Ahead of Iowa Caucuses, Voters Fear the Prospect of Civil Unrest

Presidential elections traditionally speak to future aspirations, offering a vision of a better tomorrow, the hope and change of Barack Obama or the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Yet this year, even before a single vote has been cast, a far darker sentiment has taken hold.

Across Iowa, as the first nominating contest approaches on Monday, voters plow through snowy streets to hear from candidates, mingle at campaign events and casually talk of the prospect of World War III, civil unrest and a nation coming apart at the seams.

Four years ago, voters worried about a spiraling pandemic, economic uncertainty and national protests. Now, in the first presidential election since the siege on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, those anxieties have metastasized into a grimmer, more existential dread about the very foundations of the American experiment.

“You get the feeling in Iowa right now that we’re sleepwalking into a nightmare and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Doug Gross, a Republican lawyer who has been involved in Iowa politics for nearly four decades, ran for governor in 2002 and plans to support Nikki Haley in the state’s caucuses on Monday. “In Iowa, life isn’t lived in extremes, except the weather, and yet they still feel this dramatic sense of inevitable doom.”

Donald J. Trump, the dominant front-runner in the Republican primary race, bounces from courtroom to campaign trail, lacing his rhetoric with ominous threats of retribution and suggestions of dictatorial tendencies. President Biden condemns political violence and argues that if he loses, democracy itself could falter.

Bill Bradley, 80, who served for 18 years as a New Jersey senator, remembered when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, spending more than 75 days in Iowa during his bid. “We debated health care and taxes, which is reasonable,” he said, adding, “Civil war? No. World War III? No, no, no.”

This presidential race, he said, is “a moment that is different than any election in my lifetime.”

He added that the race for the White House in 1968 “was a pretty tough election, but Humphrey versus Nixon was not exactly Trump versus Biden. The difference is just so stark in terms of American values and in terms of what is the future going to be.”

On Thursday, with the snow piled up in the parking lot, farmers and cattlemen in a ballroom in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona took part in a timeworn political tradition: listening to pitches from Republican presidential contenders eager to woo them.

But between the stump speeches and the campaign promises, there was a once-unimaginable undercurrent in a state that prides itself on being a heartland of American civics.

“There’s civil war coming — I’m convinced of it,” said Mark Binns, who had heard from two Republican candidates, Ms. Haley and Ron DeSantis, earlier that morning.

Mr. Binns was hardly the image of a radical: He’s a 65-year-old chemical engineer who lives in Kentucky and was in town for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit. He voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 but isn’t sure whom he will vote for this year.

In fact, he’s considering avoiding the electoral season altogether. Fearful of the possibility of political violence, Mr. Binns is weighing going to Brazil in November 2024.

“Quite literally, I may leave the country for that week,” Mr. Binns said. “The division is too wide.”

The fear Mr. Binns and other voters express is bipartisan, though each side blames the other for causing it.

Democrats worry that a second Trump administration could plunge the country into chaos, trample constitutional rights and destroy the legitimacy of elections. Mr. Trump and his supporters make false claims that the previous election was stolen, that the riot on Jan. 6 was not an insurrection and that the Biden administration has been using the legal system to prosecute its political opponents. In the years since the attack at the Capitol, Mr. Trump and both mainstream and fringe elements of the conservative media have pushed a steady drumbeat of those lies, an effort to turn upside down the narrative of Jan. 6 and undercut the legitimacy of the Biden administration.

The result is a disorienting frenzy of facts and falsehoods swirling around issues once considered sacrosanct in public life. Recent polling shows Americans have a gloomier view of the future and express a new openness to political violence.

Just a little more than a third of voters in a Wall Street Journal/NORC survey in November said the American dream still holds true, substantially fewer than the 53 percent who said so in 2012. In an October survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly a quarter of Americans agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country” — a record high in the poll. In the early weeks of 2024, a host of officials — politicians, judges, election administrators — have withstood threats and harassment, including bomb threats at state capitols, fake calls to the police and a barrage of violent calls, mail and emails.

“What’s going to happen in this next election?” Michelle Obama, the former first lady, said on a recent podcast. “I’m terrified about what could possibly happen. We cannot take this democracy for granted. And I worry sometimes that we do. Those are the things that keep me up.”

As politicians, commentators and voters grasp for historical analogies, one of the darkest chapters of American history keeps being evoked: the period leading to the Civil War. Some see a parallel in the clash of two Americas — not North and South now, but Red and Blue.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, mentioned the Civil War during his speech as he dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday and questioned whether Americans would support democratic values. He recounted the story of Benjamin Franklin being asked by a woman in Philadelphia what kind of government the founding fathers had given the country.

“He said to the woman, ‘A republic, if you can keep it,’” Mr. Christie told voters in New Hampshire. “Benjamin Franklin’s words were never more relevant in America than they are right now.”

David Blight, a historian at Yale University, has been surprised at how his once-obscure academic specialty in the Civil War has become a matter of current debate: In recent months, he has been repeatedly asked to speak and write about whether that period of strife has lessons for today.

Mr. Blight does see the comparisons. “It’s not the 1850s but there are many similarities,” he said. “When are the times when the divisions are so terrible that we feel on the brink of losing the whole? When are the parts tearing us asunder in ways that we fear for the whole enterprise of this ideal? And we’re in one of those, there’s no question.”

The fears come despite what on paper looks like national stability. Inflation has fallen, unemployment has returned to a prepandemic level, and layoffs remain near record lows. The Federal Reserve plans to cut interest rates several times in the coming year.

The incumbent president and his Republican challengers do also speak optimistically about the future. Mr. Biden promotes the economic progress under his administration. Ms. Haley promises to cut federal spending, expand mental health services and rebuild America’s image abroad. And Mr. DeSantis says he will cut taxes, curb illegal immigration and crack down on China.

Yet, at events across Iowa in the week before the caucuses, voters talked about issues far beyond the standard political debates over the economy, foreign policy, health care and education. Politicians, strategists and voters from both parties described an inescapable sense of foreboding, a feeling that something might go dangerously awry.

When Vivek Ramaswamy called on voters at an event in Waukee on Wednesday afternoon, one of the first comments praised the candidate’s anti-interventionist approach to foreign policy and raised the potential of World War III — “that’s a threat to all of us normal people,” the questioner said.

To Maria Maher, who was listening in the back of the restaurant with her youngest son, that kind of catastrophic thinking didn’t sound shocking. Mr. Trump’s defeat in 2020 convinced her that the country’s democratic system was broken and government was a “criminal operation.” Ms. Maher, who has a small farm, had been raising and home-schooling her nine children on her own after her husband died following a difficult battle with cancer about a dozen years ago.

“Voting is a joke, and it’s — what’s the word — fraud because of the machines,” said Ms. Maher, 62, who was deciding whether to vote for Mr. Trump or Mr. Ramaswamy. “If we’re going to get a sham president like Biden again, we’re coming in the back door. We’re going to bypass the president’s power.”

Dave Loeback, a former congressman and political science professor, said he was worried about political violence, even in places like Iowa. He was shocked by how divisive school-board elections had become in his small town of Mount Vernon, Iowa.

“The fear is driving both sides, and that can drive both sides to extremes as well,” Mr. Loeback said. “This is not a good situation.”

For some voters, some of the hopelessness stems from the candidates themselves. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump appear to be heading toward a rematch election, despite polling showing that both men remain deeply unpopular among large swaths of Americans.

Standing by the bar in an Irish pub on a snowy Tuesday morning in Iowa, Terry Snyder, a photographer, said she was more worried about the results of this election than any other in her lifetime. Ms. Snyder, 70, had driven through the storm to hear Ms. Haley but doubted that the former South Carolina governor could win the Republican nomination.

Mr. Trump wasn’t an option, she said: “He’s a dictator. And I don’t like that aspect.”

But Ms. Snyder said she was no less worried about an America led by Mr. Biden for another four years.

Her three grandchildren are now teenagers, and if Biden is re-elected, she said, she worries about their future and a liberal culture that she fears would police what they could say. “I’m afraid they are going to have so many of their rights taken away that we have always enjoyed,” she said.

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