We don’t know how much money our foreign enemies are paying our President. All we know is that he’s hiding the ledger. Our legal representative, the Attorney General, has dropped all pretense, declaring his allegiance to those who reward him better than we can. Bands of white nationalist terrorists prowl our border while the agents of justice mostly look the other way.
States are disregarding basic constitutional freedoms to shut down women’s reproductive rights. Leaders of those same states claim that sacred constitutional protections block them from limiting gun rights. Every year we lose more children to gun havoc than the soldiers killed in our endless wars.
Yeats’ words echo, “what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” We feel ourselves at the end of an age. Rules are meaningless. Bonds of decency and fidelity lose their power to contain our passions, to restrain our ambitions. Like a boil waiting for the lance, we know what’s coming but we don’t know how it might unfold. We can’t envision an order to emerge from this unfinished disaster.
So much of what binds us together has been dismantled that one well-placed blow could shatter what remains. That may be our only way to reorganize ourselves into a form that can survive the new century. An apocalypse in one era is merely the birthday of the next.
A climax could take many forms, but one potential flashpoint stands out. Here’s how our Second Civil War might begin.
An officer responding to an alarm at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Waco, Texas might be the first American to glimpse our future. Prepared to confront vandalism or broken windows, she and her partner would instead find heavily armed intruders had seized the building. Unsure of the situation, they pull back.
After backup arrives, she approaches the building. A man with AR-15 slung over his shoulder and the crude tattoos of an inmate emerges to greet her. Two other men she can’t identify take positions in nearby broken windows. Ordered to surrender, he declines. In a brief exchange, she discovers that there are at least a dozen people occupying the facility, part of a group calling themselves The Twelve. He claims they are holding a ‘peaceful prayer vigil.’ While they speak, someone appears to be wiring explosives around the building’s access points. She asks what they want. He explains that they will leave peacefully when Planned Parenthood abandons the facility so that it can be formally recognized as a cemetery.
What happens next is the product decades of compromise, equivocation and retreat in the face of the white nationalist challenge. Those stinging from their deteriorating control over black and brown bodies will not quietly surrender control over the bodies of their women. The more political power they lose, the greater their determination to use violence. Nowhere else in the free world is abortion an issue of such contention, because nowhere in the free world is a property right in other human beings so deeply embedded in the national soul. The tension between the truths we hold self-evident and the realities we’ve created on the ground will probably not be peacefully resolved.
In a Republican city with an overwhelmingly white Republican police force, there’s no question of the police on the scene risking their lives to arrest these men. Officers would try to establish a perimeter and appeal to senior leadership for guidance. In a place like Waco (or dozens of other red towns in red states) local politicians would be very reluctant to risk violence to protect Planned Parenthood. The Republican mayor and police chief in Waco would almost certainly hedge, reaching out to state authorities for support and assistance while hoping to find an alternative to a raid. What happens next?
While political leaders dither, the standoff could quickly escalate to a crisis. We might find that RT, the Russian state television service, was broadcasting footage they mysteriously obtained from the terrorists that documented their break-in and glorified their actions. A Facebook page for The Twelve would live-stream video from inside the clinic, possibly for hours before the company disabled their feed. Images of armed men and women praying in the lobby would give the terrorists an iconic propaganda image that could eventually show up on stylized t-shirts.
The mayor and police commissioner might reach out for support from new Texas Governor Dan Patrick. Under the shock of the early-morning report and with few details available, Texas’ new Governor might initially promise support. But off the phone, with time to consult aides and review the social media frenzy, he might smell his opportunity to seize the platform of his dreams. A mayor and police chief who held back their forces, anticipating support from the Texas Rangers or other state authorities might get a rude surprise. Notified only by a Tweet, in which the Governor praised the terrorists for their piety and promised to work with them to bring a peaceful end to the standoff, they’d discover that no help was coming.
Emboldened by the delay in enforcement, protestors would arrive in numbers large enough to overwhelm the thin police presence, breaching the perimeter to ring the around the outside of the facility. Many of the people arriving would be open-carrying assault weapons. What started as a break-in could develop into a mass jihadi incident.
By the time President Harris could get a formal briefing, the incident might be out of control. Police would have abandoned any effort to hold a perimeter around the building. Outnumbered, outgunned, and thoroughly unenthusiastic about the mission, local law enforcement might be confined to an observation point in a distant corner of the parking lot.
Directors of the FBI and ATF would explain the difficulty of the situation to the President. Their history in Waco is unpleasant and raw. Both agencies have been gutted by harassment, mismanagement and partisan hostility under the Trump Administration. Now, weakened and demoralized, they face the Bundy Standoff of Bundy Standoffs. There are no realistic options to retake the facility against a combination of heavily armed resistance and a dense human shield of civilian protestors. Instead, they recommend a massive effort to protect facilities elsewhere, especially in Republican-governed states, before the protests escalate. They could be too late.
By mid-morning, abortion clinics in even redder states might already be in flames, with the assistance or quiet approval of local law enforcement. Police in major cities like Dallas, Houston and Atlanta could be holding tense perimeters around clinics against angry crowds with occasional rock-throwers.
In this scenario, don’t be surprised if prominent pro-life groups are caught off-guard. A few might initially express opposition to the protests. However, as events gain momentum most would likely abandon their reticence and openly welcome ‘a new day for life.’ Meanwhile, authorities aren’t seeing familiar faces of regular abortion protestors in these crowds. Instead, police identify well-known local white nationalist figures who seem to be coordinating activities.
If a Democratic President attempted to take decisive action to protect clinics across the South, she’d likely face resistance from batty GOP Governors with fervently anti-abortion political bases. All you’d need is one reckless figure in just the right position to fan this spark into flame.
Dan Patrick, the religious nut who serves today as Texas’s Lt. Governor could be that guy. If, as seems likely, he reached the Governor’s Office, he’d have both the material and rhetorical power to frame this incident as an existential conflict between God-fearing Texans and their oppressive coastal elites.
Lots of Texas Republicans hate Dan Patrick for lots of good reasons. However, if he could engineer an irreconcilable conflict between the Texas Governor and a black, female Democratic President over the subject of baby-killing, Texas Republican politicians and law-enforcement would largely back him. Much of the South and perhaps some Midwestern states would enthusiastically follow. What began with a break-in could quickly escalate into Southern states challenging the authority of the federal government on a broad range of subjects.
How would this Waco standoff end? If successful, it could be brief. Once the terrorists see that they’ve pushed state-level Republicans into a rebellion against the US, they might just burn down the facility, melting into the crowd of protestors to escape. With state and local law enforcement unwilling to cooperate, the FBI might be forced to watch the terrorists from afar, as they did many times with Klansman during the civil rights era. As long as terrorists avoided major Texas cities, they could operate freely.
Unlike the ramshackle militia broken up by the FBI last month, these new organizations could benefit from state-level coordination and protection. They’d likely even attract material support from Russian intelligence, if they didn’t have it in the first place.
It would be open-season on abortion clinics in states that had challenged the President. Local authorities in places like Atlanta, or in Texas’ heavily Democratic major cities might fight to protect them. Caught in the cross-fire between rebel legislatures and the US Government, these cities could develop into little West Berlins, even more isolated and besieged than they are today. Outside major cities, abortion rights would simply disappear in many Republican states.
Where would this all lead? Who knows. There are too many permutations to reason through them all.
The nearest model might be the low-grade civil wars in Ukraine and Moldova, where central governments continue to pretend to govern swathes of their territory that in turn pretend the central government doesn’t exist. Much of the violence there is unofficial and paramilitary, both sides reluctant to engage in costly and indecisive military confrontations. Instead of the campaigns of our First Civil War, our Second Civil War might be more of a political standoff, punctuated by local mob and militia violence, but with few organized engagements.
Perhaps this seems too far-fetched to be realistic. Having a reality TV star and low-rent mob boss win the GOP nomination, then take the White House with Russian help, while Republicans fail to mount any resistance and religious leaders shower him with praise, was also too far-fetched to be realistic.
Democrats still imagine that they’re going to merely outvote and out-organize their enemies. Call it the Biden Fantasy, the notion that niceness and fair-play will eventually win out. The Trump Administration has already begun the dismantling of federal authority imagined in this post, while openly welcoming interference from foreign forces determined to destroy the US. Those who still value the promise of America have yet to mount a capable response to this threat.
Freedom for all is a threat to some. For women to enjoy the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as white men means that white men will lose some of the privileges and preferences they once enjoyed. That flowering of freedom offers plenty of improvement to be worth it for men, but some will not grasp that reality.
Many white men, already shuddering in fear at their initial exposure to competition from brown folks, see utter doom in women’s freedom. A bloody few will be willing to set fire to our common house to preserve a few scraps of advantage they cherish, advantages they are too weak and cowardly to live without. They will have to be destroyed by any means necessary to protect the promise of the republic.
Where has kindness gone
and gentle hands
inside this fire,
among these many blades?
Robin Robertson, from The Long Take