Opinion | Let’s Not Invent a Civil War

Likewise the drama of protest politics in 2020 is often analyzed in a way that minimizes the revolutionary symbolism of the left’s protests — the iconoclasm and the toppled statues, the mayhem around federal buildings and the White House, the zeal to rename and rewrite — and focuses intensely on the right’s response, treating conservative backlash as though it emerges from the reactionary ether rather than as a cyclical response.

The other bias in the civil-war literature is toward two related forms of exaggeration. First, an exaggerated emphasis on what Americans say they believe, rather than what (so far, at least) they actually do. It’s absolutely true that if you just look at polling data, you see a lot of beliefs that would seem to license not just occasional protest but some sort of continuing insurrection. This includes not only the Trumpist stolen-election theories but also popular beliefs about recent Republican presidents — that George W. Bush had foreknowledge and allowed Sept. 11 to happen or that the Russians manipulated vote tallies in order to place Donald Trump, their cat’s-paw, in the White House.

However, an overwhelming majority of people who hold those kinds of beliefs show no signs of being radicalized into actual violence. For all the talk of liberal “resistance” under Trump, the characteristic left-wing response to the Trump administration was not to join Antifa but to mobilize to elect Democrats; it took the weird conditions of the pandemic and the lockdowns, and the spark of the George Floyd killing, to transmute anti-Trumpism into national protests that actually turned violent.

Likewise, despite fears that Jan. 6 was going to birth a “Hezbollah wing” of the Republican Party, there has been no major far-right follow-up to the event, no dramatic surge in Proud Boys or Oath Keepers visibility, no campaign of anti-Biden terrorism. Instead, Republicans who believe in the stolen-election thesis seem mostly excited by the prospect of thumping Democrats in the midterms, and the truest believers are doing the extremely characteristic American thing of running for local office.

This has prompted a different liberal fear — that these new officeholders could help precipitate a constitutional crisis by refusing to do their duty in a close election in 2024. But that fear is an example of the other problem of exaggeration in the imminent-civil-war literature, the way the goal posts seem to shift when you question the evocations of Fort Sumter or 1930s Europe.

Thus we are told that some kind of major democratic breakdown is likely “absent some radical development” (as Beauchamp puts it); that we are already “suspended between democracy and autocracy” (as Remnick writes); that “the United States is coming to an end” and the only question “is how,” to quote the beginning of Stephen Marche’s new book, “The Next Civil War.” But then it turns out that the most obvious danger is an extremely contingent one, involving a cascade of events in 2024 — a very specific sort of election outcome, followed by a series of very high-risk, unusual radical choices by state legislators and Republican senators and the Supreme Court — that are worth worrying about but not at all the likeliest scenario, let alone one that’s somehow structurally inevitable.

Similarly, we are first told that “civil war” is coming, but then it turns out that the term is being used to mean something other than an actual war, that the relevant analogies are periods of political violence like the Irish Troubles or Italy’s “Years of Lead.” And then if you question whether we’re destined to reach even that point, you may be informed that actually the civil war is practically here already — because, Marche writes, “the definition of civil strife starts at twenty-five deaths within a year,” and acts of anti-government violence killed more people than that annually in the later 2010s.

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