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Opinion: The real path to an American civil war

Last week Donald Trump was put on trial by a liberal prosecutor on what seems like the most nakedly political of the multiple charges that he’s facing. To protest this outrage against their glorious leader, the MAGA faithful gathered outside the Ne

  • Apr 21 2024
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Opinion: The real path to an American civil war
Opinion: The real path to an American civil war

Last week Donald Trump was put on trial by a liberal prosecutor on what seems like the most nakedly political of the multiple charges that he’s facing. To protest this outrage against their glorious leader, the MAGA faithful gathered outside the New York courthouse in the thousands, ready to storm into the halls of justice … well, perhaps in the hundreds, ready to get in the face of Trump’s legal persecutors … well, no, actually it was a few dozen Trump supporters, waving signs and outnumbered by the gawking press.

This fairly pitiful scene made an interesting accompaniment to the country’s biggest movie at the moment, Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” which depicts a version of contemporary America riven by civil strife, with various secessionist forces at war against a dictatorial president who’s stayed on for a third term.

That president is clearly a Trump-like figure, but the movie is extremely light on politics; it’s mostly interested in juxtaposing scenes of brutality — mass graves, tortured prisoners, firefights and summary executions — with the familiar American landscapes of shopping malls, car washes and the pillars of the White House. We aren’t supposed to ask for detailed how-we-got-here explanations; we’re just supposed to meditate on how easily It Could Happen Here.

Some people who like “Civil War” find the political lacuna admirable, since it cuts the movie free from current ideological preoccupations and lets us take the anti-war message straight.

Some people who dislike the movie — I am one of them — think that the underexplanation is a total cop-out, making civil strife seem like a natural disaster or a zombie apocalypse, when in reality it usually represents the extension of politics by awful but reasonable-seeming means. If you refuse to give those reasons, to explain how exactly the politics of today’s America could yield our own version of 1990s Yugoslavia, you haven’t actually made a movie about an American civil war; you just have war as a generic signifier that happens to have strip malls and subdivisions in the background.

This objection is weaker the more the path to a second U.S. civil war seems self-evident. If you think we’re obviously teetering on the brink of such a disaster, it’s easier to accept a work of art that imagines us tipped over.

A lot of people think that these days, so here is a short list of the reasons they’re wrong. America’s ideological divisions don’t follow the kind of geographical or regional lines that lend themselves to secessionist movements or armed conflict. America’s political coalitions have become less polarized by race and ethnicity of late, not more. America is getting older and richer with every passing year, both of which strongly disincentivize transforming political differences into military ones. And such disincentives are especially strong for the elites who would need to divide into opposing camps: Texan or Californian power brokers, for example, both have far more influence as powerful stakeholders of the American empire than they would as leaders of a Lone Star or Bear Flag Republic.

Above all, a civil war needs people eager for the fight — a lot of people for continentwide war of the kind depicted in the movie, but a critical mass even for a lower-grade form of civil strife, like Northern Ireland’s Troubles. And relative to past eras of crisis in our history, from the 1860s to the 1960s, Americans today just do not display any great enthusiasm for politically motivated violence.

Instead, the gap between the Sturm und Drang online and the handful of Trump supporters at the courthouse this week is representative of one part of our condition: an enthusiasm for online conflict, virtual combat, rage tweets and hate clicks as substitutes for brawling and bombing in the real world.

The other part of our condition, meanwhile, is a growing spirit of pessimism, apathy and dropping out: We are more melancholic than choleric; more disillusioned than fanatical. And a Trump-Biden rematch that inspires general dismay but can’t get even the TV ratings of the last round is not likely to be our Fort Sumter moment.

To which comes the response: What about a second Trump administration as the spark, given the way the last Trump administration ended? What about Jan. 6? What about, to be more bipartisan, the waves of protest and violence in the summer of 2020, the cities on fire, the tear gas outside the White House? Didn’t Americans show an appetite for internecine conflict then?

The answer is that they did, albeit up to a well-short-of-the-1860s point. But the breakdown happened only in the pandemic year, under extremely unusual conditions and pressures most people had never experienced before. A once-in-a-century global plague and an unprecedented shutdown of society converging with a fraught election did, indeed, break through the torpor I’m describing, turn virtual playacting into actual statue-toppling and make right-wing dreampolitik temporarily real. In that sense, 2020 showed that any general pattern or trend can be disrupted, given insane-seeming circumstances and a mentality of existential crisis.

But once the circumstances normalized, the appeal of protest politics dissipated. There was no follow-up to Jan. 6 on the right, no wave of insurrectionary violence carried out by true believers in President Joe Biden’s illegitimacy, no rush to join the Proud Boys by ordinary right-wingers. Likewise on the left, the racial reckoning was subsumed back into bureaucratic politics, the “CHAZ” commune in Seattle was dismantled rather than imitated, antifa receded back into the shadows. It’s not that protest politics disappeared (witness the various disruptive protests on behalf of Palestine) or extremism vanished, but both returned to the realm of the exceptional remarkably swiftly.

So if you were really interested in what it would take for the United States to actually plunge into armed conflict, to be divided into warring camps and not just polarized blocs of voters, the lesson of 2020 is that you should be looking for some kind of rupture, some world-shaking external or internal force, as the necessary precondition.

Maybe a pandemic substantially worse than COVID, which prompts states to close their borders and splits the country much more completely and viciously than did the difference between, say, New York and Florida’s pandemic policies.

Maybe a great defeat in war and an economic crisis — China taking Taiwan, North Korea overrunning South Korea, the stock market melting down as the Pax Americana topples, a discredited establishment facing new forms of demagoguery and revolt.

Maybe some radical technological development, out on the frontiers of artificial intelligence, that reshapes the contours of normal life and creates new moods of utopianism or desperation.

Maybe a true climate crisis, not just slowly rising temperatures but one of the “tail risk” scenarios for global disaster.

What I’m offering here are basically notes on the “Civil War” screenplay, suggestions for how it could have made its vision of war coming home seem more realistic. But they all involve something more than just an extension of current trends, a slightly heightened version of contemporary U.S. politics.

Could it happen here? Maybe. But something stranger than just Trump vs. Biden, Round 2, would have to happen first.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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