This morning, 159 years ago, young men lined up, sweating beneath their gray uniforms, waiting to march into oblivion. US forces held a fortified ridgeline a kilometer away, across an open field of fire. After a largely ineffective Confederate artillery bombardment, 12,500 young men would follow General Pickett across a sun-baked field. Fewer than half would return. Lee’s great gamble at Gettysburg failed and the South’s fate was sealed.
Whatever may come, this much we can be sure of: Our next civil war won’t be like the last. There will be no armies and battlefields. No heroic charges into fixed positions. No victory parades or clean endings.
Modern civil war is mostly modern civic breakdown, unpunished crime in pursuit of political power. It’s harassment, murder, theft, extortion and kidnapping as tools of power. Winning takes boldness, imagination and determination. More often, it ends in exhausted stalemate.
Don’t bother asking how it starts. Our Second Civil War has already begun. From the mob of angry whites who tried to drive a Presidential campaign bus off the road in Texas to the January 6 insurrection, white people and their allies, terrified by the erosion of their special privileges, have already shredded the rulebooks and gone to war. Most of us wanted to avoid this, but our racists would not go peacefully. What remains ahead is the expansion of this war to a neighborhood near you.
What does modern civil war look like?
Models are everywhere. A single New York Times story on Guatemala from 1971 is a remarkable capsule of modern civil war. Students go on strike to protest a wave of violence stoked by the police. Rightwing terrorist paramilitaries, which include members of the police and army, kidnap and murder professors, opposition politicians and even priests. A local Fascist paramilitary leader close to the CIA is kidnapped by the resistance. His paramilitary then kidnaps an economic professor to hold in trade. On and on it goes toward nowhere.
Violence launched by Fascists to protect the rights of oppressive landowners threatened by the spread of democracy, spawns counter-violence by pro-democracy groups. Whoever controls the police and military holds the upper hand in this cycle of violence, gaining access to weapons and training along with immunity from formal prosecution. It sometimes ends in a Pinochet style spasm of violent repression. Sometimes it ends in a sudden central breakdown, as when Sandinista forces in 1978 managed to kidnap much of the national legislature by seizing the capitol building.
Or, if no one has the boldness or capability for a dramatic strike, it carries on, indecisive, for decades. Paramilitaries on both sides, strapped for cash to continue their campaigns, merge little by little into the criminal underworld until after a generation or two, no one can remember how it all began.
The military and its Fascist allies come to control, say, human trafficking and gun-running. Various opposition groups take to the hills, coming to control the drug trade or smuggling endangered species. Forty years later, as we see today in El Salvador or Guatemala, what had been a civil war appears to outsiders as a mere crime problem, which in a sense it always was. And meanwhile, a kind of normalcy descends on the relatively cosmopolitan capital city, and perhaps one or two other major towns. You just don’t venture into the countryside and never make eye contact with police.
It is much harder to build a civilization than it is to destroy it.
What does our Second Civil War look like?
We already endure a remarkable degree of violence in our politics, but in recent decades it has come almost entirely from disturbed individuals. The guy who tried to kill Arizona Congressman Gabby Giffords in 2011 wasn’t attempting to achieve a defined political objective. The murderer of a Wisconsin judge last month wasn’t trying to influence the actions of other judges. America has a lot of cheap guns in a lot of hands, so crazy people regularly commit outlandish crimes. Some of those crimes have a political tinge, as when a disturbed former army reservist killed five Dallas police officers at a Black Lives Matter march in 2016, but that gunman wasn’t furthering anyone’s political agenda, not even his own.
January 6 was a departure. Instead of random, stochastic terror, this was a (poorly) coordinated coup attempt. If not for the ineptitude of Trump and the gobsmacking stupidity of his supporters, our elected government would have been replaced and we’d be battling in the streets against Trumpian thugs. Republicans aren’t done. They’re openly planning to steal the next election using the same methods attempted in 2021.
Compounding our challenge is America’s deep-seated history of privately organized terrorism. Violent mobs that will terrorize pro-democracy groups for the next couple of decades are already in place, ready to run a playbook handed down by their grandfathers.
Picture this news story.
The Dallas County Commissioner is requesting help from the Justice Department. Dallas has been trying to protect caravans of pregnant women seeking to reach a new abortion center in Clovis, NM. Last Thursday, a mob, likely organized by rural sheriffs, attacked a convoy from Dallas at an impromptu checkpoint on US 84 west of Lubbock.
Off-duty Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies accompanying the convoy returned fire, breaching the checkpoint and killing three attackers. The convoy continued to New Mexico at high speed, trailed by local sheriffs who exchanged fire with the convoy at several intervals. The Dallas County deputies have taken refuge in New Mexico. Texas Rangers and the Governor are insisting on their extradition while refusing to halt the harassment of travelers by local paramilitaries. Protection of the convoys by off-duty deputies was organized by abortion rights activists in Dallas after several convoys were turned back and one abortion seeker was murdered.
How many years before we get there? What happens next?
Remember when a heavily armed nutjob wandered into a DC pizzeria in 2016 to “liberate” the child slaves imprisoned there by Hillary Clinton? What happens when those same conspiracy theories are promoted by law enforcement officials? What happens when it leads to judges and election candidates in cities like Austin or Atlanta being murdered by mobs of angry villagers who come in from the countryside?
What happens when the people carrying out those murders are sheltered by local law enforcement, just as they were in the Jim Crow era? What happens when they are encouraged by the state’s governor? How long before residents of those cities organize their own paramilitaries to hit back with assassinations and kidnappings, eventually aided by their own law local law enforcement (which will have to be purged of their ample supply of Fascists).
How long will it be before a Republican Governor in Texas can’t safely show his face in Austin and a Democratic Gubernatorial candidate can’t safely travel to Amarillo? Will it be this year?
Can’t we all just get along?
Forget about reaching across the aisle or building consensus. Today, heavily armed Republicans all over the country will tell you stories about what they think is happening in America which aren’t just false or inaccurate. They are completely bananas.
Republicans will tell you in sincere conviction that Joe Biden leads a ring of child pedophiles. The 2020 election was stolen using fake ballots imported from North Korea. Disney is grooming your children to be gay. Librarians are pushing obscenity on children. Like the weirdo who shot up the DC pizza joint, these millions of Republicans hold beliefs less plausible than our Santa Claus myth. Republican voters are being pushed to embrace these beliefs because the willingness to supplant reality with loyalty is a gateway to political violence. Republicans are ready to support any manner of violence to place white nationalists back into power.
What are Republicans trying to achieve?
As our second civil war deepens we’ll see an escalating campaign of violent political repression from white nationalists. Unchallenged and unchecked, it will advance into a Jim Crow style campaign of terror, rolling back fifty years of democracy. If we don’t fight back it will all be over much faster than you’d expect.
Republicans’ endgame is a Balkanization of the US in the style that prevailed before our first civil war. Most power will pivot back to state legislatures through Republican Congressional obstruction. The breakdown of federal authority destroys any realistic public check on the power of wealthy rentiers, restoring the rural feudalism of America’s early years.
Those state legislatures will be leveraged to hold America’s cities hostage to a white oligarchy. In other words, the Confederate order will triumph, aligning the US with the governing model prevailing across most of Latin America. What America’s wealthy aristocrats lost at Gettysburg they’ll finally win.
Life in most of America’s red-state cities will go on under the watchful eye of police controlled by their repressive state governments. The occasional “mysterious disappearance” of a noisy troublemaker keeps political resistance in line. A dense silence will descend, reinforced by a white middle class craving a return to some form of normalcy. What was old will be new again. The same political order that dominated the South for generations will settle back over a broad swath of America.
How a cold civil war could heat up.
The above is the most mundane, predictable path of our low-grade civil war, the one least likely to provoke a response from democracy advocates before it’s too late. But another possibility looms, one closer to Chile or Nicaragua. With the barest discipline and insight, Republicans could avoid this path and win a low-grade civil war with barely a fight, but these people are not bright. Unlike previous Fascist plotters in Chile, Guatemala, and The Philippines, Republicans won’t have clever manipulators from the CIA to help them plan and organize their coup. There are only three kinds of people left in Republican politics; religious nuts, racists and grifters. They will do disastrously stupid shit.
For example, what if it appears that Greg Abbott has lost his election in Texas, or that Brian Kemp has lost his election in Georgia? What if Republicans ran the Reconstruction Era playbook? Abbott announces two days after the election that Beto and hundreds of Democratic leaders, including several members of the legislature, have been detained and moved to Kyle Field for processing. They are accused of collaborating with Communists in a ballot stuffing scheme exposed in secret evidence gathered by Project Veritas. Abbott’s statement indicates that allegations of a Satanic pedophile child trafficking ring among the accused are “probably unfounded,” but the accused will remain in custody while the investigation proceeds.
The next day the Legislature meets, with the Republican election opponents of the detained Democrats seated in their place. It passes legislation naming Abbott the winner of the election. The 5th Circuit denies a request for injunction to stop the action, claiming that only a state has the right to determine the outcome of its elections. A few weeks later the detained individuals are released, but the state attorney general, who also took office in the coup, insists that the investigation will continue.
Who would stop this? Yeah, there would be marches in Austin and Houston. Who cares? A few buttoned up Republicans might mumble about their concerns until they figured out which way the wind was blowing. Democrats would file lawsuits that flutter in the air like prayer flags.
It could be over in a couple of months. Republicans would control state government. Democrats would complain and cry while the police clear away “unruly” protestors. Republicans would have reestablished under GOP one-party rule the same authoritarian Jim Crow order their forebears built in the 1870’s.
Would anyone stop them?
How could Democrats win our Second Civil War?
What makes this a dangerous gambit for Republicans is that they might, by such an egregious power grab, finally trigger an organized, violent response from Democrats. Once that happens, once pro-democracy Americans force Republicans into a show-down with the US military and majority popular force, the GOP will lose. In reality, the only resources Republicans are working with are a well-funded political disinformation system and a hardened, though actually quite small, core of ill-informed and occasionally insane weirdos. Forced into a real fight, Republicans would be obliterated, but only if Democrats took a stand.
What could Democrats do if Republicans were so greedy and undisciplined as to openly steal the 2022 Election in, say, Texas?
Democrats govern almost every city of any size anywhere in the country. That includes most state capitals. This is more of an advantage than most people realize.
Whoever controls the physical capitol building and its infrastructure wields enormous political power. If Governor Abbott attempted something like the scenario above, the Mayor of Austin could simply run the Reconstruction mob playbook in reverse. Go on TV. Announce the real winner in the election. Declare that every Republican legislator and state leader has disqualified themselves from office. None of them will be protected by Austin police or the Travis County Sheriff if they return to the capitol.
He would invite the public to surround the capitol, bringing down potentially hundreds of thousands of people, making it impossible for the Texas Rangers or DPS to hold the facility. The city council would then organize local paramilitaries to “defend” the capitol with the help of police (who would have to be purged), making it impossible for state authorities to quietly regain control. Then he’d reach out to the leaders of the state’s other major cities to cooperate, sending new representatives appointed by their city councils to replace the locked-out Republicans. The message to nervous, reluctant Democratic leaders would be simple. You can be on this train or under it.
Within days, the Texas capitol complex would look like the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2014. Republicans could yell and scream. They could assemble their own “legitimate” legislature in the only backwaters where they could safely appear, isolated from access to public records, public funds, courts, press, or even office infrastructure. They could send their own paramilitaries to harass the cities, but their bodies would pile up fast. Cities aren’t as helpless as Republicans like to imagine. And these protests would spread in red-state state capitols from Charlotte to Phoenix. Democratic mayors and city councils that wavered or balked would be swept away by an angry public.
Within days, Republicans across the South would find they’d lost access to their stolen legislatures, along with access to their banks, airports, seaports, perhaps even internet infrastructure as major corporations joined the revolt. Once someone lights a fire of resistance against these Republican goons, we’ll be living in a different country within weeks.
How would this all end? It is impossible to say with certainty. Once the legitimacy of our current constitutional order has been openly challenged, it’s likely there will be no return to order without a new constitutional convention. That’s a troubling prospect. Would you prefer to live in quiet fear under Fascists to avoid the uncertainty of something new? We can be confident what will happen to the American dream of freedom and human dignity if we cower while Republicans dismantle democracy.
What if Republicans aren’t so foolish as to pursue something as brazen as naked election subversion? How do we prevent this slide into Fascism if Republicans maintain the discipline to chip away at our legal order bit by bit? The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case has already provided the grounds for Democrats to run the playbook above, though it would be a much bolder, more revolutionary gambit.
What if Republicans win the November election in Texas? This time, the Democratic mayor of Austin makes a slightly different threat. He announces (as the Travis County DA has already done) that abortion providers will not be prosecuted in Austin. Then he goes further, insisting that Austin and Travis County will protect abortion rights by barring any state enforcement action against women’s health providers. Finally, here comes the hook. If the state attempts any enforcement action in Travis County, Austin will bar Republican lawmakers from the Capitol. “If women aren’t safe in Texas, Republicans shouldn’t be safe in Austin.”
He then runs the playbook described above, calling out a mob to occupy the capitol complex and beginning to organize paramilitaries to defend the city. At the same time, he’d reach out to the mayors of other Texas and Southern cities to join the resistance. As the matter escalates, the Mayor of Austin, like the Democratic mayors in control of other Southern capitals, runs through the rest of the playbook, locking out Republican state leaders with the help of popular resistance until, by whatever means necessary, a new order is established.
Where is the Federal government in these scenarios? As long as we have a Democratic President we can at least count on dithering and delay. That’s all this strategy needs from the feds. Wait until a Republican presides over the Joint Chiefs and things still play out in a similar manner but with far more bloodshed and a likely military coup. In other words, don’t wait. If you think the scenario I’m describing above sounds awful and repugnant, you don’t want to think about what happens if we sit here worrying for another four to six years.
What about “democratic legitimacy?”
But if Republicans win the election, aren’t they the legitimate government? Are you going to live under a “legitimate” government that terrorizes librarians, persecutes gay and transgender kids and turns women into modern slaves because you lost a state-level election? Don’t basic human rights figure into the legitimacy of a representative government? Has anybody actually read the Declaration of Independence? Is it unreasonable to fight for a chance to live under a sane, humane, representative government? Are you going to wait until they come to your house to fight back? If you do, you will lose.
As we sit here comfortably reading a blog post in a nation we assume to be at peace, these scenarios might still seem extreme. I wish they were. Republicans are being crystal clear in their intentions. They are not going to live peacefully in a republic in which white men fail to hold a place of supreme power, privilege and respect. Reason with them all you want while they strangle you.
In December, 2016 I wrote: “It is difficult to map out any credible end to the Trump era that does not place a sad new national holiday on the calendar to remember those we lost.” The 2020 Election did not close that era. The price hasn’t been paid.
We should not elect any more Democratic figures promising “peace in our time.” We should not kid ourselves into thinking someone will fix this. All of us over the age of 30 were born into the silent privilege of imagining that “things just work out.” The political quiet into which we were born was the product of blood, sweat and courage we never had to muster. Until now.
If we fail, future generations will pay for our privilege.