Is America heading for a civil war?

National Guard troops outside the Capitol in Washington, January 14, 2021, days after Donald Trump supporters stormed the building © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

In the summer of 2015, America got a glimpse of how its future could unfold. The U.S. military has conducted routine exercises in the South, sparking a flurry of conspiracy theories, especially in Texas. Some see the exercise as a precursor to a Chinese invasion; others think it will coincide with a massive asteroid strike. The exercise, called Jade Helm 15, stands for “home-grown elimination of local militants,” according to one of the right-wing dark fantasy websites. Greg Abbot, the Republican governor of Texas, takes the nonsense seriously. He ensured that 1,200 federal troops were closely monitored by the Texas National Guard. In that bizarre episode that took place a year before Donald Trump became the Republican presidential nominee, we saw the germs that divide America.

As with any warning of an imminent civil war, the mention of another American can’t sound alarmist—like the constant warning from chief Vitalstatistix in the Asterix comic series that the sky is about to fall on the Gauls. The disintegration of the United States is often mispredicted.

However, recent books have made a shockingly convincing case that warning lights are flashing redder than at any time since 1861. The French philosopher Voltaire once said, “Those who can make you believe in absurdity will also make you commit atrocities.” As Barbara Walter of the University of California shows in her supporting handbook, How the Civil War beganAmerican democracy today is checking all the wrong boxes.

Even before Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, political analysts warned that democracy would be eroded and headed for authoritarianism. The paralyzing divisions created by Trump’s failed coup on January 6, 2020, have sent it into dangerous new territory. Polls show that most Republicans believe, without evidence, that the election was stolen by the so-called “deep state,” Chinese government-backed Democrats, rigged Venezuela’s voting machines, or both.

exist this will not passIn a book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, Joe Biden told a senior Democrat: “I certainly hope [my presidency] solved. If not, I’m not sure we’ll ever have a country. “The fact that an American president can say such apocalyptic words without attracting too much attention shows how commonplace this fear has become.

In 1990, the CIA correctly predicted that Yugoslavia would disintegrate within two years, as its politics were hardening against ethnic factions. In 2022, America’s two parties are increasingly divided by race and identity. Republicans are white, small-town and rural—the party now holds only one true urban congressional district in Staten Island, New York. Democrats are now almost entirely urban and multi-ethnic. The normal democratic habit of losing parties forming loyal opposition is disappearing.

Today, more than a third of Republicans and Democrats see violence as a justification for their political ends, up from less than one in 10 when Trump took office in 2017. His remarks opened the floodgates of separatist sentiment. When a party loses, its voters feel that their America is being taken over by a foreign power. Walter noted that the U.S. has become “a factionalized non-dominant state” — an intermediate state between autocracy and democracy — “which is rapidly approaching the stage of open rebellion.” Violence is the political language of America.As Canadian novelist Stephen Marche writes in the next civil warAn imaginative Jeremiah about America’s impending division, the country “is a spectacular act of violence far from a national crisis.”

Bookcase for 'This WIll Not Pass'

How did the US get to this point? Picking Grim Milestones — Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth tenure as Speaker of the House in the polarized 1990s, the Supreme Court handed the 2000 election to George W. 5-4 Bush, America’s 9/11 terror attacks, FBI’s deadly investigation into Hillary Clinton’s almost ludicrously trivial emails, Democrats attribute Trump’s victory to Vladimir Putin (Vladimir Putin), Trump trying to uproot every guardrail within reach, or Congress failing to come together to punish violent attacks on itself. America’s democratic regression is like Ernest Hemingway’s famous observation of bankruptcy: “gradually and then suddenly”.

Burns and Martin offer a diligently researched and often illuminating chronicle of America’s recent political depravity. Much of it comes down to a lack of character. Last year’s Capitol Hill attack was settled – an almost entirely white mob made up of retired police officers, nurses, real estate developers, doctors, lawyers and small business owners carrying Confederate flags, nooses, Smith & Wesson pistols , stun devices, firecrackers, handcuffs, chemicals and knives — Republican leaders breathed a sigh of relief. The Capitol may be full of glass; its hallways are covered in feces. But the Trumpian spell has been broken. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell said the “despicable man” had “finally discredited himself.” Rep. Kevin McCarthy said Trump’s actions were “brutal and utterly wrong.”

Three weeks later, McConnell voted to acquit Trump of what he called a “failed uprising.” McCarthy held back even more, heading to Trump’s Florida resort Mar-a-Lago to restore his allegiance. In the weeks that followed, he concluded that the only way for him to become speaker was to be blessed by the disgraced former president. “Trump is on life support,” said Adam Kinsinger, one of only 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him. “he [McCarthy] bring him back to life. The author referred to McCarthy as “perhaps the most likable figure” in the Republican Party. Competition for the honor was fierce; the likes of South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham followed McCarthy footsteps.

Bookcase for The Next Civil War

It’s not absurd to hope that Biden’s amiable touch will reduce the heat in the United States. Still, it’s lonely. The United States is more painfully divided into imagined adversaries than it is under Trump. Biden’s promise to restore bipartisan normalcy — a pious hope dashed under Barack Obama — while vowing to be a transformative Franklin D. Roosevelt-esque president didn’t help. With a 50:50 Senate, that’s not realistic. Joe Manchin, a stubborn West Virginia Democrat who blocked Biden’s major reform bill, did not maintain the balance of power in Roosevelt’s Washington.

Democrats thus retreated to their now routine racial divisions. Biden sees his cabinet elections as an “identity politics cube,” Burns and Martin wrote. Rather than hoisting the hopes of a new generation, his vice president, Kamala Harris, “focuses on real and perceived snubs in a way the West Wing finds tedious,” they wrote. Their party could face a crushing defeat in this November’s midterm elections, which would make a 2024 rematch between Biden and Trump frustrating. “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat,” read a popular Trump-style T-shirt.

To make matters worse, the number of right-wing militias in the United States has exploded in recent years. White supremacist sentiment has also permeated U.S. law enforcement agencies, Walter said. The number of armed would-be insurgents is a multiple of the leftist insurgent groups that caused so much panic in the early 1970s, such as the Black Panther Party and the Symbiosis Liberation Army.

How will the American Civil War in the 21st century really happen? Not at all like the first time. Unlike in the 1860s when America was homogeneous between the slave-owning Confederates and the North, today’s separatist geography is marble. Unlike then, the U.S. armed forces today cannot be defeated. Even in a country with more private guns than people (over 400 million), many of which are military-grade guns, this would not be a competitor. Yet, of all nations, the United States knows that asymmetric warfare cannot be won. Think Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also think about how America was born – its revolutionary army failed in almost every encounter with Britain’s well-armed reds. However, with the help of the French, the American partisans were victorious. Now replace the Red Jackets with today’s Union Army. The military has a poor record of reassuring unsettled populations. Each casualty spawns more than 10 rebels.

“They’ll be sneaking in and out of the shadows, communicating on message boards and encrypted networks,” Walter wrote. “They’ll meet in small groups at vacuum repair shops on the retail strip. In desert clearings on the Arizona border, south of In the parks of California or the snowy woods of Michigan, where they’ll be training to fight.”

Walters’ book lays out, with impressive brevity, America’s possible path to dystopia. When applied to the United States, her synthesis of the various barometers of a country’s march toward civil war is hard to argue with. But she ruined her case with some fundamental mistakes. As she puts it, nearly 60 percent of the world’s countries are “full” democracies. India is also not a “strictly secular democracy”. Its constitution celebrates rather than shuns all religions. However, her book is indispensable.

No writer has offered an easy antidote to America’s ongoing democratic decline. Their remedies—finding ways to make multiethnic democracy work, making money from politics, teaching American children about citizenship—have a sense of wishful thinking rather than serious game plans.

Despite being Canadian, Marche is acutely aware of the extent to which global freedom depends on what happens in the United States. Despite its initial hypocrisy, no other nation is built on the creed that it can live with — and does rely on — fundamental differences between strangers. Marche concludes with these stirring words: “It would be a lie, a wicked lie, to say that the American experiment did not give the world a glorious and detached vision of humanity: worthy of affirmation in their differences, in their contradictions vital. It remains a vision of human existence worth fighting for.”

However, these warning signs have become impossible to ignore. At the end of the book, Burns and Martin quote former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about America’s tendency to comfort itself with familiar sermons. They are no longer helpful. “You know that great line you keep hearing: ‘This is not us. Isn’t this America?'” Turnbull asked. “You know what? That’s it.”

How the Civil War began: and how to stop them By Barbara F. Walter, Vikings, £18.99, 320 pages

this will not pass: Trump, Biden and the battle for America’s future Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, Simon and Schuster, $29.99, 480 pages

the next civil war: News from the Future of America by Stephen Marche, Simon and Schuster, £20, 239 pages

Edward Luce is the FT US Country Editor

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