An internet search of the term “second civil war” yields a sobering reminder of how much talk, loose and earnest, there has been in the last year about the possibility of Americans taking up arms against each other.
Sometimes references to civil war were expressions of fantasies by fringe groups such as the “boogaloo boys,” a loosely organized, anti-government “militia” that dreams of inciting a conflict that would provide a purpose for their lives and a validation of their fetishes for AR-15s.
Other times, elected politicians gave us a glimpse into their hearts. Last year, Iowa congressman Steve King posted on Facebook an imaginative map of the red and blue states duking it out under this caption: “Folks keep talking about another civil war. One side has about 8 trillion bullets, while the other side doesn’t know which bathroom to use.”
King, never known for his restraint or good judgment, is the House of Representatives’ version of a “boogaloo boy.” But responsible thinkers and writers have expressed their concerns, as well. In September, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said this to CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “You know, I began my career as a journalist covering Lebanon’s second civil war in its history, and I’m terrified to find myself ending my career as a journalist covering America’s potential second civil war in its history.”
The context for this worrisome talk was a country in a very bad mood. Ordinary partisan divides have been stoked by inflammatory and divisive tweets from the White House for four years. In May, George Floyd was publicly murdered by a police officer, and protesters took to the streets all across the nation. The inevitable looters and arsonists made things look more volatile than they really were. The apparent disorder was exacerbated by a pandemic and the economic chaos left in its wake.
An essential element of this context, however, is a nation awash in more than 300 million guns, most of them much more powerful and efficient than anything imagined in 1861. By themselves, the guns are just, well, guns. But they have become the essential symbol of right-wing protest and counterprotest. Demonstrators publicly brandish them in state houses and refer to them in not-very-subtle threatening ways.
If this is the context, the proximate catalyst for incendiary talk about a civil war is a president who publicly maintains that any election that he does not win is “rigged.” His widespread allegations of election fraud have encouraged a sense of crisis and serve as a call to arms for some of President Donald Trump’s less discriminating followers. At one point, he even told the neo-fascist, white-nationalist group the Proud Boys to “stand by.” What could go wrong?
As it happened, not much. We held an election and, all things considered, it went smoothly. There were some protests at polling stations. Recounts were demanded and carried out. Democrats won big with the presidency; Republicans held their own and made gains elsewhere. Somehow, amid all the threat of violence and disorder, the American electorate expressed its will, and it appears that its will is going to be honored. The civil war has fizzled out.
The danger hasn’t been completely defused, however. Trump could easily smother lingering discontent by a customary, conventional act: a graceful concession that he has lost the election and an admonition to his followers to “stand down” rather than “stand by.” The Republican leadership could help a lot, as well.
But such a concession by Trump would be deeply uncharacteristic; don’t expect it to be forthcoming.
Nevertheless, the Trump era has served our country in two useful ways. First, it has reminded us of how fragile democracy is; it requires constant attention and care.
And second: Optimism doesn’t come naturally to me, nor should it to anyone, after the last four years. Still, our ship of state moves with enormous momentum. It’s heartening to see an administration characterized by chaos and division replaced by one determined to govern according to decent principles that have served us well.
Good. One civil war was enough.