America is bracing for chaos.
As the most powerful country in the world heads into what is shaping up to be the messiest, most contested election in its history, no one really knows what will happen.
But one thing appears certain – there will be violence.
With the November 3 (US time) election just days away, huge swathes of shopfronts in downtown Washington, Chicago and New York have been boarded up with plywood, as long-suffering store owners prepare for the worst.
"I'm usually a very positive person – I hope for the best," Washington DC salon owner Alex Provenzano, whose store is one block north of the White House, told 'USA Today' last week. "But the people are very stressed out, and there is a lot of uncertainty in the country right now. It's pretty scary."
Provenzano said his entire street was vandalised during Black Lives Matter riots in May after the death of George Floyd, and his store only removed the plywood in July – now it's going back up.
The damage bill from the rioting, looting and arson in the months after the May 25 death of Floyd has already been estimated at up to $US2 billion, Axios reported last month.
More than 30 people died in the violent riots, which researchers said accounted for just 7 per cent of the "overwhelmingly peaceful" protests around the country.
In recent days there has been a fresh outbreak of Black Lives Matter rioting in Philadelphia, to the north of Washington DC, where thousands of looters spent several nights ransacking large parts of the city after the fatal police shooting of a knife-wielding black man.
Walmart announced it was removing all guns and ammunition from its sales floors – the country's biggest retailer sells firearms in about half of its 4700 US locations – to head off any potential thefts if its stores are looted amid civil unrest.
It came as a poll released by Suffolk University and 'USA Today' found three-quarters of respondents were worried about the possibility of violence on election day. In 2016, only 50 per cent of voters were concerned about violence.
People of all races and political stripes have been stocking up on weapons and military-style tactical gear as fearful Americans prepare to hunker down. Many gun shops have sold out of ammunition, and firearm stocks are running low.
The 'Wall Street Journal' reported that officials in closely contested states were working with law enforcement to guard against any potential voter intimidation or threats posed by armed groups or individuals.
Of course, the shop owners might also be boarding up their windows out of fear of roaming gangs of Proud Boys – President Donald Trump was widely criticised for telling the far-right group to "stand back and stand by" during the presidential debate with Joe Biden last month – or "QAnon" conspiracy theorists.
With nearly all polls pointing to a loss for Trump, the President and other Republicans have attempted to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, claiming Democrats are attempting to "steal" the election through fraudulent mail-in ballots.
Trump sparked backlash last month after declining to answer whether he would "commit to a peaceful transfer of power" – bizarrely, the reporter asked if he would transfer power "win, lose or draw" – during a White House press briefing.
"We're going to have to see what happens," the President said. "You know that I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany subsequently sought to hose down concerns, insisting Trump would "accept the result of a free and fair election". "He will accept the will of the American people," she told reporters.
'Make sure Trump leaves'
Even if the result is not immediately known, activist groups have vowed to swarm the streets of Washington DC on election day in an attempt to oust the President.
The groups, going under the banner of ShutDown DC, say they plan to disrupt traffic around the White House and National Mall with more than 10,000 people.
"We are concerned like many people that Trump may try to steal this election," ShutDown DC spokeswoman Kaela Bamberger told WTOP. "He's given us a lot of evidence to indicate that he has no problem trying to confuse the results or prematurely declare victory."
The group does not appear to believe Trump can win the election legitimately, writing on its website that "from his attacks on mail-in ballots and the US Postal Service to the GOP's longtime voter suppression strategy, Trump has shown that he will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power" and "will not leave office without mass mobilisation and direct action".
"We're making plans to be in the streets before the polls even close, ready to adapt and respond to whatever comes our way," the group writes. "We're going to make sure Trump leaves."
'Second Civil War looms'
It comes as two researchers, Peter Turchin and Jack Goldstone, warn America is on the precipice of a second Civil War amid rising inequality and social division – and that the 2020 election is the potential "fire-starter" event.
Professor Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist from the University of Connecticut, and Professor Goldstone, a sociologist from George Mason University, have developed a statistical model that connects inequality with political instability.
They argue that the political stress indicator, or PSI, currently predicts dire problems for the US regardless of the outcome.
"If those trends continue after Trump departs, then the risks and the occurrence of violence will likely continue," Prof Goldstone told 'BuzzFeed'. "I'm worried about that no matter who wins. The social problems are the gasoline. Trump is throwing matches."
In a recent article published by the Berggruen Institute think tank, the pair dubbed the upcoming period of chaos "the turbulent twenties".
"Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there," they wrote. "But worse likely lies ahead."
Colour revolution unfolding?
A number of prominent conservatives, meanwhile, have floated theories about an impending "coup" by Democrats. Darren Beattie, a former White House official, believes US intelligence agencies are using the same "playbook" deployed overseas to dislodge President Trump, regardless of the outcome.
Beattie told the 'New York Post' in September there were parallels between the so-called "Colour Revolutions" used to remove authoritarian leaders in Eastern European countries such as Ukraine or Belarus to the "sustained co-ordinated coup against Trump".
He argues Trump's failed impeachment, along with co-ordinated street violence by groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter and the push to mass mail-in voting are part of a well-established strategy to "overthrow regimes by peaceful means".
"It ticks off every single box," he told the American Priority Conference. "They're setting up the system for a contested election scenario, creating the very conditions ripe for the Colour Revolution framework."
He added, "They know, or at least they doubt they can win at the polls, so they want to take the election to the streets and to the courts, and that's precisely what the mail-in voting ballot issue does – it creates the conditions for a Colour Revolution, for lawfare."
Ex-official on 'coming coup'
Similarly, another former White House official, Michael Anton, penned a viral column for 'The American Mind' titled "The Coming Coup?", which argued Democrats were "laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes".
The former national security adviser to President Trump highlighted a number of examples, including apparent insubordination from top military brass over the Insurrection Act, and calls by former officers to have the 82nd Airborne Division drag him from the Oval Office.
"The first rule of conspiracy is, you do not talk about the conspiracy. The second rule of conspiracy is, you do not talk about the conspiracy," Anton wrote.
"So why are the Democrats – publicly – talking about the conspiracy? Because they know that, for it to succeed, it must not look like a conspiracy. They need to plant the idea in the public mind, now, that their unlawful and illegitimate removal of President Trump from office will somehow be his fault."
'This may be a street fight'
As evidence of the alleged coup plotting, Anton and other conservatives have pointed back to "war-gaming" of various election scenarios conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, which released a report in August titled "Preventing a Disrupted Presidential Election and Transition".
"Planners need to take seriously the notion that this may well be a street fight, not a legal battle – technocratic solutions, courts, and a reliance on elites observing norms are not the answer here," the group wrote.
"If there is a crisis, events will unfold quickly, and sleep-deprived leaders will be asked to make consequential decisions quickly ... Military and law enforcement leaders need to plan now for these possibilities to avoid becoming unwitting pawns in a partisan battle."
The report also appeared to explicitly raise the prospect of continued street violence from Antifa and Black Lives Matter to tip the scales after election day.
"A show of numbers in the streets – and actions in the streets – may be decisive factors in determining what the public perceives as a just and legitimate outcome," the report said.
It noted that Democrats would almost certainly rely on mass protests "to demonstrate the public's commitment to a 'legitimate' outcome", but warned that "racial justice activists and others will likely act independently of the Biden campaign", which may not be able to "control these actors once mobilised".
Trump voters 'riled up'
As rhetoric on both sides heats up, an online spat has erupted between 'The New York Times' and prominent conservative broadcasters Mark Levin and Dan Bongino, both of whom have amplified claims by the likes of Anton and Beattie.
In an article headlined "Riled Up: Misinformation Stokes Calls for Violence on Election Day", the newspaper accused the Fox News contributors of circulating "baseless claims ... about a Democrat-led coup, inflaming tensions in an already turbulent election season".
"This is extremely concerning," online extremism researcher Megan Squire from Elon University told 'The New York Times'. Professor Squire argued the false rumours were "giving violent vigilantes an excuse" that acting out in real life would be "in defence of democracy".
The newspaper quoted Trey Grayson, a Republican former secretary of state of Kentucky and a member of the Transition Integrity Project, who said the notion that it was preparing a left-wing coup was "crazy" and that it had explored many election scenarios, including a Trump victory.
Levin responded by describing the article as a "disgusting hit job", while Bongino accused author Davey Alba of "inciting violence against me for exposing the left's calls for a 'street fight' after the election and a 'coup'".
"This is classic Soviet-style disinformation and Alba should be embarrassed," he tweeted. "These are genuinely awful human beings without a shred of decency."
Violence looms either way
As Profs Turchin and Goldstone explain in their piece, there are several outcomes of the election that could "trigger mass violence".
"If Trump wins narrowly in the electoral college but loses the popular vote by a large margin, there will surely be massive demonstrations protesting the outcome, calling it illegitimate and demanding allegiance to the will of the majority of Americans," they write.
"If Trump loses, he is likely to contest the outcome as a 'rigged' election. But that action will again lead to massive popular protests, this time to insist that the election results be honoured."
Due to the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots making a clear victor unlikely on election night, both pro and anti-Trump forces will have more time to "claim victory and try to mobilise supporters to demand that their victory be recognised".
"This is likely to end up with clashes between partisans on both sides," they write.