Is America headed for a new civil war?

That nagging question keeps coming up and not just from the fringe right-wing groups that have long cheered such a horrible event.

Today, more mainstream voices are wondering aloud if some kind of widespread civil unrest could be in the nation's near future, possibly around the 2024 elections.

Recent polls show that around 46% of Americans think a civil conflict is possible; that rate is higher here in the South where the previous civil war still gets discussed and is woven into the South's cultural fabric.

But could that really happen?

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Some of the concern about possible political violence comes from the uprising of Jan. 6 when Tump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the counting of election results after Trump had been defeated by Joe Biden.

The more we've learned about that day's events, the clearer it has become that Trump and his key supporters did indeed want Congress to ignore the 2020 election and give the presidency back to Trump. Before the Capitol insurgency, Trump himself had riled up the crowd, which soon became a violent mob as it overran an undermanned police force.

It's clear now that Trump wanted the mob to succeed. In fact, he had already attempted to have the election results overturned by pressuring Georgia officials to ignore the state's voting results and throw Georgia's electors to him. Georgia's secretary of state and governor refused to do that illegal act for Trump.

The result? Trump has attacked both Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Recently, Trump suggested to a Georgia crowd that Democrat Stacey Abrams would be a better governor than Republican Kemp, a comment that has scared the state GOP because it divides Republican efforts to stop Abrams. 

In addition, Trump has endorsed Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia's 10th Congressional District in Hice's bid to unseat Raffensperger in 2022. Hice is a right-wing Trump advocate who undoubtedly would have thrown out the state's 2020 election results had he been secretary of state instead of Raffensperger.

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As the months have passed, Trump and his followers have continued to claim, falsely, that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen. It wasn't and there is zero evidence to back up those claims. 

But the claims have not faded. Instead, they have become a rallying cry for Republican Trump supporters. Around that false claim, they have attempted to rewrite history by downplaying the mob of Jan. 6. Ninth District Congressman Andrew Clyde has been part of that rewriting of history by comparing the Jan. 6 mob to tourists. 

The narrative that has resulted from all that is the false claim that the election was stolen and that those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 were really "patriots" who were just attempting to protect America. In that view, the rioters were martyrs who are now being politically persecuted by law enforcement.

That is Orwellian double-speak. Those who stormed the Capitol were really traitors, not patriots. They weren't trying to protect democracy; they were attempting to destroy it.

And it was Trump and his followers who attempted to steal an election, not his opponent.

Still, the stolen-election-rioters-as-martyrs view has become the new ideological core of the Republican Party. Gone are the traditional GOP talking points about conservatism; that has been replaced by the false narrative embraced by Trump and his cult followers.

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The second thing that has happened is that several states, including Georgia, have changed election laws in an attempt to put a finger on the scale to help the GOP in close elections.

Much of the media focus around that has centered on efforts to limit voter access, especially in areas that tend to vote Democratic.

But that's the wrong focus. The real change has been to tinker with the mechanics of voting so that in close elections, GOP legislatures can throw out votes to change outcomes that go against their candidates.

Here in Georgia, the state elections "reform" laws include a provision that the state can take over local election boards it deems to be mismanaged.

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What does that have to do with possible civil conflict?

Imagine this scenario:

In 2024, Trump is the GOP candidate and there's another close election like 2020. This time, however, it's close enough that Georgia's electoral votes will determine the final outcome.

With Hice as secretary of state, Trump would have a puppet to do his bidding. Under the changes in state law, Hice could declare that Fulton County's voting, which is largely Democratic, was poorly managed and have the state take over the county's election board. From there, it's a short path to tossing out ballots, or simply removing all Fulton votes from the state's tally, thus giving the state to Trump.

While such a move would undoubtedly face an immediate court challenge, it could also spark violence. Georgia would become the center of the political universe, drawing in thousands of people on both sides of the political spectrum. Riots would ensue, especially in Atlanta and Fulton County where voters would have been disenfranchised.

As the riots grew and became a media spectacle, armed right-wing militia groups would pour into Atlanta under the guise of "helping" police keep order. More violence would follow.

Across the nation, more riots could happen and more clashes between citizens become violent, especially in urban areas.

That isn't like the last civil war, but it could lead to the creation of a petty dictatorship under the guise of "keeping order" in the nation. There would be a huge temptation to quell the violence at any price, even if it meant suspending civil liberties and declaring martial law.

Once martial law is declared, there would be no going back. America would have become Germany of the 1930s.

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A few years ago, all of that would have seemed to be little more than a dystopian plot for a movie. 

But it's no longer so far-fetched. 

We live in an era of deep political polarization and mistrust. What were once fringe movements have become mainstream. Misinformation and lies have become the currency of social media. Propaganda is common and even crude propaganda has traction among the disaffected.

On top of that, we have a class of political leaders, headed by Trump, who are amoral and authoritarian in nature. They don't care about democracy and only care about winning elections at all costs, the consequences be damned.

On Jan. 6, the nation crossed a Rubicon. A war for the soul of the nation looms in 2024.

The question isn't if, but how that war will be waged.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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