6 min read

The Cold Civil War Revisited, Pt. 1

I didn't realize that a couple weeks ago was the two-year anniversary of the start of When/If. That's approximately sixteen years in pandemic time, but you have to account for the presidential election time dilation as well, which makes When/If just over twenty years old. It's not exactly been fun, but it's work that I've been glad to do, and I thank all of you that have stuck with me this long. I hope you've benefited from it. In my first newsletter, I talked about buying gallons of water and beans. Today, we're building off a series from a few months ago that talked about the potential collapse of the country due to internecine conflict. What a wild ride, huh?

I got to thinking about that series on the Cold Civil War because an article in the Washington Post Magazine all but rewrote it. In the piece, journalist David Montgomery consults a slew of experts on the possibility that another Trump presidency in 2025 would end the republic. Their conclusion? Yeah, probably. The piece imagines Trump installing loyalists at every level of government, breaking off the guardrails that once kept him from the worst angels of his nature and from staying in power despite losing the 2020 election. They see the rapid deterioration of democratic processes in the country, the potential for military deployment in US cities in response to unrest, the migration of citizens along political lines for safety (thus increasing polarization), and, yes, the potential for secession and civil war. Not too dissimilar a conclusion. It's a decent breakdown of what is, I suspect, an all-too likely scenario. It's not without flaws, though, particularly in that it reached for the big headline: "Trump Ruins America," rather than the more realistic headline: "We Blew It No Matter Who."

Thinking Past an Autocracy of One

The truth of the matter is, we don't need Trump to wreck our country. DeSantis would do exceedingly well at dismantling the United States–hell, I think a Democrat would, at best, burn out the e-brake trying to steer us into the skid. We are simply in a system that has reached past itself. In the US, we are faced with problems the world is facing: the excesses of capitalism, climate change, and the end of natural resources. We're also contending with the corrupt foundations of this country: the racism it was built upon is an irredeemable rot, and the lengths to which the powerful will go to keep the scaffolding of white supremacy intact all but ensures we lose what virtues we have. Nothing about that demands Trump be at the helm when the ship runs aground. He is, without a doubt, awful, and I hate him as I hate hell, but he is a scapegoat for the left–and for some of the right. The Kochlings of the country surely rejoiced at his arrival through the front wall of the party, which allows an evil fucker like Dick Cheney or George W. Bush to appear acceptable. This is an opportunity for a more "normal" politician with dreams of never leaving office to steamroll the next liberal candidate for the presidency.

The myopia of liberals when it comes to Trump aside, we're also in danger of forgetting that a non-ignorable part of the United States–and of the world–is lately pro-authority. Democracies in Europe are backsliding, strong-men leaders are doing well in extant regimes, and other nations are struggling. There is a plurality of active civil wars across the globe as we speak. To pin our troubles on Trump is to pretend there is no allure to a dictator, but rather that he and his ilk are some kind of temporary illness. In reality, millions of Americans would rejoice at the certainty that a dictator would bring. And as fervent and precisely cultlike as Trump's following is, we know that its members have red lines–many followers dropped him because he was an early proponent of the COVID vaccines, for example. As frequently as you see Trump followers flock to him like Jesus, they will absolutely seek out other leaders if necessary. DeSantis, Senator Tom Cotton, even a more transparent Trump acolyte like Marjorie Taylor Greene will do fine because they are not afraid to say precisely what their audience wants: they are the persecuted ones, their nation is under attack from within and without, and their problems are not their fault.

This rhetoric is not new, but it is perhaps the most worrisome thing about any future candidate on the right: when someone on high tells these people who the enemy is, they listen. Trump was just elected–not even inaugurated–when attacks on minorities began to increase. This is absolutely going to happen again, even as we are still in an elevated state of tension. These leaders give permission and foment aggression, so much so that we are two years past Trump and the seeds he planted are still bearing bloody fruit.

More Than Enough Trouble Without Him

I would wager that a swing away from the socially-liberal was bound to happen in the US, so we were going to see some pushback against the progress made over the course of the Obama years no matter what. However, between the enmity our country was built on and the high-profile hate that Trump helped espouse, we're seeing more than a kind of cultural rebound. It's this–the dehumanizing hate, the endorsed and encouraged violence that strips enemies of their personhood, that is the real danger. That hate is what's going to split the country–not one dictator, not one administration. Pretending that the loudest person in the country is responsible for it all is a reckless idea. It buries the existential threats that we live with every day.

Going back as far as the Tea Party, the Republicans had a good idea: get involved in local and state elections. This technique has served them well, letting the far-right gain ground in states that were typically more purple, to the point that we're nearing a new, highly disturbing scenario: a state-led constitutional convention. If the right can gain control of just a few more states, they can call a convention and ram through amendments that will enshrine their ideals–deregulation, anti-abortion stances, etc.,–likely until the end of the nation. This movement, in total, is emblematic of our problem. Though they kowtow to the power of a single autocrat, the right has managed to enthrall nearly half the nation under such a spell that not only do they believe all our problems are caused by multifarious "others," they are all galvanized into action of which the left only dreams.

We've seen, of course, that the far-right won't just act through politics. They will act on politics, by attempting coups and kidnappings. They will intimidate, march, assault, and invade. Radicalized individuals will massacre people at churches, malls, grocery stores. They are motivated to act in ways that we're not. It's not just one despot, and it's not even just all their politicians; more and more citizens on the right are prepared to take up arms for their cause. That will surely not be quieted by another Trump presidency, but it won't be ameliorated by any other candidate, either.

How We Fight

It's an uncertain position, being a leftist in the United States. We by and large despise both major parties in government, but we understand that one side is less apt to try and imprison and kill its citizens, and infringe on fewer rights. This means that we have to place our bid with politicians that will forever disappoint us, and deeply. But what's the alternative? How can we not participate when so much is at stake?

The answer lies in the question: what's the alternative? When the powers that be present you with a red button or a blue button, they are saying that these are the only two choices, when they aren't. The third option is to throw away the machine. We are forever plied with the liberal promise that after the next election they will push for this right, or that basic dignity, but how often do they follow through on that? How long did we wait for the codification of abortion rights, only to be beat out? The media will always court the vote of leftists in order to secure the future of the nation as it is: a captive, capitalist state in which the rich are enriched on the backs of the poor. No matter what scraps were thrown on our table before all the previous Novembers, that fact has never changed.

My answer to the threat of the Cold Civil War and the election of an outspoken dictator is not to not vote. It's to consider leaving the state behind. I think it's clear, by now, that no leader–democrat or republican, is going to stave off climate change or, ultimately, collapse. What use, then, is our energy shouldered behind such an endeavor? Let's rededicate ourselves to each other outside of the limitations of party, capital, and state. The United States has failed so many of us from the start, and it will only continue to do so. Let's dedicate the energy we poured into propping up a party of broken promises into each other, directly, even while the country starts crumbling around us. Especially then.