The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In America, talk turns to something not spoken of for 150 years: Civil war

A protest against President Trump before his Feb. 11, 2019, rally in El Paso. Former congressman Beto O'Rourke spoke to the crowd. (Rudy Gutierrez/AP)
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At a moment when the country has never seemed angrier, two political commentators from opposite sides of the divide concurred recently on one point that was once nearly unthinkable: The country is on the verge of “civil war.”

First came former U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova, a Fox News regular and ally of President Trump’s. “We are in a civil war,” he said. “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.”

The next day, Nicolle Wallace, a former Republican operative turned MSNBC commentator and Trump critic, played a clip of di­Genova’s commentary on her show and agreed with him — although she placed the blame squarely on the president.

Trump, she said, “greenlit a war in this country around race. And if you think about the most dangerous thing he’s done, that might be it.”

With the investigative report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said to be nearly complete, and with impeachment talk in the air and the 2020 presidential election campaign ramping up, fears that once existed only in fiction or in the fevered dreams of conspiracy theorists have become a regular part of the political debate. These days, there is talk of violence, mayhem and, increasingly, civil war.

A tumultuous couple of weeks in American politics seem to have raised the rhetorical flourishes to a new level and also brought a troubling question to the surface: At what point does all the alarmist talk of civil war actually increase the prospect of violence, riots or domestic terrorism?

Speaking to conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, diGenova summed up his best advice to friends: “I vote, and I buy guns. And that’s what you should do.”

He was a bit more measured a few days later in an interview with The Washington Post, saying that the United States is in a “civil war of discourse . . . a civil war of conduct,” triggered mostly by liberals and the media’s coverage of the Trump presidency. The former U.S. attorney said he owns guns mostly to make a statement, and not because he fears political insurrection among his fellow Americans.

Many chalk up the hyperbolic talk of civil war to the country’s hyperpartisan atmosphere and a cable news arms race in which commentators feel compelled to amp up the rhetoric to be heard when everyone, including the president and Congress, seems to be shouting all the time. The talk has drawn particular derision from some military-veteran groups, whose members have experienced actual warfare.

But the rhetoric also has origins in some real-world problems, such as a crumbling of confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and its paralyzed federal government. With Congress largely deadlocked, governance on the most controversial issues has been left to the Supreme Court or has come through executive or emergency actions, such as Trump’s border-wall effort.

Then there’s the persistent worry by some about the 2020 election. “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and personal lawyer, told a congressional committee Wednesday.

On that score, Cohen is not the only one who is concerned. As far back as 2016, Trump declined to say whether he would concede if he lost the election to Hillary Clinton, prompting then-President Barack Obama to warn that Trump was undermining American democracy. “That is dangerous,” Obama said.

That issue was uppermost in the mind of Joshua Geltzer, a senior Justice Department official under Obama, when he recently wrote an op-ed for CNN urging the country to prepare for the possibility that Trump might not “leave the Oval Office peacefully” if he loses in 2020.

“If he even hints at contesting the election result in 2020 . . . he’d be doing so not as an outsider but as a leader with the vast resources of the U.S. government potentially at his disposal,” Geltzer, now a professor at Georgetown Law Center, wrote in his op-ed in late February.

Geltzer urged both major parties to require their electoral college voters to pledge to respect the outcome of the election and suggested that it might be necessary to ask the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reaffirm their loyalty to the Constitution over Trump.

“These are dire thoughts,” Geltzer wrote. “But we live in uncertain and worrying times.”

His speculation drew immediate reaction from the right. Former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin tweeted a link to an article that called Geltzer’s warnings “rampant crazy.” News Punch, a far-right site that traffics in conspiracy theories, blared: “Obama Official Urges Civil War Against Trump Administration.”

Said Geltzer: “I don’t think I was being paranoid, but, boy, did I inspire paranoia on the other side.”

Some historians have sounded a similar alarm. “How, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?” Victor Davis Hanson, a historian with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, asked last summer in an essay in National Review. Hanson said the United States “was nearing a point comparable to 1860,” about a year before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, S.C.

Around the same time Hanson was writing, Robert Reich, a former secretary of labor who is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, imagined his own new American civil war, in which demands for Trump’s impeachment lead to calls from Fox News commentators for “every honest patriot to take to the streets.”

“The way Mr. Trump and his defenders are behaving, it’s not absurd to imagine serious social unrest,” Reich wrote in the Baltimore Sun. “That’s how low he’s taken us.”

Reich got some unlikely support recently from Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. “I think that 2019 is going to be the most vitriolic year in American politics since the Civil War, and I include Vietnam in that,” Bannon said in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

All the doom, gloom and divisiveness has caught the attention of experts who evaluate the strength of governments around the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, a measure widely cited by political scientists, demoted the United States from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” in January 2017, citing a big drop in Americans’ trust in their political institutions.

Similarly, Freedom House, which monitors freedom and democracy around the world, warned in 2018 that the past year has “brought further, faster erosion of American’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory.”

Those warnings about the state of America’s democratic institutions concern political scientists who study civil wars, which usually take root in countries with high levels of corruption, low trust in institutions and poor governance.

Barbara Walter, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, said her first instinct was to dismiss any talk of civil war in the United States. “But the U.S. is starting to show that it is moving in that direction,” she said. “Countries with bad governance are the ones that experience these wars.”

James Fearon, a Stanford University political scientist who researches political violence, called the pundits’ warnings “basically absurd.” But he noted that political polarization and the possibility of a potentially serious constitutional crisis in the near future do “marginally increase the still very low odds” of a stalemate that might require “some kind of action by the military leadership.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he added, “but I guess it’s not entirely out of the question.”

Less clear in the near term is what effect the inflammatory rhetoric about civil war will have on a democracy that is already on edge. There is some evidence that such heated words could cause people to become more moderate. A 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when hard-line Israeli Jews were shown extreme videos promoting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential to Israeli pride, a strong army or national unity, they took a more dovish position.

“Extreme rhetoric can lead some people to pull back from the brink,” said Boaz Hameiri, a co-author of the study, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and fellow at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab. But that happens only when people already believe a “more moderate version of the extreme views” and find the more extreme message shocking, he said.

In such cases, people recognize the absurdity of their position, worry that it reflects badly on them and reconsider it, he said.

If the extreme messages become a normal part of the political debate, the moderating effect goes away, the study found.

Violence is most likely to occur, Hameiri added, when political leaders use “dehumanizing language” to describe their opponents.

Most experts worried that the talk of conflict here, armed or otherwise, was serving to raise the prospects of unrest and diminish trust in America’s already beleaguered institutions.

The latest warnings of civil war from diGenova drew an exasperated response from VoteVets, a liberal veterans advocacy group whose members have fought in actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Amazing we have to say this but: 1. We are NOT in civil war. 2. Do NOT buy guns (or any weapons) to use against your fellow Americans,” Jon Soltz, the group’s chairman, tweeted in response to diGenova. “Trust us, we have seen war.”