Barbara F. Walter talks about Trump’s indictment at final Speaker Series event

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debora cartwright

Photo courtesy of Delmar Photographics.

Michael Taromina, News Assistant Editor

Barbara F. Walter ’86, a leading scholar of civil wars and the author of New York Times bestseller “How Civil Wars Start (and How to Stop Them),” came to Bucknell on April 4 as part of the Bucknell Forum: the State of American Democracy.

The debate was moderated and Walter was introduced by University President John Bravman. 

To start, President Bravman directed Walter’s attention to the historic news of the day: the indictment of former President Donald Trump. In asking her thoughts about what this means for America, Walter said that this indictment is “healthy” for America and shows the strength in democracy by asserting no one, not even a president, is above the law. 

“Democracies with institutions and laws that can constrain the concentration of power are the ones that prevent the abuse of power,” Walter said.

Walter deliberated on the legitimacy and strength of this indictment, knowing there could be broader and clearer cut ones in the near future, but made certain that there are strict limits to what a president can and cannot do without escaping the law.

Bravman then moved the forum to the more general topic of civil conflict and the increase of it in America over the last decade. Walter went into her extensive career in researching civil wars to work with the CIA to find countries that could be deemed politically unstable. 

In researching various economic and geographical factors that increase a country’s chances of going to civil war are ones that were anocracies, showing signs of democratic and autocratic regimes, and its pushing of identity politics over ideology. 

“I could see in 2016, as a private citizen, the increase in identity politics and the push for an anocracy by political leaders,” Walter said. 

The data, though not completely successful, measures specific factors that affect civil war and measures it on a scale from -10 to 10, with 10 being the most democratic. Starting in 2016, with the unstable presidential election, the United States went from a 10 to a nine, then from a nine to a seven with a noncompliant executive branch to answer to the subpoenas made by Congress. 

Finally, because of the tumultuous presidential election of 2020, the United States was downgraded to a 5, though it has made progress since then and jumped back up to a seven due to a pro-democratic administration in the White House.

President Bravman then asked Walter who starts civil wars; The groups that tend to start a civil war are not those that have grievances, they are the ones that were politically dominant and have declined substantially since then. They are the ones who fight to take their country back, which we saw on January 6,” Walter said. 

She also cited the political civil wars in Yugoslavia, the Philippines and the current political turmoil in Russia to further her argument. 

Walter shared an interesting viewpoint on January 6, where she said she was “relieved” it happened because it showed “the cancer growing in America” in furthering our divide enough to go to civil war. 

In regards to how a civil war would look in America if it happened today, Walter dismissed the idea of succession, because red states could not economically survive without the money from blue states.

She instead brought up the idea of a 21st century “insurgency” and “decentralized” civil war, in which instead of military attacking a military, it is citizens attacking citizens though things such as church bombings and assassinations. 

“You are trying to inflict as many costs on a group that you want to control as possible to either intimidate them into submission or convince them just to leave,” Walter said. 

A brief Q&A followed the forum where Walter discussed specific changes in her data and research over the years, and how things such as voting and social media are pushing the United States either towards or away from civil war.

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