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The President's Take

Crisis Group Turns Focus to Risk of Electoral Violence in the U.S.

As you may have read in several press reports, for the first time in its quarter-century history, Crisis Group will be turning its attention to risks of violence in the U.S. I thought it would be good to provide some background on our thinking behind this decision:

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Crisis Group issued a statement that concluded with these words: “Since assuming office in 2017, Trump has made much of his desire to pull the U.S. back from overseas wars. He should take great pains not to act like he wants one at home”.  Since then, several things happened: first, developments in the U.S. as we approach the 3 November national elections have seemed to bring us closer to the kind of violence we look at elsewhere in the world; second, our Trustees and staff engaged in a vigorous debate about whether Crisis Group should take the step of covering these developments as we would a parlous election in one of the conflict-prone regions where we traditionally work. I asked some of my colleagues a simple question: through our 25 years of work across the globe, what factors have we identified as warning signs of potential election-related violence?

Among the points they flagged were these:

  • High-stakes elections, with stakes that both sides see or portray as existential;

  • A polarised electorate;

  • The proliferation of hate speech and misinformation, including through social media;

  • Pre-existing ethno-sectarian or racial tensions;

  • Elections that both sides are convinced they will win unless the other side cheats;

  • Electoral institutions or processes that are distrusted by one or both sides;

  • Highly segregated sources of information, with each side dismissing the truthfulness of the other’s;

  • Potential for narrow margins of victory; 

  • Proliferation of weapons;

  • Existence of armed non-state actors or militia;

  • A political leadership that fuels divisions rather than defuses them; and

  • The potential for contested electoral outcomes.

If those risk factors seem uncomfortably familiar to U.S.-watchers, it’s because they are all to some degree present in America right now.  

Late last night, news broke that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 – bringing yet another twist and fresh uncertainty to an already remarkably tortuous election season. None of this means that the United States is about to experience generalised violence of the type that has wracked countries Crisis Group traditionally covers, and that we highlight again in our new CrisisWatch edition. It possesses mitigating factors from strong institutions, to a relatively decentralised political system, to non-partisan security forces. How Trump’s positive COVID test will impact the political temperature across the country is unclear – it might take some of the ferocity out of the angry campaign; deepen scorn, conspiracy theories, and partisan division; or produce some other, unpredictable effect. But looking at this list was enough to convince us to turn our gaze to a country far more accustomed to issuing warnings than to receiving them. Watch for our briefings in the weeks and months to come.

Our colleague Michael Kovrig has been arbitrarily detained in China for 666 days. With each passing week, it becomes harder to find the words to express our anger, sadness and indignation at his plight, or to convey our unbounded admiration for Michael and his family.