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Trump Could Still Lead the U.S. to Civil War—Even if He Doesn’t Run in 2024

13 minute read
Walter, the Rohr Professor of International Relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, is the author of How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them

Ask most people why countries break apart and many will say that different groups sharing a single country naturally dislike and distrust one another. Yugoslavia fragmented because the Serbs and Croats and then the Bosnian Muslims started to fight each other soon after the Soviet Union collapsed. The citizens of Northern Ireland fought because Catholics resented Protestant dominance and discrimination. Ethiopia recently descended back into civil war because its various ethnic groups—the Tigrayans, Amharans, and those from the Sidama region—each wanted control of government. So fundamental ethnic, religious, or racial differences must be the cause of all these conflicts, right?

Americans have a lot at stake in the answer to this question. Our country has become increasingly divided, with race now playing a central role in debates over policing, immigration, healthcare, even the teaching of history. Could the country fracture as a result of this polarization?

It turns out that differences themselves do not lead to violence. This is the finding of political scientists who have studied hundreds of ethnic conflicts around the world. Almost all countries around the world are multi-ethnic and religious and yet few experience civil war. In fact, most ethnic groups co-exist quite peacefully. Until 1992, Bosnia was a diverse nation where Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks lived together peacefully for decades. Education levels were high, and intermarriage was common and yet 100,000 people died during its civil war.

For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces—influential people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. They provoke and harness feelings of fear as a way to lock in an ethnic constituency that will support their scramble for power. These mouthpieces are often politicians seeking to gain or maintain power, but they can also include business elites (seeking brand loyalty), religious leaders (seeking to expand their followers), and media figures (seeking to grow their audience and revenue). Separate and hostile ethnic and racial identities don’t exist in a vacuum; they need to be crafted—and these individuals rise up to do just that. They’re often at high risk of losing power or have recently lost it. Seeing no other routes to securing their futures, they cynically exploit divisions to try to reassert control. We’ve seen such figures here in the United States, from cable news hosts to congresspeople, and they’re more dangerous than we’ve been led to believe.

Experts have a term for these instigators of conflict: ethnic entrepreneurs. The term was first used in the 1990s to describe figures such as Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman in the former Yugoslavia, but ethnic entrepreneurs have emerged many times over, in all parts of the world. Though the catalyst for conflict is often ostensibly something else—the economy, immigration, freedom of religion—ethnic entrepreneurs make the fight expressly about their group’s position and status in society. Harnessing the power of the media, they work to convince citizens that they are under threat from an out-group and must band together under the entrepreneur to counter the threat. They also try to persuade those in their group, often with incendiary language, that they are superior and “deserve” to dominate. This is how, at a 1992 rally in the Rwandan city of Kabaya—two years before that country’s civil war—Hutu politician Léon Mugesera came to tell supporters that Tutsis were “cockroaches,” adding that “anyone whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut your neck.” And it’s how Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir exploited the distrust between Arabs and Africans in his country in 2012, by describing his political rivals in similar terms: “The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.”

Slobodan Milosevic
Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, campaigning in Krusevac, during the 1992 Serbian general election, December 17, 1992.Chip Hires—Gamma Rapho/Getty Images

So why do average citizens let themselves be swept along by this rhetoric? Perhaps surprisingly, they’re often clear-eyed about ethnic entrepreneurs: They know these individuals have their own agenda and are not telling the whole truth. Many Serbs did not trust, let alone love Milošević, who had been a dedicated Communist just a few years earlier. But citizens become willing to show support if they feel a mounting threat—to their lives, livelihoods, families, or futures—and over time, Milošević’s rhetoric, together with increasing Croat bias against Serbs, steadily sowed doubts. After silencing disloyal journalists— Milošević and his government controlled over a dozen newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations—he plied his audiences with unrelenting messages of fear and suspicion. He appealed to Serbia’s historic greatness and reminded listeners of past atrocities perpetrated against their people. When Croatia declared independence, the government’s main TV station in Belgrade focused its coverage on the Serbs in the Krajina region of Croatia who, it was announced, were now defenseless against the “dark, genocidal urges of the Croats.”

If citizens come to believe there is even a small chance that the opposition could become violent, they will turn to a leader who offers them protection, no matter how unscrupulous. Thus, when Tudjman adopted the Croatian coat of arms and purged Serbs from his government, Serb residents of Krajina interpreted their sudden loss as confirmation that Milošević’s warnings were true. Likewise, by the time Milošević ordered the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army to move into Croatia, Croatians had begun to believe that their way of life, championed by Tudjman, was under attack. Both factions eventually took up arms in the misguided belief that violence was the only way to protect themselves and their group.

Read More: The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign to Save the 2020 Election

Here in the U.S., ethnic entrepreneurs are thriving. But they didn’t emerge out of nowhere. In fact, the shift toward a whites-only Republican party began in force in the mid-1960s, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Voters in the eleven former Confederate states had been faithful Democrats for over a hundred years, still angry that Republican president Abra­ham Lincoln had refused to accept secession. But Lyndon Johnson’s landmark legislation in 1964, led to a seismic change. (“I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” Johnson said to his special assistant, Bill Moyers.) Running for president in 1968, Nixon decided to capitalize on that racial resentment, leveraging white fear with calls for “law and order” and a pledge to fight the “war on drugs.” This so-called Southern Strategy helped the GOP win the presidency and later reclaim the Senate after being out of power for almost thirty years. Future Republican candi­dates would rely on similar appeals to win the presidency, though always with coded language, whether it was Ronald Reagan shaming “welfare queens” or George H. W. Bush disparaging Willie Horton. George W. Bush’s campaign was accused of spreading rumors that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate Black child.

Religion was next. In an effort to secure the support of evangelical leaders and their increasingly mo­bilized voters, Republican elites staked out more and more pro-life positions. People like Jerry Falwell, Sr., the leader of the Moral Majority, a political organization associated with the Christian right, grew more powerful. Democrats, seeing a chance to win over more atheists, agnostics, and culturally liberal voters, came out increasingly in favor of women’s rights and access to abortion. By the early twenty-first century, if you were a white evangelical Christian, you had little choice but to vote Republican. Early partisan divides on abortion were followed by increasingly polarized posi­tions on gay rights and eventually transgender rights. Moral imperatives and cultural identities are now, more than ever, driving voting patterns.

By appealing to core policy concerns like gun rights and by stoking anxiety about immigration and America’s changing racial demographics (whites are pro­jected to be in the minority by 2045), Republicans have been able to win over larger and larger shares of the white rural vote. Likewise, the Democratic Party has become an increasingly urban party by doing essentially the opposite—trying to reduce violence by restricting access to guns and embracing the diversity that is reshaping urban America.

In the mid-2000s, all of this was exacerbated by social media. Just as the two parties were diverging on identity, Twitter exploded, Face­book went mainstream, and social media became an ever present part of our lives. Critically, a network of gleeful eth­nic entrepreneurs realized that they could gain ratings and influence by emphasizing this division online. Media titans such as Rupert Murdoch and the Sinclair Broadcast group (controlled by the Smith family) whose bottom lines were enhanced by ratings and clicks fed us more and more polarized content. Savvy TV personalities like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity were only too happy to spread conspiracy theories and use hatred to increase their own ratings. They were joined by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who promoted distrust of the political system altogether; by 2010, The Alex Jones Show was attract­ing two million listeners each week. Keith Olbermann, for his part, stirred up left-leaning voters.

Into this political morass stepped the biggest ethnic entre­preneur of all: Donald Trump. And in his bid for power, he realized that appeals to identity could galvanize his political base. In the past, he had made a racist cru­sade of questioning Obama’s birthplace. Now he embraced identity politics explicitly and with gusto. He painted Black Americans as poor and violent. He referred to Mexicans as criminals. He spoke of Christian values, despite numerous accusations of sexual assault. He called women “horseface,” “fat,” and “ugly.” Once sworn into office, he quickly insti­tuted a travel ban on many Muslim countries, and called Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole” countries. His policies were nativist policies: He started building a “big, beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico, pulled out of international agreements, and started a trade war against China. Trump retweeted a video of a retiree in Florida chanting “white power.” And he threatened to veto a defense spending bill in order to protect the legacy of Confederate generals on U.S. Army bases.

Fall Of Slobodan Milosevic
Demonstrators disputing the recent election results clash with police outside the Belgrade Parliament, 5th October 2000. Yugoslavian President, Slobodan Milosevic resigned two days later.Yannis Kontos—Sygma/Getty Images

In all of these ways, Trump was encouraging ethnic fac­tionalism—the splintering of political parties along ethnic lines. It’s what Tudjman did when, as part of his plan to become president of an independent Croatia, he began to consolidate Croatians into an ethnic faction in 1989. It is what Hutu extremists did when they character­ized Tutsis as cockroaches and Hutus as the chosen people. It’s what President Henri Konan Bédié did in the Ivory Coast in the mid-1990s, when he reversed his pro-immigrant policies to gain more votes from native citizens. And it is what Modi in India does when he promotes India as primar­ily for Hindus.

No Republican president in the past fifty years had ever pursued such an openly racist platform, or so explicitly championed white, evangelical Americans at the expense of everyone else. At first, it wasn’t clear that the Republican leadership would go along with it—during his own presidential campaign, Texas senator Ted Cruz blasted Trump, calling him “utterly amoral”—but many of them saw in Trump a way to enact their own agendas. This included tax cuts for the rich, business deregu­lation, and environmental rollbacks. With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling the Senate, the party could also stack the Supreme Court and the judiciary more generally with conservative judges who could poten­tially stymie democratic initiatives for years to come. They, too, became ethnic entrepreneurs.

Trump intuitively understood that the deep feeling of alienation among many white voters could carry him to power. And so he didn’t just focus on division, denigrating Muslims or Black Americans as the “other.” Like other ethnic entrepreneurs before him, he emphasized the downgrading of the former majority—in this case, how much whites had lost. He put the grievances of white, male, Christian, rural Americans into a simplified framework that painted them as victims whose rightful leg­acy had been stolen. He spoke often about what was being taken away: religious rights, gun rights, job opportunities. His campaign slogan promised a return to glory: “Make America Great Again.” In him, people saw someone unlike any other candidate, someone who recognized the value of their lives and offered them protection.

Trump was a naturally gifted ethnic entrepreneur. He showed future candidates how to lock in a subset of white voters and rally them to go to the polls. He was not as successful, however, in convincing a majority of the white population that they truly were under attack from the Left. He exaggerated the threat from antifa, conjured Mexican rapists, and claimed that America’s cities were dens of violence. Not all white voters believed him. Suburban women, in particular, were skeptical. But his hold on the party remains powerful and millions of Americans, including the Republican leadership continue to support him. Ethnic entrepreneurs tend to be difficult to defeat once they have convinced average citizens that their fortunes depend on an individual. In this way, they often maintain power through a combination of extreme nationalism and fear. Milosevic remained Serbia’s party leader and president for 8 years—crafting an increasingly authoritarian government—until he was eventually thrown out as a result of mass protests.

All signs indicate that Trump is likely to be the Republican candidate again in 2024, but even if he isn’t, other ambitious Republicans—Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley—have studied his playbook and will no doubt use it to try to catapult themselves into the White House. They will try to attract Trump’s eighty-eight million fol­lowers, but they will also seek to gain additional ones. And they will do so by manufacturing threats, fomenting even more racial fear, and convincing whites that they truly are in the midst of an existential fight. How far will these ethnic entrepreneurs go? How far will we let them?

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