Is America ;in a new civil war? Are we headed there? In this episode, I take on the question posed by Politico recently: “We are in a new civil war … about what, exactly?”
I propose the Compass of Power, a theory that holds the center of power in a democracy moves with the people. And Americans have been moving South for decades, tilting the center of national power away from the North, Democrats and liberals. We talk about the Jan. 6 storming of the US Capitol, about Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Joe Biden and Georgia voting laws. It all comes down to the differences between how the North and South see the world. To be Southern these days seems pretty similar to being conservative, and much of what the North has taken for granted is up for renegotiation. Can we do that without a fight?
Season 2, Episode 1The New Civil War and the Compass of Power
Politico ran a story the other day titled,
We Are In a New Civil War … About What Exactly?
Grievous conflicts have been about big things — war, slavery, Depression — but this time we just don’t like each other.
Here is a prominent, national news outlet running a column that flatly declares we are in a civil war in America. Because we “just don’t like each other.”
I agree we’ve passed political polarization and stepped into something worse. And — good news — I think I know why. So stick around and listen to old man Wilson lay it down for you.
Let’s set the stage with this Politico article. It was written by no other than founding editor John Harris. Here’s how Harris starts:
For most of my reporting career, to refer to some dispute or another — over a judicial nomination, perhaps, or an uproar over a proposed shopping mall near a battlefield — as “a new Civil War” was to reach for a metaphor.
On the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, we mark the evolution of journalistic cliche: Serious people now invoke “Civil War” not as metaphor but as literal precedent.
He’s right that the talk has gotten around. Or, more precisely, the terms “soft Civil War” and “cold Civil War” entered our political conversation in about 2018 or 19.
They describe a society so deeply divided that political gridlock has begun to spill over into sporadic violence. Moderation is out. There’s no Battle of Bull Run 3, thank you Jesus. But the partisanship is only increasing, not decreasing.
The “civil war” concept has steadily gained traction in the chattering classes. Here’s some headlines from just in the last month:
- The New Yorker ran an article called “Is a Civil War Ahead?”
- The Guardian ran “Is the US really heading toward a Civil War?”
- The New York Times ran a column called “Are We Really Facing a Second Civil War?”
- Here’s NPR: “Imagine another American Civil War, but this time in every state”
- Three retired generals wrote a piece for the Washington Post urging the military to take the threat of a coup from within the ranks seriously.
That last point, by the way, was ominously forecast by conservative author David French in his 2020 book, “Divided We Fall.”
But let’s hang with Harris, who raises some excellent points. First, he notes that we have seen more political violence and disruption in America’s past than we do in its present. Fact.
Second, however, he points out that we kinda knew what the problem was when things were heated.
The actual, hot, Civil War was about slavery. The Depression and the New Deal were about expanding government and reining in the capitalists. The riots and demonstrations of the 1960s were (mostly) about segregation and the Vietnam War.
So what, exactly, are we fighting about now?
What was the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, about — really?
You can say it was about the 2020 election — which Trump lost . But we all know that what we saw on Jan. 6 started long before 2020.
Some part of whatever happened last January is what helped Trump win the presidency in office in 2016. We can agree on that, I think.
Here’s Harris again:
Efforts to explain Trump often rely on complex sociological or economic theories. He was a backlash to globalization and selfish elites. He exploited resentment of trade and the decline in real wages. He was the representative of people who disliked the cultural ascension of women and African-Americans and the diminution of working class white males. And so on.
All semi-plausible. All inadequate in the face of Trump’s zigs on one day and zags the next, and the obvious truth that most of his partisans are attracted to him less for any programmatic reason than for the sheer bombast of his performance — and especially that he offends his opposition.
The more the vitriol has risen the less consensus there is about the origins of anger. To the contrary, there is something closer to an establishment consensus that the search for root cause is folly — the Trump phenomenon defies explanation, and the threat posed by his demagoguery makes speculation about its origins an irrelevant distraction.
There are a lot of explanations for the state of our politics out there. We just listed a few. There are more, and frankly, better ones out there.
Still, it doesn’t feel like any of the mainstream explanations are quite simple enough to be true. Not that something as complex as US Politics can ever be simple, but when you start to feel like you need a new degree just to understand the new and complex reason so-and-so has … It could be that it’s just not the case.
I think of it this way — there are a lot of compounding factors. There are a lot of things that are amplifying the problem. But before you can amplify something, before you can compound it…
You need the original thing. You need the signal that is being amplified.
What is that original thing? If something is breaking apart, you can talk about the forces pulling on it, but it has to give somewhere. There’s a fault line in there, a weak point, where the crack forms.
In politics, a lot people would say it’s what they call America’s original sin: It’s slavery. It’s race.
That, I think, is not quite right. Three points:
- The United States absolutely has a long history of racism, and race has always — always — been a factor in our politics. You have to have some compassion for all the Americans who have been harmed by our views on race over the centuries.
- Trump reversed racial polarization in our elections. He did. I know it sounds crazy. But the facts are that Trump started winning back non-White voters for Republicans in 2016, and did even better in 2020. He did BETTER with blacks and Latinos in particular AFTER he did all the things in the Whitehouse that drove white liberals crazy.
- The same year Americans voted to elect our first Black vice president.
So, if we think of racism as a wound, couldn’t we say it’s healing? Not gone. Not irrelevant. But getting better by a lot of measures, and certainly the one that matters most in politics — power.
I don’t think you can just say “Oh, it’s a bunch of racists who love Trump. That’s what is happening.” And I think we’ve all heard that argument.
I made it myself, once upon a time.
But Trump LOST white voters between 2016 and 2020. He lost men between 2016 and 2020. He lost working class voters.
That’s why he isn’t in the White House right now.
Racism is something but it’s not the THING. The thing we are groping around for. The “root cause” as Harris put it.
Dan Carlin asked the same question this way: where does the heat come from?
If we are in a giant forest fire as a nation, where is the heat coming from, where are the hidden embers that keep re-igniting the blaze?
Well, I’ll tell you.
Are you ready for this?
I’m letting the suspense build.
Okay here it is.
It’s the same thing the last Civil War was about.
It’s about the North and the South.
That’s it. Pretty simple. You understand it already.
Try this — pick a topic that divides us.
Do you want to talk about race relations?
Do you want to talk about economics? How workers are treated, how they are paid, how business is regulated?
Do you want to talk about democracy? Who gets to vote and how?
Do you want to talk about military policy? Foreign policy?
You want to talk about the role of religion in public life?
Every one of those topics, and many more, break along the Mason-Dixon line.
You know, the Civil War was complex, too. But one word, “Slavery,” catches most of it. It’s a system of labor, it was an economic model, it was about who can vote and who can’t. And it was about race.
All tied together. One war. Two sides.
North and South.
Every issue we are fighting today about comes down to the difference between the way the culture that dominates the northern United States sees things,
… and the way the culture that dominates the Southern United States sees things.
Why is this coming to a head now? Didn’t we settle all this back in 1865?
I don’t want to ruin the movie for you, but the north wins the Civil War. And for 100 years after that, the north pretty much gets its way on everything.
What’s really challenging us now is that the North can’t get its way on everything.
Neither can the South. But the South has a shot at having things their way. For the past few decades, the South has had a real shot at getting its hands on the steering wheel of American life.
There are the votes that people cast in elections, and there are the votes they cast with their feet.
Since World War II, Americans have been voting for the South and the West by moving there.
Based on the 2020 Census, Texas will get two more seats in Congress this decade.
Florida and North Carolina will each get one more.
The number of seats in Congress is fixed. So who will lose the seats the South is gaining?
California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania all will lose seats in the House.
New York used to be the most populous state — back in 1960.
After the 2010 Census, it was No. 3.
Now it’s No. 4 — fourth! Behind who?
Let’s just sit with that for a second. There are more people in the state with the Everglades than there are in the state with the Empire State Building.
The top three states in the country are California, Texas and Florida.
Those also happen to be three of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in America. But Texas and Florida are deep, deep red. They are conservative places. They are Republican places.
Again, it’s pretty simple.
They are SOUTHERN places. Today, right now, Southernism, Republicanism and Conservatism have all merged. What it means to be any one is just about the same as what it means to be the other two.
Likewise, to be liberal — especially to be “progressive” — to be a Democrat and to be a northernern are all defined by the same things.
In a democracy, the power comes from the people. And the people are moving south. That is creating a seismic shift in American politics. Because people don’t usually bring their politics with them. They adapt to their political environment.
Think about it — has surging population made Idaho liberal? Turned Washington state red?
For the most part, when a place grows in population, it’s political culture remains constant but that place gains overall influence.
I call my little theory the Compass of Power.
Think of it this way — I’m in Washington state, and the only city in this state the world recognizes is Seattle. Seattle is at the center of a big urban crescent that contains the lion’s share of the people in Washington.
The compass of power in Washington points to Seattle. It’s culture is defined by Seattle, for better or worse. It’s politics are driven by the concerns of Seattle.
Over the past 20 years, the Seattle area has grown like gangbusters.
Accordingly, Washington politics have gone from being tightly contested between Republicans and Democrats, to lopsidedly liberal — Seattle LIberal.
At the national level, even when we Democrats think the Republicans are old and tired and hemmed in by demographic change, they keep winning. It seems all but a given that they will win back the House this year. And probably the Senate.
OK, let’s step back. By now, I’m sure some of you are arguing with me.
What about the terrible gerrymandering by Republicans! Voter suppression!
Or, not everyone in the North is a liberal! There are lots of Republicans in Maine and Wisconsin!
There are Democrats in Texas! I know some (see previous episode oft this podcast)
Demcrats won Georgia!
Also — Trump is from New York City!
What’s wrong with you, Wilson?
LIsten, I am talking big picture here. And I would love, LOVE, to get into the details.
I could go on — and on and on — about how the West Coast ended up voting blue, but interior western states in the North — like Montana and Idaho ended up Republican.
We could discuss the urbanization of the South, and how that will play out for politics.
Because, believe me folks, I have done my research!
But this podcast episode is about answering the question in that headline: We Are In a New Civil War … About What Exactly?
So, I propose the answer is, we are in a cold civil war about the compass of power.
It is a contest to determine whether the North or the South will be in charge of the United States.
To make the case for the Compass of Power, let’s dig into just some of the complexities. And that starts with realizing that the “north” and the “south” are not clearly defined lands with unified governing philosophies.
There is a dominant culture and elite in the North that is defined by the culture you will find in New England, the upper Midwest — that big “blue wall.”
And there is a dominant culture in the South that runs places like Alabama and South Carolina. But I would posit neither one of those cultures was center stage on Jan. 6.
Instead, we should answer the riddle of Jan. 6 with a look at two of the smaller regional cultures in the North and the South.
Former President Donald J. Trump is from New York City.
Here’s the thing kids: as we begin, so we continue. True in all things in life. Including culture.
New York City was founded by the Dutch. It was called New Amsterdam.
Now the Dutch were not out to colonize the New World. Not the way the English were. They didn’t want to populate the land and conquer the territory, start tobacco farms, have a million Dutch babies. Nothing quite like that.
What they wanted to do was trade. They wanted to make money. They wanted fur, they were willing to trade some steel. You know — make a profit.
So the attitude of New Amersterdam was different from the Massachusetts or Virginia colonies. In New Amsterdam, you could be Dutch or French or a member of a Tribe. You could say what you wanted, think what you wanted, dress however.
The Dutch were not there to dictate morality to you.
They were there to make money off you. They wanted profit. And it seemed to them that being tolerant of folks allowed you to meet more potential business partners.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I mean New York City to this day is world-renowned for its diversity and tolerance. It’s a place where freedom of speech is highly, highly valued.
Just about every book published in the United States is published by New York City firms. All the major television networks are based there (except CNN).
In that way, New York City is liberal.
But it’s not liberal in a moralizing, Puritan way. They don’t enforce cultural rules quite like that. That culture, the culture of the folks who founded Massachusetts, is much more widespread in the U.S. than the culture of New Amsterdam. The Yankees, in fact, came to control most of what is New York State.
But not New York City. NYC is a very special place in America. And it’s a very loud place.
The City gave us artists like DJ Herc and Afrika Bambatta, the godfathers of rap, and the whole musical genre of rap.
They gave us Broadway and the Rockettes.
It gave us our national treasure, Mel Brooks. I love Mel Brooks!
Some of the City’s politicians become nationally-recognized liberals, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the AOC.
It’s also given us plenty of loud-mouthed, dynamic conservatives.
What about Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican? How about America’s mayor, Rudy Guliani? How about Bill O’Reilly? All made in New York, New York.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a national Republican figure, and very much out from central cultural casting in New York.
So, while it might be less common to run into a Republican New Yorker, they are by no means unheard of. And in his way, Trump is the most New York guy you could think of.
As former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once joked,
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Guy from Wisconsin, what’s it like to work on a daily basis with an abrasive New Yorker with a loud mouth?’ But you know, once you get to know him, Chuck Schumer is not all that bad.”
Being a successful, bombastic television star like Trump, however, doesn’t necessarily give you voters. It doesn’t give you a little militia with which to storm the Capitol.
To understand who follows Trump, we need to understand another American culture. If New York is a junior partner to the Yankees in the Northern cultural coalition, then the Applachians are the junior partner to the planters in the Southern cultural coalition.
On Census forms, these are the “Scotch-Irish.” The name distinguishes them from the Irish Catholics that arrived later in American history.
The kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland were in near-constant state of warfare for hundreds of years up to about the time England started its colonies along the coast of North America and in the Caribbean.
Remember, in the old days you couldn’t load up your troops on a train in London and take them North to the border with Scotland for the battle.
You tried to get the fighting people from the area where the fighting was. The borders between England and Scotland, and between English settlements in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were basically war zones. And the people who lived there developed A Warrior’s culture.
They valued personal courage and toughness Above All Else, and certainly above the genteel manners of the aristocracy.
Scotland and England joined to form the United Kingdom in 1707 — long after the Puritans got to Massachusetts in 1621.
Once they had peace on the home Island, the British ruling class looked at those Borderlands and said, “Hey, the old DMZ is actually Prime real estate!”
To keep things simple for our purposes, just understand that the powers that be in England taxed the borderlanders right off of their land. They just raised the taxes until the people who owned the land couldn’t pay and then they took the land and told them to find someplace else to live.
Where could they go? America. This huge wave of settlers from northern England, Southern Scotland and Northern Ireland start arriving in the colonies right on the eve of the American Revolutionary War.
When they get to the colonies they are not warmly received. They quickly become — and they are to this day –the redheaded stepchild of American culture.
They don’t stay too long in the cities like New York, Boston or Philadelphia and instead head for the frontier area, particularly what is today south central Pennsylvania
From there they spread down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. They fought with everyone. The native tribes. The local settlers. The government officials. Themselves.
The level of violence in these communities was extreme. We’re coming back to that.
They invented bourbon. The New Yorkers tried to enrich themselves by taxing whiskey, and the Appalachians started the Whiskey Rebellion. 150 years later, the feds started chasing their moonshine, so they invented NASCAR.
They came up with BlueGrass. They play that old time Mountain music that Grandma and Grandpa used to play.
Some call this the Appalachian culture. And I like that term better than “Scotch-Irish” because, just like it doesn’t matter what your background is, if you grow up in New York, you are a New Yorker, if you grow up in Kentucky, you are going to be a Kentuckian in your worldview. It’s a culture, not an ethnicity.
But they went a lot farther than just Appalachia. This culture, like most American cultures, spread far, far west. It dominates states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but it is huge in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri.
(All places, by the way, where the Democratic Party used to win and now loses.)
And to outsiders, their politics seem incomprehensible. Most of us, especially liberal northerners see politics in terms of what policy you favor. Not Appalachians.
Historian David Hackett Fischer wrote a remarkable study of 4 foundational American cultures called “Albion’s Seed.”
Writing in 1989, here’s what he had to say about leaders in Appalachian culture:
The politics of the backcountry consisted mainly of charismatic leaders and personal followings, cememented by strong and forceful acts … The rhetoric that these leaders used sometimes sounded democratic, but it was easily misunderstood by those who were not part of this folk culture. The Jacksonian movement was a case in point. To easterners, Andrew Jackson looked and sounded like a Democrat. But in his own culture, his rhetoric had a very different function. Historian Thomas Abernethy observes that Andrew Jackson never championed the cause of the people; he merely invited the people to champion him.
Remember that — leaders in this culture don’t gain influence with policy proposals. They do it with personality and “forceful acts.” And it may sound to outsiders like they are talking about being champions for the people, but to insiders they are inviting people to champion them.
Any of this sound familiar? I hope so.
Now let’s talk about violence. Like any group of people who are exposed to prolonged periods of violence, the Applachians had developed endemic violence in their own communities. Violence between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between rival families, and on and on.
Here’s a historical scene for us to consider: It’s pre-American Revolution, December, 1763. We’re in Pennsylvania, a state founded by William Penn, who was a Quaker and intended his colony to be a model Quaker community. The Quakers were pacifists. They liked to live and let live, and generally stay on good terms with their neighbors, which included non-English immigrants and local tribes.
But Scotch-Irish have arrived and moved to the west. The Quakers do not find them to be very compatible with their non-violent ways. In fact, there are immediately skirmishes with local tribes that turn violent.
Some of the Applachians suspect peaceful members of the Susquehannock Tribe are helping other Native Americans who have been pillaging local white settlements and scalping people.
Here is a description of what followed from Colin Woodward’s amazing book, “American Nations.” It looks at American history as a series of conflicts between rival cultures, in this case between the Appalachins and the Quakers, whose territory Woodward refers to as “the Midlands.”
Again, fair warning, this is violent stuff. Our sensitive listeners may want to jump ahead a bit.
“In December 1763, a Scots Irish band from in and around Paxton Pennsylvania attacked and burned a peaceful Christianized Indian settlement on Penn family land, killing six individuals on the spot and butchering 14 more at the Lancaster jail, where midlanders had brought them for protection. Among the dead were two, 3-year-old children who had been scalped and an old man who’d been hacked up with an axe in the jail yard. After the killings these so-called “Paxton Boys” rallied together an armed force of 1,500 Scots-Irish neighbors and marched on Philadelphia, intending to murder more peaceful Native Americans who had fled there for their safety on the invitation of Governor John Penn, the late Founder’s grandson.
“The result was a tense military showdown between Borderlanders and Midlanders with control of what was then British North America’s Premier City hanging in the balance. When the Paxton Boys arrived outside Philadelphia on a rainy day in February 1764, a thousand midlanders rallied to defend the State House. The city militia deployed a row of artillery pieces on the parade ground of the garrison, each loaded with grapeshot. As the Borderlander Army surrounded the city, 200 Quakers actually set aside their principles and took up arms.
“On the city outskirts, the Paxton Boys dressed in moccasins and blanket coats, [quote] “uttering hideous cries and imitation of the Indian war-whoop, knocked down Peaceable citizens, and pretended to scalp them,”[end quote] according to an eyewitness.
With German citizens generally remaining neutral and the Scots-Irish underclass in Philadelphia sympathetic with the invaders, the Midlands stood on the brink of occupation.
“In the end Benjamin Franklin saved the day, leading a negotiating team that promised to address the Borderlanders’ grievances if they agreed to go home. A party of them was allowed to inspect the Indian refugees in the city but was unable to identify a single enemy combatant among them. When they later submitted their demands to Penn, foremost among them was to be given proper representation in the provincial assembly. Philadelphians were horrified, the governor dallied, and the city was “daily threatened with the return of a more formidable Force.” Quakers turned to London for help and kept a standing military force posted in the city for the first time in Midlands history. Only the end of hostilities with Indians farther west allowed the situation to normalize.”
Note, dear listeners a few points:
- Violence on a level that most other cultures would consider barbaric
- Suspicions over facts — the innocent were slaughtered
- And underneath that, a legitimate grievance about being cut out of democratic power
- A grievance that the violence does nothing to solve
These are all repeating, unfortunate, themes in Appalachian culture. And I hope by now they are starting to rhyme in your head with headlines today, more than 250 years later.
Culture isn’t just what we think of when we think of New York City … musicians, dancers and playwrights. It’s not just rich people on 5th Avenue and strolling through Central Park.
It’s how we see the world collectively, including our community attitudes about violence. It includes our attitudes about what is appropriate for the government to do, what is appropriate for citizens to do.
The Dutch, for example, never intended their colony on Manhattan island to be self-governing. The government was called “the West India Company.” (All rights reserved. Seriously.)
The people who had a say were often successful business men. And to this day, if you want a say in how things are done in New York City, you have to be prepared to fight for it in some pretty tough crowds.
Ocasio-Cortez, for example, beat Joe Crowley, a fellow Democrat who served his district for 20 years and was well liked in D.C. But if you are in elected office in NYC, you have to watch your back.
The Applachians certainly have some rough-and-tumble internal politics, but the one thing they despise more than anything is being dominated by outsiders.
For centuries, they have resisted any sort of outside imposition on their ways.
Although we may think of them as being vaguely “southern,” it’s important to remember that they have never wanted to answer to anyone. In the case of the Civil War, Kentucky was actually neutral, the Switzerland of the Civil War.
Tennessee was supposedly a Confederate state, but throughout the war it was riven with insurrections and battles between Unionist holdouts in the mountains and troops loyal to the confederacy.
And West Virginia left Virginia because of the Civil War. The Applachians there really resented being controlled by the planters along the coast, and the first chance they got, they broke off and formed their own state — slave fee, and loyal to the Union.
Just a month or so ago, the whole Northern coalition was upset with Senator Joe Manchin.
Remember that? He was not going along with President Biden’s big social program bill, and the Democrats had to have him on board. Finally he said he was a definite “no.”
Liberal people were livid. Said he wasn’t even a Democrat. Even Joe Biden was mad, which is saying something.
What do you think Manchin said? What would someone from Appalachia say?
He said, and I quote:
“I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figured: ‘Surely to God, we can move one person. Surely we can badger and beat one person up. Surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough.’
“Well guess what: I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive, period.”
So, he’s a no.
And tell me listeners, isn’t that exactly what we would expect?
In my opinion, and based on the theory of politics I am laying out for you here, it is very true to type. It is what you get when you try to push a politician from the Applachain culture into doing your bidding. You get the finger.
So, the Applachians are a part of the Northern coalition, but an uneasy partner.
More often these days, we find them on the conservative side of politics, part of the Southern coalition. The Appalachian culture, after all, runs strongest along the mountains, taking up the east of the Carolinas and the north of Alabama and Georgia. It runs west to the top of Texas and into New Mexico.
The absolute archetype of their political culture today is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Not only does he represent Kentucky, he is also from an old-school Scotch-Irish family.
And he just drives Democrats mad because he only wants to win. And he says so. He says, I’m not going to let the president fill a Supreme Court seat because he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican. And then he denies President Obama a nomination that at any other time would have been allowed.
It may infuriate the rest of us, but it makes him a hero to his people.
Senators McConnell and Manchin agreed on something — they condemned the Jan. 6, 2020 storming of the Capitol. They may play politics hard, but they don’t like the rabble running amok and smashing their windows.
I hope by now I have set the stage for the answer to that, dear listeners.
What we have is:
- A loud-mouthed, big-personality figure from New York City who loves adulation.
- A whole American culture that responds more to personality than to policy, and that wants more than anything to stick it to the elites. And…
- A win followed by a loss. Trump won in 2016. He lost the election in 2020.
In my view, that answers the Trump part of the question — Donald Trump is no Applachian chieftain, but he learned to play one on TV.
There is good reason to think that the Trump who became president is not the Trump who became a media star beginning in the 80s. As Esra Klein noted in his book on polarization, Trump once criticized the Republicans for sounding too mean on immigration.
That doesn’t sound like the Trump we knew as president.
It seems more likely that Trump discovered there was an audience out there for him in politics. A whole swath of people who loved him more the tougher, angrier and more defensive he sounded.
Remember how he seemed to encourage roughing up protesters at his rallies? He knew his audience loved that.
I’m not saying that Trump sat around and thought, “If I act tough and damn the elites, I should get a good swath of the Appalachian culture on my side. With that, I could win a few of the swing states and put myself in the Whitehouse.”
No. Trump, I am sure, did zero historical research. But he FELT the connection when he played the role. He HEARD the roar of the crowd, and he knew he was onto something big. And the more he played to it, the more loyal the crowd became.
So, when Trump refuses to concede the 2020 election, a lot of people believe him. It’s in large part thanks to social media and disinformation and all the rest. It’s the direct connection he forged with his most devoted followers, which had no connection to the facts at play.
But it’s also because once you play the role of the chieftain, you have to win. No Losing allowed.
And if you say you really won, but you were done dirty, who comes to set things right? The kind of people who go to political rallies dressed for some kind of battle.
I don’t have the time to run the analysis of who was at the Capitol riot, where they were from, regions, all that. But to me, there’s only one group of Americans who show up to a political rally ready to literally fight. With helmets and gas masks and zip ties.
And what happens when the beloved leader of a group like that tells them, “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
They do not vigorously file petitions!
They don’t write sternly-worded emails!
They smash. Some. shit. Right then.
Again, I know there are a lot of complexities here. And I am not saying that everyone who grew up in an Appalachian area is some kind of violent extremist who can’t think for themselves.
This is a self-selected sample of the electorate. These are the people who are so amped up they are going to show up for the kind of party Trump was throwing on Jan. 6.
He tweeted, quote, “Be there. Will be wild!”
The sort of folk who wanted it wild came. And it was that. But we are talking about a very small subset of people. It was no revolution.
Frankly, I don’t think the Jan. 6 riot was a coordinated military operation to seize control of the federal government. I do think it was what it looked like — a riot in which most people had no real plans, but a few where acting out violent fantasies.
It was a big deal. People died. More than 100 members of the Capitol police force were injured, and the broader security apparatus in DC proved unable to ensure public safety or even official control of America’s most important public building.
And the President of the United States instigated the whole affair.
A year later, a lot of people on the left believe that democracy itself is under attack.
One CNN headline read, “January 6 may be only a preview of a deeper democratic rupture,”
Former President Jimmy Carter, from Georgia, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “I fear for our democracy.”
Again, I don’t think the actual participants in the Jan. 6 melee are likely to overthrow us. They ranged wildly in terms of forethought and intent.– the dude with the bison horns, the old guy hanging out in Pelosi’s office.
There’s Stewart Rhodes, who has been charged with “seditious conspiracy” as the leader of the “Oath Keepers.” He’s worked in Arizona and Nevada, trained as a paratrooper, was injured, and later graduated from Yale Law School. He was disbarred in Montana.
His people are the ones who are accused of leading the charge to bust down the Capitol doors. They are also accused of having firearms ready nearby. Seems pretty calculated.
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton spoke at the Jan. 6 rally. Like Kevin McCarthy, he is in a legal battle over his communications from that day.
Next to leaders like them, you have people like Thomas Paul Conover — from the Appalachian part of Texas, North Texas. Conover entered the Capitol and got a picture of himself drinking a Coors Light next to a painting.
He is not accused of being violent or damaging anything. But he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
By this point, Conover is facing up to six months in prison. I wonder if he disagrees with Tucker Carlson, one of Fox News’ top-rated hosts.
Here’s what Carlson had to say about the anniversary:
“But actually if you take three steps back as historical events go, if we are being honest now, January 6 barely rates as a footnote.”
“Really not a lot happened that day if you think about it.”
Put me in the “ a lot did happen” camp. No, not the death of democracy or the overthrow of government. But something unprecedented.
President Biden observed the anniversary in the Capitol. He said,
Close your eyes. Go back to that day. What do you see? Rioters rampaging, waving for the first time inside this Capitol a Confederate flag that symbolized the cause to destroy America, to rip us apart.
Even during the Civil War, that never, ever happened. But it happened here in 2021.
What else do you see? A mob breaking windows, kicking in doors, breaching the Capitol. American flags on poles being used as weapons, as spears. Fire extinguishers being thrown at the heads of police officers.
A crowd that professes their love for law enforcement assaulted those police officers, dragged them, sprayed them, stomped on them.
OK, now Biden is setting up his attack on the “Big Lie” perpetuated by Trump. That is the notion that somehow Trump actually won the election, but widespread voter fraud and conspiracies undid his victory.
As Biden said, none of this has stood up in court. None of it has been found in vote counts, recounts and audits. It’s not true, and yet Trump’s supporters believe it.
It’s all fantasy.
And again, we could talk about Fox News and the echo chamber and all that. I recognize that.
I feel like I have to stop a lot and acknowledge the complexities because my analysis is so simple.
But I really do feel, folks, that we have focused too much on the complexities. So much so that we can’t even see the simple explanation right in front of our faces.
They were waving Confederate flags because they are the heirs to the Confederates.
The people there on Jan. 6, whether they were trying to hunt down and hang Vice President Pence or just posing for photos with their beer, had some sort of kinship with the Southern vision of America, not the Northern vision of America.
The Confederate flag, the rebel flag, as some call it, speaks to something they feel about who they are and what their country is.
Trust me, we could spend hours unpacking the symbolism the flag at the riot. One had the Confederate battle flag as a background, an AR-15 in the foreground, with the motto “come and take it.”
But let’s change the camera angle here.
Biden says Jan. 6, 2020, was a huge deal. On that day, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy also thought it was a huge deal.
He went on record condemning the violence. He said Trump bore some responsibility for it.
The chair of the House committee investigating the riot, Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, wrote to McCarthy recently, saying:
“It appears that you may also have discussed with President Trump the potential he would face a censure resolution, impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. It also appears that you may have identified other possible options, including President Trump’s immediate resignation from office.”
But McCarthy is not going to talk to that committee. He said he would not. And he says the investigation is not legitimate.
What happened? What turned McCarthy around?
Here’s my thought. McCarthy is from California. He’s an experienced politician. based on his experience and his background, he looked around at that riot he thought it was outrageous. He told the president so.
But as time has gone on and he has talked to his people he realizes that maybe what happened on January 6th wasn’t so outrageous from their perspective. Maybe it’s pretty close to being culturally acceptable.
What used to be completely wrong and bad because it was against the rules in US politics maybe now is just a little untoward. Not completely wrong.
Because the Compass of Power is tipping away from the old set of cultural rules.
Now Tucker Carlson, Kevin McCarthy and a lot of others are realizing there’s not going to be a political price to pay for January 6th.
If they hang tight and everything keeps going the way it seems like it’s going, they’re going to be working their way back into power in the next elections.
A year from now, in 2023, it could very likely be Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. And you can bet that the House committee isn’t going to be sending him uncomfortable questions anymore. Maybe he turns it around and now Democrats are getting nasty questions from his committee.
It’s the Democrats who are worried, because they can sense that the acceptable norms are changing.
That is why President Biden went to Georgia to talk about voting rights.
As the compass of power tips South, the Democrats have to win in the South if they want to stay in power. Biden won the election because Against All Odds he won in Georgia.
And what are the powers that be in Georgia doing about it? Well, they refused to alter the actual vote counts, despite Trump pressuring them to do so. So that is good.
But after Biden won, and so did both Democratic candidates for the US Senate, Georgia elites turned to their standard playbook.
Georgia’s elite are doing exactly what you would expect them to do in the context of its culture and history.
They looked at the 2020 election, saw that the people voted in a way they didn’t like and they’ve decided they’re going to change the rules about who gets to vote.
Just to illustrate the importance of geography here, let me point out that all of these rules are completely baffling to me. Because I live on the West Coast.
In Washington state, for example, we do all our voting by mail. The ballots are sent to registered voters three weeks before the election, and they have to be mailed or dropped in a ballot box before or on Election Day.
But you look at the sort of election “reforms” we’re talking about across the South and the Dry West, it’s finagling with absentee ballots and voting poll locations, and drop box locations and hours, and it’s all super complicated.
For example, if you do have people standing in line waiting to vote, I can understand why you wouldn’t want Senator Fibber McGee handing out drinks and snacks to folks.
“Here’s some water — remember to vote McGee!”
On the other hand, if you are a member of the ruling class, and the poor people have voted in ways you find objectionable, then maybe you cut back on how many polling places they have. Now the lines are really long.
Maybe four hours long.
Then maybe the “League of folks who want to vote” organizes themselves and hands out water, so nobody passes out or gives up and leaves.
If you didn’t like the whole idea of poor people voting in the first place, then maybe you “protect the integrity of the voting process,” by banning water bottles in line.
See how it gets complex?
The whole dynamic is so concerning to the Democrats that not only did the president go to Georgia to protest this month, so did the vice president. And Vice President Kamala Harris said something interesting.
She said there is “a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal.”
“There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines.”
Look, I am also opposed to making it difficult for people to vote. I believe that if you are an adult American, you should be able to vote — with very, very few exceptions.
But Harris, like McCarthy, is from California. And I think what she is saying is “it’s not normal where I come from” to respond to election losses by making it harder to vote.
Can we really, honestly make the case it’s not normal in Georgia?
There is some Appalachian territory in Georgia. But for the most part, it’s what we call the “Deep South.”
What is the “deep” South? Well, I think we all know the difference between the stereotypical hillbilly, with a beard and a shack and a jug of whiskey …
And a planter in a white suit, with plantation house, a mint julep and slaves.
There is a major difference between a frontier culture that is hostile to all outsiders and a culture that seizes land and keeps a whole population enslaved to do the work.
Biden is right when he calls what is going on in Georgia “Jim Crow 2.0”
Heck, it’s more like Jim Crow version 4.5.
Because Jim Crow laws themselves, put in place at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th Century, were just a new way to maintain an old order. An order that goes back 400 years.
The culture of the Deep South goes back to folks who wanted to be English Aristocrats but we’re cut out of the aristocracy in England. All the land was taken up. So these people moved out to the Caribbean, and from the Caribbean 2 South Carolina, from South Carolina all the way east Texas.
The most important feature of this culture in the context we are talking about is that they always believed there was an entitled ruling class of people who deserve to be in charge. There was a vast undeserving class underneath them right down to people who literally had no rights and were considered property.
Side note: observers have always remarked on the level of violence in Appalachian culture, but we should realize that the culture of the Planters was riddled with violence that was just less visible because it mostly occurred out of public view, between the owners of the land and the people they enslaved.
The goal has always been to maintain an oligarchy, which is just a fancy way of saying they wanted to keep the big shots in charge of everything.
As late as 1974, South Carolina General Assembly seats were assigned just as they are today for the U.S. Congress, with counties like states.
Each county got a certain number of state representatives based on it’s population, but never less than one (just as the least populated states still have one at-large congressional representative).
And every county got one state senator, just like each state is represented by two federal senators. The criticism of this plan was that it gave some people — like rural land owners more representation in the legislature than urban people.
Which is exactly the complaint about the US Senate leveled by northerners today.
Listen, I want to be clear that I believe the Voting Rights Act lifted up the voices of people who had been denied their basic rights as Americans.
I think of voting as a right. Not as a priviledge.
But I don’t live in Georgia. I don’t vote in Georgia. The question is can the people of Georgia come to an agreement on who can vote and where?
There’s a contest going on there right now between the folks who have traditional views about reserving voting for the select, and those who want to see as many people vote as possible.
And yes — most Black people in Georgia are going to be on the liberal side of this because they have been on the wrong end of those restrictions for centuries.
Biden doesn’t want to leave it to Georgia, because the people in charge there are going the Southern way. The laws have already been passed. Not only there but in 18 other states as well.
States like Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Arizona.
Biden, the Democrats, and northerners in general have one option left. That is to pass federal law overriding those states.
To do that, though, you need a majority in the Senate and the House. They have it in the House. But even after winning both Senate seats in Georgia, the Democrats are only up to a 50-50 split in the Senate.
That takes us back to the previously mentioned criticism of the Senate.
And, to quote Biden, (NOT ONE REpublian)
Not one Republican is going to vote for Voting Rights Act 2.0 because they don’t think they are going to pay a political price for opposing it.
They feel like they are going to win elections by doing just what they are doing now — which is opposing everything Democrats ask for.
And to be fair, they also feel like it’s pretty judgy of us Northerners to take what they see as “election security” and hold it next to Jim Crow 1.2.
McConnell said, “A sitting President of the United States who pledged to lower the temperature and unite America now invokes the brutal racial hatred of Jim Crow segregation to smear states whose new voting laws are more accessible than in his home state of Delaware.
“10 days of early voting and excuse-only absentees in Delaware is just fine, but 17 days of early voting and no-excuse absentees in Georgia is racist Jim Crow?”
“The Senate Democratic Leader pretends it is a civil rights crisis that Georgia has enshrined more early voting and more absentee balloting than his state of New York has ever allowed.
“This is misinformation. A Big Lie.”
Well, let’s face it. The North has always been better at pointing out the South’s faults than living up to it’s own ideals.
So, where does this all leave us? Let’s go back to the beginning, one last time.
We are answering the question put forth by Politico editor John Harris:
We Are In a New Civil War … About What Exactly?
And my answer comes in reverse. First, what’s it about?
It’s about the Compass of Power. It’s about tipping that 50-50 split in the Senate. It’s about the fact that the North is losing people, the South is growing and soon will be the dominant region of the United States.
As the population shifts, all things American are up for redefinition.
It will redefine what we eat — I bet you already eat a lot more barbeque and pulled pork than you used to! I know I do.
But it will also redefine what “voting rights” are.
It will redefine what kind of violence is acceptable.
It will redefine what employee rights, environmental protections, and health care mean.
And it won’t do that, I don’t think, in a way northerners, Democrats or liberals are going to like.
But should we just agree with the assertion that we are in a new civil war?
I am willing to accept the notion that we are in a “cold Civil War.” And so are most Americans, At least according to one poll by Business Insider.
I think it fits because, like the actual Cold War between the US and Russia, no one even wants to contemplate how horrible open warfare would be.
But no one is quite willing to compromise or collaborate with the other side, either.
I say “no one” meaning, those who challenge the status quo do not fare well. See also — Liz Cheney.
So, you have two sides who tolerate huge expenses — deadlocked federal government, political tension, even sporadic violence up to a point.
But they won’t tolerate — Saints preserve us — going beyond intense harassment. The Cuban Missile crisis is instructive here.
There is merit to the argument that even talking about a civil war makes one more likely. However, not talking about a situation as bad as we have seems irresponsible, as well.
Does it get better? Maybe.
Maybe one side wins without too much fuss.
Does it get worse? Maybe.
Let me ask you this —
If it comes to either things getting worse or you compromising on your values …
What does your heart tell you?