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There’s a question that’s been eating away at me. I’ve tried not to ask it, but it keeps coming back to haunt me. It’s an ugly one, a difficult one. I’d bet, perhaps, that it’s occurred to you, too. It goes like this. Is America headed for a second civil war?
Before you object to me even asking, or call me “alarmist,” as so many Americans love to do even as their nation collapses, let me outline why this question keeps on eating away at me. And while you do, bear in mind, that I’ve lived through civil wars, and studied them, too. America today reminds me of those collapsed societies I was unlucky enough to grow up in. There’s something going badly wrong in America today. But just how wrong?
There are five reasons I think there’s a distinct possibility America’s headed towards another civil war. In fact, may already be in one — as my brilliant Twitter followers are calling it, a “cold civil war”— so let’s begin there.
Think about that for a second. Four out of ten Trumpists support violence as a means to address their political grievances. Those are incredibly dire numbers.
Let me put them in perspective. If we saw them in any other society, we’d say: that society is on the brink of civil war. That’s the same level of widespread, mass-scale support for violence that existed in, probably, the Balkans. In African genocides. In Islamic sectarian conflicts. In fact, in many of those places, and at those times, there was less support for violence.
Imagine seeing a headline that said: “40% of Germans support violence to resolve political differences.” You’d shudder — and think of Nazism. Or think of reading “40% of the Dutch (or Swedish, or Danish) back violence on a mass social scale.” It’d be faintly ridiculous, because today those are happy, trusting societies. To really drive the point home, imagine “40% of Canadians support large-scale political violence.” LOL — Canadians are nice.
But all that should put in perspective how eerily wrong it is to see such statistics in America. Where else do we see numbers like “40% of one of two political sides support large-scale violence to attain their authoritarian ends”? Only in failed states. Serious, hardcore failed states. It’s hard to even find other examples today. Not even in Pakistan or India or Nigeria would you see such numbers — which is how shocking this finding really is.
And yet it’s also, like I said, unsurprising. Why? Because something’s in the air. Something poisonous. And we all know it. We can see it. Many of us are experiencing it. Americans are at each others’ throats. The culture wars are spilling over into real harm, violence, intimidation.
Americans’ cultural differences appear to be irreconcilable. What cultural differences are those? Well, one side — you know which — still wants America to be something very much like a supremacist, segregated, patriarchal state, where women and minorities are second-class citizens, if even that much. The other wants something less than a social democracy, but at least some semblance of an open, modern democracy. Now, the side which wants America to be a supremacist state has always wanted that, and appears totally unwilling to give up on it.
Hence, all those now infamous school-board wars. Moms and dads — perfectly seemingly normal ones — erupt in rage at teachers and school administrators. It’s murderous rage, too. They threaten their lives. Over what? Over having kids read books about slavery. Little Johnny’s feelings were hurt. He cried. He had nightmares. Because he was told how horrific it really was to enslave people, to genocide them over centuries. Wait — who’s the snowflake now?
American pundits have gussied all this up in a kind of tacky lingerie. They’ll tell you that one side is “opposed to critical race theory,” and the other isn’t. Don’t kid yourself. Teaching kids that slavery is bad is what American conservatives object to — as is the idea that America was founded a slave state, that many of its founding fathers were part of the enterprise of mass subjugation, and that even today, the benefits of all those centuries of supremacy accrue to a certain social group of people.
None of that’s remotely “critical race theory.” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” the book in question which has fuelled these conflicts among neighbours, isn’t some kind of textbook about critical race theory. It’s just a book about what it was like to be a slave.
So these cultural wars aren’t really about abstruse theories or even “wokeness.” Not really. They’re about the same old things that America’s always been conflicted about. Supremacy. Hate. Greed. And violence, to attain those ends.
All those parents shouting at teachers and school administrators want to ban books. What kind of society does that remind you of? North Korea. Iran. The Soviet Union. Don’t kid yourself that this is some kind of academic fight about “theory.” It’s about the same old thing: hate, and the “freedom” to live in a hateful way, to reproduce, to teach your kids that supremacy and hate are virtues, too, just like you were taught, that you’re superior by virtue of purity of blood and faith, and everyone else is inferior, not a “real American.”
Now. The problem is this. Those differences are irreconcilable. Let’s take an example of where those school board fights have led. Now a place like Northern Virginia is riven. That might strike you as irrelevant, but it shouldn’t, because Northern Virginia is about the closest thing America has to Canada or Europe. It’s full of people from around the globe, who enjoy functioning public services, and enjoy, by and large, happy and stable lives.
But now things are different. “Youngkin” signs line the yards — of some people. In case you don’t know, he’s a mini-Trump. Now you know that your neighbours are racists. Supremacists. That they want their kids to have power over yours. The power to abuse and subjugate your kids, too. They think that their kids’ feelings being hurt by being taught the truth about slavery is more important than…the truth about slavery. Which means, of course, that slavery and supremacy and hate can’t matter very much at all, or teaching kids that they’re wrong. So plenty of Virginians, it turns out, even affluent ones, want to raise their kids to be little Southerners, of the old world — racist, hateful, violent, brutal, stupid. How do you live with that? Can you?
Let me say it again. These differences are irreconcilable. They’re not just about a culture war, but about something much deeper. Let me give you a parallel or two to explain why they’re so important.
Why did the Islamic World, for example — one among many — keep on melting down into civil war? Because one sect believed it was superior. And everyone else was inferior. By virtue of purity of faith and blood. In other words, your impurity wasn’t something you could change. The only option possible for you was surrender. You accepted the domination of those “superior” to you, or else. Or else what? Or else it was time for serious, serious violence.
Those difference were irreconcilable. Such differences are always irreconcilable. You cannot negotiate in good faith with fanatics and supremacists. If someone believes that they are inherently superior to you, and deserves the power to abuse you, to dominate you, to subjugate you — well, then where does that leave you? Where does that leave a society? The only option for most such societies is that they erupt into violence. I gave you the example of the Islamic world, but it could have just as easily been the Balkans, or Africa’s failed states, or Latin America’s endless implosions. You can’t negotiate with people who want you enslaved, subjugated, dead.
And it’s no joke to say that that is what Trumpists want. It’s no exaggeration. No hyperbole. Let’s think about it together.
We now know that 40% of Trumpists back using violence. To what? To attain their political ends. But what are their political ends? To put Trump into power. Why? Not because Trump is a nice guy, or a wonderful leader, or even that he’s going to fix America. But because Trump is a textbook demagogue.
What’s a “textbook demagogue”? Someone who scapegoats minorities and demonises others for the woes of the pure and true. In other words, the Trumpists want Trump in power because he is a supremacist. Think about what Trump does (if you even have to.) He looks at America, sees a broken country, ignores the plight of the most powerless — Black people, Native Americans, the women at their intersections — and instead tells white America that it’s the real victim. Then he turns right around and blames their woes — a loss of community, opportunity, mobility — on minorities. The very people at the bottom of the social ladder.
White Americans don’t have good jobs anymore? It’s not because they voted for Republicans who hollowed out the economy — nope, it’s the fault of…Mexican babies. Put them in concentration camps. White America’s experienced a catastrophic decline in trust over the last few decades? It couldn’t be because those old values of supremacy still manifest in greed and selfishness and mistrust and hostility — nope, it must be the fault of “foreign invaders.” Quick, hunt them in the streets. And so on.
Trump performs the classic demagogues’ trick of scapegoating minorities and women and othered figures for the woes of the pure and true — when, just like in any good social collapse, the woes of the pure and true are nobody’s fault but their own. Who made White America vote for the Republicans that then looted its retirement funds, healthcare, destroyed its towns, left it jobless and adrift. Nobody. So then why did it? Because of supremacy, in short. Reagan found a new code to appeal to the ugly old racist sentiment in white America. Now “real Americans” didn’t have to “pay for” the schools and healthcare and retirement of “welfare queens.” You don’t have to read too hard between the lines to see the racist dog-whistles.
So clinging to supremacy is what destroyed White America’s own chances at a future. And then Trump came along, and performed the demagogues’ trick, of blaming minorities for all that. He did something crucial, which only a demagogue can really do. He licensed violence on a mass social scale.
It would’ve been unthinkable, say, a decade ago, to read a figure like “40% of conservative Americans support mass-scale social violence.” Sure, they might have been deluded or simple or just terrible people, whatever (not to say liberals can’t be, either, but) — yet that hardly would have led to the place America’s at now.
What’s different now is that Trump licensed violence. He didn’t just “incite” or “stoke” it, as pundits say. He did something far, far more dangerous than that. He told his followers that it was OK. Desirable. Totally normal. That if it was the only way, then so be it, and it wasn’t really violence at all, just justified civil disoedience, maybe.
So now Trumpists see themselves not as regressive fanatics, but as noble crusaders for civil liberties. Hence, they’ve gone down the rabbit hole of radicalization. If you say to a Trumpist, hey, my man, you believe all that, essentially, because you’re a supremacist, a fascist, a racist, they’ll look at you like you’re the crazy one. They’re just defending their kids’ rights. To have pure bodies and minds, untouched by the poisons of vaccines and “critical race theory.” They genuinely appear not to see the way that the old, old hatred of supremacy underlies all this, because they think this is what freedom is: the entitlement to reign supreme over the rest of a society, subjugate, dominate it, abuse it, repress it.
If you think I’m kidding about that, just go ahead and take a hard look at Texas, where women now don’t have basic freedoms of speech, association, or privacy anymore. Anyone can act as a vigilante now, police women’s speech and association anywhere, and if they show the merest hint of wanting to exercise their rights to reproductive healthcare, they can be sued into oblivion, and jailed if they don’t the damages. Sound like freedom to you? It’s not, for the women. What it is is supremacy for the men.
And that is what America’s irreconcilable differences are — and have always been about. Freedom confused with supremacy. My right to keep you in your place — the place I’ve assigned you — as a second, third class citizen, a non-person, someone 3/5ths human, someone with no real freedoms of your own. But if my freedom is taking away yours — then where do we end up? Is freedom little Johnny not having to have his precious feelings hurt because he learned the truth of the horror of slavery? Or is freedom expanded when little Johnny matures into a decent, thoughtful, human person — not someone just like his supremacist parents? America’s never understood the answer to this question, which is simple. Freedom is expanded when we are all sane, thoughtful, wise, empathic, gentle, kind. Because only then is my life not about taking something away from you.
Let me try and crystallise the thoughts above. Something poisonous is in the air in America today. It’s not just Covid. It’s something even more deadly than that. It’s the foul stench of ancient hatreds. Americans of a certain kind — Trumpists — have been truly radicalised now. They have always believed that they were supreme, chosen, pure and true, and therefore the only “real Americans,” the thus the ones who the soil and everything on it “belonged” to. But now thanks to half a decade of simmering rage, a demagogue leading them on, they are willing to use violence to get their country back.
Which country is that? Ah, you know the one. The Jim Crow America. The America that genocided the “red Indians” and then…turned them into sports teams. The one that didn’t let women vote until 1920. The one in which Black people had to drink from separate fountains until 1971. That was just a few years before the average American was born.
Trumpist America wants its country back. All that rage on all those parents’ faces? The way that suburban soccer moms have turned into screaming banshees of supremacy? The way little Johnny should never have to cry over the unspeakable horrors of slavery, because, well, he should never have to grow up and be different from his mommy? The way his daddy practices shooting a machine gun every weekend with his buddies?
All that looks a whole lot like a country preparing for something, my friend. Something they — the Trumpists — already call “the Storm.” That is how America got here, which looks a whole lot more like the brink of civil war by the day.
Millions upon millions of Americans still believe they are the supreme ones, by virtue of blood and faith, and everyone else in society is inferior to them, below them, and so is “their” history, culture, so are their bodies, minds, stories, truths, meanings, lives . There’s no reconciling with a position like that — unless you want to live in subjugation. When a society has irreconcilable differences, history teaches us that violence becomes almost inevitable. And America has the oldest irreconcilable difference of them all. Sadly, even after all these centuries? America’s differences appear not to have moved one inch. The hateful America is right where it always was. Seduced, tempted, aroused by violence, for the purpose supremacy, to bring hate right back to life.
Written by Ed Kilgore and published in The Intelligencer July 8, 2021
On Independence Day, which fell on Sunday this year, I found myself as an elder at my small mainline Protestant church lofting up a prayer for “our nation, on its birthday, that we may overcome the conflicts dividing us and find peace and reconciliation.” I’m sure similar sentiments were expressed in many worship services on July 4, not to mention in op-ed columns and in private conversations at BBQs, community events, and family get-togethers. Many, if not most, Americans crave relief from a conflict-ridden and volatile political climate that has grown steadily more intense in recent years, starting even before Donald Trump’s election.
But in retrospect, my pious hopes for unity were just that. And while I do pray a benevolent God may keep us Americans from ripping one another apart over our political and cultural differences, it’s time to recognize that they are real, not contrived; deep-seated, not superficial; and an authentic reflection of divisions in our population, not an invention of manipulative elites, politicians, or the news media. Embracing this fact is important, as history shows; avoiding legitimate forks in the road could lead the country into a wilderness of false compromises and a failure to address significant problems, just as happened when we initially put off dealing with the issue of slavery.
As the Pew Research Center documented in 2017, the breadth and persistence of our differences has been steadily increasing, even though we wish it were otherwise:
The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values — on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas — reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.
And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.
As Pew noted, partisan polarization (between Democrats and Republicans) is partly attributable to the ideological sorting out of the two parties that began during the civil-rights era. Because this process coincided with greater ideological polarization as well (between liberals and conservatives), it’s easy to pine for the days when there were liberals and conservatives in both major parties and things got done. But nostalgia for the good old days ignores the price that many Americans had to pay for this suspension of political hostilities. In the 1960s, open racism was still largely accepted; the idea of equality for women — and of legalized abortion — was highly controversial; equality for LGBTQ folks was a subversive, underground idea; and a global war against Communism was barely debated until it failed miserably in Vietnam.
While the subsequent decades were increasingly turbulent politically, with conflicts within and between the two parties over a wide range of domestic, foreign-policy, and cultural issues, we’ve been in a true era of polarization since the disputed election of 2000. And while it got immensely worse when Trump became president, his departure has hardly made things better, as Ron Brownstein recently observed:
These centrifugal pressures call into question not only the ability of any president to unify the nation, but also his or her ability even to chart a common course for more than roughly half of the country — either red or blue America. This divergence, across a wide range of issues and personal choices, is rooted in the continuing political re-sorting that has divided the parties more sharply than ever along demographic and geographic lines and produced two political coalitions holding inimical views on the fundamental social and economic changes remaking America. And that destabilizing process shows no signs of slowing, much less reversing, even after Trump — who fomented division as a central component of his political strategy — has left the White House.
Our stark divisions are so painful that it’s tempting to blame them on elites — on the media, who are thought to promote conflict to make a buck, and the political leaders seeking to energize followers by demonizing the opposition and refusing to compromise. But the idea of a unity-seeking citizenry being frustrated by partisan gabbers and pols simply isn’t accurate. And the fact that a change of administration has barely reduced partisan conflict is telling. It’s not just about Trump, as Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz explains in a soon-to-be-published paper he shared with Brownstein.
“One of the most important reasons why Democrats and Republicans intensely dislike each other is that they intensely disagree on a wide range of issues including the size and scope of the welfare state, abortion, gay and transgender rights, race relations, climate change, gun control and immigration,” Abramowitz writes. “As long as the parties remain on the opposite sides of almost all of the major issues facing the country, feelings of mistrust and animosity are unlikely to diminish even if Donald Trump ceases to play a major role in the political process.”
The divisions, moreover, go beyond public policy to matters of personal conduct, as evidenced by the extraordinary reluctance of self-identified Republicans to take advantage of easily available COVID-19 vaccines, with many regarding their encouragement by the government as an infringement of personal liberty. But even the broadest understanding of partisan conflict may understate its pervasiveness and power. As the Bulwark’s Joshua Tate points out, the long-standing conservative tendency to view Republican constituencies as the “real America” has evolved into a paradox: Alleged super-patriots despise much of what their country has become.
Trumpist writers have worked themselves into such a state that they have stretched their critique to include literally half of the American population. As Michael Anton, a former Trump aide who is now a Claremont Institute senior fellow and a Hillsdale lecturer, puts it, “one side loves America, the other hates it — or can tolerate it only for what it might someday become, were the Left’s entire program to be enacted without exception.” Anton, the articulate id of intellectual Trumpism, cuts America in two on religious, linguistic, and even moral grounds, casting the Biden coalition as speaking a babble of languages, worshipping “wokeness” with “Dionysian abandon,” and conceiving of justice solely through the lens of punishment. In a blunt essay, Glenn Ellmers, another Claremont and Hillsdale associate, claims “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
Conservative longing for a lost American “greatness” finds its parallel in the left’s instinctive belief in the inevitability of “progress,” defined as a more rational and equitable political system bent on obliterating illegitimate privileges and empowering members of oppressed identity groups. Right-wing hatred of progressives as inauthentically American is reciprocated by progressive hatred of (or more accurately, contempt for) Trump voters, whom they deem, to use Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate phrase, “deplorables” determined to defend the worst features of the past.
There are, of course, self-identified Republicans who dislike or only conditionally back Trump and his supporters and self-identified Democrats who fear “socialism” or “cancel culture” or “wokeness,” but their numbers seem to be steadily declining. And while the public longs for bipartisanship in the abstract, what they really seem to want is the other side’s surrender, not any actual compromise.
You can look at this pervasive polarization and bewail a lost, if increasingly imaginary, tradition of American unity. Or you can welcome the benefits that come with the costs of disunity: the new clarity and accountability that two parties with systematically opposed perspectives creates. Is partisan polarization dangerous? Of course, as the Civil War showed. Is an absence of partisan polarization dangerous too? Of course, as the oppressive period prior to the Civil War showed, when the two major national parties sought to avoid a reckoning over slavery. Sometimes an end to polarization simply reflects the victory of one set of beliefs over another, as when the Republican Party was formed to demand a curb on the slave power and eventually won power of its own; or when the Democratic Party decisively broke with its limited-government heritage during the New Deal and became the majority party for a generation.
I’d argue we are at another big inflection point. It’s more likely the country will turn left or right than achieve major compromises. That today’s conservatives are frantically trying to suppress popular majorities by exploiting anti-democratic features of our system or, worse yet, by denying such majorities exist is a pretty clear sign of which way the wind is blowing. If the authoritarian strain in Republican politics exemplified by Trump morphs into the kind of reactionary movements that crushed parliamentary democracy entirely in Europe nearly a century ago, perhaps we will long even more for the phony solidarity of an imagined bipartisan past, when backs were slapped and deals were cut in Congress and justice and progress were denied.
More likely, we are destined in the very near future to acknowledge and resolve our differences by choosing sides and having it out. That’s far healthier than denying those differences or blowing up the whole system to avoid defeat.