How to Tell You’re in a Guerrilla War

Is it time for the United States to recognize that we are up against a full-blown insurgency, and start acting like it? And, um, how do we do that?

With each passing day, the pro-Trump insurrection that resulted in the occupation of the US Capitol on January 6 is looking less and less like a MAGA rally that got out of control and more and more like a assassination attempt against Mike Pence, Nancy Pelosi, and others as part of a violent, deliberate coup d’etat. 

Spare me the semantics of a coup requiring the participation of the uniformed military. Like art or pornography, a coup may be hard to define, but its easy to spot when you see it. At a minimum, we watched an attempted autogolpe, or self-coup, defined by Wikipedia—font of all knowledge—as “a form of putsch or coup d’état in which a nation's leader, despite having come to power through legal means, dissolves or renders powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers not granted under normal circumstances.”

If that’s not exactly what happened when Donald Trump whipped his supporters into a frenzy with his speech on the Ellipse and told them to march on the parliament and stop its certification of electoral victory by his opponent, I don’t know what is. 

(Note to historians and dramatists: the ultimate touch of Trumpian con man cowardice was his promise to join the march, which he quickly broke, instead scurrying back to the West Wing to watch it on TV.)

Early reports from still-tactful White House aides were that Trump was “bemused” as he watched the violence unfold on television, including his goons viciously beating reporters and even police officers. (#BlueLivesMatter, amirite?) Later descriptions went further, calling him delighted and “excited by the action.” 

I’ll pause now for everyone to take a Pepto-Bismol break, because I can’t think of any behavior more stomach-turning from a US President ever, and that includes Watergate, the bombing of Cambodia, and Clinton’s cigars. 

Every time I click on my browser more video comes out revealing how bloodthirsty this mob was, attempting to steal and/or destroy the Electoral College ballots, and bent on murdering the Vice President and Congressmembers, who were huddling behind hastily barricaded doors, as Trump’s thugs banged furiously on the other side. Trump, for his part, never even bothered to call his own VP to see if he was OK…..which kind of figures, when you understand that he had called him everything short of a Judas and encouraged the mob that went and attacked him. 

Yeah, there were plenty of QAnon clowns and larping “Call of Duty” dipshits and Walter Mitty fantasists in the crowd. Likely the majority. But there were also a disturbing number of professional-looking saboteurs, militia members, and even amateur insurrectionists who might not have been to BUD/S but were still deadly serious.

The question now is what this failed insurrection represents in terms of the future threat. The big fear of course is that this is not going to stop, that Trump’s ginned up minions—convinced that the election was stolen, that the left is evil, that the right to own RPGs is enshrined in the Constitution, that White people and White people alone are “real Americans,” etc etc—will carry on and even escalate this sort of violence. 

I think that “fear” has now graduated to a “certainty.” 

To echo SNL’s Dr. Wenowdis, everyone understands that the fanatical faction of the MAGA community that is willing to murder people and overthrow the government for the greater glory of Donald Trump is not going away any time soon. We know dis. But precisely what happens from here? How big is the threat, how dangerous is it, what is its nature, and how do we best fight it? Did January 6th mark the nadir of Trump-brand terrorism, or only the beginning of broader and even more violent unrest—in other words, a proper domestic insurgency?  

This we do not know. But it might be prudent to start preparing for the worst case scenario.

WILL THERE WILL BE BLOOD? YES, THERE WILL BE BLOOD

It is very reasonable to assume that the Capitol riot will just embolden these fuckers. As Tom Hall writes at The Back Row Manifesto, “an emergent fascist movement does not end after finding relative success using a violent attack to hold the nation in the thrall of its imagined grievances.”

So do you want the good news first, or the bad? 

The good news is that the pro-Trump insurgents are probably overestimating the scope of their recent victory. As I wrote last week, the kid gloves treatment they have consistently received from law enforcement, from Lansing to Kenosha to the Capitol, has surely given them a false sense of their own power. 

The bad news is, that false sense probably won’t be punctured until a great deal of blood is shed, some of it their victims’, but some of it theirs. 

How far are the worst of these people willing go? All the way, apparently. Trump’s most devoted cultists and other associated radicals have made it clear that they are very much prepared to commit murder, kidnap and “execute” government officials, and employ IEDs, not to mention engage in riots, beat people to death, and commit wanton property damage of our most sacred national symbols. So in that sense the “threat” is very lethal indeed. 

So the next big question becomes, how big is this faction? 

Since November we have been repeatedly reminded how astonishing it is that 74 million Americans voted for Trump even after witnessing the horrors of the last four years. It is indeed chilling. But when it comes to calculating the force ratios for a potential second civil war, those numbers are deceiving. Not every one of those voters is a hardcore seditionist—a great many are conventional (if willfully blind) Republican lever-pullers who simply voted the party line and will not be onboard with a Trumpian insurgency. 

We saw as much in the Congressional microcosm after the hideous spectacle of last Wednesday, when even such cowardly enablers as Graham, Loeffler, Lankford, et al finally drew the line. In the days since, there are already reports of internecine warfare within MAGA World, of right wingers turning on Trump, and of a battle between those who want to brag about trying to overthrow the government and those now beating a hasty retreat, covering their collective ass by promoting the predictable lie that it was a false flag operation by antifa-in-disguise.

In short, the MAGA community appears to be splintering. But even if its lunatic fringe is reduced to only a few million, that is still a scary number of potential terrorists and the network to support them. 

There is also the possibility that a right wing insurgency could carry on even if it repudiates Trump. After all, he didn’t invent violent racism, nativism, or domestic terrorism—give Nathan Bedford Forrest, J.B. Stoner, and Timothy McVeigh their vile due. Notably, the January 6th mob included a pre-existing menagerie of radicals who have been at war with the US government long predating Trump: Second Amendment nuts, sovereign citizen adherents, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen among them. When he launched his political career Donald Trump latched onto that toxic strain in American culture and it embraced him in return; it could just as easily sour on him, and jettison him, and carry on without him. 

If the number of committed traitors who are willing to go to war against their own country is reduced to a very small number, that can be handled at the law enforcement level with ordinary policing and detective work, even if the legal consequences the perpetrators face rise above ordinary street crime and into the realm of national security matters. Hey, we even have a prison in Cuba and a whole military tribunal system all set up for them. (Yes, it’s still open.)

However, if that insurrectionist faction proves to be larger, or metastasizes, we will have a much bigger problem. Then we begin to drift into the realm of what the US Army calls “low intensity conflict,” or LIC.

WEST POINT FOR BEGINNERS

The best and most famous definition of war has always belonged to the Prussian general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who called it “the continuation of politics by other means,” a formulation every military officer in the Western world has had drummed into his or her head.

To that end, drawing on the notion that active combat is only the most extreme form of conflict between ideological entities, “Low Intensity Conflict” refers to political struggle at the light end of the spectrum, from simple agitation and propaganda through terrorism and insurgency. At its essence, LIC is just a new suit of clothes for what during Vietnam had been called counterguerrilla warfare, and in the early 21st century was rebranded yet again as COIN—counterinsurgency. A rose by any other name. 

LIC is precisely what we will be engaged in if we have to fight a violent pro-Trump White nationalist insurgency. 

Luckily, we have shitloads of practice at this sort of thing, because it’s a version of what we’ve been doing in the so-called “Global War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. But now, with a homegrown threat, should it prove sufficiently large and serious, the war will be fought on our own soil, primarily against our fellow Americans. And some of the American veterans of those foreign wars will be fighting on the other side. 

Indeed, we were in a low intensity conflict with radical Islamist (NB: not Islamic) extremism even before September 11, 2001—arguably, beginning with the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. But it was only with the shocking events of 9/11 that most Americans began to realize it, and only then that the US government truly shifted into wartime mode. 

We may soon look back on January 6, 2021 as a similar watershed. But it will be far more fraught when the United States is the primary battlespace, and US citizens the enemy.

LIC is an intelligence-intensive form of combat, some of which crosses the fine line into police work…..or conversely, a form of a police work that sometimes crosses the line into military operations. Either way you slice it, it inevitably entails at least some deployment of direct action units, whether from law enforcement (SWAT or special operations in particular), the Intelligence Community, active duty military, National Guard, or other paramilitary organizations from the Homeland Security realm. 

Here we enter into fraught terrain for a democracy with the risk of draconian overreaction and the militarization of ordinary life, even if it is in the interest of preserving democracy. That is very much what the pro-Trump terrorists—like all terrorists—want, because it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they are the victims. Their own violent behavior prompts a violent reaction from the state, which they then point to as evidence of the monstrousness of the state, which justifies their violence toward it in the first place. 

IT’S JUST A SHOT AWAY

If pro-Trump terrorists are going to carry out further assaults on government buildings, truck bombings, assassinations, airplane hijackings, jailbreaks, and other acts of political violence, it will require a multi-pronged intelligence, law enforcement, and military effort to defeat them. That means rooting out these violent insurgents; it means infiltrating their organizations and cultivating networks of informants to provide us advance warning of their operations; it means increased electronic and other technological surveillance within US borders; it means forensic accounting to track and disrupt their funding; it means a public awareness campaign; it means an increased security presence to include a much more prominent police and military profile in our streets, airports, sports arenas, and other common areas; and yes it means kicking in doors, making arrests, and carrying out infantry-style raids when necessary. 

Who here saw Battle of Algiers?

Do the American people have the stomach for that? Can we carry it out without further damage to what’s left of our national unity? That too is a goal of our terrorist foe. Will a campaign of this sort drag us into full-blown civil war? It’s beyond ironic that radical Islamist extremism may ultimately prove to be far less of a threat to the United States than far-right White nationalist terrorism made in the USA. In fact, statistically, that is already true. Oklahoma City should have taught us that.

The US would not be the first Western democracy to wrestle with counterinsurgency operations against a homegrown terrorist movement. The majority of major European countries have dealt with it, going back to the 1970s, whether it was Germany grappling with the Baader-Meinhof gang/Rote Armee Fraktion, or France fighting Action Directe, or Italy facing Brigata Rosse. Most famously perhaps was the UK fighting the Provisional Irish Republican Army. (Let’s confine that struggle to Britain’s efforts to combat PIRA attacks in England and leave its COIN operations in Northern Ireland in a different realm, that of an empire trying to subjugate the indigenous residents of an occupied territory seeking self-determination. That is definitely the preferred interpretation if you want to order a Guinness at Ireland’s 32 on Geary Street in San Francisco, where a giant oil painting of Bobby Sands hangs over the bar.) 

But in this fight, we will face an additional complication—one that many of our European allies also faced, but that is new to us. To wit: 

Al Qaeda was plenty dangerous, but one thing it never had was the support of one of the two major American political parties. 

A BEACHFRONT CONDO ON THE REPUBLICAN SEA

Mao’s famous dictum was that the people are the sea in which the guerrilla fish swim. In this case, 74 million Trump voters and some 31% of the American electorate that identifies as Republican (pronouns: sie/ihr/ihnen) are a vast Atlantic Ocean in which these flesh-eating garra rufa are doing the backstroke.

Combatting pro-Trump terrorism will be made more difficult by the fact that there are sympathizers, overt supporters, and even active participants in that cause embedded within the US military, law enforcement, fire and paramedic units, and so forth, not to mention the government itself at the federal, state, and local levels. Indeed, as it stands right now, the mainstream Republican Party remains committed to Trumpian extremism insofar as it has not definitively rejected it…..and it’s not clear that it’s going to

A quick survey:

Over the weekend MSNBC ran a jawdropping chyron that read “Poll: Republicans split on whether Capitol breach was legitimate.” 

Really?

As I reported last week, one poll had 52% of Republican respondents blaming Joe Biden for the attack.

Trump himself was greeted like a hero at a party retreat in Florida just two days after the Capitol riot, where no mention was made of it, and the attendees re-elected as chairperson his chosen handmaiden Ronna McDaniel, a cheerleader for the insurrection movement, who ran unopposed. Meanwhile, per Heather Cox Richardson, last Friday “Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who led the Senate effort to challenge Biden’s election…tweeted that Biden was not working hard enough to 'bring us together or promote healing' and that 'vicious partisan rhetoric only tears our country apart.'” 

Good to know.

So no sign of a come-to-Jesus moment for the GOP at large, at least not so far.

It remains to be seen how this plays out in the long term. Many are the column inches being devoted to that debate, and whether the Republican Party will eventually break with Trump  and reform itself, or if it will split in two, or if it will stick with Cheeto Benito and go down in ignominy. Non-spoiler alert: I don’t know the answer. 

But I also don’t know how we can we fight a potential insurgency like this one when one of our two major parties kinda sorta supports it. How we can beat these terrorists when the GOP downplays their violence and pursues policies that abet it, when millions of fascist-friendly Americans are sympathetic to them, when we don’t know how many members of our armed forces, and our police departments, and even the CIA and FBI and Secret Service are actually working for the other side?

THE LONG WAR, PART II

This kind of right wing uprising in the wake of a Trump defeat was always on the table, but until now it has still felt remote and theoretical. No more. And with what we saw on January 6, it seems tipped to get even worse. 

Yeah, maybe the violent strain of pro-Trump domestic terrorism will peter out in favor of mere grumbling and low-boiling White grievance at Kid Rock shows. But I’m not betting on it. If not, we will have to face the fact of an enduring right wing guerrilla war within the US, waged by a committed, well-armed American terrorists happy to kill their fellow citizens. Inauguration Day in particular brings the risk of violent, Tet-style simultaneous attacks on state capitols all over the country, as well as at the big show in DC. That really has the stink of proto-civil war about it.

Immediately after Biden’s win in November, I posted an essay called “How We (Narrowly) Avoided a Coup.” I took some grief for being premature, and although I stand by my assertion, I’ll admit it would be fair to view the Democratic victory on Election Day as merely one battle in a slower-burning coup attempt that continued to unfold in the weeks that followed, finally coming to a head on January 6th. And we’re not entirely home free yet. Even once we are, and Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, it may mean only a new phase in the fight. 

Within the Pentagon and defense community, there is another more clinical and more clear-eyed name for what the Bush administration’s marketing and branding whizzes dubbed the Global War on Terror. 

They call it The Long War.

What we are entering now might be a whole new chapter in it. 

We better get ready.  

*********

Photo: Pro-Trump terrorists in balaclavas and tactical gear, carrying zip ties for hostage-taking, during the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Credit: Getty Images

This blog also available on Medium and WordPress.

For more essays, go to The King’s Necktie Archive.