Ross Douthat, New York Times, August 16, 2017 [original article contains links]
Image from article, with caption: In July, members of the Ku Klux Klan protested the planned removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.
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
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
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 U.S.A. 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
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
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
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
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.