1877, 1972, and 2016: Our Ongoing Low-Grade Civil War

The political rhetoric of the Trump Era is as overheated and shoddy as Penn Station during afternoon rush hour, so it’s hard to know where the hyperbole ends and the truth begins. This includes recent incidents of civil war talk. It has become so commonplace as to show up in the most mundane places, like the Twitter feed of a former baseball player or on the side of a recycling bin. This image comes from a friend in Lynchburg, Virginia:

We are not on the verge of a revamp of the Blue and the Gray on the killing fields of Antietam and Gettysburg. However, there have been less overt versions of civil war in this country’s history that we typically fail to understand as such. Reconstruction and the 1960s both represented deep disputes over how to define the nation and who belonged to it, both ended with reactionaries taking over the state to reinstate inequality. We need to understand the echoes from those times to understand the current civil war moment.

We have been living in a low grade civil war since Newt Gingrich took Congress for the Republicans in 1994. His Republican party was not merely partisan, but demanded that its version of the nation be protected at all costs, even if this meant defying the popular will or shutting down the government. For this reason Republicans have refused to treat Democratic presidents as legitimate. In the 1990s Rush Limbaugh claimed America was “held hostage,” an attitude culminating in Clinton’s impeachment. At the start of Obama’s presidency Limbaugh gave a speech at CPAC calling for resistance at all costs, a call that we heeded without wavering for eight years. Glenn Beck and his chalkboard spoke of doomsday scenarios, practically telegraphing a civil war to come.

Elected Republicans complied with this narrative, filibustering at every opportunity and shutting down the government as a hostage-taking maneuver multiple times. They took the unprecedented step of blocking Obama from placing a justice on the Supreme Court when almost a year of his term was left. People talk of a “constitutional crisis” these days as if we haven’t been in one for years.

It’s not just at the federal level. In Wisconsin and North Carolina Republican legislatures have stripped the governor of power once the office was occupied by a Democrat. These same legislatures were elected by a minority of Republican voters given majority power through highly partisan gerrymandering. The root cause is the same at all levels: conservatives believe that they are the “real Americans” and thus must do everything in their power, including limiting democracy, to keep back the progressive tide they think will destroy their nation. (Hence the Tea Party rallying cry of “take our country back!”)

That subtext was recently made text by Attorney General Bill Barr’s speech at the Federalist Society, claiming that progressives represent an existential threat to the nation due to their disrespect for the rule of law. Another recent speech of his at Notre Dame claimed that these progressives hellbent on a supposed secular takeover of the country. Never mind that the people of this country have become less churched and less interested in making the conservative Christian agenda law in the form of things like bans on gay marriage. That doesn’t matter because Barr and his compatriots feel that this is supposed to be a Christian nation, whether the majority want it to be or not.

In many respects, Donald Trump is the logical endpoint of what happened in the 2008 election. John McCain, for all his many faults, took people at his rallies to task for calling Barack Obama a secret Muslim. At the same time, however, his running mate Sarah Palin went “rogue” and talked of “real America” under threat from alien elements. This was the nationalist red meat the conservative base yearned to feast on. They would get a massive helping once that base was organized more coherently as the Tea Party. A lot of movement conservatives believed that the country truly wanted their corporate-friendly agenda, but Mitt Romney’s losing campaign proved otherwise.

The media and others failed to understand that the Tea Party wasn’t about taxes — it was about taxes going to help “those people.” Trump saw this, and went straight for the Herrenvolk nationalism that Republicans like McCain had avoided, understanding that it was a vast untapped force, one deeply rooted in this country’s history.  In fact, populist nationalism is the most powerful political force in the world today, from Brazil to Italy to India. In this, as always, America is not the exception it fancies itself to be.

Trumpism defines membership in the nation by blood and race rather than by shared values and citizenship. That understanding of the nation had been there from the beginning, in the 1790 Naturalization Act’s dictum that immigrants needed to be “free, white, and 21” to gain citizenship. It was there in Roger Taney’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case, which said that only white people could be citizens. The Civil War not only ended slavery, it redefined membership in the nation. The 14th Amendment granted all people born in America citizenship, a principle that even survived the weakening of that amendment by Jim Crow. In our time the Trump administration is trying to strip away birthright citizenship, which even the nativists of the 1920s failed to do.

Trump and those nativists are part of a longer tradition of Herrenvolk nationalism in American history. As Ibram X. Kendi points out in his brilliant Stamped From The Beginning, “racial progress” in American life is inevitably met with “racist progress.” Trump and his myrmidons like Stephen Miller share the goal of the 1870s “Redeemers” to reinscribe white supremacy. Reconstruction ended with violent vote suppression and white supremacist terror directed against pro-Reconstruction voters and politicians. In some parts of the South this looked more like violent military coups than anything else. What followed was voter suppression, gerrymandering, and one party rule in the South in order to maintain white supremacy.

Many of the same states today are engaged in the same practices. True democracy lasted less than fifty years there, from the Voting Rights Act in 1865 to the Shelby decision gutting that law in 2013. In Alabama, where voting rights advocates paid for progress with their lives in the 1960s, voters in need of required IDs must now travel close to a hundred miles in some cases. What we are seeing today is not new, but rather the return of the constant. The illusion of moral arcs has bred complacency. Like the “Redeemers” Trump, McConnell, and other Republicans have self-consciously decided that limiting democracy is an acceptable tactic in maintaining their idea of a white, “real America.”

The nation was last this divided in the 1960s, whose echoes we should be hearing as much as the end of Reconstruction. There was no open civil war then, but the authorities certainly acted like one was on. How else could you explain the murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police, or the state-sponsored murders at Kent State, Jackson State, and Orangeburg? That same decade ended with JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK dead in the ground from assassins’ bullets and Richard Nixon in the White House.

America did not descend into outright authoritarianism after the convulsions of the 1960s, but only because backlash politics had majority support. Richard Nixon won re-election in 1972 by a landslide. Calls for greater racial equality ended in the 1970s with mass incarceration and a “war on drugs” that John Ehrlichman later admitted was a war against black activists and the hippy left by other means. The yearning for individual freedom expressed in sixties culture mutated into the neoliberal individualism of Reagan and consumerism.

When the election of Barack Obama threatened that new order the Tea Party and Trump appeared on the scene, and Republicans decided to abandon democracy in order to maintain their minority rule. To them this was the only way “real America” could be preserved, and its preservation must be maintained at all costs. The low grade civil war has now shifted into a higher gear, one where the lingering cultural divides of the 1960s are being fought over with the tactics of the 1870s.

The problem is that so many liberals refuse to believe that this is happening. This is in large part because Germany in 1933 is the only example they have in their heads when they think of authoritarian regimes destroying democracy. Without brownshirts marching in the street and a dictator outlawing opposition parties they can feel more complacent. Instead, they should be thinking about America in 1877, when an understanding of national belonging based on citizenship was violently smothered to death by one based on blood and race. If one must look to other countries, look to our neighbors in the Americas, where reactionary nationalism has seized nations from Bolivia to Brazil. Bill Barr’s Opus Dei-inspired rants would’ve been perfectly at home in the “dirty war” carried out by Argentina’s military regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

We can only start to fight the fight in America once we acknowledge that we have been embroiled in a low-grade civil war and constitutional crisis already. This battle will not be won without cost or, I fear, blood. The mass murders in El Paso and Pittsburgh and Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville are proof enough that blood is already being spilled. In our atomized 21st-century times the violence isn’t coming directly from the state, but from seeming “lone wolves.” They are given encouragement by a sewer of online hate and the president of the United States himself, who called the Nazis at Charlottesville “very fine people.” They need to be fought, even if it means a leap into new danger.

To shrink from this fight because it will be dangerous is shameful. There is no moral arc to the universe, and history does not move in a straight line. The only way it bends is by us getting out there and pushing it, and few moments demand that push more than this one.