Right-wing's sinister and misleading "civil war" talk gets some much-needed scrutiny
Political analyst Paul Waldman calls out the one-sided blood lust behind an idea too often viewed through a both-sides lens
This piece was originally published at The Hot Screen.
At his excellent new politics blog The Cross Section, Paul Waldman takes square aim at an under-examined vein of rhetoric emanating from the political right: the notion that the United States is on the brink of “civil war.” To his great credit, Waldman cuts through the bullshit and provides a salutary and correct interpretation of such talk:
[F]ew bother to clarify that when a conservative says a civil war is on its way, what they mean is not that order will break down and two factions will face off against each other in a battle for control of the government. What they mean is this: If our side doesn’t get what we want, we will start killing people.
That is what “civil war” actually means: heavily armed right-wing Americans committing acts of murder and terrorism across the country. And right now, Republican elites are doing everything they can to bring that nightmare about.
You really can’t over-emphasize how important it is to lay bare the murderous intent behind the right’s civil war talk (I took my own swing at this topic a while back). “Civil war” is a deliberately obfuscatory phrase, suggesting that both left and right long for violence, when in reality it’s a cover for the right to attempt to impose its will by fascistic, bloody means. This is hardly a semantic point; laying bare the true meaning of such language may yet do serious damage to the political power of the right, while helping rouse the rest of the country out of whatever accommodation and denial they may be in towards the extremist threat facing the U.S.
Many on the right would like nothing more than to dignify their violence with a patina of respectability through “civil war” references, but what they are seeking to cover is a bloodlust and a desire to commit mass murder against innocents. It is very much in the interest of those who seek to determine the balance of political power by the bullet, not the ballot box, to suggest that all sides are itching to fight; this is a way to obscure the right’s minority status in the country, and to reframe democracy not as a battle of numbers but as a battle of blood and will, in which the capacity to inflict violence is conflated with the purported righteousness of one’s cause.
Beyond hiding the one-side violence so attractive to the right, “civil war” phrasing has another baleful aim. The term suggests the clash of two competing centers of power that both claim a contested legitimacy. However, a clear-eyed view of current American politics shows that what the United States actually faces — indeed, has faced over the last few years, since the events around January 6 — is much more accurately characterized as a right-wing insurrection against the legitimate, democratically-elected government of the United States. From Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, to the GOP’s mass acceptance of the Big Lie that the election was stolen and its many maneuvers to undermine future elections, the GOP has declared war on American democracy. Uncritical acceptance of civil war talk needlessly grants the right a measure of unmerited legitimacy to such efforts, as well as to more violent schemes; in contrast, speaking of a right-wing insurrection puts this movement in its proper place, designating it as illegitimate and usurping of the democratic order.
Waldman brings up the current conflict between Texas and the federal government over border security, in which that state has quite clearly overstepped its constitutionally prescribed bounds while invoking secessionist rhetoric about the federal government having broken its “compact” with the states. (As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer reminds us, “The Civil War settled this question; the union is perpetual, the federal government is sovereign, and states do not get to defy federal law simply because they don’t like when their preferred candidates lose the presidency.”) You can see the logic of the civil war talk playing out in the border conflict, as Waldman observes that the GOP and right-wing media are essentially saying that, “The authority of the federal government is inherently illegitimate, and if you don’t like the decisions made by that government, you are justified in resisting it, including by violence if necessary.” But it should be clear and obvious that an assertion that the “authority of the federal government is inherently illegitimate” is insurrectionary in nature, a statement as meritless as Donald Trump’s parallel, evidence-free claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. This is not a battle between two equally plausible claimants to power, but between a legitimate one and an illegitimate one.
Whether we use the term “civil war” versus “insurrection” isn’t just a question of semantics: insisting that attempts by right-wing governors and others to challenge established federal power in the name of an extremist power grab are “insurrectionary” seizes the high ground and clarifies reality. Likewise, it’s very much in the interests of Democrats and other defenders of democracy to push back hard against purposely vague ideas promulgated by the right that the United States is on the brink of mass violence. Such threats are almost entirely emanating from one side, whose dreams are less of martial conquest than of terroristic, one-sided violence, as Waldman correctly identifies. These fantasies stem not from the right’s power, but from its fundamental internalization of its loser status as a shrinking minority bloc in a nation that has generally become more liberal on a host of issues, from gender equality and sexual identity to the role of religion in public life. Talk of civil war is an attempt to drag us all down to their own sordid level, to try to persuade the majority that it is powerless and literally outgunned. To the degree we accept talk of civil war, we delegitimize majority rule, democracy, and the majority’s own rightfully-held power.
But as I have written previously, even as we need to take very seriously all threats of violence, I think the greater likelihood is not that the right will embark on mass extermination of liberals and other hated fellow citizens, but that they will use limited violence and specter of broader mayhem to permanently warp American government in its own minoritarian favor:
[A]n over-emphasis on political violence as a threat to American democracy, up to and including speculative talk about civil war, distracts from a broader, far-likelier danger: that violence will be used by Republican politicians as a tool in a quasi-legal push to dismantle American democracy, so that the GOP, with its dwindling share of the electorate, can still have a shot at holding the various branches of the U.S. government [. . .] the more likely future for America is not that we might devolve into civil war, but that the GOP and the right use violence as an adjunct to an illegitimate deformation of American democracy. To talk about violence coming from the right — let alone civil war — without talking about this larger, more consequential Republican movement to subvert our political system obscures the dangerous synergy between the two, and helps the GOP evade accountability for its incriminating behavior in the here and now.
So we need to keep this larger anti-democratic push by the right in mind, and properly characterize it as the slow-motion insurrection that it is — but to the degree that defenders of American democracy can discredit and delegitimize the GOP and its right-wing allies by calling out their dreams of mass slaughter of civilians and instrumentalist attitude towards violence, Democrats and others shouldn’t hesitate to use Republicans’ own deranged fantasies against them.
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