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: