It was a January day of infamy that marked a turning point in American history, some said.
In a Boston Herald editorial titled “A Revolution Begins,” that day’s political events were compared to the 1775 “shot heard ‘round the world,” the opening salvo to the American Revolution. “And like that battle in Concord more than two centuries ago, this is only the opening round,” the Herald editors wrote somberly. Others chose a later but no less dramatic historic comparison: the war between the Union and Confederacy. Author Lee Harris’s book The Next American Civil War argued that “the populist revolt against the liberal elite” was on the brink of descending into a bloody armed conflict. For Harris, that January day looked like a tragic prelude to war, the equivalent of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry for the twenty-first century.
The aforementioned date isn’t January 6, 2021, it’s eleven years prior: January 19, 2010. Then, Scott Brown’s victory in a special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat was expected to spark a call to arms. You might ask yourself, “Who?” Brown was the empty suit (once Cosmopolitan‘s “America’s Sexiest Man”) turned lugheaded Republican who upset Martha Coakley in the true-blue state of Massachusetts.
“On January 19th, the nation and world were stunned to learn that Scott Brown had trounced his Democratic opponent by a five-point spread,” wrote Harris. Yet for all the pearl-clutching, the only shots fired after Brown won were rhetorical ones, and two years later, Elizabeth Warren beat Brown for a full term in 2012. The ex-senator’s biggest claim to fame since then is serving as a far-flung hall monitor in New Zealand as Donald Trump’s ambassador.
A decade later, we’re still being bombarded with speculations about a new civil war — this one about red versus blue, a hyper-partisan self-immolation of the United States.
Far from being humbled by failed prophecies of the past, the liberal establishment press — the alleged sober-minded bulwark of truth against the unreason and “fake news” of this age — is joining the far right by crying wolf about an American apocalypse ever more loudly.
For liberals, playing Paul Revere for this phantom war is supposed to wake Democrats up from their apathetic post-Trump slumber and get them to grab their proverbial bayonets. But it may have the opposite of its intended effect by making the actual shittiness of the current moment seem more reasonable. Or worse, these predictions could eventually become self-fulfilling.
Blame Stephen Marche. At least partially. The Canadian author’s just-released book: The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, along with political scientist Barbara F. Walter’s How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them provides plenty of ammo for the corporate media’s collective meltdown.
In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of the January 6 riots, an incredible number of major media outlets cited these books while beating the drums of war. “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?” read a New York Times headline. “Imagine Another Civil War, But This Time in Every State,” warned NPR. For Politico, the second Civil War had already begun; the only question left to ask was, “Why?” The cover for last month’s issue of the Atlantic is all funereal black except for the handwritten words “January 6 Was Practice” scrawled on it as if delivering America’s eulogy.
Marche actually began hinting at the possibility of a modern Civil War while covering the 2016 election for Esquire. “Is it the beginning of a Civil War? Or is it just talk?” he asked in response to top Republicans’ increasingly violent rhetoric.
A half decade later, Marche decided to answer his own question with a resounding yes. Now he’s like a bizarro Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America from another country to warn us that we’re all doomed.
“The United States is coming to an end,” reads the portentous opening line of The Next Civil War. “The question is how.”
Over the next several hundred pages, Marche mines real-life examples of legitimate threats posed by far-right politicians and militia groups as an excuse to slip into fantastical “Guys, it’s time for some game theory” mode. The Next Civil War predicts five near-future scenarios in which the United States either collapses into a violent sectarian conflict or breaks apart entirely into four pieces due to secession.
The first chapter, for instance, involves a bloody fight between The Army of the Interstate, a motley crew of right-wing paramilitaries and alt-right hooligans led by a rogue sheriff, and the US military, helmed by a reluctant Army general forced to call down Apache helicopters upon them.
“The General has his orders,” Marche writes. “He has no choice but to begin the next civil war. Nobody feels he has a choice.”
Marche is a former college drama teacher, and it shows. He reimagines nation-states as Shakespearean protagonists (Canada is Horatio to America’s Hamlet), and his cast of characters have a made-for-TV quality. His right-wing sheriff insurrectionist literally wears a black hat, while his counterpart, the army general, is like an Aaron Sorkin lead, a meritocrat with a Harvard law degree who “reads Julius Caesar in the original Latin.” He’s a fictional Pete Buttigieg clone who sees himself taking up the burden of crushing the American insurrection alone like George Washington suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. After all, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with an army is an Ivy League–educated good guy with an army, goes the thinking.
In a later scenario, the chaos resulting from a category 3 hurricane that hits the Big Apple isn’t just described as a disaster, it’s the harbinger of The Fall of New York, with the remaining population left to suffer as “large drifting groups of human wreckage.”
It’s a lot of sturm und drang that’s well-written enough to conceal the fact that Marche is essentially playing the role of Alex Jones for the MSNBC set. He may cite more polls, and quotes from military experts, social scientists, and technocrats. But The Next Civil War is still ultimately conspiracy-mongering for people who consider themselves above conspiracy theories.
Warning about an imminent apocalypse is an extremely long literary tradition.
The Book of Revelation is arguably the world’s most famous piece of hysterical journalism. The Apostle John is believed to have written it while in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. It’s an account of a hallucinatory vision of dragons, wrathful angels, and bloody plagues delivered by God. It’s difficult to parse, but the gist of Revelation’s “plot” is that the Lamb (Jesus) fulfills his promise to return to the earth and free the deceived and enslaved human race from Satan and his coconspirators, especially the Beast and False Prophet.
But it’s not — as the Mike Pences of the world believe — supposed to be a literal preview of an End of History event. The original word in Greek, apokalypsis — means an unveiling, a revelation. This revelation wasn’t meant for us, many biblical scholars say, but for the seven churches in first-century Asia that were thought to be critical to the burgeoning cult of Christianity.
Apokalypsis was meant as a moment of clarity, a message of repentance and righteousness so that churches or nations would escape divine judgment and receive the Lord’s promised blessings. Real-life is complicated — apocalyptic writing attempts to make things appear more black-and-white and heighten the drama.
The Republican Party effectively exploited this style of rhetoric in the second half of the twentieth century in order to build a coalition around its very unpopular agenda of busting unions, deregulating markets, and lowering taxes for the rich. Ronald Reagan’s election heralded a triumph of a new kind of apokalypsis narrative that brilliantly fused elements of Cold War–era American exceptionalism with evangelical Christianity to bring us closer to a kind of family-friendly theocracy that ruled, as Thomas Frank once wrote, “one market under God.”
Merging the American flag and the cross was a winning political philosophy for decades and the rock that conservative talk radio and Fox News built its house on. But business-friendly free market disciples has had trouble closing Pandora’s Box on the radical right even as it’s gotten more virulent and unhinged. William F. Buckley begat Rush Limbaugh begat Glenn Beck begat Alex Jones begat Q-Anon — a kind of modern-day John of Patmos spewing apocalyptic warnings about the demonic evil of the Democratic Party and the liberal elite drinking babies’ blood.
It’s not tethered to reality, but it’s certainly good for clicks, ratings, engagement, and, ultimately, votes. In modern political journalism terms, it “rallies the base.”
It’s no coincidence that the liberal media class increasingly adopted a similar alarmist and fatalistic tone during the Trump presidency. We were told, for instance, that Trump was the new Hitler set to deliver America to Vladimir Putin, that the Joker movie would set off mass shootings by incels, and that the theocracy of the Handmaid’s Tale was just around the corner.
For the corporate media’s four horsemen of the apocalypse, the November 2020 election between Trump and Joe Biden was hyped as Armageddon. Hence headlines such as: “I Fear That We Are Witnessing the End of American Democracy” or “The End of America — and Democracy — As We Know It.” The New York Times suggested singles weren’t just dating; they were “seeking a partner for the end of the world.”
The ends, Democrats might argue, justified the means. Biden won the election with a record turnout. But with the Trump crisis averted, blue America’s donor base and media consumers began to go back to brunch as promised.
The utility of The Next Civil War’s vision of the president being assassinated in a Jamba Juice is that it stirs up the Democratic base in a way that the sight of Ted Cruz in his dad jeans cannot. But the problem with the liberal media class adopting right-wing tactics is that it insulates the Biden administration from criticism. “We have to stand by our president,” the tone implies — “we’re at war!”
Plus the establishment has historically exploited feverish talk about the threat of anarchy and civil war by suppressing all kinds of dissent, usually against progressive social movements. Politicians and news men’s wild-eyed warnings about bloody revolution helped fuel authoritarian backlash to nationwide strikes, the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, two Red Scares, and more.
Marche admits as much: “To clamp down on domestic terrorism, the US government will have no choice but to control arms, control the movement of people, and control speech,” he writes. Gun control might be a good idea, but controlling movement and speech is an embrace of authoritarianism in the name of fighting authoritarianism.
What should the government do to blunt the impact of forces that Marche calls “American ISIS?” For some reason, reducing poverty and inequality, rebuilding public institutions, and building programs like universal public health care don’t show up. He could call for Democrats to show the material benefits of a healthy and robust democracy. But what liberal doomsayers are calling for is the opposite — a kind of counterinsurgency strategy against Americans that relies on demonization, over-surveillance, and even mass incarceration in the name of public safety. We have five decades of proof that this strategy doesn’t work.
Ultimately, we don’t need the threat of a civil war to stay vigilant. It’s possible to be alarmed by Trump’s behind-the-scenes attempts to overturn the election and right-wing authoritarian movements whose increasingly violent anti-government arguments are becoming more mainstream in the Republican Party without hitting the panic button. Not every act of rebellion, even one as cinematic as a horned barbarian at the gates of Congress, signals The End of the Republic.