America plunges into the danger zone

Michael Janofsky

Before the Capitol siege. Photo: Elvert Barnes


We no longer whisper the words. You hear and read them  everywhere. In casual conversation. At social gatherings. As the subject of a growing number of commentaries and books. 

Civil war.

Not the one in the 1860s over slavery. The one now underway over American democracy. As respectful political discourse fades away, one side has changed the rules of engagement — the side that rejects the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election, the side that populates the Republican party, the side whose reins are tightly held by Donald Trump as more followers fall under his spell.

Their tactics of opposition have escalated beyond ordinary debate. They include nasty tweets, misinformation campaigns and agitated macho types threatening to kidnap and kill public officials and, when prompted, storm the national seat of government to overturn an election.

This is new and frightening stuff. Sure, people have always been angry, but the ugliness has generally remained in check at the fringe. Now it’s in the open as social media platforms provide cover of anonymity allowing fellow travellers to find each other and talk sedition. And don’t forget guns. We have 330 million Americans and 400 million guns in private hands. 

In her new book, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, Barbara F Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, contends the United States has entered a “danger zone,” between democracy and autocracy. The Canadian journalist and author Stephen Marche has a new book out: The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future.

The cover story of a recent issue of the Atlantic magazine referred to the Capitol siege last year, saying, “January 6 was Practice.” In a recent essay for The New York Times, former President Jimmy Carter wrote, “Without immediate action, we are at genuine risk of civil conflict and losing our precious democracy.” 

So, to paraphrase the Talking Heads from 1980: “You may ask yourself, ‘How did we get here?’” While the answer may be obvious to many, Biden waited until the anniversary of the Capitol siege to abandon his friendly Uncle Joe demeanor with a scathing attack aimed squarely at Trump.

Without ever uttering his name, Biden charged him with eroding democracy and bringing the country to the precipice of crisis. “The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election,” Biden said. “He’s done so because he values power over principle. Because he sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest, than America’s interest, and because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution. He can’t accept he lost.”

While it’s uncertain that Biden’s words will change anything, the speech served as a shocking reminder of how dangerous the country has become with a former leader whose followers “are betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strong man.”

And what better proof than the Capitol siege. Determined to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory to keep Trump in office — “Stop the steal!”, they shouted — Trump’s warriors proclaimed themselves modern-day equivalents of the “patriots” who separated the colonies from England in the 18th century. Trump called them “great people”. Biden called them “armed insurrectionists.” 

The Department of Justice called them criminals, so far charging more than 700 with violations of federal law, including “seditious conspiracy” to overthrow the government. “Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy,” Biden said. “They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage. Not in service of America, but rather in service of one man.”

It bears noting that neither Trump nor his media acolytes have produced a shred of evidence that Trump lost through fraud or voting manipulation. But in these toxic times, it hardly matters. Fealty to Trump remains strong. In anniversary ceremonies at the Capitol to honor the cops who protected members of Congress that day, only one of the 262 Republican lawmakers attended – Representative Liz Cheney, who was banished from her party leadership position for voting to impeach Trump. She now serves on a House panel with Democrats investigating the causes and consequences of the siege.

Across the country, members of paramilitary groups with names like Proud Boys and Oath Keepers have sworn fidelity to Trump. In states that allow possession of firearms in public, they tote automatic weapons around polling places and statehouses.

In Michigan, the authorities arrested thirteen people for plotting to kidnap the Democrat governor, Gretchen Whitmer, for imposing pandemic restrictions. Death threats against state election officials who refused to seek outcomes favourable to Trump have become commonplace.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, told a Congressional committee: “Armed protesters gathered outside my home and chanted, ‘Katie, come out and play. We are watching you.’” Al Schmidt, a Republican member of the Philadelphia Board of Elections, testified he received one threat that said: “Tell the truth or your three kids will be fatally shot.”

Members of Congress from both parties have reported threats of violence — for voting to impeach Trump, for voting to certify Biden’s election, even for voting to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. Fred Upton of Michigan, a House Republican for 30 years, released a voice recording of one message after he voted for Biden’s bill: The man calls him a “fucking traitor” and adds, “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your fucking family dies.”

A December poll by the Washington Post and University of Maryland found that 34 per cent of all Americans and 40 per cent of Republicans believe violence against the government is sometimes justified. To that end, the justice department recently announced creation of a domestic terrorism unit to combat violent extremists. Many wondered what took it so long. An indictment of eleven Oath Keepers last month quoted the leader telling his colleagues two days after the election, “We aren’t getting through this without civil war. Too late for that. Prepare your mind, body, spirit.”

The seeds of right-wing discontent were planted in 2008 when Barack Obama became president, an incomprehensible outcome for many white Republicans, a Black man ascending to the nation’s highest office. Fearful of losing whatever advantages they had through white privilege, they set out to oppose everything Obama did. That included Republicans in Congress.

While Obama succeeded where Trump failed, winning a second term, he nonetheless helped galvanize Republicans behind Trump as an anti-immigrant nationalist and throwback to the 1940s when populism and isolationism delayed America’s entry into World War II. Trump’s campaign battle cry, “America First,” echoed Charles Lindbergh, the hero aviator widely perceived as a white supremacist, anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer. When the European Union raised the possibility of financial consequences for Victor Orbán’s “illiberal state” of Hungary in November, Trump promptly endorsed him for reelection.

Crying foul and blaming others have always been parts of the Trump playbook. In his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton he insisted he could only lose if the election were rigged. In victory, he became that odd spectacle, a sore winner.

He reprised the accusation running against Biden. As the pandemic hit, prompting states to expand voting access, Trump called it cheating, proof that the election was fixed. Never mind that 61 courts dismissed his allegations of fraud, numerous post-election state audits found no evidence of foul play and his own Attorney General called the election fair and square.

Trump and his loyalists are buying none of it. His claims of fraud helped persuade nineteen Republican-controlled states last year to narrow voting access in the name of “election integrity.” Meanwhile, Trump-aligned candidates are jumping into national and statewide races, in many cases opposing non-aligned Republican incumbents. Republican states are also installing pro-Trump people in positions that oversee elections.

The political left fears that all these efforts represent an attack on democracy, parts of a coup attempt by a strongman, the avatar of the Capitol siege. That it could actually lead to widespread armed conflict seems hard to imagine: Unlike the 1860s, when the divide was a neat north vs. south, the current splits are amorphous — urban/rural, coastal/ heartland, college-educated/high school graduates, whites/non-whites. Outbreaks may be more sporadic.

Still, few imagined hijacked airliners crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Few imagined a mob incited by an American president storming the Capitol to overturn an election, threatening to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence. All that happened, and here we are. Maybe a less Trumpy rival, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, emerges to challenge him. Who knows. So, we wait and wonder with fingers crossed and the possibilities no longer unimaginable.

Thanks for the memories

Joe Biden was inaugurated as America’s 46th president a year ago last January, providing a milestone to measure his performance and an anniversary to celebrate. Did someone say celebrate?

All presidents face challenges. Abraham Lincoln had a civil war. Franklin D Roosevelt had a Great Depression. John F Kennedy had a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Biden, meanwhile, had some major achievements, including two major spending bills, a vast increase in the covid vaccination rate, a sharp decline in child poverty and reconnections with countries and agreements abandoned by his predecessor.

But all that played out against an onslaught of events that turned his first year into a non-stop game of Whack-a-Mole. Some issues were self-induced; most remain unresolved. Here’s a list:

  • A botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Friction with China over Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade and human rights; with Russia over Ukraine, nuclear arms and human rights; with Iran over a nuclear deal.
  • No Republican support and resistance from senators in his own party to a proposed $2.2 trillion social net/climate programme legislation. Same with his effort to expand voting rights and keep state election boards nonpartisan.
  • The relentless onslaught of Covid-19, wildfires, tornados, floods and hurricanes.
  • A lethal insurrection at the Capitol.
  • Growing inflation and near record gasoline prices.
  • Supply chain malfunctions and a flagging labor force.
  • Large numbers of Americans who refuse vaccinations and masks, even as they die in the cause of their “personal freedom.”
  • The Supreme Court’s rejection of his vaccine mandate for large businesses.
  • Hospitals once more pushed to capacity.
  • Approval ratings in the low 40s.

So, Happy Anniversary, Mr. President. Did someone say happy?

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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