‘Civil War’ Reminds Us That Not Only Can It Happen Here, but It Did

“Not one man in America wanted the Civil War, or expected or intended it,” Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, declared at the beginning of the 20th century. What may seem inevitable to us in hindsight — the horrifying consequences of a country in political turmoil, given to violence and rived by slavery — came as a shock to many of the people living through it. Even those who anticipated it hardly seemed prepared for its violent magnitude. In this respect at least, the current division that afflicts the United States seems different from the Civil War. If there ever is a second civil war, it won’t be for lack of imagining it.

The most prominent example arrives this week in the form of an action blockbuster titled “Civil War.” The film, written and directed by Alex Garland, presents a scenario in which the government is at war with breakaway states and the president has been, in the eyes of part of the country, delegitimized. Some critics have denounced the project, arguing that releasing the film in this particular election year is downright dangerous. They assume that even just talking about a future national conflict could make it a reality, and that the film risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is wrong.

Not only does this criticism vastly overrate the power of the written word or the moving image, but it looks past the real forces sending the United States toward ever-deeper division: inequality; a hyperpartisan duopoly; and an antiquated and increasingly dysfunctional Constitution. Mere stories are not powerful enough to change those realities. But these stories can wake us up to the threats we are facing. The greatest political danger in America isn’t fascism, and it isn’t wokeness. It’s inertia. America needs a warning.

The reason for a surge in anxiety over a civil war is obvious. The Republican National Committee, now under the control of the presumptive nominee, has asked job candidates if they believe the 2020 election was stolen — an obvious litmus test. Extremism has migrated into mainstream politics, and certain fanciful fictions have migrated with it. In 1997, a group of Texas separatists were largely considered terrorist thugs and their movement, if it deserved that title, fizzled out after a weeklong standoff with the police. Just a few months ago, Texas took the federal government to court over control of the border. Armed militias have camped out along the border. That’s not a movie trailer. That’s happening.

But politicians, pundits and many voters seem not to be taking the risk of violence seriously enough. There is an ingrained assumption, resulting from the country’s recent history of global dominance coupled with a kind of organic national optimism, that in the United States everything ultimately works out. While right-wing journalists and fiction writers have been predicting a violent end to the Republic for generations — one of the foundational documents of neo-Nazism and white supremacy is “The Turner Diaries” from 1978, a novel that imagines an American revolution that leads to a race war — their writings seem more like wish fulfillment than like warnings.

When I attended prepper conventions as research for my book, I found their visions of a collapsed American Republic suspiciously attractive: It’s a world where everybody grows his own food, gathers with family by candlelight, defends his property against various unpredictable threats and relies on his wits. Their preferred scenario resembled, more than anything, a sort of postapocalyptic “Little House on the Prairie.”

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