Summertime, sweltering and stressful, makes our cold civil war feel hot. The madness and violence of last year crested in the summer, with the shootings of cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Now the dog days are here again, and with them a new spasm – white supremacists with tiki torches, antifa and the alt-right going at it, a white nationalist running down protesters, a little Weimar re-enactment in the streets of Charlottesville, Va.
So while the president blathers about how some of the torchbearers were fine people, other people are talking about whether we could have a civil war for real. In The New Yorker, Robin Wright quotes a State Department expert on internecine conflict whose personal estimate is that “the United States faces a 60 percent chance of civil war over the next 10 to 15 years.” Lest you doubt his science, he was part of an informal poll by the military journalist and historian Tom Ricks earlier this year, which produced the lower but still notable consensus estimate that we have a 35 percent chance of falling into civil war.
What do these bets mean? Their language evokes our own 1860s, 1930s Spain or contemporary Syria. But Ricks says he means something narrower – a period more like the late 1960s and early 1970s, with serious and sustained political violence and widespread resistance to political authority, but without Chancellorsvilles or Guernicas.
That seems more plausible than what people usually mean by civil war. But we are still not close to even that level of breakdown, nowhere close to the social chaos and revolutionary fervor that gave us 2,500 bombings in 18 months during Richard Nixon’s first term. The chaos during Trump’s ascent and presidency has been extreme by the standards of recent politics but not by the standards of America’s worst periods of crisis.
So why the civil-war anxieties? In part, because our media environment breeds hysteria; in part, because Trump himself does so.
But the underlying reason people are worried is a plausible one: America’s divisions are genuinely serious, our cold civil war entirely real.
Our divisions are partisan: The parties are more ideologically polarized than at any point in the 20th century, and party loyalty increasingly shapes not just votes but social identity, friendship, where you live and whom you hope your children marry.
Our divisions are religious: The decline of institutional Christianity means that we have no religious center apart from Oprah and Joel Osteen, the metaphysical gap between the secularist wing of liberalism and religious traditionalists is far wider than the intra-Christian divisions of the past, and on the fringes you can see hints of a fully post-Christian and post-liberal right and left.
Our divisions are racial and ethnic and class-based and generational, conspicuously so in the Trump era. And they are geographic: The metropolis versus the hinterland, the coasts against the middle of the country. It would not be hard to sketch lines on a map partitioning the USA into two or three or four more homogeneous and perhaps more functional republics. And if you imagined some catastrophe suddenly dissolving our political order and requiring us to start anew, it is not at all clear that we would be able to forge a reunited republic, a second continental nation.
Moreover, our divisions induce a particular anxiety because each of our two main factions reigns supreme in one particular arena. Conservatism is (somehow) politically dominant, with control of the legislative and executive branches and a remarkable power in the states. Meanwhile liberalism dominates the cultural commanding heights as never before, with not only academia and the media but also late-night television and sportswriting and even young-adult fiction more monolithically and – to conservatives – oppressively progressive.
So both sides have reasons to feel threatened, disempowered and surrounded; both can feel as though they exist under a kind of enemy rule.
Thus described, it may sound remarkable that we haven’t plunged into domestic chaos and civil strife already. But not every American is a partisan, there is still more to life than politics for most of us, and under the right circumstances people with deep differences can live together in peace for a great while – so long as events do not force a crisis, so long as the great political or social questions don’t feel so existential and zero-sum that they cannot be managed or endured.
Slavery was such an existential issue – but its closest analogue today, abortion, does not lie so close to the center of our politics. Race, immigration and religious liberty are all volatile, but the specific controversies are more incremental than existential: Voter-ID laws are not Jim Crow, and toppling Confederate statues isn’t Reconstruction; refugee restrictions aren’t internment camps; fights over the rights of Christian businesses and colleges are not a persecution.
An economic crisis can spur a crackup. But our wealth and the welfare state both cushion us substantially, as we saw after the Great Recession. Wars can lead to dissolution: Opposition to the War of 1812 brought New England to the brink of secession, opposition to Vietnam helped give us our last era of calamity, and of course defeat in World War I broke up the multiethnic empires that the United States increasingly resembles. But our wars are so professionalized and technologized that even unpopular ones can be sustained a long time without pushing domestic politics to a breaking point.
This leaves the most likely near-term threat to our fractured republic as either something external to the system – a worst-case pandemic or terrorist attack, a climate-change-induced catastrophe – or else a threat concentrated at the top, in the imperial presidency around which our democratic derangements increasingly revolve.
If you asked me to script a path from where we are today to a period of violent division or disunion, I would invent a character with some of the qualities of a Trump and some of an Emmanuel Macron – a charismatic leader who appeals not just to the extremes but to some populist or technocratic center, and who promises an escape from polarization and division and from the gridlock that those divisions have induced.
Then I would have this character retain his mystique more successfully than usual for recent presidents, and use it to pursue an agenda at once extraconstitutional and fairly popular, so that institutions would either struggle to contain him or simply surrender in a way they won’t for our current chief executive. Then add the right crisis, or the right cascade of them, and imagine one side or the other in our current cold civil war seeking actual “Second Amendment remedies” or forming a for-real Resistance against presidential tyranny – and suddenly you could have the kind of strife that the experts cited by Wright and Ricks seem to be envisioning.
But watching Trump stagger and Macron’s poll numbers sink, I would still judge my imagined scenario remote.
Things are getting worse in many ways, and the rest of the Trump era does not promise much in the way of healing and reconciliation. But despite what scripture tells us, in politics a house divided against itself can sometimes stand for quite a while – so long as most people prefer its roof to the rain and wind, and relatively few have a clear and pressing incentive to start knocking down the walls.