Ross Douthat's Civil War Blame Game
There is no civil war, but if there were a civil war it would be the left's (and the center's) fault.
1. Foolish or Disingenuous?
Two days ago Ross Douthat stepped to the front of the class to chastise liberals for being so alarmed about “civil war.”
He talks mostly about the plot to kidnap and murder Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, which, in Douthat’s telling, was maybe/probably entrapment. Sample stern words:
Presumably we’ll find out more about all this when the case comes to trial, but for now it’s reasonable to wonder whether Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers would have been prepared to go all the way with their vigilante fantasies, absent some prodding from the feds.
And those doubts, in turn, might be reasonably extended to the entire theory of looming American civil war, which assumes something not yet entirely in evidence — a large number of Americans willing to put their lives, not just their Twitter rhetoric, on the line for the causes that currently divide our country.
Yes, yes. I myself was having a conversation with a federal agent the other day and when the federal agent said, “Let’s kidnap David Hasselhoff!” I had no choice but to go along.1
Douthat admits that, yes, there is some academic literature on the issue:
Overall, the academic and journalistic literature on America’s divisions offers a reasonably accurate description of increasing American division. The country is definitely more ideologically polarized than it was 20 or 40 years ago; indeed, with organized Christianity’s decline, you could say that it’s more metaphysically polarized as well. We are more likely to hate and fear members of the rival party, more likely to sort ourselves into ideologically homogeneous communities, more likely to be deeply skeptical about public institutions and more likely to hold conspiratorial beliefs — like the belief that Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election — that undercut the basic legitimacy of the opposition party’s governance.
But all of this academic literature has a fatal flaw. You’ll never guess what it is: “liberal bias.”
At the same time, the literature suffers from a serious liberal-bias problem, a consistent naïveté about the left and center’s roles in deepening polarization.
You people out there—not just on the left, but in the center, too—you made these militia guys want to kill Gretchen Whitmer. That’s on you, bro.
This is Douthat’s move: There is no “civil war.” And if there is, it’s everyone’s fault except for conservatives.
The other bias in the civil-war literature is toward two related forms of exaggeration. First, an exaggerated emphasis on what Americans say they believe, rather than what (so far, at least) they actually do. It’s absolutely true that if you just look at polling data, you see a lot of beliefs that would seem to license not just occasional protest but some sort of continuing insurrection. This includes not only the Trumpist stolen-election theories but also popular beliefs about recent Republican presidents — that George W. Bush had foreknowledge and allowed Sept. 11 to happen and that the Russians manipulated vote tallies in order to place Donald Trump, their cat’s-paw, in the White House.
However, an overwhelming majority of people who hold those kinds of beliefs show no signs of being radicalized into actual violence. For all the talk of liberal “resistance” under Trump, the characteristic left-wing response to the Trump administration was not to join antifa but to mobilize to elect Democrats; it took the weird conditions of the pandemic and the lockdowns, and the spark of the George Floyd killing, to transmute anti-Trumpism into national protests that turned violent.
You read this and it’s hard to know whether Douthat is being willfully obtuse, or if he’s just foolish. The protests that arose after George Floyd’s killing were only tangentially related to “anti-Trumpism.” They were about a longstanding, quite salient problem in America: the criminal excesses of (and covering up by) law enforcement, especially against African-American men. To the contrary: It was Donald Trump who sought to make that protest movement about himself, and who sought to introduce violence in places where there was none.
But to Douthat. the cause of every problem, and the answer to every question, is: “the left” and “alarmism.”
If your definition of civil war implies that we are always just a few mass shootings or violent protests away from the brink, then you don’t have a definition at all: You just have a license for perpetual alarmism.
[I]t’s worth asking whether the people who see potential insurrection lurking everywhere are seeing a danger rising entirely on its own — or in their alarm are helping to invent it.
He’s just asking questions about whether or not you alarmists are making them do it.
2. Why Are You So Obsessed with “Civil War”?
As it turns out, Douthat’s column was ill-timed. The next day the Department of Justice released an indictment for seditious conspiracy, the details of which allege quite a bit more than what Douthat euphemistically calls “Twitter rhetoric.”
But the most curious aspect of Douthat’s column is that he managed to write an entire essay about liberal “alarmism” over the prospect of “civil war” without once mentioning the expanding body of writing and statements from Conservatism Inc.—and even some elected Republicans—which openly pines for . . . civil war.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn: “If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s gonna lead to one place and that’s bloodshed. And I will tell you: As much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs, there’s nothing that I would dread doing more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American.”
In northwestern Wisconsin, the chairman of the St. Croix County Republican Party was forced to resign Friday after refusing for a week after the siege to remove an online post urging followers to “prepare for war.” The incoming chairwoman of the Michigan GOP and her husband, a state lawmaker, have joined a conservative social media site created after the Capitol riot where the possibility of civil war is a topic.
Phil Reynolds, a member of the GOP central committee in California’s Santa Clara County, appeared to urge on insurrectionists on social media during the Jan. 6 attack, declaring on Facebook: “The war has begun. Citizens take arms! Drumroll please….. Civil War or No Civil War?”
The Civil War was terrible. It should be the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs.
(Please note the modifier “almost.”)
Also note that Claremont published an entire symposium on the need for civil war. And that was before they later published their “79 Days to Inauguration” report:
[T]he report is an instruction manual for how Trump partisans at all levels of government—aided by citizen “posses” of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers—could, quite literally, round up opposition activists, kill their leaders, and install Donald Trump for a second term in office.
Alas, the Left has shown that hurting cops tends to make them your friends. Hence, if you want respect from police who you do not control, make sure you give them lively reasons to fear you. . . .
Call it self-defense groups, neighborhood protection, vigilantes, friends, anything but “militias.” But the essence is the same: rely on yourself and on people who have known each other for a long time—no infiltrators, please—united and armed to take care of themselves as they think best.
History tells us that at some point if a country cannot settle its differences like civilized people at the ballot box in a system they trust, they stop talking with ballots and start communicating with bullets.
But far more ominously, one half the country—or to be more precise, the class that rules in the interests of (at most) half the country—will surmise that it can rule by fiat. The other half will conclude that they are subjects.
Whether that conclusion resigns the latter to apathy or stirs them to rebellion is the question that will determine the course of our politics going forward.