27th June 1864: The Atlanta Campaign. Major General William T. Sherman sent Union forces to attack Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's entrenched position at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, which protected the rail supply link to Atlanta. An 1891 colour illustration. (Photo by Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A New Civil War? Not Bloody Likely

If the American left has any real hope of prevailing over Trump, it may well depend on the professionalism of uniformed men in arms

Last week the behemoth American retailer Walmart briefly withdrew firearms and ammunition from sales displays at all of its nearly 2,500 US locations that sell them. The stated reason was “an abundance of caution” – the catchall pandemic-inspired phrase that serves as an unchallengeable excuse for just about anything. Walmart apparently anticipated civil unrest serious enough that looters would target their local franchises as ersatz arsenals for what many observers believe could result in a civil war.

Some 61 per cent of Americans fear a second civil war may be in the offing

Such fears are well represented in the American body politic. According to an early October poll, some 61 per cent of Americans fear a second civil war may be in the offing, with 40 per cent reporting “strong agreement” with that statement and an identical 40 per cent repeating it in a newer poll released just one week before election day. Another poll conducted in late September registered that some one-third of Democrats and Republicans alike believe violent measures are justified to advance their political goals, a figure that rose to over 40 per cent if the opposite party should win the presidency. More than half of Americans report stockpiling necessities, with a substantial number doing so in fear of political or racial violence. As of 30 September, a record of nearly 17 million guns were purchased in the United States on the year, a 66 per cent annualised increase over 2019. About 40 per cent of the total sales were to first-time gun buyers. A leftist group called “Shutdown DC” has circulated a map identifying dozens of pro-Trump organisations in the nation’s capital due to be “disrupted” in what it describes as an election day “uprising.” As I write this article on a lazy Halloween afternoon in Florida, friends in Washington have been telephoning to tell me that the remaining open businesses in its troubled downtown areas are boarding up their storefronts.

Intellectuals of all persuasions have succumbed to the temptation to draw analogies to earlier internecine conflicts, even to the point of arguing that America has been in a kind of “soft” civil war since the day after Trump was elected in 2016. The cultural iconoclasm that came along with this year’s racial unrest recalls the ideological rage that shaped revolutionary France, Russia, and China, all of which were forged in vicious civil wars that their radical victors nearly lost. The “coasts-vs-heartland” bifurcation of American politics seductively delineates potential geographic battle lines that could substitute for the relatively neat North/South divide of America’s first civil war or, perhaps more vividly, the disparate territorial positions held by the Loyalist and Nationalist antagonists of the Spanish Civil War.

More intellectually minded observers have found discomforting parallels in America’s urban “elite” to Russia’s pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, a hapless lot that refused to condemn the radical leftists who immediately terrorised them into oblivion upon seizing power. Others despair the collapse of the “vital centre” of American politics, which long marginalized extremism of any kind and made compromise possible. Many leftists seriously view Trump’s possible re-election as an existential threat that will result in authoritarian fascist rule and the end of life as we know it. Much of the right is convinced that Biden will serve as an addled figurehead for a leftist cabal that will turn the constitutional republic into a flaccid social democracy policed by radical egalitarian zealots.

As of August 2020, as many as 84 per cent of Americans believe the news they receive is biased

Faith in American institutions is at an all-time low. The traditional ones essential for a healthy democratic society – mass media, schools and universities, law enforcement, the civil service, even science and technology – are distrusted on dystopian scales of which the minders of those institutions are typically either unaware or unconcerned. As of August 2020, as many as 84 per cent of Americans believe the news they receive is biased. According to the widely respected Gallup organisation, only 13 per cent now have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. Just 24 per cent feel that way about the criminal justice system. Both major presidential candidates have been publicly accused of massive financial improprieties, criminal levels of foreign influence peddling, general incompetence, dementia, and rape. Prevalent ideologies in educational institutions and their elite-mandated adjuncts in corporate and (until very recently) government training hold that all white Americans are inherently racist, and that all social problems, political contests, and even the entire history of the country are merely the result of struggles between the oppressed and their (white male) oppressors. Private life is subject to massive invasion, not merely by government agencies (with or without warrant), but by the media, tech companies, employers, university administrators, and other petty tyrants who until quite recently had no business knowing about what happens in your or anyone else’s bedroom. My publishing company just released an award-winning book about this frightening trajectory called Privacy: Past, Present, and Future. Its author is a veteran National Security Agency official who concluded by announcing that “it is time to get mad.”

As if all that were not enough, the pandemic only seems to be getting worse as autumn yields to winter, with record high new infection figures pouring in every day. Trump, whose handling of the pandemic is disapproved of by a majority of Americans, promises a far-reaching solution that is short on details, while Biden pledges “aggressive measures” that will almost certainly include another debilitating lockdown on a national scale. No matter what either candidate says, the economy continues to suffer from the effects of the pandemic and continuing racial unrest, with major cities disgorging the wealthy, leisured, and professional groups that contribute a vast proportion of their consumer spending and tax revenue. Left behind is a cataclysm of plunging prices and potentially unsolvable problems of poverty and wont. Big cities still show unemployment rates of over 20 per cent. A million and half New Yorkers are not food secure. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 62 per cent of Americans feel greater anxiety than they did a year ago, and 41 per cent report some kind of mental health problem. Nationally, the brunt of the trauma has been falling on the already distressed urban poor and lower middle class, who also tend to be at greater risk for Covid-19 infection. Not coincidentally, those aggrieved social orders have historically volunteered the most enthusiastic recruits to both sides of civil war combat.

It is alarming that one-third of each major party’s members say that violence for political ends is ‘justified’

Loud voices in the major political parties have called for their respective presidential candidates to contest unfavourable election results regardless of their margins or circumstances, though how they plan to contest such results remains alarmingly vague. Both sides have already raised concerns, complaints, and some preliminary evidence of voter fraud and the uncertainty of mailed ballots, the preferred voting method of about twice as many Biden supporters as Trump voters. The courts are already hearing emergency cases about how, when, and in what condition mailed ballots may be counted. Disputes about the validity of only a relatively small number of votes – perhaps just tens of thousands out of well over a hundred million that will be cast – could be serious enough to determine the decisive electoral college majority that will determine the winner. As the campaign reaches its final hours, hardly any commentator suggests that we will wake up to any definitive or generally accepted result on 4 November.

Will these massive divisions push America over the edge as even greater fractures did after the contentious election of 1860? In our sensationalist age, civil war headlines command attention but the necessary bases of a sustained military conflict are fleeting. The military, the nation’s most trusted institution, enjoys the high confidence of 72 per cent of Americans according to Gallup, a figure that rises to 92 per cent when those with at least “some” confidence in the military are included. In addition to this near-universal public esteem, which has held more or less steady since at least 1975, the military shows no sign of fracture by ideology or region, both of which were major factors in the first civil war and, indeed, in all other modern civil wars. America’s conflicts in the Middle East notwithstanding, its military has experienced no recent war on the order of the First World War, which killed millions of combatants, demolished the discipline and integrity of multiple European militaries, and discredited their governments beyond repair, or of the pan-European invasions of revolutionary France, which were determined to reimpose a reactionary order over at least the promise of newly defined democratic liberties.

If serious civic disturbances do break out after the election, the US military’s 1.3 million active duty personnel – or more likely the small portion of them who would actually be deployed – will remain under unified command, loyal to even a frayed constitutional order, and capable of besting any challenge to the election’s lawfully determined outcome. In all likelihood, that outcome will be decided by the courts, as was the disputed, albeit less contentious, presidential election of 2000. Both sides will protest vitriolically if the vote or legal process does not go its way this year, and misery will remain widespread, but neither side can or will take on Marines or Bradley Fighting Vehicles to risk their lives over the future role of critical race theory or the fate of the senatorial filibuster.

61 per cent of Republicans live in a household with a firearm, while only 16 per cent of Democrats do

Much of the right, especially the comfortable establishment right that would like to see Trump lose anyway, is too passive and preoccupied to protest anything the left does and will reliably continue the old WASP elite’s weird and feckless strategy of graceful surrender. The leftist bullies behind this year’s earlier disturbances can be mean and scary, but they have a solid track record of dispersing, turning into moderates, or just shutting up as soon as anyone stands up to them with anything resembling consequences. It is alarming that one-third of each major party’s members say that violence for political ends is “justified,” but telling that to an anonymous pollster over the telephone is much less dramatic than actually being violent. And even then, if one-third of each party really does favour violence in real life, two-thirds of each party does not.

In the extraordinarily unlikely event that a shooting war starts among an angry populace in the absence of military intervention, it will not last long: 61 per cent of Republicans live in a household with a firearm, while only 16 per cent of Democrats are gun owners. Even with that massive built-in disadvantage, Democratic gun owners trend rural and moderate while, paradoxically, their radical brethren in urban areas are virtually unarmed as a matter of lifestyle and ideological disposition. Conversely, Republicans who bear arms often routinely carry them for protection and bring them to public demonstrations. As ironic as it sounds, if the American left has any real hope of prevailing over Trump, it may well depend on the professionalism of uniformed men in arms.

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