Books

Imagining a “Second Civil War” Is a Lost Cause

Why so many people are doing it anyway.

A U.S. map with a rip down the center of it from top to bottom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by BardoczPeter/Getty Images Plus.

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A little over two years ago, I dreamed that all hell had broken loose in New York. I was walking through the increasingly chaotic streets of Midtown, dragging an old grandfather clock with a built-in turntable, hoping to play Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen at just the right cinematic moment, the climax of the terror, when a swarm of armed men in unmarked uniforms—led, for whatever dream-logic reason, by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov—burst out of the Times Square subway station and started beating people at random. I was looking for my wife, to warn her, when the goons found me. They knew who I was, what I had written, what I had said. I didn’t make it to her.

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Rousing in a sweat, it didn’t take me long to untangle the meaning behind this dream. A few weeks earlier, I had finished editing my book, a history of secession in the United States and an argument for considering some form of disunion as a possible solution to America’s troubles. In it, I hoped to offer an entirely new account of the history of this nation through the ever-present possibility of its demise: the difficulty of forming a union in the first place; the ceaseless threats to its integrity once it existed; the devastating war that broke it apart; the rancid compromises that only superficially knit it back together; the return, in recent years, of a long-forgotten sense of its fundamental fragility and, possibly, its impermanence.

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Through four or five years of laboring on the project, I had wrestled daily with the note on which to conclude: a rousing call for renewal, rediscovery of the merits of unity? Too trite, vapid, the same sort of feel-good appeal I knew had covered up so much injustice and inequality in the past. An unsentimental demand that it was time to pull the plug? Simplistic, careless; it was only on the worst days I really felt that way. In the end, I settled on what I hoped would prove a productive ambiguity: providing the reader with a fresh account of the country’s past might empower her to reexamine old assumptions and come to her own conclusions about its future. I couldn’t pretend to have answers I did not have. It seemed enough to pose the right questions.

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Still, I could only interpret my dream as a sign of suppressed doubt about what it was I thought I was doing. “A reckoning is coming,” I offered in the book’s introduction. (Mea culpa: The word had not yet become nauseatingly ubiquitous.) I never intended my book as a call to civil war, nor was I necessarily “reckoning”-averse. But after I sent off the manuscript, the questions begin plaguing me: Even if the status quo was indefensible and unjust, might whatever came next be worse? Sure, the nation’s political order had become terminally dysfunctional, but how would its dissolution affect me and my family? Neither Trump’s eviction from the White House nor Democratic majorities in Congress would fix what was really wrong with the republic. But wasn’t posing the choice between national reinvention and national rupture perhaps a little glib, even reckless? I had long told friends I hoped my book would be “dangerous.” Five years later, married with one kid and another on the way, stunned along with everyone else by the paroxysms of the Trump era, that no longer seemed such a worthy aspiration.

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A few days after my dream, the first cases of a mysterious pneumonia were reported in central China. By May, an armed militia had invaded the Michigan statehouse—some were later charged with plotting to kidnap the governor. That summer, federal agents in unmarked uniforms terrorized Black Lives Matter protesters in D.C. And one year ago, America’s own “little green men” conga-lined up the steps of the Capitol building, zip ties in tow, searching for politicians to hang. I had thought that seeing my predictions come true would be satisfying. Instead it has been disorienting—and terrifying.

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It feels unseemly to begin a review of somebody else’s book with a bare-all account of my tortured feelings about my own. But the difficulty I have found trying to dispassionately address the imminent possibility of national fracture informs and heightens my admiration for Stephen Marche’s attempt to do so in The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, an expanded version of an essay the Canadian journalist published in the Walrus in 2018. While novels such as Omar El Akkad’s American War and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas (both 2017), journalist Robert Evans’ podcast It Could Happen Here (2019–present), and films like Bushwick (2017) have offered convincing and disturbing fictional treatments of what a new civil war would look like, Marche’s is the first nonfiction text to probe the question at length.

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Dispensing entirely with the question of whether the U.S. will experience a civil war (the subject of political scientist Barbara Walter’s recent How Civil Wars Start) in order to focus on why, how, and where one could break out, Marche depicts five near-future scenarios in which the United States either collapses into a vicious armed conflict or breaks apart entirely: A standoff on an interstate bridge in the West draws far-right militias and a fierce federal crackdown. A divisive president is assassinated at a Jamba Juice by a web-radicalized gunman. A mammoth hurricane erases New York City from the map, while worsening drought shrinks the nation’s food supply, triggering a systemic collapse. A dirty-bomb attack on the Capitol explodes into a violent free-for-all. In his final scenario, the Union divides into four separate nations that would each, Marche contends, “probably be saner, more normal,” than the country left behind.

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Marche has made a real contribution by endeavoring to fill in the details for possible futures that remain, for most of us, the creatures of wee-hour anxieties and feverish imaginations. Yet the scenarios he offers are not always convincing. I don’t know how the next civil war, should it come, will begin, but I highly doubt it will be precipitated by “agents” of the Federal Highway Administration. As the militia standoff escalates at the bridge, Marche relates, there are “torchlit rallies” and banners with swastikas and chants like “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.” We’re supposed to believe that all through this, the rebels maintain the support not only of locals but also of a wide swath of the nation. (Remember, President Donald Trump’s embrace of the far-right marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, was widely rejected by the public and became an early and indelible stain on his presidency.) Why would a military response to the bridge standoff be necessary, given that the fictional encampment poses no immediate threat to life or limb? Would half the country really celebrate a presidential assassin as a “heroic resister,” or countenance the bombing of a Los Angeles synagogue? It would take both more and less than Marche anticipates to propel the United States into violent conflict. Oddly, he never contemplates the likeliest scenario, the one narrowly averted in 2020 and as likely as not to develop in 2024: a seriously disputed presidential election, with two pretenders to the throne.

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Marche’s final chapter, on the possibility of a new state secession movement triggering the breakup of the United States, most clearly demonstrates the limits of his imaginative approach. While secession may be the “best-case scenario” for the United States, he argues, it is virtually impossible for it to happen. Why? Not because of Appomattox, or because the late Antonin Scalia once wrote a letter (often cited as if it were a binding opinion) stating that secession was unconstitutional. Rather, Marche leans heavily on his big discovery that a successful independence movement requires recognition from the United Nations Security Council, where the United States possesses a veto. Q.E.D.? Maybe, except that elsewhere in the book he notes that if the United States crumbles, “the peace and security of the global order falls.” For a book so richly imagined in some respects, Marche seems to expect that the secession of one or another state, or the dissolution of the Union in one fell swoop, would occur in a tidy vacuum, an otherwise orderly world. Far more likely it would be the consequence, not the cause, of a massive and potentially violent constitutional crisis—perhaps combined with other scenarios Marche explores, such as widespread environmental catastrophe and economic collapse. Should that be the case, why assume the already hapless U.N. remains intact?

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To be sure, even if some of Marche’s scenarios seem implausible, so would have the idea, three years ago, that if a deadly virus swept through the country, killing hundreds of thousands, a large percentage of the population would effectively side with the virus. The book’s hypotheticals aren’t much crazier than the prodigiously fucked-up timeline we’re already stuck in—only more developed, projected further into the future.

For all its complacency-busting bravado, the book partakes uncritically in an oddly familiar array of cliches and platitudes. Despairing Americans today might take inspiration from, yes, the “pilgrims on Plymouth Rock” and their “shining city on a hill”; likewise, the “radical generosity of the Marshall Plan,” which helped rebuild countries the U.S. military had just destroyed during World War II, stands as proof that “hope worked.” (There was a little more to it than that.) It’s hardly surprising that such blinkered lessons might be gleaned from a history with which the author often seems strikingly unfamiliar. Praising George Washington’s 1796 warning to American citizens about “the danger of parties,” Marche solemnly suggests we “revive the Farewell Address,” as if his readers have not heard countless Never Trump pundits and impeachment prosecutors quote Washington’s words incessantly for the past seven years. Instead of an account of the harsh partisan reality behind Washington’s rhetoric—the first president’s fear that the Union would soon dissolve—we get this bit of D’Souza-level subtlety: “Washington had built an extraordinary country and was in the act of handing it over peacefully.” Marche does not seem to recognize that his rhetoric here partakes of the same sappy united-we-stand brand of bluster that he elsewhere identifies, rightly, as vapid.

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The recent mainstreaming of the possibility of another civil war sometimes recalls the scene in Don’t Look Up when the astrophysicists played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence first appear on the set of the Morning Joe–like news show and can barely get the hosts to pay attention to their apocalyptic warning, sandwiched as it is between more titillating segments on a social media influencer’s personal dramas. Only, in the case of the “Second Civil War,” the hosts do pay attention because the subject is titillating. What they desperately avoid discussing is the roots of America’s problems in its undemocratic institutions inherited from the founding, and the legitimacy crisis in every branch of government. Just as it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, our political culture seems more comfortable contemplating the prospect of a second civil war, the breakup of the Union, the fall of the republic, than the adoption of the handful of reforms necessary to prevent such catastrophes from happening.

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Perhaps to keep his book from being simply a soft-core fantasia of various potential cataclysms, Marche closes with a rather mushy paean to “American hope.” The nation must “recover its revolutionary spirit,” he contends, without seeming to notice that this is precisely what the rioters in D.C. last January also thought they were doing. To Marche, this would mean taking another look at America’s “ghostly constitution,” though 10 pages earlier he notes that the prospect of a new constitutional convention grows “more remote every day.” “At this point,” he writes, “disunion is among the best-case scenarios for the United States.” Yet he can’t help but lament all that would thereby be lost—“a glorious and transcendental vision of human beings: worth affirming in their differences, vital in their contradiction.”

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For someone interested in the possibility of the United States experiencing a second civil war, Marche says remarkably little about the first. And that which he does say is unsatisfactory: “On the eve of America’s first civil war, the most intelligent, the most informed, the most dedicated people in the country could not foresee its arrival.” He quotes the historian Henry Adams, “the grandson of John Quincy Adams,” recalling that “not one man in America wanted the civil war, or expected or intended it.” But however useful Adams can often be as a witness to history, that statement is demonstrably wrong. His own grandfather famously predicted as early as 1831 that the contest between slavery and freedom “can only be settled at the cannon’s mouth.” Over the next three decades, novels like The Partisan Leader (1836) by Nathaniel Beverly Tucker; Wild Southern Scenes by John Beauchamp Jones; and Anticipations of the Future by Edmund Ruffin (both from 1860) vividly and gorily imagined what a civil war between North and South would look like. (Ruffin ended up going down in Southern lore as the man who fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, in 1861, presumably a role Marche has no interest in playing for the sequel.)

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These days, talk of a looming civil war seems to reflect a deep-seated regret that the first one took place at all. “The solution to the next civil war will be the solution to the crises America already faces,” Marche offers. “If America cannot solve these problems now, why would it be able to solve them after widespread violence?” I don’t know. Last time, however, it was because the forces standing in the way of a lasting solution had been militarily defeated, their reincorporation into the body politic premised on their acceptance of systemic reforms that would have been unthinkable had they not rebelled. Marche twice mentions the “failure” of Reconstruction, never its epoch-shifting successes: the abolition of slavery, the rewriting of the Constitution to embed the precept of equality for the first time. The armed occupation of the former Confederacy may have failed—done in by the same kind of intermittent guerrilla violence we may be facing in the years ahead—but the Reconstruction amendments endured, at least partly. Though this fact is little acknowledged by today’s proponents of a “third reconstruction” (the second, in this schema, was the civil rights movement of the 1960s), the first one was only possible because it had been preceded by a war.

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My dream of chaos in the streets of Manhattan continues to spook and confound me. I cannot subscribe to the accelerationist idea that violence can be purifying. Yet it seems odd that neither Marche nor other commentators on the possibility of a civil war acknowledge that even worse than widespread political violence would be uncontested descent into right-wing authoritarianism, unilateral surrender to Republican plans for permanent minority rule. The writer Malcolm Harris recently observed how “strange” it is “that liberals can worry this much about a coming civil war without thinking once about how to win it.” To frame the coming crisis as something we must do everything possible to avoid only benefits those forces that will present themselves as on the side of peace and order yet harbor profoundly radical plans for reshaping this country. We are not exempt from history: nothing good has ever been preserved, and nothing better created, without a critical mass of people willing to insist on it.

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In 1860, the remnants of the defunct Whig Party, torn apart five years earlier by divisions over slavery, regathered under the banner of the Constitutional Union Party. They adopted a simple, catchy slogan: “The Union As It Is, the Constitution As It Is.” Rejecting both secession and Lincoln’s anti-slavery platform, they wanted to go back to the old way of doing things, the tradition of time-buying trade-offs and periodic compromises to smooth over sectional strife. The party’s presidential candidate won 12.6 percent of the national vote.

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Today, “The Union As It Is, the Constitution As It Is” has become the effective rallying cry of political elites and much of the chatterati. It rings as hollow now as it did then. Stasis is no longer an option. Most striking, in reading about the 1861 secession crisis and the outbreak of war, is the palpable sense of hope and optimism among the Northern public—the sense that the cracking up of the Union might in the end prove to have been necessary, for it to be put back together in some new and nobler form. Two weeks after Lincoln’s election, with the South’s departure from the Union already likely, the editors of a Republican paper in Indiana, fearful the new administration would compromise with the Southern insurrectionists, declared themselves “heartily tired of having this threat stare us in the face evermore. … We never have been better prepared for such a crisis than now. We most ardently desire that it may come. … Our voice is for war! If it be bloody, fierce and devastating, be it so.” The time had come to press the point.

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