What’s with the Victorious GOP’s obsession with Civil War?

By David Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –

Have you and your friends gotten into a spirited board game of Bizingo recently? Have you ordered a slew of dome-style skirts from your favorite seamstress? Are you searching for the salt and pepper to flavor the water before you boil your mutton for dinner? Are you wondering whether you and your brother may end up lining up on a battlefield and bayoneting one another to death?

If so, you may have caught the pandemic 1850s Fever like some of our friends in the conservative media. If these hyper-ventilators are to be believed, we are basically a puddle of kerosene just one lit match away from a violent inferno. Earlier this month, former Republican congressman Joe Walsh tweeted that “This country is at war with itself. Choose your side and choose it now. Grab your musket and get ready.” He did not seem to be speaking metaphorically, nor did he explain how muskets have suddenly become an effective weapon of war in the 21st century.

A white-haired zealot called Dennis Prager, writing for the National Review, argued that “America is currently fighting its second Civil War” and urged his Never Trump colleagues to “report for duty.” While Prager had the sense to note that thus far this ‘war’ has been nonviolent, he pointed to left-wing ‘riots’ and unrest on college campuses as evidence that the violent phase has basically started. (Prager might have benefitted, before he published his column, from rereading one of his own towering works of intellectual inquiry from the 1990s, called Think a Second Time.) Not to be outdone, Pat Buchanan – a man who has been a non-stop national irritant since the 1980s – declared that it is “Time to burn down the Bastille.” He did not further explain this incoherent metaphor. His civil war talk was not confined to right-wing media outlets – in May, The Daily Beast’s John Batchelor wrote that “…the tumult we witness in Washington and across the land, with mass protests and volcanic words—scorning the president as a “despot,” calling for a special prosecutor to rescue the Constitution—are in fact tableaus in a drama that has played out repeatedly across the last two thousand years of tragic civil wars.”

The excitable right-wing muppet Erick Erickson, a man who once called former Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat-f***ing child molester” and whose ghastly writing has repeatedly been deemed worthy of appearing in the failing New York Times, called the left “American ISIS” and argued that we are headed for a violent divorce. “Frankly, and historically, the only thing at this point that is going to save us from ourselves is either breaking apart our union or a major war not of our choosing that forces us to unite. I suspect the latter is coming, but we should start talking about the former if we are not going to live and let live within the rubric of federalism.” Erickson declined to provide an operational plan for how to divide a country that is split between cities and the countryside rather than neatly by state. Presumably he’d rather have that war.

Angelo M. Codevilla of The Claremont Review of Books strikes a similar note when he argues that “fostering mutual forbearance may require loosening the Union in unfamiliar and unwelcome ways to accommodate differences that may otherwise become far worse.” His article fantasizes about North Dakota banning abortion and then daring the federal government to send troops to enforce the law. Echoing Trump’s groundless hysteria about “illegals” voting in the election, he calls for “positive proof of citizenship” as a pre-requisite for voting in federal elections. While he seems not to desire a bloody war, he also seems to prefer it to having another Democratic administration oversee the country. The simple flow chart looks like: Republican rule > civil war > Democrats running the show.

This kind of ‘eve of destruction’ anticipation penetrated nearly all corners of the right-wing media universe long before the election even took place and is disturbingly reminiscent of the war fever that gripped prosperous Europe on the eve of World War I. For a man writing under the absurd pseudonym of Publius Decius Mus, 2016 was designated “The Flight 93 election.” America was so close to descending into some kind of progressive-administrative tyranny that it would be better to kill everyone in an attempt to seize the plane rather than allow it to reach its destination. This comically overwrought essay was taken seriously enough to become a kind of battle cry on the Trumpian right. The author turned out to be a former low-level apparatchik in the Bush Administration named Michael Anton, who is a dead ringer for the homicidal Doug character on House of Cards and looks like he drops about ten large on every suit that he owns. Perhaps because he called millions of his fellow Americans “Third World Foreigners with no tradition of, taste for or experience in liberty,” he was of course, hired immediately by the Trump Administration and now works for the American people. His essay railed against what called the “Davoisie” only to join an administration staffed almost exclusively by jet-setting millionaires for whom Davos would be slumming it. It seems strange for a man who issued a stinging indictment of the “administrative state” to take what is basically a job doing PR for the National Security Council. But whatever. Consistency is not the hobgoblin of choice for Trump apologists.

What’s odd is that this sort of rhetoric is usually reserved for whoever loses a presidential election, as a kind of half-serious pressure valve. You might remember the Jesusland map that circulated on the left after John Kerry’s 2004 defeat at the hands of George W. Bush, or when Texas Governor Rick Perry made several careless remarks about secession after the election of Barack Obama. “So we’re kind of thinking about that again,” Perry told a group of tech bloggers in 2009. But apart from frustrated progressives threatening to find salvation in sweet, sweet Ontario, no serious figure on the left ever suggested that the re-election of Bush meant that were on the verge of another actual civil war. And proposals for Texas to secede from the union never commanded more than fringe support in the Lonestar State. Somehow, Texans soldiered on during the Obama years by erecting a massive libertarian paradise for themselves, gerrymandering their congressional delegation and staging a total takeover of state government that promises to keep Texas in Republican hands seemingly in perpetuity. Progressives have not stampeded to the Canadian border begging for the icy embrace of a functioning welfare state.

Today we are witnessing an entirely different spectacle, of a petulant political movement suddenly losing its lifelong appreciation for checks and balances and latching onto the political science jargon term of “the deep state” to justify its hysteria. When Randian ideologues control all three branches of government, when Regnery philosophers and Creators Syndicate sages have a multibillion dollar media archipelago all to themselves, when reactionaries control nearly enough states to pass constitutional amendments, and when the Supreme Court has ruled that moneyed potentates and bored magnates can pour limitless sums of cash into the political system, it is difficult for the right to know where to point the finger for Trump’s own failure to accomplish anything of significance. Looking in a mirror seems out of the question to this crew. So the only thing remaining is to find someone, anyone to blame for their own impotence. Hence journalists are declared “enemies of the people,” in a strategy that is not an accident or an artefact of the president’s mental decrepitude, but rather a deliberate gambit pushed by the president’s own advisors and the Republican Party as a midterm election strategy. Hence the FBI and the intelligence agencies, heretofore Republican dominated institutions, are now repurposed for the rabble as a den of Democrats seeking to execute a “soft coup” against Trump. Hence a handful of insignificant protests at a small number of the country’s 4,000 institutions of higher education and a single assassination attempt by one deranged Virginia madman are somehow all a prelude to mass slaughter. The president, unhinged in a way that is difficult to process in the context of normal politics, tweets a mashup video depicting himself at a wrestling match sucker tackling and assaulting a man with the words “CNN” for a head. He seems eager to invite the kind of violence that would justify a descent into madness. We are being turned purposefully against one another.

Indeed, it is the right’s frustration with the bitter fruits of total power and the president’s aimless rage about the constraints on his whims that are at the root of their recent spasm of civil war talk. Most of the Federalist Society ideologues in the movement mediasphere wouldn’t last 10 minutes in an actual war. It’s funny how the right didn’t think the guns of August were about to roar when congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, or when state after state cruelly refused to implement the expansion of Medicaid between 2010 and 2016. We weren’t on the brink of dissolution when the Supreme Court vastly expanded its interpretation of the Second Amendment to invalidate local and state gun laws. The right didn’t see a constitutional crisis when they blocked Merrick Garland from taking his rightful seat on the Supreme Court. Federalism and the constitution, as always, are in the eye of the beholder.

Is violence on the horizon? As is often the case, art offers us a glimpse of a darker future. In American War, novelist Omar El Akkad imagines the contours of a future north-south conflict. Rising sea levels force the government to evacuate the capital in Washington to Columbus, Ohio (a development that would make America 0-for-2 in picking pleasant locations for the seat of government), where new legislation leads to a ban on the use of all fossil fuels. The president is assassinated, and several rebel provinces secede from the union to form the Free Southern States so that they can continue to burn dirty fuel unmolested by the tyrants up north. The combatants refer to themselves as “reds and blues,” an idea whose provenance must be explained to the book’s adolescent protagonist as the way that cable TV stations shaded states won by Democrats and Republicans on election nights a century ago. It all ends badly, in horrific and dark ways that I won’t spoil for you here.

But for now The United States is nowhere near an actual civil war. There are no large-scale, organized militias clashing over control of the state apparatus or even threatening seriously to do so. There are no secessionist movements in any U.S. states that can claim the allegiance of even a quarter of the population. The country has a horrific race problem but thus far it has not escalated to the level of periodic clashes and tit-for-tit massacres of the sort that characterize the prodrome to civil violence in conflict societies. If there were an actual civil war in this country, it would likely be one-sided. The left is basically unarmed and conservatives probably outnumber liberals 2-1 in the U.S. military. There are blue states marooned in what would conceivably be red territory and vice versa. What it would even mean to fight an actual civil war in a post-industrial country of 320 million people is not at all clear.

What is clear is that significant figures on the American right seem eager to see our “cold civil war” (as Codevilla calls it) transformed into a hot one, with journalists gunned down in the streets, critical media outlets shuttered or harassed into non-existence, elections turned into a sham with nothing much at stake as they are in what political scientists call “hybrid regimes,” professors fired and detained and imprisoned as involuntary guests in their own country as they are in Erdogan’s Turkey, a place that Donald Trump unabashedly admires. These writers don’t want two republics, side-by-side, living by their own rules, but rather one failed American banana republic, dominated by a tiny elite and serving white supremacy, the unifying cause of the far right since the country’s founding. Getting there would require a far-reaching, world-historical unraveling of American society and a bloodletting that would likely suffer disproportionately by the worst-off Americans. The irresponsible, unconscionable rhetoric of today’s far right, if internalized by people in power, could indeed lead to this unthinkable outcome.

When American War’s main character, Sarat, survives a brutal assault on her southern refugee camp, she becomes embittered and open to committing appalling acts of violence. “She soon learned that to survive atrocity,” Akkad writes, “is to be made an honorary consul to a republic of pain.”

There is no honor in such a republic. And there is no honor in wishing for it.

David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.​

Related video added by Juan Cole:

GOP Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins Reacts To President Donald Trump’s Tweets | Morning Joe | MSNBC

10 Responses

  1. The Republicans today are the direct ideological descendent of the slavers who started the Civil War. Of course they’re obsessed with it. Perhaps they forget that (a) they started it, and (b) they lost.

    The slavers were very successful, dominating the US, before they became too arrogant and greedy and started trying to expand slavery into free states and into the territories. After they went way too far, the good guys slaughtered them, as they justly deserved.

    At some level, the current right-wing slavers know who they are: they know that they’re the bad guys. They want to start a war just like the slavers of 1850 want to start a war.

    We don’t want a war and we are trying to prevent one. But like Lincoln, those of us who constitute a *large majority* and include all the scientists and all the industrialists, we will not tolerate the domination of the country by a minority of slavers; we will do what it takes to defend freedom, even if it means going all Sherman on the traitors. That is the lesson of the Civil War… but the slavers seem to be unable to learn it.

    • America has always had two right wings, one based on agrarian feudalism in the South, one based on industry and banking in the north. The economic and political contradictions between them sometimes were bad enough to enable periods of real progress in America. When the two oligarchies were cooperative, though, inequality and injustice flourished. But the outright merger of these two right wings in the tumult of the 1960s, and the transfer of the White Southern vote to the Republican Party, has become a cancer on democracy in every area of policy. This unified oligarchy is literally using its power to drive Americans crazy.

  2. “The irresponsible, unconscionable rhetoric of today’s far right, if internalized by people in power, could indeed lead to this unthinkable outcome.”

    Precisely . . . precisely! And that is the danger and we can (as with global warming) reap its bitter fruits with greater celerity than one might suppose. I have friends who were Democrats and feminists 40 years ago. Today they are FOX news watchers who have drunk the kool-aid. Worse: I read a telling anecdote at Josh Marshall’s TPM last year. A reader related the story of their aunt and uncle – Republicans who were by no means Clinton haters, having an indifferent opinion of her, and certainly not Trump fans. Stewed and marinated in the paranoid universe of right wing media, over the course of the election they came to hate Clinton, blaming her for every conspiracy in the book.

    And you are right – it will not resemble a civil war, in part because of the temperament of those of us on the left, who tend to embrace dialogue and civility, not guns and violence (for the record, in addition to teaching I farm in a rural red area and do not own or feel the need to have a gun). Much more likely is a shabby, drab descent into dystopian dictatorship (ratified by the modern GOP via a new constitution) that refuses to address fundamental issues such as climate change, which, even if we do not, per Stephen Hawking, morph into Venus, will certainly precipitate within our own country environmental disaster, putting (ironically) the former Confederacy under water, creating an internal refugee crisis, and turning much of the arable land into waste causing enormous economic hardship.

    So a suggestion: since we are bound and determined to betray the values of the Declaration of Independence these days let’s change July 4th as celebrating the 10th day before Bastille Day.

    Allons enfants de la Patrie,
    Le jour de glorie est arrive!

  3. Large organized formations will not be the standard in future civil wars. Lists of enemies will be compiled from Internet searches. Some will be publicized so that stochastic terrorism can offer some random, unpaid volunteers to do the deed, losers who can’t even coherently describe who they’re fighting for – the better to insulate the latter. Others will be handled by classical death squads, which certain Americans had the experience to help organize in Latin America.

    Since we’re a nation of cowards who rely on airstrikes to deal with everything, the airstrike will be democratized in the form of the bomb-carrying store-bought drone. We will sit in our basements, watching enemy homes by web video, waiting to strike. That’s the part the gun nuts didn’t prepare for, the technology that invalidates their hobby/training advantage over the Left just as massed muskets once invalidated the elite training required by swords.

    The track record of the Right in these situations is alarmingly good. They got the win in Weimar, they got the drop on the Chinese and the Communists in Indonesia (500,000 dead), they pretended to save Chile from a Red coup. Actual civil wars against people who could really fight back have been stickier.

    If you want to do your part to dissuade any Fox News watchers you know to take this road, you have to make clear to them that they might jail and kill you, but they can’t eliminate all the young Americans who will labor to pay for whatever middle-class entitlements they’re counting on, most of whom are not White and will never be their Ni**ers. Tell them what “normal life” meant in Apartheid South Africa, remind them what it became in the Jim Crow South. Tell them they are condemning their own children and grandchildren to backwardness, barbarism, the life of a concentration camp guard… leaving no one to compete with Chinese engineers and scientists to make goods the rest of the world would want to buy. Point out to them that since they’re going to outlaw abortion as soon as possible, but they all know damn well their kind would fly to Mexico to get one and our imprisoned minorities cannot, the White population will dwindle further and further, and the fresh blood on their hands will make assimilation impossible ever again. The machinery of enforcement will replace everything they’ve ever wanted to do with their lives, until they’re living in the conditions of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

    Of course, for some conservatives that’s a turn-on.

    • The American Revolution was a war to end foreign dominance.

      The American Civil War was a war between States over economic issues.

      The American Home War will be a war based on political violence incited by demagoguery.

      • The larger cause of this future war is the passing of White dominance. All the forms of inequality familiar in America were built on that foundation, including wealth. Movements and rebellions against inequality often follow in waves inspired by Black civil rights movements.

        The use of White supremacy to buy off poor Whites (literally to create their identity, since before the imposition of slavery in the late 1600s people were just English, Scottish, Irish or African) has one huge apocalyptic catch. The myths used by the rich to instill hatred of minorities should logically lead to a Final Solution of elimination, either by ethnic cleansing or genocide. But the rich actually make their profit by keeping minorities around to divide the working class and destroy its economic leverage.

        Now that Whites are actually looking at being demoted to a plurality, the temptation to grasp at elimination is growing. The capitalists are going to get stuck having to make their plans for our economic subjugation clearer. Instead of the cowardly game of hiding the pleasure of watching mass incarceration of Blacks under the cover of a (very expensive) War on Drugs, they will have to make an explicit case to their followers that outright enslavement can profit all Whites. Which it can’t, not at the rate at which automation is progressing.

        And if they bungle this scam, they will end up in a race war where the the right-wing side will be old, and so extreme that it will not use women much in combat. White progressives are indeed mostly useless in a dirty war, but they’re going to get sidelined by people who actually will have to fight for their freedom.

  4. Muskets is a reference to AR-15s. Widely available, very popular, and referred to as the modern “musket”.

  5. “What’s odd is that this sort of rhetoric is usually reserved for whoever loses a presidential election, as a kind of half-serious pressure valve. “

    Sore winners. The reactionary right have been sore winners for the last 30 years. It’s like rage is their only emotion, the primal scream of (slightly diminished) white male privilege.

    It’s no wonder Democrats are unable to “compromise” with them. Even when you give these guys the whole pie, they think they deserved more.

  6. The USA has some very real problems,

    BUT . . .

    instead of addressing them, people are ignoring the root causes and looking for some ghost to blame.

    – Income inequality is terrible causing the erosion of h e”middle class.” The USA should be using laws and tax code to strip the wealthy of most of their wealth (no human needs more than US$ 250K/year to live).

    – Most of the 99% are losing economic power and more and more are slipping into poverty. Most of these people are white christians.

    – Technology is eliminating he need for many human workers causing people without a MINIMUM of an AA degree to be unemployable.

    – When people lose employment due to technology, the government is making no effort to help the people adapt.

    – And the list goes on . . .

    The older, white, male, christians are indeed LOSING political power, economic power and demographic power and like all humans for the last 50000 years who have lost power, they are angry about their change in status (the human ego can be a real problem).

    In an ideal world, we would acknowledge (but not exploit like trump does) the very real changes that are happening and develop ways to manage that change is a rational manner.

    BUT . . .

    being egotistical, greedy humans we will not.

  7. Just a thought – the civil war in Rome between Caesar and Pompey broke out in part because a hard line faction in the senate wanted it because they hated Caesar so much. Most of the country and most of the senate did not want it, and in an early vote a vast majority demanded that both men disarm and negotiate a settlement. The Roman senate varied in number from time to time, but if memory serves, while it had between 600 and 900 members at this time only a tiny minority voted in favor of war. I am doing this from memory and I will be conservative and say that it was under 30 but may have been very likely under 20 in favor of war, hundreds against.

    A hard line faction wanted war and got it against the will of a vast majority of senators, and tore the Roman state apart, hastening the very thing they feared, Caesar’s dictatorship. Obviously there are infinite variables here, but it is food for thought that what a very powerful minority wanted – i.e. war – they got.

    And as Zandru above notes, these people (i.e., our authoritarian right) have gotten almost everything they want and are still angry, still blaming people of liberal mind for all that ails them, real and imagined. They live on rage and if authoritarianism doesn’t satisfy them under Caligula a L’Orange then they will whip out the stars and bars. However as the author notes, it’s not certain what civil war would look like in a modern country of over 300 million people, especially since the Confederacy is no longer based on a region or economics but on psychological dynamics that have infiltrated the country like a cancer.

    For all that, I think we are a long way from it – although it would only take a handful of militias, I would guess, to get the ball rolling in terms of civil unrest. Time will tell.

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