Will There Be Another Civil War in the United States?

Tl-dr: No, not for now, but it makes great click-bait. Most of the post that follows will explore my thinking on this question, but first, a couple of brief updates on recent posts.

On Thursday, I wrote about New York’s thus-far-bungled vaccination efforts and proposed shifting to a regulated first-come-first-vaccinated approach; however, I also guessed “that vaccine distribution will start to scale up pretty dramatically in the coming weeks and months regardless of what approach is taken,” and based on Governor Cuomo’s (unlinkable) COVID newsletter, as of yesterday, January 8th: “New York has administered approximately 479,000 vaccine doses. Hospitals have increased the number of doses administered over the past several weeks, starting with 33,709 doses administered during Week 1 and reaching approximately 195,078 by the end of Week 4. While the uptick is welcome, it is still not enough and we have more work to do.” On that final point, I agree with the Governor; the Tableau Public dashboard shows more than 1.3 million vaccine doses have been “allocated” (that is, already delivered) to NYS (with just shy of 600,000 of those coming to NYC) which yields a Percentage of Distributed Administered” rate for NYS of only 36%.

A week ago, I wrote about the struggle to grapple publicly with quantitative data with respect to the pandemic. That struggle continues, for while we’ve heard consistently that the US has less than 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for more than a quarter of all global COVID-19 deaths and confirmed cases, I’ve yet to hear any media or public figure point out that the US has less than 5% of the world’s population, but currently accounts nearly 40% of the world’s cumulative COVID vaccinations, and yet this latter point is also true. Just as the disproportionate COVID caseload and death count in the US can be explained both by our dismal pandemic response, and by the relative excellence of our scientific, medical, and public health system, as well as by our democratic political culture, so too can our relative vaccine successes, limited as they thus far are, be explained by the wealth and power of the US, and by our country’s remarkable ability to leverage staggering public resources in combination with world-leading private research capacity. People often aren’t good at holding two seemingly contradictory but equally true statements in their minds.

Coming to the point, though: Is the US on the verge of a second civil war? To follow the liberal/corporate media since Wednesday (January 6th, a day that will live in infamy…), one might believe we were, but does that proposition actually make sense? Not really. As I wrote on Wednesday: “A Few Thousand Idiots Can’t Topple the Most Powerful Government on Earth…”.

An analogy: Say the world’s best basketball player loses to a five-year-old. Does a reasonable observer now assume that that five-year-old is the new best basketball player in the world? Or does that observer conclude that the adult gracefully let the child win, but could have easily crushed the child at will?

All analogies are imperfect, and given that basketball is generally not played to the death, and that adults don’t generally kill children over losses in low-stakes sports matches, I’ll simply point out that – while one might posit that as the adult aged, and perhaps after 10 or 15 years had passed (such that the former greatest basketball player in the world had moved past prime, while the child had grown into a strapping young adult), that it would be perfectly reasonable to imagine that the once-child might then surpass the former-greatest in basketball skill – to suppose that the child was the greatest at age five is absurd, and if the adult feared the child might someday usurp that title (the Greatest), the adult could simply kill the child as it is said upstart Roman emperors used to kill the children and relatives of those fallen rulers they’d overthrown to foreclose any future possibility of familial blood-feud-style retribution.

Hopefully those are vivid enough images to make the point: As the militarized response to BLM demonstrations in DC over the summer made abundantly clear, there are ample Federal, state, and local law enforcement/military “resources” in Greater DC to stop not just a few thousand disorganized, lightly-armed, conspiracy-theorizing, amateur wannabes (especially when these wannabes did what haphazard organizing they did do in public view on the Internet), but an actual invading army. The failure to respond was a political one and its roots can be traced back to the current occupant of the White House.

Is there a risk that – left unchecked for years or decades to come – this current iteration of white supremacist insurgency might emerge as a viable threat to the US Government itself? Certainly, and I’ve been writing about that fact for more than a decade. (Here’s an excellent piece from Albert Wenger on lessons to be learned, on that same front, from German history.)

Is this current iteration of white supremacist insurgency an existential threat, at present, to the US Government? No, not really. The US ruling class has reacted, almost with one voice, against this movement; Corporate America (including Wall Street and Silicon Valley), the Deep State (which is a thing, and was always, until recently, a Left conceptualization of what is alternately called the Military-Industrial Complex or the Defense Establishment), and the media writ large have all come out with full-throated condemnations of the events of the 6th. Yes, a disconcerting number of Republican elected officials at the highest levels of government have backed the farcical coup attempt, and there is a long-tail risk that the QAnon fanatics, etc. who were the protagonists of the vandalism and breaking-and-entry at the US Capitol combine with the significant fraction of law enforcement and active-duty military personnel who are white supremacists to launch an all out civil war in an attempt to seize power. I’d say it’s very-long-tail though.

Much more likely, however, is that we see murders (including political assassinations), acts of sabotage, and spectacular acts of “domestic terrorism” a la the recent Nashville suicide bombing or the 1995 Oklahoma City attack, and that the state responds with the same type of crushing force it has generally brought to bear on such outright challenges to its authority over most of this country’s history. That a disproportionate amount of (domestic) state violence has been directed at Left movements and movements for the liberation of people of color goes without saying, and to see that there is a real risk that the events of the 6th will be mobilized to justify a reaction which seeks to further limit rights of assembly, protest, and freedom of speech, one need look no further back than the response to 9/11 and the justification for the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act under which we still live. (Remember the eco-terrorism clauses of the PATRIOT Act?)

I grew up in Idaho in the ’80s and ’90s. The politics that many in the ruling class find so startling today have been my political reality since childhood, and so it is hard for me to take seriously the sudden mainstream liberal hysteria. The threat from white supremacy and growing fascism is very real, but that threat, for now, is not particularly about armed domestic conflict. It is about our country’s long history of genocide, slavery, and racial terror; our country’s caustic role globally; and the slow erosion of our liberties at home, that has roots deeper than 9/11, but any analysis of which most be rooted in an understanding of the reaction to/aftermath of that event.

I’ll end by referencing what John Cusack called “the best one liner of the entire pandemic” while taking care to try to give proper attribution: “Due to travel restrictions, this year the United States had to organize the coup at home.”

Exactly. White supremacist chickens are coming home to roost. Owing to historical context from which it is impossible to extricate ourselves, we now face the unenviable predicament of relying on our authoritarian, anti-democratic Establishment – in the form of the FBI, most especially, but the whole apparatus of domestic law enforcement and the judiciary – to crush an authoritarian, antidemocratic, but also fascist movement. In the near-term, perhaps there is no alternative but to hope that the FBI does to manifold cornily-named white supremacist outfits what it has done, in the past, to organized crime families, Black Panthers, and Branch Davidians alike. In the near, medium, and long term, though, we have to be fighting to forge a new, sane, and just political consensus in the ruins of neoliberalism, lest our current impasse give way to a neofascist future.

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