A controversial and divisive US president is elected. State governments defy his will. Popular discontent erupts into low-level violence in several states. And then what?
We’ve been here before. In 1861, the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, had to be spirited through Baltimore on a secret train to Washington DC, to thwart a suspected assassination plot. Not long after he took power, a five-year civil war began.
Although it comprehensively lost the American civil war, the racist right in the US has for decades consoled itself by reading crazed “alternate history” novels, in which things turn out differently. Now, Time magazine has revealed that Steve Bannon, the White House chief of staff and Donald Trump’s closest aide, believes the next phase of American history should be as catastrophic and traumatic as the conflict of 1861-65.
“What if …” stories about the civil war entered popular literature in the 50s, about the time the Jim Crow system of apartheid was being challenged by black protesters. Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, has the Confederacy winning the war but freeing the slaves. So does If the South Had Won the Civil War, an imaginary history by leftwing writer McKinlay Kantor, published in 1960. In these and other 20th-century explorations of Confederate victory fantasy, the south wins but is forced to end slavery in order to unleash industrial capitalism. The subtext is not hard to decipher: the war between white American brothers was pointless, as economic development would have solved the problem of slavery anyway.
However, after the 80s, the new American right saw things differently. Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, now close supporter of Trump, took time out from impeaching Bill Clinton to co-author three excruciatingly dire alt-history novels about the civil war. In Never Call Retreat, the final in the trilogy, written by Gingrich with William Forstchen and Albert Hanser, the Union side wins the war but, by implication, the south wins the peace. With Sherman’s Union army poised to destroy Atlanta, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, persuades the south to surrender. “The patience of our opponents is at an end,” this fictional Lee tells the Confederate government. “We shall reap a terrible whirlwind that will scar our nation for generations to come.” Lincoln then delivers the Gettysburg address to a nation that has, by implication, made peace with the slaveowners and the ideology of white supremacy they lived by.
While you ponder the parallels with today, consider this statement from Bannon, made on his radio show in December 2015 to explain the worldview of his Breitbart website: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war.”
For Bannon, the No 1 enemy in this “war” is Islam, with China No 2. But there is also a fifth column in America to be dealt with as part of a “global existential war”. For Bannon, this fits into a generational theory of American power whereby the nation fulfils its destiny through a cycle of catastrophic crises: first, the revolution of 1776, then the civil war, then the intervention into the second world war and finally the crisis Bannon intends to provoke through Trump.
In Bannon and Gingrich, then, you have two men influencing the most powerful office in the world whose beliefs about the dynamics of US history could be best described as dangerous bullshit. Bannon fantasises about turning the culture war into a real one; Gingrich about the survival of an undestroyed south. Compared with them, Trump, whose fantasies appear to revolve around women, gold and tall buildings, has a much less dangerous imagination.
With the trashing of UC Berkeley in a riot against Breitbart star Milo Yiannopoulos, and with repeated physical clashes between white supremacists and anti-Trump supporters, the potential for escalation is clear. Dan Adamini, a Michigan Republican party official, tweeted that a “Kent State” solution should be applied to leftwing protesters – that is, shooting them dead, as the Ohio National Guard did in 1970.
For a new generation of protesters brought up on the myths of the post-1968 period, it is worth pointing out one big difference. This time, we are not facing cold-blooded conservatives defending an existing order, for whom the killing of four students at Kent State provoked a political crisis. This time, we are facing people who want the institutions of the US to explode. That’s what happens in the “Fourth Turning” theory that people such as Bannon believe in.
It’s chilling to acknowledge it but we must: large sections of the American right want another civil war. They have spent years amassing the weaponry for it; and their signifier of choice – hunting camouflage – also gives a major clue as to what they are thinking. In this situation, the choice of the US left, of minorities, of women should be: to resist – but do not give the enemy what they want.
The loudest squeal coming from the Trump camp last week was provoked by the judicial suspension of the anti-Muslim visa ban. Still louder squeals will be provoked if progressive-run states and cities begin to exercise their constitutional rights to defy Trump, as the San Francisco police did by suspending cooperation with the FBI counter-terrorism efforts.
Mass peaceful disobedience against Trump is a reality. Combined with judicial defence of the constitution, and determined resistance in Congress, it can ensure the White House becomes a padded cell for these fantasists – not the command bunker for American civil war 2.0.