One seasoned conflicts analyst sees civil unrest in our future
Recent Trump protest rally (Getty Images)
You’ve likely heard of Godwin’s Law, that fun idea from the ‘90s that suggests all comment sections will eventually invoke Hitler. In this election season, multiply the rule by 1 thousand—you’ve probably read some “Trump is the next Hitler” comment in the past day or two, or even heard it from someone you know. David Alpher, a professor of conflict analysis at George Mason University, wishes everyone would knock it off.
“When you start comparing the rise of Trump to Hitler, it becomes really easy to dismiss it,” says Alpher. “Like, ‘Oh c’mon we’re pretty far from having gas ovens and mass graves.’ But the fact that it’s not Nazi Germany doesn’t discount how dangerous things are becoming.”
Alpher has spent decades studying global conflicts and the rise of fascist regimes. He’s spent much time abroad, looking at what incites countries like Iraq and Kenya into widespread violence. Bad news, readers: Trump’s ascendance has a lot in common with the violence Alpher has studied. A host of factors—stoking xenophobia, silencing protest, mass feelings of disenfranchisement—have the professor highly concerned.
Trump’s social stock may be down this week, but it’s not wise to count him out just yet. We caught up with Alpher to suss out just how bad a Trump presidency could get.
What’s a common thread you’ve seen between societies that turn violent?
One of the biggest things is when you have a large group of people that feel like they’ve been excluded from the decision-making process—that they’ve gotten the short end of the inclusion stick. This doesn’t necessarily correlate to extreme poverty or religion, though.
Religion and poverty aren’t part of it?
There are correlations, sure, but they aren’t the main thing. Take two brothers growing up in the same household in the West Bank, or here for that matter. They might have the same parents, the same education, the same environment, ethnicity, politics. One could grow up to be a scholar, the other a suicide bomber.
That’s a scary thing about terrorism—it would be really nice to figure out what leads everyone to it, so we could say, “Stop doing that.” But the reasoning often ends up breaking down to a lot of individual motivations. When you look at societies that break down into violence, however, it’s quite often about political exclusion.
So Trump followers feel excluded?
Yes, in this case you’ve got white male Christians saying they're the disadvantaged ones. This doesn’t make sense from any rational perspective, but it’s how they feel, and Trump plays right into it.
Let’s say we wanted to prevent these feelings of disenfranchisement before they become an issue. What’s the best strategy?
If you want to prevent communities from becoming radicalized, you need to make sure the government provides the same services to everyone, that they bring everyone to the table. We need to make sure people have access to all the most basic services, water and electricity, schools and education. People really need to feel they can be heard in political process. This sounds the most boring, the most banal, but it's vital.
Back to Trump. You see real danger in his rise?
I think Trump is an actual fascist, which is an incredibly dangerous thing. If he is elected I see the real potential for civil unrest. You can't try to market register Muslim populations, people are going take that into the streets. I mean, we’re not talking about gray versus blue here, but the risk of widespread violence is very real. It could get very nasty.
Yikes. Can you give us a ray of sunshine here? Say, the best path to peace?
You know it’s kind of ironic, in many ways we are more progressive in the U.S. than we’ve ever been before. The problem is, people tend to self-segregate. Like if you were to look at my 7 or 800 Facebook friends, I could count on one hand which ones would not call themselves progressive. Point is, people with different views just aren’t talking to each other right now. I know this sounds a bit fuzzy, but we need to find aspects of day-to-day life we all are invested in, and just start having a conversation.