Some thoughts on how we might get from where we’re at now to a Second Civil War
You persuade your base that there is no other way but violence.
By Lt. Col. Robert F. McTague, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense office of Second Civil War affairs
If we have a second Civil War, trying to understand what is happening will feel more like Ukraine in 2014 than Virginia in 1861.
Our first Civil War was primarily about slavery, but that was in the context of social and economic models in the South that were ripe for extinction. The South’s reaction was to launch a last-ditch effort to maintain and prop up its way of life at all costs, so it was visceral and violent.
Likewise, Trump’s election was an angry, defiant death throe, a angry cry against demographic and economic changes that are in fact irreversible. So, if you are a New Right strategist today — call them the Great Disruptors — the question is, how do you confront those inevitabilities?
First, you continue at the low level, with some really advanced, effective gerrymandering, as in Wisconsin. You continue to enflame working class whites, who have been ignored by the Democrats for decades. You also try to limit immigration and free trade as much as possible.
Even so, even as they do this, the New Right’s Disruptors know they can slow down changes to the nation, but they can’t stop them. So what’s the next step? You up the ante. You make it holy war. You persuade your base that there is no other way but violence. I believe many, perhaps most, of the members of Trump’s base will sign up for that.
Why? Because they will believe they are on the side of good, of right, of Americanism.
Many people in the South and heartland in general often think of themselves as patriotic, loyal Americans, more so than “liberals,” “Yankees,” “elites” and people from the North and urban areas. I know this well from two decades in the Army. Southerners nowadays, including Texans, often see themselves as the “realer Americans,” the people who really stand up for the country, who have a better feel for what it stands for.
How do you translate those feelings into tactics? Well, first, you don’t secede. Rather, you set the stage for yourself to be the big winner, the good guy. You make yourself “America” and make the “other guys” the troublemakers and secessionists. All you really are doing, you insist, is trying to make this country great again. Sound familiar?
You set out to marginalize your opposition. You declare that your enemies are the anti-American “elites,” concentrated in “Sanctuary Cities” that are economically thriving — and thumbing their noses are the rest of the country. They’re looking at you, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The bad news for Disruptors is, these elitist cities are also many of the US’s largest ports and financial centers. The good news: they are easy to isolate and disenfranchise.
If I were a truly Machiavellian New Right strategist, I’d focus my fire on the state of California. Make it The Other. Attack it relentlessly. Threaten its culture and power. Cut off water that flows into it from outside the state, essential to its people and agriculture. Ignore those nettlesome decisions from the 9th Circuit.
Think of how it would benefit the base if California somehow withdrew from the next presidential election, sat it out in protest. Sound crazy? It is, but it’s also exactly the kind of audacious reshaping of the American electorate these strategists need.
The Disruptors would accept violence as part of the equation. I don’t foresee set-piece battles between great armies, but I think they understand the strategy would involve persistent conflict that kills hundreds or even thousands on the way to achieving its aims. If they can get away with it with minimal bloodshed, great; if not, “so be it.”
In March, my totally unscientific hunch was a second civil war had less than a 20% chance of happening. Now I’m guessing it’s closer to 40%. The revision is less a reaction to the current president or perceived deterioration of the political environment as it is a revision of my own understanding of “where we are.” I’ve lately become persuaded that our current leaders are nearly incapable of mediation, reconciliation, or compromise in much of anything, regardless of the stakes; nor do I expect that to improve. If anything, I expect it to worsen.
I now think that something akin to the scenario I’ve presented here is only a matter of time. Why? Because for the New Right, it is the only alternative to political extinction. Soon, they will have no choice but to be bold, drastic and ruthless. We’d be foolish not to expect something real and violent as a result.
Robert F. McTague retired in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He did two tours in Iraq, and also served in Kuwait, Qatar, Korea, Croatia, Romania, and Turkey. He completed two NATO tours as well. He now makes his home in Bucharest, Romania.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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