A Less Than Civil War

“Proud Boys” on January 6. (Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography, via Flickr)

For at least a year, my husband has been predicting something like what happened January 6 at the Capitol. I let his words wash over me, unable to believe anything that close to an act of civil war could happen here, again.

“At the core, this is about race, and it’s about who wields power,” Andrew kept insisting.

And now I see White police officers taking selfies with White rioters, and all my empathetic words about people who have lost their livelihood, their identity, in a fast-changing world, fall off the page and reassemble in midair. People who have lost their race’s supremacy, more like. And contrary to the MAGA fairy tale, there is no going back.

So what comes next?

“We’ll still have politicians—and media figures aspiring to politics—who want to ride that Trumpist bandwagon,” Andrew predicts. “Right now, they are chastened. That won’t last. Even if it did, they’d still have social media for their conspiracy theories. These groups are now organized, babe. They have infrastructure and communication and easily available weapons, and they are angry and scared. They have been told that their way of life is going to be taken away from them, and they feel like their votes no longer ‘count.’ We have had our first Black president, and now we have our first female vice president, and she is of color. So now that the ‘enemy’ is in control and they don’t have anyone to protect them, you can expect continued violence—at least in the short term, for the next few years.”

Only some of this penetrates my daze. A historian, Andrew is used to these cycles. For me, this is the stuff of dystopian novels and grim, near-future science fiction. I am still rationalizing, telling myself it is good that things got so bad, because anyone with any decency is appalled and maybe this will draw us together…. Surely we are not facing a civil war because a bunch of people with no manners believed the conspiracy theories on Trump media?

For once, my husband is comfortable with oversimplification. He shrugs and says only, “We’re still a warrior/hunter-gatherer species.”

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan would agree. Violence may not be written indelibly into our DNA, she says, but we do have the tendency, and once we began to organize into societies, wars between those societies became virtually inevitable. We proceeded from conflict to conflict, often making scientific or social strides because of the clashes. Interviewed for Nautilus, she remarks that humans have become nicer, more peaceable, over time—no more public executions or brutal prizefights and not as many homicides—though the United States, she adds dryly, “is something of an outlier.” Still, there is what Richard Wrangham calls “the goodness paradox”: Evolution may be taming us as individuals, “but we’ve also become better at organizing and using purposive violence.” In other words, making war.

MacMillan is talking about official war, though, the kind that we are becoming frighteningly good at waging as our weaponry becomes colder, cleaner, and more technological. She is not talking about mob violence that is triggered by fear. And that is what we are facing. We are a nation with a sizable number of citizens who are crazed by existential terror, enraged because they feel disempowered, and eager to lash out. They believe that the enemy that wants to destroy their world lives next door.

Is there enough rage to launch a civil war? “Is there a way to avoid one?” counters the newly cynical voice inside my head. Because we cannot talk this through, operating as we are from entirely different assumptions about truth, facts, and the Constitution. And as earnest as Joe Biden is about bringing Americans together, a sizable chunk of this country is only interested in unity if it is on their terms.

Well, me too. The difference is that my terms feel aligned with law, justice, and the common good. But is that a difference? Anyone can feel aligned. I try again: The difference is that we do not believe conspiracy theories; that we trust the system (for the most part); that we value civility (true, so why does it sound pompous?); that we mistrust despotism and the spewing of hate.

MacMillan calls civil wars “the worst, because they are wars of ideologies.” You fight a civil war because you disagree about who should control your society and where it should be heading. That means “it’s almost a moral imperative to eliminate anyone who opposed you,” even a child or a grandparent, a priest or nurse. “There’s no one innocent in such wars.”

I shiver; her words glazed my spine with ice. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to fight a civil war. Which is what anybody who has a life that feels meaningful and satisfying and a future that interests them is saying right now. Which leaves the field open for those who are not so invested in their life and who have decided violence is the only way they can restore their world. Bonus: Violence is exciting. A rush of unfamiliar power. Life-affirming, in the way of extreme sports and sword-swallowing.

“We’re not going to see a civil war in the usual sense,” Andrew points out, because now I am ramping up, trading my former dubiousness for a wee panic. At his words, I breathe out, relieved for a single, foolish moment. “If there is violence, it’ll probably take the shape of little uprisings, terrorist acts, conflagrations, all over the place,” he continues. “There is no clean physical divide, the way you had with the North and the South. A lot of the tension is urban versus rural, but it’s muddled.”

Our town is semi-rural. On January 7, I ran an errand, and as I listened to people pouring out their hearts on NPR, despairing for the future of democracy, I passed three houses with Trump flags flying. On the other hand, the checker at the grocery store and the folks at the dog park were all appalled by the insurrection. I had to probe carefully to learn that, though. We listened as hard as safecrackers, trying to gauge each other’s position before daring to speak with any force.

There is no way to predict someone’s stance from their address; we are commingled, in a way that used to make me rejoice at this country’s ability to unite all sorts of folks and transcend their differences. Now, what? Are we going to face off across the creek that runs through town?

“We are not looking at traditional warfare,” Andrew reminds me. “Anything that happens over the next few years will be sporadic and unpredictable.” The sort of guerilla insurgency we tut-tut about in less developed, less democratic countries.

How spoiled and naive we all sound now, repeating over and over, “I never thought this would happen here.” We said it after 9/11, its death toll far lower than what other countries have suffered for centuries. But we were meant to be exceptional. And so, complacency shattered, we went into overdrive, tossing civil liberties aside to make sure we were impenetrable. And then, back in 2015, the FBI pointed out that domestic terrorism was a far greater threat, and there were even police officers aligned with these groups.

And then Donald Trump became president and offered them his blessing.

When I first heard the phrase “domestic terrorism,” all that came to mind was militias, bombings, and hate groups being nasty. Costumed berserkers crashing into the Capitol and rifling through senators’ mail, stealing mahogany boxes, hanging from walls? My imagination stalled out far earlier.

A Jesuit philosophy professor, John Kavanaugh, used to call violence a failure of the imagination. So is the inability to predict it.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.