As war rages in Eastern Europe, the prospect of a second civil war continues to bubble just below the surface of a divided America. Earlier this month, the Justice Department convicted the first January 6 rioter to stand trial, and there are hundreds more to come. That same week, at a federal courthouse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, prosecutors in the trial of four men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer argued that the men were followers of the “Boogaloo” movement — a far-right revolution that seeks to upend the social and political order — who hoped to create a “war zone in Michigan.”
“The Boogaloo believes the country is broken, that politicians on both sides are at fault and should be targeted and attacked,” Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Roth said. “They believe a second civil war is coming, and they are looking forward to that civil war.”
A year after January 6, 2021, there’s little doubt that the potential for another violent political uprising in America is all too real. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden launched a broad federal strategy to battle domestic terrorism, including a new unit of Justice Department attorneys whose caseload has grown to 2,700 investigations. But a new civil war? Skeptics have argued that simply making the claim could lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. “Let’s Not Invent a Civil War,” a New York Times columnist cautioned. “Beware Prophecies of Civil War,” The Atlantic intoned in a book review.
It’s impossible, of course, to say with any certainty whether America’s deepening and violent political divisions will lead to a full-scale war. But it’s not difficult to pinpoint the states and regions where one would be most likely to begin. To better understand the geography of our civil strife, I spoke with nearly a dozen experts on civil war, domestic terrorism, and secession movements and asked them: If we were to have another civil war, where would it start?
I received a wide range of answers, from “everywhere” to specific towns. But a few parts of the country came up repeatedly. To be clear: In none of these places do experts foresee anything resembling the formal, uniformed battles of the 1860s. Our second civil war, they warn, would be a much more diffuse and sporadic insurgency, led by militant groups and other anti-government “patriots” growing bolder and more active over time — until one day we wake up and realize we’re at civil war.
There’s a formal definition for that, by the way. The Centre for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute in Norway, which studies civil conflict around the world, defines “civil strife” as 25 deaths a year from politically motivated violence. For a conflict to rise to the level of “civil war,” the annual death count must reach 1,000. The Anti-Defamation League 29 killings in the US by domestic extremists last year.
Fortunately, we are nowhere near the civil-war number. But there are three places where the experts say the powder keg is most likely to blow if we ever get there.
When I spoke with Barbara Walter, the author of “How Civil Wars Start,” the first state she mentioned was no surprise: Michigan. She cited its proximity to an international border, its rural-urban divide, and its long history of decentralized right-wing militarism. The Whitmer plot features prominently in her book’s introduction, where she sketches parallels between what’s happening in Michigan and in other countries: “Today, civil wars are waged primarily by different ethnic and religious groups, by guerrilla soldiers and militias, who often target civilians. The unrest in Michigan, if you look closely, features these very elements.”
Members of the far-right Boogaloo Boys at a rally at the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan. Two men arrested in the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had ties to the Boogaloo Boys.
Seth Herald/Getty Images
Michigan has had high levels of activity involving self-styled militias for decades. In the 1990s, the Michigan Militia, a group that sought to “defend itself against the United States Government,” boasted a network of 12,000 members in 32 of the state’s 83 counties. The group was so organized that it had an annual “Militia Babes” calendar featuring the wives and girlfriends of its members — many of whom were also members — hoisting guns in revealing outfits. In 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, government investigators found tangential connections between the group and Timothy McVeigh.
JoEllen Vinyard, a historian at Eastern Michigan University who is the author of “Right in Michigan’s Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia,” attributes much of the state’s right-wing activity to globalization’s uneven impact on manufacturing, which Donald Trump capitalized on when running for president. “There are many people who felt they were ignored, left behind by the American dream, which they’d worked so hard to believe in, but it didn’t come true for them,” she told me. “So they look for people to blame. I think Trump unleashed a lot of feelings that were already there. He’s not responsible for them. But he brought them all to the surface and made them legitimate.”
By 2004, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Michigan had nine active anti-government militias — more than any other state. Today that number is up to 17 — more than 10% of the 169 active groups tracked nationwide by the SPLC. “Michigan is a hotbed,” said an SPLC researcher who talked to me on the condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to talk to the press. “It’s been a hotbed for an incredibly long time now.”
Nor is the violent political rhetoric in Michigan consigned to the fringes. Last March, Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser told a gathering that Whitmer, along with the state’s Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, were “witches” who should be “burned at the stake.” At the same gathering, in response to a question about what should be done about two Republican congressmen who had voted to impeach Trump, Weiser said he could think of only one solution other than voting them out of office: “assassination.”
2. Upstate New York
It might come as a surprise to non-New Yorkers who think of the state as a monolithic wall of liberal blue, but rural swaths of upstate New York have seen a disproportionate share of far-right extremism in recent years, much of it race-based.
“People generally are mistaken when they believe that white supremacy and far-right militancy is a Southern thing,” said Michael German, a former undercover FBI special agent focused on infiltrating domestic terrorist cells who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “In fact, it is and always has been broadly spread throughout the nation.”
Back in the early 1980s, a group of Muslim families, many of them African Americans from New York City, moved to the Catskills town of Hancock and settled an enclave they called Holy Islamberg. In 2019, the police arrested four people who had stockpiled two dozen weapons as part of a violent plot against the community. Authorities determined that the plotters had been influenced by posts on far-right social-media platforms such as 4chan and Infowars, falsely claiming that the enclave was ruled by Islamic law and was being used as a jihadi training cell.
Not far from Hancock lies the Hudson Valley, an epicenter of unrest where at least 13 residents have been charged with crimes connected to the Capitol riot. Stephen Marche, the author of “The Next Civil War,” singled out the region as a tinderbox, noting the significant presence of anti-government groups such as the Oath Keepers. The Anti-Defamation League describes the outfit as “a large but loosely organized collection of right-wing anti-government extremists” who believe that “the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.”
Membership in the Oath Keepers consists largely of military and law-enforcement personnel, and that overlap is prominent in the Hudson Valley. A former sheriff of Greene County, Greg Seeley, received an award from the Oath Keepers in 2017, and Lewis County Sheriff Mike Carpinelli, who is running for governor, has also been honored by the group. Carpinelli doesn’t deny his affiliation with the Oath Keepers, and he conducted a recent interview with a local television station in front of a large banner featuring what appears to be the logo for Three Percenterism, a far-right ideology that advocates another Revolutionary War to defend American liberties. Carpinelli disputes that the banner depicts the Three Percenters logo, saying it was a gift from a veteran friend.
Sheriff Mike Carpinelli, a GOP candidate for governor of New York, being interviewed in his office. Behind him is a banner that experts say depicts the logo for Three Percenterism, a far-right ideology.
Courtesy of WWNY/WNYF.
3. Eastern Oregon
In Harney County, a 10,000-square-mile stretch of southeastern Oregon ranch country where cows outnumber people 14 to 1, an armed standoff took place in 2016 between federal authorities and far-right militants. Led by Ammon Bundy, who participated in a similar armed standoff at his father’s Nevada ranch in 2014, 26 militants occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, arguing that the federal government should return the land to the state.
This strident anti-government impulse permeates much of eastern Oregon, where a robust secessionist movement has taken hold in recent years. You’d be hard-pressed to name a state whose citizens diverge more dramatically across the political spectrum, from the hyperliberal cities of Portland and Eugene in the west to the rural conservative communities in the east, who feel increasingly alienated by the “elites” in their state government. That’s why eight counties in eastern Oregon — Harney among them — are pushing to shift the state’s border and become part of Idaho.
Secessionist sentiment isn’t isolated to Oregon. No state, of course, is more perennially associated with the idea than Texas. And a poll conducted last year by the University of Virginia found that 41% of Biden supporters and 52% of Trump voters agreed that “it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.” Richard Kreitner, the author of “Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union,” told me that secessionist movements across the US would gain momentum in the coming years. “That’s going to be the story of 21st-century American politics: this kind of ratcheting up of more extreme and more serious threats to rip up age-old arrangements, such as state lines.”
The original Civil War, of course, began with secessionism — and eastern Oregon is where the movement is most active, organized, and pronounced. “This might be a solution to some of the discontent that is out there,” Mike McCarter, a retired gun-club owner who leads the group Move Oregon’s Border, told me. He stressed that his group’s plan was intended to be a peaceful solution to what he considered to be irreconcilable political differences with Portland. But he acknowledged the “possibility” that the country could be on the path to civil war.
“Taking guns away — that’s what would do it,” he told me. “That would be the spark.”
Mike McCarter, in the red cap, leads a movement to move Oregon’s border to the west, making eight conservative counties a part of Idaho.
Courtesy of Greater Idaho.
Walter, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego, agreed that a “federal incursion into everyday life” — including an action perceived as a mortal threat to the Second Amendment — could indeed spark a second civil war. She doesn’t think the insurrection of January 6 will prove to be an isolated event in the long lens of American history. Instead, she told me, it’s a symptom of a terminally ill body politic that is growing sicker every day.
“What January 6 did is bring to the surface what the experts had been seeing for years and years and years, out of the public eye,” Walter said. “It made it impossible for most Americans, and our politicians, to ignore this cancer that had been growing within.” And whether or not that illness winds up becoming a matter of life or death, it’s prudent to begin identifying where an outbreak is most likely to occur.