What Gang-Backed Government Could Do to America

January 6 was a warning: When public authority and private muscle join forces, democracy is in danger.

An illustration of an angry mob gathered in front of a pillar
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security.

In the year since a mob invaded the Capitol, the trend lines for political violence in the United States have worsened. According to a new poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland, about one in three Americans believes that violence against the government is sometimes justified. But even more disturbing than the hardening of attitudes is the governing pattern coalescing—like an array of magnets pulling one another near—in pockets of the country. In some localities, conservative politicians and law-enforcement officials are melding with armed vigilantes who have similar politics. In Grand Traverse County, Michigan, last January, a citizen asked local officials at a virtual public meeting to denounce the Proud Boys, a right-wing gang that took part in the Capitol riot and had previously introduced a local gun-rights resolution. Instead of disavowing the group, the county commission’s vice chair stepped off-screen and returned brandishing his rifle. Closer to Michigan’s capital, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf made news in August by speaking approvingly of militias and claiming the power to recruit posses to “suppress rioting.”

These officials’ beliefs might be shared by their constituents. Or not—the prospect of intimidation from violent citizens supported by governing powers makes dissenters less likely to speak up. Gang-backed governments fundamentally distort democracy. Public authority and private muscle collude to maintain power and narrow the range of people who can vote. In the resulting mobocracy, supporting policies, rights, or candidates outside accepted boundaries becomes difficult and in some cases dangerous.

These dynamics are familiar in countries such as Nicaragua and India, but they also represent the most serious realistic danger to the stability of American democracy. In fact, the United States also has considerable experience with such a system. To comparative-government scholars, the Jim Crow South was an authoritarian enclave, a bastion of one-party rule nestled within a broader democracy. In many states, laws kept a large fraction of the population from voting. Vigilante violence, backed by partisan police and judges, kept citizens from altering the situation through the political process.

The return of any such system may feel far-fetched. Fortunately, rifles remain a rare sight at local-government hearings. Modern America has 3,000-odd counties that appear to function in reassuring bureaucratic drabness. The U.S. also has about 800,000 law-enforcement officers, the majority of whom are, no doubt, committed to the rule of law. But January 6 and subsequent revelations should shift Americans’ understanding of what is possible. While commander in chief, Donald Trump chose to spur on a violent mob and let its riot continue long enough to disrupt congressional certification of the presidential vote. Rather than provoking revulsion from political elites, that day’s events may have offered a guidebook. Allen West, the chair of the Texas Republican Party, posed with militia members just days later, and in March he appeared with the leader of the Oath Keepers militia after the latter had been charged with involvement in the January 6 attack.

Our current moment has some commonalities with the period following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that the Constitution forbids official segregation in public schools. The intimacy of the federal government intruding on whom one’s children might sit next to in school drove a furious response. “Citizens councils” mushroomed across the South. Composed of white professionals, these groups normalized and sometimes abetted a revived Ku Klux Klan. Bloody extremism mingled with mainstream sentiment among white southerners. Perpetrators of violence enjoyed impunity because of the tacit or explicit support of local authorities.

In the Jim Crow South, mobocracies exercised tight control over state and local governments. Southern courts excused white vigilante justice. Murderers, such as those who killed Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, went free. Politicians used state security to uphold their campaign of “massive resistance” to school integration. Arkansas’s governor ordered the state’s National Guard to block nine Black students from integrating a Little Rock high school. Law enforcement took a side. One notorious Mississippi sheriff, Neshoba County’s Lawrence Rainey, was suspected of playing a role in the murder of three civil-rights workers.

The mobocracy now unfurling has so far been less violent than its Jim Crow forebear. But it has a broader political and geographic base. Should it succeed, it will not be confined to the South, nor will it be based solely on race. Extremists use today’s mainstream causes—such as opposition to COVID-vaccine mandates and disputes about school curricula—as gateways for recruitment. Conspiracy theories, culture wars, and a generalized antipathy toward the concerns of women and people of color are fueling the growth of mobocracy in states such as Oklahoma and Iowa, where legislatures have already passed bills granting immunity to drivers who strike protesters with their cars.

In some ways, the left is feeding right-wing fears of tyranny. Especially in academia and other high-profile fields, the muzzling of dissent from progressive orthodoxies drives conservatives’ claims that they are the ones facing cultural autocracy. The enactment of COVID-related emergency measures, while necessary for public health, has abetted authoritarianism in other countries and fueled similar fears on America’s right.

Commentators, particularly on the right, have been chattering about civil war for some time. Since America’s founding, insurgency has been linked to patriotism. This framing taps into a strong mythos of patriots taking up arms against tyranny. Yet since 2013, the Global Terrorism Database has charted skyrocketing violence on the right and only a slight increase on the left. The left has no equivalent of an interlinked political, militia, and state-security infrastructure. The term civil war makes violence sound citizen-led, and it tends to confer blame on each competing camp. But a two-sided war is not what America is facing.

Moreover, though many Americans distrust their government and bear arms at the highest per capita rate in the world, most political-science research suggests that weapons and grievances don’t correlate with combat. The U.S. does have serious risk factors for political violence, chief among them political parties defined by racial, geographic, and religious cleavages. But insurgents don’t attack wealthy democracies with the military strength of the United States. They seek to govern them.

Instead of worrying about the 1860s, Americans should consider how modern democracies disintegrate. In 1920s Italy, Benito Mussolini gained power legally after 25,000 of his Blackshirt paramilitary devotees marched on Rome and a co-opted establishment bowed to his leadership. In 1970s Chile, street skirmishes between the left and the right led to middle-class cries for law and order, ending in General Augusto Pinochet’s coup. India, long praised as the world’s largest democracy, recently dropped to “partly free” in Freedom House’s ranking after its popularly elected government—supported by riots and upheld by Hindu-nationalist police—passed too many laws that tilted elections, quelled protest, and stifled speech.

The United States, too, is dropping fast in rankings such as those compiled by Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit. International experience suggests that centrist politicians aren’t capable of stopping the slide on their own. When the researcher David Solimini and I examined countries that had faced similar forms of democratic degradation, we found that ineffectiveness and infighting sidelined pro-democracy legislators, while populist or authoritarian leaders quickly transformed their parties into sycophantic amplifiers of their own demagoguery.

Far more important in upholding democracy is a neutral, nonpoliticized security sector. But retired American generals are so concerned about “turmoil in our armed forces” that they are writing op-eds to put the public on alert. In the past decade, the number of U.S.-military veterans arrested for extremist crimes was more than 300 percent higher than in the previous decade. One in 10 of the rioters who stormed the Capitol had served in the military. Twelve National Guardsmen sent to protect President Joe Biden at his inauguration had to be removed after a last-minute extremist screening. The anti-polarization organization More in Common found that more than half of Afghan War veterans feel like strangers in their own country, betrayed and humiliated by officers and civilian leaders for the pullout debacle. The military’s recent initiatives to curb radical behavior are at best a first step.

Still more worrying is the politicization of state National Guards. In November, Oklahoma’s governor fired the state’s top general in order to find someone willing to challenge federal authority. Most news coverage has framed this story as a fight over vaccine mandates enacted by the Biden administration. It is actually a contest for control of the military. National Guards are federally funded, although they are generally under gubernatorial leadership. They are subject to federal requirements for troop readiness, because they can be called for federal service at any time; Guard and Reserve units composed nearly half of the forces sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Texas, Alaska, Mississippi, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming have joined Oklahoma in contesting the federal government’s authority over military forces.

The U.S. military, however, has a long tradition of disciplined political neutrality—a doctrine that should enable it to prioritize democratic civics if it chooses. Law-enforcement politicization is more advanced and a harder problem to solve.

The fear long harbored by some communities of color that local police sometimes choose not to uphold the rule of law is spreading. A lawsuit credibly alleges that officers in San Marcos, Texas, laughed off multiple calls for help as Trump supporters tried to force a Biden-campaign bus off the road in 2020. Despite sharp increases in far-right political violence and hate crimes, and evidence that right-wing protests are twice as likely as left-wing ones to turn violent, U.S. police intervened one-third as often in right-leaning protests as in left-leaning ones in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an information-analysis nonprofit. In 2021, the group found that police intervention in far-right protests had decreased further, even as the Proud Boys in particular had become more violent.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which grew out of a 1970s white-supremacist movement and promotes the idea that law-enforcement officers can personally interpret the Constitution, has flourished since Trump’s pardon of its board member Joe Arpaio. One Michigan sheriff is refusing to uphold the secretary of state’s ban on guns at election sites. In Wisconsin, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling recommended criminal charges against members of a bipartisan election board who had directed clerks to send absentee ballots to nursing homes. Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a prominent Trump surrogate, told a QAnon conference this fall that the next insurrection needs better planning. The conservative Claremont Institute, a think tank whose chairman believes that the U.S. is in a “cold civil war,” has launched a fellowship in which sheriffs discuss topics such as “today’s militant progressivism and multiculturalism.”

Jim Crow ended thanks to a federal government that worked assiduously—goaded by community leaders—to stop impunity, often against the will of local law enforcement and politicians who had gone rogue in states such as Mississippi. Biden’s administration is not quite there. As Republican and Democratic election officials face unprecedented death threats for refusing to bend to electoral conspiracy theories, the Justice Department has been slow to prosecute cases of intimidation and harassment.

But the Justice Department could get serious. The FBI could prioritize protection for secretaries of state and other officials. The Department of Homeland Security could fund proven techniques to help states and local governments reduce violent crime, whose rapid growth makes voters more likely to acquiesce to gang-backed government. Senators could rise to the historic moment and pass the Freedom to Vote Act, a moderate bill that would protect election officials and voting itself. They could remove some incentives for targeted violence by passing the John Lewis Act, which would restore voting-rights protections gutted by the Supreme Court, and reforms to the Electoral Count Act, which governs the vote-certification process that insurrectionists tried to thwart on January 6.

Without these and other steps, America may soon face varying levels of mobocracies supported by unfair balloting, police batons, and vigilante bullets. Activists who protest these dynamics may find themselves facing armed individuals, without protection from law enforcement. In the 16 months after George Floyd’s murder, more than 100 car rammings of protesters occurred; the drivers faced charges in less than half of those cases. The perception that police are taking sides is likely to fuel further polarization. Left-wing militias would form for protection, spurring backlash and calls for law and order.

Because of recent experience, nightmare scenarios are easy to imagine: Civic leaders find armed mobs at their home, and if they call 911—well, unsympathetic local police might respond a trifle too late. Elected officials trying to right these wrongs might find their children facing threats at school—and then be told that the intimidation just doesn’t quite meet actionable levels. Election officials who quit would be replaced by mob supporters. In winner-take-all elections like ours, modest changes to the rules or the composition of the electorate produce radical differences in outcomes.

If the mobocracy gains a foothold, laws and voting procedures could be changed legally to discourage opposition voters. If law enforcement becomes more politicized, good cops would find other work. Vigilantes would gain greater impunity. Dissidents in localities falling under mobocracy could keep fighting—or just move somewhere more welcoming. Many would. Over time, majorities would support the local system. Ironically, one danger of mobocracy is that it may not require much overt violence. Just an occasional reminder that the authorities and the extremists have become one and the same would be enough to keep the peace.