Opinion | Is America Headed for Another Civil War? (Published 2022) (2024)

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jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.

archived recording

The great divide in American politics shows no sign of closing.

We are a very divided, polarized country right now.

archived recording (joe biden)

We must be honest with each other and with ourselves. Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal.

jane coaston

I don’t know if you know this, but America and Americans feel pretty divided right now over our politics, over our culture, over what we eat and how we worship and what we do in our free time and even what we watch on TV. And according to some people, all that division might lead to a new, quote, unquote, “civil war.” But whenever we use terms like that, terms that have meant something very specific in the past, I’m curious about what we actually mean. And in the wake of January 6, should we really be worried about just how far political violence is going to go?

One of my guests today thinks there’s fire behind the rhetorical smoke. Tim Alberta is a staff writer at The Atlantic. And in August, he made the case that the F.B.I. raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate was a tipping point. He argues that if some MAGA Republicans are looking for reasons to rise up against the government, the raid might just give them one.

tim alberta

Not only are there no guardrails to disincentivize the bad behavior, but there is every incentive, every reward, pointing towards extremism.

jane coaston

But Times Opinion Columnist, Jamelle Bouie has argued that no, there’s no Gettysburg part two on the horizon. Jamelle’s a historian of the actual American Civil War. And he’s written that we’re not really in the same moment we were in 160 years ago.

jamelle bouie

I do not like the presence of far-right politics in the mainstream. But is it just part of ordinary politics at this point? Or does it represent something like being qualitatively different? And I’m not sure that it represents something qualitatively different.

jane coaston

Hi, Jamelle.

jamelle bouie

Hi, Jane.

jane coaston

Hi, Tim.

tim alberta

Hello, Jane.

jane coaston

Thank you so much for joining me to talk about the civil war, but not the Civil War, because when we’re talking about civil war, I think most Americans think of the American Civil War. Or they think of Civil War as in the state against the state, bayonets, muskets, a conflict that killed more Americans than any other conflict thus far. That, to me, is a universal way from what war and what this country’s politics look like today. So Tim, before we get into the specifics about what you were talking about in your piece, when you say civil war, what do you mean?

tim alberta

Yeah, I think that’s the right place to start. I think we probably start with what civil war is not, in this context, armies of red and blue, fighting another battle of Antietam. We’re not talking about the forces of Charlie Kirk clashing in the streets with the forces of Keith Olbermann, or pick your figurehead. We’re not talking about something anywhere near, I think, the scale or anywhere resembling the organization of what we saw in the mid-19th century.

What we are discussing is some significant scale of semi-organized, lethal, civil conflict that is organized around not just political and ideological disputes, but perceived threats to economies, livelihoods. And I don’t know that we would recognize it in the U.S., but it would follow something of a pattern that I think we’ve seen in other parts of the world, where have some sort of sectarian violence, not necessarily confined to anything resembling symmetrical warfare between citizens.

But also, local governments, regional governments, clashing with federal government, or even, perhaps, at the local level, sheriffs refusing to enforce state laws and potential outgrowth of violence from there that could reach a scale that we haven’t seen in a very long time in this country.

jane coaston

Jamelle, when you write that we are not heading towards civil war, what is the civil war that you have in mind?

jamelle bouie

So I think that if we’re going to define civil war as basically being low-intensity civil conflict, then that we shouldn’t refer to it as civil war because I think that when you look at what civil wars generally look like, they do involve sort of organized factions or organized — if not armies, then military forces. They may not necessarily involve entities trying to, themselves, become like states. It may be a struggle for control of the existing state.

But there are organized armed forces. There are organized political entities. And they’re vying, through armed conflict, for control of the state. And that is, I think, I don’t see happening in the United States anytime soon. But I do think Tim is right to say that we look like we are in the range of low-intensity civil conflict.

And I’m not sure we should think of that as an exceptional state in American history, that when you look at the broad sweep of the United States since 1865, what you’ll see is that we are probably living through an unusual period where violence between citizens over political issues is kind of at an all-time low.

I’m extremely skeptical that we are in for anything other than what we’ve seen in the past, which is small bands of individuals, maybe with a tacit endorsem*nt of actual, legitimate political leaders, or at least legitimate political leaders looking the other way, committing acts of violence. But at that point, again, we are looking at stuff that is actually pretty common throughout American history.

jane coaston

Jamelle, you’re saying that we are not in a unique moment of exceptional violence and democracy destruction. And it’s not a matter of who is fighting whom, but also what your goal is when you’re talking about civil war.

jamelle bouie

Right. The language of civil war is a very scary kind of language. And it implies the dissolution of the country in really important ways, like the dissolution of civil order. And I think the thing I want to emphasize is that you can have elevated levels of political violence, even quite dramatic rates of political violence. I’m thinking here of the late-reconstruction South where political mob violence, organized political violence, was just like a common feature of political life in those years.

And overall, civil society still is pretty normal. It still is pretty much the same. And that’s just a qualitatively different thing than what life looks like under conditions of civil war.

jane coaston

I want to get Tim in here because I think you’d differ with Jamelle about the moment that we’re in. And you’ve cited your experience in specific spaces like gun shows and Trump rallies and Trump-leaning churches as the reason you think America is tracking towards a new scale of political violence. So what makes you think that this is a new era of civic cataclysm?

tim alberta

Yeah, well there’s a lot to unpack there. I would start by saying that I broadly agree with Jamelle’s definition as far as what civil war is and again, what it isn’t’. As recently as four or five years ago, I probably would have been quite dismissive of my own fears, here, of the idea that we could be heading towards a meaningful scale of civic violence.

But I will tell you that what really changed my perception on all of this was the coronavirus. And I spent a lot of 2020 just talking with individuals, not just the small-town diner thing, but bigger cities, trying to absorb as much as I could of this moment in American life.

And what was so unique about the pandemic was how it validated, it sort of fulfilled the prophecy for so many on the right, of a hostile, weaponized, big government that was coming for them. And of course, Donald Trump was fabulously successful in spearheading that message.

And of course, you fast forward all the way to August 8, the search at Mar-a-Lago, what was the message coming from all of these Republican members of Congress, Republican governors, prominent, influential people in the G.O.P.?

It was that same message. And it was a haunting, threatening message, saying this is just the tip of the iceberg. What do you think these 87,000 new I.R.S. agents are for? They’re coming after you. And I think the biggest change for me, Jane, was going to state capitals where you had people walking around with a AR-15s strapped around their shoulders, and talking to these people, and hearing time and time and time again that civil war was imminent and that they were actively preparing for it.

You can only hear that so many times, and get into detailed conversations with individuals about what they’re doing to prepare for that conflict, before you start to take it a little bit more seriously. And so to the extent that I’m now perhaps bed wetting over it, it’s very much informed by that experience.

jane coaston

Yeah, Jamelle, I am curious about this because I do think that is an important shift. I did a lot of writing and research about white separatist movements, white nationalist movements in the 1990s and 2000s. And what you saw was some occasional winking and nodding at those groups. But generally, that was perceived to be a bad thing. But now you’re seeing people in the very highest echelons of power who believe that, because Donald Trump is not president, the government doesn’t count.

jamelle bouie

Right. I’m always unsure of how to calibrate my perception of these things, in part because they’re never dissimilar to stuff that occurred earlier — and earlier meaning quite recently. So you mentioned the 1990s. 1990s is when you see the explosion of the militia movement.

And although the militia movement is less mainstream than some of the talk we’re seeing today, it also wasn’t that far from the mainstream right. And so you had sitting Congress people expressing their sympathy with the militia movement, maybe not national leaders. And that might be an important, meaningful difference.

But we’re not only talking about fringe figures here when we’re talking about the 1990s. I think it matters, right, that up until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, there is a willingness among conservative Republicans, among the right-wing of the Republican Party, to express sympathy with these groups.

jane coaston

Describing the F.B.I. as jackbooted thugs and you do see a lot of that.

jamelle bouie

New world order conspiracies. I mean, these things are part of the fervent of conservative politics in the 1990s. And so the Covid-related right-wing conspiracies, the I.R.S. stuff that we’ve seen recently, it’s like in some sense, because it’s coming from maybe a larger number of mainstream Republicans, mainstream political figures, it’s more worrisome. But it’s also, to my mind, exactly in the same lane as the stuff we saw 30 years earlier, as stuff that is just part of far-right politics in the United States.

And so is the mainstreaming of far-right politics itself some indication for increased civil violence? Maybe. I don’t think I necessarily disagree with that. But I’m not certain how much we should take that to mean an impending shift in overall levels of political violence in the United States.

jane coaston

I think, Tim, when I’m thinking about today’s political violence, I’m concerned about the so-called lone wolves that aren’t lone, whether that’s the shooting in Buffalo or in Charleston. And obviously I think about January 6.

But if Jamelle’s point is that this type of violence, or the type of violent rhetoric is not unusual in our politics, and that there has been a longer history of winking and nodding at it in specifically right-wing circles, what do you think has changed? Attitudinally, what is different from the moments that we were having after Oklahoma City or in a time where militia movements were extremely active and continue to be?

tim alberta

Yeah, I think that we’re probably not yet addressing — maybe not the elephant in the room but certainly an elephant in the room, which is, to me, what makes this moment feel extraordinarily unique and exceptionally dangerous is, you mentioned a couple of those shootings that were directly tied into not just racial animus, but more broadly, notions of a Great Replacement Theory, of a weaponized demographic change in the country, and its roots in a strategic, big-government, deep-state, secularist takeover of the country, and sort of a purging of anyone on the right.

And I think it’s hard to overstate the threat of that particular conspiracy theory to these individuals, and also to overstate just how many of these individuals no longer perceive the U.S. as — if they ever did in some cases — as some sort of pluralistic shining city on a hill, but rather as an ethno state under siege.

And I remember sitting with Nikki Haley in the weeks after Donald Trump had lost the election and pressing her on the president’s statements repeatedly, and asking her, isn’t this dangerous? Aren’t people going to get hurt? Aren’t people going to get killed? Because this is not just some internet troll. This is the President of the United States. These are governors. These are U.S. senators telling people that this election has been stolen from them, that everything as they have known it is no longer legitimate.

And I think what we saw on January 6 was not even remotely the worst-case scenario. I do think that had members of the Capitol Police opened fire, as frankly, I think many authorities on the subject believe that they were well within their right to do, then we could have seen something of an even bloodier aftermath that we might still be spiraling from.

In other words, I think there is an inclination for many of us to view January 6 as the culmination of this thing that had been building for such a long time when in fact, I’m personally more inclined to view it as really the spark of something new, that in fact, this is just the beginning, and that it will be continually building towards something much worse.

jamelle bouie

So I don’t disagree with that. I do see the whole Stop the Steal, January 6 thing as sort of the beginning of a shift in American politics. But I don’t necessarily see it strictly in terms of more political violence. I think — my view — and I kind of alluded to this before — my view of this is very heavily influenced by the ways that violence and ordinary politics and constitutional politics interacted with each other in the 1870s and the 1880s, that these things existed on a continuum with each other. They were various tactics to an overall, larger strategy.

And I think that’s the way we should understand January 6 and whatever might follow, that these are all a set of tactics to secure enduring control, by this right-wing fringe, this MAGA fringe, over American political institutions. And to my mind, what January 6 reveals is less about the violence part of it and more that there are actual mechanisms within the system that one can leverage to secure minority control, to consolidate minority rule and should you do it, and that January 6 reveals the possibilities of that.

The attempt to storm the Capitol failed. But the attempt to subvert the electoral college, although it also failed, it did reveal important things about the weakness of the entire system and you capture a state house or you hold a state house. And then you systematically make it impossible for your opponents to dislodge you through normal means.

And so for me — and I’ve written about this — the danger lies less in an attempt to storm the Capitol again, which I’m not sure it’s going to happen, even on a state level, and more in an attempt to capture those institutional positions through something that looks like normal and ordinary politics, and then use that power to then consolidate one’s control, right?

tim alberta

What’s interesting, though, is that for all of our talk in this conversation about the political legitimizing of what would once have been considered fringe ideologies, is that taking it outside of the political arena is where I’ve probably been the most troubled. I did a great deal of reporting over the last year and a half on sort of the turmoil in the white evangelical church in America.

And this is another instance, Jane, and I can’t underscore this one enough because I’ve spent a lot of time talking with leading religious figures, scholars, academics, people who know this world inside and out. And they have all agreed with me on this point. I’ve sort of been hoping that somebody would disagree with the point that there was once a time in this country, not very long ago at all, where yes, you had ideologically far right-wing churches that would traffic in overt racism, or if not overt racism, then certainly some of the more veiled arguments around states’ rights or whatever it may be.

But there would not have been any sort of legitimizing or mainstream recognition of a church wherein hundreds of members, on a weekly basis, while passing the offering plates, were carrying loaded weapons. That was not a thing. It would have been the fever dream of an Indeed documentary filmmaker.

And so what feels somewhat different about the moment to me, is not just that there is this sort of religious fervor, but that it is a violent religious fervor. And it certainly feels as though you have a moment in American life right now where you have more and more people than at any time in recent memory who are addicted to both guns and to grievance.

And when you incorporate some of the religious fervor into that, and again, some of the doomsday prophesying about that imminent day when the government is coming for you, and you had better be ready, all of it, in combination, is, to me, what feels uniquely dangerous about this moment.

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jane coaston

After the break, we have to talk about Trump. I know. But before that, a request for the youths. If you’re a Gen Z voter born after 1996, I’d like to hear from you, especially if this is your first time voting in an election. Leave me a voicemail with your name, where you live and why you’re voting in the midterms this year. The show number is 347-915-4324. Leave me your number too. I might call you back. I know, phone calls.

So we were just talking about religion and I’d argue it’s not just the religiosity. It’s the religiosity surrounding a specific person, which I’ll never move on. I will never move on from the fact that this is all about Donald Trump, like this it’s all about the guy from “Home Alone 2” because I don’t think Trump really cares about a civil war. I think he cares a lot about making money and ideally, not going to prison.

And at a certain point, a civil war or increased conflict, it will require that type of violent religiosity. But it also will require that from a very large number of people across a very wide spectrum. And thinking about trying to put this in some context, where does Trump play into this? Because I think it doesn’t seem like it could happen with somebody who wasn’t him. There aren’t people like, I will die for Ron DeSantis, not yet.

jamelle bouie

I mean, I think with Trump and his audience, his crowd, the supporters, I think what we’re kind of witnessing is like a dialectical process, sort of like the — there are pre existing in the electorate, anxieties, fears, anger, resentment, rage, about changing cultural and demographic facts about the country. It’s not just that the country is becoming less white, though that’s a part of it. But it’s also that the country is becoming less explicitly Christian, less explicitly deferential to Christian belief. It’s becoming more open and tolerant of different sexualities, different gender identities, different religions.

And so you have real — many negative feelings about that. And Trump, as a candidate, both appeals to that, but also reflects that stuff back on to the audience and allows an audience to invest him with their hopes about beating this back. And then this creates this cult of personality around Trump, or at least around what Trump appears to represent.

I think that’s sort of what’s happening with Trump. I’ve been thinking, through this conversation, about — this is ostensibly about the prospect of civil war or what not. And I’ve been thinking about what — trying to crystallize exactly my disagreement with the civil-war framing. What I think my exact disagreement is, and this connects to Trump and connects to his relationship to his supporters, is that I think that when we’re envisioning what is the most catastrophic thing that can happen in the United States, we’re envisioning the end of American democracy if there are some sort of conflict. We’re envisioning authoritarianism. We’re envisioning all these terrible things.

And we assume — I think there’s a common assumption that if it happens, it’s going to be a thing that — from outside the system, imposing onto it, or something that erupts from within the system that tears it apart and then creates this new status quo. And I think my view is that the system itself facilitates all this stuff, right, that it’s not actually coming from outside the system. It’s not a break from within the system. It actually represents aspects of the system asserting themselves in ways that they haven’t before.

The Constitution creates a system of — an interlocking system of counter-majoritarian institutions that are explicitly designed to tamp down on popular government. And so because that is so incongruous with our sense of what the American political system is, I think we imagine it or we perceive it or we feel it to be like an assault on the Constitution, an assault on the system.

But I think it’s probably better to understand it as the — to use the word dialectical again, as the counter majoritarian part of the American political system coming into direct conflict with the Democratic assumptions of the American people. And in the absence of any kind of countervailing force to change the system, what we get is something much less Democratic than what we had before.

jane coaston

Tim, what do you think?

tim alberta

Well, there’s a lot to the point that Jamelle is making. And I want to get specifically to what he said near the end there. But before I do, I want to tie it back to something that he’d said earlier about Trump. Part of the Trump phenomenon, at least through my eyes, has been and continues to be, the degree to which your average, on-fire Trump supporter, somebody who really defends him, somebody who defends their vote for him, the degree to which those individuals perceive an attack on Trump as an attack on them.

An attack on Trump’s character is therefore an attack on their character because they voted for him in the first place. I think what that relationship between so many of these people and Trump has essentially distilled down into now, is what continues to breathe life into Trump, and part of what I do worry about in the wake of the August 8 Mar-a-Lago episode, is this martyrdom complex that is so unique.

In the days after the 2020 election and leading up to January 6, of course, you had the Arizona State Republican Party, tweeting out, endorsing martyrdom, like literal martyrdom. You had Eric Metaxas, a very prominent and very influential voice in the evangelical world talking to Trump on his radio show about the court challenges and saying, I’m willing to die in this fight, God is with us, God is on our side.

It’s so tempting, I think, to want to sweep these things to the fringe, to the periphery of our politics and say, well, sure, you’re always going to have some nutcase muttering to himself here or there. But in fact, this martyrdom complex became, in many ways, central to the psychology of the Trump voter, that he was being righteously persecuted on their behalf.

I think what’s so interesting is that you joked, Jane, about nobody’s willing to die for Ron DeSantis yet, right? But the meaningful difference to me, between Trump and DeSantis, is that DeSantis has already shown an ability to wield the administrative state against his enemies. And this gets to Jamelle’s point about the system itself.

And to me, as unique as the threat has been and continues to be with Donald Trump in the picture, I’m not sure that another Republican could not, at some point, attempt to wield the administrative state and exploit some of the loopholes in our system in a way that could be contributing to a far-greater threat of civil violence at a mass scale, whether we want to call it Civil War or not.

So that’s just the way I view Trump is like, yes, this has been a threat. Yes, he is the dominant figure in all of this. And yet, as we look forward, I’m not at all convinced that he represents the ultimate threat.

jane coaston

Yeah, I think that what you see now, from DeSantis and from those who wish to be like him, is this idea of, well, the problem was that Trump didn’t go far enough. They are justifying the wielding of the administrative state against their enemies, even if it won’t hold up in court. There are people who should know better who would think of themselves as being conservatives, small-C conservatives, who are applauding that use of force because the threat is too great, that we’re in a war.

There’s a trans kid out there somewhere. Thus I am justified to use the state against them and to threaten them with Child Protective Services. But so much of this seems to be coming from people who are wielding Trump for either reasons of economics or reasons of just wanting to have power. The economics are on the side of extremism.

But when we started talking about civil-war rhetoric, a way that I get frustrated — and admittedly, Tim, I was a little frustrated with your piece because it can feel like catering to the hostage taker. Like, I read your argument in The Atlantic. And I thought it was well-reasoned. But part of my takeaway seemed to be that we shouldn’t, perhaps, pursue justice or — and just at a baseline level — this person may have committed a crime. And we shouldn’t prosecute that crime because it could provoke the people who believe a conspiracy about our democracy.

If Donald Trump did what the Department of Justice appears to, as far as we know, think that he did, which seems to be the answer is yes, yes he did, and then he will continue to talk about it in interviews, what is the action that you want the country, the government, the Department of Justice to take instead? Because using the rhetoric of a foreboding civil war feels like it’s asking me to cater to the hostage takers who want to foment a civil war because we’re afraid of what they might do.

tim alberta

That’s completely fair. And I want to be clear, and I tried to be in the article, although based on some reader feedback and on your feedback right now, I probably wasn’t clear enough. I stated in the piece that I believe Trump has committed crimes and should be prosecuted because no one is above the law.

I think what I wanted to express in the piece is just a warning to what I perceive to be a rather-complacent America that is somewhat blissfully detached from the reality of these threats. I think there’s a real danger here. And at the end of the day, I don’t know that it’s at all avoidable. And I certainly don’t think it’s avoidable by, as you say, Jane, catering to the bad actors, the criminals.

We have a system. We have laws and they need to be enforced. But I think — I’ve got a piece coming in the next issue of The Atlantic, where I talk with an individual who’s one of the long-time leading authorities on an election administration in the country. He’s a non partisan, somebody who for decades and decades has been held up as the guy. And he was brought out of retirement in 2020 to run the election-day operations in the city of Detroit. And so he had a front-row seat for what was perhaps the ugliest, single most chaotic election-day activity in the entire country, back in 2020.

And despite everything he saw, people signing affidavits claiming they saw things that they didn’t see, ugly, horrible, racist rhetoric, despite seeing all of this and this brazen attempt by Republican elected officials on the ground to try and overturn an election that was decided by 154,000 votes, despite seeing all of that, he tells me that, you know what? I think this is going to be all right. I really do. I think this is going to be fine and here’s why.

And I said to him at some point, I said, you’re just like us. You’re just like the rest of us who just — we all want to tell ourselves a story that we’ve been through tough times before and this is just another case where we’re going to have to buckle up. And we’ll survive it because that’s what we do. And whether or not that’s true, it just feels disingenuous to pretend like there is not something unique about this threat.

And at the risk of going along with my answer, I’ll just add, Jane, that — you mentioned gun shows earlier. For over a decade, I’ve gone to gun shows just as a matter of routine. And I will say, even during the height of the Obama-era hysteria, not just about the birtherism and all that stuff, but like he’s going to come take our guns, particularly after Sandy Hook and you’re seeing gun sales through the roof, the thing that I saw then was very narrow in terms of its purpose.

The people who were coming, they’re stocking up on guns and ammo because, well, the big, bad government is going to put us on registries. And ultimately they’re going to come and try to confiscate our weapons. When I go to gun shows today, you talk to people there, and the rhetoric and the purpose of them being there is completely different. It almost entirely, in so many conversations, revolves around these notions of an imminent mass conflict and that they need to be ready for it.

And by the way, it’s not just MAGA-loving Trump supporters who are there, loading up on AR-15s. I have been consistently stunned at the number of individuals who will very quietly whisper to you that they are Democrats. And these are Asian Americans. These are Black Americans. These are Hispanics. These are women, suburban moms. And they are buying guns because they believe that something is about to go down.

And I just I can’t really quantify what a sea change that feels like, at least to me. And so I guess when I write a piece like the one that you are registering some frustration with — and I don’t blame you for a minute for registering that frustration — I guess what I’m really trying to do is say, listen, yes, prosecute him. Yes, treat him like anybody else. Yes, this is what we ought to do. Just be forewarned that this is all probably heading in a very dark and dangerous direction. And we all should just be prepared for it.

jane coaston

Jamelle, if these issues are structural, which is something you’ve pointed out, but the threats are moving faster than the structures can change, or even that it seems like it’ll take, at this rate, like 30 years for someone to admit that we have a problem, what do we do? Should there be more speeches, more people talking about it? To me, that just seems almost useless when you have the — any effort to call attention to this becomes spin that says that you’re trying to make it happen. So I know that you are not actually in charge of everything. But Jamelle, what do we do?

jamelle bouie

Great question. And I have no idea. I mean, the only actors on this stage who have the agency to do something are Republican politicians, at this point. They are the ones who have the ability to keep these things from spiraling out of control. The problem is that doing so would probably doom them in the next election cycles, right?

And on the one hand, you don’t want to say, well, obviously if they’re not going to do that, well, they’re making a choice not to do it. They’re making a choice not to exercise their agency in this particular way. And that’s important. I think that has moral weight.

But thinking practically, like, yeah, of course they’re not. People who want to win office are not going to do things that would cause them to lose office. And so if you grant that, it’s hard for me to think of what to do in the immediate term to marginalize this political movement, to weaken it. Tim has said that he supports holding Trump to account legally, and that just everyone should be aware that this could spark some pretty ugly stuff.

I don’t think that’s wrong. But I do think there’s another possibility. And this kind of gets to one of my — my grand narrative of the Trump era, which is, I think the Trump era, and the political-systems relationship to Trump, has generally been one of avoidance. At critical stages, critical actors essentially said, this guy isn’t going to last. He’s not going to win. He’s not going to succeed. So we can kind of let the system deal with him. We don’t have to actually do anything.

So during the Republican primary, it was very clear that Republican elites were like, we’re just going to worry about who’s going to win after Trump inevitably collapses. And there was very clearly no plan for what might happen if that didn’t occur, if Trump actually was a viable candidate. By the time he wins the nomination, and you have another opportunity to stop him by Republican elites publicly saying, we’re just not going to support this guy, but of course, by then, it’s like, we want to win office. And we want to shape policy. We want to do these things. So of course, we’re going to support him.

And you see this pattern happen again and again and again, that there are actors who can do something to push back on him and push back on his movement. And they don’t because they think that this will happen of its own accord. But when there has been push back, what we see is he loses support. And I kind of think that there’s one possibility in terms of what do we do.

One possibility in terms of really treating Trump like any other citizen under the law, is that if he does get entangled in a criminal investigation, if he does have to face those kind of consequences, then instead of energizing his strongest supporters, it might actually peel people off. I think Trump really benefits from an illusion of dominance. But if, in a confrontation, he essentially backs down, I think that does harm him.

At the same time that we recognize the danger of a cult of personality around this guy, we should also remember this cult of personality may not be as tightly-wound and tightly tied as it appears to be because we’re not sure how it’s going to react when subjected to real, serious pressure beyond just losing an election.

jane coaston

Thank you guys so much for being here.

jamelle bouie

Oh, thank you for having us.

tim alberta

Yeah, this was great. Thank you.

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jane coaston

Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times Opinion. Tim Alberta is a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine, and the author of the book, “American Carnage: On the Frontlines of the Republican Civil War and the rise of President Trump.” Now look, I know, I’m a weirdo. I love documentaries. I love documentaries about the Civil War. I love Ken Burns’s documentary about the Civil War called, “The Civil War.” So I’m going to recommend that too you again.

I also want to recommend the American Experience documentary, “Oklahoma City,” about everything that led to the domestic terrorism event that was the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. And I want to recommend the book, “Bring the War Home,” by Kathleen Belew, about the rise of white power movements and militia movements in the ‘70s, ‘89s and 1990s.

“The Argument” is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Vishakha Darbha and Derek Arthur; edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.

Opinion | Is America Headed for Another Civil War? (Published 2022) (2024)

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