This is the third in a suite of five scenarios developed by Aleph Insights, designed with the following question in mind:
“What will the US government’s principal strategic priorities be between 2017 and 2020?”
More background on the scenario development process, including caveats about scenario interpretation, is here. The baseline scenario is The Great-Again Gatsby. The three other alternative scenarios are Atlas Hugged, We Need to Talk about Donald, and Catch SSBN-22.
This scenario differs from the baseline in its assumption about social cohesion and unrest.
In his inauguration speech, President Trump pledged to deliver on his pre-election promises. He stated that the ‘wall’ on America’s southern border will be completed by the end of his first term as President, that Muslims will be subjected to additional checks before being permitted access to the United States, and that police will be supported in applying a number of new law enforcement measures (including ‘stop and frisk’ and the continued introduction of military equipment for police forces).
Even before these policies had started to be implemented, they began to have an effect. The vision painted by the speech acted as a fillip to those opposing President Trump. A series of nationwide protests were organised by a coalition of activist groups representing Muslims, African Americans, Latinos and other civil rights interests. Over a number of consecutive days the protests, held under the banner ‘United Against Prejudice’ (UAP), brought the downtown areas of a number of cities to a standstill. A march in Birmingham, AL, descended into violence and led to the shooting dead of five protesters, including a pastor, by police. Footage of the shooting supported two competing narratives, mirroring the divided public attitude towards the protests. Some saw the protesters as the inciting party, and believed the police were acting in self-defence; others saw the incident as clear evidence of the heavy-handed and unrestricted deployment of lethal force against innocent, unarmed and mainly black civilians. The ‘Birmingham Five’ became a symbol of the UAP and its resistance against state oppression.
Throughout 2017 the UAP became increasingly associated with violent disturbances, despite its attempts to distance itself from extremist elements. In response to the wave of protests and riots, grassroots vigilante groups sprang up across the US, and particularly in the South, coalescing in some cases around existing ‘prepper’ and white supremacist organisations. During the spring of 2017, vigilante groups were involved in a number of violent altercations with UAP protesters, spontaneous demonstrations, and innocent bystanders. As the situation worsened, President Trump repeatedly condemned violence from both sides. But statements made (against the advice of senior Police Commissioners), supporting the “rights of citizens to defend their homes”, were seen as tacit support for vigilantes. On 4 July, three Hispanic men - US citizens from the same family - were shot dead outside their home by a ‘self-defence’ group in Arizona. Throughout July, a widening spiral of fatal revenge attacks across the US started to give the impression of a government losing control of a country that was falling apart.
August 2017 brought record temperatures, drought, and further unrest across the US. Starting with a demonstration, then a riot, in Memphis, large-scale violent protests, not affiliated with the UAP, rose up in Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio and a host of smaller cities, and commentators began talking about a ‘Summer of Rage’. Using the emergency powers still officially in effect following the September 11 2001 attacks (and renewed by President Obama in 2016), the National Guard were mobilised on 14 August and deployed to downtown areas in major US cities. By the time the protests had died down or been quelled, 2 Guardsmen, 13 police officers, and 87 civilians had been killed, and damage was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. President Trump and UAP leaders shared a platform vowing to work together to end “all violent means of settling differences” and vowing to “bring harmony back to this great nation”. But in the perception of most observers across the political spectrum, the situation was only an ‘uneasy truce’.
Keeping the Peace
(photo: Maryland National Guard)
In many ways, the violence emboldened President Trump in his pursuit of his most divisive policies. The ‘wall’ began construction in late 2017 across portions of America’s southern border, and in 2018 a new trade levy on Mexican imports was enacted by executive order, in order (nominally at least) to fund its construction. Vigilante patrolling of the border increased with the help of larger numbers of volunteers for the self-defence groups that have sprung up across the country.
Against this continuing backdrop of protests, riots and sporadic outbreaks of violence between divided sections of communities, containing civil unrest has become the dominant focus of the Presidency. Many commentators have likened the situation to the late 1960s and the overlapping unrest associated with Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement. The President’s economic plans have stalled as politicians on all sides responded to domestic instability. Many leading Democrats have become champions for the protesting minorities. The economy has suffered as America’s image as a place to do business has been severely undermined.
Against this backdrop, US foreign policy has been given little attention by the media or the Presidency, aside from Donald Trump’s signing of the Terrorist Vetting Directive (TVD). This legislation enables the enhanced vetting of travellers from designated countries (all of which have significant Muslim populations), it also explicitly permits the overt use of profiling at airports and other entry points to the US. The TVD has damaged relations with a number of key allies in the Middle East and Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have both threatened to withdraw all security cooperation with the US. France and the UK, with their significant Muslim populations, have also publicly criticised the policy.
Enforcement By 2020, many Americans feel bruised by the experience of the last three years. As the President looks to the upcoming election, it seems as if the country has never been more divided. His hardline attitude to protesters and his determination to see through his electoral promises have consolidated his support amongst conservatives. Yet, it is these very policies which have also entrenched opposition to the prospect of his second term. Trump enters the election campaign with only one option: to continue along the path he has chosen and hope that his ardent supporters outnumber his highly motivated opponents. No one knows what the future brings, but the hope is that it cannot be worse than the recent past.
In this scenario the US government has been entirely preoccupied with dealing with social division and unrest. The resources of the police and other components of the domestic security apparatus have been diverted to containing this crisis. The legislative process has also been bogged down in trying to create new laws to deal with protesters and civil disobedience. Social programmes and investment have targeted the most severely affected areas. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election, it is likely to take a decade for the rifts between Americans to heal. The US must also look how to repair its international reputation. US global hegemony is diminished; China, which has maintained a low profile during this period, is now seen by many as a potentially more responsible partner than the US.
(Read the third alternative scenario: We Need to Talk about Donald.)