The civil wars in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did not come on suddenly. In fact, the initial conflicts between groups were confined to political institutions. Immature legislatures in newly independent states struggled to deal with issues of language, citizenship, and the relative powers of central and local governments. Nationalist demagogues on all sides fatally undermined the search for compromise, subverting public confidence in political institutions and allowing conflict to spill out into the streets. External states then threw gasoline on the smoldering civil conflict in pursuit of their own geopolitical objectives.
What does this have to do with the United States? How can decades-old wars in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union teach us anything instructive about the American political environment today? After all, American political institutions are manifestly stronger and more resilient than their counterparts in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Political rhetoric in the U.S. has generally been more responsible and less overtly nationalist than was the case in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav countries. Finally, Russia directly abetted several separatist movements in the former Soviet Union and Serbia did the same in the Balkans, but no foreign power is directly fomenting civil war in the U.S.
But the parallels between those countries then and America now are greater than they seem. Strong institutions and norms against nationalist and racist political rhetoric take generations to build and constant effort to maintain, but can be eroded in a fraction of that time. And foreign interference no longer need take the form of provision of weapons and equipment to separatists.
Rhetoric from President Donald Trump alleging that our elections are rigged, that the intelligence community is working to undermine him, and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is full of “angry Democrats” working to bring him down is not normal political speech in the United States. It is unprecedented for a President of the United States to engage in a sustained attack on the institutions of his own executive branch. Unfortunately, the opposition to President Trump has taken his bait and mounted attacks on executive branch agencies whose actions it doesn’t like. The call from prominent Democrats to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is an example of this.
These attacks come at a cost to the integrity and legitimacy of our institutions. A July 2018 poll found that Americans are increasingly divided in how they view the agencies at the center of the controversies surrounding the Trump administration. Support for the FBI among Republicans has fallen from 65% to 49% since Trump took office, while 76% of Democrats have a favorable view of the agency. Views of ICE are even more polarized, with 72% of Republicans holding a favorable view of the agency and 72% of Democrats holding a negative view.
Despite the attacks from President Trump on the agencies he believes to be populated with his opponents, the truth is that officers in these agencies routinely check their political views at the door when they show up for work. In a 30-year career in the U.S. Army, I worked with dozens of officers from the CIA, FBI, and State Department—all agencies Trump has alleged are part of a “Deep State” conspiracy to undermine his will and subvert American democracy. Although we disagreed at times, those disagreements were over policy, not politics.
For instance, agencies might differ over whether the U.S. should sell a certain piece of military equipment to a certain country, but those differences reflect different institutional viewpoints, not partisan political ones. In this case, the Department of Defense may support the sale because the country is a priority partner and a key contributor to the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. The State Department may resist the sale because it would be provocative to a neighboring state, and the intelligence community may be concerned about the technology falling into the wrong hands.
These are normal disagreements based on policy differences, not partisan politics. In a normal environment, the relevant agencies would work out these differences and agree on a policy. But in a supercharged partisan environment where agencies are believed to have political agendas rather than policy preferences and where large majorities of the American public trust certain agencies and distrust others based on those perceived political agendas, normal functioning of government can break down.
With public perceptions of Congress already at historic lows and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings exploding the notion of a non-partisan Supreme Court, all three branches of the U.S. government are suffering crises of legitimacy. This makes it less likely that they will be able to resolve or even contain the political conflicts that will arise from an increasingly divided American public. Those conflicts are likely to increase with control of the House of Representatives passing to Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. If history is any guide, President Trump will respond to increasing oversight of his administration from the House by ratcheting up his divisive rhetoric.
Aside from eroding trust in political institutions, this rhetoric stokes partisan, racial, and religious tensions. It causes fear in some groups and causes other groups to assume they have tacit approval to act on their most extreme impulses. The bombs mailed to President Trump’s perceived opponents, the mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the murder of two African-Americans in a Kentucky supermarket are only the most recent examples of rising political, racial, and religiousviolence in America.
To be fair, the rise in identity-motivated violence preceded President Trump’s election, and the hollowing of the political center is not a uniquely American phenomenon. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of governments outside of the political mainstream in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Brazil—to name only a few—indicate that growing skepticism about politics as usual is widespread. But previous presidents have generally sought to heal social divisions and temper fiery political rhetoric, and even the most conservative consistently and unequivocally condemned racism and religious hatred. Although President Trump reliably reads prepared statements condemning such violence, other comments—often made off-the-cuff and therefore seen as more indicative of his true beliefs—often imply support for nationalism and nativism. Indeed, he has called himself a nationalist and threatened to tone up rather than tone down his rhetoric.
In the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, external intervention escalated civil unrest into civil war by providing weapons and fighters to separatist groups, neither of which is possible on any significant scale in the U.S. But weapons are already plentiful here, and, in any case, there are more effective and less visible ways for foreign adversaries to intervene. Russia’s attempts to sow division and cause disruption in American society are well-known. What is becoming clear is that Americans have learned from Russia’s success. Lawmakers, tech company officials, and experts agree that the primary purveyors of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online are now Americans. When it began its attempts to divide and weaken American society, the Russian government could scarcely have imagined that Americans would adopt and then enhance its methods.
Despite this toxic cocktail of bigoted rhetoric from our political leaders, declining trust in our political institutions, and the use of disinformation to divide and weaken us, the United States in 2018 is still significantly more stable than those states that plunged into civil war in the early 1990s. Amid the recent chaos and violence were signs of hope. One such sign is the hundreds of thousands of dollars Muslim groups have raised to defray funeral expenses for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders. Unlike the states of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the U.S. boasts a robust civil society that can act as a shock absorber in times of civil unrest and strife. Americans routinely reach across religious, racial, and economic fault lines to help each other in times of need.
But relying on civil society to dampen passions inflamed by our political leaders asks it to assume a heavy burden. The American system requires both a responsible government and an engaged citizenry to function properly. Here, the words of Ben Franklin serve as both a reminder of that fact and a warning about the danger of forgetting it. At the close of the 1787 constitutional convention, when a citizen asked Franklin whether the U.S. would be a monarchy or a republic, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”