defines our four possible civil wars.
I’m a wargame designer. I co-developed the first reboot of Axis & Allies and its D-Day edition, made a mythological Risk game called Risk Godstorm, and burned down both the Roman Empire in Gloria Mundi and medieval France in Veritas. I write about game theory learned from simulating war outcomes. Like many people, I’m stuck on this as the likely outcome of our situation:
We’re facing a civil war.
Up until yesterday, I wasn’t thinking a civil war was probable. Then Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. With her likely went the last chance the 2020 election will end peacefully. She told her granddaughter:
“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
It seems unlikely that wish will be heeded, though with everything this year you never know. Republicans now have a three-and-a-half-month window to install an unbreakable 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court. If they do, abortion rights, voting rights, and gay rights—actually, just all civil rights in general—are doomed.
But it’s worse than that, because we expect this election to be contested. If they have that majority before then, it doesn’t matter who wins the election, because a 6–3 court will kit-bash some reason to hand Trump a second term. So the Democrats are threatening that filling Ginsburg’s seat means they will create two to four more seats right after they win the Senate, if that happens. They might add D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, or even change the rule of apportionment. They might, as my friend Cyndi calls it, “act Ruthlessly.” This is the stuff that wars are made of.
We find ourselves in a country where both sides can’t imagine their loss would be legitimate. If Biden loses, his supporters will blame GOP trickery and voter disenfranchisement. If Trump loses, his supporters will blame voter fraud and riots. It doesn’t matter that the first one of those is real and the second isn’t. We are heading toward a reckoning.
Because the stakes are this high, both sides have a huge incentive to fight for their outcome. Those AR-15-wielding thugs that intimidated the Michigan legislature? Nobody stopped them then. Why would they be shy about it now? The only barricade to the Senate filling Ginsburg’s seat is at least four Republican Senators (perhaps Murkowski, Romney, Collins, and Grassley) breaking with their party and refusing to vote for a new Justice.
They will get thousands of death threats.
With an open Supreme Court seat and an election whose incumbent has already called it fraudulent, this is as bad a constitutional crisis as we have seen in a century and a half. You don’t have to take my word for it. The Transition Integrity Project, a group of more than 100 current and former senior political campaign leaders on both sides, simulated the election in a “wargame” in June. They tested four scenarios: a big Biden victory, a narrow Biden win, an indeterminate result like in 2000, and a narrow Trump victory. In all but the Biden blowout, the country descended into chaos. They write:
“We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides. The potential for violent conflict is high, particularly since Trump encourages his supporters to take up arms.”
Trump’s supporters expect two large-scale riots in the fall. One will come right after Election Day, when Trump will be ahead in the vote count. This is because we’re in a pandemic, and Republicans will vote in person while Democrats will vote by mail (in fact, several Democrat-run states mandate it). Trump will be ahead on election night if this holds. The second riot will come when the Democrats “discover” millions of mailed-in ballots which will give Biden the win, which the Republicans will call fraudulent.
The last time we had this kind of crisis was the election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden were effectively tied. Three southern states sent in competing ballots of electors—that is, each party claimed their guy had won. It took till the Compromise of 1877, where the Republican Hayes got the presidency in exchange for the Democrat Tilden getting federal troops out of the South, condemning generations of African Americans to the ravages of Jim Crow.
And the time before that…
If I ask you what single event started the Civil War, you might say “the siege of Fort Sumter.” But that’s just what started the shooting. What started the war was the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Because of their famous debate, most people think the 1860 general election was between the Republican Lincoln and the Democrat Stephen Douglas. There were two other candidates, Constitutional Unionist John Bell and Southern Democrat John Breckinridge. Only Breckenridge was pro-slavery. Lincoln won only a plurality of the 81% turnout (!). Bell won three states in the south and Breckenridge won seven more, because in the South, no ballots that contained Lincoln’s name were distributed. Lincoln could not have won the popular vote in any manner other than a mass write-in. He sure wasn’t going to get that.
When Lincoln won a clear majority of the electoral college, the southern secessionists banded together in an attempt to throw the election to the House of Representatives—the current one, not the newly elected one. It didn’t work, but the ground was laid: the South was leaving and not coming back voluntarily. 750,000 soldiers died before the Union was restored.
A rebellion against a president with a majority of the electoral college, but a minority of the popular vote—now where have we heard that before?
Our situation is primed for a similar outcome. What makes its likelihood greater is that the U.S. has 393 million guns—more than it has people. Of those, only a million are registered. Gun sales went stratospheric this year. Whether because of fears of COVID, rioters, or a Trump invasion of the cities, people stocked up. In the month of July alone, Americans bought 3.6 million guns, per FBI background checks. We don’t know how many were bought without those checks.
I suspect, but do not know, that many of those guns were bought by right-wing Christian militias. This week, North Carolina evangelical pastor Rick Joyner, who heads MorningStar Ministries, called a civil war inevitable, and urged his followers to take up arms against Black Lives Matter, “the KKK of this time.” He said,
“We’re in times of war. We need to recognise that. We need to mobilize. We need to get ready. I’m talking to law enforcement, I’m talking to people. One of the things I saw in my dream I had related to our civil war was that militias would spring up like mushrooms. And it was God! These were good militias. What I also saw in my dream was the Lord had seeded our country with veterans from the Iraq War, Afghanistan, all these wars we’ve been in recently. Many who know how to fight in urban warfare are going to be a part of the leadership of these militias and help us in what’s about to unfold in our own country.”
In his dream. That’s not good.
But there are many kinds of civil war, and it matters which one we get. I want to look at those four scenarios tested by the think tank I mentioned earlier. In each case, I’ll compare it to a historic war and consider the likelihood of us getting into it and getting out of it. Most importantly, none of this is what I want to happen. I’m just simulating possibilities, just like I do every day at work. Best case scenario, this is just another wargame.
Scenario #1: A Biden blowout
Comparable war: The American Civil War
This was the scenario the Transition Integrity Project wasn’t worried about. If Biden wins 400+ electoral votes, they think Republicans will be so devastated that they’ll do some soul-searching and come out a different party for it.
That’s nonsense. Lincoln took office after an electoral blowout, winning 180 of the 303 electoral college votes, with no other candidate getting more than 93. One month later, he was evacuating Fort Sumter.
In this case, Biden will have the authority to be seated as president. Trump can fight it, but it’ll require states decertifying their own electors to give him a fraudulent majority. They might do it out of loyalty to the death cult. It‘ll be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether a state that voted for a candidate can have its vote changed by their legislature or governor. I think there will at best be four votes for that, because Chief Justice Roberts hates Trump’s overreach and Neal Gorsuch is too independent. Even if Trump stalls out the electoral college deadline of December 14, the Democrats will have gained a thin majority of delegations in the House too, and they’ll put in Joe.
In that case, the military will not let Trump stay after January 20. It’s not clear whether he’ll leave in a helicopter, in handcuffs, or in a body bag. Point is, he’ll leave.
The crushing of the Republican party will lead to a breakaway movement. Whether it’s as “clean” as voting for secession isn’t clear. The battle here won’t be between the states, but likely inside multiple states.
You know Biden will attempt a compromise similar to the Compromise of 1877. Might work. He’s that good. If it doesn’t, he should get ready to put down a rebellion.
Biden will have the military, which has rebelled against Trump’s use of force for show. There’s a huge difference between winning a war when you have all the tanks and winning a war when your opponent has all the tanks. You’d much rather have the tanks. (Not scared yet? Change “tanks” to “nukes.”)
The government’s opponents in this case are right-wing militias and some radicalized police forces. They’re super-dangerous, but not as dangerous as our military. Biden will have all the good generals. In the Civil War, some Union commanders were famously mediocre, but when Ulysses S. Grant took over for George McClellan, the South never won a major battle again. Having the right command makes a long conflict into a short one.
I’m not saying the military would be unified in this case. Civil wars are notoriously messy. The American Civil War had more court martials and executions for desertion than all other American wars combined. Granted, it’s a lot harder for Americans to desert from Vietnam than Vicksburg. But it’s the violence-against-other-Americans thing that gives many soldiers pause. I doubt it will be our military’s finest hour, but I think they’ll hold.
The “North” in this scenario will also have allies. Russia clearly wants as much chaos in the U.S. as possible, but the rest of the world just wants us to get back to sanity. If we need help, we’ll get help.
The American Civil War was a disaster for both sides. Its outcome transformed race relations and the economy of the United States in ways we’re still dealing with. But the end result was a preserved Union, the end of slavery, and an occupied South. We could be heading there again. This is the good scenario, but only if Biden wins a massive victory.
Scenario #2: A close Biden win
Comparable war: The Russian Revolution
This is the scenario where the Democrats scrape out a close win for the presidency, get to 50 senators (including Arizona’s Mark Kelly, who is seated in November because of his special election status), and the GOP hasn’t quite gotten a replacement into Ginsburg’s chair just yet. Trump calls foul and refuses to leave. He swears he should not only be president for the 2021 term but for eight more years after that, because of Democrats’ dirty tricks. The Congress is gridlocked, he doesn’t budge, and America freaks the hell out.
Here we have an offensive group on the outside of power with a somewhat clean victory and a defensive group on the inside that doesn’t let go. This is the outcome that Russia is likely rooting for, because they know it from experience. When the February Revolution hit Russia in 1917, Czar Nicholas II and his family were still alive. But Russia barely was. Devastated by World War I, famines, and strikes, Russia saw the autocracy step down in favor of a Russian Provisional Government, which lasted only eight months. The Bolsheviks of Vladimir Lenin gained the support of the people in that window, and launched the October Revolution in which they toppled the interim government. But they didn’t have the army. So they made one.
The Bolshevik Red Army was more than five million soldiers strong. This was an army for the out-group; the interim government was backed by the White Army, which had a still-impressive three and a half million soldiers. The first thing the Red Army did was kill the czar and his family, to make it clear they weren’t kidding around. But they were far from assured victory. Notably, the rest of the world—the U.S., Britain, France, etc.—was on the White Army’s side. Supply from these nations made a short civil war into a long one. In 1923, the Red Army won, and became the largest standing army on earth.
In our case, we would have a popular candidate with a moral imperative to insist upon his rightful win. Of course, Biden could again be the source of compromise—it’s in his DNA, for good or ill. A trade of the White House for a law fixing the Supreme Court size at nine justices might do it. A communications director for a Republican Senator told Yahoo News:
“I think a 6–3 court is worth the White House and Senate. The pro-life community has been waiting on this forever. There has to be a vote.”
If that’s the deal he can get, the rest of the victorious Democrats likely won’t give in, because abortion would be illegal in a year. You could see Biden removed from the ticket and Kamala Harris backed by the Democrats. Lots of possibilities here.
But the important problem is the military. Here, they’re being asked to back an insurrection—a righteous, justified one, but an insurrection nonetheless. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley has already declined this opportunity before Congress. They very likely sit out this scenario entirely, at the start, anyway. So that leaves militias and cops and a lot of street corner bloodshed. The military can’t sit out forever. Trump will use his ragtag band of troops where he isn’t favored, and the National Guard where he is. It’ll get very ugly.
This scenario also brings the possibility of a military or Secret Service coup. Since we’ve never had one here (Al Haig doesn’t count), it’s hard to know what that looks like. It probably starts with the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggesting the president leave office. If he says no, I have trouble imagining a senior officer drawing a gun on the president. I wouldn’t depend on the military.
Also, I wouldn’t count on the nations of the world on this one. In the first scenario, it was clear that they would back a Biden presidency. But if the conflict is based on a court battle and a confusing electoral system? I dunno. That’s a lot of courage to ask from Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, to say nothing of Boris Johnson.
But Putin’s all-in on this scenario. He will pour poison in Trump’s ear daily. This is his golden opportunity to supplant the U.S. as the world’s foremost superpower. He might even get China’s help. China went through its own civil war along the Russian model, and as far as I can tell its leadership is pretty happy with the results.
The Russian Civil War outcome is a very bad one. It’s hard to say whether the good guys won or lost that one. But the important thing is that a whole lot of people died. Seven to twelve million people, mostly civilians. Then nothing got better in Russia for at least five decades. If we have a narrow Biden victory, this is the scenario we’re looking at. You don’t want this.
Scenario #3: A contested result
Comparable war: The Irish War of Independence
This is a scary scenario involving the Blue team getting enough states for a win, not quite enough senators to take over the Senate, and a replacement for Ginsburg on the court in the lame duck session. Here’s how it can play out.
Unlike the previous scenario, here split slates or decertification in key states gives Trump a plausible majority or at least a plurality. It doesn’t even have to be razor thin; a 320-vote win for Biden can be turned into a loss with only the Republican legislatures in Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin failing to follow the voters’ will. The three Trump appointees, Alito, and Thomas ratify these shenanigans over the objection of Roberts, and all hell breaks loose.
The first shots likely will be in Wisconsin, as every member of the state legislature is targeted by one side or another. But it’ll soon spread. In this scenario, no elected or appointed official will be safe. The National Guard will be called in everywhere, and not for the same reason each time. This is a true brother-against-brother scenario.
Here, we have a ruling authority that is seen as illegitimate and tyrannical by some but not all of America, and that punishes the people that don’t vote for him. Trump’s military will try to remain neutral, but there will be plenty of available armed soldiers at Bill Barr’s command. The pandemic (remember that?) will ravage unchecked, leading to supply shortages and hunger. This conflict will drag on for some time.
In the heart of that, we’ll find out what Joe Biden is made of. He talks a good game, all spitfire and bluster, but this is a real test. Al Gore conceded after Bush v. Gore, and Biden knows what that did for the country. He’s a Catholic. Is he willing to be an antipope?
Biden’s an Irish Catholic, so he knows the history of Ireland over the last few centuries. Perhaps still angry over the failed (and French-backed!) Irish Rebellion of 1798, the British Crown let an entire nation starve in the Irish Potato Famine. The Irish never forgot that. In the wake of World War I, the Irish Republican Army was born. The conflict kicked off in earnest with the Easter Rising of 1916, in which 485 people were killed. The IRA waged a guerrilla war campaign against the outnumbered but well supplied British troops.
By 1920, republicans won control of nearly every county council in Ireland, and had seized control of the south and west, leading to the Crown instituting emergency powers. On Bloody Sunday, the IRA assassinated eleven British and Irish police and a civilian informant; in response, its British-aligned counterpart, the Royal Irish Constabulary, opened fire on a crowd at a Gaelic football match. Cork city was burned to the ground. Reprisal after reprisal ensued, with more than a thousand dead by the time a ceasefire was signed. The Irish Free State would self-govern but remain part of the British Empire.
It did not mean peace was in the offing, though. Over the next few decades tensions simmered, then boiled over in the Troubles. The main issue was over the secession status of Northern Ireland, some of whose inhabitants wanted to return to British rule while others wanted to be part of Ireland. As the invading force, the British Army was repeatedly targeted by Irish loyalists, and many civilians were caught in the crossfire. A half century after the first Bloody Sunday, another tore the country apart. After 3,500 deaths over three decades, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, cementing Northern Ireland’s status as part of Britain until a majority of its citizens wished to join Ireland.
In the scenario where a constitutional crisis leaves the presidency open on January 20, with both sides claiming it, the out of power party will have to take to the streets. This administration has made it clear that it will put down rebellion fiercely. So the goal of the insurgent group has to be to sever the loyalty between the military and the administration. That is typically known as terrorism, and Americans don’t have much of a stomach for that in their streets. This revolution will be televised, and every element of it will be a recruitment video for one side or the other.
The Democrats and others on the left don’t have much experience with this kind of organization. Despite the drumbeats on FOX, there is no Black Lives Matter militia. If this is where we go, leftists will have a huge military disadvantage. I don’t see this as a winning approach.
A possible outcome of this scenario is the breakup of the United States. It could be similar to Ireland breaking away, with much of the west and/or northeast forming a new union. Or it could be a number of smaller nation-states, similar to what followed the Yugoslavian Civil War. The west and northeast is something like three-quarters of the U.S. economy, so don’t expect states to be allowed to leave quietly.
That said, a guerrilla war might actually be the best combat outcome. Since both sides will know they don’t have a stranglehold on power, they will act as if any engagement could be their last. Ireland managed to function for all of the twentieth century, through civil war, occupation, and eventually free rule. We can do that too. It’s certainly not something to be hoped for.
Scenario #4: A Trump win
Comparable war: The Rwandan Civil War
I saved the worst for last. In this scenario, Trump clearly (though probably not without some voter suppression) wins a narrow majority, and the Democrats don’t take the Senate. Ginsburg is replaced because Trump has a mandate. Biden and his fellow moderates are blamed for blowing the election, whether or not it was actually their fault.
This is the opposite scenario of the Biden blowout. The Democrats collapse, and progressives become really, really angry. Those who voted Green or stayed home are called out and threatened. The Sanders wing leaves the party for good. You know, normal political stuff. If that’s all that would happen in this scenario, we could live with it.
That’s not going to happen. Republicans won’t be content with a win. They will burn every civil right they can find. Trump’s Hitler Youth-like “patriotic education” plan will become a reality. Gun control will become a remnant of history. A disillusioned left will become exactly what FOX News wants them to be: violent. The president will be thrilled to meet fire with an inferno.
The defining feature of life in 21st century America is tribalism. That’s a belief that the other side is basically a completely different species. Nations overcome tribalism by finding common causes, often common enemies. We’ve been given a perfect opportunity in 2020. But the coronavirus has not brought us together against a common enemy; instead, it has highlighted that one side is gun-toting, mask-avoiding morons and the other side is fake news-loving, freedom-squashing libtards. What we do not have is a belief that everyone on the other side is worth saving. That is the recipe for the worst kind of disaster.
A full-tyrant Trump encouraging violence upon his enemies will be followed by violence upon his enemies. It will take only one clash to put us where Rwanda was on October 1, 1990.
Prior to the 1960s, the Tutsi ethnic group’s Belgian-backed monarchy ruled over the Hutu majority, as well as the Twa minority. In the Rwandan Revolution of 1959–1961, the monarchy was overthrown in favor of a Hutu-run republic. Many Tutsi fled to neighboring countries. They formed armed insurgent groups which the Hutu government called Inyenzi (“cockroaches”). These units sought chances for guerrilla combat, even once approaching the capital of Kigali. The Hutu regime ruthlessly put them down, killing thousands.
In 1990, after a couple decades of occasional clashes, a Tutsi unit invaded northeast Rwanda, breaching 60 kilometers into the country. A month of clashes followed, then a couple years of light guerrilla war. With the Arusha Accords of 1993, a truce had been reached. But it was only a cover. Members of the Hutu regime planned a Hitler-like “final solution” to its Tutsi problem.
On April 6, 1994, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutu, broke the flood doors wide. Within a hundred days, a million people died in violence directed by the Hutu against the Tutsi and moderates in their own group. Even so, the Tutsi won and seized control of the nation, which remains one of the most repressive regimes in Africa. This is what happens when one side sees the other as cockroaches.
I have met many people—different ones, to be sure—who’ve pointed to the positive outcomes of the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, and the Irish War of Independence. I have never met anyone who believes anything positive occurred in Rwanda in the first half of the 1990s. But that’s what we have to look forward to if a re-elected Trump administration becomes warlike.
There’s no guarantee that will occur. It’s possible that the left will accept defeat in the wake of Georgia’s voter roll purging, the Ukraine scandal, the demolition of the Postal Service, and Russian attempts to meddle yet again. If you believe that, you’re not reading my Twitter feed.
But if a Rwandan-style war does break out, expect complete military compliance with the re-elected Trump government. There will be no crises of conscience from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because they will be a different Joint Chiefs of Staff. One with fewer compunctions about killing Americans.
Those are four plausible scenarios of civil war after this election. All wars are different, so we could see any number of variations on these themes. It should be clear that if you are facing one of these options, what you want is the clearest moral authority, the widest acceptance by your military, and the broadest coalition of international powers on your side. You want the tanks in the hands of the person who wants peace.
Oh, one more detail: In three of the four wars I laid out, the leader of the country was assassinated. The fighting continued, despite the regime change. Trump is not the only warrior here. He’s especially not the best warrior. If he isn’t there, someone else will take his place.
Biden is not the only peacenik here, either. Plenty of people on both sides don’t want a civil war. But we should be thinking about it. If violence is inevitable, we should know what types of violence we might get, and vote for the one where the responsible people have the firepower.
When you vote, vote as if a civil war is coming, and you are deciding who you want to have the nuclear weapons. Personally, I would not want that to be Trump.
The Doomsday Clock is set at 45 days to midnight.
After the storming of the Capitol, a followup to this essay was posted here.
This is the 63rd installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, Colin Kaepernick, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, the midterms, the Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third parties, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, the Trump mafia, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, the impeachment inquiry, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, Boris Johnson, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, the Confederacy, the GOP 2020 strategy, Biden’s strategy, the wildfire crisis, civil war, Kamala Harris, Trump’s COVID diagnosis, and Biden’s case. Most of these appear in my new edition of Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can get on our PledgeManager now.