“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” – Anton Chekhov
During that terrible summer of 2020, when my wife and I lived only eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol, it felt like we were in the earliest days of civil war. Quarantined for months by June, the summer was punctuated by military helicopters flying low across the Potomac and of the distant sound of tear-gas explosions from the increasingly belligerent police as they corralled peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters. One morning we found that a force of mercenaries in mask and Kevlar had arrived, name tags obscured and brandishing heavy artillery, lined up in perfect formation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with disagreement on who exactly they were (there was less doubt as to who they worked for). Throughout Capitol Hill I started to notice cars with out-of-state plates and ominous bumper stickers – the Punisher Skull, the Gadsden Flag, the Three Percenters, the Blue Lives Matter flag, Proud Boys, the Patriot Prayer fasces. Mysterious fireworks began to be set off every night as soon as dusk descended; they’d fire off every few minutes until dawn. I was certain that they were set off by the police to unnerve the populace; lots of people on the internet confirmed my paranoia, even though the obvious explanation was that kids were cooped in all year and fireworks were cheap that summer, but for those sweltering weeks I was sure that I was watching the first days of the second American civil war.
I’m still not sure that I wasn’t, that I’m not. “The unimaginable has become every day in America,” writes the Canadian journalist, critic, and novelist Stephen Marche in his new book The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. Mentioning the deputization of troops in Washington DC, the right-wing attacks on elected officials, the disruption of the peaceful transition of power, and the insurrection of January 6th, and Marche writes that if you had read “about them in another country, you would think a civil war had already begun.” Because many Americans have a ready-made image of what civil war looks like – boys in blue and grey marching in formation on some Virginia field – they’re unable to recognize the signs of collapse which are obvious. Political radicalization, anti-democratic agitation by elected Republicans, obscene inequities and the specter of environmental collapse are all leading towards conflict, especially in a country with almost 400 million guns and more than a trillion rounds of ammunition.
If you’re thinking that this will look like Manassas and Antietam, pitched battles between standing armies, then you’d be right to conclude that such a war is unlikely. But if you’re envisioning Syria or Northern Ireland, then you’ve got a much more accurate understanding. Marche’s Canadian citizenship is helpful in his analysis, for he is “outside that particular confusion,” a sympathetic witness who can conclude certain things that those closer to everything might not see. Despite some failings in presentation, The Next Civil War is a welcome addition to left-center analyses of the divisions in American society, divisions which the right is poised to exploit. He offers five theoretical triggers for American collapse – a violent confrontation between the federal government and a posse of far-right militias, the assassination of a Democratic president, the destruction of New York City in a super hurricane, the detonation of a dirty bomb in Washington DC, and the relatively peaceful secession of states that have realized their cultural and political differences outweigh their shared history, with all scenarios grounded in real-world conditions.
Who can examine – really examine – the current state of the nation and think that there is much to be hopeful for, that the enemies of democracy barely defeated aren’t obviously preparing to come back in three years’ time, committed to not making the same strategic mistakes that they did the last time they tried to hold onto power? “After the Trump years, the Democrats have attempted to salve the wounds inflicted on American institutions, but they remain overwhelmingly committed to the old ways, to the United States they grew up in,” Marche writes, and in that he’s absolutely correct. President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi talk a good game about the authoritarian threat we face, and then they do perilously little to constrain that threat. The filibuster remains, the Supreme Court has not been expanded, voting rights remain stuck in Congress, and most importantly scant little has been done to improve the material conditions of voters’ lives. Marche argues that “One way of reading the current political situation is that Republicans have only come to realize the collapse of the institutions before the Democrats. Meanwhile, the window to keep America democratic is closing.” If The Next Civil War has any role, it’s this – to convince liberals that they’re already in the midst of such a conflagration, even if it’s not of their choosing.
“You won’t recognize your own country,” Marche writes in a scenario describing the cold civil war suddenly becoming hot. “You’ll go to work. You raise your kids. It will be possible, just, to cling to a sense of normalcy, although it is exactly normal life that becomes impossible…. The stories will accumulate: ever-expanding factionalism, ever-deepening loathing, the stakes of the monstrous spectacles rising,” though if we’re being honest, that pretty much describes the United States right now. We must at least understand the severity of where we currently find ourselves. One of the two major parties in our national system is now openly committed to undemocratic rule, fueled by racist, misogynist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant supporters, many of whom come from the upper socio-economic strata and who govern as if elections don’t have consequences because they’re doing everything in their power to ensure that they won’t. “Neo-Confederates, white nationalists, straight Nazis, Klansmen, the alt-right, three-percenters, Spartan youths, the American Golden Dawn, Frontiersmen, Oath Keepers:” these groups may seem fringe, but they’re the sorts who propel Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar to Congress. And perhaps Donald Trump back into the presidency, legally or not.
“Don’t mistake intellectual incoherence with weakness,” writes Marche. “The power of the anti-government patriots is real and rising.” Elected Democrats, with a few exceptions, don’t govern as if some of their fellow Congresspeople didn’t aid and abet an assault directly on their workplace, as if only a year ago it wasn’t the intent of a sitting president to see his fellow elected officials potentially executed in a coup. “American liberals in the major cities retain a kind of desperate faith in the country’s institutions that amounts nearly to delusion,” and this is perhaps the most astute observation which Marche makes. What is one to do? I’ve got no idea. All I can say is that whenever what’s coming happens to come, we can’t say that we weren’t warned.
The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future
By Stephen Marche
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster
Published January 4, 2022